Phoenix – “The Valley of the Sun”

Hiking at Usery Mountain in Mesa, Arizona

Although many Phoenix residents are constantly making the 2 hour trek up to cool pines of Flagstaff, there are some great attractions in Phoenix for the first time visitor. If you have never seen the stately Saguaro cactus before, you will definitely want to plan a Phoenix daytrip. Just be sure to avoid the brutal summer season (which typically lasts from April to October) and you should be fine.

The best thing to do in Phoenix is to check out a beautiful trail within the Sonoran desert. A few good options are South Mountain Park, Usery Mountain Park in Mesa, or the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve. All of these are massive recreational parks with a variety of trails for all levels. Gorgeous views of the Saguaro only found in Southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert line the trails and the beautiful mountains make up the backdrop. If you are not up for a hike, opt for a leisurely narrated cruise aboard the Desert Belle. This relaxing trek treats you to the same wonderful views of the Saguaro and mountains and a rare glimpse of water in the desert.

Beautiful Usery Mountain Park in Mesa, Arizona

Usery Mountain Park in Mesa – a quiet, scenic place to hike without all the crowds

Cacti at the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve

The gorgeous mountain views, never ending cacti, and secluded location make the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve one of the best places to hike in the Phoenix area.

Gorgeous views from the Desert Belle cruise in Phoenix, Arizona

The Desert Belle cruise on beautiful Saguaro Lake is so relaxing and scenic, a definite must for first time visitors.

The Phoenix Zoo is another must-do while in town. The zoo is surprisingly lush and shady for the desert, is wonderfully maintained and laid out, and is home to a nice diverse range of animals.

Giraffe at the Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo has a nice layout, a great diversity of animals, and beautiful landscaping throughout the grounds.

If you are looking for indoor attractions, the OdySea Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the Southwest. Or check out the highly regarded Musical Instrument Museum. Phoenix is home to some of the best shopping in the country, with everything from luxury malls, to fantastic outlet malls, to entertainment complexes. Desert Ridge Marketplace is a fun place to visit as there is a Dave and Busters, a nice theater, and a range of lively restaurants to choose amongst.

If you are looking for a special dining experience, look into these fabulous Phoenix restaurants with a view. 

Overall, Phoenix is a great day trip for anyone who enjoys hiking, outdoor recreation, shopping, and dining.

Distance from Flagstaff: 2 hours

Why it’s great: The solitude of the desert is just minutes away from the bustling suburbs of Phoenix. The amazing Saguaro cactus can only be seen in Southern Arizona, thus hiking is quite an unusual experience. The metro area is clean and nicely landscaped.

What to do: Camelback Mountain, South Mountain Park Kiwanis trail, Merkle Trail at Usery Mountain, Cruise aboard Desert Belle, The Phoenix Zoo, Hole in the Rock at Papago Park, Desert Ridge Marketplace shopping & dining, Dinner at Cibo Pizza

Horseshoe Bend “a unique horseshoe shaped curve of the Colorado River”

Horseshoe Bend in Page AZ

Horseshoe Bend is quite an unusual sight to see and a definite add on to any Northern Arizona vacation itinerary. This natural attraction near Page Arizona is one of the most photographed sights out West and rightfully so as the unique horseshoe shaped curve of the Colorado River is a truly mesmerizing, unforgettable sight. A short, steep hike of about 3 quarters of a mile takes you to the dramatic scary 1000 foot drop. The emerald green color contrasts brilliantly with the red sandstone rock formations. Look but do not get too close – many die attempting to take all sorts of crazy photos!

Horseshoe Bend is worthy of a daytrip on its’ own from Flagstaff, or you can make a pit stop here on the way to gorgeous Zion National Park, another natural wonder that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Other popular activities in the Page area include Antelope Canyon and cruises on beautiful Lake Powell.

Beautiful views from the Emerald Pools trail at Zion National Park

Continue onwards just under 2 hours to gorgeous Zion National Park. It is absolutely worth the drive!

Distance from Flagstaff: 2 Hours

Why it’s great: This unique geologic wonder is unlike any place you’ve seen and definitely one of the most mesmerizing sights you will come across in the Southwest.

What to do: Hike the trail to Horseshoe Bend, Book a Lake Powell cruise (in advance!), sign up for a tour of Antelope Canyon

Walnut Canyon, Wupatki National Monument, & Sunset Crater

Gorgeous views along the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater, and Wupatki are 3 great natural gems that can be combined for a fun half day out in Flagstaff. Walnut Canyon is just a 1/2 hour outside of town and should definitely be tops on your list due to the spectacular scenery and historical significance. At Walnut, you can explore ancient cliff dwellings which were once occupied by the Singua tribes far back in the 1100’s. At twenty miles long, 400 feet deep and ¼-mile wide, it’s quite an amazing natural wonder.

The Island Trail consists of over 200 steep steps and can be quite a challenge to those out of shape (esp combined with the high altitude) although it is totally worth it for the magnificent scenery and rare glimpse into the past. Although the mountains surrounding Flagstaff are called Singua (meaning mountains without water), Walnut was once home to a flowing creek and therefore cherished by the early inhabitants.

View of an ancient cliff dwelling on the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona

One of the many cliff dwellings you will get to explore on the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon

Sunset Crater and Wupatki are 2 other interesting historical attractions to check out while in town. These 2 are especially great as they are connected via a scenic loop drive. The paved route, Forest Rd 545, is 36 miles long and worth it in and of itself for the tremendous scenery. Along the way, you will get to take in diverse landscapes including the magnificent San Francisco Peaks, colorful cinder cones, barren desert lands, and tall pondersosa pines. It’s a nice relaxing drive with barely any congestion and plenty of serene views of the pine forests. Be sure to take a break at the Bonito Meadow overlook, which is loaded with wildflowers in the summer and surrounded by the snowy mountain peaks in the winter!

Wupatki is a unique 100 room, 4 story pueblo which was built 900 years ago out of sandstone, basalt, and limestone. One of the really unique features here is a natural blowhole, which really is a mysterious wonder as no one knows why air blows in and out from the Earth. It’s like a natural vacuum which blows air out when a low pressure system rolls in as the ground is higher pressure and vice versa when a high pressure system comes in.

Wupatki National Monument in Northern Arizona

Spirit hole at Wupatki National Monument

The mysterious blow hole at Wupatki

Sunset Crater was created by an explosion almost 1000 years ago. A 1 mile loop trail known as the Lava Flow trail gives you the opportunity to explore the volcanic remains. The volcano is not expected to erupt again.

Sunset Crater National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona

Distance from Flagstaff: Walnut Canyon is about a 15 minute drive from the city. Sunset Crater is about 30 minutes outside of Flagstaff. If you are planning on visiting all 3 altogether, the Sunset Crater monument is about 25 minutes from Walnut Canyon. Note: There is not much in terms of dining options, so eat a full breakfast beforehand and bring a picnic for lunch!

What to do: Lava flow trail at Sunset Crater, Island Trail at Walnut Canyon,Wupatki-Sunset Crater Scenic Drive

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park – “the largest natural travertine bridge in the world”

Largest natural travertine bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

Payson is another high altitude small town in Arizona, although it’s pretty tiny and limited in terms of attractions, lodging, and dining options. Flagstaff is definitely the better base for exploring Northern Arizona, although a day trip to Payson is definitely recommended in order to explore the beautiful Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, featuring the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The great thing about Tonto Bridge is that all 3 trails are under 1/2 mile, so pretty much doable by anyone in basic shape. A small waterfall near the bridge gives you a rare glimpse of water in the desert.

A gorgeous waterfall at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

Beautiful views at Tonto Natural Bridge State Forest near Payson, Arizona

The drive over from Flagstaff will take you through the small communities of Pine and Strawberry. Both of these areas offer quaint restaurants and lots of antique shops. If you love shopping for a bargain, you will love all the vintage shops in these towns. There is a wonderful homemade honey stand along the way and a cute local restaurant known as The Randall House, which has a lovely outdoor patio surrounded by trees.

Honey Stand in Pine Arizona

At the Honey Stand in Pine, you can shop for all sorts of delicious homemade honey flavors.

Randall House in Pine Arizona

The Randall House offers a nice shady cozy homestyle setting for breakfast. Stop here for a quick bite and cup of coffee before your visit to Tonto.

The drive from Flagstaff to Pine/Strawberry is picturesque with beautiful views of the pines and mountains. Hwy 260, aka the White Mountain Scenic Drive, is really gorgeous. It really feels like you are getting out into the country, which obviously is a major bonus if you are coming from a congested city like Phoenix or Tucson!

Distance from Flagstaff: 1 hr 45 min

What to do: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, antique shopping in Pine & Strawberry, Oldest schoolhouse in Arizona in Strawberry, Hike the Horton Creek Trail in Payson

Why it’s great: The views at Tonto Bridge are unique & gorgeous, the drive over from Flagstaff is picturesque and quiet, the weather is nice and cool during the summer season & fall foliage is great around October/November.