It’s nearly 8:30 in the evening, the sun has long since set and the full moon turns the Sonoran desert landscape silver. It’s still 107 degrees in the shade, the night. There’s a brisk breeze from the west, and it feels as if a convection oven has been opened.
It’s time to get outta Dodge, or Phoenix, as the case may be.
One week from tonight, our 2014 road trip gets underway. America the Beautiful from Desert to Rain Forest will take the family far from the simmering Arizona heat. The first leg of the trip is fully in Arizona. While airfares to Phoenix from anywhere are at the lowest during the summer heat, staying in the Surface, I mean Valley of the Sun, is not the limit.
Car rental rates are competitive in the summer sun, and it’s worth the effort to hit the open road and visit one of the other six climate zones in Arizona, avoiding the sub-Saharan desert zone that clings to the lower elevations in the center of the state. Less than one hour away is the Mogollon Rim (pronounce it like an Arizona native, “moh-GIE-yun,” with a hard “g” as in “muggy”), and the 2,000 foot change in elevation is a 20 degree difference in temperature.
The first of our road trip’s 99 sights will be along Interstate 17 north of Phoenix. The Mogollon Rim rises steeply out of the desert floor. The drive passes through one of the densest saguaro forests in the world. The tall waving-arm cactus that symbolizes the desert only grows in Arizona, and grows best in the 2,000 to 3,000 foot elevation rising out of Phoenix, and the entire Tucson Valley.
Soon, the road will take us ten degrees cooler and several thousand feet higher and another ten degrees cooler into the Ponderosa forest that runs from south of the Grand Canyon to New Mexico. The largest continuous stand of ponderosa pine in the world, it runs through the Coconino, Prescott, Tonto, Sitgreaves, and Apache national forests. The trees will shade the landscape as the road heads into Flagstaff, 7,000 feet up on the Colorado plateau. In just 90 minutes, the road trip will have traveled through three climate zones.
From Flagstaff, the trip drops back down into the red rock country of the Colorado Plateau heading up U.S. 89 towards the east side of the Grand Canyon. The first night will end across the Colorado River nestled into the base of the Vermillion Cliffs and overlooking the famous Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. That’s the first 300 miles out of the 4,100 mile America the Beautiful road trip. If you’re following earlier posts, you’ll notice the trip has grown by 300 miles…on paper. In one week and 24 days, however, the true total will be known.