Peter and I are zip-lining over Northern Arizona’s Verde Valley. In the distance we can see the San Francisco Mountains and the red rocks of Sedona. Above a gorgeous clear blue sky spreads like a blanket, and lounging below us are lions and tigers and bears and…wait, what?
It’s true: there are wild animals here in the high desert. We are zipping over Out of Africa, an animal sanctuary founded by animal conservationists Dean and Prayeri Harrison, home to hundreds of animals from around the world. Who knew you could meet a giraffe in the wild two hours north of Phoenix? Turns out Northern Arizona isn’t only about the Grand Canyon and Sedona’s red rocks. Many more surprises await in “them thar hills.” Come along with Peter and me on Part 3 of our adventure as we discover more of Arizona’s magic.
The hardest part of zip-lining isn’t the take-off or even the landing. It’s the stairs you have to climb to get to the top of the tower where the ride begins. As Peter and I huff and puff up the equivalent of a six-story building, we notice everyone else on the zip-line tour is half our age—or younger. But we don’t care. Our lust for adventure is what keeps us going, and hopefully we’ll be planning new adventures into our 90s.
You can see for miles when you reach the top of the tower, but our guide says, “Don’t look down.” I take a peek and wish I hadn’t. Below us animals roam around their spacious natural habitats, and soon we’ll be zipping right over top of them. It’s been a while since I’ve zip-lined, so I’m nervous, but when it’s my turn. I close my eyes and jump. Whee, it’s a blast. I remember to open my eyes for vertical views of the animals and see a rhino ambling in his enclosure. Wouldn’t want to land anywhere near that fellow!
Luckily, our charming guide is waiting to catch me as I glide in to the next tower. My heart is beating wildly, and I am smiling big. One of my favorite sayings is “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Going on the Predator Zip Line is perfect for anyone who likes to have fun.
After zipping over Out of Africa, we head into the sanctuary for an African Bush Safari Tour. We meet a giraffe up close, and I hold a treat in my mouth and get a wet, sloppy kiss from the giraffe as she snags the treat. Zebras are everywhere, and we also meet antelope, ostrich, and gemsbok. During predator feed time, we watch caretakers throw 800 pounds of raw food to the lions and tigers and bears, who pounce upon the food as if it’s alive.
But the highlight of our visit is the Sloth Encounter. Turns out sloth encounters are a thing. Who knew? Peter and I along with another couple meet Bart, who hangs upside down in his cage. We feed him some treats, stroke his wiry coat, and pose for photos. When I hold up a piece of carrot, Bart slowly reaches out his paw with its long claws and takes it from me. He puts it in his mouth and chews thoughtfully. The whole time he’s hanging upside down. It’s a hoot, but you kind of have to be there to feel the thrill.
HISTORY & LORE
The next surprise is discovering the darling town of Cottonwood. Its historic Olde Town area features a main street lined with galleries, wine tasting rooms, coffee shops, and restaurants. It’s adorable. We stay in a boutique hotel called Tavern Hotel—charming and comfortable—and dine at Tavern Grill next door.
The next day we explore ancient cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle National Monument, one of the best preserved prehistoric structures in the Southwest. Around 1100-1300, the Southern Sinuagua people built a five-story, 45-room dwelling in the sheer rock face of a cliff about 100 feet above the valley. No one is quite sure why, but living high up a cliff surely kept attackers at bay. Now badly deteriorated, the ruins can be viewed from trails below, and historic signage offers insight to the lives of this agricultural-based society.
Tuzigoot National Monument is another ancient ruin worth visiting—also built by the Southern Sinagua. Unlike Montezuma, you can explore the village ruins that sit atop a ridge 120 feet above Verde Valley. Built around 1000-1400, the pueblo has few exterior doors. Access to the homes was likely via ladders through roof openings, perhaps another way to keep villagers safe. During our mid-day visit, we have the entire archaeological site to ourselves. It’s a beautiful spot, surrounded by undulating views of farmlands, desert, and mountains. Rushing merrily along nearby is the Verde River, which gives the valley its name.
In Clarkdale and Jerome you can find out more about Arizona’s mining history. In fact, the Copper State got its nickname because it produced more copper than any other state, a mineral highly prized during the Industrial Revolution and WWI. The United Verde Copper Company also produced gold, silver, lead, and zinc ore, making the owner of the mine, William A. Clark, a very wealthy man. He built a railroad to haul the minerals down from the mines and helped plan the town that bears his name.
Today you can ride along some of those rails on the Verde Canyon Railway in Clarkdale. The line passes through canyons and valleys, along rivers and through tunnels, introducing passengers to the history and lore of the Verde Canyon. Considered one of Arizona’s longest running nature shows, it’s a relaxing way to take in stunning scenery.
Another Clarkdale attraction is the Copper Art Museum, the largest in the world. Owner Drake Meinke gives us a tour and wows us with his encyclopedic knowledge of one of the world’s most important minerals. Did you know, for example, practically all musical instruments have a copper component? Copper is also used in wine making and has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties. Besides its importance in human development, copper is also stunningly beautiful. In the museum, we see dazzling copper art from around the world, including European and American works of art from the 16th-20th centuries. After our visit, I just have to stop at a nearby gift shop and buy a copper bracelet.
Back in Cottonwood we enjoy a private tour of Blazin’ M Ranch Western Experience, which unfortunately is closed during our stay. The family-owned, western-themed attraction features an Old West town and a family-friendly show that includes hearty trail vittles, foot-stompin’ music, and a few tall tales to boot.
Who knew Arizona is home to a thriving winery industry? Like a lot of people, I pictured Arizona as mainly a cacti-studded desert with a few red rock formations. Of course, parts of Arizona do fit this description, but as Peter and I discover the state has a diverse landscape, including vineyard-friendly micro-climates from the southeastern corner of the state to the northern side. To our surprise and delight, not far from Cottonwood are a handful of wineries making some pretty incredible wines.
Our first stop is DA Ranch, which offers tastings by appointment. Their estate grown wines feature seyval blanc, syrah, petite syrah, tannat, and cabernet sauvignon grapes. My favorite is the 2014 Generations, a petite syrah. The tranquil, historic property spreads across 300 acres and offers a gorgeous setting for weddings and family reunions. The spacious hacienda can accommodate up to 15 guests and host events for up to 100 guests.
We also visit Page Springs Winery, were we meet winemaker/owner Eric Glomski. A smiling redhead (and a fellow Deadhead), Eric is happy to share his wines with us. While many grapes Eric uses to make his wines grow locally, he also sources some from vineyards in Southeast Arizona. My favorite wine is the Pillsbury Vineyards Shiraz Pick 1, which is made from grapes grown in Cochise County just east of Tucson.
It’s sunny and warm the day we visit, and Page Springs Winery is overflowing with contented folks, enjoying both fine wines and gourmet food prepared in the winery’s kitchen. We love the charcuterie plate—perfect with the shiraz—and learn that the chef cures and smokes his own meat. Eric tells us that massage is available at the winery, and yoga classes are held regularly. It’s a picturesque spot, and you’re never far from the sound of rushing water as the namesake Page Springs gurgles across the property.
Just up the road is a fabulous B & B called The Vineyards, where Peter and I stay the night. Owned by Bruce and Tambrala Shurman, The Vineyards sits on two pastoral acres and offers luxurious accommodations and a storybook setting for weddings. It’s the perfect home base for all the activities in the area, and Bruce and Tambrala will help you plan your adventures. We end up joining them for dinner at a local tavern called Grasshopper Grill, where a duo is wooing the crowd with country-western songs. We love the dive-bar vibe and tasty food.
ACROSS THE ABYSS
Of course, we can’t visit Northern Arizona without seeing the mother of all natural attractions, the Grand Canyon. I visited the canyon once before, but Peter has never seen it, so he’s really excited about checking it off his bucket list. We decide to take the Grand Canyon Railway to the canyon rim. The historic passenger train service began in 1901, continuing until 1968, when the last train with three passengers rolled out of the station in Prescott. Happily in 1989, train service was resurrected, and today the trains carry 225,000 passengers every year to Grand Canyon Depot just steps away from astonishing views of the canyon.
We spend the night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, a comfortable property with a buffet restaurant, and board the train early the next morning. “All aboard!” the conductor shouts, and we are off on the two-hour train ride that passes over wide-open plains where you can see for miles. Rolling along at 40 mph, the train is a leisurely method of transportation, but since I love riding trains, I don’t mind the slow pace.
To liven things up, the train is “robbed” by masked gunmen who demand gold from the passengers. “But we also take credit cards,” they joke and good naturedly accept tips as they pass through the train. In the first-class section, beverages and treats are served. You can also enjoy beer, wine, and mixed drinks for an extra charge.
So we finally arrive at the canyon’s rim and guess what? The fog is as thick as pea soup, which means “astonishing” views are practically non-existent, and freezing rain is pouring from heavy skies. Snow edges the sidewalks, and as you can guess, the temperature is hovering around freezing. Peter and I make the best of it by exploring the historic properties (and gift shops!) that line the rim. El Tovar Hotel is an architectural marvel, recalling Swiss chalets and featuring dark-stained timber adorned with moose, deer, and buffalo heads. Completed in 1905, El Tovar cost just $250,000 to build. When we come back next time, we plan to splurge for an overnight at this historic hotel.
Luckily the fog shifts and lifts, and Peter and I finally get to see across the canyon. Turns out the way the sunlight filters across the abyss, shining on layers of sedimentary rock—millions of years old—makes the Grand Canyon even more spectacular. We drink in the sights, pose for photos, and then head inside to a warm bar, where we chat with hikers and make friends with a couple from California, who traveled all the way here by train. Back at the hotel, we bump into the same couple and dine together. Meeting fellow adventurers and sharing stories is one of our favorite parts of traveling.
Our grand Arizona adventure is coming to an end. For 10 days we’ve journeyed across the state and found fabulous activities and attractions at every turn. Of course, we knew about some of the places we visited, but often it’s the surprises along the way, as well as the special people we meet, that remain in our hearts long after a vacation has ended. You’ll find surprises around every corner in Arizona—plus some of the friendliest folks west of the Mississippi. Whatcha waiting for? Find your own Arizona adventure!
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