10 places you need to see when driving from Nogales to the Grand Canyon

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a view of the side of a road: A view on I-19 in Arizona

There’s something extra serene about a road trip through Arizona, through open deserts, past chunky, towering red rocks and toward humbling mountain silhouettes. One beautiful and exciting road trip through Arizona is from Nogales up north to the Grand Canyon. This route is nearly six hours if you take the mostly-straight shot north, via interstates 10, 17 and 19.

Or take your time and stop at the various attractions and cities along the way. After all, this road trip will take you through three of Arizona’s most popular cities: Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, and is only a short hop away from Scottsdale.

Here are 10 spots worth visiting on your Nogales-Grand Canyon excursion.

1. Go on a historic tour of Nogales

a small clock tower in front of a house: Historic and beautiful courthouse in Nogales

This southern town borders Mexico, so it’s a unique fusion of various cultures: Anglo, Native American and Hispanic. It’s also the home to a long list of historic sites. See the old schoolhouse, the railroad depot, a unique historic downtown and make sure you visit the Tumacacori National Monument. Here, you can go on a self-guided tour of ruins of three important 17th-century missions.

2. Relax at the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa

1 Ave De Otero Road, Tubac

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This luxurious, remote resort is perhaps best known as a site in Kevin Costner’s movie, Tin Cup. The 500-acre ranch features authentic, Spanish Colonial architecture that has earned it a designation as a Historic Hotel of America. Find hiking, horseback riding, wineries and bird-watching nearby, and don’t miss the hacienda-style spa.

3. Visit the San Xavier Indian Reservation

2080 West San Xavier Road, Tucson

a large white building with Mission San Xavier del Bac in the background: The Mission San Xavier

Just before you hit Tucson on I-19, you can see the San Xavier Mission, the oldest intact European building in Arizona, constructed between 1783 and 1797. The reservation is a popular tourist attraction, because of its proximity to Tucson, and also because it runs a handful of casinos, with gambling, buffets and entertainment.

4. Get tiny in Tucson

4455 E Camp Lowell Drive, Tucson

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This Arizona city is packed with great restaurants and plenty of entertainment, but one of our favorite, quirky, off-the-wall places to see is the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures. Kids especially love looking at more than 400 elaborate mini room boxes and dollhouses, from antique to mystical to worldly. This is a museum and gallery like no other; it’ll no doubt change your perspective.

5. Hike the Hunter Trail at Picacho Peak State Park

15520 Picacho Peak Road, Picacho

a view of a rocky mountain: Picacho Peak State Park

This is a great place to stop for the night to camp, if you want to reset in the wilderness. The loop is not easy, but the expansive view at the peak is breathtaking. If Hunter Trail is too steep for you, there’s plenty to enjoy (and take pictures of) in the park. You can’t miss the odd-shaped peak that marks the spot.

6. Visit endangered animals at the Phoenix Zoo

455 N Galvin Parkway, Phoenix

a cat that is lying down in the grass: A tiger at the Phoenix Zoo

This zoo is the largest private, nonprofit zoo in the nation (and one of the nation’s biggest private nonprofits overall), and it is world-renowned for its successful wildlife conservation programs. More than 1,400 animals live at the Phoenix Zoo, including more than two dozen endangered and threatened species.

Bet you didn’t expect to see a giraffe, rhino and African lion on your Arizona road trip!

7. Take a dip in natural swimming holes

Houston Mesa Road, Payson

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Here is where we recommend veering off the interstate for the more scenic Highway 87. Take the road to Payson, through the Tonto National Forest, until you come to Ellison Creek. A short hike will bring you to what feels like another time period: a cool swimming hole and creek, surrounded by rocks and greenery.

Camp nearby at Houston Mesa Campground and spend the day in this surprising oasis. When you’re done, take the highway north until you reach Mormon Lake.

8. Pay a visit to Mormon Lake

Mormon Lake Road, Mormon Lake

a body of water with a mountain in the background: Mormon Lake in the fall

Or not. When full, this destination is the biggest natural lake in the state. But during dry spells, you may be surprised to find no water at all. Regardless, Mormon Lake marks several excellent campgrounds, amazing views, hiking, horseback riding, biking trails and the popular Mormon Lake Lodge Steakhouse and Saloon. This legendary restaurant is an open-pit steakhouse that won’t disappoint.

9. Take an aerial surfboard through the trees

Fort Tuthill County Park, Flagstaff

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When you hit Flagstaff, make a trip to the Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course. This 413-acre park is a unique way to experience the outdoors. These “adventure courses” are treetop circuits (15 to 50 feet above ground) that feature different obstacles, such as bridges, slides, zip lines, nets, scrambling walls and an aerial surfboard. Kid and adult courses of varying levels are available.

10. Celebrate at the Grand Canyon

AZ-67, North Rim

a man riding a horse with a mountain in the background: Mule riding at the Grand Canyon

Ah, the grand finale. And how it’s worth it. A fun way to see this natural wonder is on an overnight mule trip �” yup, a guided ride along the trail on a mule that includes a night’s stay at Phantom Ranch, near the Colorado River. These packages book up quickly though, so plan ahead or get on the waiting list. If you miss the mules, you can always enjoy a self-guided tour of the canyon via audio tours on your phone.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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