Thinking of heading to the Grand Canyon State? Arizona may conjure images of scrubby deserts and scorching heat, but Scottsdale is a lovely oasis in the heart of the state. Just east of Arizona’s capital, Scottsdale is a great base for adventurers wanting to explore the surrounding areas. From beautiful reserves to luxe spa resorts and world-class golf courses, the best day trips from Scottsdale offer up some gems.
Although Scottsdale has plenty of attractions of its own, the city is a good point for launching off to explore some of the state’s most iconic natural wonders. Bustling cities like Phoenix, Sedona, and Tuscon are home to many cultural attractions and host some fantastic festivals. McDowell Mountain Regional Park and Lost Dutchman State Park are within a few hours’ drive.
Ready to venture into the desert? Here are some of the top-rated Scottsdale side trips to add to your Arizona itinerary!
Top-rated Scottsdale side trips
Surrounded by towering monolithic spires and crimson rock formations, Sedona is one of Arizona’s most spectacular cities. Sedona’s astonishing beauty and mild year-round climate make it one of the top spots to visit in the state.
The top tourist attractions in Sedona are all about enjoying the great outdoors, so pack your hiking boots. There are countless trails around the city, from gentle walks to challenging treks.
Traverse the broad back of Schuerman Mountain or explore the forests of Woods Canyon. Mountain bike through hillsides on Deadman’s Pass or catch some air on Llama Trail.
Explore the ancient pueblo of Honanki Heritage Site, followed by a picnic among the orchards of Jordan Historical Park. Marvel at the magnificent Chapel of the Holy Cross built into the red rock buttes in the Coconino National Forest.
End your busy day by gazing at the stars from the base of Doe Mountain.
Nestled in the Ponderosa Pines of Prescott National Forest, Prescott is a charming, historic city with beautiful Victorian architecture and an old-world feel. Home to a wealth of historic buildings and sites, excellent museums, and spectacular landscapes for hiking, it’s perfect for a day trip.
Founded during the gold rush of 1863, Prescott’s roots are evident in the rich architecture around the city. Head downtown to the historic Whiskey Row to admire the turn-of-the-century saloons and gorgeous Victorian homes. Once an infamous red-light district, Whiskey Row is now a hip entertainment area with trendy gastropubs, lively bars, and cool eateries.
Learn about the region’s pioneering history at the Sharlot Hall Museum through wonderful exhibits, interactive history programs, and al fresco theater shows. Discover more about the indigenous peoples of the Southwest at the Smoki Museum. Admire the city’s majestic granite courthouse surrounded by grassy lawns and American elm trees planted by Prescott’s early pioneers.
Prescott’s incredible natural landscapes beg to be explored. Spend a few hours on the water at one of the city’s four small lakes. Hike around Watson Lake or rent a kayak and explore the shoreline, which is home to hundreds of bird species. Enjoy a game of golf on the Antelope Hills Golf Course.
Finally, head up to Thumb Butten to see the striking Falcon Nest, the tallest private residence in the country. Take in the spectacular views of the city’s skyline and watch the sunset over Prescott at the end of the day.
Phoenix needs no introduction. The sprawling state capital is a short drive away from Scottsdale and certainly deserves a visit. Nestled in the stunning Valley of the Sun, Phoenix is home to sophisticated urbanscapes, unique cultural and historic attractions, and plenty of outdoor adventure.
One of the top things to see & do in Phoenix is to wander around the charming Heritage Square and admire the beautifully preserved 19th-century architecture. Head to Roosevelt Row to explore the many galleries and museums like the Phoenix Art Museum. Spend some time at the fascinating Desert Botanical Garden and see the best of Arizona’s native plant life.
Discover next-level relaxation at one of the many luxury spa resorts around town. Tee off at one of the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, or venture into the South Mountain Park Preserve to hike, bike, or horseback ride. When it’s time to dine, Phoenix delivers, with some of the country’s most innovative restaurateurs calling the city home.
Once known as “the Wickedest Town in the West” during its copper mining heyday, the rough-and-tumble spirit of Jerome has tempered into a creative haven for artists and craftspeople. Nestled in the Black Hills of Yavapai County, the town was founded in the late 19th century, and fast became a booming copper-mining town with a rather dubious reputation.
Today, Jerome is a lovely hillside destination with quirky appeal. Learn about Jerome’s fascinating and somewhat tainted history at the 1916 Douglas Mansion in Jerome State Historic Park, one of Jerome’s top tourist attractions. Get a bird’s eye view into a 1918 mining shaft from the glass viewing platform in Audrey Headframe Park. Visit the Tuzigoot National Monument to see a well-preserved ancient hilltop pueblo.
Meander around the charming downtown district where antique shops, art galleries, eclectic boutiques, and casual restaurants are housed in beautifully renovated historic buildings.
The quirky side of Jerome comes out in the Bordello on Main Street, which “sates guests’ appetites for burgers only.”
Montezuma Castle National Monument
A short drive north of Phoenix will take you to the Montezuma Castle National Monument. Carved out of an ancient limestone cliff, this historic five-story Native American dwelling took three centuries to complete. It’s considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, and you’ll be duly impressed by this incredible structure.
Built in the 12th century, the Montezuma Castle National Monument is connected to the indigenous Sinagua people of Southern Arizona. European colonizers mistakenly identified the Sinagua people as Central America’s Aztecs, hence naming the monument after the Aztec Emperor Montezuma.
Explore the museum and learn the story behind the impressive feat of building. Wander along a half-mile paved trail through a pretty sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the museum’s grassy lawns along the shore of Beaver Creek.
Arizona’s second-largest city and year-round outdoor playground, Tucson is known for its culture and incredible dining. Just two hours away from Scottsdale, the lively city has it all, from art galleries, museums, and cultural centers to the spectacular natural landscapes of the Sonoran Desert. It’s also a designated UNESCO City of Gastronomy and a foodie haven.
There’s so much to do in Tucson. Step back through the history of Tucson and explore the remnants of the 1775 Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón. Wander the colorful adobes in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood and see how the city today unifies Anglo, Native American, and Hispanic cultures.
Enjoy family-friendly attractions like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Pima Air and Space Museum. Take a breathtaking ride through the region’s mountain foothills on the Sabino Canyon Tram.
Watch a show at the Gaslight Theatre and treat yourself to a sublime dinner at one of the award-winning Southwestern-style restaurants around town.
Escape the hustle and bustle of the big city and head to Canyon Lake. Just 45 minutes east of Phoenix, the 900-acre Salt River reservoir is a haven for outdoor recreation. From boating, fishing, and water-skiing to hiking around the scenic shoreline, Canyon Lake ticks all the boxes for outdoor fun.
Rent everything you need, from canoes, kayaks, and water skis to fishing gear from the Canyon Lake Marina & Campground. The lake is home to a wealth of fish species, and there are non-skiing areas for quiet fishing. Keep an eye out for wildlife like bighorn sheep, deer, and javelina on the red-rock canyon walls surrounding the lake.
If you simply want to lay in the sun with a book, there’s a large public beach, and you’ll find plenty of shady spots for picnicking.
Why not end the day with a romantic dinner cruise? Enjoy a twilight cruise around the lake on the Dolly Steamboat against a backdrop of Arizona’s mesmerizing sunsets.
Nestled beneath the majestic San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff is a resplendent city just 80 miles from the Grand Canyon. The scenic city is a popular jump-off point for top tourist destinations like Humphreys Peak and Grand Canyon National Park.
Flagstaff is best known for being home to the famous Arizona Snowbowl ski resort. Located 9,200 feet above sea level, the Arizona Snowbowl offers some of the country’s best downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding in the winter months.
But it isn’t all about winter fun – you’ll find plenty to do in Flagstaff year-round. Wander through the beautiful Arboretum at Flagstaff, located in the Coconino National Forest. Zipline through the trees on the Flagstaff Urban Trail System and enjoy a live performance by the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.
Release your inner cowboy with a visit to Cave Creek. Nestled in the desert foothills near the northern reaches of Greater Phoenix, Cave Creek is a scenic town with cowboy culture, saloon-style watering holes, and plenty of outdoor adventures.
Delve into the history of the Old West town at the Cave Creek Museum and learn about its ancient peoples, gold mining, and ranching heritage. Don cowboy boots, chaps, and a Stetson and saddle up for a trail ride in the Cave Creek Regional Park.
Explore the recreated 19th-century Western Frontier Town and discover what life was like in the Old West. Check out ancient archaeological sites in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. Enjoy a picnic in the shade of towering sycamores at Tonto National Forest’s Seven Springs.
Live music is the lifeblood of Cave Creek, and you’ll find local venues belting out country music on every corner. Motorcycle mania meets music at the lively Hideaway Roadhouse, while bourbon and vodka tastings are on the menu at the Carefree Spirits Distillery. Hit the Buffalo Chip Saloon in downtown Cave Creek to learn how to two-step and tuck into mouthwatering barbecue and beer.
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Only a 30-minute drive from the city, McDowell Mountain Regional Park is home to superb natural scenery and stunning views. Stretching for more than 21,000 acres in the picturesque Fountain Hills region, this top Scottsdale attraction offers some of the best hiking in the state.
A vast network of multi-use trails winds through McDowell Mountain Regional Park, offering amazing scenic treks for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. The trails cater to all fitness levels, but if you are looking for a challenge, try one of three mountain biking loop trails. Beautiful views in every direction are perfect for relaxing picnics.
Keep an eye out for deer and javelina, and if you are a twitcher, be sure to have your binoculars at hand to catch glimpses of birds of prey that are prevalent in the region.
Lost Dutchman State Park
Steeped in the legend of a lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is a beautiful nature reserve just 40 miles outside Phoenix. Stretching throughout Arizona’s picturesque Superstition Mountains, the park is named after the legendary Old West Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The location of the secret mine was lost over time, and people have spent decades searching for it. To date, the secret mine has never been found, adding a shroud of mystery to the park.
Even if you aren’t coming to Lost Dutchman State Park to look for gold, there are plenty of year-round outdoor recreational opportunities to enjoy. Head out on one of the many hiking and mountain biking trails through the park and take in the spectacular scenery. When it’s time to refuel, enjoy a quiet picnic in one of the ramadas.