the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

15 Stops Along The Perfect Arizona Road Trip To Explore The State

To experience a huge variety of landforms and urban developments, embark on the following Arizona road trip adventure.

Known as the Grand Canyon State for its famous landmark, Arizona is a land of extremes. Here, you’ll find a large array of landscapes, from cactus-filled deserts to pine-covered mountains, from black lava-flows to pastel-colored landforms and red rock formations.

Besides the unique landforms that make the state famous, you’ll also find a variety of urban developments, from modern busy cities to quaint small towns, from ancient ruins to thriving Native American communities.

And if you have a week or two, you can experience it all in one epic Arizona road trip adventure, starting as soon as you land in Phoenix.

Note: This road trip takes between 7 to 14 days to complete.

Stop 1: Phoenix

Sonoran Preserve Trails Phoenix
On the trail in the Sonoran Desert Preserve

A huge sprawling metropolis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix is the cultural center of the state, featuring some of the best and most uniquemuseumsin the country. Since it is home to the international airport most people who visit the state fly to, it is a good starting point for this Arizona road trip.

You don’t need to go far from the airport to visit S’edav Va’aki Museum, a museum and archaeological site showcasing indoor and outdoor exhibit about the Hohokam, known as the Canal makers.

Telling more stories of the Indigenous people of Arizona, the US Southwest, and from around the world, theHeard Museumis filled with wonderfully curated exhibits.

You can’t miss the Musical Instrument Museum, unique in the world.

If you visit in the winter, you need to spend time outdoors in Phoenix. The city offers miles upon miles of hiking trails through its parks and nature preserves. Though avid hikers can find plenty of trails for all skill levels, even those who only venture outdoors for short walks can find unique trails to enjoy the desert.

Take the scenic road throughSouth Mountain Park, and explore sections of its trails. Or, on your way north, stop for a hike in the Sonoran Desert Preserve.

Don’t forget:If you hike in the desert, make sure you carry water, wear sunscreen and a hat, no matter the season.

Up next:Drive about an hour out of town on I-17 N and take exit 289, to Montezuma Castle Road.

Stop 2: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle - photo credit: Győző Egyed
Montezuma Castle – photo by Győző Egyed

The most spectacular cliff dwelling in the state, Montezuma Castle offers a opportunity to learn about the way ancient people lived in the high desert.

The multi-home dwelling is built into the rock and looks like part of the cliff. It was the home of ancient people we call Sinagua, a name adopted from the early Spanish travelers to the area, who considered the area the place with no water – sin Agua.

Take a self-guided tour of the site following the paved pathway, and learn about this ancient culture and the high desert environment.

Then drive over to Montezuma Well, part of Montezuma Castle National Monument, to see an oasis in the desert, surrounding a natural sinkhole filled with water. You’ll notice smaller cliff dwellings on the sides of the “well”, and if you take the trails, you’ll learn how the water fills this sinkhole from a natural spring.

Don’t forget:If you don’t have one, buy a National Park Pass. On this trip alone you’ll use it enough to be worth it.

Up next:Drive back to I-17 N, take exit 298 to AZ-179, the oldest scenic road into Sedona. Enjoy the scenery. Driving time: About one hour.

Stop 3. Sedona

Bell Rock offers a great hiking opportunity when you stop in Sedona on this Arizona road trip.
Sedona. Bell Rock

Surrounded by its iconic red rocks, Sedona is one of the most picturesque small towns of America, a must-stop destination along this Arizona road trip.

Besides the town itself, the surrounding trails among towering red rock formations offer more opportunities for hikes than you can do in one day. Which is why it is a good place for an overnight stay.

Enjoy the beauty of the surrounding red, pink, and orange rocks, great dining, and a stroll through the tourist center of town. Hike the trails around Bell Rock, exploreRed Rock State Park, visit the unique Chapel of the Holy Cross built into the rock.

Great for:Hiking, dining, overnight stop.

Don’t forget:When hiking, carry water, wear sunscreen and a hat.

Up next:Take I-89A North to Flagstaff. Driving time: About an hour on a winding scenic road above Oak Creek Canyon. Check to find out summer 2017 closure times. Stop at the scenic view on top of Oak Creek.

Stop 4. Flagstaff

The Kachina Trail offers some of the best hiking opportunities in Flagstaff.
View from the meadow on the Kachina Trail Flagstaff

The soaring ponderosa pines around Flagstaff are a direct contrast to Sedona’s low junipers. You are at the foot of the highest mountain range in Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks.

The largest town north of Phoenix along this Arizona road trip, Flagstaff is another place worth an overnight stay.

Drive up towards Snowbowl, a local ski resort on the mountain, and take a hike among the ponderosa pines on the Kachina Trail, or among the vibrant-colored aspens, especially pretty in autumn. Learn about the importance of these mountains to the Native American people at theMuseum of Northern Arizona.

Check out Historic Downtown Flagstaff, take the town’s walking tour to learn about its history, then enjoy any of its dining venues.

After dark, drive up to Mars Hill to look through the telescope used to discover Pluto atLowell Observatory.

Great for:Hiking, dining, observing the night sky, overnight stop.

Don’t forget:Wear warmer clothes in winter and carry a light jacket even in summer. You are in the coolest spot in Arizona.

Up next:Take I-89 North to Loop Road to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Driving time: About 30 minutes.

Stop 5. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

View of Sunset Crater from the self-guided interpretive trail.
View of Sunset Crater from the self-guided interpretive trail.

The lava-flow landscape around the youngest volcano of the area might make you feel that you landed on another planet. As you drive along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road, you’ll enjoy this unique landscape, even after the devastating fire several years ago. Though you’ll see burned trees still standing, many more survived and add a bright green lament to the surrounding black of the lava flow.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument protects this unique landscape and offers an insight into the geology of the high country of Arizona. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn about it, then take the self-guided tour at the bottom of Sunset Crater for a better view of the crater.

If you are visiting in the summer, and have extra time, this is a great place for an overnight camp. And If you’re feeling fit and want a challenge, hike up to Lenox Crater, where you can see inside a volcanic cone.

Great for:Hiking, learning about volcanoes, self-guided tour.

Don’t forget:When hiking, be aware of the fragile environment, don’t step on vegetation or pick flowers.

Up next:Continue for about 20 minutes on the Loop Road to Wupatki and the rest of the ruins.

Stop 6. Wupatki National Monument

The Tall House in Wupatki, a great place to learn about ancient history of Arizona. photo (c) Jeff Fromm
The Tall House in Wupatki

Wupatki National Monument preserves the ruins of the villages of the ancient Pueblo people.

Before reaching Wupatki pueblo, the largest one of the monument, and home of its Visitor Center, stop at the ruins of Wukoki, and walk the short trail around the ruins.

Farther along the scenic road, stop at the Visitor Center and explore Wupatki, home to a four-story, hundred-room structure, a large kiva, and a ball court.

The next structures, Lomaki, Wukoki, and Citadel Ruins are also worth a short stop for a glimpse into the past of the original Arizona people.

Great for:Learning about ancient cultures, visiting ruins, self-guided tours.

Don’t forget:Wear good walking/hiking shoes, hat, and sunscreen.

Up next:Continue on Loop Road back to I-89 N to Cameron Trading Post. Driving time: About 40 minutes.

Stop 7. Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park is the main reason to embark on this epic Arizona road trip.
View of the Grand Canyon from the Rim Trail

No pictures or videos of this natural wonder prepare you for the real thing. One glimpse will help you understand why Arizona is the Grand Canyon State. The National Park offers a great understanding of this wonder of the world.

Coming from Cameron, your first stop is Desert View. Take your time to be fully present at the edge of the Canyon and climb up to the top ofWatchtower. You can catch a glimpse of the Colorado River in the bottom of the Canyon. While here, stop for a visit at the Tusayan Museum, then continue on Desert View Drive to the Visitor Center.

For the best experience, park your car and take the free shuttle to all the viewpoints. Walk the rim trail and stop often. For a great meal, dine at the historicEl Tovar, overlooking the Canyon.

Great for:Hiking, walking on the rim, enjoying the scenery, learning about geology. Consider making reservations ahead at one of the hotels in Grand Canyon Village or in El Tovar.

Don’t forget:When hiking, make sure you have plenty of water, your camera, sunscreen, hat, and please watch your step. (You may want to visit in fall or winter when the crowds are fewer and less dense.)

Up next:Head back on I-64 E, US-89 N and exit to US-160 E. Drive 62 miles on I-160, then turn left on AZ-564 N. Driving time: about 2 hours.

Stop 8. Navajo National Monument

View of Betatakin from the Sandal Trail at sunset
View of Betatakin from the Sandal Trail at sunset

Preserving cliff dwellings and several ancient villages of the Ancestral Puebloans, Navajo National Monument is on the Navajo Nation’s land. Stop at the Visitor Center and the adjacent museum, and learn about the ancient people who lived here.

Walk on the “Sandal Trail” along the rim to the overlook of the ruins. If you have time, and you are up for an adventure, camp here overnight, and take a guided tour to Betatakin or Keet Seel for an in-depth experience.

Great for:Hiking, learning about ancient Pueblo people.

Don’t forget:You might be in a different time zone. The Navajo Reservation follows New Mexico, daylight savings time.

Up next:Head back on AZ-564 to US-160 E to Kayenta, then turn left onto US-163 N. Driving time: About one hour.

Stop 9. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley, Arizona
Monument Valley view

Most of the old western movies were filmed in Monument Valley. This beautiful country belongs to the Navajo Nation, and they live in the middle of it. Stop at the Visitor Center for a view of the Mitten Buttes, and to sign up for a guided tour into the Valley. If you have a four-wheel vehicle, you can drive in yourself. I recommend hiring a local Navajo guide to go with you for the best experience.

Great for:Spending a night atThe View Hotel, stopping at the Visitor Center, taking a self-guided ride or aguided jeep tourinto the Valley.

Don’t forget:The Navajo people live in Monument Valley. Stay on the designated roads and trails, so you don’t find yourself in someone’s back yard.

Up next:Back on US-163 S to Kayenta, US-160 E to Indian Rte 59 to Indian Rte 64. Driving time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

Stop 10. Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. View from the Rim
View of Spider Rock from the rim of Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chellylies near the town of Chinle, and has been inhabited continuously for about 5,000 years. Ruins of the ancient Puebloan civilizations are visible on the canyon walls, with the hogans of today’s Navajos on the bottom.

Stop at the Visitor Center, stop at the overlooks on the South and North Rim Drive, or join a ranger-lead hike or a Navajo guided tour into the canyon.

Great for:Hiking, learning about the Navajo nation and the ancientHisatsinompeople, dining, overnight stay.

Don’t forget:Navajos live inside the canyon, be considerate when meeting locals.

Up next:Drive for about an hour and a half on the Dine-Tah “Among the People” Scenic Road, Navajo Routes 12 and 24 to Window Rock.

Stop 11. Petrified Forest National Monument

Petrified log on the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified log on the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park

The Monument lies in the middle of the colorful Painted Desert, and is scattered with petrified logs, some of them small, some of them big. Stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to learn about the area, and pick up a brochure to learn the trails available. The best way to experience the park is to hike some of the trails. They take you to beautiful views, giant logs, and fossils.

Great for:Hiking, guided tours, geocaching, horseback riding.

Don’t forget:Stay on designated trails.

Up next:US-180 E, 180A S, AZ-61 W and US-60 E to Show Low. Driving time: About one hour.

Stop 12. Show Low and the Mogollon Rim

You can't miss a stop along the Mogollo Rim on the Arizona road trip.
View from a trail on the Mogollon Rim

Located on the Mogollon Rim, Show Low is a popular recreation area for Phoenicians. Head over to theFool Hollow Lake Recreation Areafor a refreshing break by the lake in the shadow of big Ponderosa. Or use the town as a gateway to the Rim Country for hikes, picnics, or even camping.

Great for:Spending the night, dining, hiking, boating, fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing.

Up next:Drive for about one hour and a half on I-60 to Globe.

Stop 13. Tucson and Vicinity

Before entering the town, stop at theCatalina State Park, home to desert wildlife, saguaros, canyons, streams and foothills. For a great Mexican meal, head over toLa Parilla Suizarestaurant – our family’s favorite -, then take the drive up toMt Lemmonand spend the rest of the day on the mountain.

Great for:Hiking, biking, birdwatching, horseback riding, dining, overnight stay.

Don’t forget:You are back in the Sonoran Desert, make sure to carry plenty of water and wear sunscreen when hiking.

Up next:Follow the signs for Saguaro National Park East. Driving time: About 20 minutes from the center of town.

Stop 14. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park, Arizona
View from the trail near the Visitor Center in Saguaro National Park

The giant saguaro is the symbol of the American Southwest and its gorgeous bloom is Arizona’s state flower. You’ll find a great concentration of them in Saguaro National Park, as well as huge and interesting specimens. Stop at the visitor center for facts about saguaro, then drive the Cactus Desert Scenic Loop Drive. Hike some of the trails along the drive and stop to check out the views. You can drive back into town to head over the West side of the Park. The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive within the Park is unpaved — and spectacular.

Great for:Learning about the giant saguaros, the cacti that only grow in the Sonoran Desert, hiking, scenic drives.

Don’t forget:Sunscreen, water, hat.

Up next:I-10 W to Picacho, exit 211 to AZ-87 N to Ruins Rd. Driving time: About 1 hour.

Stop 15. Casa Grande National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins
Casa Grande Ruins

Your last stop along this Arizona road trip before heading back to Phoenix, Casa Grande Ruins is one of the biggest sites built in the area.

Stop at the Visitor Center for info on the lives of the ancient Sonoran Desert people; visit the museum and walk around the ruins.

Great for:Walking, learning about ancient people.

Up next:Follow I-10 W back to Phoenix.

This Arizona Road Trip Gives You An Introduction to the State

Although there is much more to Arizona than you can see on this one road trip, this itinerary gives you a perfect introduction to the unique features of the state. It was this itinerary that we followed on our first trip to Arizona, when we fell in love with the state and decided to move here.


***Note: The original version of this article appeared in Matador Network in 2017, under the headline: The Ultimate Arizona Roadtrip


Recommendations and Resources:

If you don’t live in Arizona, you probably need to fly to Phoenix, then rent a car to do this road trip. That’s what we did the first time we visited the state, the trip that inspired us to move here. The following are my recommendations of how to plan this trip, from airfare to car rental and accommodations.

Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that if you make purchases or bookings through my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission, with no additional cost to you. However, it may help me offset the costs associated with running this site. Please read our disclosure policy for more information. Thank you!

Airfare

When flying anywhere, I usually check several different sites to find the best deals. Unless I know what airline I use (and have a credit card with points from that airline), I check CheapOair and WayAway for deals.

Cheap flights with cashback

Car Rental

To compare prices of different car rental companies, Discover Cars is a great place to start.

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Accomodations

Unless you are camping, you need to rent hotels or other accommodations for your overnight stays. UseTrivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place throughBooking.comorVRBO.

Of course, you can also useTripAdvisorto find the best places to stay, and best things to do. You can even book hotels through the site.

View deals on Tripadvisor

About the Author

Emese has been a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, for the past 30+ years. An avid traveler and explorer, she explored not only Arizona, but all of the Southwest with her family on multiple road trips during this time. Besides local insights to Phoenix, her articles about the state and the Southwest reflect an intimate knowledge of the area based on first-hand experiences. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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