Arizona

From the awesomeness of The Grand Canyon to the legend of Route 66, Arizona is one of the best states in the U.S. for a road trip. The remarkable landscape with painted mountains, canyons, human size cacti with arms, lakes, and other nature complemented by the diverse cities really have something for everyone. Most people who travel to this region of the Southwest stop at the Grand Canyon and move on to Last Vegas or Colorado. But there is so much more to see! One of the cool things about Arizona that make it such a great road trip destination is that you never go more that 2-4 hours without passing some attraction and Phoenix is conveniently located right in the center, making it easy to get to and from Arizona and then on to explore from there.

My Favorites


1. The Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon

Highlights: The Grand Canyon, hiking
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: Tusayan
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One of the most well known and visited places in the United States, this world renowned national treasure is truly a site to behold. It’s one of those places that you have to see for yourself, pictures don’t do it justice. You can drive around the north and/or south rims, popping out for the occasional photo, and even hop out on the trails and overlooks for spectacular views and a little adventure. The South Rim is the most popular and there is a lot to see just around the Visitor Center. Take the shuttle or drive yourself along Hermit’s Rest and Desert View routes.

See & Do

  • South Rim. Main attraction with several different routes and roads to take.
  • Mather Point. Canyon sunrise and sunset views.
  • Desert View Drive. Less-crowded, spectacular views. Grandview point, Moran Point, Lipan Point, Navajo Point, Desert View.
  • Tusayan Museum & Ruin. Prehistoric town of ancestral Puebloans. Off the Desert View Drive.
  • Hermit’s Rest Route. Hopi Point (7,701 feet), The Abyss, Pima Point.
  • Bright Angel Trail. Hike down into the canyon part of the way or all the way down to the bottom.
  • North Rim. Northern upper part of the Grand Canyon that is colder and has a shorter season.

Tips

  • Weather. The Grand Canyon is around 7,400 feet in elevation and as a result can get pretty cold up at the rim. I went in April. and it only hit a high around 50 and was actually in the 30s/40s most of the time. When it’s warm, bring sunblock and lots of water. It can get very hot. There is no shade and the elevation will tire you out.
  • Getting Around. The park has a great shuttle system so you can ditch the car and hop on and off the bus at various stops along the different routes. This is especially helpful to those in RVs. This was great for our first day when it was around 50 degrees. Then the temperature dropped to the 30s, so waiting for the bus was not fun, even though it came every 15-20 minutes. You can also drive yourself. Parking is limited at some stops and depending on the time of year, there may be lots of tourists to battle. I believe it’s Hermit’s Rest that’s more popular, so consider the shuttle maybe for that one and maybe you’ll want to drive the less popular route.
  • Time Management. If you really want to see The Grand Canyon and don’t plan to do any hiking, do yourself a favor and go for at least 3 days. And that’s just for the South Rim which is where most of the action is. The area around the Visitor’s Center could take a good chunk of the day and you can then allow a day each for the Hermit’s Rest and Desert View drives. Tack on more days if you want to go hiking.
  • Bright Angel Trail. You’re forbidden to hike this trail roundtrip in a single day for your safety. So if you do it, bring camping gear and regardless sunblock, water, snacks and a hat. The hike back up is incredibly steep with many switchbacks. It’s easy to tire or get dehydrated. It’s fun to walk a mile or two just to get a feel for the trail and experience the terrain up close. Gets pretty windy.
  • Photos & Lighting. The Grand Canyon looks different over the course of the day. Sunrise and sunset are obviously the most picturesque, but throughout the day you will see different shadows cast (which also depends on clouds), that give a different picture and can noticeably change the landscape. So visiting the same place at a different time of day (maybe once on your way down a route and stopping again on your way back) may be fun to see the difference.

2. Antelope Canyon / Page

Upper Antelope Canyon

Highlights: Mountains, canyons, lake, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-4 days
Stay Around: Page
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This area of Arizona in the city of Page, just below Utah, offers some unique landscapes and adventures. A place you can drive through or stay and relax. Antelope Canyon in particular has been featured a lot for it’s picturesque views inside this beautiful canyon.

See & Do

  • Antelope Canyon. Beautifully carved, sculpted rocks caused by flooding over many years that can be explored by guided tour on foot. The canyon is divided into Upper and Lower parts. Upper is the most popular, more expensive, very easy, and has the best lighting. Lower is also great, but if you have mobility problems, there are stairs to descend into the canyon and a slim crack through which to descend. Here is a nice writeup of the two on Be My Travel Muse.
  • Lake Powell. Massive lake popular for water sports or just take in the amazing view.
  • Horseshoe Bend. The river bends around a massive rock to form a horseshoe. Walk around at the top to look for the best place to fit it all into your camera frame.
  • The Wave. A beautiful feat of nature that looks like the sculpted rocks of antelope canyon placed like the side of an inclined skater wall. I attempted to get here in a sedan rental car with my dad, but ultimately failed after much white knuckle driving at speeds no faster than 10mph when we finally hit an impasse about 2 miles in that required a high clearance, AWD vehicle. All I know is that it looks amazing, but is a bitch to get to. Do your research, find the best entrance, use the right car, be prepared for a long, slow drive, and expect to do some walking in the hot sun.
  • Page. The town central to all of these attractions. Nothing special itself, but good place to stay and to eat. Very good Thai restaurant in town.

Tips

  • Antelope Canyon. Requires a guide and two payments, one for the tour and one for accessing the land, as it is on the Navajo Reservation. You will be taking a jeep across the sandy desert for a few minutes and then will hop out at the entrance to the canyon. No climbing or descending required for Upper Antelope Canyon. I had my Buff multi-functional headwear (recently purchased at the Grand Canyon which had some unique designs only available in the gift shop there), which was incredibly useful both on the way to the canyon’s entrance as well as inside. There is a lot of dirt and sand that gets kicked up and blown around. So if you’re sensitive to dirt in the air, consider this or a bandana to cover your nose and mouth. All the guides wear them. We went with Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours. While you may not need to book in advance, if you are on a tight timeframe, don’t want to wait, or want to go at a popular time, consider booking ahead. Gets very crowded.
  • Photos. For the average photographer, consider turning the ISO all the way up to allow more light into the camera. Your photos will look better, crisper, and less blurry. There are obviously other settings you can mess around with, but I found that this in particular had a significant improvement without having to do much work. There is a special tour at a particular time of day photographers go for where beams of light penetrate through the canyon to create these amazing light beams piercing down onto the ground. It’s pretty magical if you’ve seen pictures, but it’s only once, maybe twice a day, and more expensive, so it could restrict your plans. The canyon in any light and any time of day is amazing.

3. Sedona

Eagle Nest

Highlights: Artsy, nature, hiking, swimming
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: In the town or Camping (Dead Horse Ranch State Park)
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The town of Sedona is my favorite town in all of Arizona for it’s sheer beauty. There is lots of “wellness” stuff, namely spas and healthy lifestyle related activities plus much hiking and scenery close by. It’s gorgeous even just to drive through.

See & Do

  • Arts, shops, yoga, spa. Find an activity that’s right for you.
  • Slide Rock State Park. Awesome parks with rocks to climb, a stream to swim in, and rock slide to enjoy.
  • Red Rock State Park. Incredible hiking and scenery. No shade, cool in the fall, can see hundreds of miles away due to the flat landscape. Check out Smoke Trail and Eagle Nest (breathtaking viewpoint). Keep your eyes peeled for lizards, deer, jack rabbits, and other critters.
  • Montezuma’s Castle. Ancient cliff dwelling ruins and famous story about Montezuma’s revenge. One of the nature trails talks about some of the native plants used for medicine and food which was very interesting.
  • Jerome. A small, very tiny town outside of Sedona. Well known for it’s copper mining and Douglas Mansion. Steep, narrow road up to the top of the town center. Nothing special, but something off-the-beaten-path.

Tips

  • Lodging. After my first night of desert camping in a beach tent clearly not made for actual camping, I opted to continue “camping” in a small cabin. We found a great little cabin at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Just a small, inexpensive, enclosed space. No plumbing or water, just sleeping quarters.

4. Tucson

Saguaro National Park

Highlights: Desert, hiking, old west studio, museums, healthy livin
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Central Downtown or Catalina Foothills (AirBnB)
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After hearing on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Podcast that Andrew Weil, creator of True Food Kitchen, resides in Tucson, I started to wonder if this was an up and coming healthy, interesting place to live. In my ongoing research into places to split my time between Austin, TX, I stopped here on a road trip out to California. Though I’m not sure where I formed my initial impression of Tucson, a trashy place with nothing to do in the middle of the desert, I wanted to re-evaluate. Boy was I wrong, quite the opposite! This calm, serene, typical desert town with a sprawling university presence, has a ton do. Having only planned 1 day, there was something we liked about the city, so stayed an extra night. Even still, we didn’t see everything we wanted to. Tucson seemed very similar to places like Asheville and Tulsa but with a Southwest desert flavor. This hidden gem has an existing core community, vibrancy from the university, and ton of continued potential. If you want something more metropolitan, however, you’re more likely to enjoy Phoenix.

See & Do

  • Saguaro National Park. Beautiful desert park with a huge concentration of saguaro cacti, or as I like to call them people cacti, other succulents, and desert wildlife. There’s a nice short video in the visitor’s center and 45-minute 5-mile scenic dirt road drive through a section of the park. You can also get out and hike. Good size park, but easy to see in an hour or two, or spend more time taking it in.
  • Old Tucson Mountain Park. The spot for nearby hiking and views of Tucson. You’ll get to walk in and out of canyons and among the saguaro cacti.
  • Old Tucson. Use to film many popular old west movies and TV shows spanning many decades, this old set has been left as the studio and also supplemented with additional things to turn this into an old west amusement park. Plan to spend 1-2 hours minimum.
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Sounds boring, it’s not. It’s like a desert zoo. I didn’t see it due to time, but did stop by and will on my next visit for sure. Requires on average 2.5 hours.
  • Pima & Space Museum. Wow! This is probably the largest air & space museum I’ve ever seen, or at least comparable. It’s unique because some planes are located in old airplane hangars, while others reside in the massive outdoor space. You’ll spend 3-5 hours there mainly from all the walking. Just outstanding. It’s really interesting to see the mix of innovation, war, and peace, all with their own history. Some really unique aircraft I’ve not seen before.
  • 4th Street. Area of restaurants and other things.
  • Tucson Botanical Gardens. Plants.
  • Tohono Chul. Botanical gardens.
  • Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures. Tiny art.

Food & Drink

  • Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and these are legit and amazing.
  • Culinary Dropout. Huge place that’s half sports bar, half restaurant. A little noisy, but the food and service is outstanding.
  • Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas. Wonderful Asian style tea tasting room with teas for purchase. Out of this world. Who knew in Tucson!
  • Supermarkets. You have your pick of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts Farmer’s Market. There’s also a Costco.
  • Restaurants. One of the cool things here, like Asheville, is that there are few chain restaurants. It’s predominantly local businesses.

5. Painted Desert / Petrified Forest

Painted Desert

Highlights: Colorful hills, petrified wood
Suggest Staying: 1 day
Stay Around: Sedona or Flagstaff
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This picturesque landscape is a concentrated and even more beautiful display of the painted hills along much of Arizona into Utah, New Mexico and even up in South Dakota. This is definitely the best display though. In addition to the beautiful red, orange, gray, and blue colors, there is also petrified trees that came about through unique conditions that I don’t think can be seen anywhere else in the world. It’s mostly a park you will drive through, but there a few trails and places to get out and look around along the way.

See & Do

  • Blue Mesa Trail. Leisurely stroll through colorful blue colored hills.
  • Crystal Forest. See the petrified trees.
  • Meteor Crater. Nearby, just outside of Winslow, this privately owned attraction costs money and is a giant hole in the ground presumably from a meteor. I didn’t see it, friends saw it and were unimpressed. It’s a tourist attraction so decide for yourself.

Other Considerations


Flagstaff & Route 66

Flagstaff

One of the stops along the old Route 66 where you’ll find an assortment of old hotels, shops, and gas stations. Some of the old highway exists on its own, but otherwise has been merged into the larger interstate highways. Flagstaff itself is a neat town, noticeably cooler that much of the rest of the state. With remnants of the Route 66 era and the nearby university, there is a really interesting mix of outdoor activities, shops, and eating options. The town itself is not that big and easy to explore in an afternoon. Or stay for longer and relax. Very friendly town.

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See & Do

  • Old Quarter. Street of the little motels.
  • Biff’s Bagels. Awesome bagel joint. good for breakfast.

Phoenix

CityScape

The capitol city is an up and coming one. Not very crowded like other major cities in the U.S., Phoenix is a hub and stopover for many airlines making it an easy place to visit and to use as a base for mini-adventures around the state. The city is clean and relatively inexpensive. I wouldn’t say there’s a ton to do. There are sporting events and golf courses as well as other “city stuff” to do. We spotted a jack rabbit on the golf course one afternoon.

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See & Do

  • Cityscape. Shops and restaurants area downtown.
  • Musical Instrument Museum. Range of different instruments, mostly older ones like violins, woodwinds, and organs.
  • Hole-in-the-rock. Short hike to some great views of the downtown skyline.
  • Scottsdale. Great suburb with lots of shops and artsy vibe to it. Can be a bit on the pricier side with all the art galleries, but definitely worth a visit. Lots of people rave about it.
  • Tempe. Near the university. Pretty low key, good places to eat, cheaper than Scottsdale.

Tombstone

O.K. Corral

Tombstone is a famed old west town stuck in the past. Site of the famous gunfight battle at the O.K. Corral. Here you can get a touristy representation of what it was like in the old west. Saloons, old trains, wagons, cowboys, miners’ tools, etc. I wouldn’t go out of your way to stop here, but if it’s on the way, definitely stop! There is a re-enactment gunfight that runs every so often. There is also some interesting info about the famous Apache, Geronimo. Definitely looks like someone not to be trifled with. Boothill Graveyard has some of the most hilarious (albeit slightly racist) etchings on the tombstones. Kartchner Caverns is nearby if you want some cave action, and there are several campgrounds in the area if you’re looking to camp for the night. Tuscon is the nearest major city. Not super exciting. Will be along the route if you’re driving I-10.

Havasu

Location for the beautiful lake and waterfalls. Requires advanced planning as it's located just outside the Grand Canyon on the map, but like 6 hours or something to get there due to its location and the road system. I haven't gotten there yet, but it's on my list once I figure out the logistics. I believe it's also part of the Hopi reservation so that likely plays a role. If you've been and know how to get there, leave a comment!

General Tips

  • Weather. Temperatures can reach well into the 90s in the spring and into the 100s in the summer, especially around Phoenix. At least it's a dry heat, so things are not as muggy and cool down in the shade and at night. Of course it varies depending on what part of the state you're in. Wear a hat, bring sunblock, and drink plenty of water. Dress in layers though as it will be cooler in the upper elevations like the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff.
  • Nature. Some of the desert wildlife you may find across the state are rattlesnakes (and other venomous/non-venomous snakes), coyotes, fire ants (look for big mounds or clumps of dirt and DO NOT disturb), scorpions, deer, and jack rabbits. As with any nature, if you don't bother it, it won't bother you. You're unlikely to actually encounter any of these, but always good to be in the know and on the lookout.

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