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Driving in Arizona's Red Rock Country

Arizona is no place for people who think small. This is big, wide-open country. In a drive around Sedona's red rock region you'll pass looming mesas, soaring spires, deep canyons, and a record of time that stretches back millions of years. Toss your boots or sneakers into the trunk, fill up your water bottles, and be prepared to take that dirt-road detour at a moment's notice. There's no reason to hit one place before another, so instead of devising an itinerary for you, we thought we'd let you pick your preferences and connect the dots yourself

1. Count the saguaro (that's "sa-whar-o") cacti towering beside Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, a straight shot to red rock country. Found only in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico, the cacti can go more than a year without rain (their trunks can store up to a ton of water).

2. Run sprints up and down the parade ground at Fort Verde State Park (125 E. Hollamon St., Camp Verde; 520/567-3275), a former military base. Used for army drills during the Indian Wars of the 1870's and 80's, the field now fronts what's left of Officers' Row. From the commanding officer's house, to the surgeon's quarters filled with animal-skull and arrowhead collections, to the back kitchen where the doctor's children slept, you get a good glimpse of what life in the Arizona Territory was like 100 years ago. While you're there, pick up an Arizona State Parks pass: for $15, it allows one vehicle (with up to four people) unlimited entry to all 27 of the state's parks for five days.

3. Stroll to the base of the Montezuma Castle National Monument cliff dwellings (25 miles south of Sedona, off I-17 at exit 289, Camp Verde; 520/567-3322) and imagine how you would scale the walls of these prehistoric, five-story, 20-room apartments if you lived the way the Sinagua Indians did 800 years ago. After exploring the ruins, take a walk around the visitors' center or rest in the shade of the sycamore trees.

4. This is prime red rock country, surrounded by vivid sandstone monoliths, rock pinnacles, buttes and mesas, and a vast blue sky. Roll down the windows and breathe deeply as you pass pungent piñon pine and juniper. While driving down Lower Red Rock Loop Road, guess which formation is called Bell Rock.

5. Look for the rock shaped like a coffeepot along Route 89A in Sedona, and turn in at the Coffee Pot Restaurant (2050 W. Hwy. 89A, Sedona; 520/282-6626), "home of the famous 101 omelettes." Choose from sausage (No. 24), salsa (No. 52), green chili and cheese (No. 49), guacamole (No. 74)-- anything but No. 101, the peanut-butter-and-jelly-and-banana omelette. (Those who don't like eggs might prefer the happy-face pancakes.)

6. Sedona's Javelina Cantina (671 Hwy. 179; 520/203-9514) kicks off its kids' meal with a quesadilla and a fruit cocktail, followed by a taco, enchilada, burrito, or tostada. (There's a burger, too.) For grown-ups: grilled yellowfin tuna with tomatillo salsa, charbroiled salmon topped with red-pepper-and-corn salsa, or classic south-of-the-border combos.

7. Bring back a piece of the West-- contemporary Southwestern art or sculpture from one of the scores of galleries at Tlaquepaque village (Hwy. 179, Sedona; 520/282-4838). While parents shop, kids can play hide-and-seek amid Tlaquepaque's courtyards or settle in at the Storyteller Bookstore (520/282-2144), with its terrific collection of regional children's books.

8. Bounce into the backcountry with Earth Wisdom Jeep Tours (293 N. Hwy 89A, Sedona; 800/482-4714 or 520/282-4714). The 3 1/2-hour, $65 tour explores Indian legends; other trips focus on ecology, geology, native plants, and rock art in and around Sedona. If 3 1/2 hours is too long for your crew, shorter tours can be arranged; kids under 13 ride half-price.

9. Hook 'em and cook 'em at the Rainbow Trout Farm (3500 N. Hwy. 89A, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona; 520/282-5799). A $1 fee gives you a bamboo pole, a bucket, a net, and bait, as well as the run of two stocked ponds. The catch?There's no catch-and-release; you pay for every fish you reel in.

10. Drive up Oak Creek Canyon to the Oak Creek Vista overlook, where you can measure time in layers of basalt, limestone, and sandstone. Then browse through the tables in the parking lot and shop for dream-catchers, tomahawks, fetish necklaces, and tiny turquoise earrings, all the work of local artisans sponsored by Native Americans for Community Action.

11. Slip and slide down natural water chutes, float in rock pools, and glide through the cool grottoes that draw summer crowds to Slide Rock State Park (6871 N. Hwy. 89A, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona; 520/282-3034). After your swim, make like a lizard and sun on one of the many flat rocks beside Oak Creek. (Bring a towel, plenty of sunscreen, and Tevas or sneakers for traction on wet boulders.)

12. Stop for supplies at the Indian Gardens Trading Post (3951 N. Hwy. 89A, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona; 520/282-7702). The deli stocks unusual foods ranging from killer-bee honey butter to prickly pear cactus; there's a sunny patio out back if you prefer to picnic on the premises. Next door, Garland's Indian Jewelry (3953 N. Hwy. 89A, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona; 520/282-6632) has some of the region's finest Native American silver and turquoise work, plus an extensive collection of Hopi kachina dolls.

13. Rent mountain bikes from Mountain Bike Heaven (1695 W. Hwy. 89A, Sedona; 520/282-1312) and play cowboys and Indians-- on wheels-- along some of the best trails in the country. Beginners can cruise Boynton Pass Road, a dirt lane that's plenty wide; more experienced riders have miles of single-track to conquer.

14. Get up early and hike to the Indian ruins at the end of Boynton Canyon. Be sure to pack water and snacks. The trail is 2 1/2 miles each way and climbs 600 feet to a spine-tingling perch on a red rock overlook; your troops will deserve a reward if they make it to the end. The view is well worth it, so by all means use bribery to get them there.

15. Watch for deer and javelinas as you check into your casita at Enchantment Resort (525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona; 800/826-4180 or 520/282-2900; doubles from $195), on 70 acres within the crimson walls of Boynton Canyon. Slide open the glass doors onto your patio and take in the heart-stopping views. Hunt for lizards on the path to the pool and check out the Camp Coyote kids' program, where Uqualla, the resort's Native American cultural ambassador, might tell a few stories.

16. Hike the Eagles' Nest Trail (less than two miles round-trip) or Rattlesnake Ridge (this one'll keep the kids on their toes), part of the six-mile trail system at Red Rock State Park (4050 Red Rock Loop Rd., Sedona; 520/282-6907). At the outstanding interpretive center, find out about ranger-led full-moon walks.

17. Give a prize to the first person to find the rock art decorating the walls of the Palatki Ruin (Forest Service Rd. 795, off Boynton Pass Rd.; call 520/282-4119 for directions). A southern Sinaguan cliff dwelling, it has the area's largest panel of pictographs. Clues: Look for bear, antelope, and sun symbols painted on the red rock cliffs.

18. Crawl through an old mine tunnel and watch demonstrations of the antique mining equipment strewn about the Gold King Mine & Ghost Town (one mile north of Jerome on Perkinsville Rd.; 520/634-0053). This funky open-air museum also displays a huge collection of vintage trucks and tractors (and a 1902 Studebaker Electric that still works).

19. Hike the steep streets of Jerome, a hill town founded in the late 1880's on a site so precarious the whole place seems in danger of slipping off the mountainside. Some of it did, in fact: the "sliding jail" now rests 225 feet below its original location. Indulge in a box of cinnamon graham Wild West cookies-- shaped like stars, boots, and cowboy hats-- plus a hot chocolate from the Flatiron Café (416 Main St., Jerome; 520/634-2733). Then case the terrific galleries in this mining town turned artists' community.

20. Immerse yourselves in Arizona history at the Sharlot Hall Museum (415 W. Gurley St., Prescott; 520/445-3122), founded by a self-schooled frontierswoman, journalist, and poet who became the first woman to hold government office in Arizona. (Her legacy is a state where the top five elected posts are currently held by women.)

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