One of the four corner states, Arizona is a state of contrasts. Phoenix and the rest of the southern part of the state are known for its desert environment, with hot summers, cacti, and spectacular sunsets. As you head to the northern part, near Flagstaff, you begin to find mountain ranges and deep canyons, with mild summers and sometimes freezing summers. Visit the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in October and you might discover it sleeting and below freezing. Experience the history and the culture of the many Native American tribes, such as the great Navajo Nation.
Grand Canyon National Park is a gorgeous and incomparable gorge that is 18 miles wide, one mile deep, and up to 277 miles long along the river. Layered bands of red rock reveal millions of years of geological history. From the highest peak in Arizona down to the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Walnut Canyon, the area is rich in natural beauty. This tour starts and ends from Flagstaff, Arizona, a town that itself defines the desert stereotype of the state.
How long? About 250 miles or four hours, without stops. I would make this a weekend trip and space out your stops to fully appreciate the beauty of the area. A weekend adventure will also give you time to head down to explore the Red Rocks.
Time of Year? The Grand Canyon is accessible year-round, but unlike southern Arizona, it can get very cold in the Winter months. The recommended time frame is from March through November. The South Rim is open year-round, but the weather can get tricky.
Driving northwest on US-180, wind up the San Francisco Peaks to the highest point in Arizona, Humphrey’s Peak. These directions take you to the trails parking lot so that you can take in the view. More experienced hikers can take a 9-mile round-trip trail up to the top of the 12,633-foot peak.
Side trip: As you begin heading north on US-180 again, stop and visit nearby Sunset Crater National Monument, Sunset Crater, Arizona 86004. There is normally a small per-car fee for this monument, but some days are free so check their website.
As you travel further on US-180, the landscape changes to sagebrush and drier land. Near Red Butte Mountain, the route will enter the Kaibab National Forest woodland full of ponderosa pine and Gambel oak. The Ten-X Campground is an excellent place to stop and take a closer look at the forest. You can walk the nature trail into the forest that is nestled on the Colorado Plateau.
As you near the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center, Mather Point overlook takes in many of the South Rim’s most famous features. These include the sharp-tipped Isis Template, Bright Angel Canyon, and Wotan’s Throne. You used to be able to drive to Mather’s Point but now you go directly to the Visitor’s Center and walk there. A new accessible viewing platform and amphitheater for informal programs have been developed over the past three years. One word of caution: during colder, rainy days, be sure to bring a jacket. The winds at the top near the visitor’s station are fierce!
Interested in hiking? Bright Angel Trail begins at the visitor’s center and makes a nine-mile round trip to the Indian Gardens (okay, halfway down but it was my version of hiking). The hike goes down into the canyon at Plateau Point and offers dramatic views of the Inner Canyon.
Interested in the geological history involving the Colorado River and rocks that date to nearly 2 billion years old? Yavapai Museum is a great place to learn about the formation of the Grand Canyon. The museum’s windows also offer a great viewpoint of the canyon. From here, you can also take the easy South Rim Nature trail.
West Rim Drive, also known as Hermit Road, is an eight-mile road that is west of the South Rim and visitor’s center. During the summer months, the road is closed to private vehicles, but you can easily take a regular shuttle bus. Maricopa Point has some of the best views of the canyon, so it is well worth the brief shuttle ride.
Following back past the visitor’s center, next go down Desert View Drive to view the east rim of the Grand Canyon. Desert View Drive follows the rim for 25 miles out to the Desert View Watchtower and the East Entrance. You can access all the six canyon viewpoints with your car, so you do not need to park and take a shuttle. Yaki Point is also on the east side and is considered one of the most stunning viewpoints. However, you must take the free Kaibab Rim Route (Orange) Shuttle Bus from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.
A favorite outlook, Grandview Point has views of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River from east to west. From here you can view Horseshoe Mesa, Angels Gate, and Vishnu Temple formations. This overlook also offers stunning views of the canyon walls with the horizontal bands of color offering clues to the age and composition of the rocks. If you are an experienced hiker and like steep trails, you can take the Grandview Trail from here.
The next recommended stop is Moran Point, which you can view all three of the main rock groups that make up the Canyon from this viewpoint. The slanted rock layers and jagged outline of the formation known as the Sinking Ship can be seen from this viewpoint that looks west.
Tusayan Ruin, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023
The restored Tusayan ruin is a small ancestral Puebloan village. It stands as a testament to the ancestors of the Hopi Indians who farmed and hunted along the Grand Canyon some 800 years ago. Restrooms and picnic areas are also located here.
The 70-foot-tall Watchtower was built in the 1930s and is perched on the very edge of the canyon rim. The stone tower, based on towers constructed by the Anasazis hundreds of years ago, rises over seven stories tall. From the watchtower, you can view the North Rim, the Colorado River, and views to the east of the Painted Desert.
As you continue heading south and east back to Flagstaff, you descend to a broad plain that is mostly desert with sagebrush and Mormon tea plants. You can find two overlooks jus north of the highway to view the Little Colorado River Gorge, a small 1,200-foot chasm compared to the Grand Canyon. The Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park is close to the canyon and is a spot to take beautiful pictures and buy authentic Navajo jewelry.
Wupatki National Monument is dotted with red-rock outcroppings of sandstone and limestone pueblos that belonged to Native Americans that lived about 800 years ago. Some of the pueblos are large, such as one that has over 100 rooms. The trail behind the visitor’s center is currently under reconstruction, so hiking may be limited. If you’re going there this summer, you might not want to risk heat stroke anyway.
As you follow the scenic loop around the desert, a symmetrical black cone of rock, ash, and cinders rises 1,000 feet above the ponderosa pines and lava fields around the base. The rim of the volcano is a fiery shade of red and yellow. Follow a variety of trails to the crater or around the area. Bring plenty of water, especially in the summer.
As you finish the loop back towards Flagstaff, the drive turns into Walnut Canyon. Along the trails of this horseshoe-shaped gorge, the Sinagua Indians built pueblos under the limestone cliffs. They abandoned the canyon around 1250 but the sturdy pueblos are still standing. The canyon rim itself is 6,690 and reaches down 350 ft lower to the floor.
From here, drive back into Flagstaff, Arizona, and you’ve finished the loop.
From the depths of the Grand Canyon to the north, the land south of Flagstaff rises into Red Rock Country. These sandstone monoliths form a vivid backdrop that leads into the desert wilderness into Sedona and down into Prescott. The most fascinating part of these rocks is that the multi-hued formations change hourly with the light. It’s quite a fascinating and relatively short, trip through central Arizona.
How long? This isn’t a very long itinerary, road trip drive-wise. Around 80 miles or about an hour and a half.
Time of Year? The area isn’t too far from the Grand Canyon, but the weather is nicer year-round. Nicer, but hotter. The further south you go, the more you go into the Arizona desert.
Oak Creek Canyon is considered one of the most spectacular stretches of road in Arizona. A few miles south of Flagstaff on State Route 89A, the Oak Creek Vista Point has a short trail that leads to a breathtaking overlook. After your visit, take the winding road that heads about 4,500 feet downhill towards Sedona.
About a mile south of this stop is West Fork Trail that leads into a canyon where red walls tower overhead next to maple trees. If you decide to take the hike, bring waterproof boots as you may have to wade through an ankle-deep stream.
Slide Rock State Park is seven miles north of Sedona and has a myriad of recreational choices. You can fish in the clear waters, picnic under the shade of the trees, or simply hike and marvel at the red rocks that loom overhead. A natural water slide is formed by the slippery bed of the Oak Creek, called Slide Rock. If you need a quick cool off this summer, Slide Rock is 80 feet long and up to 4 feet wide. It makes quite a ride!
With a busy arts district, great shopping downtown, and a stunning landscape, Sedona is a must see. Bright mesas, butte, and spires surround the town and change color hourly as one mountain fades into shadow and the next becomes a vibrate orange glow. Nearby Capital Butte, Chimney Rock, and Shrine of the Red Rock make excellent photo-taking stops.
While driving down State Route 89A, head down to Lower Red Rock Loop Road and then follow the signs to Red Rock State Park. This 286-acre nature preserve also straddles a 1 ½-mile section of Oak Creek. Multiple trails meander through the park. Try Smoke Trail that starts a half-mile loop from the visitor’s center. For a more challenging trail, try Eagle’s Nest Trail.
Tuzigoot National Monument is a hilltop village that preserves a pueblo ruin that belonged to earlier Native American settlements around A.D. 1200. The pueblo is fascinating in that it was built without exterior doors and was entered by ladders through rooftop hatches.
The Holy Family Catholic Church was built in 1891 and into the mountainside in the small town of Jerome. View the valley and the classic example of a 19th-century alter. Jerome State Historic State Park, 100 Douglas Rd, Jerome, AZ 86331, is another good place to stop. You can view the Douglas Mansion in the once-prominent mining region.
On your way down to Prescott, you’ll see Mingus Mountain as the highway descends into Prescot Valley. Prescott is the former territorial capital. Sharlott Hall Museum is an educational and cultural center that features the historical heritage of the region and operates as a historical site. The museum also includes the First Territorial Capitol and Governor’s Mansion as part of their exhibits. The town is also nestled in the forests of the Bradshaw Mountains, so there are plenty of trails for exploring the country. The Granite Dells and the Watson Lake Park are nearby attractions for outdoor adventures.
If you have more time and feel like continuing your tour, Phoenix is two hours south of Prescott. Sedona is also one hour north. Have fun!
Summer at the Grand Canyon can be hot, very hot. The South Rim views can be up to 20-degrees color than the Inner Canyon, but you are still looking at daytime highs from the high 80s to the mid-90s. Wondering if a trip in October might be better? How about some photos of the Grand Canyon in the Fall?