From Los Alamos, New Mexico, my family wanted a road trip that would offer ‘small’ attractions that would appeal to young children, within a day’s drive each way, with interesting stops along the way. So we planned to head to Phoenix and go north to Sedona and the Grand Canyon along the loop, starting with Route 66 out of Albuquerque.
There isn’t much left of the famous Route 66, but relics pave the way from New Mexico to Arizona. What remains of the Mother Road still has the flavor of yesteryear, and the wide, open spaces leave you plenty of time to ponder what was. One decades-old roadside billboard advertises “Take a photograph of the past” referring to the Indian ruins and curios, but the antique roadsigns are relics themselves.
From Albuquerque it’s only 45 minutes to Grants, New Mexico, via Interstate 40. It’s a good first stop with families and history buffs because of the Grants Mining Museum. The museum shares a building with the Chamber of Commerce and is located at 100 North Iron Avenue, at the center of town, on Route 66 past the Sands Motel and a few other local lodgings you won’t find on the national brands list. (Although the national brands are available closer to the Interstate.)
Outside is a large park and play structure, and a wrought-iron depiction of Grants’ history from the coming of the railroad to logging, ranching and mining. Inside the 2,000 square foot ground floor of the building is a collection of mined treasures – gold, silver, uranium, diamonds, copper and exotic metals, minerals and gems. A gallery is dedicated to the pottery and baskets of local Native Americans but most of the museum displays information and artifacts of the town’s history in uranium mining.
An elevator takes visitors down into a 2,000 square feet of a simulated mine that is thorough and informative. The excavated walls are covered with chain link fencing, and tools, equipment and artifacts of mining fill the spaces as you walk through 16 stations. Audio recordings offer first person accounts of miners, in their own voices, telling about their lives and work in mining, from excavation to restoration.
Just 60 miles west on Interstate 40 is Gallup, New Mexico — famous as a Southwest trading post and larger than you might expect. The Chamber of Commerce has more than 300 members and the streets are bustling.
The El Rancho Hotel and Motel is a Route 66 institution, and bills itself as the “Home of the Stars” because of all the movie stars who stayed there while shooting Westerns on location, including John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, and Humphrey Bogart. Amenities include an outdoor pool, lounge, gift shop and on-site restaurant. The 99 rooms include singles, doubles and suites and are named after the celebrities who once stayed in them. Their website includes a complete list. Occupancy is high here so reservations are needed. Rates start at $82 a night.
Richardson Trading Company, at 222 W. Historic Route 66, is a large trading post with 2,000 square feet behind its coy “Pawn Shop” neon, and 4 rooms of specialized goods – Navajo blankets and rugs, turquoise and silver jewelry, saddles, belts, pottery, kuchina dolls and paintings. But if you can’t afford a $15,000 rug, the locals recommend the flea market, north of the railroad tracks and I-40, every Saturday, where you can buy anything from hay for your horses to a stylish bolla or Navajo blanket.
Next door to Richardson Trading Company is the Eagle Café. This is the essential Route 66 establishment. The café has a turn-of-the-century tin ceiling, red leather booths and bar stools, classic “Route 66” signs, cracked linoleum floors and a menu to please everyone – burgers, enchiladas or eggs, it’s authentic, reasonably-priced and welcoming.
Driving west into Arizona you’re surrounded by the Ponderosa Pine covered mountains of the Tonto National Forest, and driving into Phoenix and Scottsdale the surreal saguaro-peppered hillsides are green with desert bloom.
Phoenix and Scottsdale have nearly every attraction and amenity imaginable. But one big attraction is a miracle in the desert – the new Tempe Town Lake. The Lake was created in 1996 from surplus Colorado River water purchased by Tempe through the Salt River Project canal system. The channelization of the Salt River recovered 843 acres of land from the floodplain. Resulting recreation includes boating, fishing, and new walking trails and a children’s Splash Playground at Tempe Beach Park.
Among other attractions especially appealing to kids:
Goldfield Ghost Town (on North Apache Trail off Superstition Highway in Apache Junction just southeast of Phoenix) is a group of independently run vendors including a small mine tour, the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon, the Coffee Cantina and Bakery, the Miner’s Grill & Ice Cream Parlor and gift shops. You can also take horseback rides, wagon rides, and jeep tours, pan for gold and ride the narrow gauge train that circles the town.
The Out of Africa Wildlife Park has 100 acres of African animals and habitats – tigers, lions, panther, leopard, cheetah, bears, giraffes, zebras, snakes, ostrich, wildebeest, fallow deer, and a rhinoscerous in a wallow. There are large open buses painted with zebra and leopard patterns to take visitors around the park, and tours by Humvee, as well as shows like the Tiger Splash and the Predator Feed. Located 3 miles north of I-17 at Camp Verde, north of Phoenix.
Surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, or “Red Rock Country,” Sedona has great hikes as well as great food, art galleries, spas, bike rides, and shopping. The Sedona Chamber of Commerce hosts the Visitor Center at the heart of town, “the Y,” where Highways 179 and 89 intersect. The volunteers can recommend hikes specific to your needs, and you can buy a Forest Service parking permit which is needed at all the Forest Service trailheads. State Parks include Slide Rock State Park to the north, and Red Rock State Park to the west.
There are many great restaurants in Sedona, but just a few doors south of the Visitor Center is the Wildflower Bread Company, a great bakery and restaurant with dishes like pumpkin ravioli with walnut cream sauce, or roasted pepper and portabella soup. It has a casual, bustling atmosphere and patio dining with great views.
Accommodations in Sedona tend on the pricey side, but the retro La Vista Motel at the north end of town (500 N. Highway 89A) offers rooms from $69 for a double, $99 for a family of four with a kitchen. It has been owned by Jodi Bredemeirer and her husband since 1996 and each year they embark on a renovation. It is as charming as you’ll find and authentic part of the Southwest road trip experience.
It’s a short trip to the Grand Canyon from Sedona – a 45-minute drive to Flagstaff and about 2 hours to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. With more than 4 million visitors a year, the Grand Canyon is one of the biggest attractions in the U.S. There are helicopter tours, mule packing trips, river trips, a train, a shuttle, a Park newspaper, camping amenities and even a Post Office.
From the visitor center, you can hike west along the rim, or east on the Rim Trail to enjoy views of the canyon, or drive east along the canyon on Desert View Drive, which has a handful of roadside viewpoints. If you need to take in the view from a shelter, Yavapai Observation Station is fully enclosed, temperature controlled, and has exhibits explaining the geologic history of the Canyon and the local wildlife.
The hike down to the Colorado River is 4,000 feet. The Grand Canyon Village has a backcountry Information Center for those 40,000 people who hike all or part of the Canyon each year. Permits are required. The Grand Canyon Railway train departs Williams at 9 a.m. and/or 10:30 a.m. Overnight lodging ranges from cabins and historic lodges to motel-style lodges. Reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.
Driving back to New Mexico, we were in Red Rock Country again going through the Jemez Mountains along Highway 4 back to Los Alamos. This 66-mile section of highway is designated a National Scenic Highway and well worth the drive. There’s camping, fishing, hiking, hot springs, and the charming Laughing Lizard Inn & Café — ever popular with locals making day trips from Los Alamos and Albuquerque. One last stop — a tour of ‘small attractions’ has to include the Soda Dam, a natural mineral spring one mile north of Jemez Springs. The Jemez River pours through this amazing rock formation, and kids love to climb into its nooks and crannies.
Highway 4 then travels through the Valle Caldera, one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, before winding its way into Los Alamos – at 7,000 feet in Ponderosa Pine forest.