Much of this region lies atop the southern Colorado Plateau, a giant uplifted landmass extending into Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. As the land rose, vigorous rivers cut deeply through the rock layers, revealing beautiful forms and colors in countless canyons. Sheer cliffs of the Mogollon Rim mark the south edge of the Colorado Plateau.
While rivers cut down, volcanoes shot up. For the last six million years, large and small volcanoes sprouted in the San Francisco Volcanic Field around Flagstaff. The most striking include the San Francisco Peaks, of which Humphrey's Peak at 12,633 feet is Arizona's highest mountain. Sunset Crater, the state's most beautiful volcano, is the youngster of the bunch, last erupting about 800 years ago—just yesterday, geologically speaking. Meteor Crater, east of today's Flagstaff, formed instantly about 50,000 years ago when a blazing hunk of rock smashed into the ground at a tremendous speed; today it's the world's best preserved impact crater.
With so much natural beauty all around, the outdoors beckons in all seasons! You're sure to enjoy some scenic drives, such as the one through Oak Creek Canyon and its wonderfully sculpted and colored cliffs. If you enjoy hiking, you can climb volcanoes and explore mysterious canyons to your heart's content. Anglers enjoy the many lakes on the Colorado Plateau and the streams below it. Then, when the snow flies, skiers zip down the runs on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff and the shorter runs on Bill Williams Mountain near Williams.
Haunting ruins left by prehistoric peoples offer a look into the past; some of the most impressive lie within four national monuments—Wupatki north of Flagstaff, Walnut Canyon east of Flagstaff, and Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot south in the Verde Valley.
Flagstaff, the region's largest city, is worth a visit for its historic downtown, lively university, and outstanding Museum of Northern Arizona (natural history and Native American cultures). Sedona, at the heart of enchanting Red Rock Country, is famous for its inspiring scenery and art galleries. Jerome, high on the steep slopes across the Verde Valley, hangs on to its colorful history as a rough-and-tumble copper-mining town. Farther south at the base of the rugged Bradshaw Mountains, Prescott's beautiful setting and its history as Arizona's first capital delight visitors; highlights include the Sharlot Hall Museum, full of pioneer history.
Archaeologists have dated prehistoric sites along the Little Colorado River as far back as 15,000 B.C., when now-extinct species of bison, camel, antelope, and horse roamed the land. Although some tribes engaged in agriculture as early as 2,000 B.C., they maintained a seasonal migration pattern of hunting and gathering. These nomadic groups planted corn, squash, and beans in the spring, continued their travels, then returned to harvest the fields in autumn.
From about A.D. 200 to 500, as the tribes devoted more time to farming, they built clusters of pithouses near their fields. Regional ancestral Puebloan cultures began to form, classified by scientists as the Anasazi of the Colorado Plateau, the Mogollon of the eastern Arizona uplands, and the Hohokam of the desert to the south. A fourth culture, the Sinagua, evolved near present-day Flagstaff between A.D. 900 and 1000 as a blend of the three other groups. The Sinagua (Spanish for "without water") could live here despite the area's dry volcanic soil.
As these societies developed further, the people started to build pueblos above ground, usually on hilltops or in cliff overhangs. By about 1100 the population reached its peak. Most inhabitants then migrated, abandoning villages and even whole areas. Archaeologists attempt to explain these departures with theories of drought, soil erosion, disease, and raids by the newly arrived Apache. By the 1500s, when Spanish explorers arrived in northern Arizona, the Pueblo tribes had retreated to northeastern Arizona and adjacent New Mexico. Thousands of empty villages remain in the region. Ruins can most easily be seen in the national monuments, but you might discover some while hiking in the backcountry.
Americans Settle In
Beginning in the 1820s, mountain men such as Antoine Leroux became expert trappers and guides in this little-known region between Santa Fe and California. They and other early travelers sent out glowing reports of the climate, water, and scenery of the region, but hostile Apache, Navajo, Yavapai, and Paiute discouraged settlement. As a result, the Flagstaff area developed later than much of southern and central Arizona. Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves brought a surveying expedition across northern Arizona in 1851, prompting Lieutenant Edward Beale and others to build rough wagon roads, but hostile tribes and poor farming land continued to discourage settlers.
Thomas Forsythe McMillan, who arrived from California with a herd of sheep in 1876, became Flagstaff's first permanent settler. Other ranchers soon moved into the area, bringing the total population to 67 in 1880. The coming of the railroad in 1882, thriving lumber mills, and success in sheep and cattle ranching opened up the region and led to the growth of railroad towns such as Flagstaff and Williams.
THE MARVELLOUS COUNTRY
In the early 1870s, former Tucson judge Samuel Cozzens traveled east to stir up prospective settlers with a large, well-illustrated book titled The Marvellous Country; or, Three Years in Arizona and New Mexico, the Apache's Home. The subtitle expanded upon this theme: Comprising a Description of this Wonderful Country, Its Immense Mineral Wealth, Its Magnificent Mountain Scenery, the Ruins of Ancient Towns and Cities Found Therein, With a Complete History of the Apache Tribe, and a Description of the Author's Guide Cochise, the Great Apache War Chief, the Whole Interspersed with Strange Events and Adventures.
Cozzens's book sold well in New England and he gave many talks to eager audiences. With each retelling, his descriptions of Arizona's climate, forests, water, and mineral wealth grew and improved. By 1875, the Arizona Colonization Company, with Cozzens as president, was established in Boston. In February 1876, a group of about 50 men, each with 300 pounds of tools and clothing, set off for Arizona under the auspices of the company. In May a second group embarked for the "marvellous country."
After 90 days of arduous travel, the first group arrived at their destination on the Little Colorado River only to find the land already claimed by Mormons. The group continued west to the San Francisco Peaks and started to build a settlement, dubbed Agassiz. But finding no land suitable for farming or mining, they gave up and left for Prescott and California even before the second group arrived. The second group gave up, too, but not before stripping a pine tree and flying a flag from it to celebrate July 4th.
Flagstaff provides the greatest range of accommodations and restaurants in the region, with the bonus that many motels have bargain prices except on summer weekends. Sedona offers many luxury bed and breakfasts and resorts that provide memorable experiences if you can afford them. Sedona's resorts also feature some of the state's finest dining. Camp Verde and Cottonwood have a modest number of mid-range places that are handy for exploring the Verde Valley, or you can head up to Jerome's historic hotels and bed and breakfasts for their views and historic ambiance. Farther south, Prescott is known for its historic hotels and bed and breakfasts along with many choices for fine dining. Southeast of Flagstaff and close the Mogollon Rim country, Payson is a handy base for scenic drives, hikes, and other recreation.
Flagstaff, Sedona, the Verde Valley, and Prescott each have enough sights and outdoor activities to keep you busy for a few days or more. Historic highway AZ 89A, one of Arizona's most scenic roads, ties all of the towns together. Although one can use public transport and local tours to get around, having your own vehicle will be far more convenient.
Expect a cool, invigorating mountain climate in Flagstaff and other areas atop the Mogollon Plateau. Spring, summer, and autumn bring pleasant weather to this high country, where temperatures generally peak in the 70s and 80s F. Thunderstorm clouds billow into the air from early July into September, letting loose scattered downpours. Snow and sun battle it out in winter, when temperatures fluctuate widely. You need to be prepared for anything from sub-zero weather to warm, spring-like temperatures. Sedona and the Verde Valley enjoy much milder temperatures in winter and rarely see snow; summers get hot, though not to the extremes of Arizona's low deserts. Mile-high Prescott has what some people consider to be the perfect four-season climate.
You really need your own vehicle to visit the national monuments and most of the scenic and recreation areas. Tours make brief stops at highlights of the region but tend to be rushed; see "Tours" in the Flagstaff section. Greyhound provides frequent bus service across northern Arizona via Flagstaff and between Flagstaff and Phoenix. Amtrak runs daily trains across northern Arizona in each direction between Los Angeles and Albuquerque and beyond. A regional airline serves Flagstaff.
On to Flagstaff