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Hiking the Grand Canyon

Arizona, New Mexico

Classic Southwest: Road Trip From Santa Fe to the Grand Canyon

By: Eli Ellison

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  • States:
    Arizona
    New Mexico

Sights, sounds and natural wonders of the Southwest

Two icons of the Southwestern USA’s high desert — Arizona's geological masterpiece, Grand Canyon National Park, and the centuries-old New Mexico city of Santa Fe — can be combined for a classic road trip that will steer you down fabled Route 66.

Start Your Trip in Santa Fe

The nearest major airport to Santa Fe is Albuquerque International Sunport in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pick up a rental car at the airport, slide behind the wheel and then drive U.S. Interstate Highway 25 north for about 107 kilometers to Santa Fe.

At the foot of northern New Mexico's majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains lies the oldest state capital city in the U.S. Packed with adobe architecture, historic churches, renowned restaurants and Southwestern art museums and galleries, this laid-back, high-desert town will take you two to three days to absorb.

Whether they’re green, red or yellow, chilis are central to the culinary experience in New Mexico.

Whether they’re green, red or yellow, chilis are central to the culinary experience in New Mexico.
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What to See in Santa Fe

The city revolves around its centuries-old centerpiece, Santa Fe Plaza. Laid out in the early 17th century, this grassy, shady town square is bordered on its north side by the adobe Palace of the Governors, the original Spanish capitol building of Nuevo México. Visit the palace museum, then stroll the downtown streets, photographing adobe architecture and visiting attractions like the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Georgia O' Keeffe Museum.

What to Do in Santa Fe

From Native American crafts to cutting-edge art galleries, shopping is big. Make your first destination the Palace of the Governors, where Native American vendors deal in handmade pottery, jewelry and other traditional art. For a cluster of diverse galleries, walkable Canyon Road presents the chance to procure everything from bronze sculpture to photographic prints. Several proprietors offer international shipping.

Southwest of downtown, the Railyard district is the go-to spot for avant-garde art galleries. It’s also the place to board the Santa Fe Southern Railway for a four-hour scenic train ride. If a guided, open-air tram tour of the city is more your speed, ride the Loretto Line.

Where to Eat in Santa Fe

New Mexican cuisine is similar to traditional food from Mexico, with an emphasis on chiles. Red or green, mild or hot — they are part of nearly every dish. Grab breakfast at Tia Sophia's, which claims to have invented the breakfast burrito—a tortilla-wrapped concoction of potatoes and your choice of meat drenched in chile sauce.

A relaxed spot with a second-floor patio overlooking the plaza, Draft Station pours local craft beers and dishes up tasty pizzas, including a New Mexican-style pie with chicken, piñon nuts, green chile, and cotija and asadero cheeses on a blue corn crust. For more upscale cuisine, try a time-tested favorite like Cafe Pasqual's or the Pink Adobe.

Where to Sleep in Santa Fe

Downtown hotels can be pricey, but the upside is you'll be within walking distance of popular attractions, shops and restaurants. The landmark 1922 La Fonda on the Plaza offers rooms with Southwestern decor, including handcrafted wooden furniture and original paintings. Two blocks away, the upscale Inn and Spa at Loretto is adjacent to the 1878 Loretto Chapel.

La Fonda on the Plaza has been a fashionable place to stay in Santa Fe since 1922.

La Fonda on the Plaza has been a fashionable place to stay in Santa Fe since 1922.
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Route 66 Road Trip to Grand Canyon National Park

Drive southwest to Albuquerque, then about six hours west to the Grand Canyon primarily via U.S. Interstate Highway 40, which traces old Route 66 (aka the "Mother Road"). In Albuquerque, Grants and Gallup, New Mexico, you'll see vintage neon signs adorning roadside motels and diners dating to the route's 1940s and ’50s glory days.

Travel further back in time at Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park. Hundreds of millions of years ago, forest covered this now-desert terrain. Eons of geologic phenomena have turned the tree logs to colorful slabs of stone; you'll see dense concentrations of petrified wood on the park's 45-kilometer scenic drive. Stay overnight in the nearby town of Holbrook, sleeping in a concrete Indian teepee at the classic 1950 Wigwam Motel.

Striking blue skies meet the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

Striking blue skies meet the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
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John Cameron Photography

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Santa Fe and Route 66 are infants when compared with the more than 1 billion years of geologic history on display at the world's most famous chasm, the Grand Canyon. Whether you hike to the canyon bottom's Colorado River, or are content to gaze at its immense beauty from above, the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village will be your starting point.

Hiking trails abound throughout the Grand Canyon. Whether you’re looking for a short, quiet stroll or a strenuous walk to the bottom, there’s an accommodating path.

Hiking trails abound throughout the Grand Canyon. Whether you’re looking for a short, quiet stroll or a strenuous walk to the bottom, there’s an accommodating path.
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What to See at the Grand Canyon

Get oriented at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center at the south entrance, then marvel at the awesome canyon panorama from nearby Mather Point.

In Grand Canyon Village, view the exhibits at the Yavapai Geology Museum and the Kolb Studio, a 1904 photography studio perched on the canyon rim.

Many canyon overlooks dot the main South Rim area. To reach nine scenic viewpoints west of Grand Canyon Village along Hermit Road, you'll need to board the park's free shuttle from March through November (private vehicles are permitted in winter months). Easy walking paths connect all the points, and make for pleasant strolls along the rim.

East of the village, drive the 40-kilometer Desert View Drive to impressive overlooks like Grandview and Moran points. Your grand finale is the Indian Watchtower at Desert View, a circular, 21-meter-high tower built entirely of stone in 1932.

What to Do at the Grand Canyon

The strenuous Bright Angel Trail is a popular hike. Do not approach this adventure lightly. You'll need at least a full day, plus plenty of water and snacks, to hike the 15.3-kilometer trail to the bottom of the canyon — and then climb it back to the rim.

For a taste of hiking below the canyon rim and a bit of solitude, consider the Grandview Trail. Though quite steep, within 20 minutes of walking you'll lose the crowds and have fantastic viewpoints to yourself.

Want to let a mule do the work? Saddle up for a three-hour ride along the canyon rim or an overnight trip to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon.

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Where to Sleep and Eat at the Grand Canyon

Want to stay within mere meters of the canyon rim? If visiting from spring through fall, reserve a year in advance for a room at the grand 1905 El Tovar hotel or a bed at one of the five Grand Canyon Village motel-style lodges. There's also a campground and recreational vehicle (RV) park. Village eateries range from snack bars and casual restaurants to the upscale El Tovar dining room.

Just outside the park, the gateway town of Tusayan has a handful of hotels and motels, plus several restaurants.

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