The selection of national parks in Arizona feels like a menu at a three-star restaurant: there are only a few items, each of those is brilliantly unique while still adhering to a central theme, and there’s one mindblowing famous dish that people travel from all over to try.
But moving from desserts to deserts and away from this gastronomic analogy, the rich history and stunning landscapes of the Grand Canyon State (an iconic but reductive nickname) should ideally be experienced over an extended period of time. Sadly, your PTO policy dictated you only had five days, and you need those national-park decals for your Subie. (How else will complete strangers know that you’re well-traveled and outdoorsy?)
Day 1: Phoenix
Day 2: Saguaro National Park
The park is split up into two sections, which flank the city of Tucson to the east and west. The western section (Tucson Mountain District) has a denser and more impressive forest of cacti so we recommend sticking to it in the interest of time — the eastern section is about an hour away. You could probably do both if you camped in the Rincon Mountain District and got up really early.
What to do in half a day:
Bajada Loop Drive: A scenic drive that allows you to witness the park’s towering saguaros and takes about half an hour if you don’t stop at all. But of course, you’d be a fool to do that. Recommended stops are the Valley View Overlook Trail and Signal Hill Petroglyphs — both short hikes.
Wassen Peak Loop: This moderately strenuous 8-mile hike will take about 4.5 hours but the views at the top are well worth it.
Try to leave the park around 2–3 p.m. and head to the quaint town of Holbrook, which is about 4.5 hours away and will provide you the closest lodging to your next destination: Petrified Forest National Park.
Day 3: Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest is a relatively small park that packs a big punch. First, be aware that this park has actual hours — currently, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Try to get there when it opens or near.
What to do in (almost) a day:
All hikes within Petrified Forest are short and conveniently right off the 28-mile scenic road that runs through the park. Your excursion could include the following:
Painted Desert Rim Trail: Super easy. Vista of the badlands that live up to the hike name. What’s not to like?
Blue Mesa Trail: Steep at first but short. Spectacular blue-ish colors on badland hills formed by bentonite clay. Colors might be closer to purple than blue at times but don’t complain about it like that one person on Alltrails.
Crystal Forest: All-paved loop that is the mecca for petrified-wood enthusiasts. You will see literally thousands of logs. Sheesh.
Oh, and as a reminder… Do NOT take any logs with you. They don’t want to be moved. Think of them as not just petrified, but also afraid (of you). And you will survive going home without one.
Day 4-5: Grand Canyon National Park
The best was saved for last. The prize jewel of our nation, a 277-mile-spanning wonder-canyon meticulously carved by the Colorado River for the last five million years, is finally calling your name.
What to do in 1.5 days:
Mather Point: Get up before dawn and make your way to Mather Point for objectively the greatest sunrise you’ll ever see. Then, you walk the Rim Trail to Hopi Point. It’s about 3 (easy) miles and will take about an hour.
Bright Angel Trail: In its entirety, this legendary below-the-rim trail is extremely long and strenuous. Common turnaround points are the rest houses, situated 1.5 and 3 miles away from the trailhead (stopping at one of those would make it a moderate hike).
Explore the Grand Village: There are many shops and lodges near the Bright Angel trailhead. You have to get that sweet decal from somewhere, right?
South Kaibab Trail: Another spectacular but steep trail that goes into the canyon. You can turn around after a moderate hike at the accurately named “Ooh Aah” point or Cedar Ridge.
Hit up as many viewpoints as possible: With a robust shuttle system providing easy access to all those viewpoints, there’s no excuse.
Explore differently: Maybe hiking isn’t your thing — and that’s just fine! There are plenty of options to enjoy the Grand Canyon like driving the Desert View Drive scenic road, enjoying a helicopter tour or riding a mule.
You did it!
You’ve conquered all the national parks in Arizona — and in less than a week. Now it’s time for the 3.5-hour drive back to Phoenix. Try to book a return flight later in the day so you can spend as much of day 5 at the Grand Canyon. But if you can’t, remember: like a loving grandma, these parks will always be waiting with open arms for you to return. So come back and visit them again sometime soon.