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In this Arizona road trip itinerary guide, you’ll find expert travel advice to help you plan:
- THE ultimate road trip route guaranteed to check off everything on your Arizona bucket list,
- alternative road trip ideas if your time is limited or you want to do an Arizona Utah road trip, and
- tips to navigate Arizona roads with maps and tips for a successful trip.
How to Plan an Epic Arizona Road Trip
Planning a trip to Arizona comes with an endless number of variations depending on how much time you have, what you want to see and whether you choose to fly or drive to Arizona. For the purpose of this Arizona trip planner resource, I’ve used the 2 closest airports, Phoenix and Las Vegas, to bookend the itinerary.
As you use this guide to plan, you’ll see it’s easy to do this Arizona trip itinerary in reverse. You can also use parts of this mega route to plan the best road trip in Arizona for your travel plans.
Fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
There are a variety of car rental companies from which to rent a car for your trip. I always research rental car costs on Kayak because they compare prices from a variety of websites at the same time.
Your rental car doesn’t have to blow the trip budget to bits, either. Save money on your car rental by using my car rental hacks before your trip starts.
Part 1: Southern Arizona Swing
Arizona is one of the states with an endless number of places to see and explore. You can easily plan an itinerary from 5 to 14 days and still not see everything! But that doesn’t mean you need to skip the beauty of southern Arizona in order to see the Grand Canyon or Horseshoe Bend. Even if you have one week in Arizona, it’s possible to spend a few days exploring the cities and parks that call the Sonoran Desert home before heading north.
Start your Arizona road trip fun in Tempe.
Tempe is full of surprises(!) which makes it the perfect base to explore the Phoenix-Tempe-Scottsdale area. It has a walkable downtown with shops, a delicious food scene, outdoor activities, and ASU cultural offerings like art galleries and science exhibitions.
From downtown, you can hike A-Mountain, kayak in Tempe Town Lake, or rent an electric scooter to explore the public art around town. It’s also just a few miles to the Desert Botanical Garden with its amazing display of cactus varieties and to the popular Papago Park where you can hike, bike, and catch a pink-orange hued Arizona sunset. Located in the Sonoran Desert also gives Tempe unique access to horseback riding and off-roading desert experiences.
Tempe also hosts a full calendar of events all year long, be it music festivals, Broadway-caliber theater, Ironman Arizona, ASU football, or Cactus League Spring Training Baseball. Check out the Tempe Tourism calendar if you’d like to time your road trip with a specific event.
Best of all, Tempe’s college town vibe comes with affordable hotel choices and easy access to places like the Heard Museum in Phoenix and a day trip to Scottsdale.
Hike Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale.
Don’t leave without exploring Old Town Scottsdale.
Old Town Scottsdale deserves a stop on your Arizona road trip, recommends Jerome Shaw of Travel Boldly. Scottsdale’s historic core was once known as Orangedale and was home to citrus groves planted by the Scott brothers on their 640-acre farm. The streets where Scottsdale originated now thrive with art galleries, shops, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants. Old Town Scottsdale is home to the cultural district along with some of the best restaurants in the state.
Scottsdale, located just 5 miles from Tempe and 12 miles from downtown Phoenix, with a population of over 250,000 is the sixth largest city in Arizona. It’s made up of four areas: South Scottsdale, Old Town (Downtown), Central Scottsdale and North Scottsdale. The beauty of the Sonoran Desert is also part of Scottsdale, with the Tonto National Forest just north of town.
Should you chose to base yourself in Old Town Scottsdale, the Bespoke Inn is a bed and breakfast within walking distance of Old Town’s art galleries and museums. A stay here includes the use of one of their British Pashley bicycles and the attached Virtu Honest Craft, an elegant restaurant voted one of Best Restaurants in America by Esquire Magazine. The restaurant’s chef, Gio Osso, has been nominated for several James Beard Awards. Nearby eateries and craft beer breweries like Sel and Two Brothers add to the reasons why Old Town Scottsdale makes a great stop on your Arizona trip.
Day trip to Tortilla Flat.
Drive south to Tucson.
Many of Arizona’s main features are found in the northern part of the state, but Arizona has so much to offer throughout the state. Drive south to Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, which shouldn’t be missed. An easy two-hour drive south of Phoenix, Tucson has its own personality and plenty of amazing things to do.
The downtown area hosts many of the well-known restaurants, including one of the oldest El Charro Cafe which sports some authentic and delicious Arizonan-Mexican food. Corinne Vail of Roving Vails recommends any of their handmade tamales! Tucson is a fantastic place to road trip for all ages and Tucson is one to add to your must-see city itineraries of the region.
Some great museums are also found in the Tucson area, including the Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum. It’s primarily outdoors, and it highlights the desert animals and plants in the area. It’s informative and fun for kids of all ages. The Pima Science and Space Museum, which houses planes from all eras of American history, is another favorite! The highlight here is taking the bus tour through the Air Force Boneyard, where retired military aircraft go to die.
Just 30 minutes away from Tucson, you can also visit the Saguaro National Park, which is one of the best places to really enjoy the tall saguaro cactus vistas. If you plan to visit a few national parks or national monuments along your road trip through Arizona and the American Southwest, save money on entrance fees with the America the Beautiful Pass.
Part 2: The Arizona Desert Meets Ponderosa Pine Forests
If you imagine tall saguaro cacti and hot, open desert when you think of Arizona, this part of the drive will challenge that very notion! Here you’ll actually see the transformation from cacti and desert red rocks to evergreen trees and snowcapped mountain peaks the further you climb in elevation. It’s one of the most scenic drives in Arizona.
For practical planning purposes, you could drive from the south and stay a night in Prescott or even Sedona. But for the Grand Canyon and other nearby sights, Flagstaff offers the most bang for your time and buck. Its location is only outdone by all the things there are to see and do in and around Flagstaff.
Circle back north to discover Prescott.
You probably haven’t heard of Prescott, Arizona, but that’s exactly the point. Just an hour north of Phoenix, it’s an easy trip full of natural wonders and charm. Appointed by President Lincoln to be the first territorial capital of the Southwest before Arizona was even a state, Prescott is a classic Old West town with the world’s oldest rodeo! Home to 600 historically preserved buildings, you can get lost on Whisky Row, drink at the oldest saloon in the state, visit a meadery, and even stay at a converted brothel.
If history’s not your jam, there are plenty of open places to play. Boasting over 450 miles of trails, Granite Gardens or Thumb Butte are the best places to catch the sunset, but it’s Watson Lake’s 6-billion-year-old rainbow rock formations that’ll really take your breath away. It makes for one of the best northern Arizona photo-ops, says Lauren Monitz of the DownLO. You can explore by hiking, biking, kayaking or SUPing or by simply meandering the desertscape.
If you come in the summer, Prescott is home to the largest free bluegrass festival in the U.S., but in the winter it’s Arizona’s official Christmas city so there’s really no bad time to visit. They’ve even been known to get a dusting of snow every now and again. 😉
See Jerome, a former mining ghost town reborn.
Stop to see stunning Sedona.
Use Flagstaff as your northern Arizona base and Grand Canyon gateway.
Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon South Rim is just 90 minutes, which is why 5 of the 6 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year make Flagstaff their base while in the area. But, Flagstaff is blessed with its own things to see and do making it a must-visit destination all on its own.
Flagstaff is a former railroad and lumber mountain town sitting at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet! This 4-season northern Arizona destination surrounded by Ponderosa Pine forests has outdoor adventures ranging from hiking and biking to skiing and snowshoeing depending what time of year you visit. It’s home to the world-famous Lowell Observatory and 3 spectacular National Monuments including Wupatki, Sunset Crater, and Walnut Canyon.
Historic downtown Flagstaff is home to artsy boutiques, incredible public art, and a top-notch, super-trendy food scene making it a great spot to stroll and recharge after a day of outdoor adventure. Oh, and did I mention, Flagstaff sits along 14 miles of Historic Route 66 and is just 28 miles north of Sedona?!
Depending on your timing, booking a Flagstaff hotel will give you the opportunity to stay in the are for a few days while you take advantage of some of the best Arizona day trips in the state.
Check the Grand Canyon off your bucket list.
Spending the day at the Grand Canyon is simple to do from Flagstaff, especially with your own car. Flagstaff to the South Rim is just 90 minutes. The Grand Canyon is not just one of the most visited U.S. National Parks but it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national treasure.
You can stroll along the rim trail for the perfect Grand Canyon photo-op, venture into the Grand Canyon for a day hike, or use the park shuttle’s and/or your own car to visit the prettiest viewpoints along the South Rim. The National Park offers free ranger-led programs and makes for an unforgettable place to watch the sunrise or the sunset. At night, you can even stay to stargaze over the vast dark canyon sky.
Take it easy in Winslow.
Route 66 is THE iconic American road trip route with a history dating back to 1926. It was the first major road to connect many of the towns across the Southwestern United States, including Winslow, Arizona. It makes a great stopping point on your road trip through Northern Arizona including for fantastic Father and Son trips, suggests James Hills of ManTripping.
While there are many towns along this route that boast quirky roadside attractions or natural wonders, Winslow is different. Instead, it was immortalized by the Eagles in 1972 just five years before the I-40 bypass of the town was approved.
As a result, Winslow’s fame is focused specifically on the song “Take it Easy” by the Eagles as the towns primary attraction. Residents have embraced it with a great park that has a life-size bronze statue of Glenn Frey, a flatbed Ford, and a mural with the reflection of that truck and that girl taking a look at him. Of course, there’s also a giant Route 66 graphic at the intersection and some great souvenir shops to get your “Standin’ On The Corner” memorabilia.
ProTip: On the way from Flagstaff to Winslow, make a stop at Meteor Crater National Monument. It’s one of the best-proven impact sites on the globe! Both Winslow and Meteor Crater are just about an hour from Flagstaff.
Visit Petrified Forest National Park.
Petrified Forest National Park is an interesting national park, about an hour and a half from Flagstaff. Despite the name, Petrified Forest doesn’t have a living forest. Instead, the park gets its name from the millions of fossilized trees found in the area. Around 225 million years ago, Petrified Forest had an amazing sub-tropical forest. Over the years, the trees fell and were preserved. Today, millions of fossilized logs can be found throughout the park.
Located just off I-40, Petrified Forest National Park is part of the Historical Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. The park has one road which starts at I-40 exit 311 and then runs 28 miles to U.S. 180. The road takes about an hour to drive without any stops and is only open from 8 am to 5 pm. This is done to help prevent theft. Sadly, every year about 2 tons of petrified wood is stolen from the park, which is illegal. Every piece that’s removed is one less piece for future generations to view.
Your Petrified Forest adventure starts in the northern section of the park. This region is called the Painted Desert, a wilderness area with very few marked hiking trails. Heading down the park road yields more scenic views of the Painted Desert. Stop and visit the historic Painted Desert Inn. Check out Newspaper Rock and a few of the park’s petroglyphs. Be sure to take the short hikes out to Blue Forest and Crystal Forest. Both of these trails are well-marked and take you past the famed fossils.
There are no accommodations in the park unless you want to backcountry camp. Otherwise, it makes sense to keep Flagstaff as your base or Chinle, Arizona if you also plan to visit Canyon de Chelly. The park’s wilderness area is divided into 5 backcountry zones, which you must get a permit for from the rangers. Jennifer Melroy of National Park Obsessed says, “My favorite section to backcountry camp and visit is the Black Forest.”
Part 3: Welcome to the Navajo Nation
This northeastern corner of Arizona combines some of the most classic southwest U.S. landscapes with sacred Navajo Tribal lands. Exploring each of the stops on this segment of your Arizona road trip doesn’t require many days. However, sights, gas stations, and full-service towns are far and few between in this area. Keep reading for more tips about driving in Arizona, but prepare for this part of the drive a full tank of gas, water, snacks, and a physical paper map of Arizona as phone signals are not reliable for navigation.
Discover Native American traditions at Canyon de Chelly.
Canyon de Chelly represents the living history of human habitation in the American West. People have lived in the canyon for nearly 5,000 years, longer than anywhere else on the Colorado Plateau. The canyon is characterized by dramatic 600 vertical feet of red rock looming over a narrow valley floor.
Carol Guttery of Wayfaring Views recounts how she went for the landscape but really loved Canyon de Chelly for the cultural history. You can find great red rocks and Anasazi petroglyphs elsewhere in Arizona (like near Sedona). However, the Canyon de Chelly is unique because it is fully managed by the Tribal trust of the Navajo Nation. So, while it’s part of the National Park system, you’re there as a guest of the Navajo.
This means access to the valley floor is restricted to visitors who take a tour with an authorized Navajo guide or park ranger. The tour is worth it because you’ll learn a great deal from your guide about their respect for the Anasazi Navajo traditions and modern farming and ranching life in the canyon.
In addition to touring the bottom of the canyon, you can also drive along the upper cliffs visiting some of the ten overlooks available.
The canyon is about three hours drive northeast of Flagstaff. You can make a loop of Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly and the Petrified Forest. There’s a campground on site at the National Park and a few hotel/motels in nearby Chinle. Staying one night is plenty, as long as you give yourself a full day to visit the canyon floor and the overlooks above.
Be in four states at the same time at Four Corners Monument.
Want to visit? You’ll need a car, as this spot is kind of in the middle of nowhere. Four Corners Monument was built as a tourist destination, hoping to attract visitors who wanted to be able to be in four different states at one time! The typical photo in Four Corners involves contorting yourself so that each hand and foot is in a different state. (By the way, there’s some controversy about the actual state boundaries, but they’re generally accepted as being at least mostly correct!)
Be mindful that Four Corners is located quite far from other tourist destinations. There’s no close airport or convenient public transportation. It’s in the Navajo Nation, and visitors there can also learn about Navajo culture and way of life from locals who staff the park. There’s a small visitors center to focus on this, as well as small food and souvenir stalls around the monument. Mobile phone connections are extremely limited, so be prepared to not get a good signal for a while…a.k.a. Take your Instagram photos and upload them later. 😉
In addition, Halef and Michael of The Round the World Guys advise, if you’re visiting during the summer months, it can get very hot here. You’re in the desert, after all. Don’t forget to drink lots of water, bring food, and fill up the gas tank before you go.
Don’t miss the iconic mesas and buttes in Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley.
Monument Valley sits along the Arizona Utah border within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation Reservation. The orange sandstone rock formations are THE images that spring to mind when imagining the American Southwest.
The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park allows visitors to do a self-guided drive along the main road through the park to see the most famous buttes and mesas. The road is not paved and quite bumpy in certain sections, but if you take it slow, a regular vehicle can manage it. If you’d like to go beyond the main road to hike or horseback ride, you’ll need a Navajo guide to take you.
Plan to stay 1 night in the area either the day before or day of your visit. There are a few Monument Valley hotels but otherwise, the area is remote with few services. Meals are typically available at your accommodations. Gas up on the drive to and before leaving Monument Valley. Gas stations are few and far between.
ProTip: Leaving Monument Valley and on the way to Page, stop to see the cliff-dwellings of the Pueblo people at the “hidden gem” Navajo National Monument.
Part 4: Natural Beauty Beyond the Grand Canyon
Along with the Grand Canyon, photos of the rock formations and canyons in and around Page, Arizona are what inspires travel to this northernmost pocket of the state. If you didn’t have time for the road trip segment to Monument Valley mentioned above, it’s easy to go from Flagstaff to Page in just about 2 hours.
Think Arizona can’t get any more beautiful? Plan a stop in Page!
No visit to Page is complete without seeing Horseshoe Bend.
“I can’t remember the number of times I’ve seen a photo of the Horseshoe Bend in Arizona and wondered if it truly could look as amazing in person as it does in photos,” said Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse. “So when I planned for an epic American Southwest road trip, Horseshoe Bend was naturally included as one of the must-stops in my itinerary.”
It really is as amazing as what you see all over Instagram. Maybe better!
Horseshoe Bend is about 3 hours drive away from the Grand Canyon. Drive along Highway 89 until you see a sign for Horseshoe Bend Overlook. Turn in, and you should find the parking lot within a short drive. The lookout point is a super easy and quick walk from the parking lot.
Horseshoe Bend is perfect for sunset. Just be sure to get there about an hour early if you want to stake out a good spot. There are plenty of boulders on the cliff edge that you can perch on until the sun sets. Not sure there are many better places to hang out, either! Just make sure to be careful when taking photos. Horseshoe Bend is 300 meters tall and every year, fatal accidents are reported. No selfie is worth your life! If you want an experience with less of a crowd, you can also visit Horseshoe bend for sunrise.
Take in the water views at Lake Powell.
Go off the grid at White Pocket.
Our pick for the most adventurous Arizona road trip destination is White Pocket and the Paria Canyon Wilderness Area in Northern Arizona,” recommend Lance and Laura Longwell of Travel Addicts. But it’s more like the ultimate end of the road trip because you can’t go any further than this!
About 10 years ago, Microsoft included a photograph of a wavy rock formation in its Windows operating system and suddenly the world went gaga for it. Known as “The Wave,” it started a flood of tourists to the Paria Canyon Wilderness Area and visitors to the region. However, not far away, where the road comes to an end, there may be an even more impressive set of formations: White Pocket.
Sitting right on the Arizona-Utah border, White Pocket is a 2 ½ drive from anywhere. The last hour and a half require a 4×4 vehicle and experience driving on tricky sand. But at the end of the road, White Pocket is like no other place on earth. You’ll see wavy rock formations, beautiful colored striations in the rock, and formations that look like they’ve come from another planet. It is spectacular!
Nearby Page, Arizona makes a great base to explore White Pocket and the Paria Canyon. If your travels take you anywhere near Page, the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, or Lake Powell, you’re already in the neighborhood
Part 5: Finish in Sin City
If you’d like to drive this epic Arizona road trip from start to finish, plan on (at least) 2 weeks so you have plenty of time to enjoy everything Arizona has to offer. The drive from Page to Las Vegas, NV is about 4 and a half hours.
And during this last part of the drive, you’ll be so close to Utah’s natural beauty you could easily connect your Arizona road trip and venture into Utah in order to see places like Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks.
Last stop! Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
Hoover Dam looms large on many a southwest road trip itinerary, advises Warren Dobe of Sling Adventures. Wedged in between the steep rocky walls of Black Canyon, it holds back the mighty Colorado River creating Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the USA.
Hoover Dam became operational in 1933 and was the largest concrete structure ever built at the time of construction. It provides both a source of irrigation and hydroelectric power for Arizona, Nevada, and California. Originally named Boulder Dam, it was renamed Hoover Dam in 1947 in honor of the 31st U.S. President, Herbert Hoover.
Over 1 million visitors a year arrive at Hoover Dam to walk across the dam and take the power plant tour held deep within the dam wall. Tickets are sold on a first come first served basis and can only be purchased on the day at the visitor’s center.
Apart from taking in the imposing dam wall, power plant tour, and impressive Black Canyon, nearby Lake Mead National Park makes a trip to this remote north-eastern corner of Arizona all the more worthwhile. Boating, camping, hiking, and fishing are all notable pursuits in what is considered one of the USA’s most diverse wilderness areas. In particular, there’s plenty of birdlife such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon to spot soaring overhead.
Hoover Dam is also only 40 miles from Las Vegas McCarran Airport and makes sense as the last stop on your Arizona road trip. That is unless you’d like to spend a couple of days celebrating your epic Arizona road trip in Sin City!
Tips for Driving in Arizona
Driving in Arizona and throughout the Southwestern U.S. is not like driving a lot of other states. Yes, there are major highways and well-traveled routes through cities and towns with any amenity a traveler might need.
But, there are also remote roads with few services and spotty (at best) cell phone signals. Lucky for you, I’ve made plenty of road trip mistakes so you don’t have to.
- Keep water and snacks in the car. Plenty of areas will have services for road trippers, but when you’re driving along without these road trip essentials without a place to stop, the road will feel endless!
- Always keep your gas tank full. For the same reasons as above and even if you don’t really need it, the next gas station could be hours (and hours) away.
- Have an Arizona paper map for when your cell phone signal drops out…and it will drop out.
- Know who to call if your car breaks down. Have your rental car roadside emergency number handy and ask any questions about this service before leaving the car rental office.
- If you’re road tripping in the summer, make sure your vehicle’s AC is functional before driving off the car rental lot.
- If your road trip is during the winter, remember northern Arizona locations like Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon experience winter. Be sure you have what you need to clean off your car and drive in the snow.
- Lastly, search for the best prices on your car rental using a site like Kayak that pulls in prices from different sites at the same so you can compare your options.