The Perfect Five-Day Northern Arizona Road Trip
A Northern Arizona road trip is filled with wonder and amazement as the landscape dazzles road trippers in a sea of divergent and uncommon beauty, with spine-tingling sights along every stretch, and around every bend in the road. There are many National Parks, monuments and man-made wonders to marvel at up-close, and afar. Continue reading to learn how you too can take the perfect five-day Northern Arizona Road Trip. [Note: comprehensive map at the end of this article]
As someone who has road tripped all over the United States (with the exception of the last frontier of Alaska), I think the west is the best when it comes to the great American road trip (which includes part of Historic Route 66). A Northern Arizona road trip is one of the highlights of the Southwest, which is a savory and soulful journey that will evoke a passion to continue exploring other areas of the state.
My most recent Northern Arizona road trip started in Scottsdale where I picked up my friend and fellow travel blogger Archana Singh of Travel See Write, an international travel writer based in Delhi, India. Archana arrived in the U.S. for the first time a couple weeks earlier and had been exploring northern California and the Valley of the Sun (the Phoenix area). For the next five days I would take Archana on a whirlwind road trip she would never forget—to see many of the state’s highlights, as well as some of my favorite places.
From Scottsdale we headed north, then west on the Loop 101 until merging onto Interstate 17 north toward AZ-69, which took us to Prescott. When Arizona was just a territory in 1864, Prescott was the capitol; the beautiful capitol building still stands today and is the focal point of the downtown area. Archana and I strolled the streets while I explained some of the state’s history, which includes being the location of the world’s oldest continuous rodeo.
We had a lot of ground to cover, so we didn’t stay long. Our next stop was at Watson Lake as we continued north along scenic Highway 89A. Watson Lake is a geological oddity just outside of town where the small body of water is littered with giant granite boulders. This recreational lake is a great place to rent a kayak and go exploring, often down narrow stretches of water in between massive granite formations.
As we continued driving north, we increased elevation via a twisty stretch of road as we made our way through the Mingus Mountain range, until finally arriving at the hilltop-mining town of Jerome. Jerome is an interesting and eclectic artist community that draws tourists form around the world for its history, haunted hotel, mine museum, art galleries and photographic opportunities.
Some highlights in Jerome not to miss include:
- The world famous Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes.
- Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room – a wine bar owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the band Tool.
- Gold King Mine & Ghost Town – this place is a cornucopia of interesting cars and artifacts from yesteryear.
After spending a couple hours in Jerome and having lunch, we continued to Sedona. While we did not have a lot of time, I was able to show Archana a glimpse of what is known as “Red Rock Country.” Cliffs, bluffs and mountains all formed from rust colored sandstone with the brilliant contrast of green foliage and scrub Oak trees dotting the landscape. We stopped by one of the most famous landmarks in Sedona, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a church build right into the sandstone rock perched over a cliff with stupendous views of Oak Creek Village below.
We then make our way to downtown Sedona where we walked among the numerous gift shops before continuing up and through Oak Creek Canyon; one of the most beautiful stretches of this Northern Arizona road trip. Along the way we stopped at the famous Slide Rock area, a recreation hotspot along Oak Creek where people can float down a naturally carved slide and enjoy the surrounding beauty.
There are many wonderful places to stay in Sedona, but two lesser know that are worth consideration are Briar Patch Inn and Cozy Cactus. At one end of town situated along Oak Creek you have the Briar Patch. The grounds of this boutique inn are stunning with some of the best rapids along Oak Creek. While the grounds and common areas are superb, the accommodations are on the rustic side. On the opposite end of town in Oak Creek Village, is the Cozy Cactus, which is well situated for hiking and biking around some of the areas most famous Red Rock landmarks. This place isn’t fancy, just fabulous.
Things not to miss in Sedona:
- Art galleries are some of the best in the world!
- Slide Rock State Park – Stunning scenery and nature-inspired water playground.
- Tlaquepaque Village – Enduring outdoor market featuring art galleries, craft shops, cobblestone paths & decorative arches.
- Pink Jeep Tours – Famous the world over for their memorable off-road tours.
- Palatki Heritage Site – Designated a World Heritage Site, this site provides a unique perspective on the culture of ancient inhabitants.
Exiting the top of Oak Creek Canyon we popped out at nearly 7000’ elevation and were just a few miles from Flagstaff, where we would stay the night at the Pony Soldier Inn along old Route 66. The next morning we got up early, had some breakfast at the hotel, and drove up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
DAY TWO OF NORTHERN ARIZONA ROAD TRIP
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular National Parks in the country with nearly five million visitors annually. Of course, the Grand Canyon was of great interest to Archana, as well as most visitors to the Southwest on a Northern Arizona road trip. To my surprise, the park was not as busy as I’ve seen in the past. We were able to secure a parking spot within a stones throw of the edge of the Canyon, near the famous El Tovar Hotel. As we exited the car, I told Archana to close her eyes and I took her hand and led her to the edge and said, “Okay, open your eyes.” As soon as she saw the expansive view that runs right into the skyline, her breath was taken away. She stood silent and did not utter a word (which is VERY unusual and difficult for Archana). It was quiet, nobody around us; only the sound of a breeze floating across the canyon and a few birds squawking could be heard. It was a magical moment to see someone take in the view of the mighty Grand Canyon for the very first time.
While everything we had seen so far had been impressive, the Grand Canyon was the grandest thus far, but there was still so much more to come.
We walked along the rim of the Canyon for a while, taking in various views, until finally we turned back toward the car and headed in the direction of the east entrance—which I think has the best views of the Grand Canyon. Along the way we stopped at a number of lookout areas, each providing different vantage points of the Canyon. Once we arrived at the east entrance we walked up to the Desert View Watchtower, a 70 foot stone building that is fascinating to explore, not to mention to get an elevated view of the Canyon and the Colorado River below.
After leaving the Grand Canyon we drove east along AZ-64 and stopped at a Native American roadside attraction where artisans had jewelry and other items on display. There was a path that we meandered down for about 10 minutes until coming across a spectacular view of a fissure canyons (a canyon off the main part of the Grand Canyon). We took a few photos and were soon on our way toward Highway 89, en route to our next destination of Page/Lake Powell.
The first part of this stretch of road on Highway 89, just north of AZ-64, is pretty barren, and I didn’t find it very scenic, but Archana sure did, she was snapping away taking pictures. It wasn’t long before we came across a remote outlying section of the Painted Desert, an area with oddly colored mounds that look manmade, but which are not. This part of Arizona almost looks like a different planet; the landscape is so unlike anything most people have seen before. This Northern Arizona Road trip was providing so many different types of landscape sights that Archana finally understood why I suggest foreign travelers come to the Southwest verses NYC or L.A. as it is truly a unique experience.
As we got closer to Page, there is a fork in Highway 89, to the right leads to Page, to the left it turns into 89A, which takes drivers through Vermillion Cliffs toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We would explore this area on our way back, but for now we continued toward Page/Lake Powell.
The plan was to camp out in Page, not far from the Glen Canyon Dam in a primitive, but scenic area I knew that is only accessible with four-wheel drive, as the sand can be quite deep. It took a little while before deciding on where we could set up camp, but once we did we hopped out of the truck and began setting up. The entire day had been pretty windy and at this moment there was no exception. As a matter of fact, the wind had picked up and it was a challenge setting up and staking the tent down. In the middle of this endeavor, and out of nowhere, a young British couple came upon us and asked for our help. Apparently they had gotten their rental RV stuck in the sand and needed someone with a four-wheel drive and a tow strap to pull them free. Fortunately, they picked the right person to approach (probably the only people) as I had come well prepared. I told them to give me about 10 minutes while we secured the tent and I would be right over. After Archana and I struggled to finalize the tent situation, I left it to her to finish the rest of the set-up while I went to help the young couple. In no time I had them free and on their way. I learned that they were spending three months road tripping across America. They had told me some of the places they had been, and some of the places they were going, so I gave them my card and told them if they wanted any road trip suggestions, to be sure and let me know.
I was soon back at the campsite with Archana. The wind had picked up and was so wicked that it was raining sand at times, the gusts were perhaps nearly 50mph. While the tent was holding up, it was severely concaved from the wind. Add blowing sand to the mix and it was a miserable situation. Everything in the tent was coated in granular dirt. I was so looking forward to camping out; having a fire and creating some star trail photographs. I had prepared a wonderful meal and thought it would be a cool camping experience for Archana, but it was not turning out that way. We sat in the tent for a little while. Frustration was building as I was trying to contemplate what to do next. Finally, I made the decision to just pack (rather throw) everything back into the truck and head into town and find a hotel room. Thankfully I had made that decision, because the wind never let up and actually continued for several days.
DAY THREE OF NORTHERN ARIZONA ROAD TRIP
The next day we checked out of the hotel in Page and drove to one of the most recognizable spots in the area, perhaps even the state…Horseshoe Bend. I had been to this magical area once before and was really looking forward to seeing it again. After parking and walking about 20 minutes to the overlook we found a place to gander at the sight before us. Archana was nearly as taken as she was when first seeing the Grand Canyon. While not as massive in scale and completely different, Horseshoe Bend is simply a stunning scene not to miss. We were both enamored by the views and the changing light as clouds wisped in front of the sun. While we could have easily stayed longer, I had lots to show Archana. Our next stop was to lower Antelope Canyon, a sandstone slot canyon that has attracted photographers and visitors from around the world to see the smooth and anomalous formations.
Each stop we made, each sight we saw brought an enthusiastic grin to Archana’s face. I could tell she was captivated by the varying degrees of beauty that this Northern Arizona road trip was showcasing. Still, there was so much more on the agenda.
It was now midday and I had considered camping out, which would have given us more time to explore the far reaches of northern Arizona, but unfortunately, the winds continued to blow strongly. We decided that we would head back to Flagstaff and spend more time in that area. There was however one more area and several stops I wanted to share before we headed south, back to the 89A fork.
Just outside of Page the views and jagged red rock walls that had been carved by man to make Highway 89 are very impressive. There is a fantastic spot to pull off and take in the views, where often you’ll find Navajo Indians selling their handmade goods. Not far was the 89/89A fork, which takes travelers west toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is only open a few months out of the year and has far fewer visitors than the South Rim. Since the Canyon was not yet open for the season, there were few people on this stretch of road.
The scenery is so stunning and provides a different perspective. Just a half hour earlier we had been looking down at the valley, now we were looking up at the giant red cliffs and a long straight-a-way road with no cars.
There was a bend in the road taking us through Marble Canyon and past the entrance to Lees Ferry, the put-in point for rafting down the Colorado River. Two areas we would come back to, but first I wanted to drive by Vermilion Cliffs and House Rock, an area that reminds me of the Flintstones, where giant boulders have been used as a primary wall with surrounding stones and mortar for the other walls. We got out and looked around at this fascinating area which was once inhabited by Native people. This was also our turnaround point. This area was a bit farther than I expected from the 89/89A fork and I was running low on fuel. Each time I looked down at the gauge I got more and more nervous as we were in the middle of nowhere. I did not want make Archana nervous too, so I never let on about my apprehension. I had been in this area before and did not think there was fuel anywhere nearby. The more I thought about it, the more I could not believe how foolish I was not to fill up in Page. Just when my nerves were about shot, we came across a fuel station. I didn’t care how expensive it was, relief overcame me and I could now continue enjoying myself.
After filling up, we headed to Lees Ferry to get a close-up view of the Colorado River. The meandering drive around massive hoodoos and other rock formations was quite scenic. Once we got to the river’s edge we saw river guides getting their boats ready for an upcoming trip. We wandered around for just a short time before heading back up and out of the canyon. It was already quite late and we had a couple hours drive to Flagstaff ahead of us. There was one more stop I wanted to make, that was at the Navajo Bridge Visitors Center. This is a great area to park and walk across the old bridge and get some fantastic photos of the canyon and river flowing below. Sometimes you’ll catch the rafters as they begin their excursions.
It was beginning to get dark and so the drive to Flagstaff was pretty uneventful. We arrived at the Courtyard by Marriott and as soon as we got out of the car, we could feel the coolness of the high altitude spring weather. When doing a Northern Arizona road trip, it’s really a good idea to have layers of clothing as the elevations and climate can be dramatically different depending on your location.
It had been a really long day, and we were beat, so after checking into the hotel, I went out and grabbed some takeout and we just stayed in for the evening.
DAY FOUR OF THE NORTHERN ARIZONA ROAD TRIP
We got up early the next day and I had a road trip loop of attractions/sights I wanted to show Archana. We started by visiting Sunset Crater, an extinct volcano where colorful cinder cones formed and large expanses of lava and ash, mostly unobscured by vegetation, are showcased against the landscape with its deep black color.
Many visitors drive through the 34-mile scenic loop that winds from Highway 89 through Sunset Crater Volcano, eventually leading to the Wupatki National Monument. The scenic loop leads from a high Ponderosa Pine forest, down nearly 2,000 feet in elevation to the red rocks and painted desert vistas of Wupatki.
Wupatki National Monument is one of several sites preserving pueblos (villages) of ancient peoples. This is an interesting and fairly well preserved site to get a look at how the ancient people lived.
Our next destination was the only place on this Northern Arizona road trip that I had never been to before, a place officially called Grand Falls, but many people refer to it as “Chocolate Falls.” Since this is a seasonal waterfall, it is often muddy water that flows over the edge, thus looking like chocolate milk. I have been wanting to visit this place for many years and this was finally my chance. I spoke with a friend in Flagstaff who told me they had visited a couple weeks earlier and the water was raging. I was so excited to see this and fly my drone over the falls. After a long journey on a dirt road, it was not to be. While there were signs of waters in various pools, not a trickle made it over the edge. It was still a pretty cool experience, and one day I will be able to talk about the contrast of seeing it with, and without water.
Since Grand Falls was a grand bust, we headed for our last stop of the day, Walnut Canyon National Monument. In the densely wooded plateau, the small seasonal stream of Walnut Creek has carved a 600-foot deep canyon as it flows east, eventually joining the Little Colorado River en route to the Grand Canyon. The exposed Kaibab limestone has eroded over the years forming shallow alcoves; during the 12th to 13th centuries, many were used by the local Sinagua people who constructed cliff dwellings along the steep, well-protected ledges high above the canyon floor.
There is a paved trail that leads visitors deep into the canyon to get a close-up view of some of the dwellings. It’s a really fascinating place and yet another on this amazing Northern Arizona road trip that illustrated the diversity of the state to Archana. We just finished exploring Walnut Canyon when they started to close for the day. We went back to our hotel to freshen up before going out to dinner.
We had reservations at this interesting little place called Shift FLG. As we parked the vehicle I had Google Maps in hand. As we got closer, I saw a restaurant sign for FLG Terroir and figured that must have been the place. The “FLG,” threw me off. We walked up and thought it was a really cool place. After ordering wine and appetizers, we soon discovered we were in the wrong restaurant! We apologized profusely and walked another block up the street to Shift FLG, where we ended up being 15 minutes late for our reservations. Dinner was fantastic, almost improvisational, as the menu changes daily.
Flagstaff makes for the perfect hub to do a Northern Arizona road trip, three of our five nights were spent in Flagstaff. The city of Flagstaff has really grown over the years and they have a lot to offer visitors, from a plethora of activates, nearby National parks and monuments, to world-class restaurants (one of my favorites is BRIX). Beer is also big in Flagstaff with a number of boutique breweries, like Mother Road and Lumberyard.
If you take a winter Northern Arizona road trip, check out this article and video I produced on the Top-10 Winter Activates in Flagstaff.
DAY FIVE OF THE NORTHERN ARIZONA ROAD TRIP
The next day we concluded our Northern Arizona road trip by driving out of Flagstaff down Lake Mary Road, which follows a series of lakes. There is Lower Lake Mary, Upper Lake Mary and then Mormon Lake. The drive is really beautiful and much better than taking the Interstate.
From Lake Mary Road we veered onto Highway 87 toward Payson, driving through the charming little towns of Strawberry and Pine. When we reach Payson, we stopped for lunch and basked in the perfect spring weather. We continued south and as the elevation quickly began to drop, the landscape changed. Before us was a sea of granite boulders, just another in over a dozen dramatic landscape scenes that we witnessed on this Northern Arizona road trip.
We eventually reached Scottsdale where Archana and I parted ways. Her next stop in the U.S. was to New Mexico. You can follow her U.S. and international adventures on social media @TravelSeeWrite or by visiting www.TravelSeeWrite. I can’t wait to read about her experience on this Northern Arizona road trip, as I’m sure her highlighted stories will likely differ from mine.
If you’ve ever done a Northern Arizona road trip and think there are some must-see sights along this route that should not be missed, please leave a comment below and share your experience.