7 Days in the Grand Canyon State: The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip

The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.
The road goes on forever, and the party never ends. Brett Brooner
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Because it houses one of the Seven Wonders of the World, trips to the "Grand Canyon State" often consist of just that—a stop at the Grand Canyon. While this natural wonder certainly shouldn’t be missed, there is so much more to the beautiful, desert-painted Arizona landscape that can only be revealed by undertaking a great American road trip.

Consider the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage Region, for instance—a gorgeous swath of prairies, peaks, and plateaus just beyond the canyon rim. Straddling the canyon on both its north and south side, this 1.7-million acre expanse of public land is home to hundreds of miles of trails, fascinating geological features, equally fascinating history, and unparalleled solitude. The millions of visitors who flock to the Grand Canyon each year rarely take the time to explore these public lands, which are currently under a proposal to be designated as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.

All to say, there’s a ton to see and do in Arizona, and because planning is significantly less fun than traveling, here's a full seven day itinerary—all you’ve gotta do is hop in the car and hit the road.

Day 1

Phoenix to Tucson via I-10 E
118 miles, 2 hours

The route in full.
The route in full.

It’s best to always add a little flexibility to the start of a road trip (especially if there’s flying involved), so make the first day of driving an easy one and head south towards Tucson. There are mountains on all sides, so you’ve got a lot to choose from when it comes to exploring the outdoors, but Colossal Cave Mountain Park is a truly unique experience. If you want something in between or aren’t sure where to begin an urban exploration, The Loop —55 car-free miles of urban trails around Tucson—is where it’s at.

Day 2

Tucson to Mt. Lemmon via E Mt. Lemmon Highway
42 miles, 1.5 hours

The drive to Mt. Lemmon from Tuscon.
The drive to Mt. Lemmon from Tuscon.

Day two is all about the drive. Mount Lemmon Highway is one of those magical drives that makes you viscerally remember why the road trip is such an American icon. Also known asCatalina Highway , this roadway gains 6,000-feet in elevation along the way and offers breathtaking views of several climates from desert to alpine forest, so you might want to add a little buffer time for all the photos you’ll end up taking.

After checking out Willow Canyon en route, you’ll eventually arrive at Mt. Lemmon which is full of excellent hiking including Seven Falls, a well-trafficked 4.6-mile trail that passes by a waterfall. When it comes time to rest your head, Rose Canyon Lake is a real beauty. Just don't forget to pack a sweater, as it can get pretty chilly at 7,000 feet!

Day 3

Mt Lemmon to Tonto National Forest via AZ-77 N and AZ-188 N
147 miles, 4 hours

Tonto National Forest.
Tonto National Forest.

Covering a whopping 2.8-million acres, Tonto National Forest is the largest of the six national forests in Arizona and the fifth largest overall in the United States. You’ve got to buy a pass to get into some parts of the forest and to camp, but it’s well worth it—if you came to Arizona in search of cacti-dotted desert landscapes, this is it.

Day 4

Tonto National Forest to Flagstaff via AZ-260 W and I-17 N
150 miles, 3 hours

San Franisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
San Franisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is one of those can’t-be-missed places if you’re in Arizona. It’s a small city with mountains in the background and outdoor activities galore—from disk golf, to skiing, to hiking and much in between. It's also a college town, so the town center itself is often bustling with energy. For coffee, Firecreek Coffee is a good option. For burritos, MartAnne's  serves up one helluva wrap. For evening fun, Hops on Birch is an awesome craft beer bar with a wide selection of quality brews and really good live music on many nights of the week. As for where to rest your head at night, the Grand Canyon International Hostel is a solid (and inexpensive) option. And the best part? All of these places are within walking distance of one another, and there are plenty of sweet shops and sites to check out as you stroll.

Day 5

Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park via US-180 W
79 miles, 1.5 hours

The Grand Canyon in all its glory.
The Grand Canyon in all its glory.

When you’re in the Grand Canyon State, a trip to this world wonder simply must be done. Flagstaff isn’t far from the canyon’s South Rim, the more heavily trafficked and easier-to-access side. Drive time for day five is short in order to carve out time for an epic day hike from rim-to-rim —it’s a little over 20 miles, but a must-do for any hiking fanatic.

Once you’ve completed a hike of a lifetime, head just outside of the park boundaries to camp in the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest right off of Fire Road 688. Not only is it free, but you also won't have to contend with the crowds found within the national park itself. And once you’re there, it's actually a little hard to believe that you could have this place all to yourself when, just a short 20 minute drive away, the campsites of GCNP have been booked solid for weeks on end.

Day 6

Grand Canyon National Park to Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center via AZ-64 E and US-89 N
179 miles, 3.5 hours

Signage at Kaibab National Forest.
Signage at Kaibab National Forest.

Day six brings us deeper into the Kaibab National Forest, only this time to the northern part of the forest. During the drive from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon to the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, strongly consider taking a short detour once you reach Bitter Springs, AZ to go see Horseshoe Bend . It's one of the most iconic roadside stops in all of Arizona—a "must-see-to-believe" sort of geologic formation—that's only 25 minutes (50 minutes all told) out of the way.

Then, head on into the Kaibab National Forest in the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage Region. Sprawling over 1.6-million acres and straddling the Grand Canyon on both its north and south side, the Kaibab is a true Arizona gem that deserves much more recognition than it normally gets. In addition to boasting natural marvels like springs, as well as waterfalls along Sycamore Canyon’s Rim Trail, there's essentially an endless amount of ways to spend a day in the forest, from trail running along pine-studded paths, to chasing dark skies at night. And speaking of dark skies, at the end of the day there are plenty of excellent places to camp including Kaibab Lake Campground where you can picnic, swim, or simply catch some Z’s surrounded by the forest's glory.

Day 7

Kaibab National Forest to Phoenix via AZ-89 S and I-17 S
309 miles, 5 hours

A winding road through Cottonwood Canyon.
A winding road through Cottonwood Canyon.

Depending on when you have to get back to Phoenix, there are still plenty of great ways to fill a half day in Kaibab, like checking out the Rainbow Rim Trail  (the only place to mountain bike along the rim of the Grand Canyon) or sections of the 800-mile  Arizona Trail , which cross through the forest. Then, once it’s time to head south again, you’ve got a 5-hour haul ahead of you. And though all good things must come to an end at some time, you’ll have completed an epic road trip through stunning Arizona that won’t soon (or ever) be forgotten.

Of note: The proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument encompasses the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and that this region stays accessible forever. Learn more about the proposal for making the lands around the Grand Canyon a national monument and get involved.

Originally written for Sierra Club.

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