Here are a few suggestions for holiday road trips.
When family members visit for the holidays, they’re not just coming to see you. They’re also here to experience some of Arizona’s gorgeous weather and see some sights. Don’t disappoint them. Here are a few suggestions for holiday road trips.
Show the fam how quickly civilization ends and wilderness begins around these parts with a jaunt to the Supes. Bonus: If you find the Lost Dutchman Mine, that will totally juice up your holiday shopping budget.
Make your first stop the Superstition Mountain Museum. The main building is flanked by the Apacheland Barn and Elvis Memorial Chapel. These structures survived a fire at nearby Apacheland Movie Ranch. The museum includes exhibits on Native Americans, wildlife, ranching and the history of the mountains and of course, plenty of maps to the fabled Lost Dutchman Mine. If you’re planning on finding the gold, this is a good place to start.
Details: 4087 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction. $5, free for age 16 and younger. 480-983-4888, www.superstitionmountainmuseum.org.
Lost Dutchman State Park laps at the base of the Superstition Mountains, a sudden and savage wall of dark stone that rises from the desert floor. The park supports a beautiful network of trails. Some stay within the confines of the park, while others enter the national forest and connect to longer routes that plunge deeper into the Supes. It’s easy to put together an outing for hikers of just about any skill level.
Details: 6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction. $7 per vehicle. 480-928-4485, azstateparks.com/lost-dutchman.
Just across the highway from Lost Dutchman, Goldfield Ghost Town has been re-created as a popular tourist destination. Weathered plank buildings, creaky wooden sidewalks and majestic mountain vistas provide an Old West feel. Arizona’s only narrow-gauge train circles the town. Take a short mine tour, visit a museum and a bordello and watch gunfights that break out hourly during the busy season. The Goldfield Gunfighters may be no-good varmints, but they’re punctual no-good varmints.
Details: 4650 N. Mammoth Mine road, Apache Junction. Free. 480-983-0333, www.goldfieldghosttown.com.
Alamo Lake State Park
If you have an angler in the family, travel to remote Alamo Lake, tucked away in the Bill Williams River Valley northwest of Wickenburg. The sparkling lake is at the end of a scenic drive surrounded by gaunt mountains. This is one of the state’s primo fishing holes for largemouth bass. Alamo Lake also contains crappie, bluegill, redear sunfish and channel catfish.
The park has campsites for tents and RVs and four cabins that overlook the water. Cabins are furnished with bunk beds, table chairs, electricity, heating and air conditioning. Bring your own bedding. Reserve a site or cabin at azstateparks.com/reserve or by calling 877-697-2757. An Arizona fishing license is required for anglers 10 and older.
Details: The park is off U.S. 60 about 37 miles north of Wenden. $7 per vehicle. 928-669-2088, azstateparks.com/alamo-lake.
Florence and Coolidge
If your holiday shopping list includes people who are hard to buy for, a trip to McFarland Courthouse in downtown Florence solves that. Its small gift shop is filled with an assortment of items you won’t find anywhere else.
Imagine the smiles on Christmas morning from even the most persnickety recipient when they unwrap a birdhouse built from license plates, or a license-plate pencil holder. Especially when you explain that they weren’t made by Santa’s elves but by inmates at Florence State Prison.
When the prison gift shop closed in 2014, inmates needed a new outlet for their creative endeavors and found it, ironically enough, at the former courthouse. There’s other metal art, wind chimes, shot glasses and coffee mugs adorned with a drawing of the prison and the words “Gated Community” or “Florence Bed and Breakfast.” You have to give it to convicts who can maintain a sense of humor.
Walk outside the courthouse and it feels like a step back in time. The entire downtown is registered as a National Historic District. Grab a map before leaving the visitor center for the self-guided walking tour.
Be sure to visit the Pinal County Historical Society Museum, a delicious combination of frivolity and the macabre. Visitors can wander past a room of lovely cactus furniture built in the 1930s to a display of nooses used in hangings and the mugshots of the prisoners who left this Earth wearing them. In between is a nice mix of exhibits that range from a Civil War spy story to a blacksmith shop to cowboy memorabilia, including a Tom Mix collection.
Details: 715 S. Main St., Florence. Admission is by donation. 520-868-4382, www.pinalcountyhistoricalmuseum.org.
On your drive home, swing through Coolidge where an impressive four-story structure rises from the ground. It’s made of earth and still standing after 700 years. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects the largest building left from Hohokam culture.
Standing 35 feet tall Casa Grande, or “Big House,” was built of unreinforced clay (caliche) in the mid-1300s and is believed to have been used for astronomical observation. Guided tours are offered during winter. Also on the grounds are a museum, smaller structures and a ceremonial ball court.
Details: 1100 W. Ruins Drive, Coolidge. $5 per person. 520-723-3172, www.nps.gov/cagr.
Quartzsite is a throwback, keeping the tradition of frontier boomtowns alive — except that the boom/bust cycles are a seasonal loop. For much of the year the ramshackle little outpost near the California state line exists as a few businesses strung along the interstate. Then every winter a horde of snowbirds descend —slowly, with turn signals ablaze.
For three months the surrounding desert resembles a network of RV dealerships and Quartzsite sprouts hundreds of food trucks, kiosks and vendor stalls. This sun-baked corner of the desert becomes one of the world’s largest open-air flea markets. It’s been a rockhound’s paradise for decades with gem shows, arts and crafts festivals and ongoing swap meets attracting day-trippers to the town.
Details: 127 miles west of central Phoenix on Interstate 10.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Sitting on the Mexican border, Organ Pipe preserves 516 square miles of Sonoran Desert. Gentle valleys that bristle with forests of saguaros stretch between ranges of craggy mountains. All told, 28 species of cactus can be found in the park, including the namesake organ pipe.
The organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode — throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker. The monument is one of the few spots where the large cactus grows north of Mexico.
It’s the quiet that first grabs your attention. That’s the plain simple music of Organ Pipe. Noise has no penetrative power across this wide swath of desert. This is the place for anyone looking to escape the general hubbub of civilization. Scenic drives loop through rugged terrain and hiking trails weave among the cactus, exploring lonely canyons and crossing rough mountain slopes. Welcome to wild country.
There’s a campground in the monument and food and lodging in Ajo.
Details: The park is about 150 miles southwest of Phoenix. $12 per vehicle. 520-387-6849, www.nps.gov/orpi.
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