By Jimmy Magahern
The thrill in owning a recreational vehicle is in remembering that it is, in fact, a mobile home. Home is where you park it, and in Arizona, there are gazillions of amazing places to charge up an RV while recharging yourself.
Fall weather, long awaited, loosens the hold of the amenity-filled mobile home parks and sends Arizona nomads on their ways. But where to go in a state with so many natural wonders?
We break it down by region, covering the state from the Four Corners to where the mighty Colorado River dribbles into the Rio Colorado south of San Luis. So pull up the jacks and leveling blocks, slide in the slide outs and say goodbye to that cozy manufactured housing community for the season. It’s time to do Arizona in the fall.
Starting at Arizona’s square in the Four Corners and stretching south to the Petrified Forest and west to the eastern edge of Grand Canyon National Park, the Painted Desert is real and it is spectacular. Named El Desierto Pintado by early Colorado River explorers for the stratified layers of multipigmented iron- and manganese-rich rock formations, you’ll need to endure a long stretch of barren vistas along Highway 89 before encountering it, but international travelers often chose it over America’s top cities. Who are we to argue?
The Petrified Forest, near Holbrook, contains the world’s largest concentration of petrified wood — basically fossils of fallen trees from the planet’s Late Triassic era, some 225 million years ago, that accumulated in the river channels where dissolved silica formed quartz crystals on the logs (just in case your kids ask — it was right after the Jurassic period). RVers go for the scenic 28-mile drive through the park then stay at one of the KOA or OK RV campgrounds outside the entrance.
After a petrified forest and a painted desert, you might want to check out Marble Canyon, at the spot where the 90-year-old Navajo Bridge (now a footbridge running parallel to a newer highway bridge opened in 1997) spans the Colorado River. Getting there is another remote drive — experienced RVers advise first fueling up in Page — but the sheer red rock cliffs offer cinematic awesomeness, and it’s also a popular start point for rafting down the Colorado River.
Northwest/North Central Arizona
Of course, the Grand Canyon is a predictable choice, but the 277-mile gorge — one of the seven natural wonders of the world — got its name for a reason. Even Clark Griswold had to pull over the Family Truckster to momentarily take in the grandeur. There are plenty of RV campgrounds surrounding the area, but if you’re looking to “glamp” it up with cable TV, free Wi-Fi, showers and a laundry room, regulars recommend the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park near Williams.
The town of Williams itself, about 50 miles south of the Grand Canyon, has been reinvented as a kitschy showcase along the historic Route 66, with memorabilia-strewn tributes to antique car culture on every street corner. It’s a small-town version of Disneyland’s Cars Land themed area, only more authentic, with grey-haired guitarists strumming dad rock daily on Cruiser’s Route 66 Café patio and over a dozen Arizona craft beers served up at the South Rims Wine & Beer Garage. Get your kicks.
Leave the old US 66 for the newer I-40 and head west to Lake Havasu, along the long southbound stretch of the Colorado River that defines Arizona’s western border. The town has become infamous as a hot spring break destination, but RVers prefer to visit in January, when the annual Buses by the Bridge festival transforms Lake Havasu State Park into a rally of decked-out psychedelic VW microbuses, populated with dueling Jerry Garcias. Closer to fall, the park also hosts the annual Sand, Water and RV Expo in November, where RVers partake in a “paddlefest” on kayaks, paddleboards, outriggers and canoes. The area, still warm in the fall, has become a mecca for RVers itching to get into watercraft, with eight big RV campgrounds not far from the famously relocated London Bridge.
The state’s central region, about 100 miles north of Phoenix, is where visitors flock to see Sedona’s towering red rock formations, and the white blossom trees are at their peak between October and December. Many RVers park their rigs at one of the nearby campgrounds and opt for Jeep tours, rented mountain bikes or simply taking in the quaint 117-year-old town on foot, where psychic readers and New Age mystics hold shop alongside art galleries, ice cream shops and upscale bistros.
While you’re venturing into the mystic, the town of Jerome, a one-time mining town now home to a small group of eclectic, artsy types (population 444, according to the last census), is a great place to go thrift store exploring. Parking an RV overnight in Jerome is a challenge, as the entire 1880s town is built on the side of the mountain overlooking the Verde River Valley. But the nearby Gold King Mine and Ghost Town has a dirt lot big enough for about 50 RVs, and the owners are generally welcoming. Travel blogger Mike Shubic recommends stopping by the Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes store, which this October is hosting a slightly belated 50th Anniversary of Woodstock celebration featuring the Jerome Ukulele Orchestra, and stopping in nearby Cottonwood at the Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room and Osteria, a wine bar owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the band Tool. Only in Arizona’s red rock country.
Just north of Campe Verde sits Montezuma Castle National Monument, a five-story cliff dwelling that scholars have come to call a “prehistoric high-rise apartment complex” built by the indigenous Sinagua peoples between 1100 and 1425 AD — long before the birth of the infamous Aztec emperor it was later named for. RVers opt to stay at the nearby Distant Drums RV Resort, a spacious 157-vehicle park with a heated pool and jacuzzi, exercise room and plenty of additional amenities.
Real “snowbirds,” in the form of sandhill cranes, show up each November through March in the Eastern Chiricahua Mountains near Willcox, in Arizona’s southernmost county, Cochise. Birders say some 25 to 30,000 of the North American species migrate annually to Southeast Arizona, primarily from Canada and Nebraska but also pulling in feathered travelers from Mississippi and Florida. The best place to watch the squawking throng roost is Whitewater Draw, a wide, shallow stream between Elfrida and Bisbee, where birders commonly set up chairs to take in the action. The area offers at least 16 popular RV campgrounds, although many are plagued by spotty Wi-Fi and cellphone service. The birds rule these airways.
Saguaro National Park, divided into two parcels both east and west of Tucson, is a great place to view not only acres of saguaros but also ancient Hohokam petroglyphs — intriguing rock paintings depicting big horn sheep, spoked wheels, spirals and other items of interest pre-200 AD. Truly our earliest form of graffiti.
About 70 miles northeast of Tucson, the Swift Trail Scenic Drive provides a roller coaster ride snaking to the top of Mount Graham, which some travel bloggers consider the ultimate autumn drive, elevating 10,724 feet through five major botanical zones, with each hairpin turn revealing different colored leaves on the conifer trees from goldenrod and orange to bright green. At the base, Mount Graham is also home to both Gila and Apache species of native Arizona trout, and Mount Graham International Observatory, located in the nearby Pinaleño mountain range, is famous for housing the world’s largest binocular telescope, affording visitors unparalleled views of the Milky Way. RVers dock at Roper Lake State Park near Graham’s base.
End your Arizona RV trips in Quartzsite, where up to 750,000 rec vee owners go happily off the grid “boondocking” for seven months out of the year, from September to April. The small town’s prominence as the unofficial “Boondocking Capital of the World” owes to its location, roughly halfway between Phoenix and Los Angeles, which is surrounded by huge plots of federal public land, “where free camping is not only allowed, but it’s practically encouraged,” according to travel blogger Michael Smith. It’s the best place to bond with the nation’s community of RVers, which these days includes not just pensioners and retirees but also millennials fond of YouTubing and Instagramming their #VanLife adventures. For the RV community, Quartzsite is their Burning Man, Coachella and retro Woodstock, all wrapped up into one long, strange trip.
Once you’ve gotten enough of roughing it, head further south to Yuma for the annual Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival, which this year takes place from November 22 to November 24. It’s an event that draws ballooning teams from all around the country — as well as RVers, who usually take in Yuma’s Old Town area and lakes before or after their trek to the madcap boondocking capital.