At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks


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It must be said at the outset that the direct route between Phoenix and Sedona is not the stuff of a traditional “road trip” in terms of distance.

Just 117 miles (about two hours by car) separate these two towns, but what an opportunity this is for a road trip. It allows for relatively short drives to prime, exciting locations at which to spend a few days thoroughly enjoying.

Phoenix is the capital of Arizona, known in part for its hot climate and its close proximity to the desolate beauty of the Sonoran desert.  This is also red rock country. Here, the red rocks and famed national monuments are the major star attractions.

Between Sedona and Phoenix, there are several ways to spend a few days exploring the area, and I’ve mapped out an itinerary to help you. This four-day Phoenix to Arizona adventurous road trip will give you the best share of amazing sights, good food, and great experiences.

Phoenix to Sedona Drive Itinerary

The main road between Phoenix and Sedona is the I-17 North. This Phoenix to Sedona drive becomes the Red Rock Scenic Byway along the way.

Sunset in Phoenix, Arizona

Day 1: Phoenix

Your itinerary starts in downtown Phoenix, preferably early in the morning so that you can ease into the day.

Morning: Downtown Phoenix

The first priority today is to make sure you have a good breakfast, as the day will be busy. If you’re just arriving by plane (in the morning), take a moment and grab your breakfast right there at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. There are several options, but Matt’s Big Breakfast seems to tick all the boxes by name alone!

If you prefer to get out, head downtown. Popular options in the area include Matt’s Big Breakfast and Songbird Coffee & Tea House.

Afterward, take a pleasant walk in the Desert Botanical Garden to see some desert-style plants. Science and tech enthusiasts can opt for a visit to the Arizona Science Center, which offers entertainment and education, engaging exhibits, and hands-on experiences.

I’d suggest you stay in Phoenix for lunch and have a burger or sandwich at The Arrogant Butcher. Not that hungry? Short Leash Hot Dogs is a gourmet hot dog store with creative toppings to try.

Side note: If you have some spare time, why not explore these awesome caves near Phoenix?

Afternoon: Lake Pleasant Regional Park

Travel distance from Phoenix: 43 mi

Hop in your rental car and head out for your first outdoor excursion. By now, you’ll want to get a taste of the fun on the water at Lake Pleasant. Get there early enough so you can still enjoy some swimming or kayaking or even an afternoon picnic on the lake. Make sure you stock up on supplies before you leave Phoenix, though.

For a more leisurely activity, book a two-hour boat cruise on Lake Pleasant.

Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona

Evening: Old Town Scottsdale

Travel distance from Lake Pleasant Regional Park: 49 mi

Head back toward Phoenix for an evening spent in Old Town Scottsdale. This is a vibrant and energetic nightlife area with music and performances, boutique shops, eateries, and galleries. Venues like The Van Buren, the Orpheum Theatre, and the Comerica Theatre provide staged entertainment.

Where to Stay

The Camelback Resort in Scottsdale sits at the base of Camelback Mountain, offering a spa option and other planned activities.

Lake Pleasant, Arizona

Day 2: Head North (Again)

Time to leave Phoenix, head north, and make some headway on the road to Sedona.

Morning: Arcosanti

Travel distance from Phoenix: 67 mi

There are few towns like Arcosanti. It’s essentially an experiment that is now known for the unique concept that it presents as a lifestyle. Get here early and enjoy a well-earned breakfast at the Arcosanti Cafe. A light bite in the atmosphere of the desert is quite something to experience.

Then, take a morning tour. Arcosanti offers guided tours exploring the town’s history, architecture, and sustainable design principles. It’s a highly recommended experience. 

Arcosanti, Arizona

Lunch: Rock Springs Cafe

Travel Distance: 23 mi

Head south on the I17 and make a stop at Rock Springs Cafe for a delicious meal consisting of one – or more – of their famous pies. Established in 1918, Rock Springs is a historical landmark with a great atmosphere!

Afternoon: Agua Fria National Monument

Travel distance: 15 mi

Agua Fria National Monument is a pretty destination known for its examples of rugged landscapes, with ancient ruins and the breathtaking beauty of the desert terrain as a context.

If you love the outdoors as much as I do, you’ll enjoy the assortment of hiking trails catering to a range of skill levels. Badger Springs Trail stands out as a popular choice among them, favorite in part because it leads a path along the Agua Fria River.

Montezuma Castle in Arizona

Evening: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Travel distance: 36 mi

Montezuma Castle National Monument is a one-of-a-kind historical destination — its main claim to fame is a collection of remarkably preserved cliff dwellings constructed by the Sinagua people approximately in the year 1100 AD.

Immerse yourself in the rich Native American history of the Montezuma Castle National Monument by exploring these cliff dwellings and a captivating museum. Don’t miss the opportunity to witness the incredible sunset over the desert landscape.

Montezuma Castle National Monument and its surroundings provide a breathtaking backdrop, offering the chance to capture some truly unforgettable photos, too.

Where to stay:

If you’re planning to stay overnight in the area, I’d suggest exploring lodging options in Camp Verde or other nearby towns. The Fort Verde Suites is very close to the historic main street in Camp Verde.

Alternatively, head to Sedona to the gorgeous Red Agave Resort, which offers studio and 2-story apartments amid the beautiful red rocks that Arizona is known for.

Sunset in Sedona, Arizona

Day 3: Sedona Beauty

Day three is all about the natural wonders of this region of Arizona. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful stretch of the American Southwest. 

Morning: Out of Africa Wildlife Park

Travel distance: 29 mi

Start the day at Out of Africa Wildlife Park, a beloved spot for wildlife enthusiasts. I would recommend you book and take a wildlife safari tour for the best experience. The park offers several choices, such as open-air tram tours and predator zip line tours.

These tours take you on a journey through the park, allowing you to get up close and personal with a variety of exotic animals, including lions, tigers, giraffes, and more.

The park has designated picnic areas, and you can either bring your own food or purchase refreshments from the park’s on-site cafe. Don’t eat too much, though, because from here, you head to lunch.

Alternatively, you can spend the morning hiking the Devil’s Bridge trail, one of Sedona’s most iconic trails and viewing spots. This 4-mile trail is moderate in difficulty and worth every minute of it!

Devil's Bridge in Sedona

Lunch: Cottonwood

Travel distance: 12 mi

A quick 12-mile drive gets you to old-town Cottonwood. There are some awesome lunch options available here.

My advice? Try Nic’s Italian Steak & Crab House for delectable Italian and seafood. If you’re in the mood for something quick and casual, Nic’s Coney Island offers hot dogs and sandwiches. For a more flavorful option, Tara Thai provides Thai dishes, including curries, noodles, and stir-fries.

Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona

Afternoon: Red Rock Scenic Byway and State Park

Travel distance: 16 mi

The 13-mile Red Rock Scenic Byway (possibly the most scenic route in America)  is a must for anyone doing a road trip around Phoenix and Sedona.

Take your time and soak in the stunning vistas and the vibrant colors of the rocks, especially in the soft afternoon light. Be sure to make stops at the various viewpoints and pullouts for incredible photo opportunities.

If you’ve planned it right, you’ll have time to try out Red Rock State Park, which has various picnic areas and shaded spots. This is the perfect place for a leisurely afternoon picnic or just to sit back and immerse yourself in the tranquility of the park.

You will want to stick around long enough to catch the sunset, trust me. Watching the transition from day to night is truly mesmerizing as the red rocks of Sedona take on a spectacular glow. Popular spots for sunset viewing include Airport Mesa and Cathedral Rock.

Side note: You may also want to make some time to explore the Cathedral Rock Trail.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona

Evening: Sedona

Travel distance: 9 mi approx.

Once you’re all settled in your accommodation, head out for dinner in town. There are plenty of dining options to choose from, catering to various tastes and preferences. Live music fans will be happy to know that the live scene in Sedona is alive and well, and there are several venues offering food, drink, and music.

But the real fun starts after dinner. Sedona is renowned for its dark skies, making it an ideal spot for stargazing. If you have an interest in astronomy, think about joining a guided stargazing tour for a more educational experience.

One of Sedona’s unique attractions is its energy vortexes. Some people believe that these locations possess strong spiritual and healing energies. If this intrigues you, consider visiting a vortex in the evening. You can meditate, reflect, or simply soak in the serene and mystical atmosphere.

Where to stay

Return to your accommodation in Sedona if you stayed here last night.  The Cedars Resort is another option, uniquely positioned on a cliff overlooking Oak Creek Canyon.

Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona

Day 4: Sedona and Grand Canyon

The initial distances for your final road-tripping day are short because we have a big plan for the afternoon.

Morning: Oak Creek Canyon

Travel distance: 4 mi

Another picturesque trip, this time along the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive. This beautiful route runs alongside Highway 89A, offering the opportunity to experience some truly breathtaking views.

As you make your way along this road, you’ll find numerous pullouts, perfect for pausing and capturing the stunning scenery with your camera.

Oak Creek Canyon presents a multitude of delightful picnic spots at which to enjoy a light road breakfast.

If I were you, I’d pack a breakfast picnic and find one of the designated areas close to the creek or along the road. This way, you can savor your meal in the context of the tranquil beauty of the canyon, making your visit truly memorable.

Grand Canyon view

Afternoon & Evening: Grand Canyon

Travel distance: 104  mi

Right. Let’s get to the main event of the day.

It will take around 2 hours to get to Grand Canyon, so time your departure from Oak Creek to get there in the early afternoon.

When you do arrive, there are several options to help you occupy your afternoon. Tusayan Museum & Ruin, Desert View Visitor Center & Watchtower, or even the main Visitor Center are all good options. Time permitting, you could also opt to hike along the Rim Trail. And then there’s one of the most impressive skywalks in the world.

The real treat, though, starts to happen as the evening comes creeping in. Make it a priority to see the utterly incredible sunset at the Grand Canyon. You can head to one of the popular viewpoints like Hopi Point, Yaki Point, or Desert View.

Horseshoe Bend in Arizona

Arriving a bit early is a good idea since these spots tend to get crowded during sunset. Watching the canyon’s colors change as the sun sets is a sight you won’t want to miss, I promise.

Once it’s dark, the stars are literally the stars of the show. The Grand Canyon is a designated Dark Sky Park. Bring your own telescope or binoculars, or just lay out under the Milky Way.

If you’re blessed with timing, and your visit coincides with a full moon, consider joining a guided full-moon hike. They provide a unique perspective of the canyon illuminated by the soft glow of the moonlight. It’s an experience that adds a touch of nocturnal desert magic to your adventure.

Where to Stay:

There are several cabins and lodges waiting for you within the park. These include the Cabins at Grand Canyon West complex, Squire Resort, and Phantom Ranch. To secure your spot, it’s essential to make your reservations well in advance, as they can be in high demand.

Oak Creek Canyon Aerial View in Arizona

Final Thoughts on a Phoenix to Sedona Road Trip

Road trips in red rock country from Phoenix to Sedona can be a really fun adventure, especially if you don’t follow the most direct route. While the distance between the two points is relatively short, the route is packed with incredible beauty, history, and tranquility.

This is truly among the most stunning landscapes, richest culture, and most diverse experiences that Arizona has to offer. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast. or simply seeking a relaxing escape, the chance to traverse the highways and byways of this picturesque state should not be missed.

If you plan to take this road trip on a long weekend, consider these tips for a long holiday weekend trip.

Phoenix to Sedona | A 4 Day Road Trip Red Rock Country
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