While there may be plenty to keep visitors busy within the Phoenix Metro Area, there are also worthwhile destinations within a couple hours' drive from the Valley of the Sun. During the warmer months, road trippers may want to focus on destinations north, at higher elevations. During the cooler months, going south means you'll be only a few degrees cooler than Phoenix. Whether it be Tucson, with its multicultural heritage and cacti-clad desert, or Sedona, with its vortexes and brighter-than-fire buttes, some of Arizona's most beloved attractions are just a road trip (or day trip) from the bustling capital.
The former territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott is nestled amid the largest stand of ponderosa pine forests in the U.S., 100 miles from Phoenix. The main artery of its downtown area, Whisky Row, is known for its lively nightlife scene, thanks to a slew of iconic saloons and continuous live music. Surrounding the raucous epicenter, though, is a pristine display of Southwest nature: climbing crags, fishing holes, trail-adorned forests, and scenic lakes. The rocky shores of Watson Lake, for instance, are home to countless bird species. Like many cities in Arizona, Prescott is steeped in Native American history. To view artifacts from the area, check out the Museum of Indigenous People.
As if the beauty of Sedona's fire-red rocks isn't enough of a draw, many of them are also energy hotspots. Vortices are the main attraction of this bohemian resort town; these areas of concentrated energy can give some people a tingling sensation or cause others to have spiritual epiphanies. Sedona is brimming with crystal shops, gypsy clothing shops selling patchwork skirts and tie-dyed shirts, and cafes specializing in acai bowls. About 115 miles from Phoenix, Sedona has four main vortex sites: Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, and Airport Mesa. Some believe them to be portals for celestial spirits. From town, you can sign up for a guided 4x4 or jeep tour or head out to explore the local hiking trails on your own account.
Despite its reputation, Arizona isn't actually all desert. En route to Payson via the scenic State Route 87 (also known as Beeline Highway, which stretches about 90 miles between Phoenix and Payson), you'll witness the lower desert gradually turn into high-country pine forest. From the top of the Colorado Plateau, you'll be served sweeping views of the painted desert and the Four Peaks of the Mazatzals. Beyond Payson is Pine—named after the huge, centuries-old ponderosa pines that grow in the surrounding Tonto National Forest—and Strawberry—home to the world's largest natural travertine bridge. The lush, lake-dotted region that creates a 50-mile radius around Payson is what the locals call Rim Country. Payson sits about 5,000 feet above sea level, which can lead to snow and other inclement weather during certain times of year, so prepare accordingly.
Just over 100 miles north of Phoenix, Jerome is one of Arizona's most famous haunted places. This ghost town gets its spooky reputation mostly from the Jerome Grand Hotel, which saw the deaths of some 9,000 people when it was the United Verde Hospital in the early 20th century. Now, guests regularly report paranormal activity, sometimes even catching apparitions and orbs on camera. But if ghost hunting isn't your thing, there's still much to do in this area, including tours of the local mines that once put this town on the map, eclectic art studios, museums, and shops. The entire town is, in fact, an official state historic park.
A departure from Arizona's usual desert scenery is Out of Africa Wildlife Park, a little slice of the Serengeti about 90 minutes north of Phoenix. This Camp Verde wildlife preserve, located on the outskirts of the Mingus Mountains, is home to lions, tigers, giraffes, sloths, rhinos, and other exotic critters. It makes an easy day trip from the capital city, but allocate at least half a day to see all the animals.
About an hour and a half north of Phoenix are two national monuments commemorating the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. Montezuma Castle is a preserved and protected display of authentic Sinagua cliff dwellings that are believed to have been built between 1100 and 1425 CE. Tuzigoot, about 25 miles from Montezuma Castle, is a multi-story pueblo ruin that contains up to 100 rooms. It's thought to be one of the largest villages built by the Sinagua people. Combined entry to Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot costs $10.
Phoenix is the best of both worlds for a biker: Its urban areas are offset by remote wilderness and expansive desert nothingness. The scenic, 225-mile drive to the Grand Canyon, for instance, is a motorcyclist's dream come true. This route offers miles of cacti-blanketed desert, twisty mountain passes, and the lush greenery of the Kaibab National Forest. Another popular motorcycle route is to Tombstone and Bisbee (about 200 miles from Phoenix), where you'll get a true taste of the Wild West through old-time saloons and regular shootout reenactments.
Jerome and Sedona are must-visit destinations for wine drinkers. The Verde Valley surrounding Sedona is home to countless vineyards, cellars, and tasting rooms. In order to squeeze multiple in (and not have to worry about driving), you can schedule wine tours—and wine "adventures" involving open-top jeeps and the like—from town. Vino buffs should not pass up Page Springs, Cornville, and Cottonwood, all home to Burning Tree Cellars, Page Springs Vineyards, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, Alcantara Vineyards, and more.
Arizona's second largest city, Tucson, is just a couple of hours down the road from Phoenix. Tucson is known for its bustling visual and performing arts scene, and for being surrounded by the beauty of the Sonoran Desert. No visitor should leave without seeing the giant saguaro (tree-sized cacti) in this region. In town, you'll find museums—the Arizona State Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, Pima Air & Space Museum, and more—and the Wild West village of Old Tucson. On the outskirts, there are boundless canyons, caverns, and trails to explore.
While it may not actually qualify as a road trip, the train that follows the Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale (about 100 miles north of the capital) is a great way to see the more remote sights outside of Phoenix without having to drive. It travels through an area that was once rich in mining activity, and prior to that, inhabited by the ancient Sinagua people. The excursion covers about 20 miles before simply turning around and heading back. The round trip takes about four hours.