Top 4 Must-See Stops on an Arizona Road Trip

AlexandraSaper

Chances are, after months of quarantines and lockdowns, you've got the travel bug. There's no better time to start planning a road trip (social distancing made easy!) through some of the most beautiful parts of the vast Arizona desert! 

Although I grew up in Arizona, it wasn’t until recently that I really began to appreciate the beauty of the natural desert landscapes that are so unique to the Southwest United States. The best way to explore this region is by car, which will allow you to explore the best desert spots in Arizona on one epic road trip! 

Arizona’s natural landscapes are iconic as they are diverse, and you can explore many of the best spots in just two weeks. But even if you are short on time, be sure to visit at least a few of these iconic spots on your Arizona road trip!

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1) PRESCOTT, ARIZONA: Historic Courthouse Square & Watson Lake

Less than a 2-hour drive north of Phoenix, Prescott was once Arizona’s original capital city, and still holds so much Wild West history. The main area of Prescott surrounds the historic Courthouse, edged by the famous street called Whiskey Row. However, outside of central Prescott you’ll find endless pine tree-covered mountains, with creeks, small waterfalls, wildlife, and hiking trails.

EXPLORE PRESCOTT TOWN SQUARE

Be sure to spend some time wandering around Prescott’s historic town square, called “Courthouse Square,” stopping into the ice cream shops, country western bars and saloons, and local artist galleries on Whiskey Row. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time to the Wild West! 

There are also tons of amazing places to eat in Prescott, with — shockingly — cuisine from all over the world. Try El Gato Azul for creekside Spanish tapas, the Palace Restaurant & Saloon for a western throwback experience, Prescott Station with an amazing Sunday brunch, Tara for Thai food, Ginza for sushi, or Carmella’s and Papa’s for excellent Italian dishes.

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WATCH SUNRISE AT WATSON LAKE 

At sunrise, head to Watson Lake just 10 minutes outside of Prescott’s town center. The layered granite hills that emerge from the deep blue lake are spectacular at any time of day, but the light is especially beautiful at sunrise, plus you may have the entire lake to yourself. You can’t swim in Watson Lake, but it’s a fun place to explore the hills by foot or rock climbing, or you can rent a kayak or canoe to get out on the water.

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RECOMMENDED HOTELS:

2) SEDONA, ARIZONA: Seven Sacred Pools, Bell Rock, Devil’s Bridge, Cathedral Rock 

From Prescott, head further north another 1.5 hours to the famous city of Sedona. You’ve probably seen photos of these iconic red rocks, produced from the iron oxide in the earth there. 

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HIKE TO FAMOUS RED ROCKS VIEWPOINTS

There are so many amazing hikes to do in Sedona, but you won’t want to miss Soldier Pass Trail (stopping at Seven Sacred Pools right at sunrise is a must!) and Bell Rock. 

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Devil’s Bridge, a natural stone arch with incredible views of the Sedona landscape, is great for sunset, but you’ll be hiking back in the dark so bring a head torch and watch (and listen!) for rattlesnakes.

Note that you can park at the Devil’s Bridge trailhead only if you have a large 4x4 vehicle; otherwise, you’ll need to park at the initial parking lot and purchase a Red Rock Pass and hike in. If you want to watch sunset from Devil’s Bridge, I recommend getting a high 4x4 vehicle so that you can cut back on the hike time.

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Cathedral Rock is one of my favorite views in Sedona and one of my favorite sunset spots in the world! The hike isn’t easy, as you’ll need to hike up steep and slippery red rocks. Give yourself plenty of time to find parking at the trailhead and safely make your way up to the top viewpoint.

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RECOMMENDED HOTELS

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3) PAGE, ARIZONA: Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, & Lake Powell 

Some of the most spectacular sites in the American Southwest can be found within close driving distance from the sleepy town of Page. 

TOUR ANTELOPE CANYON

You won’t want to miss the famous Antelope Canyon — a slot canyon with smooth, wave-like red rock walls snaking through the Native American Reservation. There are two sections of Antelope Canyon: Upper and Lower. Both are beautiful and worth seeing, but I prefer Lower Antelope Canyon for the sunlight that comes in through the top and makes those UFO-like light-beams. 

Look online to find what time of day is best for the time of year when you’re visiting, both in terms of when the light is best and when the crowds will be there (these likely will happen at the same time, so choose your priorities!). If you want to avoid the crowds, booking at the last time slot of the day may be best.

Make sure you book online well in advance, because tours can fill up quickly! And yes, you do need to go with a tour guide to see Antelope Canyon (although Lower Canyon allows visitors to enter without a guide during winter), but the tours are run by locals from the Reservation and help provide income and resources to keep the canyon in good condition.

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WATCH SUNRISE AT HORSESHOE BEND

After hiking Antelope Canyon, be sure to get to sleep early so that you can catch sunrise at Horseshoe Bend. There will still be other tourists and photographers there even before dawn, but the crowds are much smaller right at sunrise and the colors are incredible. Please be extra careful at Horseshoe Bend, as every year people fall off and die trying to take photos or getting too close to the edge.

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HAVE A DAY ON THE WATER AT LAKE POWELL

Although this massive lake is largely located in Utah, the southern part is situated in Page, Arizona, making it a perfect activity after your morning visit to Horseshoe Bend.

The unique boulders you’ll find at Lake Powell are the product of over 5 million years of erosion caused by the Colorado River, and is considered to be the most beautiful lake in the American West.

Here you can rent paddle boards, kayaks, jet skis, boats, and other water sport equipment for an unforgettable day cooling off in the waters of beautiful Lake Powell.

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RECOMMENDED HOTELS

4) GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA: South Rim & Star-Gazing

From Page, a less than 2-hour drive will get you to the famous Grand Canyon — a steep-sided canyon carved over millions of years by the Colorado River.

The Canyon is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in some areas, and is the most visited National Park in the entire country. The site was originally inhabited by Native Americans who built settlements within the canyon, and was a sacred pilgrimage site for the Pueblo people.

HIKE THE SOUTH RIM

If you have several days to spare, it’s an amazing experience to hike down into the canyon, camp at one of the designated campsites, or even raft down the Colorado River. 

However, even with just a couple of days, you can do some beautiful hikes along the South Rim (more accessible than the North Rim) with spectacular views. The 7-mile hike to Hermit’s Rest is one of the most popular South Rim hikes, with stops along the way at the Abyss and Pima Point.

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From the Shoshone Point turnout, a 2.2-mile trail takes you to the edge of the Canyon, for spectacular views without crowds.

Grandview Point to Moran Point is possibly the best stretch of hike along the South Rim, with views of the Colorado River bend, a small museum on Native American culture, and a short trail leading to the Tusayan Ruin — a 12th-century Pueblo village archaeological site.

There are several driving trails as well if you don’t have time for a hike but still want to see some amazing views. However, I definitely encourage you to allot at least one day to explore this world-famous canyon by foot!

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GO STARGAZING IN A DARK SKY PARK

Star-gazing is also unbeatable in this area, away from any light pollution of cities. It’s even a designated International Dark Sky Park, with free telescope viewings, talks with astronomers, and photo workshops throughout the month of June. Even if you aren’t visiting in June, be sure to stay overnight here at least one night to get to observe the Milky Way like never before!

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Arizona is home to some of the most spectacular landscapes you’ll find on the planet. From the other-worldly polished rocks of Antelope Canyon, to the breathtaking red rocks of Sedona, to the world famous Grand Canyon, and everywhere in between, a road trip through the American Southwest deserts is truly the adventure of a lifetime!

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American travel photographer and writer, based on the beautiful island of Bali. Two years ago, I left my job as a Washington DC lawyer, sold everything I owned, and booked a one-way ticket to Indonesia to turn my creative dreams into reality. I have traveled to 60 countries, have worked with major airlines, luxury hotels, tourism boards, and fashion/adventure goods companies. When I’m not working or traveling, I spend my free time writing, doing yoga, learning to surf, or swimming at my favorite beaches in Uluwatu in south Bali.

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