Arizona:Riding the Big Country

IN THE WILDERNESS: Red rock hills near Sedona, Arizona.  Picture: hills balfour/pa.
IN THE WILDERNESS: Red rock hills near Sedona, Arizona. Picture: hills balfour/pa.
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CHRIS Court takes a new look at the Old West, visiting one of the largest US states.

I was on the road for only 200 miles on Arizona’s Interstate Highway 17, but it was enough to get a flavour of what this huge state spanning more than 114,000 square miles can offer. In five days under flawless blue skies I glimpsed the sheer vastness of the sun-baked, cactus-dotted desert as well as spectacular red-rock canyons, awe-inspiring mountains, trails and rivers to hike and paddle, plus a thriving and ambitious wine industry.

The natural beauty of the sixth-largest US state left a sense of wonderment at the determination of early settlers who battled this unforgiving and arid landscape to build their way of life. I came across Jerome, founded in the late 19th century 5,400 feet up on Cleopatra Hill with sweeping views across the Verde Valley.

Once a booming copper mining town of 15,000 people, it has recovered from near-ghost town status to support 450 souls.

The town’s quaint, winding unspoiled Victorian streets are now home to a thriving artistic community that has helped make what was once “the wickedest town in the west” into Arizona’s third most popular tourist destination.

And from Sedona City (population 13,000) it was only a short drive with Red Rock Western Jeep Tours into the wilds of historic Soldiers Pass trail – overlooked by towering Thunder Mountain.

There my four-wheel drive jeep, expertly steered by laconic, cowboy-hatted, six-gun wearing guide Damon, bumped and bounced along steep, rocky trails into a silent and dramatic wilderness.

He showed me the Apache’s Seven Pools – smooth gouges in the steep rock where there is water all year round – and the 85ft deep Devil’s Kitchen sink hole, which suddenly appeared in 1881.

I saw more of the spectacular Arizona wilderness in more comfort on the Verde Canyon Railway as it slowly made the three-and-a-half hour, 40-mile round trip between the old mining community of Clarkdale and the tiny Perkinsville ranch.

As the train, with open viewing coaches and a bar, rumbled within feet of towering rock faces, everyone kept a lookout for American bald eagles – and we were rewarded with the sight of one of the great birds soaring high above the canyon.

The sprawling Africa Wildlife Park at Camp Verde is home to more than 400 wild by nature animals, including white tigers, zebras, ostriches, bears, wolves and a 4,500lb rhino. It was the first time I have got up close and personal with a 15ft giraffe, which stuck its huge head into the windowless bus driven through the huge park by manager Courtney Palmer to take carrots from the fingers – and sometimes mouths – of passengers.

I finally took on the wilderness to kayak for 1.5 miles between spectacular limestone cliffs down the peaceful Verde river. Still damp, I trudged to the nearby Alcantara Vineyard – the first winery on this river – to taste a selection while drying off in the sun outside the owners’ Tuscan-style farmhouse overlooking some of the 16,000 vines.

The area is becoming a must for wine buffs and looks set to be a challenger to California’s dominance in global markets. A short drive in the Verde Valley took me to the boutique vineyards of family-owned Page Spring Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards and Javelina Leap Winery.

New Zealand film director Sam Spillsbury, the owner of the Pillsbury Wine Company in Cochise County (which uses 100 per cent Arizona grapes) predicts there will be an international market for Arizona wine in around four years.

The landscape is an inspiration for artists. In Sedona I watched 29-year-old ex-rodeo rider Dustin Payne sculpting a clay-mounted cowboy figure that would be cast in bronze.

In Sedona’s Turquoise Tortoise Gallery, owner Peggy Lanning showed me sculptures – some in translucent alabaster – as well as paintings and pottery by native American artists whom she has represented since the 1970s.

Outside Sedona I stayed in the tranquil 70-acre, tree-dotted Enchantment Resort – and relaxed with a massage at its separate Mii Amo spa.

In the 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright bought a huge tract of desert outside Scottsdale to build his masterpiece Taliesen West winter home, studio and architecture school. He also influenced Scottsdale’s mid-1950s Hotel Valley Ho.

Gambling is also part of Western lore, so I took my turn at the blackjack table at Camp Verde’s Cliff Castle Hotel Casino – owned by the Yavapai-Apache nation – and somehow escaped with 40 dollars.

Vibrant Scottsdale has a buzzing nightlife and dining scene and UK ex-pats make up the biggest foreign group in a city which makes an ideal base for visiting the state.

My visit ended at Scottsdale’s exclusive boutique Hermosa Inn, founded in the 1930s in grounds abounding with mature palms and varieties of cactus and desert plants, which has a history and architecture rooted in Old West traditions.

There is so much more I need to see: for me, and with acknowledgements to Bob Dylan, this will definitely be a case of Highway 17 revisited.

GETTING THERE

* Chris Court was a guest of British Airways Holidays which offers seven-night fly-drive stays from £758 in June, including return BA flights ex-Heathrow into Phoenix, and Avis car hire. Departures from Manchester (via Heathrow) from £808. BA Holidays reservations: 0844 493 0758 and visit ba.com/phoenix. Destination information: 0207 367 0938 and www.ArizonaGuide.com

* Useful websites: www.ExperienceScottsdalecvb.com; www.HotelValleyHo.com; www.visitcampverde.com; www.outofafricapark.com; www.cliffcastlecasino.net; www.sedonachamber.com; PageSpringCellars.com; www.oakcreekvineyards.net; www.JavenilaLeapWinery.com; www.enchantmentrestort.com; www.pillsburywinecompany.com; www.cottonwoodchamberaz.com; www.verdecanyonrr.com; www.jeromechamber.com.