Photo Credit: Maria & Jefferson Harkleroad
I know what you're thinking.... 1,000 miles is a lot!
But, I am here to tell you that it was some of the best 1,000 miles of my life. We broke this trip up into 6 days/4 stays. This was definitely a wanderlust type of trip. The reason my husband and I did this crazy road trip, is because we are both at a point in our life where a) we need to take charge of our life and figure out what we want, that is best for us as a couple and b) we are terrified to do another Wisconsin winter, and c) we both have never seen the national parks. You've got it, we were scoping out the area to live.
Since flights to AZ tend to be pretty expensive, and if we decided not to move there, I wanted to make the most out of one trip and cover all the territory WHILE experiencing new 1sts together (AKA Grand Canyon).
I had only been to the phoenix area once at the end of September, and I completely fell in love with the night air. I could not get over it for the past year. I had to take a trip back, with my husband, to see if it is a place we would want to live. People kept asking us while we were there why on earth we would come during the summer. We said,
"That is exactly why we did."
We knew we had to experience AZ at its worst to determine if it could be a place we could live. This is also going to be a great article to read if you're considering a round-trip road trip to the national parks in AZ from Phoenix. We did this trip over Labor Day weekend and just so happened to surpass all the bad crowds! Keep reading to find out where we went, how much it costed, what we thought, and if we made a decision.
DAY 1: Direct Flight from Milwaukee to Phoenix
We flew direct from Milwaukee - Phoenix August 30th (round trip for us both $647.20, yikes) and rented a car from Hertz. I booked our flights on American Airlines through Priceline, which then gave us a car rental deal ($215.15 + extra charge for filled gas tank). The first thing we did was head to Luci's at The Orchard for brunch. Luci's was soo cute! I honestly could see myself hanging out there all the time if I lived close by in the Phoenix area. They have an adorable outdoor seating area with tons of misters to keep us cool, a water fountain all the kids were playing in, canopy tent with string lights and an area that looks like they play music. On one side was a nice sit down restaurant and on the other was a building with everything from an ice cream shop, to an organic café and juicery, including a drive-through for coffee. They had something for everyone. Since we couldn't check in to our Airbnb (2 nights = $188.13) until 3pm we sat here for a good hour and looked up houses in Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, and Gilbert that we may want to view. Our Airbnb host is a real estate agent, so she was going to show us around to houses we wanted to see. Long story short, it sort of wasted our time and never ended up working out. Had I known, we would have been much more productive with our first 2 days of our trip.
We proceeded to do some shopping because our first day turned into sunglass hunting. Not house hunting. Non-the-less we met two super nice girls at the sunglass store in Chandler Mall. The desk girl's name is Amy, so here's a shout out. They were telling us how much they love the area and I guess they weren't too bothered by the immense heat because they were proud to say they bake cookies in their car while they're at work so that when they get off work their car smells of fresh baked cookies and they have a post-work treat. The girl at the register referred us to 2 places. She highly recommended the restaurant/bar in Chandler called Sandbar. Here's the website link: https://www.sandbaraz.com/. The other thing she recommended was going out down town Chandler for nightlife or dinner. That sounded cool, but we knew we had an early morning so we landed at Sandbar ($50ish, ouch). It was a cool place with surfboard tables on their patio. It was a nice, hot night.
Day 2: Salt River, Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe and Scottsdale
Reading the title you're probably wondering how we went to all these places within 1 day, well we did. All of these areas are 5-25 mins apart from each other. I had booked ahead a paddle board rental at 7 Am to take on the Salt River, so we got up bright and early today. People kept telling us the river was gross, but I guess that is just where the teenagers do their tube floating and drinking, like at the Wolf River in Wisconsin. We were pleasantly surprised that the river was fairly clean aside from some cans that floated down from the tubing area. There was even a really nice park ranger or DNR guy there handing out garbage bags to everyone going out, in efforts to keep the river clean. I was happy to grab one and help pick out cans along the way! I honestly thought the Wolf River is/was more filthy. As a review for the paddle board rental company, the people were very nice and friendly but we were not expecting us to be picking the SUPs up at their actual house. They also missed our reservation somehow, so they were not expecting us, but were very responsive and available at all times. They were still able to get us out on our scheduled time. The website for the company is http://www.desertpaddleboards.com/ in Mesa (2 for $44.64). They are cheaper than the other nearby rentals. I also want to mention that you have to pay for a parking pass ($5-8?) and by the time we had everything we needed and parking space we weren't on the water until 8 AM.
I almost canceled our paddle boarding on the Salt River, Mesa because of what people said about the river, but I am so glad I didn't. It was the highlight of the beginning of the trip. It eased us into paddle boarding for later on in our trip too, since we had only done it once before this. The sun was hot and we were sweating buckets, but it was so beautiful and peaceful. We loved getting a nice dark tan on only our second day too! Jefferson and I are like sun addicts, we love everything about it. The best part about the whole thing was, there are wild horses that live on the Indian land, on the other side of the river. We were even able to get up close to them (8 ft. away for safety reasons). These horses were way more beautiful than the wild horses I went all the way to Kitty Hawk, NC to see. I was so excited that there was a mystique white one this time too!
The one warning about the river I had, was to stay on your paddle board, or in your kayak. Do not get out where there are rocks and seaweed. Another girl and myself got little leaches that grabbed onto our feet and legs, from picking cans out of the seaweed. Don't let that scare you though, its definitely worth going out on the water there!
We felt pretty gross, so after we dropped off the paddle boards we headed back to shower. On the way we stopped downtown Tempe and grabbed a fresh Juice from a local healthy café to replenish us and hold us off, since we skipped breakfast. Downtown Tempe is sooo cute. Especially at night because they have these two beautiful lit up bridges that go over the water. In the center of downtown there is this small mountain, which would be perfect for a lunch-hour hike, if you worked in one of the towers at a desk all day. I could totally see living in a trendy apartment in downtown Tempe.
After we were all cleaned up and ready, we headed to Gilbert. Thank goodness all over AZ they have water misters to cool you off while outside, because it was HOT. Downtown Gilbert was lined by trendy restaurants. The vegan restaurant I wanted to go to had already closed for the day and was not on the downtown strip (darn it). So we ended up at Derks Bentley Whiskey Row, because they had a chicken and waffles menu item that looked amazing. Don't judge. I ordered Zucchini noodle chicken pasta primavera with a wine broth. You betcha I had a few bites of my husbands Chicken and waffles! The waffles were cornbread so technically gluten free, but still inflammatory. They were pretty disappointing though. That was another $50+. It is not cheap dining in AZ, but we did get a drink or 2.
Our next place to see was Scottsdale. Our Airbnb was actually very close to Old Town Scottsdale, so the night before we went to this adorable, vintage, all pink, ice cream shop because Jefferson was really craving ice-cream after all this heat. I definitely recommend checking out Old Town. Its super cute! I could totally see living in an apartment right there too, though it would be expensive (in our terms). Just a little further drive down is where we ended up today. They had another super cute shopping district with tons of local shops that lead into an "uppity" shopping, restaurant and bar area, where the mall and the gist of all the restaurants were. We did a little wine tasting and then walked around. We intended to go out and see what the nightlife was like in Scottsdale, but we were pretty burnt out and had to be up and on the road at 5 Am the next day.
The next few days were far more adventurous and truly magical. So, I hope you keep on reading.
Day 3: Tempe - Flagstaff - Grand Canyon South Rim
The night before I was freaking out a little. We paid to rent camping gear for 2 nights through Airbnb ($136.23) and the lady said there is no way we are getting a camp sight because the holiday weekend. She offered us to cancel a day in advance but I did not have a back-up plan, and decided to take the risk, and trust that God was going to work it out. We got up bright and early (4 AM, left at 5 Am) to meet the lady in Flagstaff, right off the highway at 7 am. If you couldn't do the math the drive from Tempe to Flagstaff was 2 hours. We met up with her and she was very nice and super responsive and flexible as to where to meet and at any time we wanted. She even showed us on the map directions to certain spots. Her camping gear also included an instruction guide for setting up and for the grill. I give her 5 stars! This is the link for the rental if you want to camp in the Grand Canyon: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/22693621?source_impression_id=p3_1568763654_gJMflTAcYMiUBJ4t
I honestly just booked the camping because it saved us at least $100 from another hotel and we could stay right at the canyon then. It turned out to be the best thing though. I enjoyed camping more than a 5 star hotel!
Flagstaff was definitely cooler that early in the morning. I actually put on a sweater. But it did warm up. We grabbed ice for the cooler along with jugs of water and "quick" hit up a breakfast spot in flagstaff. It was close to the highway and looked cute. I was highly disappointed in my food though. The description was not at all what it was and the server said it was her favorite. It basically was loaded nachos with a fried egg. Definitely NOT what I was feeling for breakfast so early in the morning! It also took forever, so we got back on the road way later than we wanted.
We were trying to get to Desert View campsite by 9Am for the best chance at getting a campsite, because it was first come first serve and Mather was all booked up. It was another 2ish hours with a stop for gas and a lookout point on the way. I think we got there a little after 10 am. It was a pretty drive there, since we weren't used to the landscape.
God truly had us covered because the best thing happened once we pulled up to the National Park entrance! There was a sign saying Veterans get a years National Park Pass, free. We were bummed because my husband didn't have his VA card with but then pulled it up online and the lady accepted it with no hesitation. It gets better yet - since he is technically a "disabled vet," we got a free National Park Pass...FOR A LIFETIME!!! (That saved us $80 for this year alone!) ….AND we get 50% off campsites ...AND the lady said there were still campsites left if we head straight there!!! I honestly shed some major happy tears! GOD IS SO GOOD!!!
We got the perfect campsite (originally $12, but we got it for $6)! There was a gas station right outside the campsites where we could get fire wood. We honestly could show up with no camping gear at all and be good, because the gas station literally sells all of it right there.
Camping together was another first for us and we hadn't camped since we were kids! It was so cool that we got to camp together in the Grand Canyon as our first time as a couple, and as adults! It was so nice too, because there were essentially no bugs! It was a huge relief to not deal with earwigs and mosquitos! If you're from Wisconsin you know what I'm talking about.
There is also a market, café and gift shop and a gorgeous lookout point just down the road. The campsite also had public bathrooms and a wash station for cleaning dishes and, for water. After the lookout spot we grabbed some brew for later as well as a delicious sherbet and iced chai latte from the café and off We headed west through the South Rim...
I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to see the whole South Rim. They gave us a map and we just began driving. I honestly didn't know what to expect. It was such an easy drive up a hilly road lined with desert trees and the lookout points popped up one after the other. We just parked our car, got out and walked to the edge. Each lookout point was not far from the other. What I loved most is that every angle looked so different from the other.
P.s... I promise there was a ledge. He likes to play sick jokes on his Mom.
We didn't truly get all the way across the South Rim because we stopped at Mather Campground, which has it's own lookout point. Mather had a very different feel than Desert View. It is definitely more busy and touristy. They have lots of free shuttle busses coming and going. If you wanted the ease of taking a tour bus to each area or being able to book ahead to be guaranteed a spot, I'd recommend staying at that campground. Personally, I was really happy we stayed at Desert view and did the Rim on our own. We could go at our own pace and probably seen more in a shorter amount of time. I also liked Desert View better because it was less busy, felt more secluded and peaceful and had more of a desert feel. Mather had more of an up north feel with lots of pine-y trees. It was a very nice place don't get me wrong. Right in that same area are the Bright Angel Lodges and Hotels. If you aren't into camping, or want more of a romantic get-away, I highly recommend booking ahead and staying at one of the lodges. https://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/bright-angel-lodge-cabins/
They look very beautiful and it's right on the Rim. We wanted to make sure we got some exercise in so we took a hike down the canyon near Mather at Bright Angel Trail. It winds down and goes on forever, so we definitely did not make it all the way down. We wanted to get back to see the sunset.
Bright Angel Trail
Sunset, Grand Canyon. Photo Credit: Maria and Jefferson
The night had wrapped up and we were filled with awe of God's creation and ready to get back to our campsite to experience camping. We hadn't eaten since earlier in the day so we set up a fire and cooked on the grill that came with the camping gear. I knew we were going to camp, and wasn't sure if we would be near a place to get some healthy grub, so I planned ahead and brought rice, quinoa and lentil packets from home. It was nice to have something easy and healthy to make that we could travel with and didn't require any effort or refrigeration. I get them at Costco and Thrive Market. I love the Every Day Dal lentil packets! I buy them on Thrive Market because I don't have to run to the store, they sell them cheaper, and they give me free gifts for my purchases. Here is a link for 25% off your first order: http://thrv.me/1VEKLf
The night was so magical. I cannot even begin to tell you how many stars filled the sky. The air was the perfect temperature and we did not get eaten by any mountain lions...hehe.
Day 4: Horseshoe Bend, Page, and Lake Powell
Today was another early morning. We just couldn't pass up the opportunity to see a sunrise at the Grand Canyon. Thankfully we did not have to go far, because the Desert View lookout was the perfect spot. We were the first ones there, but met shortly after by a few others trying to catch the perfect sunrise photo. I think we got the best ones ;). Everything about it was perfect. From the beautiful colors and shadows of the canyon, to snuggling up to my hubby with a throw blanket in our pajamas.
Check out these AMAZING progressive Sunrise photos! They are completely unedited or altered!
I am completely and utterly satisfied.
We went back to our campsite and packed up to hit the road again. Here is a photo evidence that my husband can wash dishes, the scarecrow helped ;)…
The drive to Page was pretty and had amazing landscape and mountain cliffs at times, and then barren with sand dunes at other times.
We decided to get breakfast on our way, which was a mistake because the restaurants are slim pickins'. We ended up going to this family, native tribe restaurant, in one of the towns out of our way, and we massively regretted it. I like to try native or local food, but they got really busy with hotel customers and seemed like they took everyone's orders, but never delivered the food! We wanted to be quick in and out, but we waited for our food for over an hour until my husband had to walk into the kitchen and ask where our food was. It was breakfast food for crying out loud! Plus, it was not healthy scratch batch food. We did btw, order their traditional Navajo bread (super unhealthy), because its their native thing and we have only had it once the Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee. Its really good with drizzled honey, but its essentially a funnel cake and it was HUGE.
When doing a trip to the Grand Canyon, or a loop, Horseshoe Bend is a MUST SEE! It is conveniently on the drive to Lake Powell. One update from other blogs, is that they actually do charge an entrance fee for Horseshoe Bend now as of April 2019. It was an additional $10/car that we weren't expecting. All the blogs I read said it's free and you just drive right up to it. It also required walking up a small hill and down a path. But they nicely laid it out, and there are public bathroom stalls now, which is nice because the drive can get long with few stops for bathrooms.
Horseshoe Bend though, was more beautiful then even the Grand Canyon! At least, that's my opinion. We actually video chatted Jefferson's Mother to show her and she honestly started crying because it was so beautiful and amazing. There is no end to the beauty God can create.
Once we got to Page finally, I knew I wanted to rent paddleboards or kayaks from https://lakepowellpaddleboards.com/ and that we could camp on a beach somewhere, but didn't have where figured out. We were partly winging this trip. One thing was for sure, we were going to the SUP and Kayak rental place so that's where we headed. The lady at the desk was so helpful. She gave us so many tips and told us where to go and drew it on a map for us. The plan was to paddle down and across the lake, to Antelope Island, and Camp on the beach there, at this private cove. She said in the morning get up and on the water at 5 Am to see the sunrise, while paddling through the canyon river, directly across from the cove. So, that's exactly what we did! We decided to rent 2 SUP, though they were pricier than kayaks, and we had a hard time deciding which one would be better. Later on we had wished we rented one of each to save us a few extra dollars. I believe Paddleboards were $40-45 for the day if you return them by 6pm and $10 extra for an overnight fee. She waved the overnight fee for us though, since Jefferson is a vet. We just had to bring them back in the morning. We didn't ask for the discount, if you were wondering.
We ended up going to their local grocer to stock up on water and food and other things we may need for camping. We spent a little too long there, so unfortunatley, we got on the water pretty late and missed our opportunity to swim, because it took some time to do 2 trips to our beach escape to haul our stuff.
BUT, it was still so fun because we felt like we were hardcore wildernessing, like survivor, making a fire pit, FROM SCRATCH, in the sand, with stones, IN THE DARK, and we had to use our cellphones because our flashlights were burnt out. Good thing we made sure to have a full charge on our Phones before we went.
We also set up the tent in the dark.
Other people usually camp on this Island too. We seen tents on a section closer to the boat launch, but since it was the day after labor day, they had all packed up and left by night fall and we were literally the only ones out there. It felt so crazy! It was actually quite comforting that across the way we could see 3 stacks lit up from their plant(factory). I was a little creeped out and we were trying to make light with the fire and our cellphones, but it didn't seem like much light.
The locals said there are animals on the island but that they wont come near us, so I felt a little better. We eventually tuned off our cellphones, and the crazy thing was, it actually felt brighter! Our eyes adjusted to the night darkness, like animals do, and we could see all over our area, with the moonlight. It was SO MAGICAL being right up against the water, on a beach, camping ALONE, with my husband, on a deserted, desert-island. Honestly, it was a DREAM of mine, that actually came true. I wish we could have stayed 2 nights there. I can't tell you how peaceful it was to fall asleep to the waves crashing. Sleeping on a beach in a tent was much more comfortable than on rocky ground in the Grand Canyon.
By the way, we totally cooked a FEAST directly on top of the fire that night.
…and I totally had like 6 corn syrup-filled marshmallows. OOPS!
Day 5: From Page through Flagstaff and Sedona, to Cottonwood
As the plan went, We got up at the crack of dawn again, to paddle down the canyon river across from us, like the lady suggested. I caught a really pretty photo before we got into the canyon of just when the sun started to crack the surface. I think we missed the best part inside the canyon before we could get there though. It was a very beautiful and peaceful paddle in the canyon and I was happy to start my day with some exercise. The water there is very clear and a nice temperature by the way. There are no dangerous fish or aligators either.
After our morning paddle adventure, we headed back to camp and I took a bath IN THE LAKE with my travel/sample soap and shampoo, that I sell in my shop. It is made 100% of natural ingredients, so its bio-life friendly. I even shaved my legs. I had to... it's a bucket list thing, what can I say?
Meanwhile, Jefferson made us scrambled eggs and sausage on the fire :). While we were cooking and eating breakfast, this helicopter giving people tour rides, kept swinging down right past us. I honestly felt like one of those Milwaukee Museum exhibits.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention, we are on a deserted Island, so there's no bathrooms, there's NOTHING but us and what we brought.. so bring wipies if you decide to do this ;). And for the love of Pete, burn them in the fire! Leave no evidence! Hahahaaaaaa, ....so there's that.
We were "totes" cavemen.
I was sad to have to pack up our stuff and say goodbye to our island life, but we had to return the SUPs, and our camping gear to the lady in Flagstaff. Also, we had a packed day ahead of us again, headed to Sedona.
Some locals we met insisted that we go to this local brewery in flagstaff, so we did and it was, okay. They did however, have a kick-butt, local, sour beer! We are pretty spoiled with awesome breweries in Milwaukee though (I'm actually not a beer drinker...gluten, you know.) They also said to go to Slide Rock State Park, which is centrally located between Flagstaff and Sedona, on our drive.
Let me tell you, I definitely did not expect the drive from Flagstaff to Sedona to be so jaw- dropping. I was giddy in my seat. It looks like a scene from a dinosaur movie with the Pterodactyl flying through the canyon. I just couldn't get enough. The trip just kept getting better and better.
Slide Rock State Park costed an additional $20 because it's a state park, not national, but its per-vehicle and completely worth the money.
So basically, there's this river where the water has smoothed out the rocks and covering them in algae, so it makes it SUPER slippery. people slide through it like a slip-n-slide. It's pretty cool, but the water is absolutely freezing.
It's not so bad on a hot day, but it actually started to rain, which cleared out the park. and cooled things down. We took refuge under a boulder until the monsoon rain calmed, and then proceeded up the stream hiking rocks, cliffs and crossing through the river.
It was so fun! We felt like little kids again exploring the woods and wilderness. I know we were both in our happy place. The place is incredibly beautiful. Before we left I mustered up the courage to slide through the river. It was worth it, but I did skid my toosh a bit. By the way, they close the park at 4 pm. That's okay though, because we were already getting a really late start in Sedona.
Oh gosh... Sedona was NOT what I expected. It was FAR, FAR more beautiful!