With its gorgeous scenery, fascinating past and varied attractions, central Arizona's Verde Valley offers year-round recreational opportunities. Autumn visitors avoid the crowds thronging the area during summer vacation season but enjoy fall's lingering mild temperatures and beautiful color displays.
The Verde Valley is north of Phoenix, south of Flagstaff, west of Sedona and east of Prescott, about a six-hour drive from Las Vegas. Follow U.S. Highway 93 from Las Vegas into Arizona. Join Interstate 40 in Kingman heading for Flagstaff or follow historic Route 66 to Seligman, where you can continue on I-40 or use U.S. Highway 89. A network of scenic highways reaches the Verde Valley from either U.S. 89 toward Prescott or Interstate 17 from Flagstaff.
The 180-mile-long Verde River courses through its namesake valley, fed by tributary streams that carved the region's signature red cliffs and canyons. The complex of river and streams in the desert created an environment that attracted native people long before Europeans arrived in the New World. The region is rich with remnants of cultures that disappeared long ago.
Fortunately, state and national parks and monuments preserve many of the ancient sites in or near Verde Valley. National monuments such as Tuzigoot, Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well stabilize ruins of pueblo-style villages or cliff dwellings and interpret ancient ways of life for modern visitors.
Look for more ruins tucked away in the cliffs in Red Rock State Park near Sedona, in Walnut Canyon National Monument near Flagstaff and along the route of the Verde Canyon Railroad, which offers scenic excursions into the beautiful canyons of the upper Verde River.
The railroad begins at a depot in Clarksdale in the valley below Jerome, a mining-era ghost town given new life by tourism. Tours run daily from 1 to 5 p.m. except Tuesdays and Thanksgiving Day. Make online reservations at verdecanyonrr.com. Travelers scheduled for Nov. 15 should arrive early for a wildlife presentation on the patio starting at 11 a.m. and featuring eagles such as the ones frequently spotted soaring above the train.
The Verde River remains one of just a few free-flowing desert rivers. It supports diverse wildlife in lush riparian areas and stands of native trees, including cottonwoods and willows. Arizona maintains a six-mile section of the river adjacent to Dead Horse State Park from Tuzigoot Bridge along U.S. 89, providing picnic sites, river access for canoeing and fishing and riverside trails for hiking and wildlife viewing.
From Clarksdale and nearby Cottonwood, head south along the Verde River on State Route 260 to reach the town of Camp Verde, the oldest settlement in the valley. Established in 1865, the pioneer community suffered several years of troubles with native tribal groups. Arizona militia first occupied Camp Lincoln near the river, a name changed to Camp Verde when U.S. Army troops arrived.
Remnants of the frontier cavalry post still stand near Camp Verde's downtown. Fort Verde State Historical Park maintains the best-preserved of Arizona's forts from the Indian Wars era. It contains original and reconstructed buildings, stables and corrals on two sides of the original parade ground. Visitors enjoy a glimpse of the Old West at this small park, open year-round from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a five-day schedule, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The museum occupying the old headquarters building showcases the adversaries in the military campaigns. A parade of western notables frequented the fort from 1865 until the wars ended in 1870. Events that took place there are the stuff of legends, inspiring hundreds of books and movies.
With the passing of those turbulent times, Camp Verde grew into a farming and ranching center. Now a community of several thousand, Camp Verde also serves a growing tourist industry. Visitors find a pleasant rural setting, modern motels, private campgrounds, restaurants, gas stations and a variety of stores. The many attractions of the Verde Valley lie within easy reach of Camp Verde.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.