Grand Canyon, the best-known of the 22 National Parks and Monuments in Arizona.

13 Best Stops on a Northern Arizona Road Trip

There is no better way to drive through a diverse environment, while visiting the Grand Canyon than a Northern Arizona road trip. For Phoenix residents, it also offers the easier way to beat the heat of the summer in town.

In the summer months, with temperatures constantly in the 100s, Phoenix becomes an oven. Not necessarily just because it’s in the middle of the desert, but the combination of heat and concrete – streets, walls, buildings – traps the heat. There is some truth to the joke of the city, but: can fry an egg on the asphalt during the hottest days.

It’s the time when those of us who made the city our home, need to leave it. Though we might consider moving out of the desert altogether, sometimes a Northern Arizona road trip is all we need. This state is truly a place where you can go from being in a hot oven-like environment to pine-scented, fresh, cool air in a matter of hours. So, when we are in Arizona during the summer, we get in the car and drive.

The following is one of our favorite Northern Arizona road trips, one we repeat often during the hotter months. The itinerary starts and ends in Phoenix, and takes us through some of the most magnificent scenery of the state. Even after decades of living here, we still enjoy it. This itinerary is flexible, short enough for a weekend trip, or a week-long vacation. We could even do it in one day, though it would mean skipping a few things. So without further ado, here’s our favorite summer driving itinerary from Phoenix.

Starting in Phoenix

Since we live in Phoenix, this is where we start, and most likely, you will, too, if you flew into the state. Did you notice how easy it is to navigate our airport? I’ve traveled enough and have seen plenty of airports, but still think that Sky Harbor is one of the best. It is also close enough to the city to offer plenty of things to do even during a long layover.

Phoenix has great restaurants, hotels, museums, so you can spend some time here; you can also find ideas for things to do here in the Phoenix city guide I wrote for for Matador Network.

But in the summer, you’ll most likely want to head out of town. The best way to cool down in Arizona is to head north, and a road trip is a perfect way to do it. You can stop at as many or as few of the stops below during your northern Arizona road trip.

Things to do: dining, nightlife, museums, hotels

Next: Head out of town, on I-17 North. Take exit 263 towards Arcosanti. Turn right on the Arcosanti Rd, then left on S Cross L Rd, then after about 1 mile, right on the Scenic Loop Rd. Drive time: about 1 hour from Downtown Phoenix.


1. Arcosanti

You might wonder why I made you stop here. I know, it’s still in the desert and it’s still hot here in the summer. But this “urban laboratory” is worth a look, since it offers ideas for a self-sufficient community, an urban design that doesn’t hurt the environment (as much).

Designed by Paolo Soleri as a prototype of arcology (yes, it’s a word), the mini city is home to a few artists and other creatives. Soleri actually came up with the term arcology, from combining the words architecture and ecology, to name the city design he was creating, for ecologically low-impact city design. Arcosanti, the place they are still trying to implement the idea, with more or less of a success. Take a site tour to understand it; it will take you an hour, and price is “suggested donation”.

Things to do: Visit an urban laboratory, a city-design with low ecological impact.

Next: Get back on I-17 and keep driving North until exit 289 to Montezuma Castle. At the traffic circle, take the first exit to W Middle Verde Rd. At the next traffic circle, take the second exit and stay on the Middle Verde Rod, then turn left into Montezuma Castle Rd. Driving time: about 35 minutes.

2. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Go from a modern city design to an ancient one at the next stop. A misnomer on many levels, Montezuma Castle is not a castle in the traditional sense of the word, and has nothing to do with the Aztec king. On the other hand, it is one of the prettiest ancient ruins in Arizona, built to house a village, sometime around 1150.

Montezuma Castle - photo by Győző Egyed
Montezuma Castle (photo by Győző Egyed)

Showcasing some of the oldest and prettiest cliff dwellings in the Southwest, the five-story structure and its surroundings tell the story of the Sinagua, ancestors of some of the modern Pueblo nations. When you look at the cliff dwelling, it’s easy to understand why early explorers called it a castle. Built into a cliff, it seems like it grew out of the rock, while its elaborate facades and windows remind us of castles.

And the villagers of Montezuma Castle weren’t really without water, either, as the name suggests (sin=without, agua=water in Spanish). Proof of their ingenuity, the canal they built still brings water to the site, at least in the winter months. Visiting it in the summer, it looks like a dry river bed, but if you ever return in the winter, you’ll see water flowing through it.

Take about an hour to visit this site, walking the trail shaded by the Arizona sycamore trees.

Note: My recommendation is to buy the National Park Pass here, if you don’t have it already. It will pay for itself on this trip alone, since you will use it at least for six National Parks, including the Grand Canyon, and some places in Sedona. And it’s good for a whole year, which means you can visit other National Parks any place in the US.

Things to do: visit a cliff dwelling and its surroundings.

Next: Get back on I-17 and drive to exit 298 to State Highway AZ-179 N towards Sedona. Turn left onto AZ-179 N and follow it to the Village of Oak Creek, then Sedona.

3. Sedona

Best-known as the prettiest small town in Arizona, Sedona lives up to its reputation. Unfortunately, with being known comes the next phase, of being a tourist-magnet and getting crowded. But if you time your trip right, it is still possible to enjoy this small town in the middle of red rock country.

Sedona. Bell Rock
Sedona. Bell Rock

If you have time, try to spend the night either in Sedona, or for a more budget-friendly choice, in Oak Creek Village. It is a huge tourist magnet, and most hotels are going to be expensive. It is also going to be crowded. But if you stay in the proximity for the night, you’ll have an opportunity to visit the major attractions when they are less crowded. Or get some hiking done in lesser-known areas.

Things to do: hiking, sightseeing, art and craft shopping

Next: Drive out of town on I-89A North towards Oak Creek Canyon. Distance to the top of the hill, to Oak Creek Vista stop: about 30 minutes.

4. Oak Creek Canyon and Oak Creek Vista

Stop in Oak Creek and enjoy the shade, camp here, if you find a spot, or just spend some time by the river. Unfortunately it gets very crowded here, and you need to be there early in the morning to find a camping spot (no reservations), but even if you can’t camp, it’s worth getting out and walking around in the shaded area.

Then keep driving up the hill, and stop on the top at Oak Creek Vista.

Things to do: camping, hiking, enjoying great views at Oak Creek Vista.

Next: Continue driving on I-89A North for about 30 miles to Flagstaff.

5. Flagstaff

The Arizona city in the pines, Flagstaff is the best summer destination to get away from the heat. Spend a day or two here, hike through pristine forests, visit an ice cave, enjoy great dining options.

Stop at the Visitor Center in the old Train Depot, learn about the town and its surroundings, and watch a train go by if you stay long enough. Then spend some time walking through the city center, and stop for a cup of coffee or lunch.

Then drive up to the Snowbowl area for some great hiking trails in pine and aspen forests. On the way, stop at the Northern Arizona Museum, and the Pioneer Museum, roughly across from each other. For easier trails, head over to Buffalo Park, where you might see deer in the open fields. If you stay the night, drive up to mars Hill to the Observatory, and look through the telescope used to discover Pluto.

Flagstaff - view from the mountain
Flagstaff – view from the mountain

Things to do: sightseeing, hiking, dining, spending the night.

Next: Take Historic Route 66 through town and over to Walnut Canyon. Driving time: about 20 minutes from the center of Flagstaff.

6. Walnut Canyon National Park

Hike down through cliff dwellings carved into the side of the canyon, and look down to the bottom, where the Arizona black walnut tree lives that gives Walnut Canyon its name.

From the Visitor Center, hike to the cliff dwellings and walk through them, where possible, halfway down the Canyon. Don’t look down on the narrow side of the trail if you are scared of heights. But enjoy learning about the ancient people who carved their homes halfway up inside the Canyon’s walls.

Things to do: hiking, visiting ancient cliff dwellings

Next: Drive back to Flagstaff and get on US-89 North for about 10 miles, then turn right onto the Sunset Crater Loop Rd.

7. Sunset Crater National Monument

Sunset Crater -View from the Trail
Sunset Crater -View from the Trail

The youngest crater in the area, Sunset Crater offers a colorful and wild background to a few hikes. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn about the volcano and the surrounding volcanic field, then take the Interpretive Trail at the bottom of Sunset Crater.

Hike up and walk inside Lenox Crater, and see what it’s like to be in the center of a cone. Or, if you prefer, and have time, set up camp in the black sand, in the Bonito Campground, and enjoy the clear night sky as you can only see it in Arizona.

Things to do: hiking, camping, picnicking

Next: Continue on the Loop Rd and stop through the ancient sites scattered along it.

8. Wupatki National Monument

The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm
The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm

Once home to ancient people of the desert, Wupatki National Monument showcases the remains of their ancestral buildings. You’ll drive by a few ruins, stop at each of them, then spend some time learning about the people who lived in the shadow of the volcano.

Walk through the rooms of the Tall House, the largest building at the site, once containing over 100 rooms. Walk through an open kiva, and a ball court, and even stand by the volcanic blow hole to feel the rush of air coming through.

Things to do: visiting ancient Pueblo ruins

Next: Finish the Loop Rd and make a right back onto US-89 N. and drive to Cameron Trading Post. Driving time: about 20 minutes.

Note: While Sunset Crater is closed, you can still access Wupatki from the north side of the Loop Rd, off US-89.

9. Cameron Trading Post

A great place to stop in the middle of the high desert, the Cameron Trading Post offers a place to stop and relax, maybe spend the night before heading to the Grand Canyon in the morning.

The art gallery and the trading post offers some of the best authentic Native American arts and crafts. Visit the rug room and, if you are there at the right time, you can even watch a Navajo weaver demonstrate her art. The restaurant on the premises has a menu that reflects its Native American roots, besides Mexican and American fare.

Things to do: browsing or buying authentic Native American arts and crafts, dining, spending the night

Next: Drive back about a mile on US-89 to the traffic circle. Take the first exit onto AZ-64/Desert View Drive and drive up to the Grand Canyon.

10. Grand Canyon National Park

The best-known of the natural wonders of the World, and the National Park Arizona is famous for, the Grand Canyon is going to be the highlight of your Northern Arizona road trip.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, the best known natural wonder of the world.

Showcasing thousands of rock formations and layers of different colors, the Grand Canyon’s beauty will leave you in awe. Adding its size of 277 miles, up to 18 miles in width and the depths of a mile, standing at its edge is an experience you will never forget.

Your first stop, coming from this direction, is Desert View, where you’ll have one of the best views of the famous landmark, and the Painted Desert in the distance. Walk up the Watchtower, and enjoy the murals on the landing, artwork of known Hopi artist, Fred Kabotie. On the top, look through the telescopes for a closer view of the Canyon.

Park your car at the Main Visitor Center, and either walk, take the free shuttle or rent a bike from here, to explore the rest of the sites. Walk the Trail of Time, an interpretive part of the Rim Trail, where you can learn about the geology of the canyon, and its age layers.

Visit the Hopi House and the Historic Train Depot in Grand Canyon Village, then dine at the El Tovar Dining Room for a great end of your day. For the night you can camp, get a room at El Tovar or drive out of the Canyon and rent a room at one of the hotels just outside the park.

Things to do: sightseeing, hiking.

Next: Leave the Park through the Main Entrance, and keep driving on AZ-64 S for about 50 miles to Williams. Driving time: about 1 hour.

11. Williams

A small town surrounded by pines in Northern Arizona, Williams is mostly known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, but it still offers a few things to see. The train ride to the Grand Canyon starts here and returns later in the day, so if you wanted to do that, you can return; though the train leaves early in the morning, so you’d need to spend the night here.

The town has about six blocks of historic buildings and shops offering Route 66 memorabilia. And, being in the pine country, the town has plenty of outdoor activities to choose from, including hiking, horseback riding, and camping (if you want to spend the night). But the town’s main attraction is the Bearizona Wildlife Park.

Things to do: hiking, sightseeing, visiting a wildlife park.

Next: Take S. Perkinsville Rd/ AZ State Rd 73 to Jerome. Driving time: about 2 hours.

12. Jerome

Experience Arizona history in the old mining town of Jerome, once nicknamed “Arizona’s wickedest town”. Enjoy the scenic drive there, through turns and twists up the mountain to the top of Cleopatra Hill. Originally set up as a mining town, when the copper mine closed in 1953, most people left town. The remaining 50-100 people lived off of tourism, advertising Jerome as a historic ghost town.

Advertised as one of the largest ghost towns in the US, Jerome today is home to an artist community, and a small population working in the tourist industry. Walk the historic streets, visit the old mine, browse the boutique art shops, and dine in one of the historic restaurants in town.

Things to do: sightseeing, dining, shopping

Next: Follow AZ-89A N to Clarkdale, then drive on Clarkdale Pkwy, and take S Broadway to Tuzigoot. Driving time: about 15 minutes.

13. Tuzigoot National Monument

the ancient ruins of Tuzigoot
The citadel of Tuzigoot

Visiting another ancient site built by the Sinagua people, we came full circle (we started with Montezuma Castle, built by the same people) to visit Tuzigoot National Monument. Here though, they didn’t have a cliff to build their home in, so they built it up from the ground, on a hilltop.

Explore the museum of the National Monument, then walk through the ancient structure, the remains of a 110-room pueblo on top of a high ridge, with spectacular views of Verde Valley. Plan to spend about an hour or two at the site.

Things to do: Visit an ancient archaeological site, a National Park.

Next: Drive towards I-17, and take it back South to Phoenix.

Back to Phoenix

End your trip in Phoenix, where you started. Once back in town, visit another one of the museums, take a tour of the historic Orpheum theater, or spend an hour in the shade near the pond of the Japanese Friendship Garden. Or, if you still have a day or two, cool down at one of the water parks in the city, before getting back on the plane and leaving the Valley of the Sun.


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