A 4-day guide to Arizona, including the Grand Canyon and Sedona's red rocks.
A tour guide told me Hollywood loves Arizona because you can shoot a dozen different landscapes in a day, everything from the Old West to alien planets. Having spent a long weekend in the state, I have to agree! The scenery changes every hour.
Day 1: Phoenix to Sedona
Land in Phoenix Airport, take the free shuttle bus to the rent-a-car center. Every company has a kiosk here, so if one brand has a better deal that weekend, it will be pretty popular and may have a line to pick up the car.
Lunch outside the City
From there, you can avoid the hustle and the bustle of Phoenix and stick to the outskirts of the city for lunch. There is a trendy, up-and-coming area outside downtown Phoenix that offers shops, restaurants, and ice cream. I stopped at Testal Mexican Kitchen for a taste of northern Mexico and sat outside under the covered patio.
Route 17 to Sedona
After a light lunch, it is time to hit the road! Route 17 will take you all the way to Sedona. On the way, you'll pass by the Prescott National Forest and endless wild Saguaro cacti. As a New Englander, I was excited to see one of giant cactus with its trademark arms in the city and overjoyed to see hundreds more covering the hills as we drove north.
On your way to Sedona, I'd recommend sticking to Route 17. This is the faster route, which allows you to stop in the Red Rock State Park on your way into town. If the timing is right, you can take one of the famous hikes in the park before checking into where you're staying, and if you're lucky, you might be able to watch the sunset from one of the scenic vistas.
Red Rock State Park
Red Rock State Park, as the name implies is home to several breathtaking red rock formations. If you stop and park, you will need to purchase a Red Rock Pass. This can be bought from a machine in the parking lot and will allow you to park anywhere in the park for the day. The trailheads in Red Rock State Park are right off Route 17 and tend to be busy, so finding parking can be a challenge.
On your first day, I'd recommend stopping at Bell Rock Vista for your first view of the area. Bell Rock is one of the most famous formations in Sedona! If you have time, you can hike around the rock to get a feel for the size of this mammoth and your first taste of the red rocks. Note, while the hike around the rock is easy to moderate, the hike to the top of the rock is very challenging. From Bell Rock, you'll also see Courthouse Butte and out over the entire Verde Valley. If you're not able to find a parking spot, don't worry! There are plenty of viewpoints to stop at on your way into Sedona.
Chapel of the Holy Cross
Keep traveling north, and look out for signs for the Chapel of the Holy Cross as this will be our next stop! From afar, the chapel looks like it is carved into the red rocks behind it. As you travel up the road, you wind between the chapel and the cliff face. Whether you look up, out, or at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, it is breathtaking! Walking into the small chapel, you are washed with a peaceful silence and you eyes are drawn the the floor to ceiling window view of the valley. This is another busy place, but there is a lot of free parking a long the way and it is well worth the visit.
For dinner, find anywhere with outdoor dining! There are 360 degree views of red rocks in the Verde Valley, so most restaurants have great views of the sunsets. As you drive up Route 17, Oak Creek will be to your left. Anything to the right of the creek will have a view of the sun bouncing off the rocks as it sets behind you. Anything to the left of the creek will let you watch the sun sink down over the peaks. It is hard to go wrong with these stunning views, so pick a place that sounds yummy to you.
Day 2: Journey to the Grand Canyon
On your second day in Arizona, take the 2-hour drive to the Grand Canyon! You can do this on your own or take a tour. Personally, I took a tour and would recommend you take one as well. After all of the travel Day 1 of the trip, it was nice to sit back, relax, and let someone else run the trip. It also allows everyone you're traveling with to see the sights without worrying about the road. I used a company, Viatour, which took us to a number of cool sights and kept us away from the crowds (a big plus in COVID times).
Driving Route 89A
If you go on your own, you'll want to get up early and make a full day of it! Take Route 89A for a more scenic drive up. This road hugs Oak Creek, giving you a beautiful view of the valley as you wind up the mountains. You won't be able to see the creek as you drive, but you'll get a great, up-close and personal view on Day 3.
On the way, you'll go past Flagstaff, a good spot to get out and stretch your legs. Depending on the time, you may want to grab some breakfast or some snacks to fuel you for the next leg of the journey.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Moving past Flagstaff, but staying on 89, you'll get to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. This ancient lava bed formed when the volcano erupted nearly 1,000 years ago and covered the surrounding area in lava and ash. Today, there are parts of the park that look like something out of a sci-fi film, with black rocks seemingly devoid of life, and others that look like regular fields and cedar forests. This park requires its own pass to enter, which can be purchased on your way in. I'd recommend spending around a half-hour in the park and hiking the A'a trail. This trail is short and easy to hike. It takes you onto the lava bed and brings you up close to the otherworldly rocks in it.
Wupatki National Monument
The people who had been living in the valley below Sunset Crater Volcano for centuries prior to the eruption were forced to move to avoid the lava flow. Some of these people, moved to our next location, Wupatki National Monument. This three story, 800s pueblo was once the center of a rich society and home to over 100 people. Thousands more people lived in the area, many were farmers, used to the dry climate, who found the ash from Sunset Crater Volcano to be a godsend. This ash held moisture and fertilized the soil, making farming this difficult terrain a bit easier. Today, it seems impossible to farm this portion of the painted desert, but when Wupatki was a major trade center vital to the area, the seasons were wetter and cooler than modern day. Wupatki National Monument requires its own pass to see the remains of the historic pueblo and the information center, which can be purchased on your way in. I'd recommend spending around 45 minutes at the park and walking the trail around the structure on a self-guided tour.
Cameron Trading Post
Our next stop takes you brings you out of the past and back into the present. Staying on Route 89, you will leave the US and enter into Navajo Nation. Specifically, we will be leaving the breathtaking painted desert for lunch at the Cameron Trading Post. This trading post has been here for over a hundred years. It includes a restaurant, gift shop, and places to spend the night. The restaurant has a tin ceiling tiles, a giant fireplace for the winter, and gorgeous handwoven rugs that make you want to buy a loom and learn the art of weaving. The lunch menu includes dishes you've heard of before, and cuisine that is unique to the area. As someone who loves to try new things, I'd recommend ordering something you can't get at home, like the Navajo taco. I'd recommend spending around an hour at the trading post so you have time for lunch and to check out the gift shop. Be sure to check where everything is made, as some artwork is handmade locally and other items are made by factories far away. Cameron is the last stop before the Grand Canyon, the crown jewel of our Day 2 itinerary!
Bucket lists were made for places like the Grand Canyon. People (including me) come from all over to get a glimpse of the massive canyon the Colorado cut into colorful rocks. I've seen the Grand Canyon in pictures and movies, and thought I knew what to expect. However, seeing it with my own eyes, I was stunned. It was somehow bigger than I'd imagined, spanning almost as far as the eye could see. Standing near the edge was terrifying, the drop was so far. Looking at the river below, I was surprised that a body of water that size could create a canyon so huge.
Visiting the South Rim, you look out over the North Rim, which is a thousand feet higher and much wider than the South Rim. I've never been to the North Rim, but found the view from the south to be truly spectacular.
Day 3: Seeing Sedona
On our first day in Sedona, we got a quick taste for the town and our first views of the red rocks. On your last full day in Arizona, you'll want to get a better feel for the place and see as many peaks as you can. This means it will be another early morning!
Sunrise near the Airport
Start the day off by watching the sun rise over the valley at one of the best sunrise spots, the airport. This may seem like a surprise, but the airport is high up and has multiple places nearby to see the sunrise. If you are adventurous (and have a headlamp), you can climb the giant rock at Airport Mesa and experience one of Sedona's vortexes or take the loop trail to get a 360 degree view of the valley as the first light hits it. If you are like me and like to wake up a bit more gently, you can visit an overview near the top of the mountain and lookout over the valley without having to walk farther than across the street. I visited in December while still living on Eastern Time, so I have no trouble finding a parking spot, but imagine if you get there closer to sunrise or peak season, it can get crowded.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! You want to spend it somewhere iconic. I'd recommend going to the Coffee Pot. This low-key, family-run breakfast staple is named after Coffee Pot Rock nearby and is actually famous for their wide variety of omelettes.
Hiking Cathedral Rock
While you eat, check out some of the local trails. It is important to do your research as there are a large number of hiking trails in Sedona and they range from short, easy walks to long, treacherous hikes.
I would recommend you spend the day around Cathedral Rock. This is one of the most famous peaks in Sedona and home to some of the most popular trails. Depending on the trail you pick, you may be able to see a 360 degree view of the valley, Oak Creak, and a close-up view of Cathedral Rock.
When deciding what hike to take, please keep some things in mind. First, parking at many trailheads is limited and you generally have to purchase a parking pass for the day. Have a back-up (and possibly a second back-up) in mind in case you can't find a spot. Second, Sedona is in the desert so you will want to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat to keep yourself safe on the path. Lastly, contrary to what many people say, I would not recommend the Cathedral Rock trail. I found it to be extremely difficult, with true rock climbing at parts, and the view from the half way point was no different from the view 20 feet below. If you are looking for that adrenaline rush, I would instead recommend taking the Hiline Trail.
There are a number of trails around Cathedral Rock that vary in difficulty. If you hear one that sounds good to you, note that the review covers only that trail and not the ones you may need to take to get to it. For example, the Templeton Trail is an easy to moderate trail that takes you from Cathedral Rock to Oak Creek. It is a beautiful walk that winds through low woodland areas and high cactus covered rocks. You can see where the water streams down the mountain when it rains, leaving the red rocks smooth.
The Hiline Trail, which can be used to make a loop around Cathedral Rock in connection with Templeton, Baldwin, and Slim Shady, is a much more challenging trail. It is mainly used by mountain bikers who are looking for the ultimate thrill of a double black diamond trail. For hikers, get ready to do some rock climbing like you saw on the Cathedral Rock trail, but the views are far better and you can see out over the whole valley for hours as you walk. I ended up on this trail by accident, but would highly recommend it to experienced hikers.
Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village
After a morning (or day) of hiking, it is time to relax! Stop back at the hotel to freshen up, then take a much more leisurely stroll around the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village. This area is designed to look like an old Spanish village and is home to a number of high end galleries you can walk through and admire. While most of the shops are very high end, there are a couple of more budget friendly options for tourists passing through. Again, be sure to read where you items are made and think about how much of the money will go to the artist (most if it is their gallery) versus the shop (most if it does not say who the artists or jeweler is). I ended up leaving having only bought a couple of soaps made in Sedona, but loved the look of the shopping village. It was like something out of a storybook and made you imagine what life would have been like in Sedona back in the 1800s, even if it was made in modern times.
Sedona Artist Market
Another great place to look for art is the Sedona Artist Market. While the location is not as picturesque, this market has a wide selection of work that is exclusively made by nearby artists. Like the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village, there is a big range in what is sold, from pottery and paintings to jewelry and gems. I found the prices to be more reasonable and left with a new pair of earrings and a small piece of hand-thrown pottery.
To wrap up the day, walk over to one of the many restaurants in Sedona. The same principles should guide you: eat somewhere that sounds good, and trust it will have a great view! If you were east of the creak yesterday, maybe try somewhere west of it today to give you the other view of the sunset.
Day 4: Last Day in Arizona
It's time to make the most of our last full day in Arizona, and that means another early morning. You can wake up and try another sunrise vista or catch a little more shut eye after yesterday's hike. Either way, you'll want to pack-up, check out, and then hit the road.
Red Rock Loop
Start the day off by driving south on the scenic Route 89A. Notice, this road is new since we stuck to Route 17 on the way in. Route 89A will take you back to Red Rock State Park. Only this time, we're starting off with a drive rather than a hike. This drive is around the Red Rock Loop, which as the name implies is a loop with 2 ways to enter. I'd recommend driving past Upper Red Rock Loop and instead turning onto the lower end of the loop, a street fittingly named Red Rock Loop. This will let you see the surrounding peaks for a while before taking you through a more residential part of town. You can get out to start another hike if you have time, or keep going to our next destination.
Once you've finished with Red Rock Loop, give driving south on Route 89A. This scenic drive will take you out of the red peaks of Sedona and into a new, more agricultural landscape. This area is one of Arizona's three wine countries. You may have seen Arizona wine on the menu when you went to dinner, and I would recommend trying it! The couple of wines I tried were enjoyable and made me wish I had more time to explore the different wineries.
Stop in Cottonwood for a bite to eat and a chance to walk around the historic downtown. You'll want to stop at Crema Craft Kitchen. This restaurant offers a number of coffees, cocktails, and brunch options. Their patio offers a cute, fresh vibe that matches the food. Then depending on time, you can stop in the shops or visit a tasting room to try the local wines.
Returning to Phoenix
From Cottonwood, it is time to hop on Route 260 and head south back to Phoenix. This route will meet up with Route 17, which we took on the way to Sedona originally. This is a chance to visit anything you missed on the way up. You could stop in a mining town or take a picture with a giant cactus. If you have time, you could explore Phoenix a little and visit the botanical garden. Just be sure to leave time to return your car and catch your flight!
I hope you enjoyed your whirlwind trip to the Grand Canyon State and hope you had as much fun as I did!