Originally published Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 7:02 PM

Arizona: from desert sunsets to canyon hikes

Arizona road trip: Summer or fall, the attractions are many. Desert sunsets and canyon hikes await explorers.

For The Associated Press

If You Go


Canyon de Chelly

You can visit the park rims and hike the White House Trail (21/2 miles round trip) on your own, but the canyon interior can be toured only in the company of an authorized guide. Details at Thunderbird Lodge offers regularly scheduled guided tours spring to fall. See

Traveler's tip

Road closures due to winter storms are not common in Arizona, even in the northern part of the state, but check weather forecasts for trips to remote areas.

More information

See for general tourist information. National parks information: Information on visiting the Grand Canyon is at

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PHOENIX — A sunset ride on horseback this fall, through a forest of giant cacti in Saguaro National Park, fulfilled the dreams of a childhood spent devouring Zane Grey novels.

Yet even that perfect ride has competition for my favorite moment in Arizona. Can anything really top waking up on the Grand Canyon's rim to a double-rainbow? Or chasing the sunset in the Monument Valley from one mitten-shaped sandstone formation to the other?

From many years of visits, I have distilled my ideal, one-to two-week road trip to Arizona's highlights. I have traveled it in all seasons, from snowstorms at the Grand Canyon to summer days in the 110s from Phoenix on south. Here are my favorites.

Sonoran desert: Southern Arizona's Sonoran desert is washed over by silence and muted gray-green forms. The deserts are mesmerizing like no other landscape. But they are anything but empty. The thousands of saguaros here have stood sentinel for centuries. They don't even start growing their iconic arms until they are about 70, and they can live more than 200 years.

There is no better place to get lost among the saguaros and their desert buddies — fuzzy cholla and spindly ocotillo plants, fluorescent green palo verde and mesquite trees — than in Saguaro National Park, its two districts a few miles on either side of downtown Tucson. Every single pullout on Gates Pass Road, the best route to the western park, is worth a photo.

Just south of Tucson on I-19, so close to the Mexican border that highway mileage is in kilometers, stands the improbably grand sign of another kind of presence in this desert: Mission San Xavier del Bac. Built in the 1700s by Franciscan friars, the blinding white Spanish Colonial church still ministers to the Tohono O'odham reservation.

Coming in from sun-drenched surroundings, the mission's dark, candle-scented Baroque interior is dazzling, every inch covered in vividly painted faux architectural details. The cherubs and saints must have been good company for their sculptors in the utter solitude.

Phoenix Oasis: A couple of hours north along I-10, through flat desert sprouting moonlike peaks, is Phoenix, an oasis of manicured modernity in this dreamscape. Favorite spots in the area include the Heard Museum with its superb collection of American Indian arts, and the resorts and art galleries of Scottsdale, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Phoenix.

I always try to fit in two mini-road trips from Phoenix. If I have a day, the Apache Trail goes from subdivision to remote Old West within a few miles east of the city. The road climbs into the Superstition Mountains, down cottonwood-shaded canyons and skirting lakes. In early spring, when the cacti bloom white, violet, and gold, it's the Western equivalent of cherry blossom time.

If I have only a couple of hours before flying out of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, my last desert escape is to South Mountain Park, a 10-minute drive south of downtown, and up its snaking road to Dobbins Lookout. With views past stands of saguaros into the whole metropolis and its 360-degree desert cradle, this is the spot for a south-central Arizona sunset, bar none.

Red Rocks everywhere: Red is the color of my "can't miss" stops on a loop across the northern deserts where Navajos and Hopis have lived for centuries. Vermilion rock faces reflect in the still waters of Lake Powell, and along with the sunsets, they color the Monument Valley, the Painted Desert and the juniper forests of Sedona. But my perfect sunset was on a lonely stretch of road on the way to remote Canyon de Chelly, on a fragrant sage-covered mesa as daylight faded from pale pink to indigo on the uninterrupted horizon.

The loop starts less than two hours north of Phoenix with a detour off I-17 through Sedona and shaded Oak Creek Canyon — the crowds start dropping off here. Then it's a mile-crunching, mind-erasing drive east, through Petrified Forest National Park (which includes the Painted Desert badlands), and north into Navajo tribal land to Canyon de Chelly.

My choice spots along its southern rim drive are the otherworldly slender Spider Rock, jutting 800 feet out of the creek-lined canyon floor, and White House Ruin. The hike to White House Ruin takes you past fields and pastures to cliff dwellings carved high in the sheer rock wall of the canyon centuries ago. Mystery still shrouds the ancient Pueblo peoples who created these structures and others across the canyons of the Four Corners area.

From there, loop back northwest to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which straddles the Arizona-Utah state line. A short self-guided drive offers a look at spectacular sandstone monoliths, in shapes ranging from a W to mittens.

One last stop before turning south is the Page area. Lake Powell, boat party central in summer, is all yours in winter, its vastness a kaleidoscope of stone reflecting water and back again. (Boat trips run year-round.) At the other end of the intimate scale is Antelope Slot Canyon, a crevice in the sandy plateau, barely wide enough for one person to pass through. The canyon can be accessed only with a guide; hiking there felt like going through an hourglass onto the beginning of time.

Grandest of all: Theodore Roosevelt said every American should see the Grand Canyon, but once is not enough. It's different at sunset and sunrise, in a snowstorm and in moonlight, whether you're alone or among tour-bus hordes. Endless shapes, colors and chasms can be seen from every viewpoint along the canyon's 20-mile-plus South Rim drive.

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