Best daytrips to escape the Phoenix heat

While fall & winter are ideal for exploring the beauty of the Sonoran desert, the summer season can be brutal. Fortunately, there are plenty of amazing daytrips to easily escape the brutal Phoenix heat for a weekend. While the Phoenix metro area is home to a number of unique indoor attractions, the metro as a whole is a bit limited in comparison to other similar sized metro areas. Besides a few gems like the Musical Instrument Museum and Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, Phoenix lacks the diversity of world-class indoor attractions you find in other major cities. Sure, you will find plenty of shopping malls, endless theaters, endless strip malls filled with common chains, and entertainment centers like Dave & Busters, Topgolf, and Escape Rooms, however, these can be found in almost every major city.

Phoenix is more of a place you visit to explore the unique desert scenery not found anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, exploring the majestic Sonoran Desert, which is by far the best thing to do in Phoenix, is basically off limits the entire summer season due to heat exhaustion and dehydration concern. Extremely low humidity, 110+ degree temps for months on end, and relentless sunshine really are not the best conditions for any type of outdoor activity. Therefore you have 2 options: stay inside all day or set your alarm super early to get out on the trails before the real heat starts.

Saguaro cacti and mountain views at Scottsdale McDowell Preserve
There are numerous gorgeous places to hike in the Phoenix, including my favorite – the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve. Unfortunately, you have to get out there by 5-6am if you want to avoid 110+ degree temps!

Daytrips – the best way to escape the desert heat!

If you want to be active in the summer as opposed to spending your days cooped up in the air conditioning, a daytrip becomes a necessity. While San Diego & L.A. are typically the roadtrips of choice, these trips are time consuming and expensive, especially during the summer season when everyone else is trying to flee the heat too. Taking advantage of more affordable summer rates at resorts is always an option, although it really is too hot to do much else besides lie in the pool all day. Phoenix daytrips

Fortunately, there are many interesting daytrips within a day’s drive, all of which offer a break from the brutal heat. Below are 8 fantastic daytrips within a 4 hour drive of the metro area.

1. Sedona

Gorgeous scenery along the Teacup trail in Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, a growing tourist hotspot just 2 hours north of Phoenix, is home to mesmerizing red rock sandstone formations, and is easily one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. If you only have time for one daytrip from Phoenix, Sedona is definitely the way to go for the immense beauty alone. I would even venture to say that if you have to choose between Sedona and Grand Canyon, Sedona definitely wins for the world-class red rock scenery, amazing diversity of hikes, and picturesque drives which rival the most scenic in the country. Many Sedona trails are shady, particularly West Fork along the Oak Creek Canyon drive and Fay Canyon, one of Sedona’s easiest, yet most scenic hikes.

Crossing a creek along the West Fork trail in Sedona, Arizona
A look at one of 13 fun creek crossings along the beautiful West Fork trail -an excellent hike if escaping the Phoenix heat due to the cool temps and hefty tree coverage!
Gorgeous red rock views along the Fay Canyon trail in Sedona, Arizona
The beautiful Fay Canyon trail is short, shady, and loaded with amazing red rock views.

Because the altitude is a bit higher (4300 ft), the temps are slightly cooler in the summer, on average only reaching the mid-upper 90’s or so and much cooler in the morning (60’s & 70’s are the norm). While this may still seem pretty hot, compared to 115+, it feels drastically cooler. Take a drive along Oak Creek Canyon where the elevation slowly climbs 3000 feet over the course of 14 miles. It’s much cooler in the canyon, and more importantly, very shady with all the leafy trees. Near the end of the drive, near Flagstaff, the altitude climbs up to 7000 feet, the temp drops even more, and the landscape transforms into lush pine covered forests.

Gorgeous red rock views along the Oak Creek Canyon scenic drive
Just one of the many gorgeous red rock views – there are numerous pullouts along the way
Beautiful Midgley Bridge on Oak Creek Canyon drive
Midgley Bridge – a very popular photo stop and hiking area near the Sedona end of Oak Creek Canyon drive.
Scenic overlook on the Cookstove Trail on Oak Creek Canyon drive
Gorgeous pine and canyon scenery via the Cookstove Trail, located near milepost 387, more than halfway through the drive

Some of the gorgeous views you will take in on the fabulous Oak Creek Canyon drive

Sedona is home to hundreds of miles of jaw dropping hiking trails, many of which are short & shady, and thus, perfect for summer season. Here are easy Sedona trails to consider. While more moderate in intensity, the stunning Devil’s Bridge hike is amongst the most spectacular hikes in the state. If you are reasonably in shape you will want to put this one near the top of your list. A stroll of about 2 miles leads you to the largest sandstone arch in Sedona.

Teacup trail in Sedona, Arizona
The Teacup trail is one of my favorite easy trails in Sedona. It’s short, relatively flat, close to town, & offers the most amazing red rock views!
Devil's Bridge arch in Sedona, Arizona
Walking across Devil’s Bridge – one of the best experiences you will have in Sedona!

Don’t worry if you are not a hiker – there are many ways to take in the breathtaking scenery including scenic drives (check out Oak Creek as well as the Red Rock Scenic Byway), swimming holes (check out Slide Rock State Park’s natural sandstone waterslides), trolley tours, and a fun little shopping/dining area known as Uptown Sedona where you will find all sorts of Southwestern restaurants, galleries, and specialty shops, all while enjoying some fabulous red rock scenery in the background. Jeep tours are overpriced & overrated in my opinion. However, the trolley ride is a good alternative for those not interested in hiking.

Stunning red rock scenery along the Red Rock Scenic Byway in Sedona, Arizona
One of many interesting rock formations you will see along the incredibly scenic Red Rock Scenic Byway. All of Sedona’s rock formations name comes from the shape they resemble. This one is the 2 Nuns and Madonna and Child formation – see if you can make out the shape?
Uptown Sedona
Uptown Sedona – a lively area with boutique shops, restaurants, art galleries, and most importantly, amazing red rock views!

For more great views, simply head over to any Sedona restaurant -most of which offer shady patios facing the red rocks. Check out my list of the top restaurants in Sedona.

Scenic outdoor dining at Che-Ah-Chi at the Enchantment Resort in Sedona
Che-Ah-Chi at the Enchantment Resort – the most scenic restaurant in Sedona!

You will also want to make time for a visit to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a gorgeous Roman Catholic church designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. This church really is unique as it was built between 2 rock formations. From the overlook, you will enjoy jaw dropping views of the red rocks. It’s no surprise that this was rated as one of the top 7 man made wonders in Arizona. In a state with many wonders, this says a lot.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona
The chapel is a mesmerizing sight – both inside and outside! The architecture is amazing, and the views are breathtaking!
Amazing views from the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona
The views from the Chapel. On a side note, the founders of LASIK eye surgery own this gigantic house!

Sedona is also well-known for its’ strong New Age community, so there’s lot to do in the way of New age shops, psychic readings, spiritual healing, aura reading, etc. – if that’s your thing. If you are into mystery & the supernatural, a night tour of Bell Rock – rumored to be a UFO sighting hotspot – is an interesting evening activity. You will also want to check out one of Sedona’s vortex sites. Vortex sites reportedly possess intense natural positive energy. Visitors claim to feel rejuvenated or healed of various ailments when in the presence of these sites. The whole Sedona area is considered to be an energy vortex, with some sites stronger than others, particularly Boynton Canyon (my personal favorite), Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, & Bell Rock.

Boynton Canyon trail in Sedona, Arizona
Scenery wise, Boynton is the most diverse of the vortex hikes. Wide open vistas of the red rocks, to tall pines, to lush desert plant life, even some snow in the spring and winter months – you will find just about everything here.
Stunning views from the Airport Mesa loop trail in Sedona, Arizona
The Airport Mesa loop is probably the most scenic of the 4 vortex hikes. The trail is long but pretty easy so pretty much doable by anyone in decent shape. Note: those afraid of heights should definitely skip this one due to the steep drop offs!
Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona
Cathedral Rock – a favorite hike of both locals and tourists and the most powerful vortex. The hike to the top is challenging and a bit scary. If afraid of heights, opt for the Templeton Trail (starts at the same place) and enjoy great views of Cathedral Rock.
Bell Rock climb in Sedona, Arizona
Bell Rock – said to be the site of the most UFO sightings in the US. The Bell Rock climb is very hard, but offers big views in return for the effort. Or opt for a more leisurely stroll along the Bell Rock Pathway

The best place to eat in Sedona, be it for breakfast or lunch, is Indian Gardens located on the scenic Oak Creek Canyon drive. They have a gorgeous shady patio with lots of leafy trees, plus delicious food and the best coffee in Arizona. The focus on using non-GMO local ingredients is also a plus. The breakfast burrito and Grains and Greens bowl are 2 excellent choices. I highly recommend picking up a loaf of their amazing homemade sourdough bread. They also offer lots of healthy salads and sandwiches to bring along for a picnic or hike. The drive over here is beautiful enough in and of itself to warrant a visit.

Pumpkin muffin and mocha at Indian Gardens in Sedona, Arizona
The coffee and espresso based drinks at Indian Gardens are the best in the area. Do try the Pumpkin muffin if available – Indian Gardens offers an amazing selection of homemade pastries daily.
Grains and Green Bowl at Indian Gardens in Sedona, Arizona
Everything on the breakfast menu at Indian Gardens is terrific especially the Grains and Greens bowl which consists of 2 eggs your way mixed with butternut squash, quinoa, kale, topped with avocado and served with sourdough toast. I order this every time I visit!
Beautiful shady patio at Indian Gardens in Sedona, Arizona
The setting at Indian Gardens is just gorgeous – perfect for a long relaxing breakfast experience.

Overall, Sedona is the perfect daytrip destination for hikers, photographers, nature lovers, and anyone else seeking a beautiful place to escape the Phoenix heat. As a resident for several years, I have basically seen it all, and therefore, have compiled a list of the best-of-the-best Sedona has to offer – check out my list of 29 must-do’s in Sedona.

Distance from Central Phoenix: About 2 Hours

Top things to do: Devil’s Bridge hike, Oak Creek Canyon Drive, West Fork trail, breakfast at Indian Gardens, Red Rock State Park, Chapel of the Holy Cross, Doe Mountain trail, Teacup Trail, Strolling around Uptown, Brunch at the gorgeous Enchantment Resort

Where to eat:┬áIndian Gardens, Cucina Rustica, Hideaway House, Pisa Lisa, Che-Ah-Chi, Picazzo’s, Barking Frog, The Black Cow (great homemade Prickly Pear ice cream)

2. Flagstaff

Flagstaff, Arizona summer wildflowers

Flagstaff is a mid-size, high altitude mountain community about 2 hours north of Phoenix. The town is most well-known for being home to Northern Arizona University, as well as its’ close distance to the Grand Canyon (1.5 hrs). Flagstaff is also a popular roadstop for those traveling west on I-40 towards Vegas and Los Angeles.

Of course, it is also a very popular destination with Phoenix locals seeking to escape the summer heat. Flagstaff is one of America’s highest elevated towns at 7000 ft, and thus, summer temps barely climb above the mid 80’s. Compare this to the unending 110+ summer temps in Phoenix and you will easily see why Flagstaff is so popular come summertime. Plus, most Flagstaff trails sit at about 8000-9000 feet, so you will experience even cooler temps while hiking. The summer scenic chairlift ride at the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort will take you up to “the coolest spot in Arizona.” This should be a real treat if coming from Phoenix during the summer season.

The beautiful Kachina Trail in Flagstaff, Arizona
The Kachina Trail is a beautiful high altitude trail at Snowbowl. The full out-and-back is pretty long, however, you can simply go out as far as you like.
The beautiful Inner Basin trail in Flagstaff, Arizona
The Inner Basin hike takes you through the heart of the San Francisco Peak. You’ll climb over 1000 feet in elevation (up to about 9500ft), strolling through groves of tall aspen trees. This hike is particularly scenic during the fall foliage season!
Aspen Nature Loop in Flagstaff, Arizona
Beautiful aspens line the Aspen Nature Loop Trail – an easy loop hike of just under 2 miles. Great mountain views too!
Summer chairlift ride at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff, Arizona
The chairlift ride at Snowbowl takes you soaring past the pines

Flagstaff is located amidst the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, and thus, the views around town are pretty much polar opposite of that which you find in the cacti studded Sonoran Desert. Many of the higher elevated trails feature an attractive mix of ponderosa pines and aspens. The aspens in town turn a brilliant fall color, thus making Flagstaff a prime place for leaf peeping, even rivaling some of the best places in New England. I highly recommend checking out a few trails during Flagstaff’s amazing fall color season – here are my top leaf peeping trails in Flagstaff.

The town is also home to the beautiful San Francisco Peak Mountains, the highest range in Arizona with Humphrey’s standing tall at 12,637 feet. Great views of the peaks are accessible at various locales around town, with the best views enjoyed via a short 2 mile nature stroll at Buffalo Park. The challenging Slate Mountain trail, about 30 minutes outside of town, by far offers the most magnificent views and is definitely worth a trek if you are an avid hiker. The incline is gradual, so the hike does not feel as difficult as it would seem and is much, much easier and more scenic than Humphrey’s Peak.

Serene mountain views at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Arizona
Buffalo Park is perfect for a stroll anytime of the year. Bike riding, walking, and jogging are great during the spring and summer months, while snowshoeing and cross country skiing are popular in the winter.
Amazing views of the Peaks from the Slate Mountain trail in Flagstaff, Arizona
For the most dramatic views of the Peaks, consider hiking the amazing Slate Mountain trail, just a half hour outside of town.

Also, look into the Sunset-Wupatki Scenic Drive, which connects Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument as there is a really scenic overlook known as Bonito Meadow where you will get a pretty nice view of the peaks and Sunset Crater. Late summer is the best time to plan your drive as colorful wildflowers are in full bloom.

Summer wildflowers at Bonito Meadow in Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff has been nicknamed“The city of 7 wonders” for the 7 gorgeous natural landmarks within close proximity. Of these, Walnut Canyon is the top sight to check out if you are limited on time. This magnificent 20 foot long, 400 foot wide, and 1/4 mile deep canyon can be explored via numerous trails. The Island Trail involves a semi challenging 240 foot step climb, which rewards in return with big views. The trail will also take you past several ancient cliff dwellings occupied in 1100 AD by the Singua tribes.

The Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona
The views along the Island Trail are really stunning.
Ancient Singua cliff dwelling at Walnut Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona
One of numerous cliff dwellings you will see on the Island Trail.

Being adjacent to the largest Indian reservation in the country (Navajo nation), the Flagstaff region is rich in Native American history with numerous attractions (The Museum of Northern Arizona), ancient petroglyph evidence (check out Picture Canyon Natural Area and Veit Springs), and cultural events celebrating Native American heritage throughout the year.

Picture Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona
PIcture Canyon is home to over 150 pictographs from the Sinagua who lived in the region from 1000-1200 AD.
Ancient pictographs along the Veit Springs trail in Flagstaff, Arizona
The short, easy Veit Springs trail along Snowbowl Rd is home to a few hidden pictographs, accessible via a short detour from the main trail. These ancient drawings are of unknown origin.

Other things to do in Flagstaff include strolling the shops and galleries of the historic downtown neighborhood, mountain biking along the 50+ miles of trail known as the FUTS, and checking out the wonderful local coffee scene. Of course, you must also take a drive along the incredible Oak Creek Canyon drive (mentioned above), which starts just 7 miles or so out of town. Check out my list of 50 fun and free things to do in Flagstaff for full details on all the unique things to do in this area.

The historic Hotel Monte Vista in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona
The historic Monte Vista hotel, built in 1927, is the centerpiece of the downtown. It is one of the most haunted hotels of Rt 66 and guests have reported seeing the same ghosts for decades! Even John Wayne was reportedly visited by a paranormal spirit while staying here!
Great Americano at Late for the Train in Flagstaff, Arizona
Late for the Train serves the best espresso drinks in town. Their beans are dark, yet not bitter.
Fort Tuthill Park bike path in Flagstaff, Arizona
A beautiful section of the Flagstaff Urban trail system at Fort Tuthill – this section is about 2.5 miles each way, so a nice distance for a moderate run or bike ride.

The restaurant scene in Flagstaff is just mediocre, with the exception of the incredible Delhi Palace, a wonderful authentic Indian restaurant. This was the first Indian restaurant I’ve ever tried, and to this day, I’ve not found one that even comes close. My other top choice would be Salsa Brava, an excellent local Mexican restaurant known for their endless salsa bar and stuffed sopaipillas, a fried pastry popular in New Mexican cuisine. This Rt 66 favorite was even featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. Additionally, here is my full list of the best restaurants in Flagstaff to check out during your visit.

Lunch buffet at Delhi Palace in Flagstaff, Arizona
From never trying Indian food to one time a week visits – courtesy of the extremely delicious food at Delhi Palace. The lunch buffet is simply amazing!
What Guy Ate at Salsa Brava in Flagstaff, Arizona
Stuffed Chicken Sopaipilla and a Veggie Burrito at Salsa Brava – what a treat!

Distance from Central Phoenix: 2 hours and 15 min

Top things to do: Hiking at Arizona Snowbowl, Walnut Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, Inner Basin trail, See a show by the wonderful Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.

Also check out my full guide to exploring Northern Arizona featuring 100+ things to do and see!

Where to eat: Delhi Palace, Salsa Brava, Charly’s at the Weatherford, The Toasted Owl, Mix

3. Prescott

The historic Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, Arizona

Prescott is a small community in the Verde Valley region of North Central Arizona. Although it is most popular with retirees due to the small town vibe and mild climate, it’s also a popular summer escape for Southern Arizona residents seeking a place to enjoy the outdoors in a cooler setting. Prescott is surrounded by the beautiful Prescott National Forest, home to an abundance of forested hiking trails and numerous lakes.

Scenic Watson Lake in Prescott, Arizona
Watson Lake
Willow Lake in Prescott, Arizona
Willow Lake
Beautiful views at Lynx Lake in Prescott, Arizona
Lynx Lake

While the town isn’t exactly overflowing with attractions and things to do, it’s a decent escape for those looking for a quick day trip which offers “cooler-than-Phoenix weather” and recreational opportunities in a nice forested setting. Prescott’s altitude is about 5000 feet, so you can expect temps similar to Sedona – typically in the upper 80’s-low 90’s on average. Like Sedona, there are numerous shady trails in the area, so hiking is still a possiblity in the heat of summer.

Gorgeous views along the Thumb Butte trail in Prescott, Arizona

Prescott’s best feature is its’ historic, charming downtown, which has earned it the nickname of “Everybody’s Hometown.” This old-fashioned Main Street is home to lots of local restaurants, boutique shops, and businesses. Victorian style architecture gives the town a unique historical look & feel not really found elsewhere in Arizona.

Old-fashioned Western cowboy culture is alive and thriving with Whiskey Row (a block of old-fashioned, historic saloons) still standing strong as the city’s most popular attraction. You will find all sorts of Western and cowboy apparel shops and a few small western themed museums. You may also want to check out the World’s Oldest Rodeo, a 4th of July tradition dating back to 1888.

Ongoing events at the historic Yavapai County Courthouse include farmer’s markets, concerts, and a really nice Christmas lights festival. Prescott has been named “Arizona’s Christmas City.” The downtown has become a gathering spot for both locals and tourists.

The best thing to do while in town is taking a leisurely bike ride or stroll along the gorgeous Peavine National Recreational trail, one of the few remaining rail trails in Arizona. It’s very easy and really scenic with unending views of Watson Lake and the Granite Dells rock formations. This is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, particularly if you are coming from a congested, busy city like Phoenix or Tucson. The trail is in the middle of nowhere and very quiet with absolutely no business in sight – basically the complete opposite of what you would find in the big Arizona cities.

Biking the Peavine National Recreation Trail in Prescott, Arizona

Other must do’s in Prescott include visiting the small non-profit Heritage Park Zoo, taking a stroll around beautiful Willow Lake, renting a kayak or paddleboat on Lynx Lake, and challenging yourself to the uphill climb up beautiful Thumb Butte.

Beautiful cat at the Heritage Park Zoo in Prescott, Arizona
Kayaking on Lynx Lake in Prescott, Arizona
Kayaking on beautiful Lynx Lake, surrounded by pretty pines
Thumb Butte trail in Prescott, Arizona
Pretty scenery while making the uphill climb up Thumb Butte

While in town, I recommend planning for a dinner Papa’s, a great authentic local Italian restaurant. As far as coffee goes, Wild Rose and Cuppers are both decent local choices, with each offering a quaint outdoor patio to enjoy the cooler summer weather.

Homemade marinara spaghetti at Papa's Italian in Prescott, Arizona
Delicious homemade marinara sauce at Papa’s.
Cuppers Coffeehouse in Prescott, Arizona
Cuppers is located in a charming historic house in the downtown neighborhood. It’s a great local place for breakfast and coffee.
Coffee and quiche at Cuppers in Prescott, Arizona
A delicious slice of homemade quiche and a great Americano at Cuppers

Overall, Prescott is a nice day trip choice for those seeking an Arizona city offering small town, historic charm and plenty of outdoor recreational activities like hiking, boating, and biking. Visiting Prescott and enjoying the small-town, local ambiance is a refreshing change of pace from overly corporate Phoenix. Check out my full list of things to do in Prescott.

Distance from Central Phoenix: 1 Hour 45 min

Top things to do: Peavine National Recrational Trail, Thumb Butte trail, Lakeshore Trail at Lynx Lake, Lakeside trail around Willow Lake, Hiking trails at Watson Lake, Explore the shops, museums, and galleries downtown, Coffee at Wild Rose, Hiking the Constellation Trail Loop

Where to eat: Papa’s Italian, Rosa’s Pizzeria, Cuppers Coffeehouse, Bistro St. Michael, El Gato

4. Grand Canyon South Rim

Scenic views from the Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is another great day trip from Phoenix, although this one is a bit further at just under 4 hours, yet of course worth the trek to see one of the 8th world wonders. It’s crazy to think that the canyon is not actually one of the 7 wonders of the world, although it is one of several attractions considered to be an 8th world wonder. Regardless, it’s definitely worth the trek if you are already staying in Arizona. Few natural sights are as mesmerizing as this 1 mile deep, 18 mile long, 277 mile long geologic wonder.

Mather Point overlook at the Grand Canyon South Rim

Many are surprised to learn that the weather at the Grand Canyon is not too bad during the summer season compared to Phoenix, courtesy of the high altitude (7000 ft). Expect the temps to be in the 80’s on average, although the intense sunshine at this high up can make it feel much warmer. However, it is extremely dry just like Phoenix, so you still have to take extra precautions to avoid dehydration and altitude sickness, especially if you plan on hiking.

As one of the country’s most magnificent natural wonders, it’s obviously a must to visit the Grand Canyon while in such close proximity. Staying at the canyon is great, although hotels are often booked out months in advance, and the closest big town (Flagstaff) is very pricey for this exact reason. A daytrip this long is quite tiresome, although it is something you may never have the chance to see again. Plus, there’s enough interesting things to do at the canyon, not to mention unique sites & detours along the drive (Flagstaff, Sedona, etc.), so in reality it’s not that bad.

The historic El Tovar hotel at the Grand Canyon South Rim
The historic El Tovar (often booked out months in advance) is a fantastic property with a prime location.

Must do’s at the Canyon include strolling a section of the 14 mile Rim trail and enjoying the scenic overlooks, as well as the historical interpretive trail. Hiking the South Kalibab trail, which takes you into the heart of the canyon, is a must for any adventure seeker. Not only is the scenery out-of-this-world, but it is also super quiet with barely a person in sight after the first turn around, and thus, you truly feel as if you have the canyon all to yourself. Those not keen on hiking in such intense high altitude conditions, can opt for a guided mule ride along the same trail. Other unique ways to take in the scenery include helicopter rides and whitewater rafting trips.

Views before a monsoon at the Grand Canyon South Rim
A view of the South Kalibab Trail – very steep, but also very scenic and not crowded at all – an amazing experience!
Hiking the Grand Canyon South Kalibab trail during a monsoon storm
Impromptu summer monsoons are very common – do not risk hiking if it looks like it is going to rain – it’s really dangerous at this high of an altitude. Unfortunately, the skies were completely clear before embarking on my hike. Prepare for random storms!
Skeleton Point along the South Kaliab trail at the Grand Canyon South Rim
Hiking all the way to Skeleton Point (about 1.5 miles out-and-back although very steep and difficult) is an amazing experience that all avid hikers should consider doing!
Great views from the Lookout Studio at the Grand Canyon South Rim
The Lookout Studio overlook is one of the prime spots for photography along the Rim Trail
Mule rides along the South Kalibab trail at the Grand Canyon
Mule riders taking a break to enjoy the scenery. A mule ride is a less intense way to take in the breathtaking views, although really scary as the mules are so close to the edge! Luckily, no one has ever fallen over the cliff in all these years!

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is perhaps even more amazing and also much less congested, although quite a trek at nearly 6 and a half hours from Phoenix. If you do decide on visiting, I recommend booking a stay at the Jacob Lake Lodge several months in advance.

As one of the top world wonders ,the Grand Canyon is a must-see for everyone, and even more so for avid hikers who can take advantage of the wonderful trails which travel through the heart of the canyon.

Check out my full guide to visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Distance from Phoenix: 3hr, 45 min

Top things to do: Mather Point overlook, Rim Trail, Hiking the South Kalibab trail, Yavapai Point Overlook

Where to eat: El Tovar Restaurant

5. Williams

Rt 66 sign in Williams, Arizona

Williams,  a tiny town in Northern Arizona which sees a tremendous amount of tourist traffic each summer, is nicknamed “the gateway to the Grand Canyon.” The small town is just 1 hour from the canyon and also home to the very popular Grand Canyon Railway. If you would like to enjoy a stress free mode of transport to the canyon, the Railway is an option, although it is pricey and your time at the canyon will be limited. Thus, I believe driving is the better way to go. However, Williams is still worth visiting for several reasons.

Grand Canyon Railway
The last 15 minutes or so of the train ride is the most scenic, the rest consists of mainly barren desert scenery. However, the staff is very entertaining and the gun shoot out fantastic fun!

First off, it’s home to Bearizona, frequently rated as one of the best drive-thru wildlife parks in the country. Second, the town was the last Rt 66 town to be bypassed by the new highway (I-40), and thus, retains a lot of historic RT 66 charm in the way of themed restaurants, memorabilia shops, and museums.

Bobcat at Bearizona in Williams, Arizona
Group of bison at Bearizona in Williams, Arizona
Baby black bear at Bearizona

Lots of cute Rt 66 shops/restaurants/memorabilia

Rt 66 in downtown Williams, Arizona
Rt 66 gift shop in Williams, Arizona
One of many Rt 66 themed gift shops in Williams
Rt 66 gift shop in Williams, Arizona

Third, the weather here is much cooler during the summer months, barely ever exceeding the 80’s. There are a number of great trails within the Kalibab National Forest including the challenging, yet very scenic Kendrick Mountain trail. For an easier trek, check out the short stroll to Keyhole Sink, featuring a seasonal waterfall. You will also be able to explore some pretty cool interesting old pictographs here – they are a bit hard to find so bring binoculars if you have them.

Keyhole sink hike in Williams, Arizona
The Keyhole Sink waterfall should be strongest after a summer monsoon

Also while in Williams, be sure to check out the massive gift shop at the Railway depot. Even if you are not taking the train, this gift shop is worth a look – they basically have anything & everything Arizona related in here. It’s a great place to stock up on gifts!

Distance from Phoenix: 2.5 hours

Top things to do: Bearizona, Hiking the Kendrick Mountain trail, Strolling around downtown Williams, Rt 66 museums & gift shops

Where to eat: Pine Country Restaurant

6. Payson/Pine/Strawberry

Beautiful scenery at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
There are lots of beautiful trees in the Mongollon Rim area thanks to the high elevation

Another great daytrip from Phoenix lies just a few hours away in the beautiful Mogollon Rim region of the state. The Mogollon Rim is a grand 2000 foot escarpment which stretches over 200 miles from Central Arizona (near Payson) all the way over to the New Mexico border. This region is most well known for its’ beautiful limestone and sandstone cliffs, leafy fall foliage, and many beautiful hiking trails within the Tonto National Forest.

The picturesque Rim Drive begins near Payson and stretches on for 45 miles passing beautiful lakes and towering pines forests. There are numerous things to do along the way including scenic overlooks, hikes, and fishing. The drive is pretty desolate compared to other scenic drives in Arizona and you may possibly see some wildlife along the way. Black bears are frequently sighted, so keep your eyes peeled. Climate in the region varies based on the altitude (which ranges from 5000-7000+ ft), although temps usually do exceed the 90’s, so you are looking at a 20-30 degree drop from Phoenix.

Gorgeous scenery along the Mongollon Rim Drive near Payson, Arizona
Gorgeous pine scenery along the Mongollon Rim Drive

Pine and Strawberry are 2 quaint tiny towns in the region, which are both popular during the summer months due to the mild climate and pretty pine scenery. Numerous cabin rentals fill up fast as Southern Arizona locals flock to the area to escape the desert heat. Both towns offer an abundance of antique shops (check out the gigantic Moose Mountain Gifts store). There is also a nice local honey stand on the side of the road offering all sorts of unique flavors – rude employees, but great honey!

The Honey Stand near Pine, Arizona
Fresh homemade honey in an assortment of flavors at the Honey Stand near Pine, Arizona

Strawberry is home to the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona. Other than that, hiking & mountain biking are the main thing to do in this region and there are plenty of trails in the surrounding Tonto National Forest which are tolerable during the summer months due to the mild climate/hefty tree coverage. I recommend checking out the beautiful Horton Creek trail which takes you past a number of serene creeks. In terms of dining, The Randall House in Pine is a nice choice due to the cozy shady outdoor patio, homestyle menu, and friendly service.

Shady patio at the Randall House in Pine, Arizona
A beautiful shady patio for the summer season at the Randall House in Pine

The highlight of this region is Tonto Natural Bridge State Park which is home to the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. There are several trails here which take you to the same stunning endpoint right under the bridge where you will find a pretty little waterfall and natural pools: a rare & wonderful sight in Arizona. The trails are mostly shady and particularly scenic in fall due to the presence of many deciduous trees.

Views from the Gowan trail at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, Arizona
Views of the lush plant life from the Gown trail
Beautiful views at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, Arizona
Crossing big rock boulders and natural pools to get to the waterfall via the Pine trail
world's largest natural travertine bridge at Tonto National Forest
the world’s largest natural travertine bridge

At just under 2 hours, the Mogollon Rim is a reasonably quick daytrip from Phoenix. If you are a hiker or antique shopper, this region should offer plenty enough to do in return for the 2 hour drive.

Distance from Phoenix: 2 Hours

Top things to do: Mongollon Rim Scenic Drive, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Horton Creek Trail, antique shopping

Where to eat: Randall House, La Sierra Mexican Restaurant, Gerardo’s Firewood Cafe

7. Saguaro Lake

Beautiful Saguaro lake near Mesa, Arizona

Saguaro Lake is the most scenic of the 4 major lakes near Phoenix. It’s also one of the easiest to get to as it’s just a half hour or so outside of Mesa. While this daytrip technically does not offer a respite from the heat as the altitude is the same as Phoenix, you will have a big lake to cool off in. Also, the fantastic Desert Belle cruise operates a narrated, air conditioned cruise here. New tourists, especially those not keen on the idea of setting an alarm super early to hike in the desert (in still brutally hot 90+ degree conditions), can opt for a relaxing cool cruise as an alternative means to enjoy the unique desert scenery.

Desert Belle cruise at Saguaro Lake in Arizona
You have the choice of either sitting on top for the better views or inside in the cool air conditioning. Either way, the views are beautiful, although the top deck is recommended if you are looking to take photos.

Named after the majestic Saguaros which surrounds the lake, Saguaro is by far the most picturesque of the major Phoenix area lakes due to the exotic desert landscapes and terrific mountain scenery.

Enjoying rare water in the desert at Saguaro Lake near Mesa, Arizona
Enjoying the pretty mountain scenery at Saguaro Lake near Mesa, Arizona
Beautiful views at Saguaro Lake near Mesa, Arizona
View of a Cristate cactus at Saguaro Lake near Mesa, Arizona
A rare Cristate cactus – these are Saguaros which tend to grow in weird shapes due to a mutation.
Views of Saguaro cacti from the Desert Belle cruise in Arizona

The cruise is quiet, relaxing, and very picturesque. The tour guides here are the most friendly and knowledgeable of all the guides in the Phoenix area. You will learn lots of new and interesting facts about the desert in general, as well as the plants and animals that call this unique habitat home.

Bald eagle sighting at Saguaro Lake near Mesa, Arizona

Plenty of birdwatching opportunities and the possibility of seeing rare wildlife keeps the cruise even more interesting. Our cruise was limited to a bald eagle sighting, however, mountains lions, bobcats, and javelina are often sighted, especially on early morning cruises. Our tour guide even mentioned a very rare black panther sighting.

If you prefer, you can rent a pontoon for the day or go swimming at Butcher Jones recreation area. There is also a nice restaurant overlooking the lake called the Lakeshore Restaurant.

The drive over on the picturesque Apache Trail Scenic Drive is loaded with grand vistas of the Superstition mountains and the stately Saguaro, as well as many other diverse cacti plants. Along the way, you have the option of stopping at Goldfield, a recreation of a ghost town with lots of opportunities for fun including mine tours, gold panning, historic saloons, and Arizona’s only narrow gauge railroad.

Scenic lake view from the Apache Trail Drive near Mesa, Arizona
Scenic views of the lake from the Apache Trail Scenic Drive

Distance from Phoenix: 1 hour

Top things to do: Desert Belle Cruise, hiking at Lost Dutchman State Park, Visiting Goldfield Ghost town

8. Verde Valley

Gorgeous scenery right outside of Sedona, Arizona in the Verde Valley

The Verde Valley is a picturesque region in North Central Arizona, which not only offers a respite from the heat, but also offers easy access to a number of natural attractions. Although Sedona is a part of this area, I wanted to signal it out as it is by far the top daytrip from Phoenix. Other towns in the Verde Valley which are less impressive but still worth a look if you have extra time include Jerome, Cottonwood, Camp Verde, and Clarkdale.

Temps in the Verde Valley are considerably cooler than Phoenix in the summertime as most towns reside at an altitude of around 5000 ft or so. One of Arizona’s last free flowing rivers, the Verde River, flows though the area and provides a habitat for rare plant and wildlife. You may want to check out Dead Horse State Park in Cottonwood or the Verde River State Natural Area.

Fossil Creek Wilderness, a very popular swimming hole with a waterfall, is one of the most popular attractions in the area, particularly during the hot summer months. The extremely rough 14 mile road to get to the falls (about an hour drive), lengthy hike, and hassle of getting to a very overcrowded place make it an easy skip for me, however, if you are interested in seeing a natural swimming hole and waterfall in Arizona despite insane crowds, you will now have to apply for a permit just to park.

There are much better things to do in this area including Montezuma Castle, Out of Africa Wildlife Park, various hiking trails & state parks, along with exploring the quaint historical communities of Cottonwood and Jerome.

Montezuma castle is one of the area’s most interesting historical sights. This 1000 year old , 5 story ancient Singua dwelling, which was occupied between 1100-1435 AD, is known to be one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the country. The layout resembles modern apartment style living.

The best preserved ancient cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle in Arizona

Out of Africa wildlife park is another nice place to check out if you have the time. This non-profit wildlife sanctuary is known for their great shows which includes a wonderful Tiger Splash program and an interesting hands-on snake program. A narrated bus safari tour takes you past zebras and giraffes roaming about in a setting mimicking their natural environment. The walk around section is a bit unattractive due to the barren desert scenery and honestly way too hot for the summer. Otherwise, the park is a great place to check out, especially during your birthday month when admission is free!

Watusi seen via the safari ride at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona
Close up of a giraffe via the safari ride at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona
Grizzly bear at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona
Tiger Splash show at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona
Tiger Splash show at Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, Arizona

If you are a wine lover, you will want to check out the small town of Cottonwood, located on the Verde Valley Wine trail. There are lots of tasting rooms here where you can sample all sorts of local Arizona wines. Burning Tree Cellars is one of the nicest options and they have a great outdoor patio too. The small downtown is home to numerous local restaurants and shops. Paradise Point Cafe is a cute little local business which serves delicious homemade treats (try the German chocolate cake!). Also check out  the Old Cottonwood jail where Al Capone’s name is found carved outside an old cell.

Downtown Cottonwood, Arizona
Paleo cake at Paradise Point Cafe in Cottonwood, Arizona
Delicious desserts and a cozy setting at Paradise Point Cafe make it a perfect place for a break in between shopping and exploring the town.
Old Cottonwood Jail
The Old Cottonwood Jail recently operated as a tea house (a fantastic one), which unfortunately just closed.

Jerome is another interesting place to visit if you happen to be in the area. This former copper mining town saw a massive population decline and almost became a ghost town at one point, however, now stands strong as a very popular tourist destination. Jerome is known as “the largest ghost town in America.” Today, the small town resembles anything but a ghost town as art galleries, boutique shops, restaurants, and bars over flood the tiny downtown. Foodies and art lovers flock to the town particularly during the monthly art walk.

Historic downtown Jerome, Arizona
A view of downtown Jerome

Like Cottonwood, Jerome is also part of the Verde Valley Wine trail, with numerous tasting rooms featuring Arizona local wines. Cellar 433 is the best choice due to the gorgeous scenery which you can enjoy via the patio.

Jerome has a long history of paranormal activity, so much so that at one point the town actually published a paranormal newspaper known as the Jerome Ghost Post. The ghost legends still remain and the same eerie hauntings from years past are still reported today. Ghost hunters regularly visit the area, attempting to communicate with these long standing spirits. The especially creepy Jerome Grand Hotel offers ghost tours through an eerie old building which used to be a mental institution. Not surprisingly, the hotel goes all out for Halloween, attracting Halloween lovers and ghost hunters from all over.

Mile High Inn in Jerome, Arizona
A phantom cat is said to roam the halls of the haunted Mile High Inn
The haunted Jerome Grand Hotel in Arizona
Sign up for a ghost tour at the spooky Jerome Grand Hotel with the aid of real ghost hunting equipment like EVPS used by the pros on shows like Ghost Adventures.
Great lunch at the Asylum restaurant in Jerome, Arizona

Dining at the appropriately named Asylum Restaurant is the best choice for lunch/dinner as the food is great and the views even better. This gorgeous restaurant has a decent sized patio which overlooks the beautiful Verde Valley region. Like the hotel, they also go all out with Halloween decor, both inside and out. 

Great views from the Asylum restaurant

Jerome is the coolest weather-wise of the 3 major Verde Valley cities, located at an altitude of around 5000 feet, and summer temps barely exceeding the 90’s. Sedona is the next coolest with an altitude of 4000 feet and temps typically hovering in the high 90’s and occasionally the low 100’s. Cottonwood and Camp Verde, which are located at about 3000 feet, are a bit hotter and see temps in the low 100’s, yet are still at least 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix! All areas within the Verde Valley are much cooler at morning and night than Phoenix, so try to plan any outdoor activities at dawn and dusk.

Best things to do around the Phoenix metro when it is too hot!

These are some of my favorite daytrips within a 4 hour drive of Phoenix. If you are not up for a lengthy drive, there are still plenty of things to do around the Phoenix metro area during the hot summer season. There is simply much more to do when you add daytrips into the mix. Keep in mind that the weather is atrociously hot in the morning and evening hours too (not just during the heat of the day!), so you will be limited to indoor attractions, waterparks/pools, and super early morning hikes. Check out my list of the best things to do when it’s too hot in Phoenix.