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Travel News Best scenic routes in Arizona: Plan your perfect road trip

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Best scenic routes in Arizona: Plan your perfect road trip

Times are tough for travelers. But with the world preparing to reopen in 2021, we're here to keep you dreaming and planning for your next adventure - whether that's a staycation or flying off to parts unknown. Until then, we've got the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates to keep you up to date and ready to go.

Whether you dream of getting lost in less crowded places this summer, or are looking to tick off some of your bucket-list destinations like the Grand Canyon, Arizona awaits with a host of amazing road trip options to take you around varied landscapes that will inspire you. We’ve selected the best scenic routes you can plan to combine for a fantastic vacation in The Copper State, or just do one or two from central hubs for a more relaxed pace.

As the world is opening up again, we’re doing our best to offer you the best inspiration and travel advice to assist you in planning your dream vacation. However, before you plan to go away, make sure you check local government advice and tips for staying safe from COVID-19.

Plan the ultimate Arizona road trip with these tips:

Getting to Arizona and starting your road trip

Depending on which top sights you’re planning to visit, the easiest way to get to Arizona is to fly into a big airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor or Tucson International and rent a car for your trip from there.

Picking the most scenic routes from either city is simple with our guide. Once you’ve decided where you want to go and how many days you’ll be on the road, this will help you choose the best car to suit your plans. Make sure you can get great views for everyone in the car and that your chosen vehicle can go off-road a bit, too. For COVID-19 safe journeys, follow our top tips for road trips.

Finally, make sure to buy a National Park Pass so you can access many of the amazing national monuments and parks you’ll tick off along your scenic routes. A pass covers you for one car and all its passengers, so it’s a good value for money and the most practical way to travel without additional one-off entry costs.

Check rental car rates for your trip:

Desert sunset with cacti
Heading into the desert from Tucson, AZ

Travel back in time from Tucson to Tombstone

Driving time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (Tucson-Tombstone)

If you’re starting your Arizona vacation in Tucson, head south to legendary Tombstone. Founded in 1877, Tombstone was at the heart of the largest productive silver district in Arizona and is one of the last boomtowns in the American frontier. Relive the Wild West days and immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the streets once walked by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

There is plenty to visit in Tombstone to fill a few hours after you’ve crossed through the scenic Saguaro National Park East on your drive over. On the way back on Highway 90, stop off at Kartchner Caverns: a unique limestone cave with miles of underground passageways and some impressive rooms filled with stalactites, stalagmites and protected bats.

On your way back to your Tucson hotel, enjoy a scenic drive through the gorgeous national park, admiring the sunset and the imposing Saguaro cacti the park is named after.

Arizona desert rocks at sunset

Explore scenic routes on your way to Scottsdale

Driving time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (Tucson-Casa Grande National Monument-Scottsdale)

Heading north from Tucson, you’ll be passing through the Saguaro National Park West, where you can admire more imposing cacti and desert vistas. However, the real attraction on this scenic drive through Arizona is the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. This is the first prehistoric and cultural reserve in the US, made up of the ruins of several buildings erected by the ancient people of the Hohokam Period. You can reach the ruins from Route 179, one of the most scenic routes in the area.

During your stop at the Casa Grande Ruins, find out about the history of the Sonoran Desert from the docents. You can then put this knowledge to good use in Scottsdale, where you’ll visit the Desert Botanical Garden and get to see wildflowers, cacti and succulents from all around the area.

Scottsdale is a great stop—a popular retreat with fabulous spas, fancy shopping and restaurants, but also plenty of trails for hiking and exploring the outdoors. Head out into town to discover some delicious food, such as at the downtown Roaring Fork, which boasts great Western-style cuisine.

Before leaving Scottsdale, hike up Camelback Mountain to be rewarded with panoramic views of the city and nearby Phoenix.

Havasu Falls Grand Canyon
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon National Park

Discover the Grand Canyon

Driving time: 4 hours (Scottsdale-Montezuma Well-Grand Canyon South Rim)

The Grand Canyon will always be the epitome of any Arizona road trip experience. Traveling from Scottsdale to Sedona, head for the South Rim where you’ll get the best views accessible all year round. You can set off on some incredible hikes from outside El Tovar’s doors and enjoy picnics at sunset in one of the most impressive natural wonders in the world.

To get to the Grand Canyon, first head out of Scottsdale on Highway 179, also known as Red Rock Scenic Byway. This is one of the most scenic routes in the United States, so have your camera ready and be prepared for multiple stops! One must-do break is the Rock Springs Cafe, a landmark set up in 1918 and famous for its award-winning pies.

Next stop is the Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle, unique Native American cultural monuments that date back hundreds of years. The castle is made up of ancient cliff dwellings impressively carved into the red stone walls, while the well is also a cliff dwelling underneath the lip of a sinkhole fed by underground springs.

As you then make your way toward the Grand Canyon, bypass trendy Sedona where you can return later, but enjoy the views as you cross through Coconino National Forest with its ponderosa pines and volcanic mountain peaks. Spend a couple of nights hiking through the Grand Canyon before moving on to Sedona for the next part of your road trip.

Multi-colored rock formations in the desert in Arizona

Scenic routes from Sedona

Driving time: 3 hours, 15 minutes (Sedona-Jerome-Prescott-return via Cathedral Rock Trailhead)

Known as the “spiritual center” of Arizona, Sedona is a place associated with mindfulness and meditation retreats thanks to its reputation for being a hotspot of natural energy due to its many vortexes. Stay a couple of nights to take advantage of the chic eating and drinking options, but also to hike on some of the most scenic trails around.

On your road trip day, head out of Sedona via the 89A, driving towards Prescott and stopping in Jerome. This small erstwhile copper mining community is now a ghost town worth exploring, even if it’s just to give you that haunted feeling! (Definitely go during the day.)

Then go on to Prescott to discover Whiskey Row, the once-upon-a-time street of more than 40 saloons during the Gold Rush. Another trip back in time awaits here, where most of the old saloons were reconstructed after a fire destroyed a lot of the area in 1900. Have a late lunch at the ever-popular The Local, where delicious huevos rancheros are on offer alongside a brilliant vegan menu. Don’t forget to check out their art gallery, too.

Return to Sedona via the 169 and Interstate 17, passing by Montezuma Castle and stopping at the trailhead for Cathedral Rock, one of the iconic sights of the area. This imposing red rock formation resembles a cathedral thanks to its soaring spires. It’s also one of those spiritual vortex sites. Hike up to the plateau (it’s short but steep!) and catch amazing views of Verde Valley at sunset before returning to your Sedona accommodation.

Road to Monument Valley, desert and rocks, Arizona
Driving through Monument Valley at the Arizona-Utah border

The less-visited Canyon de Chelly

Driving time: 5 hours, 30 minutes (Sedona-Canyon de Chelly-Petrified Forest National Park-Holbrook)

For a longer day out or possibly two days (one of Canyon the Chelly from Sedona and one going straight to Petrified Forest National Park), take your car down two scenic routes that will be less crowded this summer. The Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known Arizona highlight, a red-rock landscape that welcomes you to Navajo Nation. You need to have a Native American guide to enter the Canyon on foot, but you can drive around the top of it on your own. Stop at some scenic lookouts like Face Rock Overlook or Sliding House Overlook for great views.

The final Arizona scenic drive we recommend is to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, just near Holbrook where you can spend the night. You will first reach the northern end of the Petrified Forest National Park if you’re coming from the Canyon de Chelly. This is known as the Painted Desert thanks to the amazing colors you’ll notice in the rock, from deep purple to pink and orange. The southern end of the National Park is known for spectacular fossils, including entire fallen trees and reptiles. You can go on a once-in-a-lifetime hike through prehistory here if you have the time.

A final thought

Arizona’s vast, diverse landscape lends itself to hours and days of driving through scenic routes and exploring on foot and bike. This is just a small sample of the best road trips you can take from some of the most interesting tourist hotspots, and we hope it’s whetted your appetite to explore the whole state. Don’t forget to follow local COVID-19 safety rules and check guidelines before you travel to make the most of your trip.

This article was last updated on July 5, 2021.

Discover where you can go

Making plans to get back out there? Whether you’re looking to travel locally or are itching to book an international flight, find out where you can head to with our interactive travel map and sign up to receive email updates when your favorite places reopen.

Interactive travel map graphic

FAQs about Arizona scenic routes

Where can I go on a road trip in Arizona?

From the most popular spot – the Grand Canyon – to lesser-known areas like the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona offers a multitude of scenic routes and amazing driving experiences for day trips or a full-on road trip. Pick shorter destinations like Tombstone from Tucson, or longer round-trips with stops along the way to enjoy the best the state has to offer.

What are the best day trips from Phoenix?

You can reach some great destinations by basing yourself in Phoenix, Arizona. Explore the Saguaro National Park and its famous cacti, or check out Montezuma Castle. Head to the ghost town of Jerome or check out spiritual Sedona (although we would recommend spending a night there to get to see more of the area).

How easy is it to drive through Arizona?

It’s relatively easy to get around from one city to the next in Arizona by taking the interstate system and sticking to well-maintained highways. However, if you’re planning to explore the national parks, your best bet is to park at the local visitor center and head off on foot. You’ll be given helpful maps and directions in every spot. Make sure you follow speed limits and use common sense and attention when driving on all roads, of course.

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