One of Arizona’s most beautiful towns, Flagstaff is surrounded by some of the most amazing scenery in the state. A short distance from the world-famous Grand Canyon, the gorgeous red rocks of Sedona, and spectacular cliff dwellings, the town is a great base for day trips.
Here are the five best day trips from Flagstaff.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
One of the best-known wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon will leave you in awe, no matter how many times you see it. The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is easily accessible from Flagstaff, making it a perfect day-trip destination from this Arizona town.
Take the shorter route to the main entrance through Williams, driving through the largest ponderosa pine forest on the continent.
From Williams, you can take the scenic train for a fun addition to your trip. The steam train will take you through some of the most gorgeous Arizona scenery while musicians and old Western characters entertain you on the short ride. Once at the Grand Canyon, you’ll have a few hours to explore before returning.
If you’d rather spend more time at the Grand Canyon, keep driving past Williams to enter through the main entrance. The drive to the main entrance from Flagstaff is 79 miles long and only takes about an hour and a half.
Once there, leave your car in one of the parking lots and walk the Trail of Time for gorgeous views and information on the geological formations of this immense chasm. A free shuttle gives you access to all of the viewpoints of the South Rim.
Since the main entrance to the Grand Canyon is always crowded, try to get there early in the day. Instead of buying a day pass, it is worth getting the America the Beautiful Pass, which covers admission to all the national parks in the United States for a year.
Known for its red rock formations and art boutiques, Sedona is considered one of the most beautiful small towns in the country. You’ll find miles upon miles of hiking trails among some of the famous red rock formations, plus a large selection of art galleries. Take a walk through downtown Sedona and enjoy the boutique shops and the gorgeous scenery, and then find a trail or two for a hike among the famous red rocks.
To get to Sedona, make the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, one of the best in Arizona. Offering gorgeous views around each bend, the two-lane road takes you through terrain highlighting Arizona’s ecological diversity. It drops from the woods filled with ponderosa pines to Oak Creek Canyon, ending in the red rock country of Sedona. Make sure to stop at Oak Creek Vista Point, a spectacular overlook of the narrow canyon about 2,000 feet below the rim.
The distance from Flagstaff to Sedona is 45 miles, and it will take you approximately an hour and a half to navigate the twists and turns of Oak Creek Canyon.
3. Three Ancient Ruins Of The Southwest
Built by the Sinagua people of the high desert, Tuzigoot National Monument, Montezuma Castle National Monument, and Montezuma Well are all easily accessible from Flagstaff.
Drive 29 miles through the scenic Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona to Cottonwood, and then follow the signs to Tuzigoot National Monument.
Tuzigoot National Monument
Tuzigoot National Monument is an ancient pueblo on a desert hilltop overlooking the surrounding valleys. Walk along the walls where the Sinagua lived between 1100 and 1400. The loop trail will take you around the Citadel, with its 110 rooms that once housed about 250 people.
Drive back to Cottonwood, and then take Interstate 17 north toward Flagstaff and the Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Though a name like Montezuma Castle might make you think of the Aztecs, Montezuma Castle National Monument is neither an Aztec ruin nor a castle.
Built by the same Sinagua who built Tuzigoot and many other pueblos in the area, Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest. When you look at the spectacular five-story structure built into the limestone walls, you might understand why early visitors thought it was a castle built by the legendary Aztec king. The cliff dwelling preserves an old Sinagua village with about 20 rooms; it was built between 1100 and 1350 and was once home to up to 1,000 people.
Enjoy a walk in the shade of giant sycamore trees, stop for a view of the ruins, and learn about life in the village through the interactive display on the trail.
Nearby is Montezuma Well, part of the Montezuma Castle National Monument. A limestone sinkhole filled with water from an underground spring, the well is an oasis in the desert. Smaller, one-room cliff dwellings adorn its sides, and if you hike down to the water’s edge, you’ll see a pueblo-style dwelling. Take the second hike to the spring to see fresh, flowing water in the desert, and enjoy time in the shade of giant Arizona sycamore trees.
4. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon National Monument is just outside of Flagstaff’s city limits, only 11 miles from the center of town. You can discover a diverse ecosystem and more cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua here.
Home to an unusual array of plant communities, Walnut Canyon provides the opportunity to see ecosystems that don’t normally coexist. You’ll see miniature versions of all the zones in the west, from the Upper Sonoran Desert with its cacti to the tall ponderosa pines and Pacific Northwest plant communities in the more shaded areas of the canyon. No wonder the Sinagua built their homes here. You’ll see their cliff dwellings in the alcoves of the steep canyon walls when you look down into the canyon from the viewpoints along the Rim Trail.
A short and easy stroll along the edge of a pinion forest, the Rim Trail is paved and mostly accessible, offering gorgeous views of the canyon below.
Take the steep Island Trail if possible for a closer view of the cliff dwellings. This trail not only offers great views but leads right through a few of these cliff dwellings, giving you a better understanding of what life was like for the Sinagua.
However, you’ll need to be aware of the elevation change if you hike the Island Trail. The stairs and steep areas are more difficult to navigate at 7,000 feet elevation. Take it slow, rest often (you’ll find benches along the trail), and drink plenty of water to help ward off altitude sickness.
5. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument And Wupatki National MonumentEditor’s Note: The National Park Service announced on August 18, 2022 that the Sunset Crater Volcano is partially open with limited services following the Tunnel Wildfire destruction. The Lava Flow and A’a trails are open. The Visitor Center, Lenox Crater and Lava’s Edge Trails, as well as the Cinder Hills Overlook remain closed. For the most up-to-date information, please visit NPS.gov.
For stunning views, hikes through a volcanic field, and more ancient ruins, take the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop Road. This 35-mile scenic drive starts just 10 miles north of Flagstaff.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Explore the spectacular volcanic landscape of the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument by walking on lava sand and rock on the mile-long interpretive trail loop. An easy walk through some of the most dramatic volcanic features of the landscape, the trail leads through the Bonito Lava Flow, showcasing large lava blocks, jagged lava rocks, and the entrance to an ice cave, among other features. You can also hike up to the bowl of a cinder cone on Lenox Crater or through more lava rock formations on the Lava’s Edge Trail.
As you continue driving, you’ll pass through Cinder Hills, a black landscape dotted with ponderosa pines, and then you’ll have sweeping views of the colorful Painted Desert.
Wupatki National Monument
Wupatki National Monument protects archaeological sites left behind by two separate groups of people, the ancestral Puebloans and the Sinagua. First, you’ll come to a 2.5-mile side road leading to the Wukoki Ruins, a well-preserved pueblo on top of a small hill. Next, you’ll reach the monument’s visitor center and its largest ruins, the Wupatki Ruins.
The Wupatki Ruins are home to the three-story house that once contained 100 rooms and housed between 100 and 200 people. You’ll also find an aboveground kiva and an oval ball court. Next to the ball court, stop to experience the volcanic blowhole.
Past the Wupatki Ruins, stop for a short walk up to the Citadel Ruin, located on top of a butte, for a gorgeous view. The last stop on the loop is the Lomaki Ruins.
The drive continues through the high desert grasslands, with views of volcanic cones, the Little Colorado Basin, and the San Francisco Peaks.
The weather is unpredictable in and around the San Francisco Peaks. You might start on a trail in sunny weather but eventually get drenched in heavy rain or even hail. Check the weather at the visitor center and carry a lightweight raincoat along with water in your backpack. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, no matter how long or short the trail is, if you decide to hike on the lava bed in and around Sunset Crater.
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