When I moved to Tucson in late 2015, one of the first people I looked up was Mitch Stevens, who runs a tour company called Southwest Discoveries, which specializes in hiking and walking tours in some of Arizona’s most spectacular scenic areas.
While Southwest Discoveries is relatively new, Mitch is an old hand at leading hikes and tours, with an extensive background at the helm of Sierra Club outings. He’s particularly interested in drawing baby boomers to his tours, which is how we originally connected.
Mitch has lived in Arizona for decades and is a walking encyclopedia in the geology, archaeology, history, and culture of the Southwest.
Arizona’s searing summer heat levels off in Autumn, with October and November ushering in perfect hiking weather that lasts throughout the winter and into spring.
Red Rock Country
Mitch has one adventurous guided tour coming up in mid-November that I want to spotlight because it sounds so intriguing. The eight-day, seven-night tour will feature Arizona’s Red Rock Country, which includes not just Sedona and the Grand Canyon, but other lesser-known but no less remarkable sites, all suitable for any outdoor lover’s bucket list.
Ancient landscapes, ancestral ruins, petroglyphs (rock art), canyons, mountains, rock formations — even wineries — are on the itinerary. Lodging is at regional inns and most meals are included. The maximum number of participants is 12 (minimum six), so you’ll be with a small, manageably sized group.
Leaving from Phoenix, the tour heads first to Sedona, best known for its stunning red rocks. A short hike will take you to one of the best preserved rock art sites in North America.
Next up is Lower Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon that changes colors throughout the day, and Horseshoe Bend, for sweeping views of the rock wall-lined Colorado River.
A hike through Buckskin Gulch, where a meandering river has sliced through 1,000-foot red rock canyon walls, is the star of the tour’s third day. As an Arizona newbie, I admit I’d never heard of it, but Buckskin Gulch is the world’s longest and deepest slot canyon and, as Mitch says, “It’s widely considered one of the top hikes in the world — simply gorgeous.”
The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness follows on day four. Hiking through a series of narrow, high-walled canyons, you’ll view rock amphitheaters, sandstone arches, erosion-carved natural sculptures, and hanging gardens of ferns and orchids.
Day five’s “The Wave” is another place that’s new to me. Mitch describes it as “one of the few places in the world left untouched by man,” but you can view its sandstone formations and also get additional views of the multi-colored Vermillion Cliffs, which rise as high as 3,000 feet.
The Grand Canyon and More
After these sites, will the Grand Canyon seem like an afterthought? Not likely. At the less-visited North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Kanab Wilderness area is the place to hike to a rock art site reflecting the history and culture of long-ago Anasazi inhabitants, ancestors of the Hopi. The millennium-old Native American pictographs were fashioned in the area’s red sandstone cliffs.
On day seven it’s time to relax a bit with tours and tastings in the Northern Arizona wine country, located throughout the Verde Valley. If you’re surprised to hear that Arizona has a wine country, consider that the high desert climate here is similar to that of California’s wine country.
On the final day, the tour explores an ancient pueblo on a desert hilltop in Tuzigoot National Monument, complete with panoramic views of the region’s cliffs, canyons, ridges and rivers. It concludes with a hike along the Verde River, Arizona’s only designated wild and scenic river, which cuts through the Verde Valley.
Then it’s back to Phoenix, at which point you will have experienced some of the finest hiking and scenery in the entire country — and, in the process, learned a lot about the region’s ancient cultures, which is one of Mitch’s favorite passions.
One reason I’m writing about the tour now is that Mitch is offering an early bird registration special of $500 off when booking for two people through July 1, 2016. The normal price is $2,985 per person.