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The Classic 5-Day Arizona Road Trip

By Laura Dannen Redman

Feb 26, 2020

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Start your road trip with a stay at Mountain Shadows, at the foot of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale. 

Courtesy of Mountain Shadows

Start your road trip with a stay at Mountain Shadows, at the foot of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale. 

A road trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon serves up major doses of scenery, hiking, biking, and some serious “me time,” whether at the spa or on your second plate of enchiladas.

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Whether you’re on a cross-country trip or just jetting in and out of Arizona, it’s impossible to miss how painfully beautiful the southwestern state is. At first glance, you might only see shades of beige as you drive—many homes are designed to complement the desert landscape—but look closer, and you’ll notice dusty green saguaro cacti, wildflower pops of canary yellow, and enough aquamarine pools to make you wonder why you live in the frozen tundra up north.

At AFAR we have feels about the ideal Arizona road trip—our founders lived in the Phoenix area for years, and there are vocal natives on staff—so this route is the product of much debate. Here’s the classic five-day Arizona road trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon (with a few trip extensions if you have more time).

Day 1: Fly into Phoenix. Stay overnight in Scottsdale. 

Phoenix’s greater metropolitan area—which also includes Mesa and Scottsdale—has about 5 million residents. For this trip, ease into vacation with an overnight in the smaller, resort-heavy Scottsdale, about a 20-minute drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX). 

Where to stay in Scottsdale

Sister properties Hotel Valley Ho and Mountain Shadows, both AFAR favorites, have two very different vibes: Valley Ho is a midcentury-modern throwback with a glam pool scene and a hammam experience down a hallway lined with historic photos (Jackie Gleason! Tony Curtis!). Bonus: It’s a short walk from Old Town Scottsdale. Mountain Shadows makes you want to be outside, whether it’s on your personal patio overlooking the firepit, out on the golf course, or stargazing with a specialty cocktail (’cause #vacation) at the base of Camelback Mountain. For families, the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa has a full-blown water playground with a three-story waterslide and a Camp Hyatt for kids ages 3 to 12. 

Keep an eye out for . . .

That enticing hump of Camelback, calling all hikers and climbers with its 2,704-foot elevation. If you’d prefer something more mellow, the Quartz Ridge Trail near Mountain Shadows has a three-mile trek you could cover in a little over an hour or combine with intersecting trails. You’ll see trail runners and locals walking their dogs—and no cars for miles. 

Don’t miss . . .

The green chili rolled enchiladas at Frank and Lupe’s (the best Mexican food in Old Town Scottsdale) and a round of darts and drinks at dive bar Coach House.

Want more restaurant choices? Read this chef’s guide to the best dining in Phoenix and Scottsdale. 

Day 2: Drive two hours (125 miles) from Scottsdale to Sedona. Stay two nights. 

Famous for its red rock buttes and canyons, Sedona is one of the most popular destinations in Arizona.

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Roll out of Scottsdale after a leisurely breakfast and aim for Sedona, one of the top destinations in the state (after, you know, that giant canyon . . .). There’s a raw energy here amid the red rock buttes and canyons; wellness retreats and crystal shops enhance the spiritual vibe. It’s also a weekend getaway for Phoenix locals so beware of traffic during peak season (February through June, especially when Cactus League spring training is back in action).

Where to stay in Sedona

Pull into L’Auberge de Sedona, a “few minutes from the shops, galleries, and restaurants of Sedona, but tucked away along the banks of quiet-flowing Oak Creek—it’s one of the Southwest’s most romantic hideaways,” says AFAR contributor Bob Payne. “It has red-rock views, as every accommodation in Sedona must, but its French-country-inn style, in the land of adobe architecture, and its leafy, creekside location, are what define it.”

Keep an eye out for . . .

Jerome, a turn-of-the-century copper mining community turned ghost town off 89A between Prescott and Sedona. Assistant editor Sara Button vouches it’s “100 percent haunted.” 

Detour worth taking

Coffee and huevos rancheros at the Local in Prescott, a (surprise!) hyper-local café that seems to be universally beloved by travelers, and a stroll down historic Whiskey Row, which was home to 40-odd saloons during its gold rush heyday. 

Day 3: Stay in Sedona.

Cathedral Rock offers memorable views of the surrounding Verde Valley.

With L’Auberge as your base, set out for Cathedral Rock, “a magnificent red rock formation with soaring spires that resemble a cathedral,” says AFAR exeuctive marketing director Katie Galeotti. “It’s also one of Sedona’s four major vortices—centers of heightened spiritual and metaphysical energy” that can be experienced with .7-mile (steep) hike to a plateau with unreal views of Verde Valley. Or, says Galeotti, consider booking a guided tour with Sedona Trail Zen: It “ended up being the highlight of our trip. Over the course of four hours, our guide, Wyatt, shared insights about local vegetation and wildlife, covered the history of the land, and even took us on some secluded trails. This 10-mile hike, up to Cathedral Rock and down through the surrounding land, gave us a renewed sense of energy and clarity.” Another tip, from VP, publisher Bryan Kinkade: The shop Run Sedona will offer suggestions on less-trafficked hikes if you find Cathedral Rock inundated. 

Keep an eye out for . . .

Iconic Bell Rock and the Oak Creek Canyon Drive on 89A, offering another set of spectacular views. 

Don’t miss . . .

Southwest grill Mariposa comes with a side of red rocks—opt for outdoor seating—and fantastic handmade empanadas, tacos, and spicy margaritas. And once it reopens in its new location in April, Elote Cafe (“where the atmosphere is casual but the food is fancy”) will be another hot table. We’re already craving the smoked brisket enchiladas. Is it OK to only eat enchiladas for three days straight?

Day 4: Drive two hours (115 miles) from Sedona to Grand Canyon South Rim. Stay two nights. 

When driving from Sedona to the Grand Canyon, stop off in Flagstaff for a pastrami sandwich at Proper Meats and Provisions.

It’s a short drive to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim from Sedona, so if you set out in the morning, you’ll still have time to stop for lunch in hippie college town Flagstaff and make it to the canyon for the sunset. (Oak Creek Canyon Drive is also on your way.)

Where to stay near the Grand Canyon 

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We love Bright Angel Lodge by architect Mary J. Colter (who designed several other buildings in the park), especially its porch views and floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the main lounge, says AFAR contributor Deb Hopewell. But we’d like to give Under Canvas a try—the luxury tents are fit for roving families with king-size beds, lounges, and wood stoves to keep the tents cozy. (Anyone who’s camped at the Grand Canyon knows it gets cold at night—like, sleep in the car with your shoes on cold.)

Detour worth taking

A pastrami sandwich in Flagstaff? Believe us: Proper Meats and Provisions, a local, whole animal butcher shop, has one of the best outside NYC. Don’t worry, Flagstaff is also a hotbed of vegan and gluten-free options. And churros. 

Day 5: Grand Canyon South Rim 

Take in the Grand Canyon from the South Kaibab Trail.

You’re here! You made it! Now explore the canyon from above and within—starting with a short hike along South Kaibab Trail. “It’s a well-maintained (but steep!) stretch of dirt with very little shade,” warns AFAR local expert Katarina Kovacevic, but “it’s a scenic adventure through and through. South Kaibab’s main destinations include Ooh-Aah Point (at the highest elevation of 6,660 feet), Cedar Ridge (good for novice hikers and late starters), and Skeleton Point (an unobstructed view of the Colorado River with steep switchbacks).” 

Detour worth taking 

Believe it or not, the Grand Canyon IMAX is worth a stop. Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets runs every hour on the half-hour and is a better primer on the canyon’s history than other films offered at the visitor center. 

Read on for a first-timer’s guide to the Grand Canyon.

Trip extensions from the Grand Canyon South Rim

Start in Tucson instead of Phoenix. It’s a 90-minute to two-hour drive southeast of Phoenix and, by our estimation, Tucson is the best food city in Arizona. (Ever hear of the James Beard Award–winning Sonoran hot dog? It’s from here.) Nearby Saguaro National Park and the adjacent Tucson Mountain Park are also spectacular, says Tucson native Button, as is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “which is essentially a really well-done zoo/garden for the area’s desert flora and fauna, with wonderful family programming. I recommend it for every first-time visitor to town.” 

Additional time needed: 2–3 days.

Head north to Lake Powell. Drive 2.5 hours (137 miles) north from the South Rim to Lake Powell, which can serve as your base to explore nearby Antelope Canyon, the lesser (and less touristed) canyons, and Horseshoe Bend, home to one of the best hikes outside the Grand Canyon. 

Drive back to Phoenix: 4 hours, 20 minutes.

Head east to Canyon de Chelly. Drive 3.5 hours (195 miles) east of the South Rim for three national wonders: the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Drive back to Phoenix: 5 hours.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Arizona

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