A view on I-19 in Arizona — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Lund
There’s something extra serene about a road trip through Arizona, through open deserts, past chunky, towering red rocks and toward humbling mountain silhouettes. One beautiful and exciting road trip through Arizona is from Nogales, right on the Mexico border, up north to the Grand Canyon. This route is nearly six hours if you take the mostly-straight shot north, via interstates 17, 19 and 110.
Or take your time and stop at the various attractions and cities along the way. After all, this road trip will take you through three of Arizona’s most popular cities: Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, and is only a short shot away from Scottsdale.
Here are 10 spots worth visiting on your Nogales-Grand Canyon excursion.
The historic courthouse in Nogales — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Lund
Go on a historic tour of Nogales.
This southern town borders Mexico, so it’s a unique fusion of various cultures: Anglo, Native American and Hispanic. It’s also the home to a long list of historic sites. See the old schoolhouse, the railroad depot, a unique historic downtown and make sure you visit the Tumacacori National Monument. Here, you can go on a self-guided tour of ruins of three important, adobe 17-century missions.
Relax at the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa in Tubac, Arizona.
This luxurious, remote resort is perhaps best known as the site in Kevin Costner’s movie, Tin Cup. The 500-acre ranch features authentic, Spanish Colonial architecture that has earned its designation as a Historic Hotel of America. Find hiking, horseback riding, wineries and bird-watching nearby, and don’t miss the hacienda-style spa.
The Mission San Xavier — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Scott Hudson
Visit the San Xavier Indian Reservation.
Just before you hit Tucson on I-19, you can see the San Xavier Mission, the oldest in-tact European building in Arizona, constructed between 1783 and 1797. The reservation is a popular tourist attraction, because of its proximity to Tucson, and also because it runs a handful of casinos, with gambling, buffets and entertainment. You may be able to catch some big-name performers, such as REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar, at the Desert Diamond.
Get tiny in Tucson.
This Arizona city is packed with great restaurants and plenty of entertainment, but one of our favorite, quirky, off-the-wall places to see is the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures. Kids especially love looking at more than 300 elaborate mini room boxes and dollhouses, from antique to mystical to worldly. This is a museum and gallery like no other; it’ll no doubt change your perspective.
Picacho Peak State Park — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley
Hike the Hunter Trail Picacho Peak State Park.
This is a great place to stop for the night to camp, if you want to reset in the wilderness. The loop is not easy, but the expansive view at the peak is breathtaking. If Hunter Trail is too steep for you, there’s plenty to enjoy (and take pictures of) in the park. You can’t miss the odd-shaped peak that marks the spot.
A tiger at the Phoenix Zoo — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sergei Scurfield
Visit endangered animals at the Phoenix Zoo.
This zoo is the largest private, nonprofit zoo in the nation (and one of the nation’s biggest private nonprofits overall), and it is world-known for its successful wildlife conservation programs. More than 1,400 animals live at the Phoenix Zoo, including more than two dozen endangered and threatened species. Bet you didn’t expect to see a giraffe, rhino and African lion on your Arizona road trip.
Take a dip in natural swimming holes.
Here is where we recommend veering off the interstate for the more scenic Highway 87. Take the road to Payson, through the Tonto National Forest, until you come to Ellison Creek. A short hike in will bring you to what feels like another time period: a cool swimming hole and creek, surrounded by rocks and greenery. Camp nearby at Houston Mesa Campground and spend the day in this surprising oasis. When you’re done, take the highway north until you reach Mormon Lake.
Mormon Lake in the fall — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Coconino National Forest
Pay a visit to Mormon Lake.
Or not. When full, this destination is the biggest natural lake in the state. But during dry spells, you may be surprised to find no water at all. Regardless, Mormon Lake marks several excellent campgrounds, amazing views, hiking, horseback-riding and biking trails and the popular Mormon Lake Lodge Steakhouse and Saloon. This legendary restaurant is an open-pit steakhouse that won’t disappoint.
Take an aerial surfboard through the trees.
When you hit Flagstaff, make a trip to the Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course. This 413-acre park is a unique way to experience the outdoors. These “adventure courses” are treetop circuits (15 to 50 feet above ground) that feature different obstacles, such as bridges, slides, zip lines, nets, scrambling walls and an aerial surfboard. Kid and adult courses of varying levels are available.
Mule riding at the Grand Canyon — Photo courtesy of Flickr user irenetong
Celebrate at the Grand Canyon.
Ah, the grand finale. And how it’s worth it. A fun way to see this natural wonder is on an overnight mule trip–yup, a guided ride along the trail on a mule that includes a night’s stay at Phantom Ranch, near the Colorado River. These packages book up quickly though, so plan ahead or get on the waiting list. If you miss the mules, you can always enjoy a self-guided tour of the canyon via audio tours on your phone.