Two days in Phoenix, Arizona: Exploring the Melrose District, eating some fantastic Mexican seafood, and cocktails at one of the most impressive Tiki bars we’ve ever been to.
Phoenix, Arizona was the last stop on our San Diego and Arizona road trip adventure. We originally only planned one night in Phoenix, but our flight got cancelled so we got another day to explore. We originally didn’t think Phoenix had much to offer, but Phoenix turned out to be pretty awesome. As frustrating as a cancelled flight can be, we were glad we got some time to get to know this city a little better.
Day 1: Murals and an immersive Tiki experience
We left our Tiki Bus at the Shady Dell in Bisbee that morning, sad to be leaving the Tiki Bus behind but anxious to sleep in a real bed in a hotel after a less than comfortable night in the bus bunks. It was about a three hour drive North to Phoenix from Bisbee. There wasn’t much to see on the way.
Our first stop in Phoenix was the Oak Street Murals, something I found on Google Maps that I thought sounded unique and an interesting quick stop.
Oak Street Murals is a little residential area near Midtown where artists have painted concrete walls lining a section of streets with a large variety of murals. Some of them are pretty impressive. If you have a car and are spending some time in Phoenix, it’s worth a stop.
After exploring the murals, we were hungry and ready to return the rental car and check into our hotel. A look at Google Maps found nearby Hula’s Modern Tiki restaurant, and you know we can’t resist Tiki themes.
I wouldn’t classify Hula’s Modern Tiki as a Tiki Bar, more like a Hawaiian themed modern chain restaurant. That said, the location in Uptown Phoenix was a very nice spot for lunch. A nice patio with misters and shade coverings provided relaxing casual ambiance while also being an escape from the heat.
Not wanting a huge lunch or any leftovers, we opted for the Hilo Sliders off the appetizer menu with a side of Hawaiian macaroni salad. The slider trio served on Hawaiian sweet bread gives you the option to pick Luau Pork, Spicy Thai Fish Cake, or regular burger–or one of each. They were tasty and the perfect amount of food.
Ready to relax in some air conditioning, we returned our rental car to the airport and made use of the free shuttle to the Radisson Hotel Phoenix Airport to check in. No complaints about the Radisson, rooms were clean and beds were very comfortable. We wanted to be near the airport for our scheduled 8:30 flight the next morning.
That evening, we were excited to check out the one Tiki Bar in Phoenix, The Undertow. I had made a reservation a month prior (Definitely make a reservation in advance–this place is popular). However, The Undertow doesn’t serve food, so we needed some sustenance first. Knowing we were going to drop some dough on pricy cocktails, we opted for an inexpensive meal at Z’s Greek nearby. The food was fast food Greek, no atmosphere or ambiance and it seemed like they do mostly take out. However, it was good and exactly what we needed.
What I didn’t know about The Undertow was that it was part of a trio of bars in a building called The Century Grand. In addition to the Tiki-themed Undertow, there is also a New Orleans style speakeasy bar called The Grey Hen, and a 1930’s train car themed bar called Platform 18. I immediately wished we had also made a reservation for Platform 18, where 1930’s clad wait staff serve cocktails of the same era in a bar made to look like an old train dining car. While you sit, scenes of the countryside flash by the “windows” next to your booth, making you feel like you are actually on a train. Getting a reservation at Platform 18 is now my number one priority for a second trip to Phoenix.
On to The Undertow: This bar is just as impressive as the concept for Platform 18, if not more so. After checking in for your reservation, your host leads you into a dark room designed to look like the inside of an old ship. Two-person porthole tables line the sides of the room, and just like the train car theme bar, there is an ocean sailing loop that plays scenes through your porthole “window” to make you feel like you are on a moving ship.
Even more fantastic is that the hour-long loop of porthole view doesn’t stay the same. You leave a dock on a sunny day, pass some islands, the sun sets, the stars come out, and then a storm comes. During the storm part lightning strikes and thunder sounds in the bar, and all the lights in the whole bar flicker. We were really impressed with the whole dramatic and theatrical immersive experience.
To go along with the ambiance and experience are some of the best cocktails we’ve ever had. The menu is extensive, and an entire book full of stories and drawings. I don’t think you would have time to read the whole menu and it’s stories in your 90 minute reservation slot unless you were by yourself and really focusing on doing just that. It seemed to tell the tale of a zombie plague on a ship, from what I could skim.
Looking at their website, it appears that the menus are “chapters” of a book, and the stories and cocktails change with each new “chapter” of the book. I wish I could remember exactly what we had, but I can’t 100% pinpoint them exactly. I can tell you that they were from Chapter Seven. To be honest, the amount of choices on the menu was overwhelming, and they all sounded amazing. It was hard to narrow it down. Asking your server which ones are their favorites is a good way to go.
A few things to know about planning your trip to The Undertow:
Reservations are strongly recommended. The further in advance you can book if you only have a specific day you can go (especially for Friday and Saturday night reservations), the better. Reservations release 30 days prior at noon each day.
Porthole tables seat two only. The other seats available are bar seats, and there are two booths for up to 6 guests.
Your reservation is for 90 minutes, and they are strict about that. Your server will let you know when you have time to order one more drink before closing out. Typically 90 minutes is good for two drinks per person.
There is a pre-paid $20 beverage minimum per person when you make your reservation, with a $3 processing fee. The $20 fee per person is deducted from your bill. They also have a strict cancellation policy, and you will need to cancel your reservation at least 8 hours or more (online) or you will forfeit the deposit.
This is a lot more strict than other Tiki bar reservations we have had (first time we’ve ever had to make a deposit!), but it is worth it.
Thoroughly impressed with The Undertow experience, we took a Lyft back to our hotel to get some rest before our early flight the next morning. Or so we thought…
Day 2: A cancelled flight and an unexpected fun day in the Melrose District
Just when we were getting ready to head down for our shuttle to the airport, I got an email that our flight was cancelled. There was no rebooking offered, and when I tried calling the customer service number in the email, I was told that the wait to speak to an agent was approximately 5 hours.
We figured the best thing to do was to just go to the airport anyway, talk to the booking agent in person and see what we could figure out. We waited in line for about an hour and a half at the Alaska Air counter, and were told it had something to do with the flight being short staffed and/or Airforce One visiting Seattle the day before and cancelling a bunch of flights to clear the airport.
The best they could do for us after a lot of searching in their systems for all the flights back to Seattle was fly us back to Portland the next day and we would then rent a car and drive the rest of the way home. We were provided with a free hotel room, a couple meal vouchers for airport food, and told we could submit a reimbursement claim for the rental car and gas (this part was true, although it took a couple months to get reimbursed).
While we weren’t happy about getting home a day late, we decided to make the most of our extra day of vacation with a free hotel room.
We ate breakfast at the airport with our meal vouchers, then took the free shuttle to our new hotel and dropped off our bags. I scanned Google Maps for ideas on what to do for the day. I searched “vintage stores” and found several in one area…along with a couple gay bars. Could it be? A gayborhood in Phoenix?
Hot tip: If you want to find cool stuff in a city, find the gayborhood.
The gayborhood in Phoenix is the Melrose District, as we soon discovered. The main drag is on N 7th Ave, north of W Indian School Road. We took an Uber to one of the vintage stores we found on the map, Rewind Vintage & Antiques. Rewind Vintage had an impressive Indie record collection, and is run by an extremely nice couple who offered to mail us some records that we bought for the price of postage and record mailers. They also gave us some great tips on the neighborhood.
Paddy needed some coffee, and our new friends at Rewind Vintage raved about Copper Star Coffee just up the block, so that was our next stop. Paddy said their Americano was delicious. I had their lemonade, which was homemade and very refreshing. All of their baked goods and bagels looked amazing as well. If you are a looking for great coffee in Phoenix, Copper Star Coffee is the place to go.
Next, we crossed the street over to the Retro Ranch, which we would also recommend.
The Retro Ranch had a very impressive collection of antiques and vintage clothes. We didn’t find anything we couldn’t live without, but if we lived in Phoenix, we would definitely be regulars here.
All the rifling through antiques and vintage clothes made us hungry, so we wandered into Short Leash Hot Dogs & Rollover Doughnuts. Short Leash has a fantastic back patio to lounge in with sun or shade, and a variety of seating options.
The hot dogs and doughnuts are also delicious. I had the Lady hot dog with a chicken sausage, which comes on naan flatbread with sauteed onions, chipotle cheese sauce and fried pickles. Paddy had the Brat Stuffed Pretzel with a bratwurst, sauerkraut, onion, bacon, swiss cheese, and spicy mustard on their homemade pretzel roll. I couldn’t resist getting a doughnut to share–with peanut butter glaze, chocolate, and peanuts. Everything was decadent and delightful.
The lovely couple at Rewind Vintage also recommended the Thunderbird Lounge, which is a 1970’s throwback bar just off of 7th.
The Thunderbird Lounge also has a pretty awesome outdoor patio, but the interior is pretty darn groovy.
If you were a kid who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s and liked to go to the arcade, this place is your jam. Paddy was pretty stoked to play a few old games from his childhood.
They even had a vintage (and working!) Simon Says game that I remembered playing at my Grandma’s house in the 80s. It wasn’t as fun as I remembered.
The Thunderbird Lounge has lots of events in the evenings and live music. If we had some more time in Phoenix, I’d be into checking out what they’ve got going on.
After the hot dogs, beers, and doughnuts as well as walking around in the sun, we felt like it was time to go check into our hotel and take a nap.
For dinner that evening, I had found what looked like a pretty awesome Mexican seafood place called Mariscos Playa Hermosa in the (Douglas?) neighborhood of Phoenix. It was only a 10 minute Uber ride from our hotel near the airport.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa is popular! There was about a 20 minute wait for a table, but it was worth it. Their website says they just celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2022. It is clearly a favorite with locals and for celebrations.
The menu looked amazing, and we wanted to try everything, but we couldn’t take any leftovers with us. They also take margaritas to the next level. We ordered the Mango Diablo, which is blended with mango, chamoy, Tajin, and tequila, and the Spicy Miami – a spicy watermelon margarita rimmed with Tajin and served with a watermelon paleta. The Mango Diablo came with a chamoy candy stick.
For dinner, we shared oysters and the Tostada Embarazada (a “pregnant” tostada) which had a ceviche mix of seafood and avocado on a crispy tostada.
We only ended up ordering off the appetizer menu. There were so many things we wanted to try but we were full after finishing that pile of ceviche with the tostadas and crackers that went with it. Everything looked so good, and with how busy they were–you know that their seafood is always fresh.
Note: The neighborhood that Mariscos Playa Hermosa is near that we drove through between the Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport and the restaurant looked pretty rough. Best to stick to taking an Uber or Lyft there and back and staying close to the restaurant while waiting for your ride home. That said, don’t let that scare you into missing this place. It is fabulous!
Phoenix surprised us. We hadn’t heard many good things about this city, so we weren’t expecting much. I wouldn’t say it’s a top destination, but if we end up going through there on another trip to Arizona we wouldn’t be too sad about it. On a second trip to Phoenix, it would be nice to have a car during the day to spend some more time in the Melrose District again and check out some of the other parts of town. As for nightlife, our number one priority would be a reservation at Platform 18, along with a second visit to The Undertow. It would be fun to check out what the Thunderbird Lodge has going on at night, and we will absolutely be going back to Mariscos Playa Hermosa HUNGRY.
Do you have some tips for things to do and see in Phoenix? If so please add to the comments below!
An overnight excursion to the towns of Tombstone, Bisbee, and Lowell in Southern Arizona: A taste of the wild west, the artsy old mining town of Bisbee, a ghost town frozen in the 1950’s, and a night in a 1947 tiki bus in a vintage trailer park.
A quick overnight trip to Bisbee was part of our California and Arizona trip including San Diego, Tucson, and Phoenix. We only had one night in Bisbee, and we wished we had been able to stay at least one more night. An artsy small town community in an old copper mining town, Bisbee turned out to be an unexpected hidden gem.
We checked out of our Airbnb in Tucson and headed south. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop in in the wild west town of Tombstone along the way.
Tombstone is the old mining town famous for Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the gunfight at the OK Corral. It is, as you would expect, a corny tourist trap doing what it can to separate you from your money. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a stop. If you haven’t seen it and you’re on the way to or from Bisbee, I would recommend checking it out.
We opted for a tour of the Bird Cage Theater, an old theater that used to entertain the miners with magic shows, wrestling matches, and other acts, as well as poker games in the basement. As with any old west town, prostitutes provided the miners with a bit of “entertainment” as well. Tours cost $15 and have a lot of old artifacts on display.
Next, at the recommendation of my parents who had been in Tombstone a few days prior, we did the stagecoach tour of town. For $10 per person, you sit in an old horse-drawn stage coach for a dusty 20 minute tour around town narrated by the driver. It’s a good way to get an overview of the town and it’s history, and the guide was very animated and had some good stories. Stage coach leaves from the main street of town.
If you want to see the OK Corral, you have to pay a fee. They have staged shootout re-enactments a few times a day. We opted to pass on this, seeing it from the outside was enough for us.
The last and cheesiest thing we did before leaving Tombstone was Ike Clanton’s Haunted Hotel tour. It was a self-guided tour through a few scenes with animated props and screens, and for $15 per adult I think I would recommend just skipping this one. It was mildly entertaining but pretty corny.
There are saloons where you can get a drink or something to eat, as well as old time photo studios where you can dress up and take those sepia toned wild west portraits with costumes. We were getting hungry but the saloons were pretty packed, so we decided to head on to Bisbee.
Bisbee is only about a 25 minute drive from Tombstone. We parked in a lot at the entrance to town and were pretty hungry, so opted for the first restaurant we stumbled upon, Bisbee’s Table. There was a little bit of a wait, but the food was good. We both had the Frick’N Chicken sandwich.
After lunch, we explored the small town. There were a lot of cool little shops to explore. We definitely noticed the elevation change as we walked around. For us sea-level dwelling Seattlites, Bisbee’s hilly streets and 5,538 ft elevation had us a little winded.
We enjoyed Classic Rock Couture, with new and vintage clothing. records, and gifts. Very desert/rock n roll/retro seventies chic. Red Bone Vintage was a cute vintage clothing spot. Miners & Merchants Antique Center was fun to explore, and Black Sheep Imports had lots of fun novelty gifts and unique Bisbee souvenirs.
We passed the Bisbee Social Club, a speakeasy style cocktail bar that hosts live music. We planned on coming back there later that evening, but ended up being too tired and our accommodation was a little ways out of town. It looked right up our alley though, and we hope to come back someday and stay in town so that we can enjoy more of what Bisbee has to offer.
Losing steam, we moved on to our last stop–the preserved 1950’s ghost town of Lowell.
Lowell is another old mining town about a 6 minute drive from Bisbee. According to Atlas Obscura, the residential areas of Lowell were demolished in the interest of expanding the copper mine, and less residents lead to the abandonment of the town. Lowell is now incorporated into Bisbee, and the volunteers of the Lowell Americana Project have worked to preserve the town. The lone open business on Erie Street in Lowell is the Bisbee Breakfast Club, an old diner that serves a hearty breakfast.
Vintage cars, trucks, and even an old Greyhound bus line the eerily empty streets of Erie Street in Lowell. If nothing else, it’s a fabulous photo op. I’m not sure who the owners of the cars are (individuals or a preservation society?), but letting them sit on the street in Lowell and be part of the ghost town experience is really awesome.
Adjacent to Lowell is the Shady Dell Trailer Park, which would be our home for the night. Full disclosure: it was the 1947 Tiki Bus at the Shady Dell that brought us to Bisbee.
The Shady Dell is the perfect compliment to Lowell. Full of vintage trailers, buses, and even a boat that you can rent for the night–it is a campy, unique vintage experience.
We arrived and went to the office to check in. No one was around, but a sign on the front door with our name on it instructed us that the key to the Tiki Bus was in the bus, and to make ourselves at home.
The quarters were tight, but the attention to detail was fantastic.
The bus came equipped with a kitchen including a fridge and a sink with running water and dish soap. No cooking is allowed due to food smells that can permeate the bus, but a cold fridge is ready and waiting to store your beer and tiki cocktail ingredients. Tiki mugs are included as well for your use.
The bus also had a record player with some vintage Hawaiian records. We tried listening to them but the records were in pretty poor shape and scratchy. It would be nice if they got a few that are in better condition. We almost wanted to go buy some and add to the collection ourselves.
The bus had a bathroom with a toilet only, but campground style free shower stalls are available in the center of the trailer park.
We thought about going back into Bisbee that evening, but the long day and the elevation wore us out. We opted to get some takeout sub sandwiches from Dylan’s Pizza Bistro and beer from the Safeway nearby instead. The sandwiches were decent, and the restaurant was nice enough to give us two cups of ice to take back to the Tiki Bus for cocktails. One way the Shady Dell could be improved: offering ice for sale or an ice machine on the property.
Dusk fell, and lights came on around the park. I made some grog in the tiki mugs with rum, lime juice, and demerara syrup that we brought. We sipped our cocktails on the little porch, taking in the atmosphere. It was quiet and pleasant.
The bus was charming, but the bed situation was less than optimal. There was a twin bunk with a spongy, springy uncomfortable mattress, and a slightly smaller than a full size bed double bunk. It was pretty tight for two people, and the bus leaned a little bit, so whoever was on the outside of the double bunk would end up rolling towards the other person and smushing them. Paddy took the twin bunk and slept fairly uncomfortably. I slept okay in the double bunk by myself. He’s a gentleman.
Overall, a super fun experience and we were glad we did it, but we were also glad we had only one night there. Perhaps the other trailers have more comfortable beds.
Breakfast was good, your classic diner fare. We were sad to say goodbye and wished we had one more night in Bisbee to get to know the town a little better.
If you’re into kitsch, art, and old desert history, Bisbee, Lowell, and Tombstone are definitely worth visiting. If it’s your first visit, I would recommend two nights–one at the Shady Dell for a fun kitschy experience, and one in the town of Bisbee so that you can get the feel of the town and maybe some nightlife.
Tucson, Arizona: Exploring Saguaro National Park, San Xavier Del Bac Mission, and enjoying some of the best Mexican food Tucson has to offer.
Ever since my parents moved to Arizona to enjoy their retirement in the sunshine, they have been wanting to explore more of their new state. This year, instead of visiting them at their home, we decided to meet up with them and both explore Tucson, Arizona. We rented a VRBO house just outside of the city in the Oro Valley area–a very nice area if you are looking for some peace and quiet but still want to be close to all the main attractions. We visiting in April, one of the best times for weather in Arizona and around the time that we Seattlites are in desperate need of some sun.
Day 1: Road trip from San Diego to Tucson
After spending three nights in San Diego (click to read more about our time there), we rented a car to drive to Tucson to meet up with my parents. I’m a pretty big fan of road trips, an the drive was about 6 hours through the desert. However, there wasn’t much to see along the way and it was honestly a pretty boring drive. When we arrived at our rental house, we just ordered some delivery dinner and spent some time enjoying the evening with my parents.
The sunsets in Tucson are fantastic, particularly when accompanied by a prickly pear margarita.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park and some fantastic tacos
Saguaro National Park surrounds Tucson, and there are actually two separate parts to the park–one to the east of the city and one to the west. I had a few short and easy hikes on my list, but even though it was a cooler time of year to visit Tucson, it was already 85 degrees by the time we arrived at the park. We also had my parents with us who have some mobility limitations, so we opted for a short, half mile stroll on an easy paved path through the Saguaros.
There is no toll booth for entry to Saguaro National Park West, you can pay at the visitor’s center. The fee is $25.00 per vehicle. Rangers at the visitor’s center and gift shop are happy to help answer questions about hiking trails, wildlife, and any other inquiries you may have about the park.
The short easy trail we did was the Desert Discovery Trail, which is all level and paved and includes several shaded benches along the way. It is a perfect way to see the saguaros up close if it’s too hot to hike, or if you or your family have mobility challenges.
Note: Always stay on the trail as rattlesnakes and scorpions are often hiding under rocks. Always be sure to take water with you as well, no matter how short of a hike you are doing.
The huge saguaros are really impressive in person. It takes them about 70 years to reach 6 feet tall, and 200 years to reach their full height of around 45 feet. It seems that not one saguaro is identical, they all had unique shapes and varied amounts of arms.
After the little Desert Discovery Trail loop, we took a drive around the rest of the park and enjoyed the scenery.
We said goodbye to the Saguaros and headed into Tucson for some lunch at Top Chef finalist Maria Mazon’s restaurant, Boca Tacos y Tequila.
We enjoy watching Top Chef (it’s pretty much the only reality TV show we watch) and were excited to try Maria Mazon’s food after cheering her on while watching the show. We were surprised and delighted to see that she was actually running food out to customers at her restaurant! She even posed for a photo with Paddy, who was fanboy giddy with excitement. I think she enjoys interacting with her patrons.
As for the food, it was just as delicious as we expected it to be. We had to go with the Boca Balls (fried chipotle mashed potato balls), and the Pulpo Asado (octopus tentacles with ancho chile and lime butter and grilled green onions). We also tried a selection of the tacos, which were all fantastic. My favorite was the salmon taco.
Boca Tacos y Tequila is open for lunch and dinner, and has a full bar. They take reservations for parties of 4 or more. Don’t miss this place while visiting Tucson!
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool and ordered pizza delivery for dinner. Our VRBO rental in the Catalina Foothills was just too relaxing to leave.
Day 3: Downtown Tucson and a Disappointing Tiki Bar
We began our third day in Tucson by doing a driving/walking tour of Barrio Viejo, the old historic part of downtown Tucson. In Barrio Viejo, you can find some historic buildings from the 1800’s that are still standing from when Tucson used to be part of Mexico. Many of the old adobe houses and buildings are painted bright colors.
Per the Tucson Museum website, “The ‘Curse of The Wishing Shrine’ centers predominately on its visitors motives for their visit, and their own lives. It is said that if one visits with a clear open heart that forgives, they will pass, and they may even get their wish fulfilled. For others, it may just be the beginning of history repeating itself depending on what they themselves bring to the shrine. Also, it is said that if you light a candle at the shrine and it remains burning all night long without going out by sunrise, your wish may be granted depending on your motivations.”
Read more about the story of this intriguing historical site here.
After enjoying the historical buildings in Barrio Viejo, we ventured over to North 4th Ave, a neighborhood area in between downtown and the University of Arizona with a lot of fun shops and restaurants. We recommend visiting Pop Cycle, a shop with a lot of unique locally made art and gifts, Generation Cool vintage clothing, the Tucson Thrift Shop (more vintage clothing and costumes), Wooden Tooth Records, and Jellywink (a sex-positive adult boutique).
We were pretty hungry after exploring, and were ready to try some more local food. One of the foods Tucson is famous for is the Sonoran Hot Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon and dressed with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, mayo, mustard, and jalepenos. We were told one of the best places to get these is at El Guero Canelo.
At El Guero Canelo, they bake the hot dog buns themselves. After ordering at the counter, your Sonoran dog arrives on a paper plate in a soft, pillowy bed of fresh baked bread with beans and all the fixings. An economical meal that is delicious and uniquely Tucson, a lunch stop at El Guero Canelo is a must. There are several locations to choose from.
Later that evening, we were excited to check out Tucson’s only Tiki bar, Kon Tiki. A historical hold-out from the mid-century Tiki heyday, Kon Tiki has been in swing since 1963, with much of the original decor and signs.
The Tiki decor and atmosphere in Kon Tiki is well-preserved, but they seem to have added some TVs and made it into a sports bar, which was disappointing. We were seated in a section away from the main TV area so we were content there. Overall, the vintage Tiki vibe is thriving here.
The biggest disappointment however, was the food and drinks. The drinks were sugary 1970’s or 1980’s era tropical. My Mai Tai was mediocre and sweet. The food left even more to be desired. I made the mistake of trying the macadamia crusted mahi, expecting something similar to macadamia mahi dish I’d tried at Duke’s in Waikiki. What I got was a piece of fish drowned in a very sweet, gray sauce with flavors that should never be paired with fish. We all agreed that the cook seems to be afraid of salt, and I had to ask for salt to try and make the meal edible (it was not on the tables). Paddy tried the katsu chicken and waffles (also a mistake), which was bizarrely prepared with a questionable bechamel sauce.
I really wanted to like Kon Tiki, as it is a historical relic of the Tiki era. However, I can’t recommend it and we definitely won’t be back. If you are a Tiki fan and want to go just to see it, I recommend sticking to beer and maybe just try some of their potstickers. Good luck.
Day 4: San Xavier del Bac Mission
A trip to Tucson isn’t complete without a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. I had been once before with a friend on a three week road trip around the southwest in my early 20’s, and the second visit was just as magical as the first. Just a 30 minute drive south of Tucson, it’s an easy day tour.
Tucson and San Xavier were part of Mexico up until the Gadsden purchase of 1854. The Catholic mission of San Xavier dates back to 1692, with the current church building dating back to the 1700’s. It feels like something you would see in Europe due to it’s age and Spanish architecture.
The outside grounds are beautiful, but the inside is shockingly elaborate. Entrance is free, but check the website to avoid mass times as the church is still in active operation.
After touring the mission in the morning, we went a little further south to the tiny town of Amado to visit the iconic Longhorn Grill and Saloon for lunch. We were there for food, but the food is not the draw to this establishment. It’s because it looks like this:
The building dates back to the 1970’s, and has been the site of a bait shop, a roofing company, and a clothing store before becoming a restaurant. It seems to have had a recent remodel inside, and the atmosphere was nice. Menu serves decent pub grub and southwest fare. It really doesn’t get much more Arizona than a restaurant with a giant cow skull in the middle of the desert. It’s worth the stop for the photo-op alone, but the food isn’t bad. Just don’t come in a hurry–service is a little slow.
We spend the rest of our last day in Tucson enjoying our pool and relaxing.
For dinner, I had read that some of the most legendary Mexican fare in Tucson is served at the El Charro Cafe. It is at El Charro that the chimichanga was invented, and it is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the US.
As we were staying in Oro Valley, we opted for the Oro Valley location nearby, instead of the flagship downtown location. The Oro Valley El Charro was disappointingly in a strip mall, and we sat outside with a view of the parking lot and a Kohl’s. The food however, did not disappoint. Service was quick and the meals were delicious.
A food that is traditionally Sonoran is Carne Seca, which is dried beef that is then shredded and cooked as a filling for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. El Charro has many dishes featuring Carne Seca. Paddy tried the El Charro Carne Seca Burro, “elegante style,” and I tried the Sinaloa Shrimp Culchi (shrimp cooked in a creamy garlic verde sauce). My shrimp dish came with a side of nopalitos, or cooked nopal/prickly pear cactus.
El Charro is a must for a visit to Tucson, but maybe try and visit the downtown flagship location for better atmosphere. The downtown location is on our list for a return trip.
Overall, Oro Valley was a nice place outside of downtown to get a house with a pool and relax. Pro tip for searching for a house with a pool: If coming during a cooler time of year, check to see if the pool is heated or has a heating option (often for an additional fee) before booking. Many Arizona pools are not heated at all, and are a little too chilly to use during the spring and fall.
I would love to come back to Tucson in March when it is a little cooler and try some easy day hikes in the Saguaro National Park. We didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, and I have a dream of watching the sunset over a hill of Saguaros. We really liked Tucson and would like to spend more time there someday.
Road tripping during COVID: Our two-week road trip through California. Touring the coast, the Redwoods, wine country, and the desert while social distancing and staying safe.
Cancelling our big 10-year anniversary trip to Greece was painful, but all things considered we have been fortunate (so far) in 2020. We both remain employed, healthy, and are able to work from home. We are counting our blessings.
Like many of you, we miss traveling. However, there is no way we are getting on a plane right now nor until there is a vaccine. Being safe and socially responsible are things we take seriously.
That said, we had two weeks of time off booked for September for our Greece trip, and a stay-cation just didn’t have the same luster that it used to. My parents had just sold my childhood home on San Juan Island, WA and moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in July, so we decided to take a road trip to visit them in their new house.
A lot of thought went into this trip and how we would keep ourselves safe. We came up with the following guidelines and preparations:
We would only stay in motels with outdoor entrances or Airbnb houses where we wouldn’t have to share hallways and elevators with others.
We brought our own pillows and comforters to use as hotels only wash the sheets.
We put together a cleaning kit with alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, hand soap, and cleaning products to do a wipe down of high touch surfaces in our accommodations, and to wipe down any other surfaces as we travel
We focused on outdoor attractions only. No museums, restaurants, bars, shops, etc.
We brought a cooler and snacks, and picnicked, got takeout or delivery, or cooked in our Airbnb. Even where indoor dining was open again, we stayed out of restaurants except to pick up food.
We brought a plethora of masks (to coordinate with our outfits of course) and face shields.
Aside from store trips and doctors appointments, my retired parents had been social distancing pretty diligently as well, so visiting them was a calculated risk. It’s been a month since we got home, and no one has COVID so I’ll call it a success.
In addition to COVID, we also had the wildfires on the west coast to contend with. We kept up to date on the fires daily and did a few last-minute plan changes to stay far away from active fire areas.
This trip was a lot more stressful and less carefree than any other trip we’ve taken, but after 6 months cooped up in our house, we had to go on an adventure.
Day 1: Seattle to Crescent City
We set off in the early morning and drove pretty non-stop all day. We had one quick visit to my Grandma’s care home in Albany, OR where we had a social distance visit with her on the patio and ate our sandwiches that we made that morning. We departed I-5 in Grant’s Pass to the 199, passing the famous “Sweet Cron” sign on the 199 highway in southern Oregon.
I hadn’t made a reservation yet for that night, because I kept worrying that we would have to cancel our trip due to COVID or wildfires, and there seemed to be a lot of hotel availability several days before. This was a huge travel failure, as it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and everyone else apparently had the same plan. I reserved the last crappy room at the Crescent City Motel 6 for $169.00 a night. I’m normally a planner who books way in advance, and for Labor Day weekend I should have known better.
We arrived in Crescent City starving, and I also had the bright idea of getting fish and chips for dinner. Guess what? So did everyone else. We walked to Fisherman’s Restaurant down the road where there were quite a few people waiting for tables or waiting outside. Some people weren’t wearing masks at all, staff was wearing masks under their noses, and we really should have left and gone to the taco stand down the street. But we thought we might be able to just get a quick takeout order.
We were told our order would take about 20 minutes and would be brought out to us when ready. They were very busy and having worked in a restaurant during Labor Day weekend in a tourist town, I know they were doing the best they could. I can’t even imagine having to work in a tourist town restaurant on Labor Day weekend during COVID. Our food finally came out 45 minutes later, and it was a chilly walk back to our crappy Motel 6. The sunset was nice while we waited, but overall the evening was a complete fail.
Day 2: Driving the 101 through the Redwoods
We ate cereal and made coffee in our motel room, and checked out of the Motel 6 as quickly as we could. After yesterday’s travel fail, we were determined to have a better day. Fortunately I had reservations for the rest of our trip, so we had good accommodations to look forward to.
Before we left Crescent City, we gave it one last chance to delight us and went out to the Anchor Way jetty to see if we could spot some sea lions. Crescent City came through for us and there were dozens of fat sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. They were pestering each other and loudly barking and flopping about in big piles. It was amusing to see. The morning sun over Crescent Beach was beautiful, and we felt like today would be a great day.
The coastal drive south on the 101 was beautiful, with lots of beaches and rocky overlooks to the coast below. It wasn’t long before we made it to our first roadside attraction: The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues at the Trees of Mystery. We did not tour the Trees of Mystery as it was Labor Day Weekend and we wanted to stay away from other people. So this was just a fun photo op.
Further down the 101 we pulled into Klamath to do the “Tour-Thru Tree.” There are a few drive-through trees in the Redwoods, some more expensive than others. Signs in Klamath led us to a small road with a pay booth. No one was at the pay booth, so there was an honor-system pay box requesting $5.00 that we deposited our money into and continued up the road.
The Tour-Thru tree looks like a really tight squeeze, so I got out to take a picture and make sure Paddy got the car through without incident. We have a Nissan Versa and it fit through just fine. Just go slow and straight. It was a little silly but a fun little photo op and break from the highway.
Just south of Stafford, the 101 splits off with a parallel road, called the Avenue of the Giants. This was the second time we had driven this road and it is something you cannot miss if driving through Redwood country in California. The two lane road winds through towering redwood trees, with lots of places to pull off and picnic, take photos, or just get out and stare in awe at these ancient, magnificent works of nature.
Also, there’s a giant ear of corn.
Our magical Avenue of the Giants tour was only slightly hazy from the wildfire smoke near Sonoma, and the temperature was perfect. Our stopping point for the night was Ukiah. When we got further south towards Ukiah, we stepped out at a rest stop and were hit by a 100+ degree heat wave. We were definitely heading into the lower valley.
We had a reservation at the Ukiah Quality Inn, which seemed to be the highest rated motel in the area at a reasonable rate. It was a refreshing change from the Crescent City Motel 6.
*Pro tip: not all chain hotel locations are created equal. I’ve stayed in the Walla Walla Motel 6 which was fine, and the Austin airport Quality Inn which was horrendous. Check reviews.
With COVID, 109 degree temperatures, and poor air quality due to the wildfire smoke, we spent the evening in our room and ordered delivery from Super Taco on Door Dash. It was excellent, we would definitely recommend their food.
Our Redwoods adventure day made up for our Crescent City travel fail.
Day 3: Ukiah to The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
A few weeks before this trip, I was planning a re-route to avoid the wildfires near Monterey and Big Sur where we originally planned on going. Somehow I stumbled upon the website for The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, and wondered how in the world I had never heard of this place. It became a major destination focus on this trip. Be sure to reserve in advance, their themed rooms are pretty popular.
We continued our drive on the 101 south and opted to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, since we had never done that before. Had we not been in a pandemic, we would have planned for a couple days in San Francisco going to Tiki bars and seeing the sights, but we’ll have to save that for another trip.
The weather got hazier as we drove further south. We stopped for a quick lunch at El Pollo Loco in Salinas. It’s a chain we’d never eaten at before and we were impressed. We loved their salad with avocado dressing and the chicken was bomb. We had to eat in our car though, which was hot and kind of messy. Se la vie in COVID times.
After a long day we finally arrived at The Madonna Inn. I was so excited.
What can I say about the Madonna Inn? Well, it’s eccentric. It was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and each room has a different theme and decor. Phyllis Madonna loves the color pink, which is everywhere in the hotel from the mid-century style Steakhouse to the signature goblets for sale in the gift shop, to the signature Pink Champagne cake in the on-site bakery. Some of the rooms are also very pink forward, such as ours:
Behold the Carin Room:
Pink glitter wallpaper. Need I say more?
Having booked the room in advance of our trip, we packed some fun outfits because if you have a hotel room like this you HAVE to do a photo shoot, right? Right.
Paddy was a good sport.
Fun fact: The Grimes music video for her song “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” was filmed at the Madonna Inn and in the Carin room:
The awesome thing about the Madonna Inn was that all the rooms have outdoor access, so no elevators or hallways to worry about during COVID. Be aware that some of the rooms (like this one) are only accessible by stairs, so if you are mobility-challenged be sure to ask which ones are best for you before booking.
After checking in and doing our epic pink glitter room photo shoot, we put on masks and explored the hotel grounds. There were lots of signs around telling guests to wear masks outside of their hotel rooms, and most people complied. Check in only allowed two people into the office check in at a time (not a problem, no one was there when we arrived except the front desk workers).
Most people were wearing masks in the indoor areas in the hotel (bakery, main lobby and gift shop) but a few had masks pulled down under their noses and on their chins, and two ladies kept taking them off altogether. So selfish.
The Goldrush Steakhouse interior was closed for indoor dining, with outdoor dining open. We will definitely have to come back here after COVID. Those pink booths are amazing.
We stopped to admire the cakes at the on-site bakery.
We ordered dinner to go from the Gold Rush Steakhouse. The menu is pretty old style mid-century steakhouse, and nothing on there intrigued me, especially for the high prices. It was hot, so we got some salads and a slice of the pink champagne cake. I feel like dropping the dough on a full steakhouse dinner experience would only be worth it if you were dining in that magnificent steakhouse. We’ll save that for a post-pandemic visit.
The salads were not memorable, but the cake was. We ate dinner and watched a hazy sunset from one of our room’s two balconies and enjoyed some pink champagne and wine.
We also learned that glitter wallpaper really comes alive at night. It felt so fancy to drink pink champagne amongst all the sparkles!
Side note–the bed in the Carin room has seen A LOT of action. It wasn’t very comfortable. For the price we would expect better, and I hope they upgrade the mattress. Not sure if every room has an old worn out mattress or if the Carin room does because it is one of the most popular.
After the pandemic, we would like to come back and enjoy all the Madonna Inn has to offer–the steakhouse, horseback riding, and the magnificent beach-style walk in pool. But for now, the Carin room was exciting enough and we stayed safe. I can’t decide if my next top room choice will be the Hearts and Flowers room or the Blue Romance room. Stay tuned!
Days 4 and 5: Paso Robles Wine Country
The Copper Cafe breakfast looked expensive and boring, so we just ate the breakfast options we brought in our cooler. The wildfire smoke was pretty bad, and our car was covered in ash. We were headed a half hour drive away to a little Airbnb house in Paso Robles wine country, but couldn’t check in until 1:00. We decided to drive over to Pismo Beach to take a look at the California coast. But first, we stopped into the Madonna Inn bakery to get two slices of cake for the road. Their cake is out of this world! If you don’t stay there, at least stop by for cake.
We pretty much just got out of the car and looked at the smoky beach (it was actually a sunny day–those clouds are actually all smoke and ash). I guess at least it wasn’t crowded during the pandemic? I had a plan for us to walk on the beach and do a picnic lunch here, but it was best to not be outside breathing the hazardous air and it wasn’t much to look at with all the smoke.
We hit up the San Luis Obispo Whole Foods and picked up lunch and groceries for dinner, along with some local wine and headed to Paso Robles.
Our Airbnb house was adorable. It was a guest house on a gated private property, with grapes growing in the front yard, nice views and a pool. Paso Robles was a higher elevation than the coast, so we were able to get out of the worst of the wildfire smoke.
It was 95 degrees, so I went and took a quick dip in the pool. It wasn’t heated and was mostly in the shade so it cooled me right off! However, even in 95 degree heat it wasn’t comfy enough to swim in for very long. It was nice to read in the pool loungers, however.
After doing so much driving for the past three days, we were ready to have some down time. We cooked some delicious halibut for dinner and some of the Madonna Inn raspberry white chocolate cake for dessert and binge watched Netflix.
Exploring wine country
The next morning, the wildfire smoke made its way up to our elevation so my lovely day of sunning myself by the pool was not going to pan out. It wasn’t as hot which was nice, but it left us without a lot to do but hang out and relax. We’re good at that though.
If we weren’t in a pandemic (and multiple wildfires), I would have had a whole afternoon of wine tasting planned, possibly with a wine tour for safe transport to the many wineries in the area. I felt like we had to taste some wine, so prior to the trip I had researched some wineries open on Wednesdays (many are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), that had COVID-safe plans. We selected Niner Wine Estates. Their tastings during COVID are reservation only, are outdoor only with wide spacing between tables, and masks are required at all times except when seated at your table. In addition, they sanitize each table between guests, and have all the tastings poured for you when you are seated, so as to limit your server having to come to your table very often. All the servers wore masks.
We felt very safe. We were greeted outdoors by a masked host who offered us a welcome tasting of wine outside seated far from the entrance area. He took our wine tasting order (one white flight and one red) and once our table was sanitized and all our tastings poured, we were shown to our seats.
We chose the last tasting reservation of the day at 3:00 PM, partly because we wanted there to be as few people as possible, and partly because I had a lovely plan of driving around the countryside looking at vineyards in the late afternoon sun and taking lovely photos.
Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun/lovely photos part was ruined by the wildfire smoke. However, the vineyards were still pretty and the winery had very few people visiting.
We enjoyed the cabernet and the chardonnay the best at Niner, and bought a bottle of each to take with us. They had a nice looking menu as well, but we planned on getting take out in town.
We did a drive around the vineyards despite the smoke and back to town. It was really nice and we would love to come back and do wine tasting again sometime after the pandemic.
For dinner we got take out from La Cosecha in Paso Robles town. Outdoor dining was allowed, and restaurants had spilled their tables out onto the sidewalks and parking spaces in town to create socially-distanced dining. We still weren’t comfortable with this due to so many people walking by, some without masks. We ordered several small plates for takeout: the grilled octopus, the seared scallops, the fried “bombas”, and the beet salad. Everything was excellent. We would love to come back and dine in again after the pandemic.
Day 6: Long driving day to Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Thursday morning, we got an early start on the road for our long day of driving to my parents’ house in Lake Havasu City. The smoke was still bad, and got worse around Bakersfield.
We passed a really bad semi truck flip blocking the entire two-lane highway 58. I think we arrived just after it happened, traffic was beginning to back up for miles. I think the driver was okay, there were people walking around the crash outside on cell phones. Gasoline was leaking all over the road. Hopefully no one threw a cigarette out the window. Yikes.
It was a pretty bland road trip day overall. Lunch was a Del Taco drive-through stop in Barstow. Our one and only roadside attraction on today’s agenda was the Mohave Trails National Monument on part of old route 66, in the “town” of Amboy. The plan was to detour off highway 40 onto highway 66 and then re-join the 40 down the road, but there was a detour and we were directed straight off the 40 cutting over to Amboy on Kelbaker Road. It was an old, poorly maintained road through the desert which was a little nerve-wracking. I had flat tire nightmare panic the whole time. However, we were fine.
The Mohave Trails National Monument wasn’t much to see from the road. It was actually a nature preserve that is good for hiking and exploration with an off-road vehicle.
However, we got an awesome historical shot of old Route 66 and a rad mid-century motel and cafe. I want to come back and check out Roy’s cafe after the pandemic.
We made it to my parent’s house in Lake Havasu City, Arizona late that afternoon and spent time relaxing.
Days 7-8: Drive to Oatman, Arizona and some relaxing pool time
My parents took us on a drive on part of old route 66 through a winding canyon with a lot of harpin turns that was nerve-wracking, but beautiful. The drive took us through the old west town of Oatman, Arizona which is known for the wild donkeys that roam the town and surrounding area.
The town is about one block long, and full of touristy shops and saloons, and of course–donkeys. Tourists buy food pellets for the donkeys and feed them in the street, which keeps the donkeys coming back often for free lunch.
Unfortunately there were a lot of tourists without masks, so we didn’t get to explore the shops while we were there. We managed to catch a group of donkeys alone and got out to say hi. They were very sweet.
We spent the afternoon and the next day relaxing in my parents’ pool and enjoying some family time in their new house.
Day 9: Yucca Valley, California
We said goodbye to my parents and began our journey back west to California. Our last stop on the trip was an Airbnb house in Yucca Valley for three nights, which is near Joshua Tree National Park.
The drive from Lake Havasu to Joshua Tree was only about three hours, and we made it to the Joshua Tree area by lunch time. We stopped for lunch at Andrea’s Charbroiled Burgers in Twentynine Palms. Andrea’s had outdoor tables set up in their parking lot with canopy tents for shade. No one else was at the restaurant (from the dishes on the tables it looked like their lunch rush had just ended), so we decided to eat there. It was a lot more comfortable than trying to eat in our hot car and there wasn’t anyone around besides the two restaurant workers who were wearing masks. The burgers were good, I would highly recommend Andrea’s over the fast food chain options in Twentynine Palms.
Our next stop was in the town of Joshua Tree to see the World Famous Crochet Museum. Back in a lot by an art gallery, one woman’s crochet obsession occupies an old photo processing booth. It is tiny but amazing, full of interesting and colorful crocheted items. It’s free, but there is a donation can with a $0.25 suggested donation. I’m obsessed with unusual museums and this collection is definitely worth the stop in my opinion.
Our last roadside attraction for the day was the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley. The park is a collection of white statues of Jesus and biblical figures in the foothills of the desert, installed in the 1950’s. It’s an interesting and unexpected sight and also free to visit.
We arrived to our Airbnb in Yucca Valley promptly at check-in time, anxious to see this unusual house that looked so intriguing in the photos.
The house is called The Ancestor, and was built by hand with materials from the surrounding desert by an architect in the 1970’s. The house truly was a work of art.
The Ancestor had a pretty large plot of property covered in Joshua trees, with a large deck on the upper level perfect for having margaritas and watching the sunset. There was a shallow wading pool (not heated) in the front, and an awesome enclosed courtyard hangout area off the kitchen with a gas firepit. The house had so many interesting little details and the hosts provided extra touches like upscale bath products and incense. The house also has a hot tub in an enclosed sunroom area that can be opened up to the outside. It was hands-down one of the most magnificent and unique places we’d ever stayed.
We went into town to pick up some groceries for our stay, margarita mix and tequila, and some takeout BBQ for dinner from Dickey’s BBQ.
Not only was Dickey’s BBQ delicious, they were set up perfectly for COVID safe pick up. Their tables were arranged in a square in the center of the restaurant, with direction for one way in and one way out, as well as 6 ft spacing signs for waiting in line. The staff wore masks and once we paid, they directed us to sit on the side bench to wait, and then deposited our order on the table instead of handing to us to maintain social distancing. We highly recommend their ribs and the turkey.
We spent the evening enjoying margaritas from the deck of The Ancestor and watching the sunset.
Days 10-11: Cabazon Dinosaurs and Yucca Valley relaxation
Our main intention in Yucca Valley was to get some sunshine and relaxation in before heading back to the rainy Seattle weather and an indefinite amount of quarantine in our house. However, we decided to get one more COVID-safe excursion in: The Cabazon Dinosaurs.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs is more of a roadside photo-op than anything else, and at $13 per person the park was a little small. You can walk through it in 15 minutes. However, it is all outdoors, and masks and social distancing were required. The giant T-Rex in the front of the park that you can see from the road has a stairwell up to a lookout from his mouth. We didn’t do that though, as we didn’t know if we would have to pass other people or be in a tight space with people.
Overall, it was a fun little excursion and provided for some great photos.
We spent the rest of the day and the next day relaxing on the property, getting some sun in the splash pool, and enjoying the desert before our drive home.
Quick tip about Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley: It is consistently 10 degrees cooler in Joshua Tree and the high desert than down in Palm Springs. The temperature stayed at 95 while Palm Springs was over 100 when we were there.
In addition, the wildfire smoke was much worse in the lower elevation areas in and around Palm Springs. We had almost booked a house with a pool in Palm Springs but were really glad we didn’t. The air was a bit hazy in Yucca Valley but the higher elevation kept it from being really bad.
Days 12-13: Long, smoky drive home
The wildfires in Oregon were really bad while we were on this trip, and there were large fires up and down the I-5 corridor through Oregon, causing hazardous smoke. In addition, many hotels were occupied by wildfire evacuees. We decided the best thing to do would be to drive home in two days instead of three, which meant 11 hours per day of driving, but no stops in fire-ravaged Oregon.
Our first day we drove from Yucca Valley to Redding, California. It was a pretty long, brutal day. We managed to make one roadside attraction stop at the giant olive in Corning, CA:
We rolled into the Thunderbird Lodge in Redding, CA tired and hungry. The Thunderbird Lodge is a re-vamped vintage motor lodge. It was average and clean.
Northern California was allowing dining in restaurants, and restaurants and bars were packed with people not wearing masks. I stopped at a Japanese restaurant nearby to try and order something to go, but left immediately after a large group of people without any masks whatsoever walked in and stood right next to me.
We ended up getting some gross takeout salads from a bar near the motel, getting side-eye glances from anti-maskers in the bar when we asked to wait for our food outside.
The next morning, we hit a Starbucks drive through (masks worn), but noticed customers not doing the Starbucks employees the courtesy of wearing masks at the drive through. We made one final stop in Redding before hitting the road at a gas station to fuel up and get some ice. There was a large “masks required” sign on the door to the gas station, but the two employees inside were not wearing masks, nor was the customer who walked in while I was in there. Overall, Redding was a pretty bad experience.
The drive through Oregon was so smoky we had to wear our masks inside the car for parts of the drive near Roseburg and Eugene areas. It was sad to see some neighborhoods demolished by fire from the freeway, and large portions of scorched land. I felt so sad for all the people affected by the fire. Businesses and homes lost, animals and even some human fatalities.
We were so happy to have been able to get out and get in a travel adventure this year. We miss traveling a lot, but we won’t be getting back on a plane until there is a vaccine or the virus is down to a dull whisper. This trip gave us lots of ideas of things we want to come back and see in California post-pandemic. We definitely will be visiting the Madonna Inn again, and we would love to spend some time in San Francisco and LA.
Stay safe out there. Mask up and protect your community. We will get through this.
One day and night in Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona on the Navajo Reservation: One of the most beautiful and magical places in the United States.
Monument Valley is one of my favorite places on this planet. When you visit, you aren’t really sure if you are in a Wild West movie or on Mars. It is a magical place. Photos don’t do it justice. We really wished we would have had more time there on this trip to do a tour through the valley with a Navajo guide. Next time, we’ll plan to stay at least two nights.
We began our day in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, toured Mesa Verde National Park in the morning, and then drove on to Monument Valley in the afternoon. It was a long day, but fun. On the way to Monument Valley as we crossed from Colorado into Arizona, and we passed the Four Corners monument. We figured we should stop and do the obligatory photo op of us standing in four states at one time (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
The Four Corners Monument is part of the Navajo Nation, and requires an entrance fee of $5 per person. Unfortunately, it is out in the middle of nowhere and requires cash payment, no credit or debit cards. We only had $8 cash, so we moved on. If you want to see the four corners, be sure to have cash on hand to cover your group. If you need an ATM, there is one at the Teec Nos Pos trading post store and gas station is about a 10 minute drive away. They also have restrooms.
An hour and a half later, we finally approached Monument Valley. The first time I visited Monument Valley was on my road trip with my friend in March 2004, and I had been so excited to see it. We just did a drive through and unfortunately, there was a dust storm that day. The iconic wild-west views of red buttes were something I had always wanted to go back and experience again, in better weather and with more time.
We had a reservation at The View Hotel in Monument Valley tribal park, which ended up being worth every penny of the high $250/night price tag. It was our one big hotel splurge of the trip.
*Note: The View Hotel is inside the Navajo Tribal park and requires a $20 entrance fee per vehicle for up to two days. This isn’t included in the price of the room.
The View Hotel is aptly named, as every room has a balcony and a panoramic view of the iconic “Mittens,” The two buttes in the valley that look like right and left hand mittens. It was a stunning view, and my number one plan was to drink some wine on the balcony ad watch the sunset all evening.
*Note about wine/alcohol: The Navajo Nation does not permit the sale of alcohol, so no alcohol can be bought anywhere near or at the hotel. There isn’t a rule against bringing your own and drinking it in your room, however. If you plan on having adult beverages and enjoying the sunset like we did, be sure to stock up beforehand and bring your own. Each room is equipped with a fridge.
The View Hotel has a restaurant, with halfway decent prices and solidly mediocre food. The food isn’t bad, but it’s on par with good cafeteria food. That being said, it is convenient and the view from the restaurant is stunning. If you want to come here just for dinner and are staying elsewhere, be aware that the restaurant serves hotel guests only after 7:00 PM.
We decided to share the Navajo Sampler platter and the fried chicken dinner. The Navajo Sampler platter actually has enough food for two people, and we ended up with leftovers (good thing our room had a fridge). The sampler consisted of Green Chili Stew (be warned, it’s spicy), Red Chili Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, a mini Navajo fry bread taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey.
We highly recommend getting the Navajo tea, it was delicious. They also sell it in the gift shop.
After dinner, it was sunset and wine time. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. The View Hotel faces east, so while you can’t see the sun going down over the buttes, the sunlight from the setting sun in the west illuminates the buttes in a gorgeous red-orange light. The photos I took don’t even begin to capture the real-life beauty of the valley.
Once it was dark, the hotel showed an outdoor John Wayne movie outside the restaurant, projected onto the wall of the building.
We didn’t stay up late enough to watch the stars come out, but I did wake up in the middle of the night and went outside and looked at them. It was a surreal glitter display over the dark shadows of the buttes.
We did set our alarms for the sunrise, however. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Sunrise over Monument Valley, seen from the balcony in our room:
Monument Valley was the highlight of our entire road trip. We were sad to leave and wished we’d had another day to go on the slow dirt-road drive through the valley or go on a guided tour with a Navajo guide. I think we’ll be back though. It is a truly magical place.
We had breakfast a 10 minute drive away at Goulding’s Stagecoach. The breakfast there was outstanding, we both had their signature dish of Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros with green chili. We recommend skipping the View Hotel breakfast and coming here. Had we stayed a second night, we would have come back to Goulding’s for dinner as well.
After breakfast we drove around for a little bit to get some photos, and stopped at a Navajo handicraft stand to buy some souvenirs. We wanted to buy directly from the local Navajo people instead of the hotel gift shop.
The best roadside photos of the Valley are taken on the Utah side facing south. There are many pull-outs along the highway 163 to top and take a picture from.
If a tourist from outside the US were to ask me what the top places to see in the mainland United States are, I would put Monument Valley up towards the top of the list. There’s nowhere like it, it is truly an American experience. Not only is it beautiful, but it is a great opportunity to learn about the native Navajo people, their history and culture. Skip the Grand Canyon, go see Monument Valley.
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