Mixing the spirit of a road trip with that of luxury travel, in recent years, I’ve traveled the roads between the Grand Canyon and the cities of Page, Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson. Winding through red rock formations, zigzagging through the Valley of the Sun – Phoenix – and then driving in a straight line into the heart of North America’s largest desert area, the Sonoran Desert, Arizona offers landscapes that are both breathtaking and soothing.
Arizona - Things to see and do
Arizona is best known for its famous natural attraction, the Grand Canyon. However, if we were to take the road further south, or west, even east (!), to little-known places, what would we discover?
Let me share with you these experiences, from the most classic to the most overlooked (wrongly so!), organized following a north-south axis, that will make your next road trip to the 48th state unforgettable.
1. Admire the Great Classic, the Grand Canyon.
Grandiose and breathtaking, the Grand Canyon can be discovered in many different ways. As the South Rim is the most popular, you can park at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and walk along the paved Rim Trail, which makes this natural wonder accessible to everyone. Afterwards, a stop at the Desert View Watchtower, built in 1932, allows you to relax in front of a breathtaking view of the chasm carved out by the Colorado River, which branches off to the north of the state from this point.
For hiking enthusiasts, my favorites include the South Kaibab, Hermit and Bright Angel trails. Of course, you’ll need to be well equipped and bring plenty of water (especially in summer!) for these strolls, which descend into the heart of the canyon, but require a climb back up! Finally, for the best sunset ever, head to Grandview Point: the contrasting colors of the canyon escarpments at dusk make for a magical moment!
Finally, many opt for a helicopter tour or a rafting trip, which can be booked on Viator.
2. See the famous Horseshoe Bend
Just two hours north of the Grand Canyon, on the Arizona-Utah border, lies the photogenic Horseshoe Bend. The place has surged in popularity thanks to social media in the last decade, and the authorities have had to provide parking and charge for access. However, having been there before and after the tourist developments, it’s still a magnificent place! Here, you’ll see the Colorado River flow around an ancient rocky plateau, now eroded, to form a horseshoe shape.
3. Cruise Antelope Canyon and take a dip in Lake Powell
Just a few miles from the town of Page, located on Navajo territory, Antelope Canyon is something of a must-see, as there are few occasions when you can safely descend to the bottom of a narrow gorge with such contrasting orange colors as here! A guide toAntelope Canyon Navajo Tours accompanies you on the hour-long walk, which I think you should plan for when the sun is at its highest, so that you can capture the sun’s rays as they soak into the gorge and hit the rock faces, making for a memorable experience!
At the end of this tour, a detour to Lake Powell allows you to dive into this lake with its reddish rocky shores and milky-blue water. For easy access, Wahweap has a small beach overlooking the vastness of the lake. However, in my opinion, the best – and most privileged – spot is hidden away atAntelope Point Marina. Park your car and, facing the lake, turn left to follow the rocks along the lake. Several small, peaceful coves offer safe bathing.
4. Hike and climb through Sedona's breathtaking rock formations
Between the cities of Flagstaff and Phoenix lies charming Sedona: a real favorite! Renowned for its energy vortexes, cosmic energies are said to emanate from the reddish-orange rock formations for which the town is famous. Sedona is a sacred place, an open-air cathedral. In this spirit inspired by the New Age movement, don’t miss the many crystal boutiques, art galleries and small cafés in the center of town. The place is still touristy, but it has a unique kitschy, esoteric charm!
Since the 1960s, thousands of tourists have come to Sedona every year to experience the effects of this energy zone. If it amuses you like me, the Airport Mesa and Cathedral Rock hikes are a must!
Easily accessible from the main road, the Airport Mesa loop is 5 kilometers long and a perfect first hike in Sedona. Fairly easy, it offers magnificent views of the town of Sedona, as well as the impressive Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock. By starting your trip with this hike, you’ll also be able to get some idea of the region’s size and scope.
Cathedral Rock is also worth the detour, and the effort! The hike, which takes a fairly steep path, leads to the pass between two gigantic monoliths. Personally, I find the highlight of this hiking trail to be the first level reached on the ascent. The panorama that stretches to the horizon is breathtaking: the red-orange rocks contrast with the green of the Coconino National Forest. Wow!
Finally, the Tlaquepaque Market, known as the Art and Soul of Sedona, is not to be missed! Although it’s a reproduction of a Mexican village, it is magical day and night, especially at Christmas! The cobblestone roads, walls covered in natural stucco, and numerous arches to move from one space to another transport us completely elsewhere!
5. Discover Jerome's gloomy atmosphere
Having known its golden age with the exploitation of a copper mine in the last century, Jerome, perched on a mountainside in the heart of the desert, has almost become a ghost town today. Surviving only thanks to tourism, the town offers a typical Wild West atmosphere, but, as a bonus, skeletons haunt the premises; literally placed in certain parts of the town! You could visit the Jerome Grand Hotel, but you do so at your own risk, as all sorts of legends cast a bad spell on visitors. Perhaps you’d prefer a cozy cup of coffee at The Flatiron!
6. Try to enjoy Phoenix, and succeed a little!
Maybe it’s because Arizona is full of natural wonders, but Phoenix still seems to me to this day a little bland in what it has to offer. Of course, if you’re staying at one of Scottsdale’s luxury hotels (the ADERO, Autograph Collection, for example), and enjoy the extensive shopping areas, you’re in for a great time! For my part, it took a little patience to appreciate the time I spent there, so here are a few great discoveries.
First, a brief stroll through downtown Phoenix will help you get your bearings. Don’t miss the artisan stores a little further north along Roosevelt Street, and take a break at the very cool The Churchill food court. In the afternoon, hike at Mount Camelback for a bird’s-eye view of the Phoenix expanse. Just before sunset, a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden is sure to please, with its concentrated desert flora. Finally, dinner at Sotise (French-inspired cuisine) is, in my opinion, a must if you want to eat well in Arizona!
7. Marvel at the splendor of the saguaros.
When you’re off the beaten track in Arizona, and chatting with the locals, “What brings you here?” is definitely THE question you get asked the most. For me, the answer was to marvel at the splendour of the saguaros, the giant cactus that symbolizes the American West!
Of course, you’ll see many of them along the highways of this southwestern US state, but here are two protected parks where you can take the time to wander through these giants. The first is on the outskirts of the Valley of the Sun (just outside Phoenix): Lost Dutchman State Park. Having discovered it by chance while visiting the ghost town of Goldfield (well worth the detour, by the way), the short hikes at the foot of the imposing Superstition Mountains are breathtaking. The sunset here is a thing of beauty! The second park is the renowned Saguaro National Park, home to thousands of majestic cacti. Entering this preservation area is like entering a world of exception, so unique and surprisingly tall are these iconic trees! After a visit to this magical place, a detour to Tucson, or even a short stay in the city, is very pleasant. The old town’s Mexican heritage makes a stroll through the pastel-colored adobe houses a delightful experience.
8. Discover a former scientific research center in the heart of the desert
If you’re looking for a completely new experience, Biosphère 2 is the place for you! This research center, built between 1987 and 1991, was intended to be a kind of closed living quarters, designed to carry out tests for future Mars missions. In other words, the visit immerses visitors in the experience of a group of humans who were locked up in this enclosed space in the middle of the desert in the early 1990s. Inside, you can visit the various ecosystems and scientific research facilities. It’s a bewildering and fascinating visit!
9. Relax at the Ritz Dove Mountain and the JW Marriott Star Pass
In Arizona, there are some great opportunities for luxury stays around Scottsdale, near Phoenix, but my choice fell more on two Marriott hotels around Tucson: the JW Marriott Star Pass and the Ritz Dove Mountain.
JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Spa: a great option for using a free night certificate obtained with the Amex Marriott card. A hotel that could use a little love, but the terrace with a breathtaking view of the valley, the morning ritual with a First Nations man, and the mountains where it’s fun to hike are all worth it!
Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain: a sure-fire favourite! The use of a free overnight certificate, with a 5,000-point bonus, was well worth it! Indeed, the service is very attentive and personalized, the rooms are decorated with care, the view of the Dove Mountain canyon is splendid, the relaxation area with the swimming pool is vast, the proposed activities (such as the night hike in the canyon) are fun! I loved my stay.
10. Rest in Wild West towns!
On an Arizona road trip, there are several stopover towns worth a detour, and here are three of them.
Kingman: on the mythical Route 66, this town in the north of the state offers a setting typical of Arizona. The small museum and locomotive park are well worth a stop.
Williams: still on Route 66, this is the gateway to the Grand Canyon. You’ll feel like you’re in a Wild West movie, and a stop at Bearizona Wildlife Park gives you the chance to meet the wildlife of the Southwest.
Lake Havasu: the main reason for stopping here is Lake Havasu State Park. A dip in the warm waters of the lake with a view of the mountains is a must if you’ve had a long day on the road!
Arizona - When to go
Having traveled to Arizona at all times of the year, I think each season has its advantages.
From November to February, although some places may be covered in a carpet of snow, or the rains may be more prevalent, the crowds are almost non-existent. In my opinion, this is an excellent time to travel if you want to enjoy constant peace and quiet, and cool but comfortable temperatures.
From March to May, as well as in September and October, the weather is mild and sunny. As an added bonus, the spring blossoming in the deserts is stunning, offering landscapes of breathtaking contrasts.
From June to August, crowds descend on the national parks, temperatures climb to around 30 to 40 degrees Celsius and Arizona’s roads are packed. But never mind, sometimes it’s the only time you have to travel. Well, never mind, don’t let that discourage you, and go for it, because you’ll love it, and the chances of forgetting the oppressive mercury are high!
Arizona - How to get there with points
The best way to reach Arizona is as follows: from Montreal, Air Canada offers a direct flight to Phoenix on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; from Toronto, it’s a daily direct flight. You could always stop over in Toronto and leave whenever you like!
Another interesting option is to fly directly to Las Vegas and take the opportunity to visit this city of excess, located in Nevada, before hitting the road for Arizona.
If you want to travel to Arizona with Reward Points, it’s easy enough! In fact, you’ll be looking at between 40,000 and 60,000 points per person for a round-trip economy ticket to either Phoenix or Las Vegas. For example, a round-trip Montreal-Phoenix economy flight from September 22 to 30, 2023 costs 20,800 points and $194 in fees and taxes, or 40,216 points if paid for entirely in points. This is calculated according to the preferred rate for Aeroplan credit card holders. If you plan ahead, this can sometimes be advantageous.
Arizona - Where to stay with points?
Fans of the big hotel chains should be aware that they have quite a presence in Arizona : in this case, Marriott offers a diverse range of hotels throughout the state. As an example, here are a few hotels where I’ve stayed in Arizona, and where using points is advantageous:
–Westin Phoenix Downtown Westin Phoenix Downtown: well located, spacious modern rooms, rooftop pool, excellent breakfasts. (about 40K points a night)
–AC Hotel Tucson Downtown : located 2 steps from the main road, friendly staff, good breakfasts, room with mountain views. It’s very easy to get a suite upgrade. (about 25K points a night)
–Courtyard Sedona: located on the edge of town, the hotel offers beautiful views of the Sedona Rocks. On the other hand, hotels are very expensive in Sedona, and the Courtyard is no exception, so value for money is not exceptional.
Without a doubt, Arizona is a once-in-a-lifetime road trip state! From larger-than-life landscapes to memorable sunsets and the western atmosphere of many villages, you’re sure to make some extraordinary discoveries.