Phoenix/Flagstaff/Sedona

A list of our favorite places in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Sedona.

Hopefully, our “best of” list will guide you if you’re not sure where to go in Arizona!

Sedona

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Sedona can be a pricey place to stay and eat while enjoying the red rock views. If you have a ton to spend, it can be a luxurious getaway. But, if you are a budget traveler like us, consider the following:

Red Rock Visitor Center and Ranger Station needs to be your first stop when entering Sedona. Not only do they have educational info about the area, but the rangers are incredibly helpful in finding the best trails to explore. If you don’t stop here, you might find yourself stopping at all the crowded trails waiting for people to get out of your way just to take a picture!

Cave Springs Campground and Pine Flat Campground located between Sedona and Flagstaff in the Oak Creek Canyon. Both campgrounds are very shady and have spots along the creek. Good for tent camping and there are no hook-ups available. There are vault toilets at both sites and Cave Springs has coin operated showers. Be sure to make reservations online since they both fill up fast, especially on the weekends!

Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, only a 30-minute drive from Sedona and away from all the crowds! There is a $7 entrance fee, $15 fee for tent camping and $60/night for camping cabins. We tried out the cabins for a night and loved it! Check out the website for all info on recreation plus it’s also close to Jerome!

My favorite hot dog place in Sedona closed down, so the only recommendation I have for quality food on a budget is Wildflower Bread Company. Since Sedona is a big tourist town, I feel like they lack decent food unless you are willing to spend a ton of money. We usually avoid all of the restaurants on highway 89 because they tend to be overpriced for the quality.

Flagstaff

We had a very memorable hike up to Fisher Point Overlook. The overlook is an intermediate trail that ends at 6, 620 feet where you get an amazing view of the forest. After the overlook, we wandered around the surrounding trails and found beautiful rock formations and caves. It’s also an awesome place to bring your mountain bike if you have one!

After a big hike, I suggest visiting Beaver Street Brewery and Historic Brewing Company. Both places have beer and food. The burgers are awesome at Beaver Street!

Payson

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Near the Tonto Creek Campground is the Horton Creek Hiking Trail. The hike is 7 miles RT but overall an easy trail. At the end of the trail, there is a beautiful gushing creek that is the perfect setting for a picnic.

The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. It’s a short, but slippery hike that brings you under the bridge and gives an incredible view. Also, a great place to bring the family for a picnic!

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I accidentally forgot my bag with my hiking clothes and shoes! Don’t be like me! This was incredibly slippery in boots.

Beeline Cafe, 815 S Beeline Hwy in Payson is a small diner along the highway that offers big portions, delicious food, and good prices. Great for those of us on a budget, just remember to bring cash!

Phoenix

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Bartlett Lake

There are so many amazing places in Phoenix, I could go on for pages giving recommendations on camping, hikes, things to do, things to eat! Instead of rambling, I’m giving you my top favorites. Use my guide if you get overwhelmed by google and yelp!

Food:

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Butterfield’s Pancake House and Restaurant in Scottsdale is Clayton’s favorite place. They offer a traditional American breakfast with big hearty portions. This seems to be a favorite for locals and snowbirds. Clayton recommends the pancakes, German pancakes, benedicts, and omelets.

Butters Pancakes and Cafe in Scottsdale was more of a favorite for me. It’s a bit more trendy than Butterfield’s and has an assortment of omelets, benedicts, and pancakes with interesting toppings. Avoid the fresh squeezed orange juice if you’re trying to save money!

The Breakfast Joynt in Scottsdale has amazing red velvet waffles. And that is the only thing I’ve ever gotten there!

Spinato’s Pizzeria has the best pizza I have ever had in my life. They have 5 valley locations, so there is bound to be one near you. You have to try Mama Spinato’s Signature Spinach pizza. I would fly to Phoenix just to eat this pizza!! But be warned, some people don’t like it because the sauce tends to be on the sweeter side.

O.H.S.O. Eatery and Nano Brewery has 2 locations and has an amazing happy hour!! They are also extremely dog-friendly. You can find free dog treats and pictures of dogs on the walls. I love grabbing an AZ Burger while having a beer or sangria on the patio. They are also gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan friendly!

Postino has 7 valley locations and is known by locals for their $20 Monday/Tuesday deal. On these days, you can grab a bottle of wine and a bruschetta board for only $20. At Postino’s you can be fun, fancy, and cheap!

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We enjoyed some delicious fish tacos and margaritas at So Cal Fish Taco Company in downtown Gilbert. Their happy hour was incredibly cheap and they have a great patio.

Talking Stick Resort has the most amazing buffet, Wandering Horse Buffet. This is not your ordinary casino buffet. Their food is top notch, especially during dinner. They even have a full on gelato bar! If you have an RV, they also offer free parking so you can fill up on food then go straight to sleep in the parking lot.

Hikes:

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McDowell Mountain Regional Park

McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Scottsdale is a family favorite for us. You can have an easy to difficult hike, all within the same area. Pick your trail, spend however long you want, and enjoy the awesome views of the valley. No fee to enter this park!

Usery Park has the Wind Cave Trail that is an easy hike for those wanting to take in awesome views without taking the whole day.

Camelback Mountain is a favorite for locals and visitors. It can get extremely crowded and parking is incredibly limited. I don’t recommend this one for young children. The crowds plus the steep trails might make parents a bit anxious even if your kid is capable of difficult hikes. Many people have fallen at Camelback and have gotten seriously injured. Also, dogs are not allowed on any trails!

Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale is a heart pumping hike surrounded by beautiful desert scenery and awesome rock formations. This one is at the top of the list for us!

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation in Cave Creek has tons of trails for hiking or horse back riding. Make sure you bring cash for the entrance fee!

Lakes:

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Bartlett Lake

Lake Pleasant Regional Park located in North Phoenix has beautiful waters to go boating or swimming. It is also home to a ton of wildlife including bald eagles! $6 per vehicle at the gate.

Canyon Lake in Tortilla Flat. This lake is at the top of our list because the scenery is incredible. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day here.

Bartlett Lake in Scottsdale is beautiful and typically less crowded than the other lakes. This is a popular spot to go camping right along the water. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day or night here.

Saguaro Lake in Mesa is a beautiful place to find wild horses. It is also close to the Salt River where most locals float during the summer. A Tonto Pass is also required here.

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Horse traffic jam at Saguaro Lake.

More Fun:

Catch a Spring Training game for as low at $8! It’s an awesome way to spend the day even if you’re not a baseball fan. Spring Training begins the end of February and usually lasts about a month.

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McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is one of Riley’s favorite places! Catch a ride around the park on their dog-friendly train, hop on the carousel, grab some ice cream, and check our their train museums. It’s a low cost, fun way to spend the day with any train lover in your family. They also have events during the holidays and a summer concert series.

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Arizona is an awesome, diverse state with so much to do! It’s obvious why it’s one of our favorite states to visit. Have fun and comment below if you have any questions.

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KOFA

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Off-roading to Skull Rock

 We left the bustling area of Joshua Tree and headed east towards Arizona where we decided to spend time in a state that we love and used to call home. When we lived in Phoenix, our many trips west to California had us driving past Quartzsite without any thought as to what this area of the desert had to offer. Before our nomadic streak, we would pass this little town and think of it as a place with many rock shops, clean restrooms and some fast food. Turns out, Quartzsite is a gem (pun intended!) and it gave us one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

 KOFA National Wildlife Refuge is located between Quartszite and Yuma, and camping in this area is primitive and free. The refuge was created to protect bighorn sheep and covers over 600,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Kofa comes from King of Arizona, the name of a goldmine that used to be active in the area. This area of public land is filled with rugged rock formations, fascinating hikes, endless opportunities for off-roading, and wildlife sightings that left us in awe during our stay.

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Cholla “jumping cactus” got all of us as we hiked by!
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A coyote’s dinner?

 When we arrived in Quartzsite and headed towards KOFA, I noticed most travelers were camped closest to I-10. We drove out about 18 miles south to our campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail. Our area was empty compared to the hundreds of RVs we saw near the interstate. I wondered if people knew they could camp this way? Or did the inconvenience of the road turn them away? As usual, the road less traveled always leads to the best destinations.

 We set up camp not far from the trail to Queen Palm Canyon. It was midday when we arrived. The blazing desert sun right over us as we unpacked and stared down at the cars who quickly drove past us and blew dust in our direction. We didn’t have any neighbors camped nearby, but the dirt road we parked on had frequent visitors who would drive up to the trailhead and quickly turn around.

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View from our campsite.

 By the time we prepared dinner, the influx of visitors had disappeared. The rising rock formations that stood over us glowed a deep red as the sun began to set. I looked at the valley in front of us, at all the tall cacti casting long shadows along the desert sky. Once again, it was that feeling of freedom, that incredible feeling of being small. We were graced with a vibrant sunset then the winter night sky gave us a clear view of the bright moon and stars.

The entire week we were there, we’d start a fire just after dinner. As the coyotes began to howl, we’d spot Venus in the distance and laugh at how we watched the moon and the stars glide past Queen Palm Canyon. As insane as it sounds, every night we danced with Venus. We’d focus on one part of the canyon and move along with the planet. We’d laugh then look silently, and I’d quietly reflect on how amazing this time was with nature and with my family.

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Getting the cholla out of Jack’s paw!
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Home is where you park it!

Our hike up the Palm Canyon Trail:

 A short walk from our campsite was the trailhead to the Palm Canyon Trail. This trail is very short, only about a half mile. The reviews on TripAdvisor are a bit misleading citing the trail as somewhat difficult. It’s a bit rocky and I can see it being a fall hazard for certain people, but for the average person, it’s literally a small uphill walk to view the palm trees in the canyon.

What’s cool about this hike? These palm trees are native to Arizona. Apparently, the theory is certain animals had eaten the fruit of these trees and brought their droppings into this canyon which in turn planted palm trees.

Once we saw the palm trees, it was an interesting sight, but definitely not enough of a hike for us. We decided to continue on, ultimately bouldering up the mountain until we could no longer safely climb up. We did our best to follow the cairns placed by other hikers, but we eventually hit a dead end. We finally stopped and turned around realizing that every inch of effort in that climb was totally worth it. We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was stunning.

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Our week at KOFA was one of the most spectacular sights we saw on the road. I still dream about our beautiful campsite and the feelings of peace I had during our stay. My advice is, take the road less traveled and stray away from the rest of the visitors. KOFA has so much to offer even though it may not be evident at first sight.  I promise you won’t reget blazing your own trail.

Joshua Tree National Park

“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” –Jeannette Walls

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When our time in Slab City had come to an end, we headed an hour north to Joshua Tree National Park. As we picked the spot we would camp in for the week, I looked over at I-10 in the distance and thought about all the times we have passed this area during the years we lived in Arizona. I never gave much thought to the beauty that was hidden along this stretch of highway. It’s funny how much you start to notice when you’re no longer so distracted.

The tree itself, is an interesting sight. I saw Dr. Seuss in the makeshift structure of Salvation Mountain and the theme continued here in Joshua Tree. The harsh desert creates interesting characters. In the several days we stayed here, we found striking contrasts in our experiences. The days were hot and the nights were cold, we had peaceful days with no one around and we had busy nights with neighbors playing EDM music till 3 AM. We met wonderful individuals then met drunk ones who like to heckle rangers. But in the end, we found a way to balance our encounters, learn to be flexible and walk away with a memorable experience.

Camping details:

Camping ranged from $15-$20/night inside the park. Due to Joshua Tree being located in California and near major cities, the best thing to do is plan ahead and reserve a campsite prior to leaving.We were also unaware until we arrived that it was a holiday weekend. Dates and time often becomes irrelevant when living on the road! So the park was full and every campground was packed during our stay.

Lucky for us, we planned on BLM camping. Free is always better! The area is located just outside the south entrance along I-10. When we arrived, there were several RVs parked in the area so it’s very hard to miss. The downside to BLM camping is that it is completely primitive meaning no toilets! But, if you can dig yourself a deep hole or hold it in until you get inside the park, it’s totally worth all the money you can save. The upside is it’s free and you can gather vegetation for campfires at night.

Here’s a tip: Find dead and fallen ocotillo branches for fire. Take a walk around your campsite and don’t be afraid to venture out. Ocotillo branches are lightweight and long so you can drag a bunch back to your site. Check out the boys gathering wood below.

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What to do:

Day 1: When arriving at any national park, make sure the Visitor’s Center is your first stop. I grabbed a newsletter and brochure that listed all the hiking and off-road trails. On our first day we decided to hike around the Cottonwood Spring area and up to Mastodon Peak.

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We had an awesome time roaming around this area. Riley walked around with his Jr. Ranger booklet filling out the questions and got a kick out of the old mines around the loop. We climbed to the top of Mastodon Peak which gave us an amazing view of the park. The trail up the peak is not maintained, but it’s really short and not difficult.The narrow climb combined with the rocks can be intimidating and caused several people to turn around, but I recommend giving it a try if you have proper footwear.

Day 2: On our second day, we needed to buy groceries so we drove through the park to Twentynine Palms. The south visitor center to the north visitor center is about 40 miles and since we were driving at slow speeds through the park, it takes quite a while to get from one end to another. We stocked up on food and supplies so we didn’t have to make that trip twice.

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Joshua Trees at dusk on our way back to camp

Day 3: We decided to go off roading on Pinkham-Canyon road and bushwacked through a random hill for some exercise. Be sure you have 4wd if you decide to do this! There were a couple areas where our truck worked hard in the sand. It was a bumpy and fun ride, and even for a holiday weekend, there was no one out there! Here is the info from the NPS website:

Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads
This challenging 20-mile (32.4-km) road begins just south of Cottonwood Visitor Center, travels along Smoke Tree Wash, then cuts down Pinkham Canyon, exiting onto a service road that connects to I10. Or you can pass Pinkham Canyon and continue on to Thermal Canyon Road. Sections of these roads run through soft sand and rocky flood plains. Drivers should be prepared and should not attempt travel on these roads without a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle and emergency supplies. “

Day 4: We drove halfway through the park and explored some of the boulders! There was a ton of running, jumping and climbing. A simple day without any plans, and we had the best time.

Day 5: We hiked Ryan Mountain then headed over to some more boulders and jumped around. The trail on Ryan Mountain was fairly crowded, but overall it was a good hike with nice views.

 

Overall, a fun and relaxing 5 days for us at Joshua Tree. If you go, we recommend: camp for free so you can stay longer, talk to a ranger to attend the free events, do some hiking, and don’t be afraid to explore off road away from the crowds. Have fun!

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Jack enjoying the desert views.
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Gorgeous desert sunset from our free campsite!

 

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) covers 415 square miles in northern Colorado. The park has 2 main entrances, one in Estes Park and another in Grand Lake. We took our first trip to this famous park in mid September and our timing was amazing. The weather was warm with a tinge of coolness and the Aspen trees were in full yellow bloom. The scenery was spectacular and if we ever make another visit, we’d prefer to return in the fall.

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Some basic info if you plan a visit:

We entered the park through the Estes Park entrance. From Colorado Springs, drive time is about 2-2 1/2 hours.

There are 5 campgrounds in the park and one campground is for tents only. Make reservations ahead of time!! It fills up fast.

It’s a National Park, therefore dogs are not allowed anywhere. Although I saw many people breaking that rule, we kept our dog in the car when we went outside to take pictures. We were unaware of this rule and decided not to hike within the park because we didn’t want to leave Jack unattended.

Entrance fees are the following:

  • Automobile – $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds – $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle. Valid for seven days including the date of purchase.

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We left Colorado Springs around 6:00 PM on a Friday night. Since we planned our trip last minute, per the reservation site, there was no availability in any of the campgrounds in the park. We decided to take our chances and try the Olive Ridge campground which is about 30 minutes outside of Estes Park and in the Roosevelt National Forest. Olive Ridge is located on Highway 7 along mile marker 14. Reservations are not required, so our tip is to get there early before the weekend campers get in. A camp host is available to pay the $16 fee and several vault toilets are spread out around the campground. It is bear country, so be aware of what you bring and how you are storing your food.

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When we arrived around 9 PM, we drove the loop around the campsite and found that there was no availability. This came as no surprise since it was a Friday night and campsites in Colorado tend to fill up quickly. As we exited, we did not find any signs that indicated parking along the road was prohibited. We didn’t have a tent to set up, so we parked in front of the information sign and quickly jumped inside of Bear. Falling asleep was an easy task and before we knew it, sunlight was beaming through the windows waking us up for the day.

We woke up around 7 AM and opened up the back of the trailer to make breakfast. While we grubbed on freshly made breakfast burritos and hot coffee, a camper on her way out stopped by to let us know that she was leaving for the day and that we should snag her campsite. I grabbed Riley and we quickly ran over to the vacant campsite while Clayton headed over to the camp host to pay for the spot. As soon as we arrived at the site, a car pulled up and asked if we were taking the spot. I apologized to the woman, but I was also thankful we got there a minute before her! Sprinting to the campsite sure paid off!

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Where we parked for the night.
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Breakfast burritos with “meat” and eggs in a spicy tortilla.

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Once we got settled, we met our campsite neighbor who told us there was a back entrance to RMNP that has access to several trails. We decided to head that way and found there was no entrance fee. We found a full parking lot of hikers and tourist, and a couple rangers that welcomed us into the park. When we talked to the rangers, they informed us that dogs are not allowed in the park and that we had to leave Jack in the car. That sure put a damper on our plans.

We decided we didn’t want to leave Jack, so we drove back out to the highway and found a trail just outside of RMNP. The Tahosa Valley Trail followed right along the National Park boundary and unfortunately, the National Park had the better trails and views. As beautiful as the scenery was, the trail followed right along Highway 7 which didn’t make for ideal hiking conditions. The last thing I want to hear while hiking is cars passing by.  As we hiked for about an hour, the trail eventually turned away from the road and began to incline towards the mountains. By this time, I had lost my motivation to continue on and the idea of a nap sounded better. We headed back to Olive Ridge where I immediately headed over to the hammock and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was time for dinner and smores by the fire. The day didn’t turn out as we had planned, but it was still a very good day.

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Since we were forced to change our hiking plans because of Jack, we decided the following day would be dedicated to sightseeing through RMNP. We woke up around 9, ran around the campsite and rode our bikes. We left the campground around 11 AM and drove to the Estes Park main entrance into RMNP.

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Some points of interest to look out for when heading towards Estes Park is Chapel on the Rock and The Stanley Hotel. Chapel on the Rock is located in Allenspark right along Highway 7. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the chapel. There were pictures of the Pope located inside and we found that pretty exciting. As we drove through Estes towards RMNP, we passed the famous Stanley Hotel which is known for it’s paranormal activity and inspiring Stephen King to write “The Shining”. Although everyone told us we had to visit The Stanley and do a ghost tour, there were just too many people! I asked Clayton to pull over so that I could take a quick photo of the hotel. A tour of The Stanley would have to wait for another day, preferably on a weekday!

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The Stanley

We spent the next few hours driving through the park on Trail Ridge Road (one of America’s most scenic drives) and stopping at the various pull outs to look at the view and take photos. The park was extremely packed because it was the weekend. We often found ourselves behind a long line of cars and having difficulty finding parking at the pullouts and at the gift shops. As we started to make our descent through the end of the park, we also started getting really hungry. Luckily, we found a large picnic area that was completely empty. Since we had the whole parking lot to ourselves, we parked and set up our chairs. It was so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. Just the perfect place to have lunch.  After about an hour, we packed up and continued our way out of the park. Lucky for us, just as we approached the exit, we saw elk grazing in the field. When we exited, we found ourselves in Grand Lake. We were in complete awe by the lake and the Aspens. How lucky were we to experience the “gold rush”. Fall in Colorado is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had!

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Grand Lake

Overall, a scenic and relaxing weekend. Although our plans for strenuous hikes and exploration through the forest didn’t go as planned, I actually enjoyed the change of pace. I was grateful for the beautiful views, and the opportunity for quality time and relaxation with the boys. My advice if you plan on visiting RMNP: make camping reservations, visit in the fall, and leave the dogs at home.

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