The 7 best day trips from Phoenix for gay travellers

One of the joys of the American Southwest, with wide-open desert valleys spilling out from its backyard, is the city of Phoenix, as captivating as Joachim’s lips. The capital city of Arizona, Phoenix is a dream base for travellers looking to make dusty inroads towards the Grand Canyon in the north or the Joshua Tree National Park in the west. While the city itself possesses many of its own attractions and nearby nature sites, such as Camelback Mountain and the Desert Botanical Garden, so much more awaits outside of Phoenix’ city limits. So, with our ChapStick in hand and our sun visors up, we head off to explore the best of the Valley of the Sun.

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Phoenix | Photo: Aaker

1. Sedona

Flatteringly judged as one of America’s most beautiful places and the frequent backdrop for big blockbuster movies, Sedona is a desert town to be reckoned with. Set between Yavapai and Coconino, Sedona boasts easy access to a bounty of natural treasures, in amongst canyons, pine forests and big red buttes. You’ve got Red Rock State Park, Slide Rock State Park and Oak Creek Canyon all within range, each offering their own distinct take on the red sandstone landscapes that put Sedona on the map. Get out in nature with a guided jeep tour, passing ancient ruins and rock wall art before branching off to hike any of the 100 hiking trails, such as the one leading to Cathedral Rock. Otherwise, simply sit back at the pool lodge with a glass of local wine in hand enjoying the blissful contrast of blue sky against red rock.

Besides its dazzling aesthetics, the town receives evermore favour for its supposed New Age powers, made so by Sedona’s location on a series of spiritual ‘vortexes’ said to align both mind and spirit. Suspend your disbelief on the Sedona Vortex Tour or zen out with a spa treatment or two, opting for traditional methods such as the red clay wrap or blue corn body scrub. In town, crystal healers and fortune tellers will also enjoy getting metaphysical with you, offering aura readings and the like. If a self-driving trip sounds like too much of a hassle, book a full-day trip from Phoenix to Sedona stopping off at top sites such as the 12th century Montezuma Castle National Monument built into the cliffs near Camp Verde.

Sedona | Photo: Justin W.

Photo: Ameer Basheer

2. Tucson

Inching ever closer to the Mexican border, precisely two hours south of Phoenix by car, you’ll find the sunny city of Tucson. Influenced by its southern neighbour in more ways than one, Tucson has a unique mix of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American heritage, making the city a progressive and exciting place to be. Among the most diverse group in the city is the city’s queer community, which embraces inclusion and intense cross-cultural interactions (!). Despite the socially conservative attitudes of the American Southwest, Tucson was one of the first cities in Arizona to enact domestic partnerships into law and is – by and large – a gay-friendly city where libertarian beliefs prevail.

Hot and dry all year round with an average of 350 days of sunshine a year, Tucson can fulfil all your desert dreams at once. For breath-taking natural scenery, try the Rincon and Tucson Mountain Districts which both feature various hiking trails and vistas of the Sonoran Desert. Within Rincon in particular, the cacti-filled Saguaro National Park is not to be missed. Back in town for some culture; besides a top choice of Mexican fare, visitors can get cosy with the local heritage in neighbourhoods such as El Presidio Historic District and the Barrio Histórico, both offering that old Mexican village feel with the bonus of upscale restaurants and fancy resorts. For an exclusive retreat, try the Catalina Foothills district or the more central suburb of Scottsdale which comes closer to the town’s hippest shops and best nightlife.

Photo: Joe Cook

3. Flagstaff

A kooky alternative to the Grand Canyon just two hours north of Phoenix, is the Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater, a much-loved natural attraction in reach of Flagstaff, the particularly LGBTQ friendly town hemmed in by Coconino pine forests and overlooked by the San Fran mountains. Hike or bike through both canyon and crater to see volcanic rock formations or, in winter, take to the pistes for a day of skiing at the nearby Arizona Snowbowl. Whatever you do, don’t dismiss Flagstaff too quickly; sure, it’s an unceremonious city directly on Interstate 40 between Albuquerque and LA, but it also hides away quite a bit of history and lively energy if you know where to look. Pride in the Pines is the height of the gay calendar but gay Flagstaff is active all year round with various gay dance parties and Drag Race performances spanning all four seasons. Nightlife, in general, is also worth sticking around for, thanks to the large student population who drive prices down while keeping vibes upbeat.

More than just a pit stop between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff boasts a more relaxed atmosphere than its rather touristy neighbour. Stroll a while in the city centre with its mix of Victorian and 20th-century red-brick architecture, much of which harks back to a time when Flagstaff served as a railroad hub for the Old West. Learn more about Native American culture and arts in the Museum of Northern Arizona or instead opt for the architectural feats of Riordan Mansion and the Arizona Historical Society’s Pioneer Museum. For a more interactive look at the region’s heritage, check the event schedule at the Coconino Centre for the Arts where you can attend exhibitions, performances and workshops related to Native American and cowboy lifestyles throughout the ages. After a day of adventure out in the surrounding forests, head back in town to bliss out over a locally brewed craft beer downtown amongst laid-back and liberal locals.

Flagstaff | Photo: Nathan Mcbride

Flagstaff | Photo: Logan Mayer

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Another of the best day trips from Phoenix takes us to the lakeside town of Prescott for its tranquil Watson Lake vistas, photo opportunities and hiking trails among the ubiquitous pine forests of Northern Arizona

4. Prescott

Another of the best day trips from Phoenix takes us to the lakeside town of Prescott for its tranquil Watson Lake vistas, photo opportunities and hiking trails among the ubiquitous pine forests of Northern Arizona. Most activities in Prescott are centred around the lake – including kayaking, boating and fishing – though branching out is also a good idea, either towards Boulder-laden hiking trails or to downtown for a taste of the town’s unique history, local breweries and restaurants. Arizona’s first territorial capital about two hours from Phoenix, Prescott can delight both drinkers and culture lovers, first with its aptly named Whiskey Row on downtown’s entertainment and bar district and latterly with its three museums dedicated to territorial and Native American history; Sharlot Hall Museum, Phippen Museum and Smoki Museum.

For a fuller schedule, sign up to one of the area’s scenic loop tours, which will take you on a drive through Northern Arizona’s best sun-steeped treasures. If going your own way, it’s Prescott National Forest set to keep you amused with its biking, hiking and horseback riding opportunities, along 725 kilometres of recreational trails. Golfing is also a popular activity in Prescott, with five public courses to choose from, and a wide range of nearby lodgings including B&Bs, hotels and even camping on Watson Lake’s shores.

Watson Lake, Prescott | Photo: Robert Alvarez

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Jerome is another one for the itinerary, serving up a living museum filled with all kinds of intriguing information about the Old West and its seedier side, as well as epic views over the valley

5. Jerome

Up 1,500 meters on Cleopatra Hill about halfway between Prescott and Sedona, another Phoenix day trip awaits. This is Jerome, a former copper mining town with a sordid history as the Wild West’s prostitution hub since abandoned and left as a ghost town in the post-depression era. Now preserved within Jerome State Historic Park and Mining Museum, Jerome has a distinct lack of both copper and sex workers, though tourists still come in droves to outnumber locals. Nevertheless, Jerome is one for the itinerary, as it serves up a living museum filled with all kinds of intriguing information about the Old West and its seedier side, as well as epic views over the valley.

Gay life in Jerome is also surprisingly lively, thanks to the town’s number of gay-owned stores, bars and restaurants making for a no-brainer addition to your gay itinerary. Besides stopping by the saloons in the area, your trip can also be combined with a visit to the Tuzigoot National Museum where you can hike to an ancient pueblo settlement perched hilltop in the distance. New drivers beware; the twisting road here can be a little tricky as it tracks the mountainside about two hours from Phoenix, the epic scenery on the way up however makes the tense drive undoubtedly worth it.

Phoenix | Photo: Nathan Fertig

6. Joshua Tree National Park

Reachable from Phoenix in just over three hours on Interstate 10, Joshua Tree National Park opens up with its storybook world of anthropomorphic rocks and gigantic yucca trees in amongst otherworldly desert landscapes. A real sight for sore eyes, Joshua Tree National Park will keep you rapt all day long with pit stops at highlights such as Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden and Hidden Valley. If coming for the day, it’s sure to be a long one, as the park spans 3,200 square kilometres of wilderness between the Colorado and Mojave deserts. Though you won’t be able to see everything in a day, a leisurely itinerary sees a picnic lunch in the day areas before hiking up to Keys View for epic views over Coachella Valley and looping back by car through Twentynine Palms.

Joshua Trees comes strewn with boulders and rock formations and has come to be known among rock climbers as the place to climb in the US. Hiking is another activity not lacking, made all the better thanks to its shaded oases fed by natural springs bringing much-needed respite to the otherwise harsh desert landscape. Come in spring for the annual blossoming of the namesake Joshua trees, when a huge cream-coloured flower forms atop each, once steering the Mormon prophet Joshua to the promised land and the band U2 to write their 1987 hit album The Joshua Tree!

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Jocelyn Hsu

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Roberto Nickson

7. Grand Canyon

Grandstanding as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the most visited natural attraction in the entire Southwest, the Grand Canyon certainly doesn’t need us for promotion. Nonetheless, we can’t not mention this superstar attraction, not least because it lies within a day trip of Phoenix along some outstanding scenic roads. Your Phoenix to Grand Canyon tour will take you north on Highway 17, passing the red rocks of Sedona, through Oak Creek Canyon and finally Flagstaff, on fairly steep, winding roads made a little more hazardous on busy holidays. Opt for multi-day Grand Canyon tours from Phoenix, taking it slow by lodging overnight in Flagstaff or Sedona, or simply drive straight to your destination to save your energy for canyon gazing.

To get a full picture of the vastness of the Grand Canyon National Park, take a lookout along the Canyon Rim or go one step higher with an organised tour and helicopter flight over the entire park. At 445 kilometres in length, almost 29 kilometres in width and 1,600 metres deep, the canyon and the mighty Colorado River that runs through it is certain to impress. Thanks to its global status and UNESCO attention, the Grand Canyon is a popular one, seeing 6 million visitors in any one year. Though most amenities lie towards the South Rim inclusive of the Grand Canyon Village and the ever-popular Bright Angel Trail, to escape the worst crowds, we recommend jumping over to the North Rim, more favoured for its backwoods camping sites and more full-on hiking trails. The Grand Canyon to Phoenix drive takes around 3.5 hours each way.

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Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Christine Roy

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