USA Road Trip Part 2 – Driving north in Arizona

Take the scenic route between Phoenix and Sedona on your USA road trip. Drive the the Tonto State Forest and don't forget to visit Montezuma Castle and Well.

Our epic southwest USA road trip continues with us driving north in Arizona. After our first two days in and around Tucson where I ticked off one of my “must see” destinations at Saguaro National Park, we were on our way to Sedona.

If you haven’t read our overview of this amazing adventure then you may want to read it first.

Day 3 – Scenic route from Phoenix to Sedona

Driving distance approximately 165 miles (265 km)

After spending the night in a Motel which left a lot to be desired in every respect when it comes to an enjoyable overnight stay, we couldn’t wait to get back on the road. Just goes to show how things can go wrong when we don’t follow our own rules on finding the best accommodation.


Although after we packed the car we decided to head next door to a nice little breakfast diner before finally getting clear.

The oddly names Jim’s Coney Island Cafe had great reviews so we found it hard to believe it was right next door to the Motel. This place could be the set for a TV show with its quintessential long counter with barstools and booths along the windows.

I was waiting for someone to come in, greet the waitress by name, and for her to ask if he wanted “the usual”. It was just that type of place. Anyway the breakfast was good value and the hot chocolate perfect for defrosting my hands and insides.

The good news was that the rain seemed to be behind us and there was no expectation of it returning in the next few days. The cold weather had a different plan and decided it was coming along for the ride.

Today we would be heading north to Sedona, home of spiritual vortexes, the famous Red Rocks and rattlesnake sausages. OK so the sausages may not be famous but our research had uncovered a place where we could try this and a couple of other unusual foods so it was on our list.

Taking the scenic route

It was decided that even though we had enjoyed visiting Old Town Scottsdale on a previous trip that we would leave the area right away and take the longer route through the mountains rather than the quicker trip on the Interstate.

Sometimes it is good to just get somewhere as quickly as possible and the Interstates and Highways are great for that, but when you have the time to slow down and find a scenic route to your destination you should always take that option.

This meant we would be taking State Route 87 through the Tonto National Forest. We had no idea of the conditions or whether there was actually any scenery of note but at least it sounded nicer than the alternative.

Turns out it was much nicer than I remember the Interstate to have been and it was about to get taken to a whole new level on the Williamson travel excitement scale. Something we certainly were not expecting but something that made our day.

Icicles on the rock show how cold it was
You know it’s cold when the water running down the rocks freezes before getting to the ground.

Remember back on day one when the rain turned to sleet and then into what we ambitiously called snow? Well if we had have known what this day was to bring it would not have even rated a mention.

We started to see small amounts of melting snow along the edges of the road as we climbed through the forest. The temperature also dropped as we climbed and we soon saw something which confirmed how cold it truly was outside the car.

Water which had been cascading over the edge of some rocks beside the road had been frozen into an amazing display. A small frozen waterfall which had yet to be exposed to the rays of the day’s sun.

Higher and higher

It is a relaxing and pleasant drive through the trees as you drive deeper into Tonto. Occasional clearings allow you to catch a glimpse of frozen lakes, fields dusted in snow or views of the valley increasingly further below.

Snow was a great surprise driving north to Sedona

The further we drove the thicker the snow, soon the remnants became piles and then, for a while at least, we had entered a totally unexpected inter Wonderland. The family curse was broken and we stopped to play in the snow like little kids.

The temperature hovered just above freezing and the seat warmers in the car worked overtime, but we enjoyed every mile and minute of this drive. Every additional moment convinced us we had made the correct decision to take the long way.

Camp Verde and almost missing out

Shortly before we were to reconnect with the Interstate we came across a little town called Camp Verde. “Never heard of it” we both thought but this is exactly the type of place we love to stumble upon on our road trips. Of course we were going to stop.

The town appears really small, belying the fact that the population is around 10,000, and most of it seems to exist only to support the historic Fort Verde which dates back almost 150 years when is was a big player in the area during the Indian Wars.

Camp Verde is the hub for Montezuma Castle and Well visits

While we didn’t take the time to tour the Fort itself we did visit the local tourist information centre to see what else may be of interest in the area. And it’s a good thing we went in otherwise we would have forgotten to visit one of the most incredible Indian sites in Arizona.

During tour research we had come across a place called Montezuma Castle. It is an Indian cave dwelling similar to the better know examples found at Mesa Verde, and for some reason I had it in my head that it was located much further north, closer to the Grand Canyon.

Montezuma Castle is amazing

We headed the dozen or so miles north of Camp Verde and arrived at Montezuma Castle National Monument. You can see nothing from the carpark but there is plenty of good information to be found at the attached Visitor Centre.

We readied ourselves for the expected long walk through the trees. The path was easy to walk and the sound of the nearby river cascading through its rocky base was soothing so we didn’t really mind how far it was.

Montezuma Castle in Arizona not as famous as Mesa Verde but just as amazing
Sometimes it is easy to think of people living more than 600 years ago as primitive but places like this reshape opinion.

Surprisingly it is only a couple of hundred yards and then the trees part and you are left staring at one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. It is so much more impressive to see a place like this in person, but even photos have to make you at least a little awe struck.

It’s hard to believe that 600 to 900 years ago people had the vision and skills to build such an unconventional structure. Montezuma Castle is basically a village built into a cavernous section in the side of a cliff, talk about having a WOW! factor.

Our plan was that a few days after this we would be visiting the bigger, many would say better, version of this place at Mesa Verde but we all know what happens to the best laid plans.

Turns out we will have to save Mesa Verde for another trip as the weather caused a substantial reworking of the itinerary. But by no means were we disappointed in the spectacle of Montezuma’s Castle.

Don’t miss Montezuma Well as well

The friendly and extremely helpful lady at the Camp Verde Visitor Centre had also mentioned another interesting place just a couple of miles further on from Montezuma Castle. A place called Montezuma Well National Monument.

Now this place had not come up during any of my research and so expectations were very low. And I have to say that opinion was put to the sword as we climbed the hill and were greeted by a very unexpected vision.

The last thing we thought to see in this arid location was an enormous hole in the ground, a limestone sinkhole to be exact. We expect to see plenty of these in Mexico’s Yucatan but a Cenote in Arizona!

Montezuma Well not only a cenote in arizona but people lived in it as well
Montezuma well is fed by underwater springs and would have been an incredible place to live. Note the buildings below the lip of the sinkhole.

The well is fed by underground springs which push around one and a half million gallons of water out per day. This in itself is a pretty remarkable find but the most amazing thing in this place is not natural but man-made.

Continuing on with the cliff dwelling theme we saw at Montezuma Castle this place also had been home to people with amazing vision. There were also buildings below the lip of the sinkhole which housed a family or two in what must have been the regions most sought after location.

Arriving in Sedona

On our previous visit to this wonderful town we had stayed right in the centre but looking at the ridiculously high prices of accommodation this time we decided to stay a little out of town. A huge benefit of having a car.

The Wildflower Inn at Bell Rock is a great place to stay in Sedona

Oak Creek is a village about nine miles south of Sedona and it is here that we found the Wildflower Inn at Bell Rock on Booking.com. Such a great place with views, in room fireplace and a great bargain compared to the price of anything similar in the town centre.

We had done so much more today than we had planned but that is the beauty of a good road trip, to find the hidden gems and take the time to stop and explore them. But this did mean we had missed the chance to capture a sunset behind the famous rocks. Maybe tomorrow.

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Day 4 – Sedona sightseeing

Driving distance approximately 50 miles (80 km)

An early night gave me the energy for an early morning, just. I am not a morning person at the best of times but how often do you get to watch the sunrise in Sedona? Unless you live there of course but you know what I mean.

Making it even more difficult to drag myself out of bed was the temperature which was battling hard to claw its way above freezing. Pauline had surrendered to the hour and the elements and decided a warm bed next to the fireplace was a more suitable place to continue the morning.

So I set out to find somewhere to watch what I hoped would be a sight worth getting up for. The name of the hotel should have given a strong clue that we were very close to Bell Rock so that was the obvious place to start.

Some beautiful colour contrasts at sunrise around Sedona
Alone and freezing but totally worth it to witness this spectacular sunrise at Courthouse Vista.

You may not know that while Sedona is famous for being home to the Red Rocks which have featured heavily in Hollywood Westerns throughout movie history, the individual formations have been given grand names , some due to their resemblance to something else.

Bell Rock for example looks a lot like, well, a bell. While Snoopy Rock really does look like the cartoon beagle lying on his kennel roof. There are more but you get the picture.

Where to watch a Sedona sunrise

As the sun pushed its first light over the horizon I wasn’t sure if Bell Rock was going to give me the WOW moment I was hoping for so I decided to jump in the car and head a mile further down the road to Courthouse Vista.

After parking the car and starting to follow the trail I noticed a sign pointing back to Bell Rock showing an easy grade hiking trail which I would have used to get here had I known. But I was here now and I was much happier with the positioning of the sun rising behind a breathtaking landscape.

Just after sunrise at Courthouse Vista in Sedona
Looking away from the main attraction just after sunrise at Courthouse Vista can be just as beautiful.

There had been about a dozen or so other brave souls back at Bell Rock and I was surprised to be the only one that had ventured that little bit further. Tranquility and a glorious display by Mother Nature, is there a better way to start the day?

As the sun rose to a level that turned dawn into day I headed back to check if Pauline was any more eager to face a new day than she had been when I left. Surprisingly she was up and dressed, but still huddled beside the fire.

Exploring the Red Rocks of Sedona

No breakfast supplied by the hotel so we briefly stopped of at a bakery for pastries (for me) and coffee (for Pauline) before we started driving the scenic route. There is stunning scenery no matter which way you look in Sedona but a quick visit to the Visitor Centre and we had a map pointing out the highlights.

Map of Sedona

It is very easy to fill a day in Sedona just by driving around and stopping for a look every now and then, but to not make the effort to do some short hiking at least seems like a wasted opportunity.

As well as the easy walk I mentioned near Bell Rock there is a beautiful park with some great scenery and views of Cathedral Rock around Crescent Moon Ranch and Red Rock State Park west of the town.

Red Rock State Park in Sedona a great place for a sunset walk
A view of Cathedral Rock from the Red Rock State Park which has some amazing photographic opportunities.

But for arguably the most majestic view is to be found at Airport Mesa. There is a short but strenuous climb to the top of one of the rocks here but the views make the effort insignificant.

We were hoping to watch the sun set while capturing the iconic image of Cathedral Rock and its reflection but our GPS had other ideas and could not understand our instructions on how to find it. At least I can still admire other people’s stunning captures online.

Airport Mesa is considered a top spot in Sedona for sunset
Just a part of the sweeping panoramic view from Airport Mesa, A great place to catch the sunset.

An unusual dinner in Sedona

During my research I had discovered a place in town that served up some of the more unique local food offerings and was keen to taste them for myself. I had tried Guinea Pig and Llama in Peru so why not cactus, buffalo and rattlesnake in Arizona?

The place is called the Cowboy Club and is one of the best known and busiest places in the town centre. Not particularly cheap but an experience well worth the price of admission. And the Margaritas were impressive as well.

And what was it like you ask? The deep fried cactus sticks were fantastic, a bit like straight and thicker onion rings I suppose. While the buffalo kebab skewers were milder in flavour than I had imagined and also far more tender. Not to mention the loaded baked potato and flatbread. Delicious!

Rattlesnake, buffalo and cactus at the Cowboy Club Sedona
The appetizer sample plate and loaded potato at Sedona’s Cowboy Club, unusual, delicious and enough for two to share.

And then we come to the rattlesnake sausages. My previous snake eating experience had been many years ago while on a survival course in my Air Force days where, after a week in the Queensland jungle with no food we found a 10 foot Python which looked much tastier than it actually was.

To say it was tough is an understatement. I liken it more to a motorbike tyre in texture and appearance. And the rattlesnake sausages did nothing to make me believe snake could be prepared any better. Tough and less than delicious but the rest of the meal more than made up for this.

Four days down and 24 to go. This American Southwest road trip of a lifetime had made a very strong start and hopes were high that the awesomeness factor would not drop any time soon. Now it was time to head back to Pauline’s favourite place on Earth… the Grand Canyon.

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Continue to Part 3 – Grand Canyon and Route 66

Dean is the main creative force behind La Vida Global. A road trip veteran with over 30,000 miles of driving in more than a dozen countries. He has also worked in the Australian travel and tourism industry for the past 6 years.

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