The Best Day Trips From Phoenix, Arizona

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a thriving biosphere reserve, lies within easy reach of Phoenix
Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a thriving biosphere reserve, lies within easy reach of Phoenix | © Terry Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Taylor Haynes
29 September 2020

Phoenix is an ideal launchpad for scenic day trips in Arizona: you can drive a few hours in any direction and find yourself in a completely different environment. The Grand Canyon State offers varying landscapes and cool attractions – from a meteor crash site in Winslow to scenic trails at Oak Creek Canyon – shattering any assumptions that Arizona’s just a dusty desert. Here are the day trips to take from the state’s capital.

Find a reprieve from the heat (and see wild horses) at the Salt River

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To cool off during the sizzling summer months, Phoenicians head to the Salt River, a meandering waterway east of the city in the Tonto National Forest. You can rent an inner tube to float down the calm waters – it’s the original lazy river – for hours, depending on how much time you have to spend. Remember to bring sunscreen, ample drinking water and snacks, and keep an eye out for the Salt River wild horses that roam the banks. This destination is a little more than two hours from Phoenix.

Visit Arcosanti, an eco-friendly community north of Phoenix

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Arcosanti, an experimental town in the desert of Arizona, built to embody Paolo Soleri's concept of arcology.
© Luc Novovitch / Alamy Stock Photo

Take Interstate 17 north beyond the edge of suburban sprawl and find yourself in the high desert, characterized by open vistas and juniper scrubland. This is where you’ll find Arcosanti, an experimental, eco-friendly town made up of a cluster of angular structures along a bumpy dirt road. Paolo Soleri, an Italian-American architect and Arcosanti’s founder, envisioned a community where residents could enjoy the conveniences of urban life with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. Today, visitors can take a tour of the grounds and purchase a Soleri bell, which is made on the property; proceeds go to funding projects.

See one of the best-preserved asteroid impact sites in the world

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Aerial view of Meteor Crater in Winslow, AZ.
© Stacy Ochoa-Luna / Alamy Stock Photo

Around 50,000 years ago, a 160ft-long (49m) meteor crashed into the Earth’s surface, near present-day Winslow, Arizona (about three hours from Phoenix). The massive explosion was equivalent to 10 megatons of TNT and left an enormous crater on the ground. Because of the relatively recent event and Arizona’s arid climate, Meteor Crater is considered one of the best-preserved impact sites in the world. It’s a common destination for researchers, and astronauts trained at the site to prepare for the Apollo mission to the moon. Visitors can take guided tours around the rim of the crater.

Head to the southern border for incredible desert ecosystems

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Near the Mexico-Arizona border and two hours from Phoenix is a stunning example of a thriving desert ecosystem: the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. There are not only several organ pipe cacti (it’s the only place in the United States where the species grows wild), but also quintessential saguaros and hedgehog cacti, which bloom with bright pink flowers during the spring. Visitors can also find two natural stone arches. Many sites at the monument are sacred to the Tohono O’odham people, who have lived in the region for generations.

Discover wildlife and adventure at Watson Lake in Prescott

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Watson Lake, Prescott, AZ
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Prescott is a small town around two hours north of Phoenix along Interstate 17. It’s known for a picturesque Wild West downtown (complete with a collection of saloons) and its natural beauty. Watson Lake regularly attracts hikers and kayakers from across the state, with towering granite boulders and rich riparian habitats, brimming with waterfowl. Start at the Pea-Vine Trail, which winds itself around the perimeter of the lake and between boulders, for a scenic stroll or bike ride.

Learn about some of the region's earliest human inhabitants at Montezuma Castle National Monument

Archaeological site, Architectural Landmark
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Montezuma Castle National Monument is a pristine example of cliffside dwellings constructed by the indigenous Sinagua people. Near Camp Verde and less than two hours from Phoenix, this place allows you to learn about the culture and customs of some of the region’s earliest inhabitants. While you can’t go inside this ancient structure, there are several unobstructed views from the trails below. An early version of a high-rise apartment, Montezuma Castle contains five stories and nearly 60 rooms, built over the course of 300 years.

Pick blackberries along the trail at Oak Creek Canyon

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Oak Creek Canyon Red Rock State Park Sedona, Arizona, USA
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Don’t let the Grand Canyon outshine other canyon adventures in Arizona. Oak Creek Canyon, two hours north of Phoenix and near Sedona, is worth visiting for smaller crowds and shaded trails along a sparkling creek. Accessed by winding and scenic Highway 89A, Oak Creek Canyon offers several campsites for weekend expeditions in addition to numerous picnic spots. In the summer and autumn, look for blackberry bushes heavy with ripened fruit.

These recommendations were updated on September 29, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.