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Summer Fun in Northern Arizona

Take a Summer Road Trip to Cooler Climes and Hot Fun

Article by Susan Lanier-Graham

Photography by Provided

Originally published in Gilbert Lifestyle

While the Phoenix area swelters in triple-digits each summer, Northern Arizona beckons with cooler temps and plenty of outdoor fun. Be sure to check the websites before you leave. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some locations require that you get advance tickets, while others might have reduced hours. Here are some of the best places for summer fun in Northern Arizona.

A Cozy Retreat in Oak Creek Canyon

Sedona is an easy day trip from the East Valley, with its breathtaking red rock formations and watering holes along Oak Creek Canyon. This summer make it an extended getaway and book one of many cabins you can find through the canyon along Highway 89A. Even though some might not be at full-service levels this summer, most are open and welcoming visitors.

How you stay depends on what you want during your visit. You can choose a cozy stay in one of the historic cabins at Briar Patch Inn (BriarPatchInn.com). You meander down private paths to discover your cabin, each with its own private patio where you can watch a million stars dot the night sky. Some have a kitchenette or kitchen, so you can prepare meals in the comfort of your own cabin, or venture three miles south to Sedona. If you prefer a more secluded resort-like setting, consider Forest House Resort (ForestHousesResort.com). Located about 10 miles north of Sedona, Forest House features individual homes scattered over 20 acres. You can book a small house that sleeps two guests while other options offer accommodations for up to 10. See more cabins in Oak Creek Canyon at OakCreekCabins.com.

Happy Trails

Arizona has great outdoor space for taking to the trails, whether it’s on foot, bike, or horse. One of the best places for hiking in Northern Arizona is in the White Mountains, extending from just north of Payson east toward Greer, through quaint little mountain towns. Elevations range from about 7,100 feet to more than 11,000 feet above sea level. During the summer months, temperatures are generally 25 to 30 degrees cooler than in Phoenix. Don’t forget your jacket for chilly nights.

The White Mountains feature beautiful alpine meadows, flowing streams, and ponderosa pine forests. Greer, with the historic Molly Butler Lodge (MollyButlerLodge.com) at its center, is in the middle of the White Mountains. Wind through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and make your way down the paved road that dead-ends in the tiny town. Greer is a great place for hiking, fishing, and bird watching. Along with camping, there are cabins and vacation rentals. Be sure to check out Airbnb and you can find more rentals at GreerArizona.com.

From Greer, enjoy hiking trails around and up to Mount Baldy, the highest point in the White Mountains. Some of the most popular are the 7-mile moderate Mount Baldy Crossover Trail #96, the 11.7-mile difficult East Baldy Trail, or the 16.5-mile Mount Baldy Loop for the most adventurous. The Mount Baldy Loop features gains of more than 2,500 feet in elevation.

If you prefer more gentle adventures, head to Hawley Lake, also in the White Mountains. The lake, at 8,100 feet above sea level, offers biking and hiking, along with kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. There are some cabins available for rent, which can accommodate from two to 14 people. Hawley Lake is on the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

North of the White Mountains, stretching along Interstate 40 at the northeastern edge of the state, Petrified Forest National Park offers great biking and hiking. You’ll leave the ponderosa pines for what some describe as a moonscape. As you explore the trails, you can see what appears to be rocks but are fossilized fallen trees. The Painted Desert sits to the park’s north. It is filled with sedimentary rocks blended with sandstone and limestone to create a colorful landscape. All park roads, trails, and wilderness areas are open at Petrified Forest (NPS.gov), but you should check ahead of time about visitor center hours, restaurants, and shops.

Most trails in the park are hiking only, which is the best way to get off the paved roads and out into the natural areas. Hiking trails can range from paved walks that are ideal for limited mobility visitors—such as Puerco Pueblo that is about 0.3 miles—to unpaved trails that take you a mile or two out into the park. You can get great views of the Painted Desert from the 1-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail. The best views of the petrified wood are along the 0.4-mile Giant Logs trail located behind the Rainbow Forest Museum. There are some limited bike trails at Petrified Forest National Park, including the unpaved portion of Old Route 66, Old Highway 180 in the Rainbow Forest area, a one-mile loop from Rainbow Forest Picnic Area, or a one-mile portion of Long Logs trail from the main park road to the trailhead loop.

Family Fun

Northern Arizona offers great family fun. Jump on horseback to explore the outdoors at Mormon Lake Lodge. Located on 300 acres about 30 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Mormon Lake Lodge, managed by Forever Resorts, is situated in the Coconino National Park. A popular getaway features your own private cabin along with a guided horseback ride and a hearty meal in the steakhouse. There is also space for your R.V. You can explore everything available online at MormonLakeLodge.com.

Kids of all ages love the Meteor Crater & Barringer Space Museum located off I-40 between Flagstaff and Winslow. The impact of a meteor from more than 500,000 years ago left a 550-foot-deep hole. You can purchase e-Tickets online before your arrival, then take a guided tour of the crater, experience the 4D-theater, and stop by the gift shop to select rocks and gems to take home. Visit MeteorCrater.com for pricing and tickets.

Bearizona Wildlife Park (Bearizona.com) is west of Flagstaff on I-40. The 160-acre preserve is home to bears, bison, mountain goats, wolves, and even otters. While the bus tours, shows, and petting zoo remain closed this summer, you are invited to drive through the park under the ponderosa pines and check out the animals from the safety of your car. You can stop by the restaurant for lunch or pack your own and enjoy a picnic in one of the designated areas.

If your family includes train enthusiasts, hop aboard Grand Canyon Railway for an unforgettable journey from Williams to the Grand Canyon. The views are great, and the restored historic train cars offer a fun experience. You have several options when you book the trip. The Pullman Class car dates to 1923 with bench-style seats and fresh air. Ride in Coach Class in a 1950s-era car with air conditioning. If you want to go First Class, you’ll have bigger seats, bar service, and complimentary snacks for the ride. For the best views, book the Observation Dome car from the streamliner-era. There are two adult-only classes as well. No matter which coach you book, you leave Williams early each morning for the two-hour journey to the Grand Canyon. You have time to explore the overlook and even grab lunch at El Tovar before departing in the afternoon for the return trip to Williams. You can get all the details online at TheTrain.com.  

History and Culture of Northern Arizona

Arizona has a fascinating history and culture, filled with tales of the railroad, Native American communities, mining, agriculture, and more. You can get a taste of that history and culture in Winslow, located about an hour east of Flagstaff on I-40. Winslow began as a railroad town along the famed Route 66. It was made famous thanks to the Eagles in their 1972 song, Take It Easy, which talks about standing on a corner in Winslow. Today, you can take your own photo in the Standin’ On a Corner Park.

Get a feel for the railroad and Native American histories at the historic La Posada Hotel in Winslow. Book a room and share history with famous guests, including Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable. Even if you don’t stay overnight, stop by La Posada for a look at Arizona history. It is one of several hotels designed by Mary Jane Colter of the historic Fred Harvey Company for the Santa Fe Railroad. La Posada is a beautiful hacienda-style hotel. You can wander through the lobby and into the gardens. Step into the gallery of Western and Native American art and explore the museum. If you have a chance, make a reservation for a meal in The Turquoise Room. Find out more at LaPosada.org.

Get Wet Along Arizona’s West Coast

While not actually a part of Northern Arizona, the strip of land bordering the Colorado River at the far northwestern edge Arizona offers a great summer escape. The town of Parker and the 16-mile Parker Strip offers not only hiking, off-roading, and biking, but plenty of water activities. Along this stretch of the Colorado River, you can waterski, watch boat races, or simply hop in an innertube and relax with friends.

A family favorite along the Parker Strip is Pirates Den R.V. Resort and Marina. The 92-acre outdoor waterfront resort includes sandy beaches, cabanas, watercraft rentals, walking paths, waterfront restaurants, fishing areas, and R.V. parking. It all has a fun pirate-themed vibe, where you can sip rum at the Thirsty Pirate Beach Bar and soak up the sun over a plate of fresh seafood at Black Pearl Restaurant. Make reservations online at PiratesDenResort.com.

If you continue north along the Colorado River, you arrive at Lake Havasu City. Havasu is a great place to stay while exploring the nearby desert or enjoying water activities along the Colorado River. The London Bridge—the actual bridge from London—takes center stage in Lake Havasu City. But you’ll also find plenty to do with restaurants, shopping, more than 400 miles of river coastline, and 1,800 miles of off-road trails.

There are several state parks in the area, which provide swimming, hiking, camping, boating, and more. The Lake Havasu State Park, walkable from downtown Lake Havasu City, features 13 two- and three-room camping cabins with views of the river. Each cabin includes a bathroom, queen bed, bunks, table and chairs, lighting, and electricity along with heating and air-conditioning. You have an outdoor grill and there are nearby showers, boat ramps, and swimming areas.

If you want to be on the river, but out of town, check out Cattail Cove State Park, about 18 miles south of Havasu toward Parker. Cattail Cove features 61 camping and R.V. sites along with primitive boat-in camping and picnic spots. You can find out about these and other Arizona State Parks online at AZStateParks.com.

As the triple digits hit the Valley, it’s time for you to hit the road and escape to cooler climes and summer fun in Northern Arizona.

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