48 Hours in the Verde Valley

verde valley

The Verde Valley isn’t exactly one of the big draws for Arizona. If people get anywhere near it, it’s usually because they’re going to Sedona.

I’ve lived here for a good long time and have actually never spent a night anywhere in the Verde Valley other than Sedona. That changed recently because my wife ran a 10k race that started in Cottonwood.

I wound up liking this trip considerably more than I expected to. There’s a lot to do, even beyond the better-known activities like the wineries and the Verde Canyon Railroad.

verde valley
Kids will love the playground at Dead Horse Ranch.

Here’s what I learned from spending just less than 48 hours hanging around Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Sedona.

Good Things to Know About the Verde Valley

Still Hot in the Summer

If you’re seeking relief from the summer heat, this is not the place to go. Just keep on driving up the I-17 until you hit Flagstaff.

The sun hits hard here and the temperatures will still be in the 100s.

Hotel Space Can be Scarce

We booked a hotel for two nights, then canceled the second night just in case we didn’t like the area that much and felt like continuing to Flagstaff.

Well, we liked it and wanted to stay. But almost every hotel near Clarkdale and Cottonwood was booked aside from the Verde Valley Inn, which was nowhere near as pleasant as the Pine Inn and Suites.

Book ahead of time and keep hold of that reservation. Locals told me that hotels are often full in this area. My guess is that people are choosing to get hotels here instead of in Sedona.

A Better Place to Stay Than Sedona

Yes, the scenery in Sedona is amazing. You won’t see anything else quite like it. But man, it is a miserable place to drive and park.

Business owners are fiercely protective of their parking spaces, which turns the alleged hippy vibe upside down. Seriously, people are far less pissy about parking and driving near San Diego than they are in Sedona.

You’re way better off staying in Cottonwood or Clarkdale, driving to the western outskirts of Sedona and then using a bike to get around.

Speaking of Bikes …

I rented a full-suspension mountain bike at Thunder Mountain Bikes in Sedona so I could check out some of the trails. I jumped onto the trails nearest the store — they were challenging (even for an experienced rider) and scenic. I wound up glad that I rented a full-suspension bike instead of bringing my singlespeed hardtail up.

I liked the team at Thunder Mountain. They were friendly and asked all the right questions in prepping my rental. I’d rent from them again in a second. They also gave me my first glimpse at one of my favorite bikes (other than my own) … a very slick Transition Spur.

verde valley
My ride for the day was an Ibis Ripmo AF — which probably deserves a post of its own.

If mountain biking isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of places to rent an eBike, which I’d consider 100% perfect for getting around town. Be careful about using them on trails — they’re not allowed on all offroad trails. But for getting around without parking and driving in Sedona? Spot-on perfect.

Bring water and some electrolytes. You remember how I mentioned that the Verde Valley is hot? You’ll need more than water to stay hydrated and happy.

Next time I mountain bike in Sedona, I’ll probably hit the trails on the far west end of town.

Smelter Town Brewery — Excellent Beer in Clarkdale

I ran across a reference to Smelter Town Brewery on Facebook shortly before it opened. I followed them immediately, and was impressed by what sounded like a nice variety of styles.

smelter town brewery
The remains of a Belgian tripel and a stout about to disappear into my gullet.

When my wife signed up for her race, I was like “yes, I finally get to try Smelter Town!” They exceeded my expectations.

We started off with a flight — good hazy IPAs, a solid Belgian tripel and then an excellent imperial stout. If you’re into sours, they’ve got you covered. Right now, I’d place them among the better breweries statewide, right along with Wren House, Arizona Wilderness and Pueblo Vida.

They have some snacks available, but they also team up with the Main Street Cafe for BYO food.

The staff was also friendly and very opinionated about beer.

More Thoughts on Eating and Drinking

We had coffee twice at Firecreek Coffee. My advice: Go for some of their iced drinks. They have some very original recipes that aren’t overly sweet. They pack some nice flavors into them.

On the other hand, they’re not so good at more traditional espresso drinks like the cappuccino. Wrong temperature, wrong size, pretty iffy foam (yes, I’m a hard grader when it comes to a cappuccino).

The breakfast items we had were all tasty, right down to the side of potatoes. They were also very accommodating in whipping up a side of sausage for our carnivorous little person.
We also had lunch at the Old Town Red Rooster Cafe, which was a hit with us all. The burger with gorgonzola and fig jam was pretty clever and very well executed.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park – Much More Pleasant than it Sounds

We spent our final hours in the Verde Valley hanging at the Dead Horse Ranch State Park. We started off at a playground that had a sort of zipline thing that our little person couldn’t get enough of (OK, and neither could I).

verde valley
Walking around the ponds and trying to stay in the shade.

We then took a stroll among some ponds, and then did another walk along the Verde River itself. The Verde is my favorite river in Arizona. I have great memories of camping along it with my brother; it was also the training ground for my course at the Aboriginal Living Skills School.

I’d like to spend more time at Dead Horse, especially in a cooler month. I was disappointed to see that hammocks aren’t allowed at the campgrounds, which is a huge miss for me.

A Welcoming and Inclusive Vibe

Right now, I have a bad taste in my mouth over some rural Arizona communities. They seem to be very unwelcoming to outsiders.

Not so with the Verde Valley. I saw a lot of signs on businesses making it clear that the welcome mat is out for people of many different beliefs and identities.

In our current climate, that matters.

Random Thoughts on the Verde Valley

Next time I’m here, I’d love to spend more time on a bike. It seems like there might be some good routes for mountain or gravel bikes between Cottonwood and Sedona. I’d also like to see if there are any good places to take a 6-year-old to go find cool rocks. I’d also like to drive up the road to Jerome and meander around a bit. Tuzigoot National Monument also looks like it’s worth a look.

Another thing: I’m astounded at some of the city services. Cottonwood actually has an outdoor roller hockey rink. As an old goalie, I’m half-tempted to bring my gear up and let some of the locals take shots at me! This is the kind of amenity we can only dream about having in South Scottsdale, so good on Cottonwood for having something like this.

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By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.

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