Arizona looks just like the movies. It has everything you think of from the American southwest: deserts, canyons, tumbleweeds, cacti, horses. It’s classic roadtrip territory too, with lots of wide open highways like the famous Route 66. If the amazing scenery isn’t enough to lure you there (and it should be), then Arizona has plenty of cultural sites to explore, like the ancient pueblos that dot the landscape.
I spent a week in AZ, which was enough time to see a huge variety of landscapes from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. Along the way, I stopped at Petrified Forest National Park, explored the weirdness of old Route 66, and hiked in beautiful Sedona. My trip is more or less the itinerary I’ll share here. Check the end of the post for some travel tips for your trip to Arizona!
- Day 1: Phoenix to Holbrook
- Day 2: Petrified Forest and Route 66
- Day 3: Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon
- Day 4: Grand Canyon National Park
- Day 5: Grand Canyon to Sedona
- Day 6: Sedona
- Day 7: Phoenix
- Day 8: Fly home
Fast paced? Yes, but that’s part of the fun when you’re on a road trip. Slow down as you see fit.
Phoenix is the centrally located capital of Arizona. Its large international airport (Phoenix Sky Harbor/PHX) makes the ideal jumping off point. Rent a car from there. And choose wisely: you’ll be spending a decent amount of time in that car. Arizona’s well-developed highway system is the best way to get around.
Day 1: Phoenix to Holbrook
Start your trip by hitting the open road. It’s about 3.5 hours to Holbrook, AZ. Enjoy the changing scenery as you head from the Sonoran Desert up to the Colorado Plateau.
In Holbrook, you’ll find a small town with a kitschy collection of neon signs and roadside attractions from the era of Route 66, America’s most famous highway. Check out the Wigwam Motel, where you can stay in a teepee-like room just like motorists of the 1950’s. Or at least stop for a picture. Another great photo stop is the Rainbow Rock Shop, with its colorful collection of dinosaur statues.
Holbrook has a few great local restaurants–don’t let their time-warp exteriors throw you off. Stop by Sombreritos Mexican Food for tasty enchiladas or embrace your inner cowboy at the Butterfield Stage Co. Steakhouse.
Day 2: Petrified Forest National Park and Route 66
Let’s get this straight: the petrified forest is not a forest, it’s a desert. Along with layered rock formations, Petrified Forest National Park has a collection of logs that have been fossilized or “petrified” into quartz rock. Plan for half a day of exploring. Make sure to stop by the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center by the south entrance for a look at what the area looked like millions of years ago. Who doesn’t love a good dinosaur exhibit? While you’re there, you can see the some of the largest petrified logs. Welcome to Triassic Park!
In the afternoon, head west to the weird and wonderful places along old Route 66 (now I-40 in this area).
- Winslow, AZ – Referenced in the Eagles song “Take It Easy,” Winslow has taken its 15 minutes of fame to a touristy extreme with a park devoted to “standin’ on the corner.” Is it a monument to the history of Route 66 or just a tourist trap? You can ponder the question as you take your picture with a statue and browse the gift shops.
- Meteor Crater – A huge crater and accompanying museum devoted to all things meteor. Tickets aren’t cheap, but it’s fun if you consider yourself a space or science nerd. The museum does a surprisingly good job of getting you excited about space rocks crashing into the earth.
Route 66 has lots of oddities, so take your time. Spend the night around Flagstaff.
Day 3: Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon
North of Flagstaff are two adjacent national monuments. The first is Sunset Crater National Monument, home to an extinct volcano and jagged fields of lava rock. There are a couple of short hikes along the main road where you can explore the unique terrain and learn about the volcano’s history.
Continue along the main road, and you’ll reach Wupatki National Monument. Start at the visitor center for information and a short walk to an impressive pueblo site. The people who built it 900 years ago had a rich society with advanced agriculture, religious spaces, and even a ballcourt for playing an ancient soccer-like game.
In the afternoon, make your way to Desert View Drive and the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Stop at Desert View Watchtower to see the canyon in all its glory. You’ll find more overlook points along the road as you head toward the village. Stop at as many as you like–there are no bad views of the Grand Canyon!
Ideally, you want to stay at one of the lodges in the park. If you can’t, there are plenty of options in nearby Tusayan.
Day 4: Grand Canyon National Park
Today is about one thing: hiking in the Grand Canyon. It’s a challenge walking the steep trails that descend into the canyon, but it’s well worth the effort for an unforgettable hike. Seeing the Grand Canyon on foot is a whole different experience than seeing it from the rim.
Make sure to read up on your hike and prepare. I’d recommend either the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. If you’re a beginner, you can turn around at the first stopping point on either trail (Mile-and-a-Half Rest House or Ooh Aah Point). Experienced hikers can go farther, just remember it’s twice as hard going back up!
If you still have energy after the hike, head over to Mather Point in the evening to soak up more views from the south rim.
Day 5: Grand Canyon to Sedona
Drive south from the Grand Canyon to Sedona via 89-A, which takes you through the scenic Oak Creek Canyon. You’ll pass Slide Rock State Park, where you can swim among the natural water slides and red rock pools. Warning: the water may be really cold.
Continue south to uptown Sedona, where there are lots of places to eat and shop, if you are so inclined. The area is definitely touristy, but it has a unique vibe. Everyone seems to be into spirituality, with stores selling healing crystals and mystical art. I’m not much of a mystic myself, but I enjoyed walking around the shops at Tlaqueplaque. It’s a collection of art galleries and stores housed in a faux-Mexican village.
Later, you can drive up to Airport Mesa for fantastic views of the red rock scenery. Will you feel the spiritual energy of this “vortex?” Will your chakras align and bring you inner peace? Maybe. I make no promises except for a beautiful view.
Day 6: Sedona
Get up and go for a hike! I recommend Cathedral Rock, a short-but-challenging hike to an iconic Sedona red rock formation. The trail involves a fair amount of rock scrambling, which can be lots of fun if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.
Another great trail is Devil’s Bridge, where you can walk across a natural rock arch. There’s less rock scrambling on this trail, just a steep bit at the end. It’s more like a natural rock staircase. The arch at the end makes for a cool photo, but be prepared to wait in line during peak hours.
In the afternoon, cool off with a kayaking trip on the Verde River or sip some wine at one of the valley’s vineyards. Actually, you can do both with Verde Adventures’ combined “Water to Wine” tour that starts and ends at Alcantara Vineyards.
Day 7: Phoenix
Get an early start and drive back to Phoenix. When you get there, I recommend visiting Desert Botanical Garden for its beautiful collection of desert plants and wildlife. You can get up close to many species of cactus and other succulent plants, some of which are huge. I also enjoyed spotting birds and watching the ground squirrels scurry around.
While you’re in Phoenix, you can check out one of city’s great museums too. I confess, I ran out of time on my trip and didn’t get to see these. So these are on my list for next time:
- Heard Museum – one of the best places to see American Indian arts and culture. The rotating exhibits are both beautiful and educational.
- Musical Instrument Museum – a museum devoted to musical instruments new and old. It’s a multimedia experience, including a few instruments you can try playing.
Day 8: Fly home
Your Arizona adventure is complete. I hope you got some great pictures!
If You Have More Time
Honestly, this is a faced-paced itinerary, so adding a day at any of the locations would be reasonable. A few other ideas:
- Visit Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation
- Drive up to Horseshoe Bend for the ultimate Instagram photo
- Head south to Tucson and Saguaro National Park
When to Go
Spring or fall are your best bets. I did this trip in early May, when it was warm but not excessively hot. Summer can be really hot in southern AZ–think 100F and above. In winter, the northern areas and higher elevations get snow. If you’re going during the more extreme seasons, scope out the typical weather and adjust your itinerary.
Arizona Travel Tips
- Buy an annual parks pass – With all the National Parks properties in Arizona, an annual pass will pay for itself quickly. $80 covers entry for you and everyone in your vehicle. It’s available online or at most parks (check the website).
- Reserve your car in advance and consider roadside assistance – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shortage of rental cars and driven up prices. Book early. Much of the driving in Arizona is far from major cities, so consider getting roadside assistance through your rental company.
- Be prepared for the weather – Arizona’s weather is incredibly varied. It can be scorching hot in Phoenix while it’s cold at the Grand Canyon. The weather is reliably sunny though, so bring sunscreen and maybe a hat.
- Get up early for popular hikes – Parking lots at some trailheads fill up before 8:00 am. Trails can become obnoxiously crowded. And let’s not forget that the temperature gets hotter throughout the day. Just get up early and take a nap later in the day.
- Bring enough water – Hiking in the sun and dry air will dehydrate you quickly. Bring an extra water bottle, even better if it’s collapsible.