‘We’re just about 6,600ft up,” announces our balloon pilot. John, after what seems like dozens of tugs on the valve releasing the propane gas that is sending us skywards.
inutes earlier, 12 of us had clambered into a metal-framed, wicker gondola before it lifted up and away with four other striped Rainbow Ryders hot air balloons (rainbowryders.com) to watch dawn break across a cactus-speckled horizon.
It’s 5.35am and only the sound of crackling radio calls between the pilots and the firing burner breaks the awed silence as we take in the 360-degree views during our surprisingly peaceful glide above the Sonoran Desert, a few miles outside Glendale, near Phoenix, Arizona.
After a gentle landing, our flight is toasted with champagne – customary in balloon circles.
“Thanks for flying with us,” smiles John.
It’s day one of a bucket-list looping tour of Arizona and it’s still not even 7am.
The State boasts endless sapphire skies, bone-dry desert, the occasional Joshua tree, original Western saloons and the unbridled Americana of Route 66.
We hit the road and it seems as if there is an epic scene from a Western around every corner as it twists through switchback turns and looming red-rock valleys.
Just over an hour’s drive from Glendale along Interstate 17 towards Cornville, we come to the Alcantara Vineyard for a delicious cool down from the dry heat on a water-to-wine kayaking tour.
Our inflatable crafts float down the Verde River through the gorges of the high desert before docking at the vineyard where we are served doorstep sandwiches and beautiful wines in a dreamy garden restaurant while a couple belt out Dolly Parton tunes.
And then just up the road we come to the historic town of Cottonwood in the shadow of the Mingus Mountains. It has a frontier feel and buildings that date back to the Prohibition era.
We stop on a main street full of bustling boutique hotels and restaurants to refuel at Crema café where an all-day brunch offers melt-in-the-mouth Country (white) gravy and biscuits (savoury scones) while pink-purplish prickly pear margaritas are the ubiquitous – and delicious – tipple made from the fruits of the native cactus.
The diversity of Arizona’s topography, which veers from sun-baked desert to the cooler greenness of the ponderosa pines in the mountaintop city of Flagstaff is something you hear about over and over.
“You can go skiing and sunbathing in Arizona on the same day,” one local tells me.
Flagstaff is the archetypal outdoor destination and attracts Olympians to altitude training camps. We check into the newly-opened High Country Motor Lodge (highcountrymotorlodge.com) there – it’s all inky navy and deep turquoise hues and Native American throws, with rooms centred on a courtyard with a pool and fire pits.
This corner of Arizona is also home to one of the densest concentrations of designated Dark Sky Places in the world. At a stargazing gathering at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, local astronomers track green laser pointers across the crystal-clear sky to show Polaris, Cassiopeia and Gemini. Pluto was famously discovered in the town’s hilltop Lowell Observatory in 1930.
An hour outside Flagstaff, I ticked another item off my bucket list at Papillon Helicopters just off Highway 64 (papillon.com).
Rising into a cloudless sky in a helicopter with Kenny Loggins blasting ‘Danger Zone’ through the noise-cancelling headphones has serious Top Gun vibes.
A few minutes later, when we bank left, the jaw-dropping sight of the Grand Canyon falls away below. Over the next 40 minutes, we enjoy a giddy silent disco to the soundtrack in our headsets as our chopper follows the path of the curling Colorado River from the south to the north rim.
It’s a few minutes short of 9am by the time we land, then hop on board a Buck Wild Hummer – an open-sided all-terrain military vehicle – for a windblown ride around the edge of the canyon.
Our guide, Stony, is a ball of energy, bouncing in and out of the Hummer at each stop. Stevie Wonder was a recent passenger with his family and it’s not surprising Stony persuaded him to sing. “It was like ‘da, na, da, da…’” he relays, humming the opening chords of ‘Sir Duke’ from behind the wheel.
Forget Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in a single day, this turned out to be a case of helicopter, hummer and classic Western railway.
In the wood-panelled confines of the parlour carriage of the Grand Canyon Railroad which travels from the north rim of the canyon to the town of Williams (thetrain.com), a guitar-strumming cowgirl dressed in a red leather skirt is belting out A Horse with No Name. Then we spot a gun-toting horseman galloping alongside the tracks.
It’s all part of a staged western robbery schtick.
As the train pulls into Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel across the street, is a continuation of the old-world charm of the historic depot.
A block away is the fabled Route 66 where bikers and road-trippers pull into town to experience one of the most romanticised routes of the planet.
The restoration of the highway, which once brought vacationing families from Chicago to Los Angeles, all began in a little barber’s shop in the tiny roadside town of Seligman further up the road with a 95-year-old barber called Angel Delgadillo, who inspired the animated Disney movie Cars.
During a chat in his old barber chair in his gift shop, Angel tells me with a twinkly smile how he fought to save the “Mom and Pop” businesses of “American’s yesteryear” along the twisty Route 66 after a new Interstate took all the traffic from the highway when it opened on September 22, 1978
It is now reinvigorated as a historically protected highway unashamedly devoted to 1950s nostalgia with big old Cadillacs, Route 66 signs, and diners that serve up old-fashioned cheeseburgers and fries.
An hour and a half up the road, it’s back to the Wild West ambience of the city of Prescott which hosts the world’s oldest rodeo. Weathered Western facades grace the main street of Whiskey Row, along with art galleries, cafes, antique stores and Native American jewellers.
Inside the Palace Bar, which once counted Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday among its patrons, there are still bullet holes in the walls from gunfights back in the 1900s.
Walking through the swinging half doors of the saloon is as authentic a Western experience as you’ll get. The lively restaurant – overlooked by a balcony that once led to brothel rooms – has a delicious menu of hearty fare including steaks and tacos.
A block from the Palace, the Hotel Vendome was dubbed the “classiest place in town” when it was built in the 1930s. It has been elegantly restored with vintage rooms featuring roll top baths.
Another 90-minute drive down the mountains is the Kay El Bar dude ranch (kayelbar.com) a few miles outside Wickenburg, and one hour from downtown Phoenix. Rooms in the low-slung brown buildings, which are historically preserved, are decorated with cowboy-boot lamps, brown leather couches, and rustic rugs.
After a breakfast of sizzling bacon, fresh bread, with the requisite biscuits and gravy, I head over to the paddock to get acquainted with my white horse, William. I need a leg-up on to a very comfortable western saddle, but then it’s off in single file behind cowboy Conor, who has a sideline in training racehorses.
As we ride through the desert, the horses pick their way across the rocky terrain past giant flowering walking cactus, thought to be 150 years old. When the horses walk into a narrow, sandy pass between parallel rocky outcrops it feels like I have become an extra in a Western.
Arizona doesn’t just have a bucket list of adventure, it offers an entire tub-full of must-dos before you die.
After my seven-day trip, I still have one unchecked item on my bucket list – to see one of the famous rodeos. It’s a great excuse to return to this most American of states.
- Lynne travelled as a guest of Arizona Office of Tourism (visitarizona.com for more info and guides).
- British Airways flies direct from London to Phoenix. Other airlines flying to Arizona include Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, United, Delta and Air Canada.
- Car hire from around €450 a week. For private guide tours go to detoursamericanwest.com.
- Summer temperatures in Phoenix and desert regions are hot (late 30sC) so the spring, autumn and winter are much more comfortable (20s and early 30s) but the higher altitude towns of Flagstaff and Prescott are much cooler in the summer (late 20s).
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