How to Spend 6 Days Exploring Arizona’s National Parks
After the success of last year’s solo trip to New Mexico, I wanted more. I debated a few options, consulting this map and looking for clusters of national parks that would allow me to spend 5-7 days in one or two places while hitting a handful of parks. Mostly, I wanted to go west again and Arizona’s national parks kept popping up in the books I was reading, the shows I was watching and it all started to seem like a sign.
So I went to Arizona for my 34th birthday and spent six days scampering from Tucson to Flagstaff and managed to visit seven of the state’s 22 national parks.
MY 6-DAY ARIZONA NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY
I started my adventure in Tucson, flying in late on a Wednesday and heading almost immediately to bed.
DAY 1. SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Coming from the East Coast, I was up super early on my first day in Arizona, and I set out just after sunrise for Saguaro National Park, getting there before almost anyone. I started in the Rincon Mountain District, the park’s east side, mostly because it was closest to my hotel.
I drove the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, then hiked part of the Douglas Spring Trail, taking it through the desert and past saguaros to Bridal Wreath Falls. Then, famished, I headed into Tucson for a Sonoran Dog, some tacos and a beer at BK Taco. The Sonoran Dog is a must-eat for anyone visiting Tucson and it was ridiculous and also delicious.
After checking in at my hotel and taking a short nap, I headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, the park’s west side, to watch the sunset and soak in a little bit more park time before the day ended.
For dinner, I hit one of Tucson’s many downtown breweries and went to bed early like the little old lady that I am.
DAY 2. DESERT MUSUEM, SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK & CASA GRANDE RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Just outside the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is where I started my second day in Arizona. It’s definitely worth a visit for those who enjoy animal encounters and want to learn more about Sonoran Desert, plus, it’s adjacent to Saguaro, which is where I headed after the museum, to drive the Bajada Loop Drive through the park and scamper along a few trails.
After that, I headed north, aiming myself toward Flagstaff, which is about four hours north of Tucson. I stopped in Casa Grande for In-N-Out Burger and then headed to my second national park of the trip, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, located right between Phoenix and Tucson.
I then headed north and the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is one I’d recommend to anyone visiting Arizona. You gain a few thousand feet of elevation as you go, winding your way through saguaro-covered mountains before entering the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world.
I made it to my cabin just after sunset, set up my bed, dropped off my luggage and then headed to downtown Flagstaff, which is incredibly charming, and had dinner and a few beers at Flagstaff Brewing Company, which incidentally has the largest whiskey selection in the state.
DAY 3. SUNSET CRATER VOLCANO NATIONAL MONUMENT & WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT
No lie, y’all, my third day was a bit of a train-wreck. I drove all the way to Petrified Forest National Park, watched a pronghorn prance his way across the road in front me and only then realized I’d left my camera sitting on my bed back at the cabin. So I turned around, went back to the cabin, grabbed my camera and some lunch, then headed to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and the almost-adjacent Wupatki National Monument, my third and fourth national park of the trip.
If I’d had more time and hadn’t spent half the day driving across Arizona, I would have visited Walnut Canyon National Monument, which is just outside Flagstaff.
DAY 4. PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, WINSLOW & GRAND FALLS
I woke up early on my fourth day for round two at Petrified Forest National Park. It’s insane, that place. It’s beautiful, with blue and red mesas, incredibly sweeping landscapes, part of old Route 66 and, of course, petrified wood. I hiked a little bit, scampered into the wilderness area as well and, mostly, I just couldn’t stop smiling. It’s an incredible place.
On the way back toward Flagstaff – it’s about a 90 minute drive from there to the Petrified Forest – I stopped in Winslow for a drink and some tacos at Relic Road Brewing Company and to say hello to Standin’ on the Corner Park, where I visited years before.
From there, I bounced down a clay road to check out Grand Falls (closed to the public as of Feb. 2023). The water wasn’t flowing due to an unusually dry winter, but it was still beautiful.
For dinner, I grabbed a few to-go beers from Mother Road Brewing Company, one of Flagstaff’s most-loved beer establishments, and a pizza from Pizzicletta and ate it at my cabin as the sun went down. That pizza was maybe the best thing I ate in Flagstaff and I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you pair it with a beer from Mother Road.
DAY 5. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
My fifth day, a Monday, was my birthday. I woke up super, super early and drove up from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, getting there just as the sun was coming up. I started the day with a hike down the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point and then drove along Desert View Drive to take in a few different views of the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular national parks in the country, so keep that in mind if you’re planning your visit. Getting there early allowed me to beat some of the crowd, but things were very, very busy by the time I made my way out of the canyon around lunch.
I took AZ-64 up to the Grand Canyon that morning, drove the 20-something miles of Desert View Drive and then drove back to Flagstaff via AZ-89, which was beautiful.
For dinner, I ate a pile of nachos at Lumberyard Brewing Company and a great big beer, then went back to my cabin to pack my suitcase and nibble on a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
DAY 6. MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT
My flight out of Phoenix wasn’t until 1:30 p.m., so I set out early from Flagstaff and stopped along the way at Montezuma Castle National Monument, located about an hour south of Flagstaff and an hour and a half north of the Phoenix airport.
After that, I dropped off my rental car, made it through security, grumbled about the surprising lack of local beer at the airport bar and headed home.