On the Road to your Perfect Summer Road Trip

Everything you need to know to plan your Arizona road trip

Driving around Arizona, the sixth largest state in the US, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported into the middle of nowhere, or even onto another planet—in one moment you’re surrounded by rocky red buttes, the next saguaro-speckled desert-scapes and then, verdant valleys.

Arizona is what road-trip daydreams are made of. But this is a destination that also richly rewards those who linger a little while and set off on foot to explore spectacular hiking trails and quirky desert towns.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

In the late 1800s, tens of thousands flocked to Bisbee hoping to prosper from the copper, gold, and silver deposits that were quickly mined to depletion. Today, it’s home to about 5,000 and remains a popular tourist destination to those from all over the state. The town is named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the financial backers of the Copper Queen Mine.

Copper Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re looking to dive into a little Arizona history, Bisbee is home to the state’s first golf course, Turquoise Valley; the first community library, Copper Queen; and America’s oldest ball field, Warren Ballpark all dating from the 1800s—and all still in operation and open to the public. You can also take a ghost tour, try out a variety of healthy food restaurants, or grab a drink at the famous St. Elmo, the oldest continually operated bar in Arizona.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

A day trip to red rock country is always a good idea. Psychics claim Sedona is home to powerful earth energy vortexes that can uplift believers with a spiritual experience. But even New Age naysayers appreciate the town for its spectacular red-rock scenery. Hike to the top of Cathedral Rock, one of Sedona’s four strongest vortexes, and browse in Main Street art galleries and, yes, New Age shops. Drive the Red Rock Scenic Byway, a 7½-mile stretch of Arizona 179 that winds through pine-tree-studded forests and past soaring red-rock spires shimmering with energy vortexes.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross, which sits right on the edge of stunning red cliffs is a beautiful site to see and the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village provides a serene outdoor space for shopping. Slide Rock State Park, originally a private apple farm is now a unique attraction where visitors can ride down a “natural” water current over smooth sandstone.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The name “museum” is deceiving. You’ll spend most of your time outdoors at Tucson’s 98-acre desert enclave that includes a botanical garden, zoo, aquarium, natural history museum, and art gallery. Exhibits of desert animals show bobcats, javelinas, and a mountain lion.

Duck into the hummingbird aviary to take selfies with the birds as they hover over a flower; marvel at the raptors overhead in the Birds of Prey demonstration at 10 a.m. daily and stop in the Reptile Hall to safely view the venomous critters you don’t want to meet in the desert.

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly

Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon. Though only a fraction of the Grand Canyon’s size and majesty, Canyon de Chelly offers more than a rugged landscape. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. Canyon de Chelly’s blend of landscape and cultural heritage allows a glimpse at an area originally inhabited 4,000 years ago and which still sustains people today.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

Once considered the wickedest town in the West, this mile-high former copper-mining town was rife in its 1890s heyday with drunks, gamblers, and ladies of the night. After the mine closed in the 1950s it became a ghost town.

Today Jerome is a vibrant artist hub and tourist destination filled with boutiques, galleries, wine-tasting rooms, and restaurants. Take a ghost-town tour, pan for gold at the old Gold King Mine, or learn about the area’s history in the Mine Museum at Jerome State Historic Park.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake

An unlikely gem in the desert foothills of southern Arizona, Patagonia Lake’s 265 surface acres provide boating, fishing, and bird watching. Patagonia Lake State Park’s popularity soars in the summer when visitors crowd its small beach, thanks to water far cooler than found in an Arizona swimming pool.

The lake was created as an attraction to sell lots in a subdivision, but the land was sold to the state when costs soared out of reach. The park has accommodations for RV and tent camping, as well as cabins for those who’d like to stay awhile longer. 

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

Follow in the footsteps of a legendary cast of characters when you mosey down these wooden sidewalks. Horse-drawn stagecoaches still clip-clop along the street, steely-eyed men in black frock coats still march toward a date with destiny, and it’s easy to forget what century it is.

At one end of Allen Street, you can walk into the O.K. Corral to see the famous gunfight reenacted. At the other end, you can tour the Birdcage Theatre where more bodies fell and ghosts still linger.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman

There is perhaps no better small-town welcoming committee than a group of friendly donkeys. Such is the case in Oatman where visitors will see the wild burros that freely roam the streets. The oldest continuously inhabited mining settlement in Arizona, the town has stayed (relatively) populated thanks to its desirable location on Route 66—which it pays hearty homage to with the main street full of themed souvenir shops. It’s also notably home to the Oatman Hotel where actor Clark Gable and starlet Carole Lombard are rumored to have stayed after getting hitched in the nearby town of Kingman.

Watson Lake, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

As Arizona’s original capital, this haven in the pine forests between Phoenix and Flagstaff has more than earned its spot among Arizona’s most captivating towns. While it retains a bit of Western charm like many of the state’s other small towns, it also offers a unique, laid-back atmosphere featuring events like art fairs at the Courthouse Plaza and shows at the historic Elks Theatre. It’s also the perfect town if you’re in the mood to explore a great beer scene. Hit the ever-popular Prescott Brewing Company or The Palace, an iconic saloon that’s been slinging drinks since 1877. Plus, just a few miles away from downtown, visitors can enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities—from fishing to kayaking—at scenic Watson Lake and Lynx Lake.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937