Top 15 Travel Moments of 2015

Gullfoss in Iceland
Gullfoss in Iceland

Each year, I like to reflect on the very best travel moments of the year. 2015 was a very well-traveled year for me. In November alone, I went on three trips. Throughout the year, I spent 45 nights in hotels and traveled on 27 planes. I visited five foreign countries, three continents, 18 cities, and nine UNESCO World Heritage sites.

How incredibly lucky am I?!

With only two weeks of vacation, I’ve somehow managed to spend a good chunk of my life living out of a suitcase. I can still have all the comforts of home—a nice apartment and a great job I love—but I have the ability to go out and experience the world. I’m happiest when I’m planning trips, gazing dreamily at maps, taking photos of a beautiful landscapes, and ultimately, setting foot on a plane to a new destination. It’s what I live for; it’s the part of my life that fulfills me the most.

So, let’s take a look at my top 15 travel moments of 2015:

Abroad:

  1. Revisiting Florence. It’s the place that opened my eyes to a larger world, and made me fall in love with travel. Florence and I will always have this strange, love/hate relationship, but I’ll never stop being grateful to it. It was beyond incredible to go back five years after I studied abroad there, and retrace my footsteps (sans map!) with a little time, perspective, and travel under my belt.
    Il Duomo
  2. Falling in love with Rome. I never saw that one coming, which made it one of the sweetest surprises of the year. When I visited Rome back in 2010, I was completely unenthused. It was loud, dirty, and busy—all the things I hated about Florence, only amplified. I reluctantly agreed to go back to Rome because Kyle wanted to see it, and because our Mediterranean cruise was leaving from a nearby port. Imagine my shock when I found myself eating spaghetti and sipping an Aperol spritz while staring in complete awe at the Pantheon. We spent hours walking around the city that evening, marveling at the glow of the ancient sites at night. That evening, Rome quickly became one of my favorite cities on earth.
    DSC00863
  3. Crossing Santorini off my bucket list. Greece had long held a top spot on my bucket list—and no place more so than Santorini. It’s the subject of every Pinterest travel board: the white-washed, blue-domed buildings of the glittering, volcanic island in the Mediterranean. The jewel in the Greek crown. The afternoon we spent there only left me wanting more. I know there’s a wall somewhere in Oia with my name on it, just waiting for me to come back and sit there to watch one of those famed sunsets.
  4. Setting foot on my third continent. I’ll admit I hadn’t done much research about our cruise port Kusadasi in Turkey. I was too excited about our two-day stay in Istanbul, which ended up being canceled. I felt like a typical uniformed tourist when three hours into our stop in port, someone welcomed us to Asia. How could I not know that 97% of Turkey is in Asia? (Istanbul is part of Europe). Although it still feels a bit like I’m cheating, saying I’ve been to Asia, I couldn’t have been more surprised by the sites I saw there. The ancient city of Ephesus was absolutely incredible, and I highly, highly recommend a visit there.
    Visiting Ephesus
  5. Spending an entire evening staring at the Eiffel Tower. Yes, it’s true—I spent hours of my brief time in Paris simply staring at the emblem of the city. It was the final day of three weeks in Europe. Kyle had gone home, and I’d moved on to France for a quick work trip. I had ten hours to spend in Paris before catching my flight home. I loved Paris during my first visit five years ago, and was even more enthralled this time. I went on a driving tour of the city, had dinner on the Seine, and visited the Eiffel Tower three separate times. Watching it sparkle in the night sky will never get old.
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  6. Witnessing the power of nature in Iceland. Untouched. Mighty. Pristine. Those are a few words I kept saying while in Iceland. Whether it was standing in the presence of a geyser, watching water careen over jagged cliffs, or soaking in the Blue Lagoon, the power of Mother Nature constantly surrounded and astounded me.

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  7. Standing on a beach on Thanksgiving Day. Who would have thought that I’d take my typical beach feet picture at the end of November on a black-sand beach during the middle of a graupel storm, while wearing three layers of thick socks and heavy boots? Certainly not me.

     

  8. Enjoying the first snowfall in Reykjavik. We didn’t know it at the time, but on our last day in Reykjavik, the city experienced its first significant snowfall of the year. Pristine doesn’t even begin to describe the beauty of the fresh snow by the harbor. We took a long walk that morning, marveling at the snow globe we seemed to be in.
    Looking out over Reykjavik after the first snowfall.

In the U.S.

  1. Gazing in wonder at the Red Rocks in Sedona. I just couldn’t seem to stare long enough to take it all in. The drive into the valley was one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever taken, the rocks getting higher and higher, redder and redder, around us. We spent three amazing days in Sedona at the beginning of our Arizona road trip, and we loved it so much, we went back for another night at the end. I think it’s true what people in Sedona say: “God created the Grand Canyon, but he lives in Sedona.”
    Enjoying the view from Chicken Point.
  2. Feeling small at the Grand Canyon. Catching my first glimpse of the monstrous expanse over the edge of the South Rim, I’d never felt so small in my life. Miles of painted nothingness—all carved by the seemingly meandering river at the bottom. Talk about the raw power of nature slapping you in the face! You realize what an insignificant place you occupy in the world, and yet somehow, you can’t help but feel grateful for the sheer privilege of just being there to take it all in.
    Taking it all in.
  3. Standing atop Horseshoe Bend. After a long hike from the parking lot, you’re rewarded with the most wondrous of sights. I’d seen pictures, but nothing could have prepared me for the inedible beauty of Horseshoe Bend, the 270-degree bend in the mighty Colorado River. It’s this kind of mystical place, hidden away in the middle of nature. Photographers and fellow travelers sat quietly in awe as the early evening light painted the walls of the canyon.
    Admiring the view.
  4. Watching the light shift in Antelope Canyon. I’ve wanted to go there since I saw the famed National Geographic cover. Two photogenic slot canyons (Upper and Lower) in the middle of Navajo land represent the quintessential American Southwest I longed to see. We visited the Upper canyon—the most popular and easiest to access. Spiral rock formations rise up around you as you make your way through the canyon. At high noon, light beams shoot down to the floor of the canyon, showcasing the fleeting beauty of moments in Antelope Canyon.

     

  5. Being wonderfully captivated by Chicago. I love nothing more than being completely surprised by a destination. I went on a work trip to Chicago in November, and while I was excited to go, I wasn’t expecting much out of the city. I knew about the giant, mirrored “bean” in a park, but that was about it. My first day there, I quickly became entranced with the architecture, attractions, and overall vibe of the Windy City, and I used every spare moment to soak it all in.
    Chicago
  6. Visiting the 9/11 Museum and Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. I’d been there before—this hallowed ground that holds such a significant place in all of our histories. It’s always sobering to visit there, watching the water fall into the seemingly bottomless reflecting pools demarking the exact footprints of the towers. This time, I visited the 9/11 Museum, a tasteful snapshot of the events of that day. My favorite part was seeing the massive installation by visual artist, Spencer Finch, called Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning. It’s a massive work, compete with 2,983 individual squares of Fabriano Italian paper hand painted different shades of blue, representing every person killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. The museum was incredible, as was the view from the recently opened One World Observatory, where you really can “See Forever,” as their motto goes.

     

  7. Getting my first foray into travel photography. I’ve always loved taking phots of my travels, and have been wanting to gain a deeper understanding of photography for a long time. A week before my solo trip to NYC, I bought my first quasi-professional camera, the Sony a6000, and my new BFF. I’d always admired the HDR travel photography of Trey Ratcliff with Stuck in Customs, so I purchased one of his recommended cameras, and headed off to NYC where I’d join his photo walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d never been to that part of the city before, and after quite the struggle to figure out how to get out of Manhattan, I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets I’d ever seen. It was a great first introduction to a new part of the city—and my new camera—and since, I’ve really started to dive headfirst into the world of travel photography. And I love it!

     

    Here’s to more wonderful adventures in 2016!

From Red Rocks to Slot Canyons: Astounding Arizona

Stunning Sedona.
Stunning Sedona.

Recommended Time: 5-7+ Days

Earlier this year, I got to visit one of my favorite places on earth for the very first time. Arizona is completely and utterly amazing. The week we spent in the desert was one of the most profound of my life. I’d never seen anything like it—the red rocks that seemingly rose out of nowhere. The canyons carved out of the ground by mighty rivers. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place.

We started our trip by flying into Phoenix International, renting a car, and immediately heading out of the city. We wanted to stop at a few national monuments en route to Sedona. The first was Montezuma Castle, which was pretty remarkable. To think that people chiseled out the side of that mountain centuries ago is pretty amazing. It’s definitely worth a stop, as is nearby Tuzigoot National Monument, offering scenic views of the surrounding desert landscape.

Road winding through the red rocks of Sedona.

But it was the drive from Tuzigoot to Sedona that had me literally gasping at the views. The colors of the earth shift, becoming deeper—richer. The red rocks start to poke out of the ground, reaching skyward. And then you’re there—in Sedona—where it’s as if God took a paintbrush and dotted the landscape with colors you’d only expect to see in some exquisitely detailed watercolor.

Make sure to spend a few days in Sedona. You don’t want to plan to stay for an evening, then drive away the next morning, watching the red rocks in your rear-view, knowing there’s so much you left unexplored. From scenic hikes to off-roading adventures, Sedona has an adventurous side that you’ll want to take some time to delve into. Check out my city guide for the best activities, restaurants, and places to stay.

Next, make your way to the Grand Canyon, a mere two hours north. Perfect for a day trip, or a week-long camping adventure, the Grand Canyon offers an experience for every type of traveler. We spent the afternoon gazing over the rim, marveling at the layers of rock formations, and the tens of thousands of years of history held within them. It’s an incredible place—something that often tops the bucket lists of amateur travelers everywhere—and as well it should! No picture could ever do it justice. You need to stand in its presence to truly appreciate its magnitude. Just go there. Trust me.

You can see for miles.

You can see for miles.

A fun side jaunt is Page, Arizona. A ridiculously small town in the upper northeast corner of the state, Page is about a 2-hour drive from the Grand Canyon, via one of the most isolated stretches of road you’ll ever come across. It’s all on Native American land. You’ll go miles and miles without seeing anything. We wondered to ourselves who in the world would ever stop at the roadside stands you’d see set up occasionally—but somehow they were always deserted. There’s one town about halfway down this road between Page and Flagstaff—and it’s still about 20 miles from that exit. I don’t remember ever feeling that isolated.

Page boasts several natural wonders that make the journey well worth the trip. We reached Horseshoe Bend at sunset. This is the place where the Colorado River makes a 270-degree turn, forming the shape of a horseshoe. It’s one of the most tragically beautiful places I’ve been. (I read a fun fact that it has the highest suicide rate in Arizona because people think it’s the perfect spot from which to pass into the next life). It’s a hike from the road, but the dramatic views make up for that. Sit and marvel at the beauty before you.

The main reason people make the trek to Page is to visit Antelope Canyon, just outside the town. It is the most photographed slot canyon in the world. Unlike the Grand Canyon carved into the earth and witnessed from above, visitors walk into Antelope Canyon, and light dances on the canyon walls. At high noon during the summer months, light beams travel to the floor, creating an environment straight out of photographers’ dreams. It’s a remarkable place, and luckily because all the natural beauty is above your head, you are hardly bothered by the hordes of tourists surrounding you—and your images are virtually people-free!

Arizona is truly an incredible place worth some exploration. We would have loved to have had time to continue on to Las Vegas, or more National Parks in Utah. If you have the time, make the multi-day drive from Phoenix to Salt Lake City, stopping at every National Park along the way. When we mapped it out, our possible route would take us to eight!

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, Sedona.

Have you been astounded by Arizona? What other stops would you include a road trip?

Check out our other road trips: Maine, Maui, Florida, California, and the Finger Lakes.

Places

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, East Sky Harbor Boulevard, Phoenix, AZ, United States

Places

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States

Places

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ, United States

Places

Sedona

Sedona, AZ, United States

Places

Grand Canyon, South Rim

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States

Places

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend Parking, Page, AZ, United States

Places

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, East Sky Harbor Boulevard, Phoenix, AZ, United States

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ, United States

Sedona

Sedona, AZ, United States

Grand Canyon, South Rim

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend Parking, Page, AZ, United States

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States

Shifting Light: Antelope Canyon

The subject of many photographers’ images of the West, Antelope Canyon is a unique natural wonder in northeast Arizona. It’s a fairly new place—to the public, that is—only accessible since 1997. It is on Navajo land, and an only be reached by purchasing a ticket to a tour.

During our trip to Arizona, we made the trek to Upper Antelope Canyon, the most visited of the two canyons found on this land. Called Tsé bighánílíní by the Navajo, this canyon is “the place where water runs through rocks.

Summer is the perfect time to visit the canyon. Photographers love this “slot canyon” because of the way it manipulates light. From May 20–October 7, light beams peek down on the walls, hitting the floor of the canyon at high noon.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from our trip to Upper Antelope Canyon.

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Do not let the masses taking pictures distract you from the beauty of this place. Best part is, most of what you’re taking picture of is above everyone’s heads!

Corkscrew.

Corkscrew.

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What to know if you go

We booked our tour Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours ($40 per person, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. daily). Make sure you arrive 50-60 minutes prior to your ticket time. You do not pay in advance, and they WILL give away your reservation. I did not read this part of the confirmation e-mail and when we arrived 40 minutes early, they had already given away our seats on the jeep. Luckily, they made room for us, but you may not be so lucky. Also note that you need to be with a tour guide at all times during your trip to the canyon. Reading reviews on Trip Advisor will show you that your experience is basically a luck-of-the-draw. Your tour guide may rush you, herding you though the canyon. Luckily our was very pleasant.

Places

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ, United States
http://navajotours.com/

Majestic Horseshoe Bend

After leaving Grand Canyon National Park, we set our sights on Page, AZ, a small town about two hours northeast. Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend, a majestic place where the Colorado River makes a 270° turn—a sight you can witness from 1,000 feet above it.

Admiring the view.

Admiring the view.

The overlook parking lot is clearly marked on the west side of US 89 heading into Page, just sound of the Glen Canyon Dam National Recreation Area. The overlook is a trek from the car—make sure you have 30-45 minutes to hike the wide path. It’s an uphill climb both ways! You’ll walk up the pathway from the parking lot, expecting to see the river once you make it to the top of the hill, but you’ll be greeted by an even longer trail descending to the overlook. You’ll see people and tripods dotted across the mouth of the river ledge.

Tripods galore!

Tripods galore!

When you finally reach the edge, the view is stunning. Be safe—there is no guardrail, and the rocks near the edge may be eroding beneath your feet—quite literally! (So glad I saw that warning sign on the way back to the parking lot!) Find a spot to sit and admire. We were there at sunset and got to witness the color of the rocks shift in the evening light.

 

Places

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend, U.S. 89, Page, AZ, United States

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend, U.S. 89, Page, AZ, United States

Best Viewpoints Along Grand Canyon’s South Rim

Viewpoint along the South Rim.
Viewpoint along the South Rim.

As you know from my post a couple of weeks ago, we loved our recent trip to the Grand Canyon. To stand in its presence and soak up its beauty was really something special. But where—exactly—is the best place to stand to witness all the wonder that is the Grand Canyon?

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is by far the most visited part of the canyon, attracting more than 5 million visitors each year. It is the easiest part of the canyon to reach, and it provides lots of great hiking and photo opportunities. Here are our favorite vantage points from an afternoon spent looking over the edge.

Mather’s Point

Viewing at Mather Point.

For many people, this is their first glimpse of the Grand Canyon—the place they’ve seen in movies; the place that’s been at the top of their bucket lists for years. It’s the first vantage point along the Rim Trail, and as you might expect, it’s also one of the most crowded. It has insanely beautiful views, and is the perfect introduction to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

Yavapai Point

Stunning vista along the Rim Trail (South).

Near Yavapai

How did the Grand Canyon form? How many years ago did it all happen? What types of rocks are out there? Those are all questions that can be answered at the Yavapai Geology Museum and Observation Station. Browse the 3-D displays and exhibits to get a better picture of the geology of the region. Enjoy unobstructed panoramic views from the large glass window, providing views of the Colorado River, deep down in the gorge.

Walking the Trail of Time at the Grand Canyon.

From here, pick up the Trail of Time, a walking trail that further takes you on a journey through the Grand Canyon’s geologic history. Over the course of the 1.3-mile, hour-long hike, you’ll transition from the most recent rocks (all of which you can touch) to rocks that are literally billions of years old. The trail ends at Grand Canyon Village.

Desert View Watchtower

The beautiful Grand Canyon.

A four-story tower stands high above the point where the Colorado River takes a turn to the north towards the Navaho and Hopi Indian Reservations. Moe than 20 miles to the east of Grand Canyon Village, this point offers fantastic views—on a clear day, you can see for 100+ miles! Several viewpoints on the ground offer panoramas of some beautiful land—and you can see the site of the final resting place of 128 lost when two planes collided over the Grand Canyon back in 1956. Climb the watchtower to see the murals inside, and to enjoy the bird’s eye view from your perch in the sky.

Are there viewpoints you’d add to our list?

Photo Byte Friday: America

Feeling patriotic in San Francisco.
Feeling patriotic in San Francisco.

In honor of the Fourth of July, this week’s #FriFotos theme is America. Here are a few of my favorite patriotic symbols I’ve found in the Land of the Free.

The flag flies over Sedona's red rocks.

The flag flies over Sedona’s red rocks.

A totem eagle in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Kyle poses with an eagle totem in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Me and the Washington Monument in DC.

Me and the Washington Monument in DC.

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Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

Freedom Tower

Freedom Tower

Raw Beauty: Grand Canyon National Park

The beautiful Grand Canyon.
The beautiful Grand Canyon.

It’s at the top of every bucket list. The sheer vastness of it is incomprehensible. And, it’s been said that standing in its presence will make you believe in God.

I have to be honest. The Grand Canyon was always one of those places I knew I’d see one day, but it was never going to be the sole purpose of a trip for me. Arizona started calling to me the moment I saw pictures of the red rocks of Sedona, and it only made sense to venture a few hours north to the Grand Canyon.

The beautiful Grand Canyon.

The beautiful Grand Canyon.

It’s all true what they say. The Grand Canyon has to be one of the most remarkable places on earth. It has the power to change you. There are very few words to describe the way you feel standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, staring out for eternity. On a clear day, you can see for 50+ miles. It’s incomprehensibly, truly. The way the light plays off the rocks, the clouds creating magical colors as they pass beneath the sun—it’s indescribably beautiful. And you can’t help but feel incredibly, unfathomably small.

You’d be insane not to appreciate the sheer power that the Grand Canyon holds. The fact that a river wended its way to form the deep canyon walls is extraordinary, to say the least. It’s almost like visiting Pompeii and seeing Vesuvius looming in the background. Only here, the Colorado River meanders along the canyon floor—seemingly miles away from your perch high above.

But for me, it was almost too much to take in.

The vastness of the Grand Canyon is mind blowing!

The vastness of the Grand Canyon is mind blowing!

What I’ll Do Differently Next Time

I’ve always been one who needs to taste, touch, and experience in order to appreciate something. I need to be completely immersed in it. And for me, standing at the top of the Grand Canyon, looking over, I felt removed. I felt as though I was looking at some insanely beautiful painting, in which the artist keenly understood how to capture the essence of light. You’ve seen those paintings—they’re vibrant and alive. That’s how this felt. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible to witness, but it left me wanting more.

I need to stand at the bottom and gaze up. I should know this about myself. It happened in Switzerland when I took the most phenomenal train ride through the Alps. It happened again when I found myself on a boat in Alaska gazing up at the rock-solid wall of a glacier. Still once more in Hawaii when I sailed past the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. And, of course, my heart absolutely sang when I stood at the foot of Sedona’s red rocks.

I naively thought it would be easy to walk down a trail into the Grand Canyon. I knew I wasn’t going far in an afternoon, but I wanted to go just far enough to be able to look back up and marvel at the canyon walls. There are plenty of tours that will take you into the Grand Canyon—probably most famously on a mule. I’m not a huge fan of horseback riding, so I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be for me either, but it’s definitely an option if you want to go beneath the surface of the canyon. Book well in advance, though!

I went white water rafting for the first time last December in Costa Rica and had an absolute blast! There are one-day rafting opportunities in the Grand Canyon—and, in fact, there’s basically any kind of rafting experience you want to have, up to 18 days! And if you’re really adventurous (which I am not at this point in my life), you can hike into the Grand Canyon with a guide, and stay a while—really digging into all the beauty that lies beyond what the eye can see from above.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by Mark Lellouch.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by Mark Lellouch.

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park’s photostream

Do Everything Within Your Power to Avoid Frustration

There’s nothing worse than setting yourself up for a miserable day. We arrived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park around noon on a late-May day. Mistake No. 1. The line just to pay to get in the park ($30) was teeming with cars, and took the better part of an hour. Once in the park, I was beyond frustrated to discover how incredibly few parking spots there are for the general, non-camping, public. We drove around and around for over an hour, and finally had to move further down the rim, away from the Visitor’s Center, to find parking.

If you don’t arrive first thing in the morning, just bypass the craziness that is the main parking lot and move on to a secondary lot. Trust me, it will be OK. There is a free shuttle bus that has pick-ups at each parking lot along the rim, and stops every 15 minutes or so. We were able to get up to the Visitor’s Center with no problem. We could have saved ourselves plenty of frustration, tears (yes, tears!) and about a zillion curse words if we’d just moved along in the first place. There is very poor signage for the lots, which doesn’t help.

There are few things that make me as crazy as knowing how near I am to something incredibly beautiful and not being able to find a parking spot so I can get out of the car to go see it!

Make sure to bring lots of sunscreen and water. And I’d suggest packing a picnic instead of trying to buy food. You are in a park, after all.

You can see for miles.

You can see for miles.

Luckily All That Fades Away

There aren’t many places with the kind of profound, all-encompassing beauty that can make all those little frustrations disappear completely. As soon as we walked up to the rim at Mather Point—the first glimpse of the canyon for so many—everything that had been bothering us no longer seemed so important.

There, you are merely a fraction of a part of a much larger whole. And I’d venture to say there are few other places on earth were you are as keenly aware of that fact. It’s scary. It’s humbling. And it’s insanely powerful.

Taking it all in.

Taking it all in.

“True beauty cannot be expressed in words – something man created. True and utter beauty surpasses what’s tangible – it goes straight to the heart.”

Look for my next post where I’ll give you a glimpse at the best Grand Canyon lookouts!

Places

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, AZ, United States
http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

Off-Roading in Sedona with Pink Jeep Tours

Soaking up the scenery on the Pink Jeep Tour.
Soaking up the scenery on the Pink Jeep Tour.

Doug beamed with pride as we reached the summit of our first viewpoint, Sedona red rocks towering above us in every direction. “And this is the view from my office!”

Enjoying the view from Submarine Rock.

Enjoying the view from Submarine Rock.

It’s hard not to be excited about your job when you are completely surrounded by immense beauty such as this—and fresh perspectives from tourists each day to make sure you never stop appreciating how lucky you are to enjoy the view.

Doug grew up on the Broken Arrow Trail. He knows every curve of it—every bump in the road. He can drive it in reverse (and yes, he’s done it!)—but he has yet to test the theory that he can do it in his sleep. It’s home for Doug. Each day, an adrenaline rush as he takes people on an off-roading adventure they won’t soon forget.

Soaking up the scenery on the Pink Jeep Tour.

Soaking up the scenery on the Pink Jeep Tour.

I first heard about Pink Jeep Tours when our friends at The Constant Rambler visited Sedona and took one of the tours. It sounded awesome, and I knew it would be a highlight of our visit to the area. But I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical of their tagline: “You Gotta Do It!” Having spent a handful of years working in tourism marketing, I equated this generic—and a tad presumptuous—phrase to the dreaded “there’s something for everyone!” But now, having experienced this for myself, I can whole-heartedly say that when it comes to Pink Jeep Tours, you really “gotta do it!”

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You can’t drive down a road in Sedona without seeing an open-air Pink Jeep loaded with happy passengers off on their adventure. For more than 50 years, Pink Jeep Tours has been showing people the very best of the history, nature, geology, and, of course, the stunning vistas of the Southwest. In fact, when the company was founded in Sedona in 1960, it became the first Jeep tour operator in the United States. Today, Pink Jeep Tours sees more than 300,000 guests each year, and offers lots of tour options in Sedona, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, and the Grand Canyon.

And don’t be fooled by the hue of these Jeeps. They mean business! Designed for “rock crawling,” they are custom made to traverse the rocky landscape of this trail—even going down a 45° angle at one point in the tour! But why pink, you wonder? During a visit to Hawaii, Pink Jeep’s founder was struck by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s choice of color—which permeated everything from the building to the staff uniforms. Pink isn’t a color you’d expect to see in that context—and it’s not a color you forget once you’ve seen it. Soon, pink became the signature color of Sedona’s favorite tour company.

Broken Arrow Trail was the first—and is still the most beloved—tour offered by Pink Jeep Tours. If you want an authentic, down-and-dirty, off-roading experience, this is the tour for you! While there is definitely a lot of action during this 2-hour tour, there is also plenty of time to get out and enjoy the crazy stunning views that greet you in every direction. Highlights of the tour include stops at Submarine Rock and Chicken Point, driving on top of some red rocks—something only Pink Jeep Tours is allowed to do—and taking one perilous journey down the Road of No Return.

The Road of No Return

The Road of No Return

During your trip to Sedona, do yourself a favor and take a Pink Jeep Tour. It’s a unique way to explore those famed red rocks, and your tour guide will take your on an adventure that’s sure to be a highlight of your trip. If your guide is anything like Doug, they know how lucky they are to get to explore the back roads of some of the most beautiful country every single day—and they are excited to share it with you.

Me and Doug

Me and Doug

Climb aboard and hold on tight! It’s going to be a bumpy, beautiful ride!

What to know if you go

The Broken Arrow Trail takes 2 hours and costs $95 per adult ($71.25 per child, 12 years and under). Make sure to reserve your seat in advance!

 

 

Places

Pink Jeep Tours

Pink Jeep Tours - Sedona, AZ, State Route 89A, Sedona, AZ, United States
(800) 873-3662

Pink Jeep Tours

Pink Jeep Tours - Sedona, AZ, State Route 89A, Sedona, AZ, United States
(800) 873-3662
https://www.pinkjeeptourssedona.com/

Landmark History: Tuzigoot

Tuzigoot - Looking Out
A view from the roof of the central structure of Tuzigoot.

The Landmark

Last I week I gave you the history of Montezuma Castle, a cliff-side dwelling built by the Sinagua people sometime around the 1100s. I mentioned in that article that the Sinagua people returned to the Verde Valley region of Arizona around the early to mid 1100s due to the fertile soil left behind by a volcanic eruption sometime around the year 1050 AD. Tuzigoot National Monument is another example of the structures built by the Sinagua people during this fertile period of the valley before they would migrate to other regions in the 1400s.

Tuzigoot has its own charm and style about it though. Instead of being built into the side of a cliff overlooking a creek, Tuzigoot is a 110 room pueblo structure situated atop sandstone and limestone ridge near a small cutoff from the Verde River. The monument is the best preserved pueblo ruin built by the Sinagua people in the region.

Offering expansive views of the Verde Valley, the small art town of Jerome and other surrounding cliffs, Tuzigoot is a great stop for landscape photographers. Like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is an easy visit. Despite its position on a ridge, the small trail that takes you around the pueblo is mostly flat. Taking in the scenery and enjoying the small museum in the visitor’s center won’t take you more than an hour. It’s also a great stop on your way between Sedona and Phoenix.

While the route may seem a bit circuitous, you can easily visit both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot as part of the “scenic route” to Sedona, which is fortunate because having a ticket to one of the National Monuments saves you $2 on your visit to the other (and admission is already fairly cheap).

The History

Tuzigoot’s history is similar to that of Montezuma Castle, but with it’s own set of unique details. Built by the Sinagua people in the early to mid 1100s, Tuzigoot is situated above the floodplain of the Verde River. Tuzigoot means crooked water in Apache, a reference to Pecks Lake which is Northwest of the ruins.

The Sinagua culture was largely based around agriculture and trade. Building Tuzigoot on its ridge ensured easy access to the surrounding fertile lands, while avoiding any potential problems with the structure being washed away by seasonal flooding. It also allows for a great view of the surrounding area, allowing for residents to keep an eye out for potential traders from as far away as Mexico. Bones from macaw parrots were uncovered at Tuzigoot, indicating these trade connections. Additionally, there is evidence that the Sinagua grew a species of cotton from South America, meaning that they were weaving before Europeans even came close to Arizona.

It is estimated that around 250 people inhabited Tuzigoot at its peak. Interestingly, very few of the tightly packed rooms appear to have any doors. The reason for this is that trap doors were commonly built into the roof of the room and ladders were used for entering and exiting them. While it may seem that Tuzigoot is situated ideally as some kind of fort and this roof access may have made it difficult for any potential invaders to access the dwellings, there is not much evidence of warfare in the area. Instead, these rooftop trapdoors were more likely built to keep animals out rather than any enemies. It is also believed that on upper floors, regular doors built into the walls of the structure were used.

As with Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua people would abandon Tuzigoot sometime in the early to mid 1400s. Again, the reason for this is not entirely clear; however it is likely due to a lack of resources or tensions brewing with other cultures in the area. It is believed that many of the Sinagua people would simply join other tribes, such as the Hopi. Tuzigoot would be largely forgotten until the 1900s.

The nearby town of Jerome was supported by copper mines discovered in the late 1800s. Mining would support the town through the early 1900s, but after the Great Depression, the ore deposits would run dry and population in Jerome would fall to less than 100 by the 1950s. These mines would have a lasting impact on the valley surrounding Tuzigoot as much of the mining waste was dumped nearby. The tailings from the mining operation are still vaguely visible; however, the area was recently replanted and much of the area’s natural beauty is returning.

Tuzigoot was excavated and opened to the public in the mid 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt designated it a National Monument on July 25, 1939. Unlike Montezuma Castle, some of the areas of the Tuzigoot ruins are still accessible to the public, especially the rooftop of the central structure. If your curious about the history of the native peoples of the American West or curious about the impact of the expansion westward, I highly recommend a visit.

What to know if you go

Unlike Montezuma Castle, you are up out of the valley on a ridge here. On a sunny day, you’ll definitely want sunscreen and probably a bottle of water. Your very exposed to the sun at this monument.

Entry costs $5 per person. Having a pass for Montezuma Castle saves you $2 per person (the same applies for having a pass for Tuzigoot and going to Montezuma Castle).

Places

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ, United States
1-928-634-5564

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ, United States
1-928-634-5564
http://www.nps.gov/tuzi/index.htm

Landmark History: Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle
Montezuma Castle, high up on its cliff.

The Landmark

Montezuma Castle is a great place for us to start our new recurring Landmark History series – this cliff-side dwelling has a long history spanning centuries and even an air of mystery about it.

Located in the Verde Valley in Arizona, Montezuma Castle is a permanent stone dwelling built nearly 100 feet up a cliff face. The dwelling is five stories tall and contains approximately 50 rooms. Other smaller more makeshift dwellings dot the cliff and the overall park contains other dwellings should you care to visit them; however, Montezuma Castle is definitely the main attraction. The cliff on which the castle is situated faces a stream known as Beaver Creek, which creates a bit of an oasis-like environment to the park.

This is an easy National Monument to visit – there’s very little walking and the short trail in the area is very accessible. The area also includes more preserved dwellings, but they are separated from the castle. If you are just looking for a quick stop on your way to Sedona from Phoenix (as we were) this is a perfect place to stop as it’s only a couple of miles off of the highway and only takes 30 minutes to an hour to enjoy your visit.

The History

While the structure itself is impressive – the storied past of Montezuma Castle is what makes it so fascinating. The Sinagua people began inhabiting the area, known as the Verde Valley, sometime around the 8th century. Evidence of permanent dwellings date back to around 1050 AD, though it was around this time that the eruption of a nearby volcano caused a brief period of abandonment of the Verde Valley.

Long term, this eruption likely had a positive impact on the valley: nutrient-rich soil deposits. The Sinagua people returned to the Verde Valley in the early to mid 1100s. The Sinagua culture was built on agriculture and the combination of the fertile, volcanic soil with the reliable waters of Beaver Creek made the valley a perfect place to settle.

Construction of Montezuma Castle is thought to have began early in this resettlement period. The positioning of the structure may seem inherently defensive; however, it’s more likely that the dwelling was built into the cliff to solve a much  more practical problem: yearly flooding of Beaver Creek during the summer monsoon season. Elevating the structure above the floodplain ensured that the dwelling was never washed away.

The dwelling was probably built overtime, added on to by subsequent generations, eventually growing in to the structure that we can view today. Eventually, Montezuma Castle would house up to 50 people. Verde Valley’s population would begin to decline sometime around 1300, falling gradually until the dwelling was abandoned early in the 1400s. This is where the mystery comes from for the Montezuma Castle.

The Sinagua are known to have migrated to other areas, though the reasoning behind it remains unclear. There are a number of likely causes for the migration: drought or other farming issues or tensions with the Yavapai people who had begun to inhabit the area may have driven them away.

Montezuma Castle would be rediscovered by various groups of settlers making their way west. In 1864, it would receive its present day name from King Woolsey in 1864 when he mistook the nearby pueblos at Montezuma Well for Aztec ruins, naming the site after several Aztec Emperors. This provides a perfect example of how historical gaffs can stick with a place forever.

The first dig at the Montezuma Castle site would be done in 1884. Unfortunately, early settlers known as “thieves of time” from around 1870 into the early 1900s would loot and ransack the sites, removing most of the historical artifacts from the area.

Still, the remarkable engineering of the Sinagua people has stood the test of time and the site is impressive to see today. This was recognized by Teddy Roosevelt who designated it as one of the original four National Monuments on December 8, 1906 under the American Antiquities Act. The castle would be later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Sadly, structural concerns have closed off access to the interior of the ruins, which were open to visitors until 1951.

If you’re looking for glimpses into the history of the American West, Montezuma Castle stands as an example of the storied past of the United States and its original, native groups. Still today, Yavapai and Hopi people who trace their roots to this area after the Sinagua people left return to the site for various ceremonies. The area surrounding the monument is beautiful and perfect for those looking for an easy place to stretch their legs as they make their way across the great state of Arizona.

What to know if you go

Google Navigation only takes you to the front sign of the park area for Montezuma Castle, so don’t panic when your GPS tells you that you have arrived and all you see is a sign on the side of the road. Keep going – it’s not that much further.

Entry costs $5 per person. Having a pass for Tuzigoot saves you $2 per person (the same applies for having a pass for Montezuma Castle and going to Tuzigoot).

Places

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States
(928) 567-3322

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States
(928) 567-3322
http://www.nps.gov/moca/index.htm

Our Guide to Sedona, Arizona

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.
Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.

There’s a saying among the locals: “God created the Grand Canyon, but he lives in Sedona.”

I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of amazing places in my young life. From the snow-covered Alps in Switzerland to the Na Pali Coast of Hawaii, I’ve been to many moving places. But there was something about the colors of the desert—the way those red rocks stretched into the sky—that spoke to my soul.

The more I travel, the more I try to live in the moment and to appreciate my surroundings. I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the enormity of the rocks that dotted every landscape, in every direction, for as far as the eye could see.

It started with the drive into Sedona. Driving down State Route 89A was like becoming one with some beautiful painting. It was probably the most distracted I have ever been behind the wheel. I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh, wow!” as I stared off in every direction.

Stunning red rocks.

Stunning red rocks.

Over the next three days, I became completely and utterly enchanted with the colors of the desert. I couldn’t take enough pictures of the same rocks, and I couldn’t manage to sit and stare quite long enough to soak it all in.

I was so sad to leave this desert oasis to move on to other Arizona sites, that when presented with the opportunity to return on our drive back, we cancelled our reservations in Flagstaff (after checking into our hotel!) and leapt at the opportunity to spend another 24 hours in Sedona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Here’s our guide to one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S.: Sedona, Arizona.

Where to Play

Pink Jeep Tours: Do NOT go to Sedona without taking a ride on the Pink Jeep! For more than 50 years, this company has been giving people access to some of the most beautiful off-the-beaten-path spots in Sedona. Take the famous 2-hour Broken Arrow Tour for some stunning scenery, and an off-roading adventure anyone from the casual traveler to the adrenaline junkie will love. ($95 per person; other tours available).

Red Rock State Park: With 286 acres to explore, and lots of daily activities, this place is a must-stop on any Sedona adventure. Check with a ranger to help determine the best trail for you to follow, given time constraints and desired activity level. They’re great, and will help you pick the perfect trail for your visit.

Storm over Red Rock State Park.

Storm over Red Rock State Park.

Take a Hike: There are more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails in Sedona. It’s just what you do when you’re there. I’m not a huge fan of hiking, but even I had fun on a handful of trails: Yavapai Vista Trail, Bell Rock Pathway, Airport Loop, and Soldier Pass Trail. There are no bad views in Sedona. What’s great about all these trails is that you don’t have to wait for your reward until the end. All of our hikes took twice as long as they probably should have, since I had to stop every couple of minutes to take more pictures of the dramatic, ever-changing landscape. Make sure to look up info on trails before you go out—some are marked better than others, so it’s good to do a little research before starting your hike.

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Where to Stay

$$$ Hyatt Pinon Pointe: This was a beautiful resort hotel in the middle of downtown Sedona. It was very conveniently located, which made it easy to park your car and walk to the shops and restaurants. We stayed for three nights, and enjoyed using the pool and hot tubs—which had incredible views of the mountains. We liked staying here, but be prepared to get the spiel about listening to a timeshare presentation.

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$$ The Orchards Inn of Sedona: We spent our last night in Sedona at this hotel—and we wish we’d spent all of our time here! They were having a 40% off deal, and we got a King Suite with INSANE views of the red rocks for $130. The room came complete with a balcony and a fireplace. There is a complimentary breakfast at the Mexican restaurant across the parking lot—something hard to come by at Sedona hotels. This place, too, is located in the heart of downtown.

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$$$$ Enchantment Resort: We didn’t stay here, but we talked with a lot of people who were staying at the resort when we went to eat dinner there. Everyone was thoroughly impressed—and why wouldn’t they be?! This place is tucked away, back in the midst of towering red rocks. Located about 20 minutes from downtown, this is an isolated paradise—a prime place for relaxation and some serious stargazing. With lots of restaurants, amenities, and a full-service spa, if you want to be pampered, there’s no better place to stay in Sedona! We were impressed by the very chill vibe this place exuded—unlike the ritzy L’Auberge de Sedona.

Where to Eat

$$$ Elote Café: Serving “creative, out-of-the-box Mexican cuisine,” this place is insanely popular—and insanely good. Go early! It opens at 5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday) but people start lining up at 4:30 p.m. By the time we got there at 6 p.m., there was an hour and 45 minute wait! We stuck it out, and OMG, are we glad we did! Whatever you do, order their namesake appetizer: fire-roasted corn with spicy mayo, lime and cotija cheese. Everything is so delicious, you’ll want to buy the cookbook just so you can have it all again. We did!

$$ El Ricon: Located in the Tlaquepaque shopping center, this restaurant serves “Arizona-style” Mexican cuisine. While most of the food was mediocre at best, they served the best beans and rice I’ve ever had at a Mexican restaurant! Oh—and try a prickly pear margarita, but beware they’re a little on the liberal side with the tequila! Whew!

Lunch at El Ricon.

Lunch at El Ricon.

$$ Cowboy Club & Silver Saddle Room: The Cowboy Club is one of the oldest eateries in Sedona, and played host to the likes of John Wayne and other movie stars who filmed in the area, and is credited as the birthplace of the Cowboy Artists of America. If you want to try some desert cuisine, this is the place to do it. From cactus fries and buffalo chili to—yes—diamondback rattlesnake, you can try so many things you thought you’d never want to see on a plate.

$$$$ L’Auberge de Sedona: I had high hopes for this place. It’s rated extremely high on TripAdvisor, and appears to be one of the most beautiful spots in all of Sedona. With outdoor dining by Oak Creek, who wouldn’t want to sit outside and listen to the babble of the brook while you dine on gourmet dishes?! I think circumstance had a lot to do with us not loving this place. It’s attached to a very expensive resort, so the clientele has lots of money, and doesn’t mind flaunting it. That always leaves us a bit cold. Spurts of rain kept us inside, and although I’d looked at the menu online, I didn’t realize it was pre fixe, starting at $80 per person. We weren’t that hungry, so we had to sit at the bar, and order off a different menu (although you can select one entrée from the fancy menu to share, if you’d like). Much like the atmosphere, the food was pretentious, and apparently when you’re banished from the dining room, the service goes downhill rapidly. We enjoyed our prickly pear mocktails and got out of there. The grounds really are beautiful, but if you want to go, just know you’ll be paying a pretty penny for the experience.

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$$-$$$$ Enchantment Resort: Unlike L’Auberge de Sedona, this place didn’t make us feel like outsiders. On our last night in Sedona, we decided to go have appetizers and drinks fireside—in the midst of the gorgeous scenery I’d seen online. We ate at Tii Gavo, one of a few restaurants open to people not staying at the resort. We ordered—you guessed it—prickly pear margaritas, and Kobe beef sliders, which were awesome! We spent a fantastic evening talking travel with new friends we made sitting around the fire. Several of us broke out our Google Sky Map app, and started pointing out constellations and planets.

Dinner at Enchantment Resort.

Dinner at Enchantment Resort.

Where to Shop

Uptown Sedona: Whether you want fine art or a Sedona sweatshirt, you’ll find it in this shopping center at the intersection of Arizona 89A and 179. Both hotels we used were very close to this spot, and we spent a handful of hours walking up and down the charming blocks. Make sure to take a break from all that window shopping to try some prickly pear ice cream at Black Cow Café, and the to-die-for chocolates at the Sedona Fudge Company—don’t worry, you can’t miss it. The tantalizing scents wafting through the door will entice you inside!

Shopping in Sedona.

Shopping in Sedona.

Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village: If you have a free afternoon, stop by this charming little shopping “village.” Beautifully landscaped, Tlaquepaque features more than 40 shops and galleries, representing the work of some of the finest artists in Arizona. Be prepared to spend some serious cash if you want to take home a treasure from your time in Sedona. Kyle and I always buy an art *print to remember our trips. The key word there being print! I’ve never had so much trouble finding a copy of a painting versus the $3,000+ original. You’re made to feel like a bit of a cheapskate if you can’t quite spring for the authentic painting or sculpture. There are even layaway programs at some of the galleries so you can have whatever piece of art “speaks to you.”

Contrasting light and shadow.

Contrasting light and shadow.

Have you ever been to Sedona? What would you add to our lists?

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