Arizona is made for road trips. Yes, the state has its showstoppers – Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Cathedral Rock – but you'll remember the long, romantic miles under endless skies for as long as you do the icons in between. Each drive reveals a little more of the state's soul: for a dose of mom-and-pop friendliness, follow Route 66 into Flagstaff; to understand the sheer will of Arizona's mining barons, take a twisting drive through rugged Jerome; and American Indian history becomes contemporary as you drive past mesa-top Hopi villages dating back a thousand years.
Controversies about hot-button issues – immigration, gun control, education – have grabbed headlines recently. But these can't cancel out the Southwestern warmth and historical depth you'll find. And Arizona's ancient beauty reminds you that human affairs are short-lived. The majestic Grand Canyon, the saguaro-dotted deserts of Tucson and the red rocks of Sedona… They're here for the long term.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Arizona.
If you glance east when driving Sedona’s Red Rock Scenic Byway, a slender structure seemingly welded into the sandstone might catch your eye. Towering 250ft, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is in fact wedged between two walls of ancient red rock. The simplistic structure — not quite a rectangle or rhombus — is supported by a 90ft concrete cross you can see right from the highway. Completed in 1956, the chapel is backdropped by Twin Buttes and a pair of conical rock formations called Two Nuns. Regardless of whether you’re into religion or architecture, this unorthodox landmark is worth a visit to discover its compelling backstory and take in the cliffside views. As Catholic churches go, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is austere — inside and out. Bold in its simplicity. Sacred in its geometry. Given its size, the chapel’s pared-back modernist design feels monumental, yet with a reverence to the prehistoric layers of sandstone. Even though the chapel (St. John Vianney Parish) belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, the land it rests on is part of Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. History So how did this unusual church come to be? In the 1930s, Marguerite Brunswig Staude visited the Empire State Building in New York City shortly after it was constructed. When gazing up at the iconic edifice, the LA-based sculptor (and future Sedona rancher) is said to have had a vision of a massive cross. The sign stuck; Staude was hellbent on building a chapel in a modernist style. She teamed up with architect Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., better known as Lloyd Wright, whose famous father coined the term “organic architecture.” Together they embraced the elder Wright’s ethos of design, which connects people and the natural environment in a harmonious way. The pair tried to build a church in Los Angeles, but the archbishop of the diocese deemed the design too modern. Staude and Wright had better luck in Budapest. Their plan for a chapel overlooking the Danube River was approved but then aborted because of the outbreak of the Second World War. The Chapel of the Holy Cross was designed by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, Richard Hein and August K. Strotz © dp Photography / Shutterstock Staude kept the faith. She continued to make art, eventually settling in Sedona with her husband. Since Sedona has earned its status as a center of spirituality, it’s not surprising Staude was inspired to re-up her architectural endeavor in the desert after spotting the specific site in a plane. Wright had moved on, so she sought the services of Richard Hein (project architect) and August K. Strotz (design execution) from the San Francisco architect firm Anshen & Allen. As the slated building site was located on forest land, Staud also enlisted intervention from a higher power: then-Senator Barry Goldwater helped acquire a special permit. The chapel took 18 months to build and cost $300,000. It has earned numerous architectural awards and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. See the chapel up close Set into what’s now called Chapel Rock, the reinforced concrete building angles backward from its roofline. Its modest entrance belies the airy interior, which features floor-to-ceiling windows set back from that colossal cross. During the daytime, you can see sweeping views of the canyon, and in the evening, the sun’s rays cast a golden glow inside. A refined dignity suffuses the compact chapel, where rows of wooden pews face the statement-making sculpture: Christ nailed to the cross. Made of bronze, the 33ft corpus crucifix is shaped in the form of the Tree of Life, stretching up to the ceiling. It’s rife with spiritual symbolism, from the tree’s double-trunked base and the golden apple to the dozen leaves (representing the 12 apostles) and the crown, which bears three roses and 100 thorns. People claim that Bell Rock in Sedona is a "vortex" (a place with a high concentration of spiritual energy), making it a popular tourist destination and place of meditation © Bojana Korach/Getty Images Hike near the chapel The Chapel Trail starts at the end of Chapel Road next to the angled street parking. An easy three-mile round-trip loop threads through the red rocks. Some people believe there’s a vortex site in the area, though Sedona other four energy centers wield the most power. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are plenty more trails to explore. The path connects to Little Horse Trail and beyond. Head left at the fork to get Chicken Point Overlook, then connect to High on the Hog and Twin Butte trails, which go deeper into the backcountry. Plan your visit With the exception of Christmas and Easter, the Chapel is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The gift shop is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. Religious services such as confession are offered; check the chapel’s website for details as times vary. Mass is held at 8am Monday to Friday and Sunday (a bilingual mass is at 10am) and at 5pm on Saturdays. Several companies offer tours that make short stops at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, but the easiest way to get there is by car. The church is located between downtown and Oak Creek Village off state route 179. Turn east at the roundabout onto Chapel Road and you’ll find the edifice at the end about a mile’s drive. Visitors can park in one of the 45 roadside spots curving up the street. You can drop off people at the top and turn around, but the curving roadway and ramp to the structure itself is fairly steep. Golf carts are available to assist people with mobility challenges. A sign near the chapel entry bearing the words, “Peace to All Who Enter” welcomes visitors inside. Even if you’re not religious, keep in mind that this is a place of worship. To maintain the sanctity of the site, when entering the chapel, wear modest clothing, leave your pets behind and avoid loud talking and eating and drinking.
Saguaros (sah- wah -ros) are icons of the American Southwest, and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: the park is divided into east and west units, separated by 30 miles and Tucson itself. Both sections – the Rincon Mountain District in the east and Tucson Mountain District in the west – are filled with trails and desert flora; if you only visit one, make it the spectacular western half. The larger section is the Rincon Mountain District, about 15 miles east of downtown. Its visitor center has information on day hikes, horseback riding and backcountry camping. Camping requires a permit ($8 per site per day) and must be obtained by noon on the day of your hike. The meandering 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, a paved road open to cars and bicycles, provides access to picnic areas, trailheads and viewpoints. Hikers pressed for time should follow the 1-mile round-trip Freeman Homestead Trail to a grove of massive saguaros. For a full-fledged desert adventure, head out on the steep and rocky Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, which climbs to the summit of Mica Mountain (8666ft) and back in 20 miles ($8 backcountry camping permit required for overnight use). If you'd rather someone (or something) else did the hard work, family-run Houston's Horseback Riding offers trail rides in the eastern section of the Park. West of town, the Tucson Mountain District has its own Red Hills Visitor Center. The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a 6-mile, graded dirt road through cactus forest that begins 1.5 miles north of the visitor center. Two quick, easy and rewarding hikes are the 0.8-mile Valley View Overlook (awesome at sunset) and the half-mile Signal Hill Trail to scores of ancient petroglyphs. For a more strenuous trek we recommend the 7-mile King Canyon Trail, which starts 2 miles south of the visitor center, near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The 0.5-mile informative Desert Discovery Trail, which is 1 mile northwest of the visitor center, is wheelchair accessible. Distances for all four hikes are round-trip. As for the park's namesake cactus, don't refer to the limbs of the saguaro as branches. As park docents will quickly tell you, the mighty saguaro grows arms, not lowly branches – a distinction that makes sense when you consider its human-like features. Saguaros grow slowly, taking about 15 years to reach a foot in height, 50 years to reach 7ft and almost a century before they begin to take on their typical many-armed appearance. The best time to visit is April, when the cacti begin blossoming with lovely white blooms – Arizona's state flower. By June and July, the flowers give way to ripe red fruit that local American Indians use for food. Their foot soldiers are the spidery ocotillo, the fluffy teddy bear cactus, the green-bean-like pencil cholla and hundreds of other plant species. It is illegal to damage or remove saguaros. Note that trailers longer than 35ft and vehicles wider than 8ft are not permitted on the park's narrow scenic loop roads.
Strategically located on the southernmost tip of the North Rim high above the great westward turn of the Colorado River, Cape Royal takes in almost every major part of the Grand Canyon with thousand-mile views. Imposing Wotan's Throne fills the foreground to the southwest, while solitary Vishnu Temple to the south evokes a sacred shrine from a distant land. Tiny Desert View Watchtower can be seen to the southwest. Another viewpoint back a few hundred feet and to the west provides an exhilarating guardrail-free experience not suitable for those with vertigo.
Grand Canyon's remote, wild and forgotten North Rim is far less developed, and sees far fewer visitors that its southern counterpart. In part this is due to seasonal closure: at these altitudes (8000ft) the winter snows shut things down between October 15 and May 15. The road from Jacob Lake stays open longer, for day use and car camping – usually until the end of November.
Forged by millions of years of erosion by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon captures the history, scale and beauty of the American West. Overlooks peer into deep gorges layered with the colors of time and geology, dusty trails meander through sagebrush and over coyote tracks, and pictographs etched into canyon walls hint at the lives of past cultures. Overlooks at the South Rim and rim-to-rim treks are the obvious highlights, but the backcountry is where the true adventure begins.
Sedona ’s 200-plus trails offer dramatic views and doses of adventure or escape, whether you’re seeking out the elusive subway cave off Boynton Canyon Trail, hiking to the devil’s sinkhole on Soldier Pass Trail or walking to prehistoric cave dwellings on the Palatki Ruins Trail. But Red Rock Crossing has the trifecta: a shady swimming hole, head-on views of 5000ft Cathedral Rock and energy emanating from one of Sedona’s four vortexes. The area and trail itself are naturally named for the iconic buttes rising up amid the junipers and pines. And although maps show the dotted line for Red Rock Crossing Trail leading through Oak Creek, the namesake “crossing” no longer exists – unless you’re willing to get your feet wet. A flood washed out the bridge in 1978. Despite rumblings in the 1990s to rebuild a vehicle crossing to connect the communities on either side of the creek, resistance from residents curbed the plans. Two of the easiest ways to visit both banks of this scenic spot on Oak Creek are via the Crescent Moon Picnic Area (north side) and the actual Red Rock Crossing Trail (south side). Each side has its benefits and beauty. Plus fording the low-water “crossing” of Oak Creek is relatively easy, enabling you to get a full 360-degree experience. Crescent Moon Picnic Area For archetypal panoramas of Oak Creek flowing in the foreground, backdropped Cathedral Rock’s shoulders muscling into flawless blue skies, head to the Crescent Moon Picnic Area. Run by the US Forest Service, the day-use site is seven miles southwest of downtown Sedona. (Nearby is Crescent Moon Ranch, an old homestead built by ranchers, which the Forest Service has opened to the public for overnight stays.) There’s a parking lot and accessible amenities such as picnic tables, toilets, drinking water, an expansive grassy area and a cement walkway suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. It’s a short distance down the paved path to get to the edge of Oak Creek with its classic tableau spread out before you. To find your own patch of paradise, look for the unpaved Buddha Beach Trail that starts just past the water wheel and continues for about two miles along the creek’s shoreline. Nature is unspoiled here; there aren’t any amenities once you leave the picnic area. But you can spread out a blanket, cast your fishing line into the clear water or find a deep spot in Oak Creek for a swim. Because of its proximity to Cathedral Rock, a vortex site, many people believe that the point of Red Rock Crossing closest to the monolith also has energy flowing from the earth. Don’t plan to cross the creek? Then the best place to feel vortex vibes is at Buddha Beach. It’s easy to find: just look for the cairns. These piles of round rocks stacked by people at the creekside are said to symbolize Buddha’s round belly. They also act as markers since the water here is quite shallow; just watch out for slippery rocks if you attempt to wade across. Trails crisscross Red Rock Crossing © Janet Gyenes / Lonely Planet Red Rock Crossing Trail For an easy hike (or slightly technical bike ride) to Red Rock Crossing Trail on the south side of Oak Creek, make your way to Baldwin Trail in the Village of Oak Creek. You need to do a little wayfinding, but the route is well signposted. Cathedral Rock looms large just moments after you step onto the rocky trail twisting among prickly pear cactuses and mesquite trees. In half a mile, the path meets up to Crescent Moon and Templeton trails. Take the latter, which turns into a sandy stretch that quickly leads to Oak Creek and the bonafide Red Rock Crossing Trail. Chill by the water (it’s deep enough for a dip) mesmerized by electric blue damsel flies flitting amid the wildflowers and micro-waterfalls. Then continue to the right for about 10 minutes to reach the curve in Oak Creek across from Buddha Beach. Look for the twisted trunk and limbs of a large tree, a hallmark of vortex vibes. Hiking and biking To explore more on the north side without jockeying for parking (or paying), hike the Secret Slick Rock and Pyramid Mountain trailheads (the latter hooks up to Scorpion and Schuerman Mountain trails) off Chavez Ranch Road. Make a left turn off Upper Red Rock Road and follow the roadside signs. These trails range from short to ambitious; you can even hike all the way to Red Rock State Park. On the south side, Red Rock Crossing Trail connects to Cathedral Rock Trail, an ambitious 1.5-mile hike/scramble (gaining almost 750ft in elevation) to the base of its spires and the saddles between the sheer rock faces. Keep in mind that you’ll eventually need to backtrack or arrange for a pickup at the Cathedral Rock trailhead off Back O Beyond Road (another hiking option to access Oak Creek). A simpler plan is to return to bike-friendly Baldwin Trail and continue the rest of the 2.1-mile loop to the parking lot. The undulating trail is stunner, with wide-open vistas of the ever-present Cathedral Rock and other unnamed peaks as constant companions. There’s a slight downside though: the trail is almost completely exposed to the elements. If you are hiking when it’s hot, consider tackling this trail counterclockwise, then make your way to Oak Creek for a well-deserved dunk in the water. Plan your visit Crescent Moon Picnic Area is located seven miles from downtown Sedona. Drive south on state route 89A, then turn west onto Red Rock Crossing Road and follow the signs for 1.5 miles. The parking lot fills up quickly, especially on weekends. Some roadside parking is available if you’re lucky. Driving is the easiest way to get here; there’s no public transportation. The picnic area is open daily from 8am to 8pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day and 8am to dusk the rest of the year. The Red Rock Grand Annual Pass is accepted. Otherwise, parking fees are $11 per vehicle (for up to five people); extra passengers and walk-in visitors are $2 each. Bring cash or a check; credit cards are not accepted. To get to the Baldwin Trailhead, turn west off state route 179 (Red Rock Scenic Byway) onto Verde Valley School Road and follow the signs for five miles to the parking lot. The last mile of the road is unpaved, but it’s suitable for all vehicles. The Cathedral Rock trailhead can be reached off Back O Beyond Road; turn west off state route 179 and drive 0.7 miles to the parking lot. A Red Rock Pass ($5 per day, $15 per week or $20 annually) is required to park at either trailhead. You can purchase one at the trailheads, online, by phone (928-203-2900 or 928-203-2923) or at a number of locations in Sedona.
It’s no secret that Arizona ’s boundless trails offer infinite variety, like traversing red-rock canyons, winding among ponderosa pine forests and skirting cacti that bring pops of purple and yellow to the desert during spring bloom. All fuel the senses, but some of Sedona ’s trails also offer a metaphysical element to exploring outdoors, namely the city’s vortex sites. Some people say there are as many as eight of these energy sites in Sedona, but the four most powerful are in Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Airport Mesa, located just two miles from downtown. Four of the most powerful energy sites in Sedona in Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Airport Mesa © bigannie / Budget Travel History Sedona has been considered sacred by the Indigenous peoples for millennia. This reverence for the land is evident in the Sinagua peoples’ prehistoric rock art and ruins at Palatki Heritage Site. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that spiritual seekers from far-flung regions started making pilgrimages to Sedona’s vortexes, believed to be ideal for meditation and healing. In the late 1970s, new-age mystic Page Bryant was credited with coining the term “vortex” and actually putting Sedona’s four key sites on the map in her book. Dick Sutphen, a psychic researcher and past-life therapist (his book on Sedona’s vortexes is being published posthumously in 2022) also spread the word about these high-energy sites. In August 1987, a new wave of believers descended on Sedona to take part in a worldwide event called Harmonic Convergence. Sedona was chosen as a “power center,” where a throng of 5000 people participated in what became the first synchronized global peace meditation event. The event’s two-day time frame is said to have aligned with a host of new-age beliefs based on astrological prophecies, the Mayan calendar and the grand "trine" – when planets align in an equilateral triangle. The red rock of the Palatki Heritage Site that has sheltered human settlements for thousands of years © Janet Gyenes Force of nature Everyone’s experience at a vortex will be different, whether you feel intense energy rippling across your shoulders or simply a serene sensation emanating from the earth. Skeptics take note: science actually explains that these forces of nature are tied to super-string physics and gravity. In short, researchers say such vibrations aren’t linked to electromagnetism but are actually attuned to the topography. Given its lofty location above the city, Airport Mesa is said to radiate an energy “up flow” (also called “yang” or “masculine”) associated with mesas and mountaintops. Literally a “higher perspective.” In contrast, “in-flow” (“yin” or “feminine”) vortexes are found in canyons and caves. Being cocooned in nature away from distractions lends itself to introspection. Interestingly, some places in Sedona have a bit of both. For example, people say Red Rock Crossing at the edge of Oak Creek is an in-flow vortex, but its proximity to looming Cathedral Rock, an up-flow vortex, influences its energy. Airport Mesa hikes People say Red Rock Crossing is an in-flow vortex, but its proximity to looming Cathedral Rock, an up-flow vortex, influences its energy @ Getty Images As with Sedona’s other sites, you’ll need to hit the trail to experience the vortex located on the upper slopes of Airport Mesa, also called Table Top Mountain. Even if you’re not interested in the esoteric, plenty of people are curious about vortexes and the scenery itself is stunning, so expect the trails to be busy. Depending on how energetic you feel – and how early you arrive at the parking areas – you can choose from a couple of routes. The shortest trek is the 0.1-mile Airport Mesa Overlook Trail, accessed from a small parking lot off Airport Mesa Road. Spots are snagged quickly, but there’s also an upper parking lot, which will add an extra mile (round trip) to your trip. The rocky trail gains around 105ft in elevation to the overlook at 5000ft. A little mettle yields massive rewards. Spread out before are 360-degree views of Sedona’s low-slung buildings huddled in the shadows of Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, Thunder Mountain, Chimney Rock, Ship Rock and Coffeepot Rock. For a longer excursion, take the undulating 3.2-mile (round trip) Airport Loop Trail, which connects to the overlook trail as well as Brewer, Table Top, Table Top Bogus, Summit, Bandit and Sedona View trails. Although the loop isn’t lengthy, you might want to pass if you’re afraid of heights. Some areas of the path are narrow (you’ll need to walk single file) with ledges, plus there are large basalt rocks to scramble over. The trail loops around Table Top Mountain, traversing rust-colored rock formations that look like a layer cake composed of sandstone and quartz. Added to the mix are an array of cacti and twisted-looking juniper trees, which are characteristic of where vortex energy is concentrated. Since you’ll be watching your feet when navigating the terrain, keep an eye out for tarantulas, too. They’re harmless but daunting if you’re not used to seeing Arizona’s hairy spiders. Arachnid sightings or not, take time to look up and bask in the beauty around you: expansive views of West Sedona, Thunder Mountain and Wilson Mountain. Interpretive signs can help you pinpoint the peaks. It’s no secret that Arizona ’s boundless trails offer infinite variety, like traversing red-rock canyons @ Getty Images / iStockphoto And, at times, wayfinding can be tricky, making it easy to get off course and unintentionally stretch your hike an extra mile or so. Much of the high-elevation trail is also exposed to the elements, so bring plenty of water; you’ll be hiking for at least two and a half hours. Of course, the drama of these sweeping summits is dialed up if you arrive at sunrise or sunset. Being so close to the city means it’s easier to jump out of bed at dawn or zip up to Airport Mesa Road to catch the sun’s pink and orange glow, even if you just park at the Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout. If you do hike, you might not feel the vortex or find spiritual enlightenment but you’ll certainly experience the transcendent splendor of seeing Sedona from above. Plan your visit It’s not part of the Red Rock Pass system, but you do need to pay $3 for parking. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trails. To get here from Sedona’s “Y” junction (state routes 89A and 179), travel one mile west on 89A to Airport Mesa Road. Drive 0.5 miles south on Airport Mesa Road and look for the small parking lot next to the overlook trailhead. To reach the large upper lot (near the start of the Sedona View Trail) continue driving up Airport Mesa Road to the end.
In 1905 Ellsworth and Emery Kolb built a small photography studio on the edge of the rim, which has since been expanded and now holds a bookstore and a museum. An original Kolb brothers 1911 silent film runs continuously, and shows incredible footage of their early explorations of the Colorado River, and the museum displays mementos and photographs from their careers. In January and February, the NPS offers tours of their original Craftsman home, in a lower level of the studio. The brothers arrived at the canyon from Pennsylvania in 1902 and made a living photographing parties descending the Bright Angel Trail. Because there was not enough water on the rim to process the film, they had to run 4.5 miles down the trail to a spring at Indian Garden, develop the film and race back up in order to have the pictures ready when the party returned. By 1924 the Kolbs' dynamic and conflicting personalities challenged their business relationship, and they flipped a coin to decide who got to stay to run the photography business at Grand Canyon. Ellsworth lost and headed to California, and Emery remained until his death in 1976, at the age of 95.
The marvelously worn winding staircase of Mary Colter's 70ft stone tower, built in 1932, leads to one of the highest spots on the rim. From here, slats in the tower wall offer unparalleled views of not only the canyon and a long swath of the Colorado River, but also the San Francisco Peaks, the Navajo Reservation and the Painted Desert. Hopi artist Fred Kabotie's murals depicting Hopi origin stories grace the interior walls of the 1st floor. On the way up look for an unmarked door on the left; you can wander outside onto a rooftop patio here – a nice spot to relax with a sandwich. Outside the watchtower, a bronze plaque marks the spot as a National Historic Landmark. Just below the rim is the site of the 1956 TWA plane crash that killed 128 people and marked the beginning of modern regulations in air safety. To find a quiet view away from the crowds, take the furthest left paved path from the parking lot to the tower and wander off among the desert scrub. There's a small market and snack bar next door, as well as toilets and a year-round gas station.