A 1,300-mile road trip in southeastern Arizona

This trip plan wasn't a priority on my to-go list until a few days before the weekend, when I found the NPS sites in North California-Oregon (where I planned to go originally) are mostly closed in winter. Where to do an efficient national park trip in January then? Glancing at a national park map, my eyes were caught by a cluster in the bottom-left corner of Arizona. After checking the weather there, I was convinced this is definitely the right place to go in January! (Most national parks are good for summer except those in southern Arizona - you wouldn't want to waste your vacation in a desert while it is 110 or higher there.)

Day 1 (1/17)

Redlands, CA - Phoenix, AZ

Spent the first evening driving 300 miles to Phoenix. Not much to say, only one thing to remember: it costs one extra hour to go from California into Arizona. Deduce this hour from the itinerary!

Day 2 (1/18)

Phoenix -> Tonto National Monument

Physically Tonto National Monument is not far from Phoenix - just on the other side of the Apache Mountains; however, the shortest route is not actually the shortest - I mean, although the Apache Trail looks much shorter than the other two routes, this unpaved road could add another hour of driving or so. Still it's recommended by many - it time permits.

I took the south route (US60-AZ88-AZ188), which is often highlighted as a scenic drive in travel guides. It enters the mountains via a splendid canyon and a few mining towns. When you see Roosevelt Lake, the monument is only a few miles away.

Tonto National Monument

  • Highlights: cliff dwellings, cactus, Roosevelt Lake
  • Jerome's rate: ★★★★★
  • Must do: take the upper dwelling tour starting at 10am daily in winter and spring

The monument features two ancient cliff dwellings: the lower dwelling and the upper dwelling. The latter is higher in elevation, more difficult to reach, and by guided tour only - they only offer one tour daily in winter and spring, and each tour is limited to 15 attendees. Imagine how hard it is to visit! But I would definitely recommend it. Not only is the upper dwelling more uncontaminated and original, but the three-hour guided tour indeed provides an in-depth presentation about everything one should know about this monument.

The tour guide (a volunteer) is a knowledgeable historian. During the three hours of the tour he introduced the area from plants, animals to history and contemporary constructions. While climbing up to the upper dwelling, he said he loves the upper one more than the lower one, since it's better preserved and does not have hand rails and all sorts of DO-NOT signs. I totally agreed. We could even walk into the pueblos! Definitely the best experience one can ever have with a cliff dwelling site.

Tonto National Monument - Chiricahua National Monument

This is another long drive through the wilderness: AZ188-AZ88-US70-US191, three and a half hours without any popular tourism spot. The route goes through several mining towns, which reminded of the post-industrial cities in New England, where I spent my first two years in the US. The rest of the trip was filled with desert, dry land, bush, great plains, and mesas.

I got to Chiricahua shortly after the sunset, before it was completely dark. That night was long, lonely but peaceful. See the next post for my feelings that night.

Day 3 (1/19)

Chiricahua National Monument

  • Highlights: rocks, rocks, rocks!
  • Jerome's rate: ★★★★★
  • Must do: hike into the core area

I would describe the landscapes here as "the Bryce Canyon clothing in gray and green". It's basically a forest of thousands of rock pipes, very similar (scenically and geologically) to the basalt rock (玄武岩) in Penghu (澎湖). The only highway in the monument led me to the center of the rock forest. From there several great trails provide access into the core area.

I started hiking at 7:45pm. Several photographers were already there, waiting for the first beam of the sun to descend on the rocks.

Inspiration point offers a view throughout the canyon and all the way to the mountain ridges near Tucson.

One of the "rock" stars in the monument is Balance Rock. It is worth a three-hour hike to check it out - the other stars are in locations even less accessible. When I grabbed the official park map at visitor center before leaving, the ranger told me: "you were just a few steps away from other amazing spots. You've got to come back again!"

Chiricahua National Monument - Saguaro National Park (East)

I left Chiricahua around 11am, drove along US191 and met I-10 at Wellcox. Wellcox is a typical fading west road town, which lost its geographic advantage when the Interstate was built and bypasses the town. Spent a few minutes here to grasp the atmosphere of a 70s road trip.

Saguaro National Park (East) 

  • Highlights: all sorts of cactus
  • Jerome's rate: ★★★☆☆
  • Must do: scenic drive around the loop
While being the only national park of this trip, the east district only earns three stars in my mind. It was fun to see the saguaro cactus (which had starred in numerous western films with desert, ranch, police officer and horse), but that's probably the only highlight throughout the east district. Since it's so similar to the west district, and the east district is too close to residence (which makes me feel like in a city park), I would recommend the west district over the east if one can only visit either of them.

Saguaro National Park (East) - Tucson

Visited a catholic mission on my way to Tucson - San Xavier del Bac Mission. I got here after 5pm and the interior was closed, but the sunset made the front quite harmonious and warm. (One observation: most visitors are Hispanic, and so are most residents nearby.)

Ate my dinner at a Mexican seafood restaurant Mariscos Chihuahua. I can't remember the name of my dish, but it's a mix of fish fillet, shrimp, octopus and very tasty seafood sauce. (By the way, tThis was the best I had throughout the trip. The rest are In-N-Out burgers and Trader Joe's salad...)

Day 4 (1/20)

Tucson - Saguaro National Park (West)

This 20-mile drive abutting Tucson led me into a totally different world. No residence after the first 5 miles, and around me were saguaro cactus and other desert plants everywhere. Again, it's not much different from the east site, but it beats the east side by its more natural state.

Saguaro National Park (West)

  • Highlights: all sorts of cactus
  • Jerome's rate: ★★★★☆
  • Must do: scenic drive around the loop

The west side also features a scenic drive loop and plenty of cactus, but it's obviously less developed (the drive is unpaved) and offers better views over the desert. Visiting here in early morning was really enjoyable.

Saguaro National Park (West) - Casa Grande National Monument

It took only 1.5 hours to drive from the park to the monument. Arizona is definitely the state to go for NPS fans like me.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

  • Highlights: the huge ruins
  • Jerome's rate: ★★★★☆
  • Must do: join the guided tour

Early residents built this four-story building seven hundred years ago. The purposes are not clear, but the main ruin reveals the technologies at that time. For instance, their buildings were in lack of vertical support, so the walls are generally very thick and stratified. A layer was formed with clay, strengthened, and then another layer was built on top of it.

Probably due to the national park free day, the guided tour got more than 40 people. The tour guide is a pottery artist, who tries to reproduce the handcrafts the ancient people made hundreds of years ago. She provided a unique insight on how the people utilized local materials to make such a grand building possible.

Casa Grande National Monument - Phoenix, AZ - Redlands, CA

A four-hour drive back home. Fortunately didn't stuck in traffic on the last day of the long weekend!


  • It's probably not a good idea to camp alone. Safety is not an issue at campground, but I would probably rather spend a night at a hostel talking to people next time.
  • Not all NPS site are equally impressive. Some were listed for historic or political reasons. For example, in this trip I rated Tonto and Chiricahua (which are both monument) over Saguero (a national park).
  • Should have read lonely planet before I went! I missed several recommended spots between Chiricahua and Tucson, and it's not quite easy to go back again... :(
  • Travel alone is a good time for personal reflection. Love the time chatting with God while driving :)