Most Arizona visitors head for the Grand Canyon, but smaller and still scenic Oak Creek Canyon, just south of Flagstaff, has one great advantage over its world-famous neighbor: You can drive through it, on scenic Hwy-89A. Starting right at the edge of Flagstaff, this red sandstone gorge has been cut into the surrounding pine and juniper forests by eons of erosion. The most popular place to enjoy Oak Creek Canyon, Slide Rock State Park (928/282-3034, daily, $20), which is 22 miles south of Flagstaff and 7 miles north of Sedona, is a 43-acre, day-use-only area focused on the long natural rock chute for which the park is named.
At the south end of Oak Creek Canyon, 25 miles from Flagstaff, the otherworldly landscape surrounding Sedona (pop. 10,397) has made it one of the nation’s most popular vacation destinations, particularly for New Agey visitors, who in the past 20 years have made Sedona into an upmarket center for psychic channeling, astral travel, and the like. Sedona first came to attention in the 1950s, when the red-rock spires that dominate the local landscape were seen in a wide variety of Hollywood westerns (including Johnny Guitar). Despite the rampant sprawl—and the high hotel rates, which can reach $200 a night—Sedona is still well worth a look, especially if you can get away from the town and explore some of the surrounding wilderness.
South of Route 66 and I-40 from Ash Fork, or west from Sedona, Hwy-89A makes a wonderfully scenic loop, winding past 7,815-foot Mingus Mountain into photogenic Jerome (pop. 455; elev. 5,066 feet), the liveliest and most interesting “ghost town” in Arizona. Set on steep streets that switchback up the mountainside, Jerome is an old copper mining camp that has turned itself into a thriving artists community, with many nice shops, galleries, and cafés, and almost no touristy schlock. Park wherever you can and walk around, enjoying the incredible views out over the Verde Valley to the San Francisco Peaks and beyond.
At the north (uphill) edge of town, a mile off Hwy-89 at the end of fairly rough Perkinsville Road, the Gold King Mine (928/634-0053, daily 10am-5pm, $5) has a misleading name but is still a great place to go. It’s not so much a mine as an anarchic collection of ancient-looking machinery (sawmills, pumps, hoists, trucks, cars, and ore cars), most of which is kept in working order, plus an intact old gas station dating from Jerome’s 1920s heyday.
At the heart of Jerome, enjoy food or a fine shot of espresso at the Flatiron Café (416 Main St., 928/634-2733), or for a full meal with a great view, try the delicious Asylum dining room inside the huge old Jerome Grand Hotel (200 Hill St., 928/634-8200, $155 and up), a former hospital.