How to Plan an Epic Arizona Road Trip
The best Arizona road trip should deliver breathtaking scenery, a lively arts and culture scene—and lots of good eats. Here are the best stops from Tucson to the Grand Canyon.
This road trip starts in Tucson and heads north. Before you go, make a checklist of what to pack for a road trip to Arizona. The state experiences 299 days of sunshine per year, so sunscreen is a must! Expect hot weather, but bring light layers for the chilly high altitude stops. You’ll also want plenty of water, car snacks and perhaps a good book on tape.
Tucson: Visit a Century-Old Restaurant
Tucson is America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy. It’s a must-visit for unique cuisine, which blends Mexican, Native American and Sonoran Desert influences. To get a lay of the land, go for a hike up Sentinel Peak (also known as “A Mountain”), a man-made mountain with sweeping views of the city. Then zip over to the El Charro Cafe, a 100-year-old restaurant said to be the origin of the chimichanga. It still dishes up some of the best Mexican food around.
Tucson: Appreciate the Architecture
A short drive south of Tucson is the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a carefully restored, stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture. After your visit, feast on a dinner of traditional Mexican fare at Baja Cafe in midtown Tucson, which incorporates local foods like nopalitos (cactus), prickly pear and Hatch chiles. See our top recipes for authentic Mexican food you can make at home.
Walk in Saguaro National Park
The majestic saguaro is practically the symbol of Arizona: magnets, postcards and t-shirts are all emblazoned with the cactus, which stands with uplifted arms. Pack a picnic lunch and head to Saguaro National Park, where you may hike, bike and even camp. For a more immersive experience, check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is part zoo (including coyotes and mountain lions in natural habitats), part natural history museum and part botanical garden with native flora and fauna.
Phoenix: Stop for Soul Food
Take I-10 north to Arizona’s capital city. Phoenix is rich in cultural activities, sports and plenty of outdoor fun. You could spend a week in Phoenix alone, but we’ll stick with the highlights! Your first day, visit the revered Heard Museum, an internationally respected center for American Indian art. In the evening, take in a baseball game at Chase Field.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, check out Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe, an unassuming Southern-style soul food joint that’s been family-owned since the 1960s. Celebrities like Steve Nash, James Brown and John McCain have enjoyed the home-style fried chicken, catfish and banana pudding. You may want to build in time for a nap afterward.
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Phoenix: Climb a Mountain
In the morning, head to Camelback Mountain, which resembles a camel lying down. The mountain is a favorite hiking spot, and it’s fairly easy even for novice hikers to get most of the way up. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the valley. (Here’s what you’ll need to soothe that sunburn.)
Before leaving town, stop for a hearty brunch at the Original Breakfast House. Their bakery makes pop tarts and cinnamon rolls, and the omelets nod to local cuisine with spicy fillings like pork, green chiles, smoky adobo chicken and chorizo.
Camp Verde: Stop at Montezuma Castle
A detour to Montezuma Castle National Monument is well worth your time. Built by the Sinagua people between 1100 and 1400 AD, Montezuma Castle a six-story, 45-room dwelling perched on the side of a cliff. Though visitors aren’t allowed to wander inside the castle, you may hike around it, and marvel at the ancient architectural prowess.
Grab a late lunch at La Casita in Camp Verde, about five miles south of the monument. The small, homey restaurant is easy to miss, but worth seeking out, thanks to a lively, colorful dining room and authentic (often spicy!) Mexican food.
Sedona: Take in the Natural Beauty
A short drive will lead you to Sedona, a small town known for its thriving arts scene and stunning natural beauty. Hike the Cathedral Rock trail to soak in the incredible landscape that culminates in a breathtaking sandstone butte, among the most-photographed landmarks in the country.
Browse the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village, a charming, cobblestone-pathed outdoor shopping center with plenty of arts and crafts shops. Then, enjoy a sizzling pizza at Pisa Lisa, which serves up wood-fired pizza topped with local, Arizona-grown ingredients. They’re particularly proud of the Mother Sauce, a red sauce that perfectly balances sweet and spicy notes.
Flagstaff: Find No-Fuss Good Eats
Take a deep breath of fresh air in Flagstaff, a mountaintop town bristling with Ponderosa pines. Depending on the time of year, you may actually find snow up here—go skiing at Arizona Snowbowl if that’s your thing. Otherwise, the 125-year-old Lowell Observatory is a fascinating stop; it’s where dwarf planet Pluto was discovered in 1930.
For eats, check out Satchmo’s, famous for its beef brisket, pulled pork and BBQ chicken. The cash-only Miz Zip’s diner also earns high marks among locals for its good burgers and wide selection of homemade pies.
The Finale: Grand Canyon National Park
You truly cannot miss the Grand Canyon. Standing on the rim of the massive canyon—277 miles long, as much as 18 miles wide and about a mile deep—is an awe-inspiring experience. The colors and natural rock formations are truly stunning, and worth the Arizona road trip just to take a look.
As always, touristy restaurants are thick around major landmarks. For good eating, check out El Tovar Lodge Dining Room, located inside a historic hotel that dates back to 1905. It’s not cheap, but the food is great. Try the prickly pear margarita and the Navajo tacos, served on fry bread with housemade guacamole.
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