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 have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

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

    1. This is just the start Pete, even more spectacular scenes to come! The landscape is the best reason to visit the US.

  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. Wonderful scenery. Thank you for this part of your tour – having never been there it’s definitely somewhere else to put on the list.

  4. 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!

    1. Long road trips are the best, but we don’t always have time for them. You have some great states to explore!

  5. 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. 😦

    1. I have experienced those freight trains and others in San Diego! There’s obviously no such thing as noise pollution in the US.

  6. 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 😀

  7. 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 😉

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

      1. Really looking forward to it,. That is one of my favorite areas in the US!

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