Arizona Road Trip: Exploring the Magic of the Southwest

Road trips. Love them or hate them, you have to admit they are usually the most budget-friendly option for families. My family is not new to road trips. From Utah, we have taken family road trips to California, Montana, Florida, Ohio, and Texas. All of that adds up to a lot of hours in the car. But with four kids, flying is pretty much off the table if we don’t want to spend a fortune. For our latest road trip, we decided Spring Break would be a great time to take an Arizona road trip.

When I first discussed the 10 places I’m taking my family this year, I promised I would give a rundown of how much I spent on each trip. Writing up my posts on visiting Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, I realized that tallying up how much we spent at each is a bit complicated since they were part of a much larger Arizona road trip.

But a promise is a promise, so I figured I would just write a quick post about my Arizona road trip for anyone who is interested. If you want more details about visiting Monument Valley, I wrote a detailed guide of everything you need to know before visiting. I also have some great tips for visiting the Grand Canyon with kids.

If you are curious to know how our Arizona road trip went, here are all the details of what we did and how much we spent.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona

Itinerary

The original plan was to start our Arizona road trip as soon as my oldest got out of school. We would pick him up from school and head out right away. Yeah. That didn’t quite happen. We ended up getting a late start, which put is right in the middle of the worst rush hour traffic I’ve seen in a while. Not a great start to the trip.

After being in the car an hour and basically going nowhere, we decided to pull off and grab a bit to eat. In hindsight, we should have just left after dinner. So our food budget took a small hit, but we did have an enjoyable meal. Once we were finished, traffic had lightened enough that we made good time to our first destination: Grand Junction, Colorado.

Since our trip coincided with Easter, we spent the first weekend visiting family in Colorado. We visited a local church holding fun free Easter activities: bounce houses, Easter egg hunts, bubbles, balloon animals. We even had a caricaturist draw pictures of our children, which turned out fantastically. Mostly we just spend time letting the kids play on the trampoline while we play board games. Yes, my family is one of those families.

Usually when we visit, we go mountain biking in Fruita. The mountain biking there is so much fun. I’ve been mountain biking at the Colorado National Monument (and have the scars to prove it), but my favorite ride is the Kessel Run at the 18 Road Trails. It’s ridiculously fun and great for beginners like me. However, since we were going to Arizona next, we opted to leave our mountain bikes at home this trip. After an enjoyable weekend with family, we were truly started our Arizona road trip.



baby girl at Monument Valley Visitor Center

Monument Valley

Let me share one of my road trips secrets: It’s not all about the destination. When I travel, I love to look for interesting stops along the way. For our family, Monument Valley wasn’t really a destination in and of itself.

However, when I saw that it was along our route to the Grand Canyon, I knew we had to stop. It actually turned out not to be much of a detour at all. Compared to the suggested route, driving past Monument Valley added no extra driving time and was actually 5 miles shorter in distance. Win-win.

Personally, I love the red rock landscape of this area of the country. Maybe because it’s completely opposite of where I grew up in Ohio. The majesty of the red rock against the blue sky always fills me with awe. If you really want to experience an Arizona road trip, just read my complete guide to everything you need to know before you visit Monument Valley.

 

There are certain places you should take your kids before they grow up, and visiting the Grand Canyon with kids definitely belongs on that list.

Grand Canyon

There are certain places you should take your kids before they grow up, and visiting the Grand Canyon with kids definitely belongs on that list. The sheer immensity of the view just leaves you in awe. It’s the kind of place that teaches a child that the world is much bigger than they could even imagine. Can you truly do an Arizona road trip without stopping at the Grand Canyon?

Honestly, the best thing to do at the Grand Canyon is to go on a hike. With my gaggle of little children, I prefer the Rim Trail. Since it’s paved and placed a bit off the edge, I wasn’t so worried about my kids and the heights. As a precaution, I always kept my 2-year-old right by my side and on the inside of the trail. I love that you get a spectacular view the entire time you are hiking. And with the shuttle bus system, once your kids are done hiking, you just hop on the shuttle to the next viewpoint.

I have camped at the Grand Canyon before, but this visit we decided to stay in a hotel. Since accommodation near the park are so expensive, we chose to stay in Flagstaff, Arizona. We actually felt Flagstaff was a nice little town, and my kids really enjoyed seeing all the trains. We planned to go visit the Lowell Observatory on one of our evenings, but when the time came, we were just too tired. Instead, we decided to stay in and rest up so we could have plenty of energy to explore Sedona.

 

Young boy with blue backpack at Devil's Kitchen in Sedona Arizona

Sedona

We didn’t need to arrive in Mesa, Arizona, until the evening, so we decided to spend a day exploring Sedona, Arizona. The scenic drive to Sedona from Flagstaff is spectacular. I wished we had stopped at the Oak Creek Vista viewpoint for a photo. As you exit Oak Creek Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona suddenly surround you. Hands down one of the prettiest scenic drives I’ve ever done.

Based on the suggestions at the visitor center, we went on a short hike on the Soldier Pass Trail. We honestly didn’t hike very far thanks to a ornery two-year-old. But we were able to climb up a bit and get some fantastic views. We ended our hike at Devil’s Kitchen, an extremely large sinkhole that my kids found fascinating. I would have loved to hike the Bell Rock Trail as well, but we didn’t want to push our luck with the kids.

For lunch, we stopped at Crescent Moon Picnic Site and enjoyed the view of Cathedral Rock, Sedona’s most famous landmark. Honestly, Crescent Moon Picnic Site is only worth the admission fee if you plan to go swimming. With the kids’ energy flagging, we debated ending our day in Sedona, but I really wanted to stop and see the Chapel of the Holy Cross. So we made a quick stop for ice cream and pushed on. And I’m so glad we did. The building is architecturally so interesting, and the view is amazing.

Even if you only have a few hours to spare on your Arizona road trip, Sedona is a great place to visit. I would love to go back again and explore it further.

Related: How to Survive a Red-Eye Flight with Kids

 

A family riding on a Surrey bike

Mesa

Part of the reason I wanted to do an Arizona road trip was to visit my old college roommate. In my freshman year of college, we were randomly assigned to live together in the dorms. We ended up becoming best friends and lived together for five years. It was so much fun to reconnect with her and to get to know her husband better and meet her little boy. Don’t you love when you can barely talk to someone for years, but when you get together it’s like you never really left off?

Her parents were kind enough to put us up since my friend’s apartment was too small to house. They live in a newer development in Mesa that had all the bells and whistles. My kids especially enjoyed spending time at the swimming pool. Mostly, we just had some good old-fashioned fun: swimming, grilling, watching movies in the backyard, and just relaxing.

My friend’s parents have a Surrey bike, so of course we had to take it for a spin. People sure are nice to you when you are driving one of these. You can’t help but smile at the randomness of a family of six in a bike car? One boy in the neighborhood even snapped our photo. If it was flat where we lived, we would totally get one.

Related: Why Millennials Need Travel

 

A cactus in Sedona, Arizona

Horseshoe Bend

I was so excited to finally stop at Horseshoe Bend outside of Page, Arizona. The last time we went to the Grand Canyon, the main road out of Page was closed due to a rock slide, so we had detoured around Horseshoe Bend. For this trip, I figured it would be a perfect stop along our route back to Utah. My anticipation grew as we got closer and closer. And then we stopped.

We were only about half a mile from Horseshoe Bend when all traffic came to a complete stop. After a long wait, we finally got moving again and got to see the remains of a serious car accident immediately in front of the entrance. Alas, our visit was not to be. To console ourselves, we stopped for ice cream instead. Maybe someday I’ll just have to do another Arizona road trip someday. If you are ever in the area, I’ve heard it is really worth the stop.

A toddler boy jumping off the edge of the pool into his father's arms

Cost

I’m always curious how much other people spend on trips. I think I do a good job of budgeting, but sometimes it is hard to tell without knowing what other people spend. Instead of just giving you the overall cost of my Arizona road trip, I want to share a bit more detail on exactly how I spent my money. That way can adapt my spending to your situation.

My best budget vacation tip would be to stay with friends and family whenever you can. I have people stay with me all the time, so I feel it’s okay to just invite myself to visit people. Politely, though. “I was thinking about coming to visit you on such and such a date if you are free and it’s not too inconvenient.” Occasionally I get a no, but I almost always get a yes. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but when you can it saves you a ton.

Souvenirs

I have a more minimalistic approach to life, so we don’t usually spend much on souvenirs. I do, however, collect postcards. At each location, I purchased one postcard to keep for myself and several to send out to family and friends. This trip, I also decided to buy myself a t-shirt.
Cost: $19.35

Activities

Since we already had a National Park pass, our visit to the Grand Canyon was free. Monument Valley is not part of the national park system, but I think our twenty dollars was well worth it. Unfortunately, we did not spend our money wisely in Sedona. When we stopped, it was suggested that the Crescent Moon Picnic Site would be a great place for a picnic lunch. Definitely not worth the $12 we spent. They even charged extra since we had 6 people and not 5. Really? You charge for the baby? The park did have a beautiful view of Cathedral Rock and has a great swimming hole. But we weren’t there to swim, so this was a waste of money.
Cost: $32

Gas

Considering we drove over 1,800 miles on our Arizona road trip, it surprises me we didn’t spend more on gas. With our gaggle of children, we drive an 8-seater Honda Odyssey minivan which averaged 28 mpg this trip. Obviously, your gas mileage, the price of gas, and the length of your trip would be a huge factor in how much you spend on gas.
Cost: $159.72



Three young children sleeping in a bed

Lodging

Since we stayed with friends and family for both ends of our Arizona road trip, we only spent two nights in a hotel for our visit to the Grand Canyon. I would have loved to stay at the hotels right there in the park, but that was way out of my price range. (I was not going to camp. Been there, done that. Sometime I’ll have to tell the story of my camping experience at the Grand Canyon with kids.) Searching online, I decided to try Hotwire’s Hot Rate. You get a discount price on your booking but don’t get to pick the specific hotel. I knew we wanted breakfast and nonsmoking, and I found a two-star hotel for $30 a night and decided to risk it.

We ended up staying at Travelodge in Flagstaff and had a great time. The room had recently been remodeled, which was nice. Especially since they had replaced the carpet with hard wood floors. Unfortunately, there was no pool. Instead my kids spent an enjoyable evening watching the Disney channel. Honestly, the continental breakfast was not that great, but for the price we paid, I was completely happy.
Cost: $60.12

Related: My Year of Travel: 10 Places I’m Taking My Family This Year

 

Baby girl in a high chair talking to her older sister

Food

When calculating food cost for a vacation, it’s important to consider how much money you usually spend on food. Since we would have eaten food during those 9 days anyways, I only factor in how much more we spent on food than in a regular week. Food cost is one of the areas that can really make or break a budget trip.

To keep food costs down, we try to avoid eating at restaurants as much as we can. Oftentimes, we pack our own lunches, buy food at grocery stores for dinner and always fill up on the free breakfast before we leave. Plus, another benefit of staying with family and friends is that they usually offset your food cost quite a bit.

We easily could have halved our food cost for this Arizona road trip. We got a late start on Friday and hit horrible rush hour traffic in Salt Lake City and ended up just stopping for dinner before continuing. Cutting out that meal – which we should have packed – and the money we spent on ice cream, would have cut $60 right there. Though, in my opinion, ice cream is always worth it.
Cost: $127.67

Total Cost: $387

What sights would you most want to see on an Arizona road trip?

Need a great family vacation destination? Why not try an Arizona road trip: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona and more. If you travel with kids, check out our travel tips for a great family road trip to Arizona.

Need a great family vacation destination? Why not try an Arizona road trip: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona and more. If you travel with kids, check out our travel tips for a great family road trip to Arizona.
Need a great family vacation destination? Why not try an Arizona road trip: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona and more. If you travel with kids, check out our travel tips for a great family road trip to Arizona.
Need a great family vacation destination? Why not try an Arizona road trip: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona and more. If you travel with kids, check out our travel tips for a great family road trip to Arizona.
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