Editor’s note: love of travel comes from somewhere, and mine is partially due to my mom. After being my biggest cheerleader and most regular reader here at The Royal Tour, I’m thrilled to be able to share her first article with you now. The links will take you to articles I have written about some of the places she visited on this awesome driving trip itinerary. And now that she has decided to write more for us, please click here to visit her index page!

We love road trips. Earlier this year, we took a road trip that met all of my criteria: 1) most days with four or less hours of driving, 2) at least two nights in every location to have one full day to explore (with an exception only for the first and last days), 3) seeing beautiful places, 4) exploring educational places, and 5) having friends or family time.

We started in Los Angeles and drove to Tucson first (actually we spent one night in Blythe to avoid a rain storm). On the way to Tucson, we stopped at the first of several native American sites – Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The “great house” is a 4-story free-standing building, constructed by the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People. (Click here to read a full article about Casa Grande.) In addition to other smaller structures, they also had hundreds of miles of irrigation canals to irrigate such crops as corn, squash, and cotton. It is believed that the large structure was built by 1350, and by 1450 the native Americans had left the area. It was set aside in 1892 by President Benjamin Harrison as a prehistoric and cultural reserve and was declared a National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918.

The “great house” at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Following our stop at Casa Grande, we drove to Saguaro National Park, where the largest cacti in the US are found. After looking around the visitor center, we took the eight mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, stopping to look at the various vistas showing saguaros and other plants and views. Some of the saguaros have very interesting shapes. (Click here to read more about Saguaro National Park.)

One of the views of Saguaro National Park

We spent most of a day at the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, which features both desert animals and gorgeous plants. They claim to have 1200 different plant species! Due to the unusually wet winter/spring, many of the plants were in full bloom, and the arrangement of the plants was spectacular. From the animal kingdom, the animals range from various cats (bobcats, mountain lions) and other large mammals (Mexican gray wolves, coyotes) to small mammals, birds (including hummingbirds), lizards, and snakes. They have live shows with some of the animals (we saw one with snakes).

Beautiful botanical display at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

We then went to Phoenix (only a two hour drive from Tucson), originally mostly planning to see friends and family, but people encouraged us to go to the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). The MIM was fantastic. Besides the actual instruments and costumes, it has video screens and each visitor has a headset. When one is looking at the video, one can hear the audio that goes with the video through the headset without disturbing people nearby. We started off by looking at every video in the first room (special exhibit) and soon came to the conclusion that we would be there for days if we continued that way! Most of the main rooms were divided geographically – US + Canada, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. It was incredible – so many rare and beautiful instruments, some similarities between disparate regions (drums, items that one blows into, stringed instruments), and unusual exhibits such as instruments made from trash. There is even a room where one can try a few instruments – mostly drums and bells. (Click here to read more about the Musical Instrument Museum.)

Even the outside of the Musical Instrument Museum is lovely

After our time in Phoenix, we picked up my cousin from the airport and headed out of town toward Sedona (another two hour drive). But Montezuma Castle National Monument was barely out of our way, so we made another stop. It features a five-story, 20-room structure built into the rocks and believed to house many families (like an apartment complex). This structure is just a short walk from the parking lot. It was built by the Sinagua around 1050, although the Sinagua were in this area since about 650. Montezuma Castle was abandoned around 1400 and was made into a National Monument in 1906. Because the Sinagua had no written language, it is unknown where they went. It is possible they are ancestors of, or integrated with, nearby Native American tribes such as Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

Five story structure in Montezuma Castle National Monument

Sedona was the original purpose of the trip. So many people had recommended it, and we had never been there. As one approaches Sedona, beautiful red rock formations appear on all sides. Because of the beauty and Sedona’s reputation, we were, unfortunately, not the only car on the road and literally had nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic for the last few miles to our hotel. For our full day in Sedona, we took a jeep ride to see even more rock formations, went to an art gallery, and drove part way into Oak Creek Canyon. We also had two wonderful dinners in Sedona. Sedona was by far the most expensive place we went to on this trip, but our accommodations and the food were top notch and the scenery was amazing. We learned on our jeep trip that there are many Native American sites within the Sedona area, but we did not see them up close.

One of the beautiful red rock formations in Sedona

We then set out for Page (three hour drive). But Walnut Canyon National Monument was only a slight detour from our path, so we had to stop! Walnut Canyon is another Native American site with cliff dwellings. It was occupied by Archaic peoples thousands of years ago. We spent some time in the Visitor Center and then walked the less than mile-long Rim Trail to various viewpoints and a partially rebuilt pueblo and pit house. One could also choose to go down into the Canyon on the Island Trail, but we did not to do this as it was 185 feet down (and up) with the site at 7000 feet in elevation. Even from across the Canyon, one could see some of the cliff dwellings (although it might be hard to see from the picture).

Walnut Canyon… if you look closely, you can see paths leading to some of the cliff dwellings

A few years ago, I had never heard of Page nor Antelope Canyon. But some cousins visiting from France told us about it, so we added this to our must-see list. Because we had a number of places to see, we spent three nights in Page. Our first full day we went to Horseshoe Bend – which is part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area. It is a 270-degree bend of the Colorado River and entails a 1.5-mile round trip walk to get there from the parking lot. We stopped at Glen Canyon Dam (unfortunately the visitor center was not open during the time we were in Page). And later we went to the Glen Canyon Recreation Wahweap Marina area to see the views of Lake Powell, but only the gift shop was open that day. (Click here to read more about Horseshoe Bend and Glen Canyon.)

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River

The next day we had a tour of Upper Antelope Canyon, which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is a slot canyon with just a path through it. Everyone is required to go with a Navajo guide (the canyon is on Navajo lands) and book tickets in advance. Our guide was excellent and not only told us about the canyon, but also helped us find the best pictures (and took some using our cameras). The walk is only 1/4 mile through the canyon, but every turn shows new views of the rocks. After one exits the canyon, one has to walk back around the outside, about a half mile walk on sand and walkways.

Gorgeous Upper Antelope Canyon

Later that afternoon we took a boat ride into Lower Antelope Canyon from another part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area – the Antelope Point Marina. Because we were in a boat, it was not the narrowest passages, but spectacular scenery too! (You can also kayak into Lower Antelope Canyon. Click here to read about that.)

Another spectacular view of Antelope Canyon, this time from a boat

To end our time in Page, we booked the Red Heritage Native American dinner show. The dinner was Navajo tacos served on Navajo frybread with your choice of meats and/or vegetarian toppings. A Navajo woman taught us about how they make Navajo blankets – long process of cleaning and combing the wool. After dinner there was a dance show. One of the highlights was a hoop dance performed by two dancers.

Navajo dancers performing a hoop dance

After Page we headed for Las Vegas (4.5 hour drive). Again, there was beautiful scenery along the way including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with snow on the beautiful red rocks. Our final stop prior to Las Vegas was Pipe Spring National Monument– a Mormon and Native American site. Again, it was only a small detour and had a visitor center and a house which the Mormons built, which you can read more about here.

Grand Staircase-Escalante from the highway nearby

In summary, this trip exceeded all of my expectations. The stops along the way not only broke up the drives and provided good places to picnic, but they also gave us a better understanding of the Native Americans who lived and still live in these areas. We also learned a lot from the gorgeous Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and the truly amazing Musical Instrument Museum. The scenery of Saguaro National Park, Sedona, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon was spectacular. Along the way, we also saw beautiful wildflowers, snow-covered mountains and the red rocks of Grand Staircase-Escalante. This ranks as one of our best road trips ever! To top it off, we got to spend six days with my cousin, whom I rarely see.

One suggestion for this trip – buy a National Park annual pass (or senior pass). It got us in for free to every National Park site except Horseshoe Bend (this included the Native American National Monuments, Saguaro National Park and the Recreation Areas in Page)!

One final note, I had not anticipated learning so much about Native American history and culture when I originally planned this trip. What a bonus!

Like it? Pin it!

2 thoughts on “A Great Arizona Driving Trip

Leave a Reply