Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sweet Summer Dreams in the Verde Valley

This story was written for Arizona Office of Tourism's Arizona Insider "Guest Blogger" program. The post, which ran July 14th, 2014, was edited and chopped up a bit strangely, making my story a lil' clunky/klutzy in their version. I thought I'd share my original here:

Sweet Summer Dreams in the Verde Valley

Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ
Brassy big band tunes waft over us from the landmark gazebo, packed full of percussion, strings and horns. Sinking deep into the dark edges of the park's soft summer lawn, we look up at the endless stars that echo the crowd of lawn chairs and blankets below. Cool breezes rolling down from Mingus Mountain add a faint hint of chill to the night air. Though, for a moment it feels we are part of a movie or some bucolic small town dream, in reality, it's the Town of Clarkdale's free Summer Concert Series and just one aspect of this season's magic in the Verde Valley. With live music scheduled on select Saturday evenings through September, it's not at all unusual to witness spontaneous acts of waltzing, two-stepping and foxtrotting in the historic town park.

Summer Concert Series, Clarkdale Park, Clarkdale AZ
The Verde Valley, named one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 US Travel destinations for 2013, is comprised of several historic, high desert communities, each springing forth from the 19th and 20th centuries to utilize some abundant natural resource or fill some urgent local need: mining, ranching, agriculture, military presence and bootlegging. Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Sedona, Camp Verde and Cornville each have its own distinct personalities yet remain cohesive. The rivers connect us and flow through us, tangling us together as Oak Creek and Beaver Creek make its way toward the Verde. The region’s ideal climate has long made it an idyllic human habitat as evidenced by ancient dwellings throughout the area, including Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot.

Verde River as seen from Verde Canyon Railroad, running red during summer monsoon season, 

A variety of attractions, adventures, art, wining and dining provides a wealth of intrigue for visitors. 

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, AZ

Scenic Sedona is the best known Verde Valley town, straddling the border of Yavapai and Coconino counties. Highlights include its expanse of national forest girdling the town, its many hiking and mountain biking trails, resorts, world class spas and cafes. This red sandstone wonderland is renowned for its spiritual energy, vortexes and new age sensibility. But Sedona is not just a postcard or a movie set. It's also a real place behind the scenes, where people live and work. It's where we go to the dentist and where we see movies!

Buddha Beach, Oak Creek, Sedona, AZ

Summer is our warmest season, and for this reason the most popular for riparian fun. We locals spend a good percentage of June, July and August along the shady river and creek banks, picnicking, paddling, splashing, floating or just totally submerged neck-deep in the cool water. The Verde Valley is enjoying some fresh renown as a river fun zone, with day-use access areas being improved from north of Clarkdale through Cottonwood, continuing past Camp Verde. Cottonwood’s Dead Horse Ranch State Park provides great trails, camping, fishing and river access. Verde River Adventure Center in Clarkdale rents kayaks, tubes and other inflatables, providing guide and shuttle service for easy day trips.

Verde River, Beasley Flats, Camp Verde, AZ

Another great way to enjoy the river canyon scenery and wildlife, without getting splashed, is to take a train ride aboard Clarkdale’s Verde Canyon Railroad. Running year-round on a varied schedule, this heritage railroad dates from 1912 and provides a comfortable climate-controlled way to catch a glimpse of the very rare ribbon where riparian and desert ecosystems meet. Starlight rides are a sensational seasonal specialty, heading out in late afternoon and returning through sunset and moonlight.

A flight at Caduceus Cellars, Jerome AZ

While in Clarkdale be sure to visit the newest additions to historic Main Street: The Copper Art Museum and Four-Eight Wineworks, book-ending the area’s mining past and wine future. The Verde Valley’s booming viticulture scene began in the 1990s in Cornville, a sleepy rural town near Oak Creek. Along the winding Page Springs Road, you’ll find the starting point for the region’s growing wine notoriety. Vineyards cascade down the sandy hillsides and wine-tasting rooms cluster like grapes. From here, the wine flows throughout the valley like the creeks that connect us.

Camp Verde, a river town with an adorable historic Main Street, is home to cowboys, horse ranches, pecan farms and Fort Verde State Park. If games of chance and glow-in-the-dark bowling suit your style, Cliff Castle Casino is an entertaining diversion run by the area’s Yavapai-Apache tribe. More daring yet: zip-lining over lions and tigers at Out of Africa Wildlife Park!

Old Town Cottonwood has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade. Once best known as the bootlegging epicenter of the Southwest, by the 1990s this part of historic Main Street was a sleepy, going-to-seed, slow-down spot. Today, this vintage stretch of 89A is not just a place to tap your brakes. It's worth pulling over for serious exploration. Packed with pedestrians, wine-tasting rooms, antique shops and galleries, great restaurants and fun lodging, Old Town makes a great starting point for an area visit.

And there, mile high, twinkling and winking in the cool nighttime, Jerome watches over all from its lofty perch on Cleopatra Hill. This former ghost town is an exceptional place to enjoy a sunset glowing Sedona red in the distance. Ideal to explore by day or night, Jerome is home to great architecture, shops, museums, wonderful places to eat and historic, haunted hotels where you can rest your head. 

 The town’s popular ARTwalk takes place the first Saturday of every month; from 5:30pm-8:30pm galleries and studios stay open later than usual into the tranquil mountain evening, serving refreshments and conversation with real live local artists. We lived in Jerome for a number of years and enjoyed the tightly-knit community, a crazy mash-up of native long-time locals, hippies, artists and big city escapees. In the 1960s and '70s counterculture types arrived in Jerome and essentially saved the town's history and buildings with their gumption and elbow grease.

Jerome, AZ

With its milder, high desert temperatures, glorious landscapes and vibrant communities there are endless amusements in the Verde Valley, a variety to keep visitors delighted all summer long. As residents, we see a lifetime’s worth of beauty, adventure and cinematic moments everywhere we look.

Clarkdale Classic Station

Ellen Jo Roberts is an artist and shutterbug who lives in Clarkdale, Arizona, where she spends the workday as the group coordinator for Verde Canyon Railroad. Read more of her writing on: Ellen Jo is a part of the Arizona Office of Tourism’s Guest Blogger Program.

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