Humbling geological features, fascinating Native American history, forest-covered mountains, and a vast range of activities – its nickname is The Grand Canyon State but Arizona has much more to offer the visitor than that undeniably grand canyon.
Luckily, it’s all within an easy-to-manage loop around this vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts and historians alike, taking in the highlights.
Renting a car and traveling independently means you can explore at your own pace, but organized trips are a great alternative if you want someone else to do all the planning and driving. Tour operators like Viator, G Adventures and REI all offer variations on this Arizona loop.
Phoenix and Scottsdale
Phoenix’s airport is the gateway to the state, with several domestic and international flights arriving each day, but this sprawling city offers little to detain you on the way to the great outdoors. If you do want to spend a night in the area before hitting the road, head to Scottsdale where a lively, pretty Old Town has plenty of eating and drinking options – try The Mission for some traditional Southwest cuisine.
Flagstaff and a Native American detour
At your next stop, the mountain town of Flagstaff is filled with everything you could need for an outdoor adventure, as well as a ton of cafes and restaurants to revive in afterwards. On the way, make a side trip to get your first glimpse of Native American occupation in the area – Montezuma’s Castle. Neither a castle nor with any connection to the Aztec leader, this cliff dwelling was built and occupied by the Sinagua people from the 12th to 15th centuries.
Where to stay and eat
Grab a coffee at Macy’s, a beer at Beaver Street Brewery, a pizza at Pizzicletta, and a (possibly haunted) room for the night at Hotel Monte Vista.
The Grand Canyon
It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get your head round the scale of the 277 miles of rock, water, plants and animals that make up the length of the Grand Canyon. Most people’s first (and some people’s only) glimpse is from Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, the main hub for visitors. A trail here allows a jaw-dropping-view-at-every-turn stroll along a mostly accessible path – try to spot the elusive Colorado River way down below, the reason the canyon exists, but which is deceptively tricky to see from the top.
But to even begin to grasp just how grand this place is, you need to hike into it. Two classic routes, Bright Angel and South Kaibab, descend thousands of feet from the South Rim to the river and Phantom Ranch– a great overnight option, if you can nab a reservation. If retracing your steps to the South Rim isn’t enough of a challenge, and you want a more crowd-free experience, make for the North Kaibab Trail, which climbs steeply up to the canyon’s much quieter North Rim. If the thought of hiking at all is just too much, consider the mule option. These sure-footed animals offer a full rim-to-river trek, with a night at Phantom Ranch and without aching limbs afterwards.
For more sweeping vistas and to bid a fond farewell to the Grand Canyon before exiting the East Entrance, visit the beautiful, Native American-inspired Desert View Watchtower.
Where to stay and eat
There are three South Rim campgrounds above the rim: Desert View is first-come, first-served, but Mather Campground and Trailer Village accept reservations. For a more luxurious end to a day of exertions, try Bright Angel Lodge or El Tovar, which also has the best dining in the area – unless, of course, you opt for a sunset picnic on the canyon rim.
Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell
Following the Colorado River northeast from the Grand Canyon brings you to the Lake Powell reservoir, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Make sure to stop off on the way to snap a pic of Horseshoe Bend, another river-carved canyon (watch out for that edge – the drop is 1000ft). Head north to Wahweap Marina, rent a kayak and head out on the water and into one of the side channels where exploring and hiking through slot canyons is a must. If you want to skip the kayak, head to nearby Antelope Canyon, another beautiful but crowded example of a slot canyon (accessible by tour only).
Where to stay and eat
Wahweap Campground has all the facilities you’ll need and lake views too. For hotels, stay in nearby Page, which has the usual chains. River’s End Café is great for breakfast or lunch, and locals go crazy for the steaks at Bonkers.
Canyon de Chelly
Firstly, it’s pronounced “d’shay” or, in the language of the Navajo on whose land it’s found, it’s called Tseyi (say-ee). Secondly, for a canyon experience with a large dash of Native American history thrown in, you can’t beat this manageable, less-visited National Monument.
Part of the Navajo Nation, the natural beauty and multiple cliff dwellings here demand a couple of days’ exploration. Check out Spider Rock, home of the mythical figure known as Spider Grandmother, who, according to Navajo legend, whisked naughty children to the top of her stone pillar. Nearby, the White House Ruin, named for its white-plaster walls, was built by Ancestral Puebloan people centuries before the arrival of the Navajo. During your exploration here, take the chance to stroll through feet-cooling, seasonal streams with a wild horse or two for company. Access to the area is limited to those with a Navajo guide.
Hiking is the best way to enjoy the canyon (stop off at the Visitor Center for more information on routes and guides), but a rim drive has lookouts over the most beautiful sections if time or mobility are an issue.
Where to stay and eat
The nearby town of Chinle is the main entry point to the canyon. Thunderbird Lodge has comfortable rooms and a basic cafeteria (breakfast is your best bet).
Petrified trees, a song on Route 66 and a giant arch
Fantastical features still lie ahead on the road back to Phoenix. The Petrified Forest National Park has, as the name suggests, fossilized trees and even some early dinosaurs, while Tonto Natural Bridge is the largest travertine arch in the world. Between the two stands Winslow, a small town on Route 66 made famous by The Eagles’ song ‘Take It Easy’ – stop off for lunch at any of several good restaurants along the famous road, and get an obligatory photo by the Glenn Frey statue.
Book with Holiday Hamster and you could see the wonders of Arizona for yourself.
Call 08000 988 955 and have a travel advisor tailor make your itinerary at the best possible price.
The above article first appeared here, in June 2016.