This is a guide for seeing the big stuff in Arizona in a single shot. This Itinerary is optimized to keep driving to a minimum (never more than 5 hours), you get to see all the national parks (one of them a UNESCO heritage site), the capitol, and grab a bit of the state’s great Mexican food. You will cross through 4 different biomes and change more than 11,000 feet in elevation.
This itinerary includes two optional side trips. I would not recommend doing them both unless you are EXTREMELY HARD CORE. The first side trip has you hiking to the top of Arizona’s highest point: Mount Humphreys. The other option is hiking all the way down to phantom ranch.
Any time other than late May through mid September. The heat is legendary across the entire state and you really miss out on what this state has to offer if you come during those months.
If you plan to hike to the summit of Humphreys, icy conditions can make the trails very dangerous, I would recommend June for best weather. July to September can be dangerous because of monsoon thunderstorms.
Fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. For this itinerary, Phoenix is a launching point for the rest of your trip. I would recommend staying cheap and in a practical location to get out of town the next morning. Any name-brand hotel along 44th street just outside PHX Sky Harbor airport will serve you well. Think Aloft Phoenix-Airport, Radisson Hotel Phoenix Airport, Phoenix Airport Marriott, or Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites. The Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix is a bit of a splurge but staying downtown puts you close to the capitol and near great eating.
If you are looking for authentic Mexican food, hold your stomach until you get to Tucson. Phoenix is focused more on trendy fast-casual eating such as Sauce pizza, O.H.S.O brewery, and Culinary Dropout. For more eclectic fare, try the reimagined southern-style cooking and really strong cocktails at Welcome Diner. It is also worth braving the line for what some consider the best pizza in the nation: Pizzeria Bianco. If you can’t get in there you can also try getting pizza at the sister sites at Pane Bianco (Open for Dinner only on weekends) or the Pizzeria Bianco in mid-town.
Day 1 – Driving to Flagstaff
The goal for today is to get comfortably into Flagstaff and have a nice scenic drive along State Route 89A (considered one of the United States most beautiful drives.) Phoenix is not worth spending much time in so get a quick breakfast and get out of there as fast as you can. There are a couple quick Completionist items in Phoenix to cross off your list but they aren’t worth spending much time there: remind yourself that beautiful Sedona and funky Flagstaff becken.
Capitol City History
Wake early and do a quick drive-by of the Arizona Capitol Building. The entire campus is designed to resemble a battleship in honor of the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. As you approach from the east, notice how Washington street curves right mimicking the outer hull of a ship. The USS Arizona’s salvaged anchor sits right where it would have been if this a ship. The ship’s second anchor is still on display at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Look for the executive tower – it is the brown concrete office building right behind the capitol’s copper dome. It is located exactly where the captain’s bridge would be and is occupied by the state’s captain – the governor.
Your ultimate destination today is Flagstaff. To keep on pace, plan to get to Sedona for lunch (which is a two hour drive from Phoenix.) The drive to Sedona takes you up and out of the Sonoran Desert (think Saguaros and cacti) and into the Chaparral (low scrubby bushes.)
Your arrival in Sedona is dramatic. The red rocks and bright green vegetation explodes out of the dusty surroundings. There is a reason so many people attribute other-worldly spirituality to this place.
Lunch options in Sedona run from nuts-and-twigs vegetarian to really great brewery and pub food. Try Cowboy Club and be sure to get their famous Cactus Fries. To finally get some decent Mexican food, go for 89Agave Cantina. There are also shabby-chic shopping and food at Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. Explore Sedona but be sure to get on the road at least 2 hours before sundown because you do not want to miss the highlight of today: the drive up Oak Creek Canyon.
If you timed it right, the late afternoon sun will make the winding roads through Oak Creek Canyon a dramatic scene ripe for photos. Take your time and feel free to pull over and enjoy. Slide Rock is a popular stopping point and a real desert swimming hole (you must pay a AZ State Park entrance fee if you do get out here.) After several narrow switchbacks, the canyon drive makes its final glorious crescendo at Oak Creek Vista. This is a great place to stretch, find your land legs, and take in a great view.
If Arizona’s three major cities (Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff) were siblings, Phoenix would be the up-tight yuppie, Tucson the liberal intellectual, and Flagstaff the brother who still occasionally sleeps in his van and loves to tell you about the last Phish concert he attended.
Try to get a taste of this forest town but be sure to get plenty of rest and refuel. The next few days of adventure are coming fast. If you need last minute hiking gear, see Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters. Local grocery stores include Bashas’ and Safeway.
For dinner, consider Flagstaff’s many breweries. Try Diablo Burger, Beaver Street Brewery, and Flagstaff Brewing Company. For a bit more sophistication, Pizzicletta has amazing wood-fired pizza and wine selection.
For accommodations stick with the brands. Hampton Inn & Suites Flagstaff, Hilton Garden Inn Flagstaff, and Marriott Fairfield Inn are great standard choices and get you right next to the highway so you can bug out in the morning.
Day 2 – Highest Point Summit or Canyon Survey
The Mount Humphreys Option
If you are hiking to the summit, you should be on the trail at dawn. Your goal is to be at the peak before the afternoon where storms can brew up. Summer is the most dangerous. For more information on hiking Humphreys, I will be covering it in an upcoming guide.
If your Humphrey summit went well, you should be back off the mountain well before sunset. Relax back at the hotel and pack up for the drive to the Grand Canyon the next day. However, if you do have some energy left, the Grand Canyon is less than 2 hours away. You might be able to make it to the rim in time for a well-earned sunset to bookend the day. Don’t bother going to the Visitor Center today – it will be backed and there will be no parking. Instead, park at Desert View and watch sunset from Desert View Point.
The Phantom Ranch Option
If you were lucky enough to reserve a night at Phantom Ranch you need to hit the trail enough time to get to the bottom by dinner – they have no problem starting without you. The hike down Bright Angel is 8 Miles. I would recommend starting the hike at the trail head at 8 AM. The best trail down is South Kaibab and Bright Angel is the best up. Plan ahead and park your car at the Visitor’s Center Complex (overnight parking is allowed) and then take the shuttle from the Bright Angel Lodge to South Kaibab Trail Head.
Casually to the Canyon
If you are skipping Humphreys and Phantom Ranch, you have a bit more time but still try to arrive at the Visitor Center Complex before 9AM so you have a better shot at parking right in front. There are two main routes to the canyon, for a more scenic route take Highway 180. If you are there in a hurry, do I-40.
For a casual trip go to the Visitor Center Complex and find the schedule for park ranger programs. It is a great introduction. You should also explore the Bright Angel Lodge, Kolb Studio, and surrounding museums.
If you are watching the sunset, the crowds at Visitor Center Complex can be a bit crushing. The tourist population diminishes quite a bit if you head out down Desert View Drive. There are many pull offs: Shoshone Point (1 mile hike to the rim), Yaki Point, Grandview Point, Navajo Point, Desert View Watchtower, Hermit Road.
No matter your itinerary today, it is important to do a little pre-planning with the food since you will be out of the hotel early. Many hotels in Flagstaff that serve complimentary breakfast accommodate early departures by packing breakfast for you. To use this service, ask the front desk at your hotel if they can pack you a breakfast the day before you leave.
If your hotel doesn’t provide, the best breakfast in Flagstaff is at Macy’s European Coffeehouse & Bakery. If you ask, the staff will even pack your breakfast to go.
Day 3 Diving into the Canyon
The Phantom Ranch Option
Since you are waking up in the canyon, your obvious goal is to get back up to the surface in the most enjoyable way you can. The nearly 10 mile trail back to the surface is the most scenic. The best place to stop for lunch is Indian Garden (5 miles from Phantom Ranch) so time your start based on your pace.
Below the Rim
If you did not wake up in the Canyon because you either hiked Humphries the day before or you were doing casual day, today is the best day to dive below the rim for a short hike. The options for hiking are are as dizzying as the views. There are two hikes I would recommend each with their own personality. Both hikes can be as long as your ability allows because you can always just turn around and head back up. Remember canyon hiking is tricky since the easy part is the beginning when your legs are fresh and the hard part is getting out. Always quit before you are tired and always always bring your own water. The official Park Service recommendation is 4 liters for a full day of hiking.
South Kaibab to Skeleton Point
It is a dirty trick that you can’t actually see the Colorado River from the top of the canyon. If you want to fix that problem, take the 6-mile round trip trek to Skeleton Point. This is also a good hike if you have always wanted to explore iconic Arizona red mesas straight out of a John Ford Western. Be wary of this hike though, there is little shade and no water along the trail. Each person in your party should carry 4 liters of water for the day.
When you get to the Skeleton point sign, continue down the trail just a ¼ mile to where and the trail turns off to the right. You should take a quick left off trail to the edge of a cliff. There, deep at the bottom is a tiny tiny green ribbon of the Colorado River. Turn around and head back up to the surface.
Bright Angel Trail
If you prefer your hikes shaded, a bit greener, and with trickling creeks, consider Bright Angel. Note that if you are here from November to March the first two miles of this trail might be frozen over and require special metal spikes to cover your shoes. You can get these crampons at the store in the Bright Angel Lodge. Hike all the way down to Indian Garden (10 mile round trip) to eat lunch. There is water along the way but always check the National Park Website for water conditions.
Tonight, stay in Flagstaff or Williams, AZ both are in a good position to head out along Route 66 in the morning.
Day 4 – Mother Road to Petrified Forest
The way to the Petrified Forest takes you along the legendary Mother Road. If you leave early you allow yourself more time to savor the tourist traps that line Route 66 including such treasures as the world’s largest map of Route 66, Meteor Crater, countless mineral stores, and life-size concrete dinosaurs.
A straight, non-stop drive from Flagstaff will get you to the Petrified Forest in about 2 hours hours.
The first thing to know about the petrified forest is that the forest isn’t standing anymore. Many tourists have been disappointed to realize that they will not be exploring a haunting scene of a decrepit forest made of stone. Instead, you will find a nearly endless expanse of long rocks that upon closer inspection have tree rings. That is the real petrified forest.
Now that your expectations have been lowered, note that there are actually some great views of the desert. Stop in the ranger station, get your stamp, see the movie, then start on the loop drive. The loop takes about an hour and is 28 miles long. There are several pullouts with short, paved, interpretive walks.
Drive to the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitor Center at the south end of the park. It has more, full-size rock logs. Be sure to check out Crystal Forest Trail.
From the Rainbow Forest Museum, take the Petrified Forest Road North towards Painted Desert Visitor Center. The northern end of the loop exposes you to the neon colors of the painted desert.
Note that it is almost universally windy so make sure to bring your warm ear-covering hat and a pair of gloves.
Lodging is less sophisticated out in the grasslands of Arizona. Your best option is the diamond-in-the-rough La Posada Hotel back in Winslow. The hotel’s attached restaurant, Turquoise Room, is worth the backtracking.
If less formal accommodations are more your style, drive to Holbrook and stay at the iconic Wigwam Motel.
Day 5 – South to Tucson
Today is your longest drive of the trip. Buckle up – you will be traveling through quite literally Arizona’s hinterlands.
South to Tucson
Although the towns along the way are not as quaint as they could be the scenery is quite majestic. You will be passing back over the Mogollon Rim. You will feel this descent in the long winding switchbacks.
For lunch I recommend finding something in Showlow. It might be best to stick to chain restaurants around here. Sorry I don’t have anything good for you. Just keep on trucking and be sure to take a break at the Salt River Bridge (about 2 hours south of Holbrook.)
When you land in Tucson, it’s time to relax. If you have any energy left, head out to Downtown for dinner at the open air dining room La Cocina. For a taste of the macabre try Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink which was built into an old mortuary (be sure to visit the secret bar built into the old cadaver cooler.) For a bit more sophistication, try Cushing Street Bar and their perfectly crafted mojitos.
Stay near Saguaro National Park West. Your best bets are the JW Marriot Starrpass which is dramatically nestled in the foothills. For cheaper hotels try the array of motels along I-10.
Day 6 – Tucson Adventure
Saguaro National Park is split into two main districts located on opposite sides of the city. We will only be visiting the Western district due to its proximity to more attractions in Tucson and easier access to the highway on your way up to Phoenix.
The key to Saguaro National Park is to keep it brief. See the ranger station (the video and dramatic ending are actually one of the few National Park instructional videos I recommend.) Hike the half-mile Signal Hill trail to see the great petroglyphs that are 1500-900 years old. At this point leave the park. Ironically to get a better understanding of the Sonoran Desert, leave this natural preserve and head to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Since 1952, the Desert Museum has been an institution dedicated to showing the world the beauty of the Sonoran Desert. The grounds are quite expansive and can be daunting. Make sure you visit the following attractions:
- Despite smelling like a giant litter-box, Cat Canyon has the most beautiful and adorable animals in the museum.
- Raptor Free Flight – If you are in Tucson between October and March this keeper and animal show is a must see. Ask the staff where the show will be held and show up at least 20 minutes before it starts. A good spot is so important because the birds fly untethered and directly over the crowd. You really can feel the wind off their wings. The trails fill up fast and it loses much of its charm if you are not in the right area.
- The Javelinas don’t seem to get much notice outside of Arizona but they are the states most ridiculous and cantankerous animals. Just don’t call them pigs, they are distant relatives to hippos.
Chill the rest of the afternoon. If you are looking for real Sonoran-Style Mexican food venture into South Tucson. Try Crossroads Restaurant, Mi Nidito, or El Minuto.
Drive North to Phoenix to fly out. The drive is two hours straight up I-10. Unfortunately this is the primary corridor between the two largest cities in Arizona and one broken-down semi trailer can choke off one side of the freeway. Always check Google traffic before leaving to ensure a clean route. It is best to add even an extra hour on top of your existing plans just in case.
General Packing list
- Shorts and pants
- Fleece jacket
- Windproof gloves (Petrified Forest is Drafty)
- Warm, ear covering hat (even in the summer)
- Hat with a wide brim for sun protection
- Hiking backpack with water reservoir
- A nicer shirt to go out to dinner with
- Winter hiking requires crampons – Spikes that cover your shoes.
- Favorite hiking shoes