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San Clemente Journal

Road Trip: Arizona Weekend

Sep 09, 2019 08:56AM ● By Donia Moore

West facing view of the Little Colorado River. Photo by Jerry Hagner

by Donia Moore

Seeing our country from 35,000 feet up is an amazing experience, but it doesn’t compare to being down on the ground driving my Jeep through dusty, winding roads where I am free to stop and investigate every nook and cranny along the highway. I especially love “flying” down the 110 to Arizona for a fun and interesting weekend. That’s how I found the Cameron Trading Post in Northern Arizona.

Living in Southern California, a weekend road trip to Arizona is not only do-able, it’s almost mandatory, and I never miss a chance to go visit my friends across the AZ/CA border, about six and a half hours away. 

When I was younger and traveling there pretty frequently, I timed my visits so that I could arrive outside of Quartzsite as the sun was beginning to rise and the mountains were still in darkness. Such a magical time for me. Also such an early time but worth it to see the beauty of the desert. And if you plan to drive in the balmy summertime heat of 104 to 110 degrees, this may also be your best option. 

 Nowadays, I am happy if I make Chiriaco Summit in time to dine on a tasty, mustard-dotted hot dog for lunch, followed by a chocolate dipped Fosters Freeze soft serve ice cream cone. Celebrating more than 85 years in business, Chiriaco also has a full- fledged restaurant if you prefer, but I usually opt for the all beef hot dog from the large and fully stocked convenience/food store. And you can visit all the tanks at the General Patton Memorial Museum a short walk away.
The plan is to leave Friday morning, but not too early, arrive at the Summit for above mentioned hot dog and then hit Phoenix in time for dinner at my favorite steak house – Rustler’s Roost. On the way into my destination, I like to stop at rough and ready Quartzsite, Arizona in La Paz County – just about 18 miles from the Colorado river - to visit the gem and mineral stores lining its main street. If you are a rock hound, you can enjoy one of the nine major Gem and Mineral shows, usually held in January and February. 

At that time this tiny town of 3,776 residents (as of the 2018 census) swells to about 1.5 million souls in search of sapphires, fossils and other rocks and gemstones mined and traded here. 
There are a number of historic sites to visit here, if you want to learn a little more about Arizona history in a short time. One is a memorial to Hi Jolly (Hadgi Ali) who was an Ottoman citizen of Greek-Syrian parentage who took part in the experimental U.S.Camel Corps as a camel driver. Or, for a more modern take, you can visit Joanne’s Gum Museum, open to the public, which showcases 4,000 pieces of gum in the wrappers from countries all over the world, collected by Joanne since 1940. She even has them arranged by year, which makes these tiny time capsules even more interesting. Quartzsite is also a popular place for RVing and off -road camping. There are two hotels there, but you are so close to Phoenix you might as well go on.

Phoenix, when you hit it, seems to go on forever. What is now a metropolitan highway through towns on the outskirts, used to be desert when I originally drove this route. Lots of gas stations are along the route so I suggest you fill up before you hit Phoenix –proper, as the gas prices are going to be better. Having said that, once you cross the Arizona/California border, you step back in time for gas prices. If you can make it to the Arizona border without buying any more gas in California, you will spend a good deal less. Just don’t cut it too close because it is mostly uninhabited dessert until you reach this area. 

My favorite Scottsdale (Phoenix’s next-door neighboring town) restaurant, Rustler’s Roost, not only has a great selection of steaks, it also keeps its own longhorn steer named Horney in a corral on site. This is not the one you eat, however. Those come, mesquite grilled, from the rugged restaurant’s kitchen, along with a pretty reasonable wine list. Locals call it “cowboy food.” 

Founded in 1971, it’s family owned. And of course there’s a legend attached to it. The story is that the original site, atop a butte in the foothills of South Mountain used to be a hide-out for some of Arizona’s more notorious cattle rustlers. Ten minutes from downtown Phoenix and 20 minutes from Sky Harbor International Airport, it remains one of the few “cowboy” experiences still available in Phoenix. 

The entrance to Rustler’s is through part of an old mine shaft to the top floor saloon.  Saunter over the indoor waterfall and take their famous Tin Slide into the dining room. (For the faint of heart, there’s a staircase.) Bordered on the north side by plate glass windows,  there is a view from every seat in the house. This is not just dinner – this is entertainment! Enjoy the live country western band and the strolling cardshark/magician.  

The food is good too … steaks, ribs, chicken and even seafood, though there’s not a wave in sight. I tried the rattlesnake appetizers just once. Tastes like chicken. A special kids menu is not only reasonably priced but you’re sure to find them some cowboy food, too. A live band plays country music most nights. It’s a fun place to go if you are looking for the old time Arizona. 
There are many cutting edge and ethnic restaurants here, too, Another favorite of mine is Haji Baba’s. The Lamb Schwarma and Chela Beef Kabobs are tender and tasty. This little Mediterranean style café is in a small strip shopping center and you might miss it if you don’t get directions. 

You go to Haji Babba’s for food. You go to Rustler’s for fun. 
There are many hotels/motels in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, but my favorite is the Arizona Biltmore, now owned by Waldorf Astoria. This historic hotel opened in 1929 and was a favorite haunt of Presidents, movie stars, writers, and business moguls. Owned by the Wrigleys – chewing gum magnate family - for a time, it has been recently renovated. It’s a lovely hotel with championship golf courses and a spa, and it’s pretty spendy. The only thing I don’t like about it is parking, usually a long way from your room. And it’s big – really big. If I am going over for a fast trip, I am more likely to stay at a Best Western or Marriott – there are several in the Scottsdale area near restaurants and shopping.

Once you get your good night’s sleep, you may want to head to the Henhouse for a hearty breakfast. Leave as early as you can for northern Arizona as the later it gets in the day, the warmer it gets. I headed for the Cameron Trading Post on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon detouring to visit Wupatki Sunset Crater Volcano, a stunning volcanic landscape crater that boasts exposed colorful layers of rock and inky, hardened  lava flows. Ancient Anasazi ruins are in nearby Wupatki Pueblo. Drive the 35 mile loop in this national monument for awesome views of the volcano. 

Once at Cameron, head for their dramatic restaurant for Navajo frybread tacos. These are puffy rounds of fried dough covered with meat and vegetables. Then hit the trading post itself and enjoy the authentic and signed ecclectic combination of native American art, weaving, basketry,  rugs, Kachina carvings, hand-crafted silver and turquoise jewelry, and pottery. Shanks of brilliant vegetable dyed wool hang from the rafters like soft rainbows, in perfect lengths to start a shawl or complete a hat. 

The trading post is a gathering point for many of the Native American artists and the people-watching is fantastic as they come in from all over the reservation to barter, just as they have for over a century. It dates back to 1911 when a bridge was finally extended over the Little Colorado River and brothers Hubert and C.D. Richardson established a Navajo trading post beside the bridge. As trips to the trading post could take hours on foot or horseback, the bridge helped it to grow and prosper.

My next stop was the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. This is mostly driving and occasional stopping for photos but it is a beautiful and rugged part of Arizona. 
Flagstaff soon beckoned with its college town attitude. so I stopped for a quick bite at Stonefire Grill, specializing in traditionally made pizzas. It was still light so traveling was no problem and I was back in Phoenix in time for a glass of wine and an early night in. 

Sunday morning I dropped in at Wildflower Bakery and café. The treat here is Lemon Ricotta pancakes, with a side of bacon. Although due to head home, I wanted to make as much of a day of it as possible so I drove into downtown Scottsdale for a visit to the Herd Museum. This is primarily a native American arts museum with a wonderful exhibit of many types of Navajo rugs by famous Navajo weavers from all over Arizona. Children are fascinated by the storytellers- women who read or tell native American stories about Navajo beliefs and customs. An Indian Market is held here in March. 

Finally time to head back to San Clemente, but first I stopped at the venerable Frybread House. Just a short drive from the museum, this tiny restaurant offers healthy servings of Navajo frybread with honey, and Navajo tacos with lamb stew, followed up by fresh lemonade. For me it was the perfect ending to my weekend in Phoenix and I hadn’t even gotten back to Chiriaco Summit for my return trip hot dog!