If you’re heading up to the Grand Canyon South Rim from Phoenix, there’s plenty to see along the way.
Whether you want to know a couple quick stops along the route or you’re ready to make the drive a full-day thing with side-excursions, this guide will help you maximize the wow-factor no matter the timeline you’re working under. Below you’ll find a leg-by-leg breakdown of the road trip, including some of the best stops for grub, sightseeing, and exploring.
While the route mostly follows Interstate highways, even the direct non-stop drive to the Grand Canyon is interesting, especially for out-of-state travelers not used to the rugged terrain and varied landscapes of Arizona. It’s pretty common for first timers to experience shock and awe after leaving the scorching hot desert in Phoenix only to reach the high elevation Ponderosa pine forest in Flagstaff — where the temperature is 20 to 30 degrees cooler — in just two hours.
Phoenix to Grand Canyon Road Trip by Section
The quickest route from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon is by traveling north on I-17 to Flagstaff, west on I-40 to Williams, and then north on Highway 64 — a 3 hour, 30 minute drive covering 229 miles (368 kilometers).
Of course, you may also choose to detour through Sedona (add at least 35 minutes of drive time) on the way to Flagstaff — and the beauty is absolutely worth the extra time.
Another alternate route is to take Highway 180 north from Flagstaff (add at least 15 minutes of drive time) instead of continuing on the Interstate to Williams. Highway 180 is gorgeous as you climb as high into the forest 8,000 feet above sea level near the San Francisco Peaks. But keep in mind this route also experiences more snow, ice, and road closures in the winter.
Segment 1: Phoenix to Flagstaff
Let’s be real, most Arizona locals don’t care for driving the 17 (yes, we put “the” in front of our freeway numbers, just like Californians) because we’ve all done it soooo many times.
But for visitors, this is a really interesting and dramatic stretch of highway. Iconic saguaros tower over the sweeping curves above Black Canyon City, the red rocks of Sedona and sometimes snow-capped San Francisco Peaks line the horizon as you drop into the Verde Valley, not to mention the sudden climb up into the cool forest after tromping across the desert for 90 minutes.
Enjoy the ride, pray you don’t get stuck in traffic — Friday night or Saturday morning + just one car accident = a lot of extra travel time — and consider stopping a couple times along the way too.
Segment 1 Highlight: Rock Springs Cafe
If you’re looking for a place to grub out on some breakfast and take in some local history, check out Rock Springs Cafe just north of Phoenix. Originally built as a general store in 1918, the Rock Springs Cafe has been an important watering hole for travelers for over a century — although the traveling in those days wasn’t nearly as easy as setting the cruise control and cranking up the AC!
Even if you’re not in the mood for some down home cookin’, Rock Springs still runs a little general store (yep, like Cracker Barrel but with more local flavor) plus an indigenous crafts boutique. But it’s also cool to just walk around a bit to look at the old buildings and take in the scenery of Sonoran Desert surrounding the place.
Also, Rock Springs is famous for its pies so if you’ve got a cooler in tow, bring one along for the ride with a plan to eat a piece of pie while watching the sun go down over the Grand Canyon.
Segment 1 Highlight: Montezuma Castle National Monument
Located right off of I-17 at Camp Verde, Montezuma Castle National Monument is a fab place to get a good look at an ancient cliff dwelling — something you likely won’t see at the Grand Canyon. Built over 900 years ago, the 5-story residence was used by the Sinagua people for over 300 years.
A visit to Montezuma Castle can be just a quick stop, as the walk from the parking to the dwelling viewing area is just 1/3 of a mile. The path also passes near Wet Beaver Creek, and although there is no creek access, you’ll get to see the surprisingly lush “riparian” environment of a desert creek juxtaposed against the creosote-dominated scrub at the cliff’s base.
Segment 1 Side Trip: Sedona
If you want to make your Phoenix to Grand Canyon drive as stunning as possible, be sure to take the side trip through Sedona. And even if you don’t stop along the way, the scenery is straight eye-candy from the Village of Oak Creek all the way to the top of Oak Creek Canyon.
And if time is on your side, consider hitting the trail, especially since Sedona has plenty of short and easy hikes right off the highway. Consider a short hike on popular but easy to access ones like Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, or West Fork of Oak Creek.
You’ll pass Sedona’s plethora of shops and restaurants along the route, and Uptown Sedona is a fine place for a stroll if you want to browse for souvenirs, Southwestern jewelry, or crystals. If you’re in the mood to stop for a nice lunch, the Elote Cafe serves up the high-class Mexican cuisine created by Chef Jeff Smedstad.
See the full Phoenix to Grand Canyon driving route modified with the detour through Sedona here.
Related Read: 9 of the Best Places to Camp Near Sedona, Arizona
Segment 2: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon
Once you reach Flagstaff, you have a choice to take the safe route through Williams via I-40, or the scenic route by the San Francisco Peaks via US-180.
Unless you’re traveling during or directly after a big snow storm, I recommend the scenic route. The winding climb up through the forest up to 8,000 feet just feels more refreshing than weaving in between semis on I-40. Plus, the I-40 route bypasses downtown Flagstaff, so if you’re interested in stopping in this cool college town, the scenic route also makes sense.
On the flip side, Williams is an interesting little town in its own right, and if you want to catch some hardcore Route 66 vibes — or want to check out a dope wildlife park — Williams is the way to go. Obviously if you’re just trying to get to the Grand Canyon ASAP, just go the fast way.
Related Read: The 7 Best Caves in Arizona for Subterranean Exploration
Segment 2 Highlight: Bearizona
On the eastern outskirts of Williams sits a unique attraction called Bearizona. This beloved-by-locals high-country wildlife park features both a safari-style drive-through area and a walk-through zoo where you can view all types of forest-dwelling North-American animals. Among the beasts you’ll encounter are mule deer, bighorn sheep, arctic wolves, and of course BEARS.
Just keep in mind a solid visit to Bearizona takes about two hours, so plan accordingly. If you want to incorporate a meal into this stop, Bearizona’s walk-through area has both a snackbar and a restaurant (located in the hotel attached to the gift shop).
Related Read: 9 Amazingly Cozy Cabin Rentals in Williams, Arizona
Segment 2 Highlight: Williams
If you stay on the fastest route to Grand Canyon, the highways bypasses the heart of Williams, so you’ll have to venture a couple miles off the route — but it’s a quick and easy detour. So if you’re into Route 66 nostalgia, it’s worth it to stop — or even just stay in the car and take a couple minutes to drive down the main drag.
Williams is a small burg of just 7,000 people, so the main point of interest is the historic business district that takes up just a few city blocks. There are loads of Route 66-themed stores and galleries, and the Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe is great if you want to grab a bite in a blast-from-the-past atmosphere.
Segment 2 Highlight: Flagstaff
I cannot tell a lie — Flagstaff is my hometown and I love it so I’m biased — but I highly recommend you stop by. The historic downtown is the place to walk around, with tons of old sandstone and brick buildings built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Two historic hotels — the Weatherford and the Monte Vista — anchor the district, each with its own distinctive architecture and lore (the Monte Vista in particular is fabled to be haunted).
Flag’s downtown is home to plethora of superb eateries, with Martanne’s, Diablo Burger, and Brandy’s Cafe are some of the most loved by locals — my personal favorites are NiMarco’s Pizza and Bigfoot BBQ.
Related Read: The 10 Best Hotels in Flagstaff for Every Traveler
Segment 2 Side Trip: Snowbowl Road
If you opt for the scenic route via Highway 180, this is an option to make your trip extra scenic. This winding mountain road just north of Flagstaff will take you through beautiful aspen groves to a viewpoint on the western slope of the San Francisco Peaks.
It’s a 7-mile drive from the junction up to Snow Bowl (the local ski resort) at an elevation of 9,300 feet — where you’ll have beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. If you’re game for a short hike in the forest, there are three options: Veit Springs Trail, Aspen Corner, and Aspen Loop Trail.
I recommend this side trip in the summer (for the best weather) and fall (for the autumn colors) — just be ready for lots of cars and people when the fall colors peak in early to mid October.
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