Road Trip USA: Sedona, Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelley

Decision time! Would the weather permit us to head north to the 6,000 foot high plateau-lands of Northern Arizona and some of the greatest scenery in the world, or would we have to travel along the low route via Southern Arizona to Las Vegas, the final destination in our Road Trip USA?

Bell Rock from the Red Rock Scenic Highway, Sedona
Bell Rock from the Red Rock Scenic Byway, Sedona

The North-Eastern states of the USA were suffering from blizzards and freezing temperatures, but the forecast for our route north was warm, sunny weather. Completely unseasonal and surprising, but very welcome.

Hence at Phoenix, we finally said goodbye to Interstate Highway I-10 after nearly 2,000 miles of driving, and headed north.

We were now heading in to Native American lands, including the large Navajo Nation territory. In addition to great scenery, there were now also many historic Native American sites, starting with Montezuma Castle and Well just north of Phoenix.

Humphreys Peak from Hotel Window
Humphreys Peak from the Hotel Window, Flagstaff

Sedona wasn’t included in my original travel plans, and I must admit I’d not heard of it before setting out on this trip. However, I was so impressed with the red rock scenery, that I may well include the 40 mile drive through Sedona in my world Top Ten Road Journeys.

After overnighting in Flagstaff, with snow-capped Humphreys Peak in view from our hotel window, we headed east towards the Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest, before turning north to Canyon de Chelley at Chinle. And yes, we had sunshine all the way.

High Rise Residence at Montezuma Castle
High Rise Residence at Montezuma Castle

We visited several National Parks and were surprised to find that entry was free of charge because it was Presidents Day weekend. Many thanks George Washington and your successors!

Highlights of the Journey

•  Montezuma Castle. About 90 miles north of Phoenix is the completely incorrectly named Montezuma Castle, now a National Park site. First of all it’s not a castle, but a five-storey, 20-room dwelling carved into towering limestone cliffs. Secondly, the dwelling was built by the Sinagua people in the 1100s, but abandoned in the 1400s long before the Aztec Emperor Montezuma was even born! Whatever, I found it a fascinating place to visit.

Montezuma Well
Montezuma Well

•  Montezuma Well, just a few miles northeast of the Castle and part of the same National Park, is a natural limestone sinkhole fed by an underground spring. This has been an important water source for indigenous American people, including the Sinagua, for centuries, and ruins of several prehistoric dwellings are scattered around the site.

•  Sedona. The road from the south to Sedona has now been designated the Red Rock Scenic Byway. I can understand why, as the red rock buttes that come into view as you drive along are quite spectacular.

Red Rock Buttes in Sedona
Red Rock Buttes in Sedona at Sunset

The rock formations in Sedona are surrounded by streets and buildings (unlike the desolation of Monument Valley), yet that doesn’t seem to take away from their majesty. We arrived just before sunset, so the colours were even more intense.

•  Meteor Crater. Maybe this shouldn’t be included as a highlight, as I didn’t actually stare over the rim into the 4,000 ft wide hole in the ground. We approached the site and could observe the rim rising 150 ft above the surrounding plain, but decided that $16 each (the senior discount rate) was too much to pay for a view that is really only impressive when seen from the air. Of more importance, time was passing in the afternoon, and the Petrified Forest looked to be much more interesting – and certainly proved to be.

Dry, Windy Climate in the Petrified Forest
Dry, Windy Climate in the Petrified Forest

•  Petrified Forest National Park. We drove 28 miles through the park from south to north. This took us from the main areas containing fossilised fallen trees from the Late Triassic period into the surreal Painted Desert area. There are several short walks along the way including the Giant Logs, Crystal and Blue Mesa trails. Petroglyphs and abandoned pueblos can be viewed from some of these trails.

The park is said to have a dry, windy climate. Windy is certainly true, with the girls in our party finding it difficult to stand up when on one of the trails.

Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert

•  Chinle. We stayed a couple of nights in this small town in Apache County, within the Navajo Nation. It was educational to be in a town where 90% of the population are Native Americans, but where more than 40% live below the poverty line.

Chinle in ‘Navajo’ means ‘flowing out and refers to where the water flows from the Canyon de Chelley. It was the site of the 1864 peace conference that ended the Navajo/US War.

700 year old Petroglyph
700 year old Petroglyph in the Petrified Forest

•  Canyon de Chelley National Monument. Viewpoints along the north and south rim of Canyon de Chelley provide spectacular views into the canyon, including at the eastern end, views of the 750 ft high Spider Rock.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelley
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelley

But this is more than just scenery. You are also looking into the heart of the Navajo nation. This is where the Navajo have lived for hundreds of years, and still live, and where they were finally defeated by the expanding US in 1863.

Yes, it is much smaller then the Grand Canyon, but it has a unique atmosphere, with ancient Navajo buildings and rock drawings all around.

Walking over a mile down the White House Ruin Trail to the river at the bottom of the canyon, as the sun was about to set, was for me one of the top highlights of this road trip.


The modern Holiday Inn Express Flagstaff provided the roomy suites and tasty cinnamon rolls to which we had now become accustomed.

Holiday Inn Chinle Restaurant and Reception
Holiday Inn Chinle Reception and Restaurant

The Holiday Inn Chinle was quite different in style. It is built on the site of an old trading post, which now houses the reception and restaurant.  The hotel rooms are in separate blocks.

In accordance with Navajo Nation laws, no alcohol is available in the hotel.

Although the restaurant has been criticised recently in TripAdviser, I found both the food and service to be excellent.

Road Trip USA articles:

1. Memphis to Las Vegas via Houston – Planning This includes a route map.
2. Memphis the Rock & Roll City
3. New Orleans and Mardi Gras
4. Houston, Gulf Coast and San Antonio
5. Across Texas to El Paso and Tucson
6. Sedona, Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelley
7. Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon
8. The Final Fling – Route 66 to Las Vegas

Posted 7th March 2015 by Steve Hanson, including photos by John Esser


11 March 2015 – Deryn vand der Tang says:

The article on travelling through Sedona and Canyon de Chelly was very good, not as many tourists take the south rim of the Grand Canyon as the northern rim. I had the advantage of travelling with Navajo family and their insights and culture of this area as well. Other places to visit along the route are Gooseneck and Window Rock. We stayed at the Holiday Inn at Gallup and also did a tour of Albuquerque where we went to the Petroglyph National Park and Santa Fe, which is a mecca for art lovers with streets of galleries and arty shops. As for Sedona, I would have stopped of to live there permanently if I could, it certainly is one of the most scenic drives I have been on, especially in the autumn.