Sedona Red rock formations

Last spring, as we headed north from Phoenix to visit the Grand Canyon, we stopped to see Sedona, AZ.   We found easily accessible dispersed camping in the Coconino National Forest, within a reasonable drive of the many things to do in Sedona, but also near National Park Sites such as Tuzigoot and Montezuma Well.  We found so many things to do in Sedona, we stayed for 2 weeks instead of the couple days we originally planned!

 

Free Camping in the Coconino National Forest

Right off  I-17, exit 298, is access to the Coconino National Forest. Dispersed camping is permitted for up to 14 days; try to choose a site with evidence of previous use, which shouldn’t be hard.  

We especially loved how dark the skies were at night.  There was minimal light pollution and we enjoyed having a clear view of the night skies.

 

Things to Do in Sedona

Sedona is well-known for its beautiful red rock formations and several so-called energy vortexes.  We decided to start with a hike around the Airport Loop trail, named for the airport sited atop a mesa.  Trailhead parking, which is very limited, was full already when we got there. We drove further up the raid and parked in a pay lot near the airport. The parking fee was cheap ($3 in 2017) and there were ports-potties there, affording everyone one last chance to go before we set out on our hike. There is a connector, the Sedona View trail,  from this lot to the Airport Loop trailhead.  We hiked clockwise around the Mesa, but were I to do it again I would hike counter-clockwise, starting across the road from the trailhead parking.  Altogether it was a little over 5 miles of hiking, including the connector from the pay lot.  If you get there early enough to park at the Airport Loop trailhead, you could save maybe a mile.  It was a very achievable hike for families with kids, since their elevation changes are modest, but probably not a good hike for an absolute beginner or someone afraid of heights. A significant part of the trail is close to steep slopes or drop-offs.

There is supposed to be a “vortex” along this trail. None of us felt or sensed anything out of the ordinary on this hike.  When I researched beforehand, I found references to trees on the mesa  that were supposedly twisted by the energy vortex.  We did see plenty of twisty junipers in a variety of places, but there are trees  like that at most elevated places, twisted not by mystical swirling energy, but the wind.

We also did some shorter hikes, but sadly I failed to record the trail names.  They were all fun and beautiful, though! There are so many great hikes in Sedona that I recommend buying a hiking guide if you’re going to spend more than a day or two. Normally I wouldn’t spend money on a paper guidebook that would just clutter up the RV later on, but you might order an inexpensive used one online before you go, and resell it or pass it on to another traveler when you’re done with it.

A “Red Rock” pass is required for use of National Forest lands in the Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon area. (See map) If you have a national park pass, such as the America the Beautiful pass, Every Kid in a Park pass, Access pass, or Senior pass, it will be honored.  Simply leave it in your vehicle’s display hanger.  A pass is not required for a brief stop to take a photo or look at a scenic viewpoint, but if you will be leaving your vehicle to hike, picnic, etc in the applicable area, you need a pass.  If you don’t have a national park pass, you can purchase a one-day Red Rock Pass for $5, a seven-day Red Rock pass for $15, or an annual Red Rock pass for $20. 

Things to Do Nearby 

While camping near Sedona, we visited several sites of historical significance. 

A single admission fee grants visitors access to both Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Castle National Monument. Admission is $10 per person, with children 15 and under free, and is good for seven days, so you don’t have to rush to see both sites in a single day. Of course, if you have one of the national park passes, then your admission  is free anyway! 

Montezuma Castle  has a visitor center with some information about the Sinagua people, and a paved path leading to views of the “castle.” Not a castle at all, it is a well-preserved cliff dwelling.  In past times, Visitors were allowed to explore inside the dwelling, but to protect the site, visitors now must remain outside, down on the ground. A detailed model is displayed so visitors can se what the inside looks like, though.  The local schools were on break and it was busy the day we were there.  A ranger was available to answer questions and talk about the dwelling. I don’t know how many times we overheard someone ask him, “How did they get up there?”  

Each time he patiently responded that they had ladders.  One man retorted, “But what about the women and children?”

I was floored.  Never before had I encountered an individual who believed women can’t climb ladders!  Truth be told, the women and children of the Sinagua people were probably much more physically capable than this guy!

About 11 miles away, Montezuma Well is a limestone sinkhole, nearly 400 feet in diameter. Used a a source of irrigating water for over a thousand years, this body of water has a unique collection of life.  The water is too carbonated and contains too much arsenic for fish to survive, but a handful of well-adapted creatures have made a home there, some of which are found in no other known place on earth. Not only is Montezuma Well of interest from a geological and biological perspective, but it is a beautiful setting for a walk and some bird-watching. Guided birding walks are offered- contact the park or check the website for dates and details. Curly and Sparky, along with their father, went on a guided bird walk and really enjoyed themselves. The volunteer guide was able to accommodate a wide range of experience, and the other participants were friendly and welcoming.

Tuzigoot National Monument protects the ruins of another Dinaguan dwelling, a little different in style from the cliff dwelling at Montezuma Castle. The site was excavated and partially recontructed in the 1930’s.  Today the visitor center houses a fabulous little museum. A paved 1/3 mile loop leads visitors around and through the pueblo ruins. There is little shade on the path, so a hat, sunscreen, and water are recommended.

As beautiful and educational as those sites all were, our favorite part of our Sedona-area visit was the V-Bar-V Heritage site.  This petroglyphs site is gated and well-preserved. Open only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, a volunteer docent is on site to present information about the petroglyphs, and answer questions,  It was wonderful to be able to see the petroglyphs up close, rather than through binoculars while standing at a distant viewing point. There is a fee to access this site; either the Red Rocks Pass or a National Parks pass will be honored.  There is a kiosk in the parking area to purchase a Red Rocks Pass if you don’t already have it.

There are so many things to do in Sedona and nearby that a family could spend even more time than the 14 days we were there. We plan to go back again sometime and hope you get a chance to check it out as well!  

If  you’ve already had a chance to visit, what were your favorite things to do in Sedona?  Tell us in the comments!

 

 


 

Although we found lots of other things to see and places to go once we got there, the reason we went to Arizona in the first place was to see the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon with vegetation in foreground and ray of light on the left
A photo just doesn’t convey the depth and breadth of the Grand Canyon. You just have to see it for yourself!

 

We were there in March, not due to any preplanning but simply because that’s when we got there.  The weather was cool still, but there was no snow on the ground.  I should say, there was no snow on the ground when we arrived.  

About Grand Canyon National Park

A national park since 1919, Grand Canyon National Park contains 1904 acres. The canyon itself averages a mile in depth and ten miles across.  At the widest point, the distance from rim to rim is an astounding eighteen miles!

Entrance fees for the park are for a seven day period.  Entrance for a private vehicle and occupants is $30, a motorcycle is $25, and bicyclists or pedestrians pay $15. An annual pass for Grand Canyon National park is $60, which admits the passholder and the other occupants of the vehicle, or when entering by bicycle, on foot, or by shuttle/train, admits the passholder’s immediate family (defined as parents, spouse, and children) While the Grand Canyon annual pass is a good value if you’re going to spend two weeks or more visiting,  the “America the Beautiful”  annual pass, which grants admission to National Parks and other federal lands, is an even better deal at $80.

The south rim has a visitor center near Mather Point, with educational displays, video presentations about the canyon and a knowledgable staff to answer questions.  The Yavapai Geology Museum  features exhibits about the formation and geology of the canyon, and large viewing windows (a great choice for viewing the canyon if you have young children and are nervous standing near the rim with them!)  Kolb Studio, near the Bright Angel trailhead, was previously a photography studio and private home.  Today the building houses art and history exhibits.  At Verkamps Visitor Center you can learn about the history of  settlements and development in and around the Grand Canyon.  On the eastern end of the park, you can climb the Desert View Watchtower  for 360° views of the canyon and surrounding landscape.  The tower itself, though, is also worth seeing for its design and architecture.  Designed by Mary Coulter, the building contains murals by renowned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.   Hermit’s Rest,on the west end of the park, is another Mary Coulter design, has exhibits, a gift shop and cafe.  Finally, don’t overlook the Tusayan Museum and ruin. There are no sweeping canyon views here, but rather an intimate look at the ways of life of the Ancestral Puebloan people.

 

interior of a circular room
Inside the Desert Watchtower
child in front of large stone fireplace
Inside Hermit’s Rest, taking a rest, of course!

 

Camping

Although  RV and tent camping is available in developed campgrounds within  Grand Canyon National Park, free dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest puts visitors just outside the park.  Stop in at the Tusayan District Ranger office for a Motor Vehicle use Map (MVUM) or get an electronic version ahead of time.  We chose a campsite on FR 307 up the road a ways from the Grandview Lookout fire tower. There is a trailhead near the fire tower, with vault toilets.

Travel trailer in a snowy landscape
We got just enough snow to look pretty for a day and then make a mess of mud when it melted! But see how how much space and privacy we had boondocking in the Kaibab National Forest?

Within the park there is a building with coin-operated laundromat and pay showers.  Visitors do not need to be registered at the in-park campgrounds to use these amenities.  Showers cost $2 for 8 minutes, and the water was good and hot.  A bill changer is available in the laundry room. There were men’s and women’s rooms with multiple showers, as well as a handicapped accessible/family shower.  I saw the attendant unlocking the handicapped accessible shower for a woman with a young school-age boy.  I supposed she felt he was a little old to go  in the women’s showers, but she didn’t want to send him in the men’s showers alone.  I was glad to see the staff accommodate them!

We recommend bringing plenty of groceries with you.  Prices close to the park are very high.  We only planned to stay a few days and were not well-stocked.  Then we got some snow, which quickly melted, and we felt it best not to try to get underway until the mud dried out. After a week, when  we decided to stay a second week, we took a day to drive into Flagstaff to resupply. Had there not been a 14-day stay limit in the National Forest, we might have stayed even longer!  

Things to Do

In addition to the many museums and visitor  centers, Grand Canyon National Park offers a variety of ranger-led programs. There are daytime talks suitable for younger children, but we particularly enjoyed the evening ranger programs.  We learned about subjects ranging from the Colorado River to the effects of fire suppression on the forest landscape. These programs are held at Shrine of the Ages, which also is home to various religious services on Sundays. Although most worshippers were employees  (and their families) of the National Park Service, US Forest Service, or the hotels and eateries within the park, we were made to feel very welcome at church services as visitors.

One of the best parts of visiting Grand Canyon National Park was hiking.  We hiked about 3 miles along the Rim trail, hopping on and off the free shuttle at various points.  We also hiked below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel trail, going as far as the lower tunnel before turning around.  It’s  much harder climbing back up than going down!

Grand Canyon with vegetation in foreground
View of the canyon from near Hermit’s Rest

 

hikers in front of a rock face
Below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel trail.
hikers on a trail
it was a warm spring day, so we had plenty of company on the trail.
group of children hikers standing in a rock tunnel
One of two man-made tunnels on Bright Angel trail

When we visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2017, we learned of the National Park Service Hike for Health pins.  Five  National Park sites in Arizona participate, and each has a unique pin one can earn just by hiking a minimum distance in the park. The hiking distance can be accumulated over multiple trails on multiple days.  Just take photos of yourselves on each trail hiked to show the staff at the visitor centers.

Where and how we earned our National Park Service Hike for Health pins

 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:  5 miles required. 

Since we were staying in the campground in the park, we took the Desert View Trail for 1.2 miles.  The trailhead was accessible from the campground, though we would consider it more of a walk than a hike.  Next we hiked the Arch Canyon Trail.  The maintained trail is 1.2 miles round-trip, but we decided to keep going up to the top of the rocks to the arch.  The route was marked with “unofficial” cairns but turned into a fairly challenging scramble.  Since Tiny was riding in a back carrier and making it hard for Dusty to keep his balance, we decided to turn back about halfway up the “unofficial trail.” It’s always been our rule that any of us feels we should turn back on a hike for any reason, the others will respect that.  We estimated 2.5 miles total for this hike based on Dusty’s fitness tracker.  The next day, we all went on a 1.6 mile  ranger-led hike to Red Tanks Tinaja.  Although there were a couple of other people on this hike, ours were the only children.  They had lots and lots of questions for the ranger about what we were seeing along the trail, and although the pace was slow, the time flew by.  We were all excited to get our hiking pin and resolved to get them at the other participating parks the following winter.

round lapel pin with organ pipe cactus
The one that started it all!

Chiricahua National Monument: 5 miles required. 

The day we arrived it was rainy, snowy at higher elevations, and the road was closed past the visitor center.  Not to be discouraged, we put on rain gear and hiked the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail out and back for a total of 3 miles.  We came back a couple of days later when things had dried up rode the hikers’ shuttle, which allowed us to hike from Massai point to the Heart of Rocks Loop, then back to the visitor center.  This hike was over 7 miles so we got our hiking pins when we got back to the visitor center, but we weren’t done hiking at Chiricahua yet!  On subsequent days we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain (1.8 miles) Echo Canyon Loop (3.3 miles) and Natural Bridge Trail (4.8 miles) bringing our hiking total for Chiricahua over a ten-day period to 20.1 miles

Round lapel pin with grey balanced rock against blue sky
The Chiricahua hike for health pin pictures one of the many rock formations visible along the trails

 

 

Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 3 miles required. 

Fort Bowie is unusual in that one doesn’t begin by driving to a visitor center, but rather parks at a trailhead on a gravel road and hikes into the park.  A 1.5 mile trail takes one past the post cemetery, Apache spring, ruins of a miner’s cabin, the Indian agency, and the Butterfield Stage Station, ending at the Visitor’s Center and ruins of the second Fort Bowie.  We took a guided hike, offered once a week, and received our pin at the visitor center, even though we had only done the first half of the hike. After all, we had to hike back out to get to our car, didn’t we?

Round pin with mountains and stagecoach
The Fort Bowie hike for health pin features a stagecoach.

 

Coronado National Memorial: 3 miles required. 

We started by exploring Coronado Cave. There’s a half-mile hike to the cave entrance, so there and back gave us one mile. The next morning, we got up early to ride the hikers’ shuttle up in order to hike back to the visitor center via Joe’s Canyon Trail.  This hike by itself was just over three miles one way.  

Round lapel pin with brown mountains and cactus
The Coronado hike for health pin reflects the monumen’ts spectacular scenery

 

Tumacacori National Historical Park: 4 miles required

Although Tumacacori itself was wonderful to see, most of the hike for this pin is outside of the park.  We only did it because we wanted to get the last pin!  The trail is flat without any particular points of interest and the further we got from the park boundary, the more trash we saw on the ground and in the water.  It would be a very good birding walk if one isn’t in a large noisy group, however.  We walked two miles out and then two miles back, but another option in January through March is to ride a hikers’ shuttle, offered the first and third Saturday of the month, and hike the four miles one way back to the park.

 

Round lapel pin with image of Tumacacori Mission
The hike may not have been particularly pretty, but the pin sure is!

 

In the beginning of March, we were in Arizona already, and this National Park site was not too far from the FamCamp where we were staying, so we decided to check it out. The entrance fee was $12, which was good for a seven day period.  

We decided to camp inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The rate was $16 per night, but with the Access pass it was discounted to $8 per night. There were no hookups available, but each site had a barbeque grill and a picnic table. Some sites had shade ramadas. The sites were rather close together, but we had adequate room, and anyway we were really only at the campsite to eat and sleep. There were RV rows where generators are allowed, RV rows where generators were NOT allowed, and tent rows, with the no-generator RV rows acting as a buffer between the tent sites and the generator sites. We chose a site in the no-generator section as close to the tent rows (and thus furthest from the generator rows) as possible. We had a solar panel rather than a generator, and wanted to minimize noise. There were comfort stations with flush toilets and solar-heated showers. I was  also very excited to see a book exchange near the entrance to the campground. I got rid of some books we were done with and picked out a couple of new ones. 

We felt that camping in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was a good value because the amphitheater where evening programs are held is adjacent to the campground. Had we camped outside the park on BLM land, I doubt we would have had time to come back into the park for evening programs after returning to our campsite to cook supper, and the evening programs were well worth our while. Topics ranged from night-blooming cacti and the bats and moths that pollinate them, to identifying animal tracks, to the Native American stories behind the stars and constellations. The evening programs at this park were the best we’ve attended in any park so far.

The children, big and small, enjoyed completing the junior Ranger program and earning a badge.  They also particularly enjoyed going on a Ranger-led hike to Red Rocks Tinaja. We were the only family with children on this hike, but the ranger was happy to answer their many questions.

group of children hiking in the Sonoran desert
The Ranger-led hike was a big hit with the kids.

One of our favorite parts of our visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the ‘Hike for Health” program. We picked up a log sheet in the visitor center and recorded our hikes. Once we reached 5 miles in total, we recieved a free pin. By dividing the milage among shorter hikes over a couple of days, even my three-year-old was able to do it!

This park site preserves a unique piece of habitat in the Sonoran desert. Not only is it one of the only places where the organ pipe cactus is found in the US, it is also home to an endangered pupfish. You can see the pupfish in a manmade pool at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, and also in their original habitat, Quitobaquito Springs.

The Monument is right on the Mexican border, and there has been illegal activity in the past. The Visitor Center is named after a ranger, Kris Eggle, who was killed in the line of duty in 2002 while pursuing drug cartel members. Don’t let that deter you from visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, however! We didn’t encounter anyone sneaking across the border, but we did see a gorgeous variety of plant and animal life.

children in front of an organ pipe cactus
Organ Pipe Cactus

Tumbleweed Dusty had long wanted to go to Carlsbad Caverns, so we went!  Overall this was one of our favorite stays and we plan to go back again sometime.

Camping near Carlsbad Caverns

We boondocked on BLM land.  There were four or five other camping units there when we arrived, but there was still plenty of room for us.  It was late and dark and we  needed to sleep.  We figured if the site looked too crowded in morning light, we could find another place to camp then.

When morning arrived and we found our fellow campers to be  friendly and pleasant. One family had young children, and ours kids were excited to have new playmates, but we found out they were leaving that day.  We discovered the wife was from my home state of Maine, and we exchanged some books with them. Their children played with ours while the parents got ready to get underway, and then they were off.

The couple camped closest to us were a retired couple from Florida in a vantage Airstream.  They were from Florida and headed to the Grand Canyon.  We had already been to the Grand Canyon and were heading slowly to Florida, so we traded  tips on what to see  and where to camp.

Another camper was a local guy who said he just liked to come out and camp in the desert every so often.  He proved to be a great source of local knowledge- the closest place to get ice, where to buy groceries, that sort of thing.  We all had some fun evenings around a communal campfire, sharing popcorn and swapping stories.  This particular patch of land was dusty with no shade, but we so enjoyed meeting our fellow-travelers that it was worth it.

Visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns was, of course, the biggest reason we were there. We had planned to hike in through the Natural Entrance and probably take the elevators back up to the surface.  We went after lunch only to discover that the elevators were not operating that day and it was too late in the day for us to hike in through the Natural Entrance, see everything, and hike back out.  Instead we watched the video in the visitor center and looked at the educational displays.  We went back bright and early the next day to find elevator service had been restored.  We listened to a quick briefing before heading out to the Natural Entrance.

Carlsbad Caverns is a popular National Park site, and we visited during Easter vacation/spring break week for many schools.  The Natural Entrance was worth seeing, but we would have enjoyed it more had it been less busy.  The path is narrow, making hard to stop and study formations when there’s a crowd. The trail is  mostly switchbacks, and I was being constantly blinded by people’s headlamps or flashlights as they turned the corners. We were appalled by the number of people we saw touching the formations, even after having been told not to at the visitor center and again at the briefing on the way to the entrance.

Large stalagmite against dark background
The “Totem Pole” in the Big Room

The cave was beautiful, though. There are interpretive signs, and the audio tour for rent in the gift shop has much more additional information.  Photography is permitted, but without a flash my photos didn’t come out great. ( I bought some postcards in the gift shop to keep instead!) one of the hardest things for us is that visitors cannot bring food in.  There is a snack bar inside the cave near the elevators, and visitors can purchase food and consume it in the designated area, but outside food is not allowed. The snack bar had a very limited selection and high prices. We didn’t find what we consider healthy choices.  Those with food allergies or dietary restrictions may not find anything suitable.  If we go again, and I think we will, I plan to pack a lunch to leave in the car, and we can simply ride the elevator up and take a lunch break. There are no restrictions on food outside the cave itself, and there are plenty of picnic areas aboveground.  Visitors can carry bottled water, and there are water fountains and restrooms near the elevators in the cave.  

Altogether, we spent one full and two half days at Carlsbad Caverns. The first half-day we spent  on the educational exhibits in the visitor center.  The full day we hiked in the Natural Entrance and toured the Big Room.  The second half-day we went after lunch, took the elevator down, and spent time looking more closely at the Big Room, allowing time for the kids to sketch.  After the cave closed, we waited around to watch the evening bat flight, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  No video or photography is permitted during the bat flight, so I have no images to share here. You’ll just have to go and see it for yourselves!

Things to Do in Carlsbad, NM

In Carlsbad, NM, along the waterfront, we found fun playgrounds and a nice swim beach. There were paddleboat rentals available at the riverfront, though we chose just to swim and wade.   We also were able to dump our RV holding tanks for free at the Carlsbad Water Treatment Plant.