Here’s my ultimate local’s guide to the best day trips from Phoenix – for history buffs, nature lovers and more.
From ghost towns and desert hiking trails to snow-covered pine forests, there is so much to explore in the Phoenix area.
Phoenix is surrounded by some incredible destinations and nature – all just a short drive away. It’s a prime location to explore Wild West lore or cool off amid stunning natural wonders.
I grew up in Phoenix and we spent many great weekends exploring the Sonoran desert and its historic mining towns. I still always take a day trip or two with family whenever I visit for the holidays.
Here’s my ultimate local’s guide to the best day trips from Phoenix:
Jerome was once a roaring copper mining town dubbed as the Wickedest City in the West for its rowdy bars, treasure hunters and prostitutes.
Today it’s an artsy getaway that boasts charming Victorian facades, cozy bookstores and boutiques.
And Jerome has preserved its tumultuous history. When the mining industry died down, the last mines finally closed after the Great Depression. Jerome was almost forgotten.
But it never became a ghost town – thanks to the residents who called it home. Artists moved in, renovated the homes and reopened once-abandoned shops.
Today Jerome’s winding streets are filled with crumbling and restored buildings. You’ll find boutiques with local handicrafts, saloons, wineries and plenty of Wild West charm.
This town on a hillside has zigzaging streets and steep staircases packed with great eateries and local shops. There’s a great artsy vibe with lots of murals and live music on the weekends.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 54 min (110 miles)
Things to do in Jerome:
Explore the city’s past at the Jerome State Historic Park – a museum inside a 1916 mansion with old photos, minerals and a 3D model of Jerome’s underground mines. The nearby Gold King Mine Museum and Ghost Town is a motley collection of antique trucks, and old mining equipment and a petting zoo – and it’s especially great if you’re doing Jerome with kids.
For shopping, head to the Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery for local handicrafts. And finish with lunch and a microbrew at the historic Bobby D’s BBQ – Arizona’s oldest restaurant established in 1899.
This experimental utopian city in the Arizona desert is a must-see for architecture lovers – and a timely example of sustainable design.
Built in 1970, Arcosanti is the revolutionary vision of Italian architect Paolo Soleri. It’s perched on a hill lined with cypress trees with stunning vaults and domes straight out of a Star Wars movie (and it did reportedly inspire George Lucas).
The city aims to fuse architecture and ecology to offer a more meaningful – and beautiful – alternative to suburban sprawl.
Stroll the desert hiking trails around Arcosanti for views of the architecture, and wander the grounds to explore the outdoor amphitheater and the network of workshops, public terraces and living spaces. Stop at the gorgeous cafe for breakfast or lunch alongside broad oval windows with desert views.
And don’t miss the bronze foundry, where molten bronze Soleri bells are cast. There’s also a gift shop that offers a gorgeous array of bells of all sizes, wind chimes and books on architecture.
Guided tours are available. Or stay overnight and book a guest room for an unforgettable experience. The guest rooms are minimal, quiet – and perfect for a digital detox.
Soleri, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, envisioned Arcosanti as a tall, intricate network of small living spaces that would house some 5,000 people in self-sufficiency. The city would optimize space and renounce cars – all with minimal energy.
Today Arcosanti is home to some 100 people and it’s still a work in progress.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 2 min (67 miles)
Sedona has stunning red rock formations, winding creeks and a lively New Age and arts community.
There are great hiking trails and outdoor adventures that make Sedona a perfect weekend family destination. Spots like Slide Rock State Park (a natural water slide in Oak Creek) are an ideal summer getaway when the Phoenix temperatures soar.
Sedona’s scenery is breathtaking – from the towering Cathedral Rock to the sweeping views at Airport Mesa. Locals say it rivals the Grand Canyon for its sheer natural beauty.
The Red Rock Scenic Byway (SR 179) is Arizona’s most scenic drive. And it’s lined with Sedona’s red rock formations and Native American cliff dwellings. Hit the road and enjoy the roadside views of Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock – and plenty of spots to pull over for photos.
Sedona’s art galleries and quirky boutiques are great for authentic Native American crafts made by the local Navajo people.
Sedona also has a thriving New Age scene, wellness centers, five-star spas and yoga retreats.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 55 min (115 miles)
Things to do in Sedona:
The Airport Loop Trail, a 3.2 mile (5.1-km) trail that snakes around the city’s tiny airport, doesn’t take much exertion. And it offers stunning views – especially at golden hour and sunset.
The nearby Crescent Moon Ranch boasts one of the most photographed spots in the Southwest: the majestic Cathedral Rock with Oak Creek streaming past.
The Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village has become a Sedona landmark in its own right. It boasts a cobblestone maze of upscale shops, restaurants and fountain-filled courtyard .
For foodies, The Art of Wine in uptown Sedona does tasting events and features 25 different Arizona wineries.
Perched on a limestone cliff, Montezuma Castle is a cluster of ancient cliff dwellings built right into the landscape.
Walk along the trail for a look at these expertly-built Native American dwellings that have survived some 700 years. They’re tucked inside a natural alcove some 27 meters above the ground.
Montezuma Castle was built high by the Sinagua people to escape the annual flooding of nearby Beaver Creek. The castle has some 370 square meters of floor space across five stories built over generations of courageous engineers. It’s a breathtaking structure that’s amazing to explore.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 23 min (93 miles)
Things to do in Montezuma Castle:
The visitor’s center has an exhibit on the daily life of the Sinagua, the pre-Columbian culture that flourished centuries ago in the Verde Valley.
Don’t miss the trails at the base of the monument with signs explaining the names, history and uses of the local plant life.
And stop at the nearby Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole used as a water source by ancient people.
Prescott has refreshing blue lakes, hiking trails and a historic downtown with old-west-style saloons that transport you to the gold rush era.
Stroll the historic Whiskey Row for breweries, saloons reminiscent of the Wild West, candy shops and charming boutiques and antique stores. Explore the surrounding streets for Victorian-era homes and finish off with drinks at The Palace, Arizona’s oldest frontier saloon.
Prescott is also “Arizona’s Christmas City” – and it’s a charming place to get into the holiday spirit. There’s an annual Christmas parade and a tree-lighting ceremony at the charming while-columned courthouse.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 33 min (99 miles)
Things to do in Prescott:
The Sharlot Hall Museum narrates Prescott’s history from prehistoric times to the present day. You’ll find everything from dinosaur bones to the first governor’s mansion (built in 1864) in this sprawling and kid-friendly museum.
Watson Lake boasts breathtaking stretches of water surrounded by enormous granite boulders. It’s great for hiking, camping, boating and starry nights around a bonfire. Rent a kayak or canoe for an afternoon of exploring the rugged landscape and shimmering blue waters.
Pine is a small community that features pine-scented hiking trails, natural wonders and some delicious eateries.
It’s a tiny but very up-and-coming weekend destination for hipsters and Phoenix locals looking for a getaway from the city.
Pine’s residential streets are full of crackling pine needles at your feet. They’re lined with wooden cabins (and a few great Airbnbs), antique shops and – if you look carefully – some local wildlife.
Distance from Phoenix: 1 hr 45 min (105 miles)
Things to do in Pine:
The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park boasts the world’s largest natural travertine bridge, which stands 56 meters high over a 120-metre tunnel. Geological forces formed the bridge and carved out its shape over the centuries.
Take the Pine Trailhead (just off the main road) to explore a verdant canyon full of maples, oaks, ponderosa pines and a beautiful running creek. If you’re going in winter, you might even get some snow.
Finish your day at the Old County Inn with some woodfire pizza and craft beer in a lively atmosphere. It has post-punk on the speakers, a menu of microbrews on a chalkboard and a staff decked out in red flannel for a hipster feel.
The Mission San Xavier del Bac is a spectacular example of Spanish Colonial architecture and a testament to Arizona’s rich history.
The mission is called the white dove of the desert. And it’s a perfect name for the white entrance rising out of the desert.
The facade boasts Moorish-inspired decorations made from white stucco. Inside are dazzling paintings and frescoes in Mexican and Native American motifs.
Founded by a Jesuit missionary in 1692, the Mission San Xavier has a turbulent history. All Spanish-born priests were banned after Mexican Independence in 1821. And the resident Franciscans left as the mission began to decay.
But local Native Americans preserved what they could. And the church was re-opened after it became part of the U.S.
Today it’s a brilliant site for history and architecture buffs, right outside Tucson.
Lake Pleasant is a cool oasis from the city with boating, fishing and camping – all just an hour north of Phoenix.
The Lake Pleasant Regional Park has 23,000 acres of water and a rolling desert landscape dotted with saguaro cacti, creosote bushes and sandstone cliffs. It’s perfect for some easy uphill hikes for great views of the water. Stop at the Discovery Center to learn more about the Sonoran desert – and the natives and early settlers of the region.
Spend a day kayaking, fishing and scuba diving in the cool waters. There are two boat launching ramps with lots of parking and restrooms. Bring your boat or rent a boat for a day or half a day.
The Pleasant Harbor Marina has a beautiful shoreline and offers fishing, swimming, boating and hiking. Head to Dillon’s Bayou Bar & Restaurant for drinks and a lazy lunch with waterfront views.
Scorpion Bay Marina has hourly and daily boat rentals that include fishing boats, kayaks and an array of water toys great for kids and families.
There’s lots of camping sites for tents and RVs. Stay a bit longer and enjoy sunsets over the lake and stargazing at night.
Distance from Phoenix: 48 min (43 miles)
9. Goldfield Ghost Town
Once a bustling gold mining town, Goldfield fell into near oblivion before it was restored into a historic gem (and children’s favorite) that offers a real look at the old West.
Goldfield famously struck gold in 1892 and attracted treasure hunters from across the nation. During its heyday, it boasted a general store along with saloons, markets, hotels and a brewery.
Then the gold dried up, the town fell into a decline – and Goldfield turned into a ghost town.
But Goldfield has been lovingly restored. And today it’s full of souvenir shops, ice cream parlours and cafes that give you a real feel of the old West.
Take an underground tour at Mammoth Gold Mine or ride Arizona’s only narrow gauge train and admire the views of the Superstition Mountains.
Stroll down Main Street to peruse shops filled with historic Western decor. Bordello is a recreated brothel that also offers a leather shop, bakery and saloon.
Pan for gold at Prospector’s Palace or watch a reenactment of a Wild West gun fight (on Saturdays and Sundays from November to April). And don’t miss the Goldfield Superstition Museum for exhibits on Goldfield history – including the Lost Dutchman Mine.
Distance from Phoenix: 45 min (40 miles)
10. Apache Trail
The Apache Trail is a rugged, winding road through saguaro-packed mountains and deep blue lakes.
And the 120-mile circle route is a perfect Arizona road trip with gorgeous scenery and lots of interesting stops along the way.
Named after the Native Americans who used this route for generations, the Apache Trail starts at Apache Junction and goes through the Superstition Mountains and Tonto National Forest. It ends at the spectacular Theodore Roosevelt Lake.
Stop at Goldfield Ghost Town for some shopping, panning for gold and ice cream. This former mining town was nearly abandoned. Now it’s been restored with historic buildings and a mining museum that features an exhibit about the Lost Dutchman’s treasure.
Don’t miss Canyon Lake with its blue waters framed by steep cliffs and prickly pear cacti. There’s a large marina, soft beaches and plenty of campgrounds.
The old-west style town of Tortilla Flat (population: 6) is another great stop for mining relics, a curio shop and a great eatery with live music.
The majestic Theodore Roosevelt Dam, built in 1911, is the world’s largest masonry dam at nearly 300 feet tall.
For more blue waters, don’t miss Fish Creek Hill and Apache Lake for scenery and fishing.
NOTE THAT SECTIONS OF THE APACHE TRAIL ARE CLOSED IN 2022, due to damage from the Woodbury Wildfire. The 18-mile stretch from Apache Junction to Tortilla Flat is still open. Check the Tonto National Forest website for up-to-date info to plan your trip.