The GRAND Canyon (Days 24-26)

Grand Canyon 1 Our Streamlined LIfe

When I began planning our Southwest Adventure itinerary, the Grand Canyon was the first stop to make the list. (After all, it claimed the #1 spot on our 2016 National Parks Wish List!) We were thrilled to finally visit this lifelong goal destination!

Even though the Grand Canyon was a fixed point in our itinerary, we did not make campground reservations prior to arriving. We like to maintain flexibility in our schedule, and the Grand Canyon was a good three weeks into our itinerary, so we knew there was a good chance our arrival date would change more than once. This ended up causing some stress after I read that reservations are strongly recommended beginning March 1 (we arrived March 5), and that South Rim campgrounds are usually full by noon during the busy season.

Fortunately, our luck held, and when we arrived around lunch time we didn’t have any trouble snagging a great spot at Mather Campground — even though the campground was full of spring breakers from the south and midwest. (Who knew spring breaking at Grand Canyon was even a thing?!)

After setting up camp, our first stop was the park’s general store, to replenish the cooler and stock up on firewood. I knew the Grand Canyon was famous for being crowded — it is the second-most visited National Park — but I wasn’t prepared for how developed it is. (When I saw the link for a Grand Canyon “survival guide” on the NPS website, I assumed it would contain information about hazards like dehydration and rattlesnakes. In fact, it’s about avoiding the crowds, which can lead to jam-packed overlooks, long lines, and inability to find parking.) Mather Campground is within walking distance of a well-stocked general store, post office, and laundromat. There’s even a complex shuttle bus system that will take you to most points along the South Rim.

We went to bed that night full of anticipation for the next day, when we’d begin exploring the Grand Canyon in earnest. As always, our first stop would be the visitor’s center, where we’d get the lay of the land, watch the park information video, and collect as many maps and brochures as we could.

Fun fact: the Grand Canyon is really big. That may seem obvious, but I didn’t realize quite how much time it would take to get from one end to the other, and how much there was to see in between. (It’s almost 40 miles from Hermit’s Rest at the west end of the park to Desert View Watchtower at the east end.)

There are so many ways to experience the Grand Canyon — driving, busing, walking, biking, hiking, riding, and rafting — so we decided to divide the rim into manageable chunks and try a few different modes of exploration.

Grand Canyon 2 Our Streamlined LIfe

Driving the Grand Canyon

We love walking and hiking, but (as you may have noticed) we also really enjoy being in the car. When we’re checking out a new place, we love to get the lay of the land with a driving tour — and that’s just what we did our first full day at the Grand Canyon. After stopping at the main Visitor’s Center, we took the 25-mile Desert View Drive to the Desert View Watchtower located at the park’s East Entrance.

Desert View Watchtower 1 Our Streamlined Life

The Desert View Drive includes six developed canyon viewpoints, the Tusayan Museum and ruin site, and the Desert View Watchtower. There are terrific views along the way, a short hiking trail at the Tusayan ruins, and the Desert View Watchtower offers a cool aerial view of the canyon below.

Walking the Grand Canyon

Our second day at the Grand Canyon we did a combination of walking and riding on the NPS shuttle bus system. Starting once again from the main Visitor’s Center, we walked west on the lovely, paved Rim Trail. Although we paused often for photo ops, it was pretty incredible to be casually.

We also visited the historic Kolb Studio, which I would highly recommend. From there we hopped on the bus and rode rode it all the way to Hermit’s Rest at the park’s west edge. This direction also offered tremendous views; the bus stopped at each overlook and you could choose to walk from overlook to overlook, or just wait for the next bus to come along.

Grand Canyon Hermit's Rest Our Streamlined LIfe

Hiking the Grand Canyon

We didn’t feel sufficiently prepared for a strenuous hike down into the canyon, although I would love to do it in the future — maybe next winter! From what we hear, it’s an incomparable way to experience the canyon in a way that goes far beyond exploring the rim. Even though we weren’t up to a full hike, we  definitely wanted to experience in a small way the feeling of being below the rim. Starting at the Bright Angel Trailhead, we hiked about a half mile into the canyon. While that definitely whetted our appetite for more, when we saw how icy the trail was we knew we’d made the right decision to save a big hike for another day.

Grand Canyon 3 Our Streamlined LIfe

It’s impossible to describe the feeling of looking out over the Grand Canyon, waiting for your brain to catch up with your eyes and realize that what you’re seeing is real, not just a painting. It is so immense, so layered, and so beautiful — you’ll just have to go see it for yourself!

Grand Canyon 4 Our Streamlined LIfe

We experience one “first” at the Grand Canyon that shouldn’t go unmentioned: Our first time camping in the snow! As we drove back towards the campground after a day of exploring, the wind kicked up, the temperature dropped, and we got over an inch of snow in under an hour! Since outdoor cooking wasn’t happening, we took the opportunity to enjoy dinner in the Maswick Lodge while watching the snow fall. And we were extra happy to be warm and dry in the car, instead of a tent.

Grand Canyon Camspite Our Streamlined Life

Campground: Grand Canyon National Park – Mather Campground

  • Tent/RV site, no hookups.
  • Cost: $14 (off-peak rate)
  • Pros: Pleasant wooded sites. Easy access to showers, laundry facilities, and wifi — and, of course, the main attraction, the Grand Canyon! While getting an RV in this campground might take some finagling, the sites were ideal for car camping, with level, paved parking spots.
  • Cons: The coin-operated showers were a bit expensive and not within walking distance of most sites in the campground. The presence of ravens in the campground meant everything had to be packed away super securely anytime you left your site.

Prescott: A Love Story (Days 27-28)

Friendly, walkable downtown? Check.

Great food scene (with plenty of gluten-free options)? Check.

Beautiful scenery and easy access to outdoor activities? Check.

You guys, Prescott, Arizona has it all.

When Ryan and I added Prescott to our itinerary, it wasn’t so much as a destination, but an opportunity to visit my aunt who lives there. And we figured it would also be a convenient stopping point to explore nearby Flagstaff and Sedona.

But we ended up falling in love with this charming little town. Arizona was the breakout surprise of our southwest adventure — we loved it there — and Prescott was a strong contender for “top Arizona experience.” This town has a little of everything, from delicious food to delightful shops to a stunning natural backdrop. (And hey, my aunt lives there — and she’s a pretty awesome lady!)

We kicked off our tour of Prescott with an afternoon stroll through downtown. In the center of town is Courthouse Square, a pleasant green surrounding the Yavapai County Courthouse.

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Coffee from Gurley Street Coffee in hand, we explored Prescott’s residential side streets. We loved coming across this 115-year-old house that is now the Prescott Travelers Hostel. It’s too cute!

Prescott Hostel Our Streamlined Life

We took in the view of the mountains behind town looking down Montezuma Street before heading to Rosa’s Pizzeria to meet my aunt for dinner. Rosa’s had both delicious gluten-free pizza and Italian food authentic enough to satisfy Ryan’s discerning tastes.

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Another downtown Prescott star was our mead tasting at Superstition Meadery. We’d first tried mead at Savannah Bee Company and were excited to broaden our palate. Ryan and I shared a flight of 12 samples ranging from light ciders to thick, sweet dessert meads.

Superstition Meadery 2 Our Streamlined Life

Another edible highlight of our trip to Prescott was Bill’s Grill. When my aunt suggested we got there for dinner, she warned us that the location was unassuming, but promised the food was really, really good. Sure enough, Ryan described his dinner as “possibly the best burger he’s ever had” — and I had an awesome black bean burger, complete with a gluten-free bun. For us, that’s the best of both worlds, and something we’ve only discovered at one other burger joint (our beloved MELT).

If you’re a book-lover visiting Prescott, you should definitely check out the Peregrine Book Company. We love visiting new bookstores and Peregrine was one of my favorites from the trip. And next time we visit we’d love to check out The Palace on Whiskey Row (it’s been around since 1877!) as well as the Sharlott Hall Museum.

The delicious food isn’t the only reason we loved Prescott. In addition to have a charming, walkable downtown, Prescott is also conveniently located near some gorgeous hiking. There are lots of choices when it comes to hiking in Prescott (including the 54-mile Prescott Circle Trail), but we settled on the Granite Dells … because, as you know, we find water irresistible.

Granite Dells 2 Our Streamlined Life

The Dells consist of exposed bedrock and large granite boulders that appear incredibly smooth …

Granite Dells 3 Our Streamlined Life

… but which actually have a very rough texture that makes them easy to climb. We enjoyed walking part of the Peavine National Recreation Trail through the dells, and spent some time just relaxing on the rocks and taking in the lake views. I should also mention that if you visit Prescott in the summer (April – October) Watson Lake Park also offers very affordable dry camping, with restrooms and showers available.

Those are our highlights from Prescott, Arizona! We can’t wait to go back — maybe in the fall next time! Have you visited Prescott? Any recommendations of things we should see?

Desert Luxury in Cave Creek (Days 22-23)

You don’t have to be a long-term traveler to know that being on the road is tiring.

At this point we’d been roadtripping for three weeks. Aside from our time visiting my brother in San Antonio, we’d been sleeping in the back of the car, working at coffee shops, and using public showers for three weeks straight — and we were ready for a break.

So imagine our delight when the next two days of our trip ended up being pure desert luxury.

An easy two hour drive took us to Cave Creek, where we were warmly greeted by Ryan’s “aunt and uncle” — old friends of his mom’s from Louisiana who had since migrated to Arizona to be near their son and his family. They welcomed us into their beautiful home, which boasted a to-die-for guest suite, as well as tremendous mountain views just out the back door. I had never met them before, and it had been years since Ryan had seen them, and we had a wonderful time getting to know them.

Ryan’s aunt was eager to show us the area, and we jumped in her car and off we went! After a delightful lunch on the patio at The Grotto Cafe, we were off to explore Scottsdale and Phoenix. Where Tucson had offered a grungy yet welcoming vibe, this area of Arizona was far more upscale. The traffic was crazy, the views spectacular, and hotels and spas were seemingly on every corner.

Our first stop was the stunning Arizona Biltmore hotel. You guys — this place was magnificent.

Photo from www.arizonabiltmore.com
Photo from www.arizonabiltmore.com

The more I travel, the more enamored I’ve become of true luxury hotels — not just expensive hotels, or ones with trendy lobbies but basic rooms — and the Biltmore set a new standard of luxury in my mind.

Arizona Biltmore 3 Our Streamlined Life
Photo from www.arizonabiltmore.com

The Biltmore was designed by Albert Chase McArthur,  who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, and the resort has been an Arizona landmark since its opened on February 23rd, 1929. Also, pools like this make it hard to go back to campground life.

Arizona Biltmore 2 Our Streamlined Life
Photo from www.arizonabiltmore.com

Ryan & Rebecca Biltmore Arizona Our Streamlined Life

After exploring the grounds at the Biltmore, it was on to our next destination: jade bar at Sanctuary Resort overlooking spectacular Camelback Mountain.

Scottsdale Spa Our Streamlined Life

Sanctuary Resort was another opulent retreat, and we had the entire patio to ourselves to sip drinks and catch up (and catch our breath).

Spa Drinks Our Streamlined Life

I’m thinking I could get used to travelling like this. Maybe it’s time to start from scratch and become a luxury travel writer?

The following day included more work for me — but after a heavenly night’s sleep in a real bed, I was more than up to the task. Besides, I had this lovely view to distract me …

Desert Home 2 Our Streamlined Life

And then we ended the day with margaritas and Mexican food. #perfect

After two days of thorough relaxation, we were rejuvenated and ready for our next adventure: THE GRAND CANYON.

Tucson: An Arizona Love-Affair Begins (Days 19-21)

Ah, Tucson.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways (and also, the delicious tacos).

Tucson was an unexpected delight, and we ended up staying there four nights instead of our planned one. We did a lot of exploring, and a lot of working, and left Tucson wishing we could stay longer. It even had us both sheepishly professing that we could envision our beach, lake, and forest-loving selves living in the desert.

Catalina State Park

The campground at Catalina State Park was a huge part of why we loved Tucson so much — and the story of how we snagged a campsite there highlights a perfect blend of road trip naïveté and astonishing good luck.

It was February 28 — the peak of camping season in Arizona — yet it hadn’t even occurred to us that there might be no room in the inn. In fact, I only discovered that our target campground, Catalina State Park, was full because I was trying desperately to find somewhere else to stay. The escalation from $10/night camping in New Mexico to $30/night in Arizona was not sitting well with me. I quickly stopped complaining about the state park rates when I discovered the KOA and other private campground rates soared well north of $50/night.

Catalina State Park Campground Our Streamlined Life

We drove through the gates of the park, greeted by this fabulous view, and prepared to beg for nothing more than a spot in the parking lot. Apparently our desperation was evident, and we were pointed to what was inelegantly described as “the overflow lot.”

The Ringtail Campground is, in fact, a group camping area — but from January 15 – March 31 its sites are rented out individually for desperate travelers like ourselves. There are no hookups, and during the day the area hums with generators, but for $15 we snagged ourselves a perfectly respectable spot. In no time flat Ryan had a tarp shelter rigged to protect us from the desert sun, and we were in business.

Catalina State Park Campsite Our Streamlined Life

Park staff warned us that it may be difficult to hold on to our spot; Ringtail Campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis so we’d need to be in the office bright and early to renew our spot if we wanted to stay longer. While we were lucky enough to keep our spot for four successive nights, we did witness more than one hapless soul being turned away.

Logistical wrangling aside, Catalina State Park stands out as one of the best campgrounds we’ve ever stayed at. The bathhouse was spaciousmodern, and ridiculously clean. It even had an external wash station for cleaning dirty camp dishes. The location couldn’t have been more perfect — big enough to feel like you were definitely out in nature, but just minutes from restaurants and shopping. The views of the Catalina Mountains were heavenly, and there was a wide range of hiking trails beginning within the park itself.

 Saguaro National Park

As if an amazing state park wasn’t enough, Tucson is also home to a one-of-a-kind national park: Saguaro National Park on the west side of town.

Saguaro National Park 1 Our Streamlined Life

Having previously held little-to-no feelings on cacti, I was surprised by how gorgeous I found Saguaro NP — and it was one of Ryan’s favorite national parks to date.

Saguaro National Park 2 Our Streamlined Life

Our first stop, as always, was the visitor’s center, where we purchased a number of national parks themed gear, including some new bumper stickers and a dri-fit shirt decorated with cacti for Ryan. (I told you he loves Saguaro!)

We also watched the orientation video, which was excellent. No spoilers, but there’s a little surprise at the end that will have you truly marveling at the beauty of the desert.

Saguaro National Park 3 Our Streamlined Life

Having learned a great deal about the wildlife and geography we were about to experience, we set off into the park. We chose to do the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, a five mile loop with several options to stop and hike into the desert.

One place we opted to stop was the Signal Hill Trail, a short, quarter-mile hike with dozens of ancient petroglyphs over 800 years old.

We also stopped at the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area, with a charming stone hut set off the road.

Saguaro National Park 4 Our Streamlined Life

We made our way up the path into the hut, where it was about 20 degrees cooler than in the desert sun. We had a lovely picnic lunch and even made a bird friend!

Saguaro National Park 5 Our Streamlined Life

Saguaro National Park left us spellbound by the desert and wanting more! While we never encountered cacti quite like the ones we saw here, Saguaro set the stage for our love affair with desert landscapes that would only grow as we moved north through Arizona.

Tucson, Arizona

I had no idea what to expect from Tucson, but we found ourselves delightfully surprised. It was definitely unique, and a bit seedy in spots, but we loved the quirky vibe and friendly people.

Tucson 1 Our Streamlined Life

We started our exploration with coffee from Maynards Market and Kitchen, then made our way north. Our first stop was Miller’s Surplus, where Ryan found himself in camping supply heaven. Next stop: Antigone Books, a zany, independent (and 100% solar-powered) bookstore.

Tucson 4 Our Streamlined Life

After that we just wandered, enjoying the gorgeous day and taking in the varied architecture. We made a few stops along the way — chatting for a while with a friendly realtor who gave us the rundown on Tucson’s neighborhoods, sticking our head in the charming visitor’s center, and marveling at the gorgeous St Augustine Cathedral.

Tucson 2 Our Streamlined Life

Of course we had to enjoy some Mexican food while we were there, and we had a fantastic dinner at Street Taco and Beer on Congress Street. The tacos were awesome and the sweet, fruit-flavored Mexican water was perfectly refreshing.

If we’d had more time to explore Tucson, I would have loved to do a self-guided historic walking tour — and a few people highly recommended the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a national historic site.

And that’s our take on Tucson, friends! Have you been? Do you love it or hate it?

 

Campground: Catalina State Park (Tucson, AZ)

  • Tent/RV site, no hookups (Ringtail Campground — overflow)
  • Cost: $15
  • Pros: This was one of our favorite campgrounds of the trip. It was incredibly beautiful, nestled at the base of the Catalina mountains — but just minutes from Tucson and very near Saguaro National Park. The facilities were gorgeous, too — the (free) hot showers were among the nicest we’ve encountered at a campground, and there was an extremely helpful camp kitchen setup for washing dishes.
  • Cons: All the pros of this gorgeous campground led it to be very crowded! We were lucky enough to be able to snag a spot in the overflow campground each of the five nights we ended up staying here, but we saw a few people be turned away. Also, the overflow lot is decidedly unfancy — just a big parking lot — although we personally were more than happy to be there because it was cheaper than the developed sites.

Welcome to the Wild Wild West (Day 18)

After our adventures in Gila National Forest, we were back on the road and headed towards Tombstone, Arizona. 2.5 hours dropped us at the Arizona border, and the landscape was already changing.

Arizona State Line Our Streamlined Life

I’d always lumped Arizona and New Mexico together in my mind, so I was pretty surprised to see so many differences between the two states. After spending the night in the decidedly scrubby town of Benson (more on that at the end of the post) it was time to visit Tombstone.

Tombstone 3 Our Streamlined Life

Ryan was surprised that I had added Tombstone to our itinerary, and seemed pretty amused by my excitement over visiting “The Town Too Tough to Die.” But I was not to be dissuaded; I’d grown up watching The Lone Ranger and reading Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey novels, and was eager to do some nerdy wild-wild-westing.

We took a quick loop through town to decide what we (okay, I) wanted to do first. I wasn’t too interested in the shops selling touristy trinkets, but I did want to see one of the OK Corral reenactments. We spent an embarrassing amount of money on the tickets, and headed off to find some lunch while waiting for the next show.

We settled on the Crystal Palace Saloon as an excellent place to get historically-accurate food like … nachos.

Crystal Palace Saloon Our Streamlined Life
Photo from Crystal Palace Saloon

We also visited the museum of Arizona’s oldest newspaper, the aptly-named Epitaph. Then it was off to witness the reenactment of the infamous shootout at OK Corral.

Tombstone 2 Our Streamlined Life

The show was entertaining, to say the least, and the actors did a good job of hamming to the audience. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp were cheered, while the McLaurys and Clantons were booed by a highly-enthusiastic crowd.

Tombstone 1 Our Streamlined Life

After the reenactment we went to a showing of the Tombstone Historama, which ended up being a totally unique experience. It was a mix between a movie and a spinning diorama, described better than I could by Roadside America:

“The story of Tombstone unfolds through blinking lights, recorded sound effects, and a projection screen that lowers and raises to show Western movie clips, although it often raises and lowers in the middle of whatever it is that you’re supposed to be watching. The screen also serves to hide the lump, which silently, magically has turned to reveal a new scene when the screen is raised …

To depict the fires that destroyed Tombstone, tiny red light bulbs flicker in a few representative buildings. To show the murders of Morgan Earp and Frank Stillwell (who killed Morgan), small wooden people have their internal supports pulled away, allowing them to collapse onto the turntable with an audible “tonk” of wood on wood. We’ll leave it to you to guess how the flooding of the silver mines is depicted.”

My thirst for a thoroughly cheesy wild west experience sated, we grabbed ice cream on our way out of town and continued heading west. It was on to Tucson!

Campground: Benson, Arizona KOA

  • Tent site, no hookups.
  • Cost: $26.72 (with tax, minus VKR rewards discount)
  • Pros: Spotless showers with lots of hot water and great water pressure.  Decent & inexpensive laundry facilities.
  • Cons: Everything else about this KOA was a solid “meh.” We were happy to have a place to sleep, but it was expensive for a tent site with no hookups, the picnic table provided was pretty busted, and the whole campground was pretty drab. Also, the tent area wasn’t segmented sites — it was just a round, fenced, sand/grass area where people could just throw up a tent anywhere. Luckily it was almost empty when we got there, but it was a less-than ideal situation for car camping.