You can have the Grand Canyon—you and the 5 million other tourists each year. I’ll take the nearby Sycamore Canyon, whose visitation is so slight that no one bothers to count. There’s no ranger booth, admission or pamphlets. Come to think of it, there’s not even a welcome sign.
And that’s the rush: With the help of a forest service road map, a sturdy vehicle and some patience with understated signposts, I get to discover it myself. Forgetting—just for a second—the brand-new Land Rover that got me here, I can imagine what it was like for the Anasazis when they first wandered into this geologic wonder in the wild, stood there alone among the tall pines and sycamores, and—long before rails, rules or European tourists—peered into the deep gorge.
Probably unlike a millennium ago, the road there is half the fun, and yeah, it helps to have a kick-ass four-wheel drive. The first leg, Garland Prairie Road, is a ribbon of burnt-red gravel lined (in late summer/early fall) with black-eyed Susans. It eventually hooks up with White Horse Lake Road, and along this stretch is a variety of (amenity-free) hiking and camping opportunities.
Depending on what you do (I like a picnic after a short hike along the rim to Sycamore Falls), your day might be only half over. Continue on White Horse to the paved County Road 73, which leads to a fork about 15 miles to the south. Take the “Primitive Road” option to the left. That’s the old Perkinsville Road, and despite the sinking feeling that it could dead-end any second, it leads to Jerome, a mining ghost town reincarnated by tourism.
Here again, the beauty of this trip is that pretty much 100 percent of those other tourists arrive via civilized highway. Perkinsville, a long-ignored strip of gravel, winds (often precariously) through high desert, over one-lane bridges, around steep red cliffs (the outskirts of Sedona’s famous red-rock country) and down into the Verde River Valley. In the end, you sort of stumble into town the back way—dusty, unceremoniously and happily.
The Trip: Flagstaff, Ariz., to Sycamore Canyon to Jerome and back via Oak Creek.
The Way: I-40 west to Exit 178 (near the town of Parks), south to Garland Prairie Road. Follow the signs to White Horse Lake Road (Fire Road 109/110), about 13 miles. Take this to the trailhead of your choice. Mine is Sycamore Falls, and from here it’s about 11 miles to County Road 73. Turn left and head south to Perkinsville Road, which leads to Jerome. To get back to Flagstaff, I take the fast route: 89A through Sedona and up Oak Creek Canyon.
The Wheels: 2012 Land Rover LR4, with a Terrain Response System that has four special modes (snow/gravel, mud, sand and “rock crawl”) and a V8 5-liter engine. The ridiculously cushy suspension handled the gravel and ruts with grace, and the vehicle nicely hugged the guardrail-free turns of Perkinsville Road, which was a thrill for everybody but my passengers. The Rover also charged through the August monsoons that drenched 89A and, on the way home via I-40, it drove like a luxury car. What’s not to like?
Pit stops: Get fresh-roasted coffee for the trip at Late for the Train (107 N. San Francisco St.). Have a tasty organic lunch in Jerome at Alice’s Restaurant (403 Clark St.) or a stiff drink at the Spirit Room. Back in Flagstaff, watch the trains go by and have a pint of local brew and a hamburger on the patio at Altitude’s Bar & Grill (2 S. Beaver St.). If it’s chilly, they’ve got great beer and comfort food nearby at Beaver Street Brewery (11 S. Beaver). Your best lodging bet: The Inn at 410 (800-774-2008, Inn410.com).
While You’re at It: Hang in Jerome awhile—enjoy the quaint, historic downtown and its many dining/drinking options, wineries and shops. Pick apples amid the red rocks in the 100-year-old orchard at Slide Rock State Park (just north of Sedona on 89A), especially during Fall Fest (Oct. 6, AZStateParks.com). And, on the way back to Vegas, take the kids through Bearizona in Williams—it’s worth the extra couple of hours (Bearizona.com).