Arizona's Verde Valley, just north of Phoenix, is a place to go to get away from the cacti and desert scenery and enjoy springs, streams, and lush cottonwood trees. Not far from the Red Rocks of Sedona, this valley is a place where you can retreat to small-town America with quaint shops, wineries, Native American history, and even a historic mining town turned arts village to explore. You may spy eagles while riding the Verde Canyon Railroad and get a sense of the lives of the Sinagua people as you walk along the sandy paths of Montezuma's Castle. While there are many things to do and see in the Verde Valley, I’d like to recommend some of my favorites.
Take in the Natural Setting of the Verde Valley
Compared to Phoenix, the Verde Valley (Verde means green in Spanish) is sparsely populated with less than 65,000 people, living on 46 square miles of land. Many small farms and ranches dot the verdant land creating a peaceful rural lifestyle. The late Senator John McCain and his family fell in love with this area.
The McCain ranch is located in Cornville. Locals say it's up Page Springs Road and is a very large property with immense lawns and shade trees. Oak Creek runs through it. If you want to get a sense of the beauty that McCain enjoyed in the Verde Valley, visit Page Springs Cellars. It is in the same vicinity, and you can sit on their deck enjoying a glass of their excellent wine. The trees will shade you and the soft breezes will cool you off.
It's easy to relax and spend your afternoon hours tasting wine, having a little picnic, and strolling the vineyards on a laid-back tour. And, in the evening sit down to a hearty German meal at the Manzanita Restaurant in Cornville before retiring to a local B&B.
Go Birding or Kayaking in the Verde Valley
The Verde River Greenway State Natural Area is the place to go to experience one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers and see the area’s large population of nesting and migrating birds. More than 100 species of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl have been sighted along the greenway, with additional sightings in adjoining Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood which is where you access the natural area. There are camping spots in the park.
Kayakers will appreciate the Verde River Paddle Trail, which stretches 6.5 miles from the Tuzigoot Bridge to the Highway 89A Bridgeport Bridge. There are several access points for river paddlers one of which is at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.
Experience the Ways of the Indigenous People
The people who settled the Verde Valley came for the water and the rich life along the river and stayed to farm until, as the story goes, they had to leave because of the lack of water. Visitors can enjoy the massive Montezuma's Castle cliff dwellings.
After checking out the cliff dwellings, you can drive a little bit north, and hike the shaded path down to see the fascinating Montezuma's Well where more than 1.5 million gallons of water flows into the Well every day. You’ll enjoy the shaded path and may even see a bat or two in the cave at the bottom of the trail.
Then, take a side trip to Tuzigoot National Monument with some ancestral buildings to explore and a visitor center where you can learn more about the early people of the area.
Learn About Verde Valley Wild West History
If you like Wild West history, you'll find it in the Verde Valley. A visit to Camp Verde will give you a sense of the stories of the cavalry and settlers coming to Arizona. When in Camp Verde, be sure and visit the Fort Verde State Historic Park where there are historic military buildings and a museum.
The State Park has hosted costumed re-enactments and the town has held small-town festivals in past years. Settlers from the East arrived in 1865 and began farming along the Verde River and its tributaries.
In the late 1870s, miners were drawn to the area by a rich vein of minerals. It was during that time that the towns of Jerome and Clarkdale were established.
Go Tasting Along the Verde Valley Wine Trail
Some people don't realize that Arizona is home to some great wines. The beautiful Verde Valley of Arizona, with towering cottonwood trees and ever-changing skies, is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of better-known wine areas such as California's Napa-Sonoma Valleys.
Travel along northern Arizona's Verde Valley Wine Trail and you will discover some new restaurants and wineries and find yourself slowing your pace and easing into a state of relaxation.
There are tasting rooms in Cottonwood and Jerome as well as vineyards to visit. A favorite of mine is to drive down Page Springs Road where there are four wineries to visit along cooling Oak Creek. Oak Creek slows as it meanders through the cottonwoods and sycamores. The river continues moving and stays fresh thanks to more than 100 artesian springs that flow into it.
Wander the Hilly Streets of Old Jerome
The historic mining town of Jerome is a hillside town full of original buildings, some restored, overlooking the Verde Valley.
According to AZJerome.com, Jerome, once known as “the wickedest town in the West,” was founded in 1876. While it was once the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory, it eventually became a ghost town. The federal government designated Jerome a National Historic District in 1967.
Today, quaint Jerome is a thriving tourist and artist community with a population of about 450. Jerome will welcome you with wine tasting rooms, top-notch restaurants, quaint B&Bs, and old mining history to explore. You can even stay in the large Jerome Grand Hotel overlooking the town. The hotel, originally the Verde United Hospital still retains an institutional feel. It is the site of many ghost stories.
Just down the street in a restored building clinging to the side of the hill is the Haunted Hamburger known for huge burgers and even more massive desserts! The building, once abandoned, was lovingly restored by the owners who quickly discovered that they were not alone. Hammers disappeared, cans flew off shelves, and water was turned on in the middle of the night.
Ride the Rails in the Verde Valley
A big draw in the Verde Valley is the Verde Canyon Railway based in Clarkdale. On their excursions, you’ll follow the Verde River on a leisurely trip passing over tall trestles.
You may see eagles perched on tree branches as you travel through a beautiful canyon. Often naturalists are on board with birds of prey that you can hear about and photograph.
While you wait at the depot, enjoy their museum of railroad artifacts and Verde Valley history. The Verde Canyon Railroad (formerly the Verde Valley Railroad) of Arizona originally supported Arizona's richest copper mine in Jerome. Now visitors enjoy the Verde Canyon Railway excursions to view the natural surroundings and participate in the railroad's special events such as wine-tasting and holiday-themed festivities.
When You Go to the Verde Valley
The Verde Valley is a place that you might just pass by as you drive north on I-17 from Phoenix on your way to Sedona or Flagstaff but it's clearly worth a few days to explore and enjoy. The small towns of Cottonwood, Clarkdale, and Jerome each has its own unique vibe and attractions.
There’s so much to discover on a road trip through Arizona. In addition to a road trip through the Verde Valley, our Wander writers have some great Arizona ideas to share with you.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary meals, accommodations, and entrance to attractions. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.