Arizona is awesome for a road trip. You might not immediately think of exploring the desert as an epic destination, but if you can visit in the winter, you’ll fall in love. We completed a very comprehensive road trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, back through several National Monuments and Sedona, the down to Tucson and Saguaro National Park. From where to watch sunrise in Grand Canyon National Park to cactus safety in the desert, we’re talking about all of it.
Whether an Arizona road trip has been on your travel list for a long time or if this is a new idea for you, I think you’re going to love how we planned this itinerary. For us, spending time in National Parks is always a highlight, but Arizona surprised us with some exceptional State Park sites too. Plan for a week or more, because there is a lot to see and do in Arizona!
We have a ton to share about Arizona and how to have an incredible adventure. Here is a podcast episode to give hints about all the fun you can have on an Arizona road trip! Give a listen and please subscribe wherever YOU get YOUR podcasts!
When to do an Arizona Road Trip
Despite the reputation of the desert being hot all the time, winter in Arizona is actually pretty chilling. If you’re planning an Arizona road trip and want to be comfortable, winter is the best time to go. While nighttime and into the first hours after sunrise are really cold all over the state, the daylight hours are pretty nice. You can expect daytime temperatures in the high 60s to mid 70s, which is perfect for hiking!
If you’re doing an Arizona road trip in summer, I don’t know what to say except IT’S HOT. Arizona from May to October is wicked hot and if you’re not used to it, it feels shocking. I remember my first time being in Arizona in the summer, I walked outside into the shade on my first day there and couldn’t understand the feeling on my skin. It felt like I was getting a chemical burn, the heat was so intense. Now as an adult I understand it and enjoy it, but as a kid it felt like torture.
For anyone choosing to explore Arizona in the summer months, you simply cannot have enough water. Arizona is dry year-round, but it’s absolutely jarring in the summer. Many of the best spots for hiking, both in the National Parks and State Park, do not have water sources at the trailheads. Yes, there are facilities most places, but if you’re heading into the wilderness or even a simple trail, you need to be extra prepared. Sunblock and water: those are the keys to comfort on an Arizona road trip any time of year.
Where to Start an Arizona Road Trip
I think the easiest place to start a road trip around Arizona is Phoenix (PHX) because that’s the easiest airport to fly into. You can also fly into Tucson (TUS) from most western USA cities (and even MSP and DFW), or Las Vegas (LAS). Really, which airport you fly into really depends on the flight deal you can find. For us living in North Florida, our best option is PHX because we have a direct flight from JAX, but for a lot of other cities, since you may have a connection at a major hub, either Phoenix or Tucson is a good starting spot.
For our Arizona road trip plan, we focus on center of the state going north to south. It’s easy to add on areas like Monument Valley or Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument if you’re driving from someplace else or doing another National Park road trip in California or Utah. From the Utah National Parks road trip you can easily continue south and hit the Grand Canyon and continue on with this Arizona itinerary. If you’re doing the California National Parks road trip, from Joshua Tree NP or Death Valley, just head east and you’ll be set for even more epic sights.
How Long do I need to Drive Around Arizona?
Before starting any road trip, you need to use our Road Trip Planning Tool. This is a simple way to figure out how much time you CAN have for your trip and then the budget, and ultimately the structure of your trip. I think 8 days is perfect for getting a solid Arizona road trip experience, but it can easily be a two week adventure. I like the approach of choosing three primary destinations and then stopping in each for two nights. This road trip method ensures you get enough time to really get a sense of place and it prevents everyone from being tired of driving all the time.
One way to limit yourself when you’re planning an Arizona road trip is to choose a theme: National Park sites, cool towns, Arizona safari (flora and fauna), epic geology, or ancient civilizations. I like this approach because it ends up making a road trip plan that really highlights a particular topic to learn about. It’ll also help you narrow down the ground you’ll cover, as each topic tends to be more focused to one region.
Wildlife to Watch for in Arizona
I love spending time in the desert. Yes, it’s hot but that’s okay. There is so much wildlife to see! When I think of Arizona, I automatically picture the Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote blasting through Monument Valley, which adds to the nostalgia doing an Arizona road trip. And you can totally see coyotes AND roadrunners all around the state. There’s more wildlife to see than just these classic characters though. Here’s what animals to see in Arizona:
- roadrunner – it’s a good sized bird and it runs very fast. It’s difficult to get a good photo unless you have an awesome lens, you’re quick, and you’re quiet.
- coyote – these adorable wild dogs are all over the place, but they’re not to be petted (still wild even if they’re cute). Listen for coyotes howling together!
- bighorn sheep – we tend to see these more in Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, but they can be found at Grand Canyon National Park and other remote areas as well.
- elk – one of the largest members of the deer family, you’ll find elk all around the Grand Canyon, on both the north and south rims
- javelina – a type of wild pig, javelinas are actually quite the nuisance for Arizonians. They’re cute, but do not approach them!
- gila monsters – seen mostly in the summer when you’re hiking in rocky, remote areas, this plump orange and black lizard is actually venomous, so steer clear and photograph from a distance.
- rattlesnakes – there are several variety of rattlesnakes and if you hear a rattle, that’s a warning that you’re already too close. Look around and try to see where you need to NOT be!
- California condor – once nearly extinct, there is now a health condor population in the Grand Canyon area. These bird are huge, so watch for them soaring above you or down in the Canyon. We’ve also seen them at Pinnacles National Park in California.
There are lots more types of wildlife to watch for on an Arizona road trip, but these are kind of the big ticket species. More rare creatures include the Mexican spotted owl, coati (ringtail) and the jackalope.
Arizona Road Trip Itinerary
Here is my day-by-day plan, a downloadable itinerary for an Arizona road trip (bottom), and a checklist for what you’ll need to bring on a trip through AZ (you may be surprised by our packing suggestions). Adjust each day’s activities and sights to what is most interesting for your group, and remember, you can always add on more destinations and days before or after this itinerary.
I love when we get to a destination and have an evening to chill before starting a road trip, so that’s what we recommend for exploring Arizona. Fly into Phoenix and get your rental, then actually relax for the evening before starting your day early tomorrow.
Where to stay:
- Phoenix – I like the Roosevelt neighborhood, but anything around downtown is fine and easy. I really like the Sheraton Downtown (amazing gym)
- Tempe – staying in Tempe is fun because it’s very vibrant/college town and if you have time before you start your road trip, there are lots of things to do in Tempe. The AC Hotel in Tempe is my favorite.
Day 1: Montezuma Castle, Cottonwood and Tuzigoot
Your Arizona road trip begins by heading north out of Phoenix towards Montezuma Castle National Monument. This is a great introduction to the history of the indigenous peoples of Arizona. A thousand years ago Montezuma Castle and the surrounding structures were built, and today you can get a view into how life was and how people could survive in Arizona’s arid climate so long ago.
Continue onto the nearby town of Cottonwood where you can walk the streets, check out the shops and enjoy the cuter, more trendy side of northern AZ. This is also the start of the Verde Valley and Arizona wine country. You can do some wine tasting and have a nice meal, then head to your next stop: Tuzigoot National Monument.
Another ancient settlement, I really like exploring Tuzigoot. The paths and structures are fascinating, and the views of the Verde Valley are beautiful. There’s also a nice museum here with lots of interesting artifacts. When you’re done at Tuzigoot, continue your drive onto Grand Canyon National Park
Stay in either the Grand Canyon or Tusayan, AZ.
- Grand Canyon National Park has some of the most affordable National Park lodging. I loved staying at the Yavapai Lodge, but the Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge and Thunderbird Lodge are all good values. El Tovar Hotel and the Kachina Lodge are more pricey, but in an amazing spot.
If you want to stay outside of Grand Canyon National Park, Tusayan has really grown and there are now LOTS of options, including a lot of hotels that are open year-round.
Day 2: Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the most visited part of the National Park. I love this side because it really is just one giant collection of epic views. If you’re a hiker, you’ll find plenty of short and long hikes here, and if you’re not, you’ll just love the endless vistas and wonderful exhibits all around the South Rim. Here’s how I enjoy the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and really, this is one of the most gorgeous days of the whole Arizona road trip plan.
- Start with sunrise at either Yavapai or Maricopa Points – confirm what time the sunrise is and then arrive 15 minutes or more before it. Dress warmly, no matter when time of year, and be prepared for a windy experience.
- Have breakfast at one of the Grand Canyon National Park lodges before you head out for the day. The Yavapai Lodge has a wonderful breakfast in their dining room, and it’s a great value for families.
- Head east on Desert View Drive and go to the end, to the Watchtower. On the way westward, stop at EVERY viewpoint (or at least Moran and Grandview). Swing into the Grand Canyon Village visitor center to get hiking recommendations based on your travel group, and then grab lunch at the cafe while there.
- Catch the shuttle to the Ooh Ahh Point trail head (aka the Kaibab Trail) and do the 2 mile hike to an incredible view. Bring LOTS of water!
- Finish the day of views with the shuttle (different one) to Hermit’s Rest. Hop on and off on the way to the end of the line for sunset. NOTE: the shuttle only runs during peak months, so if you’re visiting the Grand Canyon in winter, you can actually drive the Hermit’s Rest road yourself.
- Dine at the El Tovar Dining Room or lounge, treating yourself to a really good meal in a beautiful, historic setting. For the El Tovar Dining Room, make a reservation in advance!
This day might not seem thrilling initially, but I really love the experience of just taking in the Grand Canyon from morning until night. Stopping into the Village for lunch and time at the visitor center is a great way to break it up.
Day 3 OPTION: Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
This option for your Arizona road trip is very much optional, and it’s also really only accessible in summer month. Get up early today and head to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Because it’s a… canyon… you do have to actually leave the park and drive for quite a ways to be able to get to the north rim. The trek to the North Rim visitor center is about 5 hours+, so if you’re going to add this to your itinerary, it’s best to also stay the night on the north side, otherwise you’re in the car for 10 hours in a day just getting back and forth.
The best way to visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is actually when you’re coming into Arizona from Utah, from the Kanab area. This is the east side of Zion National Park. If you’re traveling from southern Utah, you’ll have the chance to drive to the North Rim without being terribly inconvenienced. If you can line up your trip coming from Utah AND if you can score reservations at the Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim) you have set up an amazing, very rare travel experience.
Sights between the North and South Rims include Roosevelt Point Overlook, Angels Window, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Marble Canyon, the Tutuveni Newspaper Rock, and more viewpoints. This part of the Grand Canyon area is very unique and much less visited than the south rim, so be well prepared with food, water and sun protection.
Note: this part of Arizona, and to the west and east has some of the most unique paddling spots you have ever seen. Kayaking in Arizona is amazing, especially here near the Utah border.
Day 4: Indigenous and Geologic History
Today we leave the Grand Canyon, and you may have seen enough of it, but really, every part of the day is a different view and experience, so you’ll be back for more. Head to Grandview Point for sunrise though, and enjoy that last morning of light hitting cliff after cliff before departing. The next stop, and it’s one of my favorite ancient Arizona sites, is Wupatki National Monument.
At Wupatki National Monument, you’ll be able to visit at least three indigenous sites, all with impressive, fascinating structures that have stood for hundreds of years. The largest, by the visitor center, is the most amazing, including a vent from underground caves that would act as air conditioning for the village site. Incredible!
Continue onto Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. This place is bizarre in that it is just like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with the lava flows (the same types of lava!) but it’s nearly barren being in the Arizona desert. There are several hikes to do at Sunset Crater Volcano, and there’s a great visitor center too. It’s stops like Wupatki and Sunset Crater that make an Arizona road trip so surprising and unique.
From here you head to Walnut Canyon National Monument. More cliff dwellings and some easy hiking make this a great spot to learn something and enjoy your last stretch of time in the wilderness for the day before heading to Sedona.
- Sedona, Arizona – you can find all types of accommodations in Sedona, but it’s really turned quite high end in recent years
- Flagstaff, Arizona – for more budget friendly options and to end the day’s drive a bit earlier spend the night in Flagstaff.
Day 5: Sedona, Arizona
An integral part of an Arizona road trip, visiting Sedona is on a lot of bucket lists. People have heard that it has great energy and they want to feel the rocks and the vibrations. If that’s not your thing, that’s okay because Sedona is simply set in the most beautiful place anyways, so just enjoy that aspect of your visit.
There is hiking all around Sedona, whether you want to just explore the BLM trails and state parks or if you want to do a guided trek to an energy vortex, there are lots of options. The town itself is cute and there are lots of shops and restaurants. For a fun day just north of town, head to Slide Rock State Park and actually play in the river, sliding on the rocks and swimming. If there’s enough water and it’s a hot day, this is an absolute winning idea! I strongly feel that visiting Sedona is great for the hiking and nature, but the town itself really rubbed me the wrong way.
Note: I do not like Sedona. Yes, it’s set in a beautiful place, but the town itself was upsetting. It’s everything wrong with people monetizing belief systems and making a buck off of anyone and everyone. I saw indigenous culture being sold, crystals and energy work with a price tag, ethereal skills and spiritualism being peddled like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like a town of Christian bookstores making money off believers with reckless abandon.
You can stay another night in the Sedona or Flagstaff area or you can head to Phoenix. As you head to Phoenix, make a stop at the Verde Hot Springs. It’s rustic and there’s a little hike to it, but it’s fun, unique sort of thing to add to your Arizona road trip. I like getting into Phoenix in the evening and having a fun/nice dinner downtown or in the Roosevelt neighborhood or the Melrose district (the gayborhood). It’s nice to mix a little city time into a very nature or history focused road trip.
Day 6: the Best Arizona State Parks
I’m always more than happy to have enjoyed my city visit and then make a speedy departure. Heading south out of Phoenix means warmer temps (or hotter temps in summer), lots of cactus and a completely different side of Arizona. The first stop for today’s drive is Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. This small but impressive archaeological park is very different from the other dwelling sites on our Arizona road trip itinerary. The museum is one of the most informative, the exhibits along the pathways tell a tragic story, and then there are ruins. And roadrunners.
From here head to Picacho Peak State Park for some desert hiking. The nature trail at Picacho Peak State Park is perfect if you’re not down for too much adventures and it has TONS of interpretive signs all about the many types of cactus you’ll come across. For a longer hike, the Sunset Vista trail is awesome and is not too difficult with great birding.
After Picacho Peak, head to Catalina State Park. We discovered Catalina State Park on a whim, looking for roadrunners after eavesdropping on some park rangers. I’m so glad we explored Catalina! Roadrunners, flowers, cactus, beautiful washes and rock formations; it was all perfectly Arizona and very accessible. Good trails and lots of shade make Catalina State Park a nice year-round place to add to your AZ road trip.
If you have time and want to make one more wildlife stop, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is just outside of Tucson. This is a wonderful place for looking for roadrunners, jack rabbits, coyotes and so much more.
- Tucson – what a cool city! It’s way bigger than you expect and has some of the trendiest hotels (like the Leo Kent and the Hotel McCoy) in its downtown and surrounding area. Enjoy the nightlife and countless cool restaurants in the Presidio neighborhood. Just on the edge of downtown and near Sabino Canyon, the Lodge on the Desert is another really cool option.
- Oro Valley – not far from Tucson, this is where you’ll find some gorgeous resorts and more spacious accommodations. There is a lot of good hiking nearby too, if you’re adding time here. We loved our stay at the Westward Look Resort in Oro Valley!
Day 7: Saguaro National Park
I love every National Park because each one offers something so different. Saguaro National Park was EXACTLY what I hoped it would be: CACTUS. Literally, everything about Saguaro National Park is cactus oriented and it’s exactly what any Arizona road trip needs. The saguaro cactus (said suh-waro) is the most iconic thing in Arizona, with it’s height and arms and spikes. I love it! The National Park is split into two units: the Tucson Mountain and Rincon units.
Begin your day at the Tucson Mountain Red Hills visitor center. They have lots of great information and the coolest movie about the park, and then when the film ends you get the best surprise prompting you to explore… but no spoilers here. There are two great nature trails in the Tucson Mountain unit, one being right at the visitor center and the other being just north of there. Do both and the hike the Valley View / Wild Dog trail to the Signal Hill site and back. It’s pretty easy and you’ll see endless cactus vistas with Tucson in the distance. I really enjoyed exploring this type of desert and fell in love with the rocks. At Signal Hill there is a collection of petroglyphs, so don’t miss them and learning even more about the indigenous people of Arizona.
After hiking, head into either downtown or Old Town Tucson for some lunch and to refill your water. Once you’re ready, venture to the Rincon visitor center. Check to make sure trails are open and then hit the loop road. You can stop nearly anywhere, but please use the designated trails. The Mica View Cactus Forest loop is great and easy, the Desert Ecology Trail is a simple walk with so much info, and then the Freeman Homestead trail takes you along a ridge and a river bed for amazing view and cactus. Be sure you are near a good grove of saguaro cactus for sunset, because their silhouettes are amazing.
Day 8: Tonto National Monument and Departure
For our Arizona road trip, this is our last day and it’s our departure. After eight days or so of exploring, there’s been a lot to take in and no doubt, you’ve learned a lot. I love how refreshed my love of the desert was after a week of wandering, reading and hiking. So today, finish off with taking the long way back to Phoenix for your departure. Visit Tonto National Monument east of Phoenix for one last National Park passport stamp and more ruins. You can do the hike to the Lower Ruins on your own, but if you want to do the Upper Ruins (super cool) you do need to reserve a spot on a ranger led hike in advance.
When you’re done, drive back to the city and either fly our or enjoy a few more hours playing tourist. Get on the water on Tempe Town Lake or explore the Desert Botanical Gardens. I love the hikes just outside of Phoenix, including Papago Park and “A” Mountain, or just chill and have pool time at your hotel. After a week of heavy travel, you’ve earned some down time!
More Legs to Add to Your Arizona Road Trip
It’s tough cherry picking the activities and sights to include on any travel plan, and an Arizona road trip is extra difficult because it’s so beautiful and unique. If you have extra time or are able to add onto this itinerary, consider these unique, totally Arizona options. Each one of these AZ destinations will add at least a full day to your travels.
Petrified Forest National Park
For this optional Arizona road trip leg, you can add it right after the Grand Canyon. Petrified Forest National Park is east of the Grand Canyon and not close to much else. On the way, you can stop in Winslow, Arizona to stand on the corner… like the song. Petrified Forest NP is all about hikes and science. It’s not thrilling, but it’s fascinating and beautiful. It’s very similar to Badlands National Park paired with the Painted Hills in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Just like how Saguaro National Park is full of epic cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the same, but with an even more unique variety: the Organ Pipe Cactus. To get here, you’ll want to either add it to the start of your trip if you’re driving from California or Nevada, or you can add it to the end and loop back up to Phoenix. Organ Pipe is the most south you can go in Arizona before crossing into Mexico. Hiking, photography and desert fauna make it a one of a kind destination!
Monument Valley and Page, Arizona
When I first starting writing this article I talked about Wylie Coyote and Roadrunner. Well, their home turf is Monument Valley. In northern Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon and south of the Utah border is this amazing stretch of land that is out of this world. Towering rock formations on the plane, mesas dropping into nothingness, buttes that are striking against the sunrise: it’s all amazing. Add this option to a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or if you are driving down from Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon NP, or if you want to transition a Utah road trip into Arizona.
Arizona Road Trip Itinerary Download
Feel free to download the basic version of this Arizona road trip itinerary. It’s helpful to have a guide to keep you on track and remind you of sights along the way. Download here!
I may have just returned from my own Arizona road trip, but I’m ready to head back now. I love the landscapes and the unique nature of AZ. There’s no place like it in the USA. If you have any questions about planning an AZ road trip, need advice about visiting the Grand Canyon or anything else Southwest travel related, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more!