|Parks: 4||Miles: 905||Days: 8||Hours: 14|
This trip takes you on a round trip that begins and ends in Phoenix, AZ. We explore two of Arizona’s least visited National Parks as well as a National Forest (Gila) and two National Monuments (Organ Pipe and Montezuma’s Castle).
As with all of our trips, this drive can easily be reversed. Also, make sure you schedule your rental car at the airport ahead of time. We always need a full-size SUV, and they can be in short supply if you try and pick one up without a reservation.
Sedona, AZ is not a National Park Service site, but should not be skipped. It is one of the most beautiful places in the US.
This area of the country can be extremely hot in the summer. Early spring or fall will be the best time to schedule this trip.
Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was an easy decision here. It is central to everything we plan to see in this trip, and one of the few trips where we start and end at the same airport. We decided to grab a cheap hotel for the night after we landed, so we could get a full day of exploring on our way north the next day.
The next location is 126 miles away (~2 hours).
The goal here is to get up as early as possible and get on the road to Why, AZ to visit the Organ Pipe National Monument. We won’t be spending the night here, so getting here early will help beat the heat and give us enough time to continue on to Tuscon, AZ.
Note: If you want to skip Organ Pipe Cactus, the trip from Phoenix to Tuscon would save you over half of the driving. It is only 1.5 hours (110 miles) between these two Arizona cities.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is set in the Sonoran Desert on the boarder of Mexico and Arizona. The park is the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.
This park was designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1976, allowing for scientists from all around the world to focus on the conservation of the unique resources of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.
There is a very short hike around the visitor’s center, but the best hike in my opinion is the Desert View Trail (1.2 miles round trip). This trail is known for its fantastic views of the sunrise and sunset, overlooking the desert from one of the high points in the park.
There are 4 drive trails within the park as well. They range from easy to difficult terrain, so stop by the visitor’s center to see which may be perfect for you.
The next location is 121 miles away (~2 hours).
After visiting the National Monument, we are back on the road. This time we are heading east to Tuscon, AZ where we will explore the Saguaro National Park the following day.
Saguaro National Park
The Saguaro National Park is named after the country’s largest cacti, the saguaro (pronounced sa-WAH-ro). It is split into two east and west sections, with each having their own highlights.
We stayed right in Tuscon, AZ for this leg of the trip, which sits smack-dab in the middle of the East and West sections of the park. There are a couple campgrounds within the park’s limits if that is the type of thing you’re looking for.
In the eastern section of the park, enter at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. There are a lot of hiking trails here, but if you are short on time, drive the Cactus Forest Loop Drive (8 mile eloop) and hike the easy Cactus Forest Trail. This trail cuts through a forest of saguaro cacti, and is about 2 miles round trip.
The western side of the park, drive the Baja-da Loop (6 miles) and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail. This easy 1-mile round trip trail has amazing views of the Avra Valley, the saguaro-lined desert and the rock mountains in the distance.
The next location is 220 miles away (~3.5 hours).
After leaving Tuscon, we are traveling northeast to Cliff, NM to visit the Gila National Forest for a day.
Gila National Forest
The Gila National Forest is situated in New Mexico along the Gila River. The park is 3.3 million acres of forested hills, majestic mountains and range land. It is probably best known for its wilderness areas, which was the first designated wilderness area in the United States.
We chose Cliff, NM to stay in, but Silver City, NM, Gila, NM or Three Way, AZ had decent lodging options as well.
A few must-see attractions inside the park are the Suspension Bridge at Catwalk and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
Gila also has only one of the 14 certified International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are lands possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights. Head over to the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary (CCIDSS) at night to have a view of the cosmos like no other.
The next location is 200 miles away (~3.5 hours).
The Petrified National Park is next. We will be staying in Holbrook, AZ which is only about a 25-minute drive from the park’s entrance.
This is the longest leg of all our trip at 200 miles and 3.5 hours. The halfway point is Springerville, AZ. It has a decent amount of places to grab a meal and stretch your legs.
Petrified Forest National Park
The Petrified Forest National Park was once a swampy forest, but is now a scrubland desert with quartz-wrapped logs from 225 million years ago.
There are no campgrounds or lodging inside the park. In fact, you must be out of the park by 5pm if you don’t have a backcountry camping permit.
We chose Holbrook, NM as our spot to spend the night, but Winslow is a decent option as well. If you didn’t want to spend the night here, you can always visit the park, then continue on to Flagstaff, which has much more hotels, Airbnbs, and restaurants.
There is only one road in and out of the park, running 26 miles (42 km) from the north and south entrances. A full day of exploring this route will allow you to see most of what this park has to offer.
Start at the north entrance, just beyond the Painted Desert Visitors Center. You’ll pass several viewpoints, including Tawa Point and Pintado Point. Both of these stops offer fantastic views of the strange landscape this park is known for. In the same area is the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a 1-mile round trip easy hike that meanders through this colorful landscape.
Just past the I-40 crossover, is the Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs. This site has over 650 petroglyphs that are viewable from spotting scopes from the overlook.
Nest along the scenic drive is the Blue Mesa Loop trail. This is also an easy trail that is only about 1 mile total. This trail leads to strange blue bentonite clay cliffs, worn and shaped into unusual shapes.
Finish off your trip through this park with a hike of the Long Logs Loop. This 2.6 mile looping trail takes you past some of the park’s longest and most numerous petrified trees in what appears as a logjam.
The next location is 118 miles away (~2 hours).
Our next stop is Sedona, Arizona. I’ve said it before, but this city is absolutely beautiful.
On the way, stop by the Meteor Crater in Winslow. It was created by an asteroid impact 50,000 years ago. Also, nearby in Winslow is the Homolovi Ruins State Park, which was home to the Hopi people as far back as AD 620.
Sedona, Arizona is the very definition of “must see”. The mix of high red rock formations and lush green underbrush is a sight you just need to behold.
The most famous spot in the city limits is the Chapel of the Holy Cross. It was a perfect spot high up above the city to take in the views and visit the iconic structure built in 1932. It is open 9 AM-5 PM seven days a week and a perfect attraction for anyone, regardless of your faith.
Since this is a city and not a park, there are countless other activities to do around town. From golfing, to relaxing in a spa, to enjoying the local winery and/or brewery.
The next location is 120 miles away (~2 hours).
Time to head home. Drive south back to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. It’s a fairly easy drive and shortish trip at 120 miles (193 km), so depending on your flight schedule, you may be able to swing going straight to the airport and not spending the night in Phoenix.
If you have the time, check out the Montezuma Castle National Monument just south of Sedona. This NPS site is open daily from 8 am – 5 pm and costs $10 per adult (kids are free). There are lots of trails to hike, but unfortunately you can’t get close to the castle itself.
Drop off the rental car at the kiosk at the airport, and head home.
This trip was a long one by our standards, but we got to see some amazing sights. This may not be one of the more popular itineraries on the site, but for those looking to check remote National Parks off your list, this trip can be quite the hidden treasure.