Northern Arizona

Overview and Getting There

Our weeklong tour covers 1,000 miles of stunning landscapes -- desert canyons, ancient ruins, and petrified forests. You can pick up the tour in the middle if not traveling through Phoenix. You also might choose to stay on longer than we have indicated in a few places, or to adjoin this with our tour of southern Arizona. For both tours, we advise making a daily habit of packing plenty of water and checking your fuel, as at times the next gas station is 50-100 miles away. The optimal time for a visit to northern Arizona, weather-wise, is between May and October.  

All airlines fly into PHX, though as it is a hub of American and a focus city for Southwest, so you will likely find the most flights with those two carriers. AZA (30 miles to the east of PHX) is also an option, though this airport is only serviced by Allegiant.

From Phoenix, pick up your rental car, if your flight arrives after 1pm, consider enjoying the day in Phoenix and starting afresh in the AM. Our itinerary is as follows:

  • Arrive Phoenix; visit Montezuma’s Castle, Montezuma Well, and Tuzigoot National Monument
  • Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park  
  • Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (for stamp collecting), Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • Navajo National Monument
  • Glen Canyon Recreation Area, including Rainbow Bridge
  • Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim.
  • Return to Phoenix (and perhaps Day 1 sites if time or weather did not permit earlier)

Key Routes and Sites

If arriving before 1:00 p.m., head to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument after picking up the car. These are exceptionally preserved limestone cliff dwelling ruins of the Sinagua people — in fact, the site has nothing to do with Montezuma or the Aztecs! This site is very accessible, though you will observe the ruins, and and not enter them. From here, it’s about 11 miles to a corollary site, Montezuma Well; Sinagua cliff dwellings were built around the rim of the well more than 800 years ago, and many cultures still consider the space sacred. The pond, bio and animal diversity, and trails in the area of the well make for a tranquil enclave.
 

Approximately 35 minutes west of the Montezuma is Tuzigoot National Monument, where ruins from the Sinagua are atop a desert pueblo — the view from the top of a short hike is expansive.

You might end the day a bit early, especially if you are staying in Sedona, which is 35 minutes northeast of Tuzigoot. Or, get a head start on the next day by journeying north, to Flagstaff, which is just under two hours away. There are several points earning hotels available in Flagstaff, and a great range of options. In Sedona, you’ll more than likely book a room at non-chain hotel, though the town itself is certainly  a wonderful place to stop, both for the arts scene and the extraordinary beauty of the desert and red rock formations.

Proceeding to Flagstaff for the night also allows you to begin acclimating to 6,000+ elevations for the next three days. The next leg takes us to three different National Monuments, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki, and Sunset Crater Volcano. Walnut Canyon National Monument will most likely be a 10-20 minute drive from your accommodation in Flagstaff (and less than one hour from Sedona). More preserved ruins of the Sinagua are built into an enormous canyon. A reasonable one-mile hike (about one hour) takes you through most of the monument, though as the site is 6,000 feet in elevation, allow for breaks as needed.

The Doney Crater, an easy hike with great views. photo by Fredlyfish4 / CC BY

From Walnut Canyon, venture one-hour north to Wupatki National Monument. On select Saturdays you can take a ranger-guided Discovery Hike through the desert here, where a network of 900-year old ancient pueblos and artifacts represents many cultures — but call Wupatki Visitor Center to reserve for the tour, as it only accommodates 12 people at a time, 928-679-2365, as per the NPS. You can also book a guided overnight hike to Crack-in-Rock Pueblo for select spring weekends; consult the NPS website for the schedule. Of course, self-guided touring is accessible, and there are picnic areas; there is a half-mile loop trail from the Wupatki Visitor Center to Wupatki Pueblo, the largest here, with 100 rooms. Several pueblos are accessible via short trails, and,one recommendation from the NPS is for the Doney Mountain Trail, "is a ½-mile (0.8 km) walk from the picnic area to the top of a volcanic cinder cone that offers spectacular views along the way.”

Grasslands of Wupatki National Monument, photo by Jarek Tuszynski / CC BY

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, an approximate 20-minute drive from Wupatki, is the cinder cone of a volcano that erupted in 1085 CE, blanketing the area in ash and lava and causing the Sinagua people to abandon several outposts and villages. Sadly, many hikers in the mid-twentieth century damaged the cone and the National Park Service has since closed the main trail. You can, however, hike several the shorter trails. Much of the devastation and power of the volcano is still evident when walking through the monument, almost 1,000 years removed from the eruption. A great example of a cinder cone with a lava field is nearby S P Crater (Shit Pot Crater, hence, mapmakers tend to list it by its initials). It’s not part of the NPS, though is accessible via a dirt road. It is on private land, though, so if passing by, respect the boundaries and do not bother the grazing cows ☺.

At the end of the day, journey to Holbrook, a 1.5 hour drive from Sunset Crater Volcano; plan to lodge there for one night or more to explore Petrified Forest National Park. Many visitors head to the smaller north side of the Park upon arrival, since it’s right off the I-40 exit. Do spend some time there, to check out the Painted Desert Visitor Center. Then, head toward the south end to immerse in hiking in the Blue Forest and Jasper Forest for the awesome badlands; catch these highlights en route to the Rainbow Forest Museum, at the end of the southern road. On the way back, a 52 mile round trip, take a short turn on Historic Route 66 to go to Chinle for the evening (1.5 hours away) to position for Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the next day.

Jasper Forest, photo by Andrew Kearns / CC BY

Canyon de Chelly, photo by mark byzewski / CC BY

We recommend lodging for two nights in Chinle. If you are stamp collecting, you’ll want to stop off at the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site on the way there, though make sure to arrive before 6pm during the summer, 5:00pm the rest of year. The site is on Navajo land, and unlike the state of Arizona observes daylight savings time and is one hour ahead, so bear this in mind while concluding your tour of Petrified Forest. You might decide that to spend more time at Petrified Forest NP, and begin the next day afresh at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
 
Determine how much of Canyon de Chelly you are interested in exploring. The monument is on private Navajo tribal land, and the only way to fully explore is via a concessionaire trip into the canyons, on vehicles or by horse. Trips are reasonably priced and excursions are half and full day. There are two public accessible park roads that lead into the monument, one north and one south, with overlooks and a brief hike on the southern road. It is suggested to take the north side in the morning and the south side in the later afternoon, to maximize the natural lighting. Return to your accommodation in Chinle for the night; note that there is a Holiday Inn and a Best Western just outside the monument grounds.

From here, plan on a bit of a drive, three hours, with one stop at Navajo National Monument, two hours from Chinle. Ranger guided hikes leave in the morning and are more intensive, with greater views of the sandstone cliff dwellings — consult the NPS website for precise times of departure and recommendations for water and footwear. You’ll have plenty of time for the guided hikes if you wish, as the next stop for the evening is in Page, Arizona, one hour and twenty minutes away.

Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon Recreation Area, photo by Glyn Lowe / CC BY

You could also proceed more expediently through Navajo National Monument and spend the afternoon at our next destination, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, as there’s so much to do, and a single day is not going to cover it all.  

Consider staying in or by Glen Canyon for a couple days; boating, swimming, biking, hiking, and scenic drives are a few of the options. The area is massive, covering 1.25 million square miles. The north abuts Canyonlands and Capital Reef National Parks in Utah, and the south is adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The best way to explore the park is via boat, and there are several concessionaires that offer single day trips varying from 1.5 to 6 hours in length. Our advice is to make sure your tour visits Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which is only accessible via boat. Other great activities include hikes and a trip 40 minutes out of Page to the Navajo Bridge; there are great views as you walk across the historic bridge! Visit Lee’s Ferry landing, the only place where the Colorado River is accessible by car; here you can also learn about the settlement of northern Arizona. Visit the Carl Hayden Visitor Center for your stamp and the view at the Glen Canyon Damn, just south of Page. Tours of the dam are $5.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

If you are staying for 3 or more nights, you can rent a houseboat from concessionaires. Prices vary based on how modest or extravagant of a boat you want, it’s a unique way to experience Glen Canyon though is not often the most cost effective means unless you have a large group of 6-8 people; at that point the houseboat might be less expensive per night (per person) than the chain hotels in Page.

From Page, we’ll head down to the Grand Canyon National Park. Again, you could spend many days here, though unless you are planning on taking an overnight hiking or boat trip, this park might be accomplished in one day. We’re heading to the South Rim, which is about 1.5 hours from Page. Note, that during popular times in spring and summer, the parking lots can fill up before 10am, so an early start is imperative.

Xanterra offers many lodging options inside and around the park. A Holiday Inn Express and Best Western are just outside the park grounds.

View from Hermits Rest, Grand Canyon National Park, photo by Grand Canyon National Park / CC BY

Entering from the east on Route 64 will take you through a beautiful scenic drive with great overlooks. Note, that without any stops and decent traffic, it will be a 45-minute drive from the east Park gate to the main visitor center and the main overlook.
Take a short hike, take in the sites, perhaps travel by mule! The mule tours are offered twice a day for a short excursion trip, and a longer trip that involves an overnight. Tours are provided by Xanterra and as you’ll need a place for the night at Grand Canyon, a very memorable though expensive journey, with an overnight in Phantom Ranch at the base of the Canyon. These tours can sell out nearly a year in advance, especially for spring and summer, so plan ahead. Weight restrictions are applied, so if you happen to weigh more than 200 pounds you may not be permitted to ride the mules.

The drive back to Phoenix from here is 3.5 hours; you will go within minutes of the sites from Day 1 and 2, if you want to revisit or did not get there early on in the tour. 

Stamp collecting; Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, 60 minutes from Petrified Forest NP; Pipe Spring National Monument, 90 minutes from Page, (or connect via the Utah trip, it’s 50 minutes from Zion NP)

Suggested Itinerary

  • Arrive Phoenix; Montezuma’s Castle, Montezuma Well, Tuzigoot National Monument
  • Walnut Canyon National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park  
  • Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (stamp collecting stop), Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • Navajo National Monument
  • Glen Canyon Recreation Area, including Rainbow Bridge
  • Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
  • Return to Phoenix (and perhaps Day 1 sites)