Two of the best-known destinations in Arizona, Sedona and the Grand Canyon, are on everyone’s bucket list when visiting the state. The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, showcasing millions of years of earth’s history, is the primary destination of both national and international travelers. Many visit not only Arizona, but the U.S. just to see it. And the gorgeous red rock formations of Sedona and the town’s art scene are almost as famous.
While both destinations deserve their popularity, those who visit the state have so much more unique destinations to look forward to. Many of them are between the two famous landmarks, especially if you enter on the lesser-used East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. This is my family’s favorite way to enter the South Rim, not only for the landscape, but also because we encounter fewer crowds from this direction.
The following are some of the most spectacular stops on the road between Sedona and the Desert View Entrance to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Surrounded by hundreds of red rock formations, and home to a great number of art-filled boutiques, Sedona is known as one of the most beautiful small towns in the U.S. Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of trails through gorgeous red rock formations, from easy strolls surrounded by towering rock formations of all shapes, to strenuous climbs to the top of them, and everything in between.
The unique shapes and colors of these rocks inspired many artists, whose work is showcased in the multitude of art galleries in town. Southwest-inspired souvenir and specialty shops line the streets of Sedona. Restaurants with gorgeous views, and resorts, hotels, and motels for all budgets offer opportunities to spend a weekend, or any day or two in the area.
After exploring the red rock world of Sedona, drive north towards Flagstaff on AZ-89A, Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, one of the most beautiful winding roads in the country.
2. Stops Along Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive
Leaving Sedona, you’ll drive across the steel-arch Wilson Canyon Bridge, also known as the Midgley Bridge, built in 1938 across the spectacular Wilson Canyon. Stop at the picnic site to enjoy the views and even take a short hike into the canyon.
Past the bridge, you’ll drive through Oak Creek Canyon, famous throughout the world for its spectacular scenery. You’ll find plenty of picnic and camping sites, along with hiking trails to enjoy the shaded areas along the rushing creek. Drive through here in the off-season or early in the day for the best opportunities to stop, since it gets extremely crowded, especially in the summer.
The best views along the scenic drive are farther north, from a series of switchbacks, while the road climbs out from Oak Creek towards the high country of Arizona. Be sure to stop at Oak Creek Canyon Vista for a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the canyon. As a bonus, besides the views, you’ll find displays of Native American jewelry and craft items sold directly by local Native artists who created them.
The scenic town at the foot of the San Franciso Peaks, surrounded by the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, Flagstaff, sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. To explore the town and its surroundings, it is worth staying here overnight — or even spending multiple days.
The visitor center in the historic train station offers all the information about the town, including trails in the surrounding mountains. Leave your car at the visitor center, and explore historic downtown Flagstaff.
Visit the Museum of Northern Arizona and enjoy the exhibits showcasing the landscape, geology, archaeology, and Native People of the Colorado Plateau.
Drive up to Snow Bowl — any time of the year — for some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the state. Enjoy a hike through a ponderosa pine forest, or through patches of aspens, especially spectacular in fall. You can also take the scenic ski lift year-round to the top of the mountain for even more stunning views.
Before nightfall, drive up Mars Hill to the Lowell Observatory, and look through the telescope used to discover Pluto.
Pro Tip: If your planning a trip to either Flagstaff or Sedona, check out these seven key differences between the two.
4. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Named for the walnut trees growing at its bottom, Walnut Canyon National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the state. The museum in the visitor center offers an overview not only about these ruins, but also about the ancient people who built them and their descendants, the present-day Native American tribes of the area.
The steep Island Trail takes visitors halfway down into the canyon, and walks on the side of the cliff, near and through some of the cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua. Besides the spectacular ruins, the trail offers gorgeous views of the canyon.
Those who can’t hike the steep trail can still see several cliff dwellings and views of the canyon walking along the paved Rim Trail. Other things to do at Walnut Canyon National Monument include visiting pit-houses and other freestanding structures on the rim, enjoying scenic views and wildlife in the surrounding forest.
5. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Note: Sunset Crater is closed due to damage sustained during the Tunnel Fire, which started on April 17, 2022. As of May 1st, 2022, the National Park System is still evaluating the damages and is not sure when they will be able to open the monument. We will update this entry as soon as they do.
In the meantime, skip Sunset Crater, and follow I-89 to the next destination.
You can’t miss a stop at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, showcasing one of the most unique landscapes in the U.S., and around the world, surrounding the youngest volcano in the San Francisco Peaks mountain range. The cinder cone earned its name from its colors on the top, glowing in orange, gold, and red hues, vivid against its black and grey base, evoking the image of an Arizona sunset.
Besides admiring the beauty of the cinder cone and the surrounding lava flow, other reasons to stop here include learning about volcanoes and geology while hiking through a lava flow and onto the top of another cinder cone, Lenox Crater. Between May and October, you can even camp here, in the Bonito Lava Flow, or stop for a picnic any time. Enjoy wildlife, ranger-led programs, and if you camp, one of the darkest skies in Arizona.
Editor’s Note: As of April 19, 2022, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is closed due to the Tunnel Fire. Please visit NPS.gov for further information.
6. Wupatki National Monument
Note: While Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is closed, you can still reach Wupatki easier from the turn-off for Wupatki (bypassing the scenic road through the two monuments).
Stop at the visitor center and museum to learn about the people who built these structures around 1100, about a century after Sunset Crater last erupted. From here, walk through Wupatki Pueblo, the largest site in the area, home to the Tall House (a 100-room structure), a large kiva, and a ball court.
Besides Wupatki Pueblo, stop at the smaller sites, like Wukoki, Citadel, Nalahiku, Lomaki, and Box Canyon Pueblos.
Enjoy the views of the Painted Desert from any of these sites, especially beautiful at sunset. And, if you timed your stop here for sunset, spend the night at your next stop.
7. Cameron Trading Post
My family’s favorite spot to spend the night before visiting the Grand Canyon, Cameron Trading Post offers more than shopping for Native American arts and crafts.
Established in 1916 near the suspension bridge across the Little Colorado River Gorge, the original trading post was only used by Navajo and Hopi locals to trade. Over time, as the population of Arizona grew, travelers to the northern areas of the state started stopping here.
Still primarily a trading post and fine art gallery, here you’ll find authentic Native American hand-crafted jewelry, colorful Navajo rugs, pottery, baskets, paintings, and even traditional musical instruments like the Navajo flute.
However, to accommodate travelers, the original trading post now has a restaurant, hotel, RV park, convenience store, gas station, and even a post office.
8. Little Colorado River Gorge
A little-known stop along the way to the Grand Canyon from Cameron Trading Post is the Little Colorado River Gorge. A tribal park of the Navajo Nation, the stop offers an opportunity to enjoy scenic views of the gorge carved by the Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
The gorge, like the canyons within the Grand Canyon, create a world of beauty and contrasts. The dark red colors of the rocks along the gorge reflect on the waters of the Little Colorado, which borrow the color most of the year. However, in the summer months, the water’s mineral content turns it a shade of robin’s-egg blue.
Besides the stunning views of the gorge and the Little Colorado River, this stop also offers an opportunity to browse small shops and bead stands operated by the Navajo locals from nearby towns.
9. Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
The last stop is your main destination on this trip, the Grand Canyon National Park, namely its easternmost side, the Desert View Entrance. A stop at Desert View offers your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River that carved through it way below millions of years ago. Walk up to the historic Desert View Watchtower, enjoy the Native American artwork on the walls, and the views of the canyon from its top level.
After spending some time here, drive towards the main visitor center, where you can leave your car, and use the free shuttle to explore the rest of the park. Walk the interpretive Trail of Time along the rim to learn about the geology and age of the canyon, and enjoy the gorgeous views, slightly changing around each bend.
Spend time in the Grand Canyon Village, visit or shop at the Hopi House, walk around the train depot, and dine at El Tovar restaurant, overlooking the canyon.