Grand Canyon National Park. View from the rim trail

How To Visit The Grand Canyon From Phoenix On A Long Weekend

If you’ve come all the way toPhoenixfrom another part of the world, you should take a day to visit theGrand Canyon, the natural wonder of the world Arizona is known for. The most popular of the national parks in Arizona, the canyon’s sheer size overwhelms visitors. Formed by a geologic erosion in the desert, showcasing different rock layers, the canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and often a mile deep. But it is its beauty rather than its size that makes it memorable. The changing colors of the rocks combined with their sharp edges, along thousands of formations as far as you can see, will leave you in awe.

This unique combination of geological form, size, and color makes this natural wonder deservedly popular. You need to see it, even if you have to fight the crowds while there. The South Rim of the park is open year-round, and it’s worth its entrance fee, although you might want to invest in a yearly National Parks pass.

Though it will be a long day, it is possible to visit the Grand Canyon from Phoenix in one day. And while your main destination is the canyon, you have an opportunity to see a few other sites, including ancient ruins, a city in the pine forests, and a Native American trading post. So make sure you get up early and hit the road for the best experience of your Arizona vacation.

Stop at Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle - photo by Győző Egyed
View of Montezuma Castle from the trail.

Get up early and grab a quick breakfast, then head up towards Flagstaff on I-17 North. After about 30 minutes on the road, you’ll see signs forMontezuma Castle National Monument.

Though it has nothing to do with Montezuma, and it’s not really a castle, this national park is worth a stop. You’ll learn about the ancient inhabitants of the Arizona desert, who built a structure impressive enough to have early explorers call it a castle and believe it to be the home of the famous Aztec king.

While Montezuma and the Aztecs lived thousands of miles South of this area, the ancient inhabitants of the desert were just as ingenious. They carved entire villages inside the walls of the surrounding desert limestone. Called cliff dwellings, these sites are prevalent in the US Southwest, and Montezuma Castle is one example.

The five-story-high structure you’ll visit here, built around 1150, housed about 50 people. Called Sinagua, meaning without water, those who lived here were the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of Arizona, including the Hopi and Yavapai.

Even the name Sinagua is a misnomer though. When you visit, you’ll see a canal the ancient villagers built. While in the summer months it looks like a dry riverbed, in the winter you’ll see water flowing through it.

Give yourself about 30 minutes to an hour to visit the site, then get back on I-17 North and drive to Flagstaff. Or, if you have more time, drive towards Sedona, for a break in the famous red rocks of Arizona.

Stop In Sedona

Bell Rock - Sedona
Bell Rock in Sedona. View from the trail

Considered one of the prettiest small towns in the country, Sedona seems to be on everyone’s bucket list who sets foot in Arizona, so it makes sense to make it a stop along this route.

Surrounded by the famous red rocks, the town offers great hiking opportunities in any season, though you need to go early or late in the day during the summer months. With virtually no shade, most get uncomfortably hot by midday.

In town, browse the air-conditioned art galleries and boutique shops. Or, drive to Oak Creek Canyon and stop at Slide Rock State Park for a swim and a water-slide. Home to an 80-foot long natural waterslide in Oak Creek, the park is one of the busiest summer-time destinations in Arizona, but a great way to cool down if you don’t mind the crowds.

Take a break in Flagstaff, the Arizona city in the pines

Flagstaff, Arizona. View from the Aspen Loop Trail
View from the Aspen Loop Trail in Flagstaff

At the foot of the highest mountain range in Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks — also known by locals by its original name, the Kachina Peaks —Flagstaffis surrounded by tall ponderosa pines. In stark contrast with the desert where the trip began only two hours earlier, the town offers a respite from the sweeping vistas, low vegetation, and heat, especially if you’re visiting in the summer.

Take some time to enjoy the surroundings and the fresh pine-scented air here. After parking at theHistoric Train Depot and Visitor Center, walk inside to learn about the town and its surroundings; you can even watch a train go by if you’re there at the right time. Then walk across the street and stroll throughDowntown Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is a great place to break the trip, offering plenty of accommodation, for every budget. If staying here, you have time to explore several other National Park units, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument. You can also spend some time on the mountain, in and around SnowBowl, where you can hike Kachina Trail, or any of the shorter trails among aspens, especially worth a stop if you visit in the fall.

Drive on to the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park. View from Grand Canyon Village
Grand Canyon. South Rim

From here, you have two choices to drive on towards theGrand Canyon. If you are visiting mid-week, and off-season, take Route 180 Northwest towards the South Entrance to the park. It is the shortest route, however, it is also the busiest. The main entrance gets crowded, especially on the weekends, with long lines of cars waiting at the gate.

For a faster route, take I-40 out of town to Williams, then turn on AZ-64 North. This route is longer, but faster, since you are on the freeway, however, the scenery is prettier if you take I-180. Both routes will ultimately lead to the East entrance, the main and busiest entrance to the Grand Canyon.

To avoid standing in line to get in, and drive through some beautiful high-desert scenery, you can opt for Highway 89 towards Cameron. Below I’ll tell you briefly about each route.

1. Shortest Route, Through The Main Entrance

To follow this route, turn off to Route 180 in the center of Flagstaff. The road will climb through a quaint side street of the town, then turn towards SnowBowl and the route towards the Grand Canyon.

Drive up to SnowBowl for Stunning Views of the High Country of Arizona

Depending on how much time you have, you can explore several trails on the way. One of my favorites in any season, is the Kachina Trail, right below the entrance to the ski slope. Or, if you are visiting in the fall, enjoy the golden aspens all around the peaks.

Stop in Williams

A historic Arizona small town, Williams is worth a stop if you are a Route 66 or Old Western towns enthusiast. In the historic center of town you’ll feel like you stepped back in time and expect old-fashioned cowboys to walk by you any minute.

1a. Take the Train To The Grand Canyon

Williams is your choice to stop if you want to take the steam train to the Grand Canyon, since the ride starts here. This is a whole other experience, and you need to be in Williams early if you want to do it. You might even opt to stay in Williams overnight, though being only about 30 miles from Flagstaff, you should not have a problem getting there in time.

The train ride is much longer than you’d cover the distance by car, but worth it if you like the experience. You’ll enjoy an old Western show during your trip, with Western musicians and cowboys, even an old-fashioned train robbery on the way.

The downside of this trip is a shorter stay at the Grand Canyon, since the train departs at 3pm, unless you ope to stay overnight in one of the lodges in the park.

2. Fastest Route

Taking I-40 out of Flagstaff has the benefit of bypassing the city with its crowded, narrow streets. It is your best choice if you only have a day to visit the Grand Canyon from Phoenix, and want to spend all your time at the Canyon. This route takes only about 1.5 hours from Flagstaff, and about 3.5 hours of uninterrupted drive from Phoenix. But because you are on a highway until you get to the turnoff for AZ-64, you’ll deal with trucks, and you have fewer chances to stop.

3. My Favorite Route, Through The East Entrance

For this route, drive through Flagstaff towards Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, on I-89.

Stop At Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater at sunset
Sunset Crater at sunset. View from Lenox Crater

You can’t drive by Sunset Crater without stopping at least for a short visit. In fact, if you plan this trip in the summer, camping at Sunset Crater offers an amazing opportunity for stargazing. You’ll have time to hike up Lenox Crater to understand the geology of a volcano better and for some gorgeous views of Kachina Peaks and Sunset Crater. You can also hike through a rugged lava flow, and understand the different ways an erupting volcano changed the landscape.

But even on a brief stop, walk into the Visitor Center to learn about the volcano and its history, and take the scenic walk near the gorgeous Sunset Crater, showcasing the colors of a sunset (hence the name).

Then, instead of turning around, keep driving on the scenic loop; it will take you back to I-89 to continue your drive towards the Grand Canyon.

Stop at Wupatki National Monument

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

The Visitor Center Wupatki National Monument offers an opportunity to learn about ancient people who inhabited this area, and just outside it a short walk leads to the ruins of their largest village. From the trail’s overlook you can see not only the whole site, but the surrounding area and the Painted Desert in the distance.

The half-mile long walk through the site takes you downhill into the 900-year old ancestral Puebloan four-story high structure featuring about 100 rooms. Though you can’t enter the structure, you can walk around it and even walk into a few rooms with opening that offer a peak into the inside of the building.

Past it, you can walk into an above-ground kiva, an ancient community room, then follow the path to the ball court.

Besides the ancient structures, you’ll also find a blowhole, a natural geologic feature. Created by the lava flowing and hardening through the area, the blowhole allows air to flow through a lava tube, and in the end we can experience air rushing out from underground.

If you have more time, stop at the smaller ruins within Wupatki National Monument, Citadel, Nalahiku, Lomaki, and Box Canyon Pueblos.

Stop at the Cameron Trading Post for lunch and shopping

The historicCameron Trading Postfor lunch at the restaurant on the premises, where the menu reflects its Native American roots though you can get Mexican and American fare, too. You can never go wrong with the Navajo tacos made with authentic fry bread, ground beef, beans, and mild green chilis. The generous portions might be enough to share.

Then, visit the art gallery and browse through Native American arts and crafts, including Navajo etched pottery, sand paintings, jewelry, and rugs. If you are there at the right time, visit the rug room and watch a weaver demonstrate the art of weaving a Navajo rug.

Depending on how much time you have, you can stay in Cameron overnight. In fact, it is my family’s favorite overnight stop on a Grand Canyon trip – instead of Flagstaff. Or, if you have even more time, it’s worth spending a full day in and around Flagstaff, staying overnight in Cameron, then driving on.

After this stop, continue on the scenic Route 64, also called Desert View Drive, to the East Entrance of the Grand Canyon.

Stop At The Little Colorado River Gorge Navajo Tribal Park

Before the entrance to the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River Gorge gives you a glimpse into the world of deep canyons. A Navajo Tribal Park, they charge a small entrance fee, and have two viewpoints of the gorge, both within easy walking distance from the parking lot.

Explore Desert View Point and the Watchtower

Stop at theDesert View Pointfor your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon and some of the most spectacular views of the famous landmark. This viewpoint is one of the few places on the rim where you can see the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon and the Painted Desert to the east.

But the view is only the beginning. Desert View offers a look into the history, art, architecture and Native American culture. TheWatchtower, built in 1932, is one of the best works of renowned architect Mary J. Colter, who modeled it after structures built by the ancient Puebloan people. Take your time walking up the tower, and enjoy the original murals of known Hopi artist Fred Kabotie on the first landing. Climb up the spiral stairway to the Kiva Room, and look through the telescopes for a different view of the canyon, the river below, and the Painted Desert in the far distance.

Stop at the Main Visitor Center

Regardless of how you got to the Grand Canyon National Park, to get the most out of your visit, drive to theMain Visitor Centerand park your car. Learn about the Grand Canyon from the exhibits, pick up a map and brochure, or buy a ticket to one of the tours or programs you might like to join. Then, you have a choice of taking the free shuttle through the rim, walking, or renting a bike for your further explorations.

Walk the Trail of Time

Grand Canyon National Park. View from the rim trail
View of the Grand Canyon from the Trail of Time

After a short stop at the Visitor Center, walk theTrail of Timeto the Grand Canyon Village for great views of the Canyon and even solitude on some stretches. At 1.7 miles, the Trail of Time is short enough to enjoy walking it without feeling overwhelmed. This interpretive section of theRim Trailuses age markers, signs, and rock samples to represent the geological timeline of the Grand Canyon. The exhibits along the trail showcase rocks of the canyon taking visitors on a 2,000 million years old geological journey through the history of the Earth. Each brass marker represents one million years of geology, where you can stop and learn about the layer of rocks in the Canyon representing each particular time. Enjoy this walk through geologic history and gorgeous views while making your way to the Grand Canyon Village.

Spend Time at the Grand Canyon Village Historic District

The Hopi House at the Grand Canyon National Park
The Hopi House at the Grand Canyon National Park

Whether you walk the whole distance or get on the shuttle in between viewpoints, your should make it to the Grand Canyon Village. Built to accommodate tourists in 1901, when the railroad was completed, it brought large numbers of visitors to the Grand Canyon. Most of the buildings originate from that era, so they are worth a look.

But before exploring the historic village, make a reservation for dinner at the El Tovar Dining Room in the historicEl Tovar Hotel, built in 1903.

Walk across the street for a look at the Train Depot, another national historic landmark, built in 1901 and still working, welcoming visitors who take the train fromWilliams. This would be your entry point to the park if you took the train from Williams.

Then visit and spend some time in theHopi House, dating from 1904 and designed by Mary J Colter. While enjoying the architecture of the building, browse the array of Native arts and crafts available. Return to El Tovar before your reservation to spend some time in the lobby and learn about the history of the building.

Dine at El Tovar

Featuring perfect views of the Canyon, and a menu that reflects the Southwestern culture, the elegantEl Tovar Dining Roomis the perfect setting for your main meal at the park. You’ll find exquisite meal choices, no matter your preference or need, including gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan choices.

Watch the sunset across the Grand Canyon

the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Sunset at Grand Canyon South Rim

For a perfect end of the day, watch the sunset over the Grand Canyon before heading back to Phoenix. There will be crowds trying to nab the perfect photo, but the Canyon is pretty big — you’ll be able to find your own little spot to enjoy the best view of the state.

Look at the night sky through a telescope at Lowell Observatory

Take the shorter route back, through the South Entrance, and Route 180 to Flagstaff. Since you will reach Flagstaff after dark, drive up to Mars Hill and visit theLowell Observatory, established in 1894. Learn about the night sky and Earth’s astronomical history, and look through a few different telescopes, even the one used to discover Pluto in 1930. Then head back to Phoenix, taking I-17 South.

The original version of this article was first published on Matador Network on June 6th 2019 under the title The ultimate day trip to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix.

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Read more about the Grand Canyon before visiting

To learn more about the Grand Canyon before visiting, I recommend reading about it. I use the Lonely Planet guide books; they have been my go-to travel books for decades. They have a great reference book: Grand Canyon National Park, and a Grand Canyon National Park Planning Map to accompany it: . If buying the book or the map through my links, a 10% discount will be automatically applied to your purchase (but if you don’t see the discount, use coupon code EMESEFROMM10)

Book your flight:

If Phoenix is not your home, you would probably fly there before driving to the Grand Canyon. Before booking your flight, check several different sites to find the best deals. Unless you know what airline you are using use (and have a credit card with points from that airline), you could checkCheapOairandWayAway, my preferred sites, for deals.

Book your rental car:

When you land in Phoenix, you will probably rent a car to get to the Grand Canyon. To compare prices of different car rental companies,Discover Carsis a great place to start. Or,

Book your accommodations:

You can useTrivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place

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