Memorial Day 2024: Best Arizona Road Trips for the Long Holiday Weekend

Each year, the summer road trip season kicks off with Memorial Day weekend

Memorial Day weekend changes things. The calendar claims that weeks of spring still remain on the books. But for all intents and purposes, it’s hello, summer. The holiday also provides a chance to get out of town for a wonderful stretch. 

While backyard barbecues and pool parties are great, there’s a whole lot of Arizona just waiting for you. Take this opportunity to head someplace cool or wet or both. For a few glorious days, you can refresh and recharge. Now you’re ready to face the summer. At least until the July 4 break.

Here are some of Arizona’s best Memorial Day getaways. 

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Verde Valley adventure: Tigers, a zip line and a historic train ride

Cottonwood and the Verde Valley are your destinations for an action-packed holiday weekend.

Nestled in the high desert of Camp Verde, Out of Africa Wildlife Park provides sanctuary for hundreds of exotic animals and features dozens of large predators. The preserve spreads across 100 acres of rolling terrain. Tiger Splash is the signature show. There is no training and no tricks.

The daily program is spontaneous, just animals frolicking with their caretakers. Visitors can also take a narrated African Bush Safari and attend the Giant Snake Show.

Outside the park is Predator Zip Line which offers a two- to three-hour zip line tour across five lines and a suspension bridge high above the animals. Tours are $99.95; you can save $10 by booking online. 

For a ground-based journey, climb aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad and rumble into scenic backcountry. The train departs from the station in Clarkdale and travels into a high-walled canyon carved by the Verde River and lined by cottonwood trees. Such a rich riparian habitat lures a variety of wildlife, notably eagle, hawk, heron, mule deer, javelina, coyote, and beaver.

By the way, I have a series of posts on the Verde Valley:

Verde Canyon Railroad © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Celebrate Wupatki National Monument’s centennial

On the quiet prairie northeast of Flagstaff the pueblos of Wupatki National Monument rise like red-boned ghosts above swaying grasses.

The eruption of Sunset Crater in 1085 covered the dry basin with volcanic ash and cinders creating arable terrain. Soon afterward, Ancestral Puebloans moved in and built the freestanding dwellings that appear almost as natural rock formations.

This year Wupatki celebrates its centennial as a national monument. Short pathways lead to up-close encounters with a handful of these ancient structures. Behind the visitor center, a paved trail leads to Wupatki Pueblo, the largest dwelling in the park. The sprawling three-story ruin contains nearly 100 rooms and straddles an outcropping of sandstone.

Admission is $25 per vehicle and covers both Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, connected by a scenic road.

Tackle the Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course

After your visit to Wupatki and Sunset Crater, you’ll have the rest of the weekend to experience Arizona’s summer capital. Why not sample the tree-top thrills of Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course at Fort Tuthill County Park?

Conquer rope swings, climbing walls, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, and ziplines. There are multiple circuits on the adult playground plus a course designed for children ages 7-11. Adult course costs $60 as does the zipline adventure or combine the two for $99. Children’s course is $30.

Ax throwing and laser tag in Flagstaff

If you prefer indoor activities, FlagTagAZ offers ax and knife throwing, laser tag, darts, arcade games, and more. They also serve beer, wine, and mead in their pizza café.

Flagstaff Brewery Trail

Speaking of beer, there’s something supremely satisfying about a day spent walking around Flagstaff’s historic downtown and Southside neighborhoods with their eclectic collections of shops, galleries, restaurants and, yes, craft breweries.

There are eight breweries to be exact, all waiting to quench your thirst with a cold craft beer. You can download a digital passport and score a free commemorative pint glass.

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

You really should see Canyon de Chelly. Here’s how.

At Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona, sheer cliffs plunge hundreds of feet to lush bottomlands lined with crops, pastures, and cottonwood trees.

It’s a staggering blend of high drama and pastoral beauty. The scenic canyon shelters thousands of archaeological sites while dozens of Navajo families still live and farm there during warmer months.

Take one day to travel the rim drives for the stunning vistas. The North Rim Drive is 17 miles with three overlooks at prominent cliff dwellings and is best in the morning. The South Rim Drive is 19 miles with seven viewpoints is even more spectacular and is especially exquisite when afternoon light floods the canyon. 

Then take another day to explore the inner canyon with a Navajo guide. Private operators offer jeep, horseback, or hiking outings. Park admission is free; there are fees for tours.

Tours also leave daily from Thunderbird Lodge within the park.

Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation also manages Cottonwood Campground near the Canyon de Chelly visitor center. The campground has grills, picnic tables, and restrooms. No showers or hookups are available. Maximum RV length is 40 feet.

Here are some helpful resources:

Fool Hollow Lake: Fish, hike, or take a swim 

Nestled in the pines outside of Show Low, 149-acre Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area contains one of the loveliest bodies of water in the White Mountains which is high praise indeed. There’s big open water and isolated coves, quiet marshes, and long channels.

This is the kind of lake that makes you want to jump in a kayak and go exploring. Fortunately, you can. Canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals are available from J&T’s WildLife Outdoors at the east boat launch ramp. They also offer a guided pontoon boat tour. You can learn about Adair, the town submerged beneath the water.

Landlubbers can hike the 1.5-mile trail running along the edge of the lake. Anglers try their luck landing rainbow trout, bass, walleye, northern pike, and more. And yes, swimming is permitted. Fool Hollow also has campsites for tents and RVs. Park admission is $7 per vehicle Mondays-Thursdays and $10 per vehicle Fridays-Sundays and on holidays.

Prescott Courthouse Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore art shows in Prescott

When artists display their work on the big grassy lawn of Prescott’s Courthouse Plaza, you know summer has arrived. Spend a day browsing, listening to music, and enjoying the mild temperatures.

The Phippen Museum holds its popular Western Art Show and Sale on the plaza May 25-27. More than 100 artists will have booths set up beneath the big elm trees. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday. A Quick Draw Challenge will happen on the north steps of the courthouse from 2-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

With a little planning, you can double your art show fun in Prescott. The Prescott OffStreet Festival is May 25-26 at its new home, Pine Ridge Marketplace, formerly the Gateway Mall. There will be fine art, photography, handmade crafts, and food. The fun starts at 9 a.m. both days and ends at 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Scenic drive: Traverse more than 460 curves on the Coronado Trail

A segment of U.S. 191, the Coronado Trail National Scenic Byway twists and turns for 123 miles between Morenci and Springerville in eastern Arizona. The road parallels the New Mexico state line and is the nation’s curviest and least-traveled federal highway.

Expect a 6,000-foot elevation change as the Coronado Trail climbs from cactus-strewn desert to lush alpine meadows and aspen-clad mountains with more than 460 curves along the way. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado is thought to have followed this route centuries ago as he searched for the Seven Cities of Gold.

The road passes the mining towns of Clifton and Morenci and curves around one of the world’s largest open pit mines. It snakes its way up narrow Chase Canyon and switchbacks through scrubby woodland that gives way to dense pine forests as you climb.

The Coronado Trail skirts the edge of the Blue Range Primitive Area where Mexican gray wolves roam. Stop at the high perch of Blue Vista Point for incredible views and to breathe the cool mountain air. Oxygen at 9,100 feet just seems to have a fragrance all its own.

Beyond Hannagan Meadow Lodge, the road softens its tone. The curves are lazier as it winds through forest to alpine ringed by mountains. From here, continue past brush-covered plateaus and the shimmering waters of Nelson Reservoir to the towns of Springerville and Eagar nestled in Round Valley, an idyllic spot to land on Memorial Day weekend.

Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee Queen Mine Tour

Back in the days when copper flowed like a river from the hills of Bisbee, the Queen Mine was one of the richest producers in town. The mine operated for nearly a century before closing in 1975.

Today, retired miners lead tours 1,500 feet deep into the dark cool tunnels gouged from the Mule Mountains. Visitors outfitted in yellow slickers and hard hats with headlamps get an up-close look at mining conditions, techniques and dangers. You’ll emerge from the Queen Mine Tour with a whole new appreciation of your current job.

Tours depart several times throughout the day and reservations are required.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Bisbee Ghost Tour

When you’re above ground again in this mile-high town, sign up for an Old Bisbee Ghost Tour.

The city’s rowdy past led to some hard deaths among the citizenry and Bisbee maintains a healthy population of lingering ghosts. You’ll learn about them all on this tour that departs at 7 p.m. each evening and lasts about an hour and 45 minutes.

Guides dress in period garb and spin sinister tales of the restless spirits as you roam the twilight streets of Bisbee. Even ghostly skeptics will enjoy the great history and fascinating stories.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 ways to see Monument Valley: Hike, drive, guided tour

Straddling the Arizona-Utah border, Monument Valley draws visitors from around the world.

Within the tribal park are a restaurant, gift shop, campground, and the Navajo-owned View Hotel. The rooms with private balconies are a great place to watch one of Monument Valley’s lavish sunrises.

Historic Goulding’s Lodge sits just outside the park and also offers a full range of services including guided tours.

The scenic 17-mile drive that winds through the heart of the valley reveals stunning views of the buttes. If you want more of an outdoor experience, hike the 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail that loops around the West Mitten butte.

Yet the best way to experience the beauty of this iconic western landscape and learn about the culture and history of the people who inhabit it is by signing up for a Navajo-led tour. Tours leave daily from the View Hotel and Goulding’s Lodge.

If you need ideas, check out:

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

The Best and Worst Times to Travel This Memorial Day Weekend + Top Destinations

Expert advice for your long weekend travel

Roughly 42.3 million people will travel 50 or more miles from home this Memorial Day weekend, a 7 percent increase over 2022. This year, 2.7 million more people will travel for the unofficial start of summer compared to last year, a sign of what’s to come in the months ahead.  

“This is expected to be the third busiest Memorial Day weekend since 2000 when AAA started tracking holiday travel,” said Paula Twidale, Senior Vice President of AAA Travel. “More Americans are planning trips and booking them earlier despite inflation. This summer travel season could be one for the record books especially at airports.”  

Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Memorial Day road trips are up 6 percent over last year. 37.1 million Americans will drive to their destinations, an increase of more than 2 million. Fuel prices are lower this holiday compared to last year when the national average was more than $4 a gallon. Despite the lower prices at the pump, car and RV travel travel this holiday will be shy of pre-pandemic numbers by about 500,000 travelers. 

Nearly 3.4 million travelers are expected to fly to their destinations this Memorial Day, that’s an increase of 11 percent over last year. Air travel over the holiday weekend is projected to exceed pre-pandemic levels with 170,000 more passengers—or 5.4 percent more—than in 2019. Despite high ticket prices, demand for flights is skyrocketing. This Memorial Day weekend could be the busiest at airports since 2005. 

More people this holiday are taking other modes of transportation like buses and trains. These travelers are expected to total 1.85 million, an increase of 20.6 percent over 2022. 

Santa Fe, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best/worst times to travel and peak congestion by metro  

INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights expects Friday, May 26 to be the busiest day on the roads during the long Memorial Day weekend. The best times to travel by car or RV are in the morning or evening after 6 p.m. The lightest traffic days will be Saturday and Sunday. Major metro areas like Boston, New York, Seattle, and Tampa will likely see travel times double compared to normal. 

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations

AAA booking data for the Memorial Day weekend shows tourist hotspots like Orlando, New York City, and Las Vegas are top domestic destinations. Cruise port cities in Florida and Alaska as well as Seattle are high on the list given the 50 percent increase in domestic cruise bookings compared to last year. Other popular U.S. cities this Memorial Day include Denver, Boston, Anaheim, and Canton (Ohio), home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

For purposes of this forecast, the Memorial Day holiday travel period is defined as the five-day period from Thursday, May 25 to Monday, May 29. The five-day holiday length is consistent with previous holiday periods. 

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Welcome summer with a Memorial Day getaway

As the weather warms up and the days get longer, the urge to book vacations is heating up too. And what better way to start the summer than with an easy-to-get-to destination in the United States—but where to go for Memorial Day 2023? Experts suggest that the ideal roadtrip would take place within three hours of your home.

I’ve rounded up some of the best spots in the country that either have opportunities to celebrate America’s heroes with parades or special events or have great ways to kick off the summer with outdoor adventures.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Immerse yourselves in the performing arts in Charleston

Beginning over Memorial Day weekend, Spoleto Festival USA brings two weeks of theater, opera, jazz, and symphonic and choral music performances to charming Charleston, South Carolina. The festival fills Charleston’s historic theaters, churches, and outdoor spaces with performances by renowned artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Esperanza Spalding as well as emerging performers.

Local highlights include:

  • Walk along Charleston Waterfront Park for lovely views of the Cooper River
  • Stroll along King Street
  • Dine on Southern cuisine

Get your motor running in Indianapolis

“Gentlemen, start your engines.” Who hasn’t heard the immortal words that launch the Indy 500 race every year? So why not take a trip to Indianapolis to spend Memorial Day weekend finding out what all the excitement is about? Other than the actual race, Motor Speedway mania will be revved up with 500 Festival celebrations that include road races, parades, and activities for kids.

Local highlights include:

  • Wander through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum
  • Chase after your kids at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Fort Adams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk in the steps of heroes in Newport

Newport, Rhode Island, will host the dramatic and acclaimed Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial which is on display for the public during Memorial Day at Fort Adams. The moving memorial features nearly 7,000 military boots each affixed with an American flag and bearing the name of an American service member killed in action in the Global War on Terror. The historic fort that dates back to 1799 is also open for self-guided tours for visitors looking to explore one of the most complex fortresses in the country.

Local highlights include:

  • Visit The Breakers and other historic mansions
  • Take a sailboat along the Atlantic Coast
  • Explore the Newport Cliff Walk
Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Secret Coast of Mississippi

Bursting with southern hospitality and charm, Mississippi’s Secret Coast boasts 62 miles of scenic shoreline and welcomes families and visitors with warm weather and sunny skies. Another draw: the annual Sounds by the Sea, an open-air Memorial Day concert featuring patriotic selections and fireworks presented by the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra. Bring your picnic basket, blanket, and lounge chairs and enjoy the music and show, all overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Local highlights include:

  • Visit the Biloxi Lighthouse
  • Dine on Gulf seafood, including oysters
  • Tour Bay St. Louis, a historic beach community with a quaint and funky Old Town
Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eye on the sky in Palm Springs

On May 29, Palm Springs Air Museum in California hosts Flower Drop & Air Fair, an annual Memorial Day ceremony. Throughout the day, visitors can watch air shows, visit flight exhibitions, and see a World War II reenactment. The ceremony culminates with the Flower Drop Memorial Service, a fly-by with planes in “missing man formation” (a salute to fallen military members) followed by a B-25 Mitchell Bomber that drops 3,000 red and white carnations on spectators below.

Local highlights include:

  • Take a detour to Joshua Tree National Park
  • Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the longest rotating tram in the world
  • Play golf and tennis
  • Hike the Indian Canyons

Worth Pondering…

And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.

—Lee Greenwood