When you think of Arizona, you’ll probably think of the desert, cacti, cowboys and of course, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – the Grand Canyon. But this fantastic state has so much more to offer.
So follow me to Arizona on an adventure filled with sun, outdoor activities, foodie trails, spas, ranches and giant cacti! If you’re wondering what to do in Arizona, here is a summary of the places I visited during my trip, as well as others that you can add on – for a fantastic road trip in the USA seeing the great outdoors.
We flew into Phoenix with British Airways, who have daily direct flights. It takes approximately 10 hours and we had the added comfort of flying in business class which, unsurprisingly, was wonderful. I’ve never flown Business Class before so to have less queuing on check-in, extra baggage allowance (for all the shopping you can do), use of the Club Lounge with unlimited drinks and food as well as my own cubicle onboard and champagne on arrival, it made this trip all the more exciting.
People generally visit Arizona in the winter – their winter is not as cold as ours! As it’s the desert, you can imagine it gets extremely hot in summer. Therefore, coming in the winter means you’ll benefit from more favourable temperatures to do all the activities on offer.
The best option is to hire a car as there are so many places to see with some rather long driving distances. If you don’t fancy driving on arrival, shuttles and taxis are available at the airport.
When arriving into Phoenix, there are several areas you can stay in such as Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale. Personally, my favourite was Scottsdale as the town itself has a mix of everything, but they are all within proximity of one another. I particularly loved Scottsdale Old Town and the Waterfront as it has a western/cowboy feel to it.
To make the most of the many activities on offer such as hiking, visiting museums, food tours and golf, I’d recommend spending a minimum of 3 days in the Phoenix area.
In Mesa, we visited Saguaro Lake, named after the famous Saguaro cactus, where we could do paddle boarding and kayaking. Other lakes such as the Lower Salt River, Canyon Lake and Apache Lake also have water sport activities.
You can also go hiking in many places, such as the Apache Trail in the Superstition Mountains, climb aboard the Dolly Steamboat for a cruise in Canyon Lake, take an Astronomy Dinner Cruise with Dr. Sky or visit nearby Goldfield Ghost Town.
In Phoenix, you can visit the Desert Botanical Gardens to get a better idea of the local horticulture before going hiking in the desert. We did a sunrise hot air balloon ride, which offered stunning views of the desert and was one of the highlights of my trip. If you’d rather stay on land, you can also follow a hiking trail to the top of Camelback Mountain for amazing views of the city.
If you have time, you should visit the Musical Instrument Museum, a great interactive museum that showcases music from around the world and hosts special exhibitions.
In Scottsdale, we explored the pretty Old Town and the waterfront, hiked in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve to observe wildlife and native plants, and visited the MacDonald’s Ranch and the Museum of the West for a taste of Western life.
If you’re interested in restaurants in this area, I would recommend doing an Old Scottsdale food tour that will take you to the Queen Creek Olive Mill, the Taco Guild (set in a lovely old Church) and the Phoenician, all serving delicious food.
So, Arizona is not all heat and desert. After Phoenix, we headed to Flagstaff, an area full of pine forests and not how you would imagine Arizona to be, but very beautiful. Our itinerary didn’t include the Grand Canyon this time, but you can easily access it from Flagstaff (about 2 hours’ drive away).
There are lots to do in Flagstaff: you can explore national parks, go hiking on one of the many hiking trails, go skiing at Arizona Snowbowl (seasons dependant) or visit museums.
Our first stop was a visit to the Museum of Northern Arizona to learn about American pioneer history and native cultures. For those interested in astronomy, you can go stargazing at the Lowell Observatory (Flagstaff is one of the Dark Sky Cities of the World thanks to their dedication to fighting light pollution) or see a real crater at Meteor Crater Natural Landmark and Sunset Crater National Monument.
Other nearby sites offering beautiful scenery include Walnut Canyon National Monument, home to some 800-year-old cliff dwellings from the past ‘Sinagua’ civilisation, and Petrified Forest, which has no trees but plenty of fossilised remains of wood. I recommend at least a couple of days to make the most of it all!
Just bear in mind that the elevation is higher in Flagstaff (over 2,000 m) and your body will need a day to adjust, so I wouldn’t recommend any extreme hiking on the first day!
Home to steep canyon walls, pine forests and the famous Red Rock State Park, Sedona is a must on your visit to Arizona. I would definitely recommend spending at least three days here. From Flagstaff, you can take route 89a via Oak Creek Canyon, a beautiful, scenic road that snakes through forests and cliffs.
Sedona is small, with quite a few independent shops and boasts beautiful backdrops of the mountains. The town considers itself to be very spiritual and claims to be home to several vortexes that emit spiritual energy. Whether you believe in this or not, Sedona’s beauty does leave you feeling calm.
There’s lots of activities to choose from. We did a sunrise morning hike with a brief meditation class, followed by an off-road ‘hummer’ tour in the mountains – both of which I would highly recommend. You’ll need at least three days to sample the outdoor activities, various healing spas, shopping and restaurants. Trust me, you won’t want to leave!
Prescott is how you’d imagine old America to look. It’s such a pretty town and has the wild west/cowboy vibe to it – as well as a Town Hall that looks like the one in Back to the Future!
The drive from Sedona takes about one and a half hours, but we stopped at a few vineyards on the way to sample Arizona’s wine scene. I must admit I’m not a wine connoisseur, but those who are will enjoy visiting all the upcoming winemakers in this region. On route, we also passed through Jerome, which is known for its haunted hotel and has an interesting mining past.
In Prescott, we visited the famous Whiskey Row block, where I learned the Texas Two-Step in one of its many saloons. There were people with cowboy hats and boots dancing the two-step in every bar we went to, which was really fun to watch as we don’t get things like this in the UK. Obviously, the Cowboys were doing far more advanced steps than the ones I learned!
The next day, we visited the historical Palace Restaurant and Saloon, where you can see actual bullet holes in the ceiling and buttons that cowboys used to call for ‘ladies of the night’. We also had breakfast at the Hassayampa Inn, a beautiful hotel with an old-fashioned metal cage lift and individually decorated rooms. Rumour has it that both places are haunted, but thankfully, I didn’t encounter any ghost!
If you like Rodeo, Prescott claims to have the world’s oldest rodeo competition, which happens in July every year. This is a popular event and you’ll need to book well in advance. I would recommend two nights’ minimum to enjoy the town – longer if going to the annual Rodeo event.
Approximately 3 hours’ drive south of Phoenix, Tucson is the ideal place for an authentic Southwestern experience. As the city is near the border of Mexico, it has a different feel to the other places mentioned above, more rustic and rural.
We stayed at Tanque Verde, a historic ranch founded in 1868. Staying on a traditional working ranch was an experience in itself! We went horse riding around the ranch, went on a guided hike and “wetted our whistle” (that’s “having a drink” for us Brits) with prickly pear cocktails at the in-house saloon. What a nice way to end the trip!
For more hiking, you can head to Saguaro National Park, Gates Pass and Sabino Bear Canyon. I’d also recommend the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a zoo, natural museum, botanical garden and art gallery all in one place – and the Mount Lemmon Sky Centre to observe the night sky.
To find out more about what to do in Arizona and start planning your trip to the USA, contact Travel Nation. We can arrange every aspect of your holiday, direct or multi-stop flights including Phoenix, accommodation, car hire and tours. Give us a call on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.