9 Unique Stops from Sedona to the Grand Canyon
Two of Arizona’s most well-known destinations, Sedona and the Grand Canyon, make it on the list of things to do 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 top destination for domestic and international travelers. Many visit not just Arizona, but the United States just to see it. And Sedona’s gorgeous red rock formations and the city’s art scene are almost as famous.
While both destinations deserve their popularity, those visiting the state have so many more unique destinations to look forward to. Many of them are between the two famous sites, especially if you enter through the less used entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. This is my family’s favorite way to enter the South Rim, not only for the scenery, but also because we encounter fewer people going that direction.
Here are some of the most spectacular stops en route from Sedona to the Desert View entrance to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Surrounded by hundreds of red rock formations and home to a slew of art shops, Sedona is known as one of the most beautiful small towns in the United States. Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of trails through beautiful red rock formations, from easy walks 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 have inspired many artists, whose work is featured in the city’s multitude of art galleries. Southwestern-inspired souvenir and specialty shops line the streets of Sedona. Restaurants with gorgeous views and resorts, hotels and motels to suit all budgets offer the opportunity to spend a weekend, or a day or two in the area.
After exploring the red rock world of Sedona, head north towards Flagstaff on AZ-89A, Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, one of the most scenic winding roads in the country.
2. Stops along the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive
Leaving Sedona, you will cross the Wilson Canyon Steel Arch Bridge, also known as the Midgley Bridge, built in 1938 over the spectacular Wilson Canyon. Stop at the picnic site to enjoy the views and even take a short hike through the canyon.
After the bridge, you will cross Oak Creek Canyon, famous worldwide for its spectacular scenery. You’ll find plenty of picnic and camping sites, as well as hiking trails to take advantage of shaded areas along the creek. Cross here out of season or early in the day for the best opportunities to stop, as it gets very crowded, especially in the summer.
The best views along the scenic drive are further north from a series of switchbacks as the road climbs from Oak Creek into Arizona’s high country. 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 crafts sold directly by the local Native artists who created them.
The picturesque town at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, surrounded by the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, Flagstaff sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. To explore the city and its surroundings, it is worth spending the night here – or even spending several days.
The visitor center at the historic station offers all the information about the city, 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 exhibits showcasing the landscape, geology, archeology, and indigenous peoples of the Colorado Plateau.
Drive to Snow Bowl – any time of the year – to experience some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the state. Enjoy a hike through ponderosa pine forest or through patches of aspen, especially spectacular in the fall. You can also ride the year-round panoramic ski lift to the top of the mountain for even more breathtaking views.
Before dark, climb Mars Hill to Lowell Observatory and gaze through the telescope used to discover Pluto.
Pro tip: If you’re planning a trip to Flagstaff or Sedona, check out these seven key differences between the two.
4. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Named after the walnut trees that grow at the bottom, Walnut Canyon National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular homes in the state. The Visitor Center Museum offers insight into not only these ruins, but also the ancient peoples who built them and their descendants, the present-day Native American tribes of the area.
The steep island trail takes visitors halfway down the canyon and walks up the side of the cliff, near and through some of the Sinagua-built cliff dwellings. Besides the spectacular ruins, the trail offers great views of the canyon.
Those who cannot hike the steep trail can still see several cliff dwellings and views of the canyon while walking along the paved Rim trail. Other things to do in Walnut Canyon National Monument include visiting pit houses and other free-standing structures on the rim, enjoying the scenic views and wildlife in the surrounding forest.
5. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
You can’t miss a stop at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which features one of the most unique landscapes in the United States and around the world, surrounding the youngest volcano in the San Francisco Peaks mountain range. The cinder cone gets its name from its colors on top, glowing in orange, gold and red hues, vivid against its black and gray base, evoking the image of an Arizona sunset.
Besides admiring the beauty of the cinder cone and surrounding lava flow, other reasons to stop here include learning about volcanoes and geology while hiking through a lava flow and atop another cinder cone, Lenox Crater. Between May and October you can even camp here at the Bonito lava flow or stop for a picnic anytime. Enjoy wildlife, ranger-led programs and, if you’re camping, one of Arizona’s darkest skies.
6. Wupatki National Monument
Further along Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road, paralleling AZ-89, you’ll find Wupatki National Monument, showcasing and protecting more of Arizona’s spectacular ancient ruins.
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 there, stroll 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 views of the Painted Desert from any of these sites, especially stunning at sunset. And, if you timed your stop here for sunset, stay overnight at your next stop.
7. Cameron Trading Post
My family’s favorite place 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 residents to trade. Over time, as Arizona’s population grew, travelers to northern regions of the state began to stop here.
Still primarily a trading post and art gallery, here you’ll find authentic Native American handcrafted jewelry, colorful Navajo rugs, pottery, baskets, paintings, and even traditional musical instruments like the Navajo flute.
However, to accommodate travellers, the original trading post now has a restaurant, hotel, RV park, convenience store, gas station, and even a a post office.
8. Little Colorado River Gorge
A little-known stop on the way to the Grand Canyon from Cameron Trading Post is the Little Colorado River Gorge. Navajo Nation Tribal Park, the stop offers the opportunity to enjoy panoramic views of the gorge carved by the Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
The gorges, like the canyons of the Grand Canyon, create a world of beauty and contrast. The dark red colors of the rocks along the gorge are reflected in the waters of the Little Colorado, which borrow the color for most of the year. However, during the summer months, the mineral content of the water gives it a robin’s egg blue hue.
Along with the stunning views of the gorge and the Little Colorado River, this stop also offers the opportunity to browse small shops and bead stands operated by Navajo residents of nearby towns.
9. Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
The final stop is your main destination on this trip, 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 it out millions of years ago. Ascend to the historic Desert View Watchtower, see Native American artwork on the walls, and take in views of the canyon from its upper level.
After spending some time here, head to the main visitor center, where you can leave your car, and use the free shuttle to explore the rest of the park. Hike the weather interpretive trail along the rim to learn about the geology and age of the canyon, and enjoy the magnificent views, changing slightly at every turn.
Spend time in Grand Canyon Village, visit or shop at the Hopi House, stroll through the train depot, and dine at El Tovar Restaurant, overlooking the canyon.