We sped into Tucson, rushing to beat the sun as it sank below the horizon outside of Saguaro National Park. As the skies turned a deep orange we joined a large group of locals to see the signature cacti silhouetted against this magnificent backdrop.
After a night out in the incredibly hip downtown where we enjoyed local beers and some great cocktails, we explored the park further via the Bajada Scenic Loop Drive and the Sendero Esperanza Trail which took us to the top of a ridge from which we could see the Saguaro Forest laid out before us.
We hit the road for Sedona with iced lattes from Cartel chasing Saguaros and incredible roadside wildflowers to Sunset Point north of Phoenix. We pushed the four wheel drive on our Xterra to its limits, then hiked the rest of the way into fields of yellow blooms.
Evening found us just outside of Sedona camping along a fire road off of AZ State Route 89A. Dispersed camping is not allowed within the 'red rock zone' where most of Sedona's iconic hikes can be found, and the only formal campsites are further up along Oak Creek Canyon (and pretty tight quarters from appearances). So, the camping opportunities off of Route 89A are not to be missed.
We rolled in after dark and were delighted to wake up to gorgeous red cliffs all around us. After a leisurely camp breakfast we hiked Bell Rock and soaked in the incredible views.
As afternoon dwindled we pushed north to one of the most iconic southwest road trip sites, the Grand Canyon, stopping in Flagstaff for some truly excellent pizza and beers at Pizzicleta and the Mother Road Brewing Company. Much like Sedona, camping options at the Grand Canyon are generally limited to formal campgrounds, however just south of Desert View Drive (Route 64) along the South Rim, dispersed options are available in the Kaibab Forest. Our first glimpses of the canyon were otherworldly as the tree-lined road gave way to vistas of the darkened abyss, outlines of overlapping mesas barely visible in the moonlit haze. We set up camp for the night off of Fire Road 310 surrounded by tall pines and partially frozen mud.
Morning came early (and chilly) with our plan to catch the sunrise. As we sped to the ideal viewing point we passed dozens of elk, many grazing in the parking lot as unfazed by tourists as zoo animals. The crowd crush at the Grand Canyon is a real thing - the Canyon itself is totally worthy of this attention, but it's a big difference from the relative solitude we experienced at Big Bend. Although we didn't have time to truly escape the throngs of selfie sticks by tackling one of the more challenging hikes to the bottom of the canyon (and beyond), we did find relative isolation at Shoshone Point. This less-visited vista can be reached via a easy two mile round trip hike up a service road. Experiencing the view without additional company makes this a must do.
A few more canyon overlooks followed by stops to check out Mary Colter's Bright Angel Lodge and some of the other historic buildings in the Grand Canyon Village, and we were on our way. We'll return to the Northern part of Arizona again near the end of our trip, but for now we are California-bound.