The Canyon Circle Road Trip: Part I

A Road Trip through California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada


The Grand Circle is known as one of the best road trips in the US. Taking a minimum of ten days, starting and ending in Las Vegas, you circle round some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Monument Valley. We only had six days in which to visit so it was difficult working out what to leave out. It was early March and not unlikely that we’d hit snow somewhere on route which was a factor in our final decision and starting from San Diego in the south-west corner of California also meant a bit of a trek to get into the region and would mean a further overnight stop so we really only had five days. Pouring over maps, and reading reviews of hotels, motels and B&B accommodation we eventually decided on our trip.

Buy an America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass ($80) at the first park you enter to save you money.

San Diego to Sedona

It would be a long drive to our first overnight stop in Sedona. But a fairly easy route along Interstate 8 to Yuma, which immediately started us thinking about film and song titles we knew about the US, left at  Gila Bend up onto the Interstate 10 and then skirting Phoenix on Interstate 17 and finally up towards Flagstaff, finally getting off the highways and onto the State Route 179 (also known as Red Rock Scenic Byway, an “All-American Road[1]).

South Arizona Sand-dunes

We expected the journey to be fairly mundane as it was almost entirely on highways, but since it was the first time we’d driven this route there were several surprises along the way, not least the huge sand-dunes somewhere close to Yuma I think, where we spotted dune buggies and dune boards. The traffic was sparse until the Phoenix area when it was much more dense until we had passed the Phoenix Cardinals Stadium in Greendale. And the sight of the ‘three-armed cactus’ –  Saguaro Cactus – alongside the road made us feel as though we were in a Western movie.  Fully expecting Red Indians to come over the ridge! Unsurprisingly the flower of this plant is the state flower of Arizona.

Saguaro Cactus

But the most exciting views were when we turned off Interstate 17 and onto 179 where the road winds through the pinion-covered Coconino National Forest with views of spectacular red rock buttes and mesas jutting out from the earth with names like Coffeepot, Cathedral and Thunder Mountain (you can see where they got the roller coaster idea from). We stopped off at  a couple of the scenic pull-outs to take some photos around Bell Rock and stretch our legs around the Courthouse Butte Loop before driving on and through Sedona, known for the spiritual and metaphysical as well as hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails, the red rock vistas and scenic drives and on to the 89A to our B&B for the night in Oak Creek Canyon close to Slide Rock State Park.

Thunder Mountain
Entering Sedona (Oak Creek Valley)

Shortly before our arrival there had been a fall of snow in the region and on entering Oak Creek Canyon we were surprised to see it lying all around, though thankfully the road was completely clear. Because of the weather and the fact it was almost dark, we didn’t venture back down into Sedona, but had an early night, looking forward to the drive to Grand Canyon and hoping that the snowfall wouldn’t be a problem.

(click an image to enlarge)

Astonishingly I had never heard of Sedona before I started planning this trip. How on earth has it stayed such a secret to us Brits? It is definitely a place to spend more time in and explore.

[1] There are 27 of these designated by the US Department of Transport, for their exceptional and unique recreational, natural and scenic qualities.


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I live in the UK, but when I was younger I spent several years travelling the world followed by a period living in South Africa. I look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

42 thoughts on “The Canyon Circle Road Trip: Part I”

  1. I’m loving this series Jude for more than obvious reasons! We took the drive one year from Central California to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon but not the circle per se. Although I do remember Sedona. Beautiful area and the landscape is absolutely stunning 🙂 xx

    1. You’re not wrong Sherri. I reckon I could easily spend a year (or two) on a US road trip, there are so many wonderful National Parks to visit. I’m dying to go to Yellowstone!

  2. Fabulous scenery! We took our own circle trip in 2010, Missouri to Nebraska, down through Kansas, through Colorado to the Grand Canyon then home via New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. It was such fun! Loved Monument Valley, that’s the place that made us feel like we were in a western. Looking forward to your parts 2 and 3.

    1. That sounds like quite a trip Iris. I love driving in the US and there are so many stunning landscapes to see. We’re sorry to have missed Monument Valley, but sadly couldn’t see everything.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading more about your trip! My sister and I drove our own circle from Washington State through southern Idaho, Utah, western Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, Montana and northern Idaho before returning home. It was a beautiful, but long adventure!

  4. I love American road trips, and this looks like a great one, Jude. I’ll never forget our one night in Flagstaff, with our hotel very close to the railway line. Couldn’t sleep at all for the loud rumbling freight trains coming through all night and honking their horns. I think we gave up, and left at 3am for Grand Canyon. 😦

  5. It must be totally surreal to see some of these up close, Jude, or just drive nonchalantly by! I have a friend who has done a few of the State Parks in the US (including Yellowstone) and I am deeply jealous.
    When did you take this trip? 🙂

    1. Driving by with my mouth open! I couldn’t believe these large lumps of red rock which suddenly appeared. I was wishing I’d booked longer in Sedona, but the rest of the trip didn’t disappoint. We went in March 2010 Jo, a very good year for travel as we also managed Vancouver in the October 😀

  6. In all my trips around the U.S., I’ve sadly missed some of these desert spots, Jude. I’ve never been to Sedona and I’ve heard it’s amazing. This trip sounds like a fantastic one. Love your photos. Is that one of the Saguaro cactus blurry, or is it just not loading properly on my end? Or are my eyes failing me?? Oh dear. Thunder Mountain and Cathedral Rock look gorgeous. Sounds like a trip I have to do. 🙂

    1. Well it is much closer to you than me, so I think it is time you went there. Sedona is supposed to be very spiritual too. The cactus is blurry – deliberately so as it was taken from a moving car (no not me, I was driving) so I just focused on one tiny bit of it for the effect. No need to go to Spec Savers just yet Cathy 😉

  7. I can’t wait to see more of your trip! Sedona is one of my favorite places on earth ! Beautiful photographs !!

  8. This is exciting, visiting such wonderful places. I’m getting homesick for the road. I look forward to more of this trip and reading about your past adventures.

  9. Again, thanks for the link.

    Sedona was one of my favorite places to visit, although I wish I would have stayed longer. I did get in one nice hike that I am not sure you can get to, with all the houses going up all over the place. I left at sunset when the mountains turned a gorgeous deep red that didn’t last very long. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a good place to take any photos, and by the time I got to where it was a good place, the effect was gone. It didn’t last very long. I learned one thing: Shoot the moment, regardless of whether you think it’s a quality shot. Better this than no shot at all.

  10. Lovely to read about your US travels – I did a trip around the southwest last April so this brings back lots of great memories. Sedona was a particular favourite stop of mine, as you say it’s so strange that no-one in the UK seems to have heard of it. Loved the setting and would definitely like to go back and see more (there’s a wine region just outside that sounds like my kind of thing too!).

    1. Sedona looks like the kind of place that even I could enjoy walking around as there are lots of different trails. Maybe May is a good month? Not too hot then but less risk of snow? And a wine region is my kind of thing too 🙂

  11. We stopped at those same sand dunes on our way back from California toward Texas. Unfortunately for me as a photographer, almost all the dunes had dune buggy tracks on them so I couldn’t take pictures of nature as I wanted to.

    We spent a couple of hours at Slide Rock State Park. You’ll have to serve as a promoter of the Sedona area to your fellow Brits.

  12. Oh Jude! I see I commented in 2014 on this, but honestly, it’s so nice to see it again four years later when I’m planning a trip to that area. Sadly, I’m not going to the same places you went, but only to the ones you missed: Arches, Canyonlands, and Monument Valley and then a lot more in Arizona (including Flagstaff) and then on to New Mexico and southern Colorado. I can’t wait to see that scenery. I love that you thought of movie and song titles along the way; I would love to have read about which specific ones you thought of. I’ll link this to my next journey post which is scheduled for April 18. Thanks for linking!

    1. I am glad you are going to different parks as I know you will take some amazing photos and I am probably not going to get back there to see them for myself.

      1. I can’t wait, Jude. I have so many things on my list to see. I hope to hike in many of the parks, and it may be more time consuming than I imagine, so I hope I can see everything. I can’t wait to take photos. I also have an unusual writing intention for this trip, which I’ll post about right before I go. Also, going to try out the wide angle lens. 🙂

        1. Thanks, Jo. I’m very excited, but also a little nervous. Mike will be with me for 10 days, but the rest of the time I’ll be on my own. To be honest, I feel safer traveling alone in many foreign countries than I do here in the U.S.!

        2. I only went to Cape May alone, but usually I have Mike with me, or a friend. With all the violence, hatred and gun-toting here in the U.S., I’m going to be wary, especially as I hope to do hiking in wilderness areas. And then of course, there are rattlesnakes! 🙂

        3. Mmmm… yes I see what you mean. Take care where there are snakes – boots and trousers. Fully charged phone (though there may not be a signal). And make sure you tell someone where you are staying where you are going and when you ought to be back. Now I am sounding like your mother!! Or maybe MY mother!!

  13. I thought this was new and I had somehow missed it, but I see it’s from before we met. Very interesting! We stayed a couple of nights in Sedona on our way to the Grand Canyon but, like you, I hadn’t heard of it before I started planning our trip.

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