There are moments in your relationship that you know you will always remember. You can feel the weight of them and their importance before they are over. There’s something about the air in these moments, it feels electrified, causing you to perk up and pay attention — something special is happening here.
This romantic Arizona road trip was one of those moments.
Joe planned the whole thing as a surprise for my birthday. Truth be told, things had not been great with us beforehand. But we had been working hard at our marriage, and this felt like a big deal. After all of that hard work and energy, it was a chance to see where we stood. We were both nervous.
Naturally, he nailed it. This surprise birthday trip turned into a romantic 7 day Arizona road trip filled with some of the best hiking and natural scenery in the country, delicious food, and lots of quality time together.
Best Time of Year to Go to Arizona
March to May.
The Spring months are best for Arizona weather when the temperature is more moderate.
How to Get To Arizona
Fly into Phoenix
Phoenix is the largest of Arizona’s airports and the likeliest one to fly into. If you are starting your trip as we did in Sedona, you can rent a car at the airport and make the 2-hour drive North. If you prefer, you can connect to a flight that will take you to Flagstaff, a 40-minute drive to Sedona.
Arizona Road Trip Itinerary
This road trip travels from the Northern reaches of the state to the Southern, encompassing 2 National Parks, 1 Arizona State park, and countless other natural wonders. Read on to find the best sunrise spot in Sedona, the most romantic restaurant in Phoenix, and our favorite hikes in the area.
Sedona: Days 1 through 4
Beautiful, mesmerizing Sedona, Arizona. I did not know anything about this gorgeous little town tucked into the red rocks before this trip. Now, I cannot stop thinking about it.
Sedona has attracted the wealthy and famous for decades, who flock to the area for the isolation of the desert with all the luxuries of a world-class resort town. The spas are expensive, the restaurants elegant, and the houses mind-blowing.
However, in spite of all of the wealth contrasting our simple backpacker-esque trip, we loved Sedona. It is a bit further from the Grand Canyon, our ultimate goal for this part of our road trip, but makes for a gorgeous home base to explore the canyon and surrounding area.
Where to Stay in Sedona
- Hyatt Residence Sedona: This is where we stayed mostly because we had Hyatt points. The room was nice enough, a condo style with a kitchen we never used. The best part of this hotel is the grounds. There is a heated pool which stays open late–a solid spot for stargazing after a day of hiking–and a fire pit that we often found other travelers to chat up.
- Sky Ranch Lodge Resort: If you’re on more of a budget, this hotel is well-reviewed and much cheaper compared to surrounding hotels.
- Enchantment Resort: A really well-reviewed 5-star hotel if you’re looking to splurge on this trip. We love a good day out getting dirty and hiking followed by a night of pure pampering.
Day 1: Drive to Sedona
Even though you fly into Phoenix, save the exploration of this area for a later part of this trip. Instead, make this first day a long travel day and head right to Sedona from the airport.
First things first. Before you do anything else, stop at the first In N’ Out that you see and order yourself a burger and fries animal style. Then, proceed towards Sedona. If you’re itching to get out and start exploring, stop off at Tonto Natural Bridge. A quick hike takes you to a viewing platform underneath this giant, naturally formed stone archway. There is a trickling waterfall that cascades down from the 14-story high “bridge” into a pool below.
Day 2: Grand Canyon National Park
The whole reason Joe planned this trip to Arizona was for the Grand Canyon. I had been wistfully talking about it for years leading up to it.
We woke up early this day and made the 2-hour drive North around sunrise. The scenery changed drastically and suddenly over the course of our trip. Snow-capped mountain ranges appeared on the horizon near Flagstaff, another potential base for the Grand Canyon. We drove through light snowfall in evergreen forests and watched wide-eyed as elk made their way down the side of the highway.
First, you need to park your car before heading to the rim. There is a shuttle on site that runs regularly back and forth from the lot to the main trail entrances. You can find the latest shuttle info and updates on the National Park Services website.
When the shuttle first rounded a bend in the road and offered a glimpse of the canyon, I cried. It took my breath away. There are few things I have experienced during my travels that met the enormous expectations I placed on it, but the Grand Canyon was one of them.
There are endless options for hiking in and around the canyon. Since we had only allotted one day for the canyon–a mistake, in our opinion, definitely opt for longer if you have the time–the onsite ranger suggested one of the most popular trails.
South Kaibab Trail is 6 miles round trip if you do the full route. It has some of the best views of the whole canyon, is easily accessible from the main shuttle site, and, as you might expect, is accordingly very crowded. But, in our humble opinion, the trail more than made up for the crowds it attracts. We’d do it again if we went back! Don’t let the short distance fool you, the drastic changes in elevation make this is a really challenging hike.
Check the NPS website if you want to stay at one of the hotels near the rim or camp at the Grand Canyon.
Day 3: Sedona
Get up for sunrise at Airport Mesa. While there’s a parking lot with a few spots, this is a popular place to come at this time. T
Afterward, grab breakfast tacos at Tortas De Fuego in downtown Sedona. They have really solid tacos with homemade hot sauces that we joyfully spilled over every open food surface.
Wander through the town for the day, enjoying the art galleries and shops if that’s your thing. Our thing was to take a hearty nap so we could prep for dinner. Alternately, head back to the Grand Canyon during the day to try out one of the many other trails.
For dinner, book yourself a reservation at the beautiful, romantic Cress on Oak Creek restaurant. The food wasn’t particularly memorable, but the setting of eating it on a stone patio overlooking a winding creek set against the red rock certainly was. Think tables covered in white tablecloths, lit by the soft glow of tea lights, and the soft gurgling of the water as it gently roves over the rocky creekbed.
After dinner, follow the roads out of the city for some gorgeous big sky stargazing, the kind we dream about on the East coast. Pop by one of the many trailheads set away from the cities lights, or drive into one of the pull-offs along Dry Creek Road.
We sauntered up to Dry Creek Road around midnight to look at the night sky, all starry-eyed and in love. I went to hop on the roof of our rental like I’d done as a kid, but that lasted roughly 30 seconds when we heard the “Yip, yip” of coyotes repeatedly around us. We booked it back to the safety of our car and glanced out of our windshield shyly for a few minutes before bailing completely.
Joe swears they were a few feet away, but your mind has a way of playing tricks on you in the dark. I think they were a bit further off, however. It’s neither here nor there. I’ll admit I was the first one on my feet sprinting back to the car when I first heard the coyote’s terrifying little calls.
Day 4: Hot Springs or National Monument & Drive back to Phoenix
Time for a caveat – we attempted the hot springs but did not make it. Unlike when we were traveling to hot springs in Tuscany, these were not well-paved roads. For starters, we did not have a 4 wheel drive car. But even if we did I’m not sure we would have gone for it. The dirt roads are narrow — too narrow for a car to pass comfortably — winding, and have a sheer drop off on the side. We started down the road and ended up turning back. Also, if there is bad weather, these roads often become washed out.
That being said, we highly encourage you to check out the Verde Hot Springs if you’re more adventurous than us! They seem amazing, and like they draw in other adventurous folks.
If you, like us, are not willing to make the sketchy drive to the springs, get back on the road towards Phoenix. About an hour in, stop off at the Montezuma Castle National Monument. Carved into the bedrock of the Arizona desert are thousand-year-old pueblas, intricately built with 40-50 rooms. Visitors are no longer allowed inside the “castle”, but learning about the ancient civilization that lived here somewhere around 1100 A.D. is enough to make the visit worthwhile.
Alternately, spend the morning exploring Red Rock State Park hikes and swimming holes before leaving the Sedona area and heading back to Phoenix.
Phoenix: Days 4 through 7
Phoenix surprised me. I have always thought of it as a new Florida, a place where rich white people go to retire and play golf. Don’t get me wrong, that is a huge part of Phoenix, but much like the sweeping generalizations I made about Florida–parts of which I now love dearly–it is also so much more than that.
It’s artsy and cool, with all the youthful vibes that come from a small city stacked with colleges. The food scene is modern and touristy, packed with steakhouses and the like, but there are also surprising street food delights and beautiful and thoughtful fine dining spots. In the Spring, the city fills up with baseball lovers who come to watch their teams’ prep for the upcoming season.
This all comes nicely packaged with access to some of the best hiking and natural scenery in the country. There are summits within city limits that have views stretching hundreds of miles and nearby state parks perfect for swimming away a hot Summer day.
We were really impressed with it, and I will shamefully admit my arrogant expectations were misguided and easily overcome here.
Where to Stay in Phoenix
There are different neighborhoods within Phoenix.
Nearby Scottsdale has the golf course resorts but also the lower level University student friendly hotels. There is a historic section, a downtown business district, and more residential areas. We stayed in Scottsdale because it’s the more tourist-friendly of the areas and we could walk to the area of shops and restaurants, something we always consider when we visit somewhere.
- Hyatt Place Scottsdale: I mention this only because it’s where we stayed, though I don’t have much positive to say about it. In general, we find Hyatt Places to be reasonably priced budget hotels that are fine and have everything you need. This one was across from a night club which we heard all night. Not ideal for a trip based on early morning hikes and lots of physical activity, or
wantingto have a romantic getaway with your partner. We wouldn’t pick it again.
- The Clarendon Hotel & Spa: A more mid-range option that has luxury amenities in downtown Phoenix.
- W Hotel Scottsdale: A luxury option but W hotels are pretty reliably great places to stay if you have the budget. This one is very well reviewed.
Day 5: Saguaro National Park
The giant cacti that this park is named for can live up to 100 years old and grow 60, 70, 80 feet tall.
In spite of my background in biology and ecology, I constantly anthropomorphize all plants and animals. Needless to say, I was freaking out, ya know, the entire time I was at Saguaro NP. I spent our entire day hiking in this beautiful place talking about how I needed to hug and cuddle these sweet gentle giant succulents.
Why. Is. She. Like. This – is what I imagine Joe was repeating under his breath the entire time. Though he’s too polite for me to ever verify this…
Saguaro was another unexpected love. It was a national park I’d never heard of, one that gets far fewer visitors than nearby Grand Canyon, and is home to an array of wildlife and plants in addition to the towering Saguaros. Plus, the gift shop had this cactus flower flavored licorice that made for a fabulous road trip companion.
We opted for the Bridal Wreath Falls Trail in the East side of the park after a recommendation from the onsite ranger. The winding trail passed through Saguaro fields, up into the mountains with views of the valley below, and into seemingly misplaced meadows. At times, we’d dip into dry creek beds, one of which we swore we saw the infamous African Killer Bees that hang in the area. At another point along the trail, much to my delight, we watched a 4 or 5-foot long snake chase some sort of prey off of a cliff nearby. Like, real epic Nat Geo kind of chase down, though sadly we couldn’t tell if the snake caught it.
The trail ends at the Bridal Falls which was dry when we visited. If you want to see it in action, come during the winter months when snowmelt keeps it at what looks like a solid flow from pictures. It’s about 6 miles round trip. While the trail itself is not particularly difficult, there is some elevation gain and it is exposed to the sun the entire time. This would be a very painful walk in the Summer months, we would imagine.
Save some time for a trip on the loop drives (either East or West) at sunset when you can catch the cactus shadows that stretch hundreds of feet. The road makes for an easy photo shoot op with your new cactus besties as well.
You may or may not want to stay in your hotel room and order Pizza Hut after spending your day on these full sun exposed trails like we did or, you may be way less embarrassing and put pants on for a night on the town. If which, we commend you.
If you go out and are in Scottsdale, head to the waterfront area and stop off at one of the many pretty, albeit likely overpriced, restaurants overlooking the waterway.
Day 6: Saguaro Lake
Located about an hours drive away from the city is Saguaro Lake. It’s deep, blue water is circled by towering desert cliffs speckled with our dear friends, the Saguaros. The cacti cling to the rock faces overlooking the water and line the roads on the drive out.
The lake is popular with the locals for recreational activities. There are a lot of options once you get here, but in our opinion, the only choices for what to do at Saguaro Lake are water-related. If you want a good paddle, toss your kayak or SUP into the water and cruise around. There are motor boat rentals available of all shapes and sizes, no boating license required. Deep pockets of cool water make for excellent fishing here if that’s your thing. Nearby, you can rent tubes and spend a day lazily cruising the Salt River.
We opted to rent a boat and spent a couple of hours whipping around the lake. The further in you go, the sheerer the cliff faces are and the fewer people you’ll bump into. Saguaro Lake is really a pocket of water connecting one part of the Salt River to another, meaning you can spend a long time on the water here if you use the connecting riverways to lake hop. This is a pretty popular spot, so we’d avoid it on the weekends when it’s likely to be jam-packed with other boaters.
On your way back stop by The Stand in Scottsdale for your first taste of Indian flatbread tacos. This is a cash only, literal stand on the side of the road that serves up non-greasy versions of the fried flatbread found only in this part of the country. After it’s tossed in the deep-fryer, the flatbread is topped with Tex-Mex style taco fillings like ground meat, sour cream, shredded cheese, and chopped onion, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Day 7: Phoenix
Spend your morning climbing the challenging Camelback mountain for great views stretching over Phoenix and onto the mountains beyond. Like other Arizona sites and scenes, the mountain is not what it seems. Mileage-wise it’s a really short hike, but folks are regularly being airlifted off for underestimating it. There is a rock scramble at the bottom and some free climbing near the top, though you don’t need climbing experience to do this. What ends up besting those who don’t make it down from the top is the steep, near constant elevation gain on the trail.
After you survive the climb, stop by the open air farmers market to sample local produce and some decent street food carts. This is only open on Saturdays but operates year round. The day we went there were live musicians playing, the sun was out, and the idealistic little nook held more of a romantic feel than we ever would have guessed.
For the last night, go all out with another romantic dinner at Quiessence. The farm-to-table restaurant has a handful of tables set in their beautiful garden lined with string lights that catch the evening breeze just right. You’ll want to reserve these tables in advance, the indoor ambiance is much less impressive.
Day 8: Fly out of Phoenix
It’s time to say goodbye. Drop your rental right back off at Phoenix’s airport and sadly board your plane home with promises to return.
This was one of the best road trips we’ve done. The drives were just as stunning as the hikes, the food surprisingly delicious at restaurants that capitalized on the gorgeous scenery, and a thriving outdoor culture that supports spending every waking moment breathing in the fresh, desert air.
Tips for an Arizona Road Trip
- Eat In N Out burger. And for the love of all things fast food, order it animal style before you tell me that Five Guys or Shake Shack is better. Better yet, don’t tell me if you feel that way. I’m just not interested in having that kind of friendship-shattering debate…
- The roads are long and the weather crazy. Plan for snow on the same day that it’s 80 and sunny outside your hotel room. Don’t be surprised to see a hail storm a few miles from a summer-type thunderstorm. More than once, we ran into these exact scenarios.
- On the above note, layer for all activities! The weather is varied and changes constantly.
- Arizona back roads are not like the back roads we have on the East coast of the US. These turn to narrow,
cliff hugging, dirt roads real quick. Proceed with caution and only if you have experience driving in these conditions!
Hikes to Try on your Arizona Road Trip
- Grand Canyon National Park: Kaibob Trail
SaugaroNational Park: Bridal Wreath Falls
- Red Rock State Park: Join all available trails together for a
5 mileloop of the park.
- Phoenix: Camelback Mountain
Best Food on the Road
- In N Out: See rant above.
- The Stand: Super cheap, super delicious Navajo tacos served on a stand on the side of the road.
- Quiessence: Romantic farm-to-table served in a beautiful garden.
Other Great Spots to Visit on an Arizona Road Trip
We did not have the time to see everything we wanted to while traveling around Arizona, though you can be sure we will be back to this beautiful state at the next possible opportunity. In the meantime, here are the items still on our bucket list. If you try any of these, let us know how they are!
Did you re-create this trip? Try something different? We’d love to hear about it! Bonus points if you pulled it off as a surprise for someone you love.