By Rebecca L. Rhoades
At the far end of Old Town Cottonwood, past the tasting rooms and antique shops, where North Main Street takes a sharp curve west and heads toward neighboring Clarkdale, is an unassuming opening in the trees on the edge of a parking lot. Most visitors might overlook the break in the greenery, but a second glance hints at a riparian delight.
Within minutes of leaving their cars, hikers find themselves on the Jail Trail—named so because it is easily accessed off the site of the old jail building. The flat trail offers a leisurely path through the surprisingly dense foliage to the shores of the Verde River, where it continues for about an hour’s walk before turning back on itself. In winter, after the leaves have turned spectacular shades of gold and russet and dropped to the ground, the bare branches give clear views of raptors and flocks of red-winged blackbirds. In spring, the area teems with even more birds—tanagers, orioles and buntings, among others.
“The Jail Trail is a great place to visit if you want to get away and get back to nature,” says Michelle Masters, director of Tourism, Marketing and Events for the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce, which oversees business and tourism for Cottonwood, Clarkdale and the rest of the Verde Valley. “I take my dogs there all the time. A lot of people really enjoy it because they can get up early when they’re staying in Old Town and head out for a nice 45-minute walk.” Adds Jodie Filardo, community and economic development director for the Town of Clarkdale, “It’s a great place to photograph birds. We even periodically see bald eagles on the river.”
For most Phoenix area visitors and residents, Cottonwood and, in recent years, Clarkdale are the go-to towns for wine tastings. With six vineyards and tasting rooms in Cottonwood, five in Clarkdale, and even more in nearby Jerome, Cornville and Camp Verde, the sleepy region about an hour and a half north of the capital has become wine lovers’ dream destination. But the towns are also becoming prime spots for those seeking a sustainable getaway far from the crowds of the more populated Sedona and Flagstaff. In fact, in 2015, Cottonwood and Clarkdale partnered with National Geographic to promote geotourism: “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place,” according to global nonprofit organization.
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of the region is by taking to the waters of the Verde River, the longest free-flowing stream in Arizona and a center of tourism activities, including kayaking and bird-watching. “I think our biggest draw is our river,” notes Masters. “Everyone in the area has a lot of respect for the land and the water, and everything we do when it comes to that river is based on keeping it healthy and happy.” One of the most popular river attractions is the “Water to Wine” tour, which takes guests on a 1.5-hour trip down the river and ends with a wine tasting at Alcantara Vineyards.
Another popular river access point for guided kayak trips can be found on the way to Tuzigoot National Monument. This ancient pueblo, build between 1125 and 1400 AD is the largest and best-preserved Sinagua pueblo ruins in the Verde Valley. “Visitors can learn about the region’s native history, stroll around the ruins, take photos and really get the flavor of the area,” says Filardo. More than 245 species of birds have been recorded at the monument and its adjacent Tavasi Marsh.
For those seeking a more relaxing way of experiencing the spectacular vistas, native flora and even wildlife of the Verde Valley, the Verde Canyon Railroad, which departs from Clarkdale for a four-hour, 40-mile trip. Open-air viewing cars allow for unspoiled views.
After a day of hiking, kayaking, exploring—or even relaxing—the towns of Cottonwood and Clarkdale offer hungry travelers the best in farm-to-fork dining. “There’s a lot of localism and sustainability going on in the food part of what we have to offer, and many of our restaurants strive to be as locally sourced as possible,” says Masters. From vineyards that practice sustainable irrigation to eateries that offer the freshest local products, there’s something to satisfy everyone’s tastes.
Heading up the move for sustainable food and beverage is Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the rock bands Tool and Puscifer. Keenan, who lives in Jerome, owns Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria (as well as the popular Caduceus Cellars), which opened in late 2016. “They are the truest farm-to-fork local source in Old Town,” notes Masters of the simple Italian pasta and wine restaurant. “Everything is as locally sourced as can be or made fresh on-site. And Maynard doesn’t put anything in his wine that’s not natural. He’s really driven about healthy living.”
Keenan also made his mark in Clarkdale with Four Eight Wineworks, a tasting room and winemakers cooperative in conjunction with Yavapai College’s Southwest Wine Center. Housed in a former bank building that maintains many of its original features, including teller windows and the original vault, the cooperative provides beginning vintners with facilities to make and showcase their products.
For those interested in the history of the Verde Valley, the Copper Arts Museum, located in the old Clarkdale High School building, offers a one-of-a-kind look at one of Arizona’s Five C’s: copper. The other four are cattle, cotton, citrus and climate. Here, visitors can learn about the history of one of the state’s most important natural resources and see examples of how the metal is used—from coins and cooking utensils to tools, weapons and home decor items.
“Clarkdale is the Verde Valley’s best kept secret,” says Filardo about the former company town once owned by the United Verde Copper Co. “A small-scale community filled with people who value our environment and each other, Clarkdale treasures its wide vistas, pristine riparian river access points, and preserved and restored early 20th-century architecture.”
Once drive-through cities overlooked by tourists heading to Prescott or Sedona, the neighboring towns of Cottonwood and Clarkdale are cementing the place on the map and in the minds of travelers seeking eco-friendly destinations for a quick day trip or a relaxing week-long retreat.
“Our goal is to get people to stop and stay,” says Masters. “And we want to do it as sustainably as possible and as gracefully as possible. Yes, we will piggyback on the wine, but there is an awful lot more to do here. We’re a little bit of home for soe people, and a little bit of ‘wow, I can’t believe there’s all this green just an hour and a half from my cactus-filled yard.”
Rebecca L. Rhoades is an award-winning writer and photographer who specializes in travel, arts and culture, architecture and design.
For more information about the places mentioned in this article, as well as for additional places to shop, eat, stay and play, visit the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce at firstname.lastname@example.org