Is Arizona on Your Bucket List?
If so – great! The state has so many magical, beautiful, breathtaking places, the real question is what to pick, not why go. In between Colorado River rafting expeditions, hikes to Havasu Falls, helicopter rides and road trips to dozens of incredible sites, you can literally spend months exploring it. But if you only have a fraction of that, how about an ACTION-PACKED 1-WEEK ARIZONA ITINERARY?
Planning & Getting There
In addition to being flat-out stunning, Arizona is comparatively cheap to travel to. Plan a few months in advance, and you’ll find awesome deals on flights & car rental. In the off-season, tickets from the East Coast cost as little as $50 one-way and $100 return. Book a round trip to Phoenix or tag on an extra day and leave from Vegas – that way you get to see and do more!
There are plenty of great deals on car rental in Arizona, and most companies let you drop off at a different location at no additional charge. As an added benefit, gas is cheap and roads are virtually empty. We drove 1,000 miles and saw no traffic until we got to Vegas.
Day 1 -- Scottsdale
Arrive in Phoenix and spend the first day exploring Scottsdale. Technically, it’s a different city, but it looks and feels like an extension of Phoenix with a funky vibe and a thriving art scene. The drive from the airport is 20 mins.
Roam the streets of old town, browse art galleries and artisan boutiques, enjoy fine dining along the canal, and discover the Entertainment District after dark. We had a delicious dinner at Olive & Ivy, and the drinks were aa-mazing! If you arrive earlier in the day, check out the Desert Botanical Garden, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and legendary Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home.
Days 2-3 - Sedona
In the morning head to Sedona – a striking desert town surrounded by crimson rocks and pine forests, which is also known for its legendary energy centers (Vortexes). Many people come here for spiritual and meditation retreats, and you can definitely feel “something” in this place that recharges and uplifts you.
Plan to arrive and leave while there’s light – the views along the road are absolutely stunning!
There’s no better way to experience Sedona than to get yourself out on a trail. Take your pick from dozens of routes and difficulty levels. Entrance is free; parking permit is $5/vehicle.
Check out Sedona’s cool art galleries and artisan markets. There are plenty of them along the 2 main roads. You’ll find a great selection of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, cowboy hats, spices, boots and all sorts of things by local artists.
Enjoy fine dining at Mariposa – Latin Inspired Grill with incredible views over Sedona.
Indulge in Native-American inspired treatments in a desert spa.
On the Way to Sedona
Visit Montezuma Castle – an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua people almost a 1,000 years ago. The site is right off Route 17 on the way to Sedona and takes about 30 mins to visit. Entrance fee is $10.
Got more time? Cool off in a swimming hole. There are plenty of them in Fossil Creek, but they tend to fill up pretty fast. Waterfall trail is the most popular, but it attracts larger crowds. We absolutely loved the solitude and the idyllic beauty of Mazatzal. Bear in mind that you can reserve parking only online. Make sure to check out the map and pick your hole way in advance. Parking is $10.00 per vehicle.
Day 4 - Page
Next stop – Page, a small town in northern Arizona bordering a Navajo reservation and a hub for visiting Horse Shoe Bend and Antelope Canyons.
Horse Shoe Bend is picture perfect, but take a moment and FEEL this place. Hike away from the crowds and let yourself be absorbed by the incredible vastness and eternity of the Bend. Late mornings/early afternoons are best for photos; at sunset and sunrise the bend and the river are in shadow. Admission is free, but there is a $10 parking fee.
Antelope Canyon is nature’s work of art – sculpted in sandstone, splashed with pastel colors and lit by the rays of sun. Unsurprisingly, it is the most photographed slot canyon in North America.
To be more precise, there are two canyons – Upper and Lower. The biggest perk of the Upper are the iconic light beams (provided that you visit at the right time of day); the Lower – fewer crowds. The Lower Canyon is also a bit narrower, and involves some climbing. Both are on a Navajo Reservation and both require guided tours.
Several tour companies share overlapping slots, with a new tour starting every 15-30 mins. General tours lasts about 1.5 hours in the Upper Canyon and 1 hour in the Lower. Prices range around $35-$70. Best times (11am-1pm) are reserved primarily for photography tours. They last 2-2.5 hours and require a tripod and a DSLR camera. You can get a ticket for $120-$210.
Make sure to book your tour early! Best times sell out months in advance.
On the way out, check out the second largest man-made lake in America. Take a boat ride, jet ski, swim or just chill on the shores of Lake Powell before heading to Monument Valley.
Days 5-6 - Monument Valley
In the vast stone desert between Utah and Arizona lies a surreal landscape of giant red rocks known to the world as Monument Valley. This starkly dramatic land covering almost 92,000 square acres is a Navajo Nation tribal park.
Hire a Guide — I’m usually not big on guided tours, but on Navajo land it’s a different story. For one, many places are simply off limit without one. It is also a unique opportunity to spend time with the Navajos and be introduced by them to their homeland.
Go horse riding — in this day and age, the best way to explore the Valley is still on a horse! On this tour you get to ride through the incredible mesas, buttes, and spires and visit the landmark sites you know from the movie scenes. We booked a trip with Roy Black Tours and were blessed with a fantastic guide and a born storyteller – Saul – who literally transformed our riding trip into a spiritual journey.
Drive through the park and enjoy the incredible views. The 17-mile dirt road begins at the visitor center and winds through the park. To explore areas beyond Valley Drive, you’ll need to book a guided Jeep tour.
Go hiking — there are lots of hiking trails in Monument Valley, but the only one accessible without a guide is The Wildcat. It starts at the entrance to the park and loops for 4 miles around an impressive butte. The Wildcat is a moderate hike, which takes about 2-3 hours to complete.
Try Navajo Taco at Stagecoach diner. It’s the only restaurant in the area, and it serves huge portions at very modest prices.
Stay in Tipi Village – a secluded enclave of glammed up Navajo dwellings (contemporary Hogan, comfy tipis, wooden cabins) encircled by spectacular red rocks. It also has several campgrounds. The Village is right across the state border in Utah and only 4 miles from the park’s main entrance.
Day 7 - Grand Canyon
South Rim is probably the best introduction to Great Canyon and the closest to Monument Valley. It’s super well organized with great visitor services and amenities. The rim has nearly 2 dozen viewpoints & 5 trails and is open year-round. The only downside is that it gets pretty crowded in summer. National Park vehicle permit costs $30, and individual entry fee is $15.
Stop by the Visitor Center first to stock up on maps and good advice. There are a bunch of geology walks, fossil discovery tours and other activities organized by the park rangers daily.
Hit the trail — there are 5 routes of various difficulty to choose from. Rim Trail with stunning views over the Canyon is the only one that stays above the rim. It’s flat and wheelchair accessible. Trail of Time is a fun stretch of Rim Trail illustrating the geological history of the Canyon.
There are several bike routes originating at South Rim. The most popular takes you along part of the historic Hermit Road route with most spectacular views of Grand Canyon. You can rent bikes and book tours at Bright Angel Bicycles next to the Visitor Center starting at $10/hour.
Drive around –a free shuttle runs between all major viewpoints. You can also take your car on a scenic Desert View Drive.
If you plan to stay in Grand Canyon Village, reserve way in advance. Lodges fill up 12 months ahead of time. Not a big planner? Check out Tusayan, a small town, which sprung up to accommodate the Canyon visitors 2 miles south of the Village.
Day 8 - Phoenix or Vegas
At this point, you have a choice of heading down south and closing the loop in Phoenix or continuing to Vegas. Even if you are not into partying and gambling, Sin City offers tons of activities from cruising through themed hotels, to zip-lining between buildings, to painting with dolphins. Concerts and shows are, of course, a major reason to go! For Cirque du Soleil’s legendary “O” book way in advance – good tickets go fast.
On the Way to Vegas
On the last leg of the trip (to Vegas or Phoenix), visit Bearizona — a beautiful wildlife park 1 hour south from the Canyon. Drive through Ponderosa Pine Forest, visit a 20 acre walk-through area, see a Birds of Prey show and observe animals in their natural habitats . Admission fee is $25 for adults and $15 for kids.
If you are heading to Vegas, take a quick stop at Hoover Dam and check out one of America’s greatest engineering wonders!
Tips & Fun Facts
This trip involves a lot of off-road driving — plan on renting a 4×4 & investing in full coverage insurance.
The biggest challenge on this trip is keeping up with time. While most of Arizona does not follow daylight saving, the Navajos do. The Hopi Nation, which is completely enclosed within the Navajo Nation, follows the rest of Arizona. To complicate things further, a tiny part of the Navajo territory lies within the Hopi Nation, but, naturally, follows Navajo time. While driving though the state, you are sometimes switching time zones several times a day. As smartphones lose their smarts when it comes to tribal borders, it’s best to rely on a map or ask a local.
Consider getting America the Beautiful 1-year Pass. It costs $80, may be shared by 2 drivers, and gets you into most National Parks. On this trip alone, you can use it in Grand Canyon, Montezuma Castle, Fossil Creek and Sedona.
On Navajo land, the concept of time appears to be more fluid, more ambiguous, more similar to that of Latin cultures. The Navajos seem to observe a different pace of life and give less importance to schedules and planning. Interestingly, many tribal languages lack verb tenses and use “sooner” or “later” to define time. So if you end up waiting on a ticket office or your guide, just keep those cultural differences in mind, and you’ll spare yourself the unnecessary frustrations.
Stock up on sunscreen & moisturizer. The sun is much stronger in Arizona , and the air is dry, so your skin will appreciate some extra loving and care! Dry shampoo is a savior on adventure-packed days with long sweaty hikes followed by fancy dinners.
To maximize time, consider traveling after dark. As an added benefit, you’ll be surprised by a brand new landscape every morning!