With its iconic painted deserts and vast, seemingly endless roads, Arizona is the ultimate off-the-beaten-path destination. But visit the Grand Canyon state during the off-season, when all the visitors have gone home, and it's a special kind of quiet.
Our Arizona odyssey started with absolutely no plan and took my family on a meandering route through Prescott, Williams, Sedona and Tucson. With the exception of one or two nights in a hotel, our accommodations were old school: We bunked down in my parents’ basement just outside Prescott, a place we've affectionately come to know as the Elliott Ranch.
The only thing we'd lined up was a set of wheels, thanks to Hertz, which sponsors my family travel site. You can even pick the model of your car, and for an adventure like this, I recommend you do. At Hertz, the choose-your-own-car program is called Ultimate Choice, and it offers a more personalized rental experience by letting you select any car in the class you reserved at no extra cost. Since I'm a Gold Plus rewards member, I also had access to an exclusive area at the Phoenix airport that features an even wider selection of vehicles. I went with a Ford Explorer.
Before I forget, here's another important tip: Remember to buy insurance for your car, either through your rental company, credit card or travel insurance company. Arizona's highways can kick up some pebbles, and I had the misfortune of getting hit in the windshield with one. Insurance covers that and keeps you from having to pay even more at the rental counter.
Getting lost in Prescott's Dells
Arizona's former territorial capital is known for a lot of things, including its famous downtown area called Whiskey Row, which earned the name because of its high concentration of Old West saloons. My kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, are not into that kind of thing, but there's still plenty to do in town. Our favorite activity? Hiking the famous granite dells, which are found in the city's many parks.
The dells look like enormous pale rock Easter eggs stacked one on top of another, and they're usually near a lake, which gives an unearthly feel to the whole experience. We trekked through several parks, but our favorite was Watson Lake, with trails that meander past the lake and into the hills. The dells can be a little intimidating. Wear shoes with a little traction unless you want to take a tumble. It's also easy to get lost, since the path kind of ends in the rocks. Ask your phone to remember where you parked or you could spend an entire afternoon wandering the dells aimlessly.
Pumpkins in Williams
A short hour-and-a-half drive away we found Williams, a small town that bills itself as the gateway to the Grand Canyon. But for us, it came to mean two things. First, pumpkins. The Pumpkin Patch Train, which runs through Oct. 29, is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Instead of riding the Grand Canyon Railway all the way to the end, you take the train a few miles out to a "secret" pumpkin patch, select the pumpkin of your choice and then decorate it. On our trip, we saw kids and adults dressed up in Halloween costumes. The train becomes the Polar Express train ride in a few weeks, just in time for Christmas.
The second thing we'll remember about Williams is the Pine Country Restaurant, which will make it a must-stop destination the next time we're in town. The enormous and tasty pies are the highlight. Our favorites included the coconut cream and the pineapple cream pies. If you can't handle a whole pie, go for the banana bread, which is unbelievably moist and delicious. So, ride the train and eat the pie on this stop.
Sedona really rocks
The Grand Canyon may get all the attention in Arizona, but Sedona's rocks deserve at least a brief mention. Sedona is close to nothing, which is why it's the perfect destination for an off-the-beaten-path kind of story. Our path was called Soldiers Pass Trail, a four-mile loop through the vivid red stone formations that bracket the town. We grabbed a sandwich at a nearby Whole Foods (hey, it's Sedona!) and headed up the trail on a perfectly clear fall afternoon.
I don't want you to think persuading kids to go hiking on a warm afternoon is easy. It takes a combination of promises ("How about ice cream afterwards?") and threats ("If you don't walk, I'm leaving you here."). But Sedona's sheer beauty ended up convincing them that the hike was worthwhile. Around every corner, there was another postcard-perfect picture to take, or more footage to capture. You can't come to Arizona and skip Sedona.
Happy trails in Tucson
We circled around to Tucson in the Southeast corner of the state for our final stop. Since this was a lengthier drive, we checked into the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort in the hills overlooking the city. It's a former girls boarding school-turned-resort with stunning views of Tucson and a nice perch to watch a setting sun turn Mount Kimball pink in the early evening. We'll remember many things about the Hacienda, but the highlight had to be horseback riding in the dry riverbed below the hotel. Here, we had an unprecedented opportunity to see the Sonoran desert up close, with the enormous saguaro cactus, the desert flowers like the Blue Milkwort and lizards.
My middle son is an avid unicyclist, and as an encore, we drove out to nearby Sabino Canyon to practice his moves on the paved roads. We arrived just after 4 p.m. and hiked deep into the canyon, turning around at dusk. There were no trams running and hardly a soul out there on a weekday evening, so we practically had the place to ourselves. Sunsets in Arizona are the main event. The final rays dance across the pink and red cliffs, creating a brief but spectacular light show on the rocks.
It was both a fitting finale to this adventure and a siren call to come back and explore Arizona some more. And we will.