Mogollon Rim

11 Great Day Trips From Phoenix Perfect For Summer

Summer day trips from Phoenix can take us away from the desert heat and into cool pine forests and cool lakes to enjoy the season.

With temperatures hovering above 100 degree every day, often reaching above 110, summers are scorching hot in Phoenix. The ongoing joke is that we could fry an egg on the asphalt. While I haven’t tried that yet (don’t want a waste a perfectly good egg), I did step on melting asphalt quite often in the middle of the summer.

But instead of just sitting in the air conditioning, complaining about the oven we live in, we try to take as many day trips from Phoenix in the summer as we can.

We’ve lived here for close to 30 years, and by the end of every summer we decide this would be our last one in Phoenix, we’d move by the following one.

But then October comes around, and we remember why we live here, we fall in love with the desert all over again. It does help that we leave town often.

During the summers, we take several vacations. We fly out of state, often to Canada or the Pacific Northwest, for their cold weather. But we can’t be gone the whole summer. So, we “hide” in museums and go on day trips or weekend camping trips.

We are lucky that it’s easy to leave the oven and saguaro-filled desert behind and about two hours later hike through pine-forests, or swim in a cold lake.

Below I compiled a few of my favorite Phoenix day trips for the summer.

1. Flagstaff And Its Surroundings

View from the Kachina Trail in Flagstaff, one of the coolest spots in the state.
View from the Kachina Trail, Flagstaff

My favorite spot for a quick getaway from the Phoenix heat are the pine-filled mountains surrounding Flagstaff, an environment as different from Phoenix as night and day.

The Kachina Peaks (better known as the San Francisco Peaks), at an elevation of about 7000 feet, are home to the world’s largest ponderosa forest. The temperatures here are at least 20 degrees cooler than in Phoenix, and we even get to enjoy some shade and pine-scented fresh air.

Naturally, it is one of the most popular weekend destination for everyone in Phoenix in the summer months. With one major highway connecting the two cities, summer weekends can be a nightmare driving up though. So, we opt for making it a day trip, often in the middle of the week, if we can. But even if we battle traffic on a weekend, the trip is always worth it.

Once in the pines, you have several activities to chose from.

Walk Through the city of Flagstaff

If it’s your first time here, you need to explore the city. Stop at the Visitor Center in the historic train station, learn about the town and the surroundings, and watch a train go by. (If you spend some time here, you are very likely to see one). Leave your car there, and walk through historic downtown Flagstaff.

When you are done with the city (or if it’s too crowded on a summer weekend), drive up to the mountain.

Hike Through The Kachina Peaks

The best and easiest way to enjoy the Kachina Peaks is driving up to Snow Bowl. The chairlift operates during the summer as a scenic ride up to the peak. It’s worth the ride, and be prepared to actually be cold on top. Enjoy the views and the cold air before heading back to lower elevations.

You can spend much more time on the mountain if you hike a trail in the forest. The area just below the chairlift is also to plenty of hiking trails among ponderosa pines and aspen patches. My family’s favorite hike in the summer is the Kachina Trail. While we don’t hike all its 10.2 miles, we always enjoy walking among the fragrant pines and through patches of aspens, no matter how far we take it.

Getting there facts:

Distance to Flagstaff from Phoenix: 144 miles

Driving time: about 2 hours 30 minutes

Directions: Follow I-17 North all the way to Flagstaff

2. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Bonito Lava Flow at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Closer view of the Bonito Lava Flow from the parking lot.

Sunset Crater is my next choice, offering an opportunity to learn about volcanoes and cinder cones.

We often drive through Flagstaff, especially if we are there on a weekend, and visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. The best way to learn about the crater is to walk the interpretive trail at its bottom.

Though you can’t hike Sunset Crater, you can still get to the top of a cinder cone and look down into it. For this experience, take the trail to the top of Lenox Crater. Or hike on a large lava field through the Bonito Lava Flow, and marvel at the otherworldly shapes and sharp rocks the volcano left behind.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 163 miles

Driving time: 2 hours 23 minutes

Directions: Follow I-17 North to Flagstaff. Take the exit to I-40 E, then take exit 201 to the US-89 N to the Loop Rd.

3. Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canyon - view
View of Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon National Monument also makes a perfect day trip from Phoenix in the summer. Here, you can hike through one of the most rewarding trails in the high country of Arizona.

This steep, 400-feet deep canyon named for the walnut trees growing at its bottom, is home to some of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the state. Not only can you walk by them, but you can even enter a few when hiking the Island Trail.

Besides the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon left behind by the Sinagua, you can enjoy gorgeous views of the canyon.

Besides the steep hike, you can stroll through a pinion forest on the paved rim trail, enjoying different views of the canyon below.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 154 miles

Driving time: about 2 hours 30 minutes

Directions: Take I-17 N to Flagstaff. Before even entering the city, take exit 204 for I-40 E. Follow it until you reach Walnut Canyon Rd, then turn right onto it.

4. Sedona With Its Red Rocks And Oak Creek

Bell Rock - Sedona
Bell Rock – View from the trail

Though Sedona is not my first choice for a summer destination – we find it still too hot, with lack of shade, and still extremely crowded – it is the perfect summer day trip from Phoenix for most people. The town considered one of the prettiest small towns in the country, Sedona seems to be on everyone’s bucket list who sets foot in Arizona.

Surrounded by the famous red rocks, Sedona offers great hiking opportunities, though for these hikes you’d need to go early or late in the day during the summer months. With virtually no shade, they get uncomfortably hot by midday.

To get out of the midday heat, browse the air-conditioned art galleries and boutique shops in town. 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.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 116 miles

Driving time: about 1 hour 40 minutes

Directions: Follow I-17 N to exit 298, then take AZ-179 N. The drive itself is scenic, enjoy the ride into town.

6. Grand Canyon National Park

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

The best-known and one of the most spectacular of the original natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon, is a must-see for anyone who visits Arizona, no matter the season.

Everyone’s favorite National Park in Arizona is cool enough in the summer to make a perfect Phoenix day trip destination. However, summer is also the high season to visit it, so prepare for extreme crowds.

Winding through the largest ponderosa pine forest on the continent, the drive from Phoenix to the South Entrance is one of the most scenic roads in Arizona. However, you can take the longer, but less busy route if you go on a weekend, entering through the East Entrance at Desert View.

No matter when or which way you go though, because of the extreme popularity of the South Rim, you’ll always encounter crowds in the summer, so you’ll just need to realize it.

Past the entrance, on either side, drive to the main Visitor Center, and leave your car there. A free shuttle can take you to any viewpoint from there, but you can also rent a bike and ride it through the trails or walk them.

No matter what else you do, you can’t miss taking at least one walk on the rim. For an easy stroll, follow the paved Trail of Time. It gives you an opportunity to learn about the geology of the Grand Canyon while enjoying the views.

Instead of driving to the park though, for a more relaxed day trip you can also drive to Williams and ride the scenic train to the Grand Canyon. The train stays at the Canyon for three hours. This gives you enough time to visit the main areas surrounding the train station, and even walk the Trail of Time.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 219 miles

Driving time: about 3 hours 30 minutes

Directions: Follow I-17 North to Flagstaff. From Flagstaff city center, take AZ-64 through Williams, to the Grand Canyon.

7. The Mogollon Rim

Mogollon Rim
View from the Mogollon Rim

The same Ponderosa pine forest we enjoy in and around Flagstaff makes the Mogollon Rim a desirable day trip destination from Phoenix.

The approximately 200 miles-long limestone and granite cliff in central Arizona, the Mogollon Rim showcases these pines, intertwined with a few deciduous forests.

The Rim features plenty of hiking trails, camping opportunities, and several gorgeous lakes surrounded by pines. Phoenicians love this area, so it does get busy on the weekends, especially near the lakes.

The scenic Rim Road Drive is one of the best way to enjoy the Rim. If you don’t mind driving on dirt road, you can go all the way, but even the first few paved miles offer spectacular views. You’ll drive through ponderosa pines, grassy meadows, and along steep cliff drop-offs.

You’ll have opportunities to stop at a few lakes, campgrounds, and hiking trails, and enjoy the cooler, shaded areas of Arizona. The gateway town to the Mogollon Rim is Payson. Though you can stop in town for a meal, we usually just drive through, especially in the summer, to enjoy the cooler, forested areas of the Rim Country.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 124 miles

Driving time: about two hours

Directions: Start on the 202 E Loop in town, and turn onto AZ-87 N (exit 13). Follow AZ-87 to Payson. In Payson (center of town) turn right onto AZ-260 E that leads to the Mogollon Rim.

8. Willow Springs Lake

My family’s favorite spot on the Mogollon Rim is Willow Springs Lake. One of the more popular day trips from Phoenix in the summer, the lake gets busy, especially by mid-afternoon, since it offers a great place to cool down close to town.

One of the biggest draws of the lake is its temperature. Willow Springs Lake stays cold even in the summer. That’s because it gets all its water from runoffs of melted snow from the mountains in its immediate vicinity, and from the melted ice that fills it in the winter.

This might not be a huge deal anywhere else, but it is unusual in the hot desert so close to Phoenix. The water also keeps its surroundings cooler, while the ponderosa pines offer shade on its shores.

We generally like to swim in the lake and hike the perimeter trail and wander off into a few side trails in the surrounding forests. Besides swimming, the lake is popular for paddle-boating and fishing.

After all, the lake was originally created for fishing. Specifically for trout fishing. The Arizona Game and Fish Department created it in 1966, and they still stock it with trout every year, from spring through fall.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 122 miles

Driving time: about two hours

Directions: Follow the road towards the Mogollon Rim; the lake is off AZ-260 E, 23 miles east of Payson.

9. Prescott and Vicinity

Though we still find Prescott a bit too warm during the hottest summer months, it is still cooler than Phoenix. Surrounded by lakes and forests, it makes it a good summer day trip from Phoenix.

Barely over an hour away from Phoenix and the desert, Prescott has summer-time recreation activities available for anyone. Lakes, pine forests, and parks offer plenty of hiking, biking, and kayaking opportunities.

You’ll find here Lynx Lake, one of the few natural lakes in Arizona, besides a few smaller man-made reservoirs. When it comes to hiking, the Bradshaw Mountains offers plenty of opportunities

Once the capital of Arizona, Prescott is still one of the most popular historical towns in Arizona, with plenty of historical sites for Old West enthusiasts to enjoy.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 99 miles

Driving time: about one hour and 30 minutes

Directions: Follow I-17 N to exit 262 onto AZ-69 N and follow it to Prescott.

10. Bartlett Lake

Bartlett Lake near Phoenix
Bartlett Lake

Much closer to town, Bartlett Lake is a favorite spot for Phoenicians for water activities.

Though still in the desert, the lake offers a respite from the heat, with swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, and hiking opportunities.

You wouldn’t expect a lake in the middle of this desert environment. And, to be fair, it is a man-made lake, a reservoir, fed by the Verde River.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 48 miles

Driving time: about one hour

Directions: Take either 101 or 51 to Cave Creek Rd; follow Cave Creek Rd to the scenic Bartlett Dam Rd.

11. Saguaro Lake

Phoenix might be in the middle of a desert, but it is surrounded by a few gorgeous lakes. While they are man-made, resulting from damming of the few rivers crossing the desert, they offer a great respite from the dry environment of their surroundings.

Surrounded by rugged mountain peaks and desert lands covered by thousands of gorgeous saguaros, Saguaro lake is one of the most popular day trip destinations from Phoenix in the summer. In fact, it gets crowded enough that you won’t find a parking spot unless you go early in the day. Once there, though, you can spend a day in and around the lake, surrounded by the desert.

Though you’ll find hiking trails around the lake, too, stay close to the water – if not in it – in the summer. Besides swimming, the lake offers boating, kayaking, waterskiing, and even a riverboat cruise.

Getting there facts:

Distance from Phoenix: 41 miles

Driving time: about 45 minutes

Directions: Take AZ-202 Loop E to exit 23A and turn left on Power Rd, which turns into Bush Hwy. Continue for 11 miles; turn right onto E Forest Rd 206A also called Saguaro del Norte and follow it to the lake.

More Phoenix Day Trips For Summer

The destinations mentioned above are only a fraction of the unique, interesting places you can explore from Phoenix in a day. Though most of them are worth at least a weekend, or combined as a road trip, you can use them and many others as weekend trips from Phoenix, the largest metropolitan area in the Sonoran Desert.

I only included some of my favorite spots, but you’ll find many more, depending on you interests.

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