July 30, 2021
Top Places To See On Your Arizona Road Trip
By Karen Emslie
Leaving the Las Vegas rental location for my Arizona road trip, the slot machines and neon glow soon give way to an extraordinary wilderness where coyotes, rattlesnakes, and scorpions reign supreme. The surreal rock formations, cracked asphalt and desolate plains of the desert offer some of the most breath-taking driving on the planet. Matrix, my sci-fi-themed black and pink van, was chockful of gas, I had gallons of water, and my solo adventure had begun.
Acting on a tip-off about a ‘must-have’ desert experience, I headed to Tecopa at the southern edge of Death Valley. Built around a historic 1951 home, Villa Anita is the creation of artists Carlo Roncancio and David Aaron Smith.
This sprawling and ever-evolving tangle of indoor and outdoor rooms is constructed from recycled materials, antiques, vintage Americana, found objects and original fine art.
Villa Anita cannot be pigeon-holed; think living museum meets 24/7 art performance meets homage to life and love.
For a tour ($20) and to meet the flamboyant residents, call ahead (760-852-4595).
Don’t miss the quirky Death Valley Brewery and nearby hot springs.
Mojave National Preserve
After Tecopa, I continued my Arizona road trip by driving south into the Mojave National Preserve. The more time you spend in the desert, the more attuned you become to its glorious variations of color, flora, and fauna; this scrubby landscape has a desolate beauty, especially at sundown when it lights up flaming orange and rose gold.
Sleeping options in the Mojave include backcountry, roadside, and developed camping. Hole-in-the-wall campground stands in a yucca grove, and has fire pits and dazzling night skies; there’s gravel and paved road access (from the south).
Wrap up; it gets mighty cold at night. The nearby information center (Oct. to April) has access to trailheads, such as Rings Loop.
South of the Mojave, I-40 runs east towards Needles but bypasses the town itself, which stands on Historic Route 66.
Take a detour onto the Mother Road for a surreal and nostalgic glimpse of abandoned motels, stores and gas stations.
Areas To Check Out
Crossing into Arizona, mountains stand like jagged teeth around Lake Havasu. This is prime snowbird country and shiny RVs with extendable sides abound.
Lake Havasu State Park offers lakeshore camping and nature trails in the shadow of Lake Havasu City – home to the London Bridge, which was relocated from England in 1967.
In the surrounding area, Picacho Peak State Park, Cattail Cove State Park and Parker Dam are all worth checking out.
Driving south through western Arizona, distances are vast (get the tunes on) and the cactus covered landscape is mesmerizing.
After dark, I hit a concrete jungle south of Phoenix and spent Thanksgiving Eve in the parking lot of Walmart in Maricopa – a free and classic sleeping option for any road tripper, even a solo female.
More miles, more country music stations, and onto Tucson, where highlights include The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, The PIMA Air and Space Museum, and ‘The Boneyard’ aircraft cemetery. PIMA is open daily but phone ahead for tours of The Boneyard, which are by advance reservation only.
There are scenic routes aplenty south of Tucson, and you can zig-zag down through wilderness hotspots such as Sonoita and Patagonia.
But for me, it was cowboy time and I headed to Tombstone. This authentic, yet super-kitsch ghost town is home to the Bird Cage Theater, Tombstone Courthouse, and the O.K. Corral; there are daily shootouts and Wild West reenactments.
The Tombstone RV Park & Campground on the edge of town offers a free shuttle service, handy if you fancy a raucous evening at Big Nose Kate´s Saloon.
Nearby Fairbank Historic Townsite is small and peaceful by comparison. There’s a schoolhouse museum and a leafy trail leads to Fairbank Cemetery, where wooden crosses, now strangled by grass, mark hilltop graves.
Matrix and I had made it from Death Valley to Tombstone. Where next? South to see the Mexican border or east to New Mexico?
Karen Emslie is a location-independent journalist and writer. You can follow her on Instagram @karenemslie101.
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