Travels across America: Arizona

With apologies to my friends from Alaska (yes, I really do want to drive up there someday), the next stop on our alphabetical road trip is Arizona. 

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Photo credit: Waymarking.com

Photo credit: Waymarking.com

Arizona is a relatively recent discovery for me. None of my family lived west of Nebraska or Texas, so growing up our family road trips never went this direction. Even after moving down to west Texas for work, I never had much excuse to “go west, young man.”

Thanks to some new business contacts in California, I’ve now made several trips back and forth in the past few years (with another one to come this fall - I might have to post an addendum in late October). As you might expect, most all of my Arizona experience comes from I-40, but US 93 and AZ 64 also appear in the story.

I-40 is one of the “Great American Highways” that are truly marvels of modern civilization. It’s over 2,500 miles long, making it the third longest interstate in the US after I-90 and I-80 and the ninth longest road overall. (What is the longest, you ask? US 20, running 3,365 miles from Newport, OR to Boston, MA.) I haven’t quite covered all of I-40, but I’ve been on every stretch from the western end of the road in Barstow, CA to Fort Smith, AR, as well as the bit between Memphis and Nashville, TN, and the even tinier bit around Knoxville, TN between I-75 and I-81.

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I-40 west of Oklahoma City might be the least populated 1,200-mile stretch of interstate in the US (save for Albuquerque). This is certainly the case in Arizona - Flagstaff and Kingman (combined population: 94,000) are the largest towns you run across. However, and perhaps because of this, I-40 in Arizona features some of the most amazing sky/ground color combinations you’ll ever see. The reds, oranges, and browns of the deserts combine with the mesas and mountains to set off the majestic Southwest sky. If you’re lucky enough to be coming through at dawn or dusk, you can really see God showing off His color palette.

It’s about 350 miles through Arizona on I-40 (less than New Mexico, believe it or not), so if you don’t stop and smell the cactus you can travel through in about five hours. However, you’ll miss some really neat sights...the mountains and forests around Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff, the meteor crater west of Winslow, and the Petrified Forest National Park east of Holbrook. And of course, you can’t miss the innumerable “Indian/Cherokee/Navajo Trading Posts” that wait to ensnare tourists and truckers along the way. 

The other two roads I’ll mention here are US 93 from Las Vegas to Kingman and AZ 64 from Williams to the Grand Canyon. US 93 crosses into Arizona right on top of the Hoover Dam, which is absolutely awe-inspiring. We weren’t there at the right time to take the guided tour down into the dam, but that’s definitely on the list for the future. You can also park near the bridge over the dam and walk up to take pictures looking down into the Colorado River gorge...not for the faint of heart, especially with the gusty crosswinds threatening to take your hat and phone right over the edge.

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A couple miles up the road from the dam there is a fantastic vista looking south over the river, and I still kick myself that I didn’t stop and take a picture there - it was a brilliant sunny day.

AZ 64 is almost pencil-straight for thirty miles from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We were fortunate enough to stay at a historic hotel in Williams - the oldest in Arizona, if the publicity is to be believed. We were even more lucky to get up early and drive to the canyon before the bus loads of tourists arrived...we enjoyed a quiet 90 minutes or so from about 7am until 8:30, and saw the sun gradually change colors in the canyon. Speaking of awe-inspiring sights...

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Next stop: Arkansas, better known as “Pirate Kansas.” (You’re welcome.)