Your Complete Guide to an Arizona Road Trip
Spending a week driving the scenic route north from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon allows for plenty of time to explore the old mining settlements and historic wild west towns along this Arizona road trip.
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Known far and wide as the Grand Canyon State—seriously, mention Arizona to anyone in another country and that’s their first thought—yet the 48th state to join the Union has much to offer anyone yearning to jump in the car and explore the many wonders of the wild west.
“There’s so much to explore, from desert and forest landscapes and lakes to wildlife watching and national parks and monuments,” says Jackie Dishner, author of Backroads & Byways of Arizona. “It’s an outdoors state, with mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, and fishing opportunities throughout. You can drive for hours down long, empty roads and feel like you’re the only person for miles. There are ghost towns and mining towns and plenty of old west history, too.”
While there are myriad options when it comes to an Arizona road trip—including a popular portion of historic Route 66—it would be a shame to miss out on seeing the Grand Canyon. So, this itinerary will begin in Phoenix, the state capital, and head north through several must-see towns before ending at one of the seven natural wonders of the world. This is one of those road trips you’ll never forget!
- Arizona is home to the Navajo Nation (the largest Native American reservation in the United States) and the Tohono O’odham Nation (the second largest). More than one-quarter of the state is reservation land.
- Arizona is known for its five Cs, which serve as the pillars of the state’s economy: Copper, Cattle, Cotton, Citrus, and Climate (tourism).
- While you may think of Arizona as one massive, dry desert, that’s really only the case in the lower third of the state. In fact, the state contains all of the world’s biomes, including Tundra (at the top of the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff).
- Arizona’s mountains are home to the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.
- The Sonoran Desert, which covers the southwestern area of Arizona (Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma), the Mexican state of Sonora, and parts of California, is the only place in the world where the iconic saguaro cactus grows.
Phoenix to Prescott
Route distance: 99 miles
Suggested length of time: 2 nights
Begin your Arizona road trip after a good night’s sleep. For low-key luxury with an open-air design, choose ARRIVE Phoenix, a brand-new hotel spanning two restored mid-century modern towers in the trendy Uptown neighborhood. Then, head north on the I-17 (also known as the Black Canyon Freeway) to Rock Springs Café. This first pit stop is the perfect place to fuel your stomach for the second half of this leg—they sell more pies than any other shop in the state, so be sure to grab a slice or two. Continue north on the 17, then turn onto Highway 69 N. Take Gurley Street into the center of Prescott, one of 13 great last-minute mountain escapes.
The beautiful building on a grassy, tree-covered lawn is the Yavapai County Courthouse. Walk around and explore all the shops, restaurants, and bars up and down Whiskey Row (Montezuma Street, between Gurley and Goodwin Streets)—these used to be saloons and brothels during the Gold Rush era, and the entire area was rebuilt after being destroyed by a devastating fire in 1900. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday frequented The Palace Restaurant and Saloon, which is still operational and the oldest business in Arizona. Take advantage of the free admission to Prescott Western Heritage Center to learn more about the area’s rich western heritage—for instance, Prescott is where the professional rodeo was born.
Enjoy an authentic Neapolitan pizza at Limoncello Pizzeria Napoletana; chef-owner Matteo Schiavone was born in Italy and if you close your eyes, you’ll think you are dining in Naples. There are numerous hotels in the area, but a stay at an Airbnb will provide more space and a local vibe.
The next morning, rent kayaks at Watson Lake to enjoy the spectacular landscape of the surrounding Granite Dells. Or, choose to hike around or fish Lynx Lake. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy a leisurely lunch on the patio at El Gato Azul, a tapas bar on Goodwin before browsing any shops you missed the day before. Spend the evening listening to live music at many of the venues on Whiskey Row—the Bird Cage Saloon and Jersey Lilly Saloon have a cozy, old-timey feel.
Prescott to Jerome
Route distance: 35 miles
Suggested length of time: half-day
From Prescott, the historic copper mining town of Jerome is about an hour’s drive (the last 10 or so are up windy mountain roads) northeast. Take 89 N to 89A right into town. Jerome is built on three levels, and it may be easiest to start at the top and work your way down. In its heyday as the largest copper mine in Arizona, it was known as the “Wickedest Town in the West” due to its gambling and prostitution-laden past. Today, it’s a tame tourist and artist hub, and one of 12 small towns with beautiful architecture.
On the top level, begin with lunch at the Haunted Hamburger—the fried pickles and handspun milkshakes are a tasty accompaniment to any burger on the menu. Afterward, make your way to the Jerome Grand Hotel, a former hospital that’s said to be haunted by the ghosts of some of the 9,000 people who died there.
From here, work your way down each level, popping in and out of any galleries, boutiques, and shops that catch your attention. From leather designs and kaleidoscopes to souvenirs and olive oil, there’s plenty to see and buy. It’s a quirky place with a lot of personality so be sure to engage the shopkeepers to learn more about the town’s colorful history.
Jerome to Sedona
Winslow Productions/Getty ImagesRoute distance: 27 miles
Suggested length of time: 2 nights
Known for its signature red-rock buttes—the stunning color is due to iron oxide—Sedona is one of Arizona’s most iconic landscapes, not to mention one of the most stunning desert escapes in the United States. You’ll find one of the best panoramic views of these stunning rocks from the Enchantment Resort, nestled at the base of Boynton Canyon (its Apache name is Che Ah Chi). This property is the perfect place to connect with nature through guided hikes and mountain bike rides, golf, stargazing, tennis, and even arts and crafts classes. Its world-class Mii amo spa features a holistic approach to rejuvenation, using signature Native American-inspired therapies to delight all your senses.
Spend an afternoon strolling around the various upscale art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants in Tlaquepaque (the Indian name means “the best of everything”) and then head over to Uptown Sedona (a half-mile stretch on 89A) for shopping in the form of trading posts, crystal shops, Native American jewelry and other shops chockfull of southwest flare.
There’s nothing more quintessentially Sedona than a Pink Jeep tour, which will take you offroading along the various red rock formations and trails where famous western films were shot. One of the most popular hiking trails in Sedona is Devil’s Bridge—this natural sandstone arch in the Coconino National Forest offers breathtaking views on a 4.2-mile out and back hike (most of it is easy, but there’s a short section of rock scrambling to consider). Cathedral Rock is another don’t-miss natural sandstone formation, and one of the most-photographed sights in the state.
Choose Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill for dinner—this is a glorious spot to watch the sunset and chef-owner Lisa Dahl’s handmade empanadas are scrumptious. Finally, anyone who loves to meditate or practice yoga will enjoy doing so in one of Sedona’s vortices. A vortex is a center of energy and one of the forces of nature that makes Sedona such a spiritual and special place.
Sedona to Flagstaff
Route distance: 30 miles
Suggested length of time: 2 nights
Your Arizona road trip continues north along 89A to Flagstaff. The mountain town sits at an elevation of about 7,000 feet; the state’s highest point, Humphreys Peak, is about 10 miles north and sits at 12,633 feet. As the world’s first International Dark Sky City—a designation received in 2001—Flagstaff is an ideal spot for stargazing. And a stop at the Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894 and home of the discovery of Pluto, is the perfect way to explore the cosmos.
Designated as Arizona’s craft beer city, beer lovers will be drawn to the Flagstaff Brewery Trail, a self-guided tour of local craft breweries. No need to worry about drinking and driving, as the trail is a one-mile level walk through downtown Flagstaff.
Flagstaff’s free public art installation is inspired by natural surroundings and local culture — grab a map at the Visitor Center to ensure you catch a glimpse of each mural, sculpture, and mosaic around town. While at the Visitor Center, discover Route 66 with the new “Walk this Talk” self-guided audio history tour introduced by Flagstaff native and renowned actor Ted Danson, featuring 10 stops of pre-recorded oral histories at specific sites.
Since Flagstaff is situated in the world’s largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest, it’s easy to social distance and find plenty of fresh air. Consider hiking portions of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, a non-motorized path stretching 800 miles across the state. And the Flagstaff Urban Trails System—a city-wide network of non-motorized, shared-use pathways—offers 56 miles through canyons, grasslands, forests, and urban streets.
Flagstaff is a leaf-peeper’s paradise in autumn and a trip on the Arizona Snowbowl scenic chairlift ride is an ideal spot to capture the fall colors (you can even catch a glimpse of the Grand Canyon). Finally, don’t miss Flagstaff’s three area national monuments, offering beautiful vistas, ruins and trails: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (this is where all the astronauts who walked on the moon trained—the Lava Flow Trail’s landscape will remind you of a moonscape), and Wupatki National Monument. These are 24 of the best places to spot fall foliage in America.
Flagstaff to Williams
Route distance: 33 miles
Suggested length of time: 1 night
Now, it’s time to head west on I-40 to Williams. Carve out time to stop by the Bearizona Wildlife Park for a drive-thru experience like no other. You’ll stay in your car, and meander through three miles of ponderosa pines, while observing wolves, deer, bison, and bears. As you might have guessed, your windows must stay up the entire time.
Williams is also known for its ties to Route 66; today you can take a step back in time to enjoy this stretch of old-school Americana. Look for diners, soda fountains, classic automobiles, historic buildings, souvenir shops, neon signs, and other bits of nostalgia throughout the town. The Lodge on Route 66 will put you right in the middle of all the action.
Williams to the Grand Canyon
Mate Steindl/EyeEm/Getty Images
Route distance: 65 miles
Suggested length of time: 1 day
Williams also happens to be the gateway to the Grand Canyon National Park, via the Grand Canyon Railway. Purchase tickets ahead of time, as there’s only one departure each day. Be sure to arrive early, because you won’t want to miss the Cataract Creek Gang and the Marshall squaring off at the Williams Depot.
The train travels about 65 miles north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which takes a little over two hours. Along the way, enjoy the beautiful landscape that changes with elevation, look for wildlife (bald eagles, pronghorn, elk, mountain lions, and ravens), and stay refreshed with snack and drink options. Plus, live musicians with banjos and fiddles will provide a fitting soundtrack for your journey.
Once you arrive (mid-to-late morning, depending on the time of year), you’ll have a little more than three hours to explore the canyon. It’s the only one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World to be located in North America, which is one reason why more than 6 million people flock to the canyon each year. Spend as long as you like marveling at Mother Nature’s splendor (no wonder it’s one of the 30 must-see places around the United States to take your kids).
Stop by the historic El Tovar Hotel—which first opened its doors in 1905 and has hosted Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein—for a bite to eat while overlooking the rim. Save time to pop into the Hopi House, designed to resemble a typical adobe pueblo used by the Hopi Indians. Finally, the Lookout Studio sells Grand Canyon photography, books, and traditional souvenirs.
At the end of the day, the train will bring you back to Williams and your Arizona road trip is complete. Feel free to drive back through each town again for a second round of exploration or head straight back to Phoenix—while this itinerary took you on a winding route north, you can head directly back south in only two-and-a-half hours.
If you want to keep exploring the United States, check out this guide on Texas road trips—there’s plenty to see in the Lone Star State.
Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go.