During the many years that my wife, Gayle, and I have been traveling by motorhome, we have heard extraordinary accounts from other RVers about all the attractions in Central Arizona’s Verde Valley. Convinced that it was a must-see area, we scheduled a week there as part of a two-month, six-state adventure.
We stayed in Cottonwood at the Verde Valley RV Resort and Campground, which turned out to not only be well situated for our many day trips by dinghy, but was also a wonderful place for R&R when we weren’t out exploring. The gregarious and knowledgeable lady who operates the resort store helped us organize our day trips, supplying maps, brochures and discount coupons. She also directed us to the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, which gave us plenty of additional literature.
Our first destination was the 100-year-old Verde Canyon Railroad. It makes a daily four-hour round trip from Clarkdale to the Perkinsville ghost ranch and back. The cars are arranged so everyone has the option of moving back and forth between closed, air-conditioned coaches (with snacks, drinks, and restroom), and open-air observation cars. The views and photo ops are absolutely spectacular, as the train travels past amazing rock formations and steep cliffs in canyons created eons ago by the upper Verde River and its tributaries. A recorded narrative, supplemented by very knowledgeable and entertaining car attendants, affords an appreciation and understanding of the history, geology, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Native American lore of the Verde Valley.
During the trip, you see much the same views as did hundreds of men who began building the railroad in 1911. One can also appreciate the hardships they faced as they used picks, shovels and dynamite to create the route through rugged terrain. The tracks actually extend all of the way to Drake, Arizona, where they meet the Burlington/Santa Fe line that connects Chicago with Los Angeles.
The railroad was built to serve copper mines but also transported livestock and people. Eventually, after the copper mines closed and boomtowns became ghost towns, the railroad changed ownership and was repurposed. Now the payload consists of people like us, seeking the unique experiences that only railroads can provide.
City on a Hill
One of those boomtowns, now billed as Arizona’s largest ghost town, is Jerome, built high on Cleopatra Hill above a vast deposit of copper and overlooking the Verde Valley. The last of Jerome’s copper mines closed in 1953, but there are still about 88 miles of tunnels under the town, up to 4,800 feet deep. The population went from around 15,000 in the 1920s, to about 50 in the late 1950s. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1967.
But since then, the town reinvented itself, and now is a thriving community that has attracted artists, writers and musicians. The Douglas Mansion (a state park since 1965), and the Mine Museum, each provide a wealth of information about Jerome. But we especially appreciated the many historic plaques that can be found throughout the city explaining the significance of what we were looking at as we navigated the winding streets on foot.
For those who can visit during the weekend, local and visiting musicians play pretty much everything from jazz to flamenco, in a variety of venues. The music attracts a diverse group of people, who come from near and far to experience it. In turn, many more people come there to watch the unusual mix of people. The result is bizarre but fun. If Jerome leaves you wanting more of the same, it is on the way to another historic town named Prescott. Taking in both places will fill most anyone’s day with fun and knowledge.
Just a couple of miles south of where you board the Verde Canyon Railroad is the entry for Tuzigoot National Monument. Tuzigoot, Apache for “crooked water,” is the name that archaeologists gave the remnants of this amazing pueblo, which was built by Native Americans over a period of 375 years (beginning around 1125). It sits atop a ridge that rises 120 feet out of the Verde Valley floor, and overlooks the Verde River. At one time, the pueblo was two stories high in places, with 77 rooms on the ground floor alone. With few exterior doorways to the complex, entry to rooms was mostly accomplished by climbing a ladder to openings in the roof. In addition to affording entry and exit, the roof holes could be covered to control the internal temperature to some extent. Materials for building the complex came from as far as 60 miles away. Initially, there were only about 50 people inhabiting a small cluster of rooms. But by the 1200s, the population had doubled; then doubled again, as drought forced many from outlying areas to the relatively fertile valley land being farmed adjacent to the Verde River.
Tuzigoot is only one example of the ingenuity and resourcefulness demonstrated by the Native Americans as they developed different methods of creating shelter in this inhospitable environment. Another version can be seen during a visit to the awesome cliff dwellings at the national monument known as Montezuma Castle. Built into the cliffs above the magnificent Arizona sycamores and other riparian growth surrounding the path of the Wet Beaver Creek, Montezuma Castle is sure to impress even the most jaded traveler.
What the inhabitants accomplished, with the limited tools and materials at their disposal, is just plain amazing. It has been described as the best-preserved example of Native American architecture in the Southwest. Building began in the early 12th century. They somehow created a five-story, 20-room structure, built into a recess that is about 100 feet up a steep cliff. A short distance west is another structure that is now badly deteriorated. It was built against the base of the cliff, and had consisted of about 45 rooms in an imposing six-story apartment building. Near both are several holes in the cliffs that were used for storage.
Both the Tuzigoot and Montezuma national monuments have visitor centers with impressive exhibits, and both have interpretive presentations by park employees. If you have a national parks pass, admission is free.
Montezuma Well, which is about 11 miles from Montezuma castle, is free for everyone year-round. It also has amazing cliff dwellings, and rooms built at the base of the cliffs. Both ruins overlook what looks like a small lake. The well receives more than 1.5 million gallons of water each day. The water springs from two powerful vents that are more than 120 feet below the surface. That same water fell as rain 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, at the top of the nearby Mogollon Rim. Slowly, over time, it percolated through porous Redwall Limestone until reaching the well. There it was trapped by impenetrable volcanic rock. It is forced upward into the well, as it has been for ten millennia.
The water is so saturated with carbon dioxide that fish can’t survive there. But it is home to five species of life that live nowhere else on earth: a water scorpion, an amphipod, a type of snail, a diatom, and an unusual type of leech. Amphipods are at the bottom of the food chain. During the morning, the amphipods sink below the surface, where the leeches wait for them away from the sun’s rays. When the sun goes down, the leeches rise, forcing the amphipods toward the surface again—where the other predators feast on them too.
Archaeologists excavating the site believe the earliest dwellings at the well date back to around 1050. The inhabitants channeled the well water for irrigation. That canal is still used today. Green riparian growth surrounds where well water flows out through an opening in the cliff. It is where the Wet Beaver Creek originates.
These attractions were just at few of the many we visited in the area. Others included the V-Bar-V and Palatki heritage sites, where extensive petroglyphs and ruins are protected by the U.S. Forest Service, and the many wonders of Red Rock Country, near Sedona. Visiting them can take days, especially for those who are into hiking.
It turned out that the one week spent in the Verde Valley area was not nearly enough. We have already decided to go back. Based upon our experience during the first visit, the number and diversity of attractions should hold the interest of virtually every RVer. The months of February through April and September through November should afford the best overall experience. Summer heat can be unbearable; and some attractions either shut down or only operate on a limited basis during those months.
Ken Reid, an RVer for more than 40 years, lives in Modesto, California.
IF YOU GO:
Verde Canyon Railroad: Train station includes gift shop and restaurant at 300 N. Broadway, Clarksdale. Advance reservations recommended. (verdecanyonrr.com; 800-293-639-0010)
Tuzigoot National Monument: Entry off Main Street between Cottonwood and Clarkdale. (nps.gov/tuzi)
Montezuma Castle: Take Exit 289 off Interstate 17 and drive east to the end. (nps.gov/moca)
Montezuma Well: Take Exit 293 off Interstate 17 and drive east, following the signs. (nps.gov/moca)
Red Rock State Park: Best source of information for the park is the visitor center at 8375 State Route 179, Sedona, which is six miles north of the junction with Interstate 17. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. (azstateparks.com/parks/RERO; redrockcountry.org)
Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center: In front of the Home Depot parking lot at 1010 S. Main Street, Cottonwood. (cottonwoodchamberaz.org; 928-634-7593)
Verde Valley RV Resort and Campground: 300 acres; 265 full hookups, 44 power and water only. Many pull-through sites. (ttverdevalley.com; 928-634-8158)