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Escape to Arizona for a girls getaway

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arizona provided a perfect backdrop for the author's girls trip
  • The Grand Canyon and Sedona offered a good mix of outdoor adventure and relaxation
  • Horseback riding, Jeep sight-seeing tours and hiking among the activities on this trip

(CNN) -- Calling all ladies! The stunning landscapes of Arizona create the perfect spot for an adventurous girls vacation.

No, I'm not suggesting you plot a "Thelma & Louise"-type western getaway and wildly escape from your men and the police. Instead, relax with your favorite girlfriends (legally) and soak up the beauty of the mountainous landscape and all the experiences the area between Sedona's famous Red Rocks and the Grand Canyon has to offer.

This spring, two girlfriends and I met in Phoenix to start our western road trip. Check out our itinerary, and use it as a guide for ideas on building your western trip.

Phoenix to Grand Canyon (233 miles)

A look at saguaro cactuses near the highway.
A look at saguaro cactuses near the highway.

We flew into Phoenix, but this wasn't a trip about big cities, so we high-tailed it out of the Valley of the Sun in our rented Nissan Rogue and drove 4½ hours north along Interstates 17 and 40 and Highway 64 toward the Grand Canyon.

As we traveled along these scenic highways, the vegetation changed from saguaro cactuses to tall pine trees. The towering San Francisco peaks near Flagstaff were a highlight of the dramatic scenery along our route. The peaks are a volcanic mountain range and provide a number of recreational opportunities, from snow skiing to hiking.

Grand Canyon

We arrived at the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon, just north of Tusayan, right before sunset and had our cameras ready. The park guides said Hopi and Yavapai points are some the best places to view a sunrise or sunset, and they didn't lead us astray.

For dinner, we dined inside the park's Bright Angel Lodge (which is just a few feet from the canyon rim) at the Arizona Room. The restaurant specializes in hand-cut steaks, and fish and chicken inspired by flavors of the Southwest. One of its signature drinks is the Prickly Pear Margarita, which includes Hornitos Reposado tequila, prickly pear cactus syrup, lime, Triple Sec and sweet and sour mix. Both the food and drinks were excellent.

The Grand Canyon offers endless opportunities for exploration.
The Grand Canyon offers endless opportunities for exploration.

We stayed outside the park, where rates are generally cheaper, but we admired El Tovar Hotel, the park's priciest and most famous lodge. Built in 1905, famous guests over the years have included Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney, to name a few. The hotel was also featured in the 1983 Chevy Chase film "National Lampoon's Vacation."

The following morning, we met our tour bus outside the Bright Angel Lodge for a guided view of the national park. (We used the Grand Canyon's official website to find our tour operator.) Our bus ride covered 52 miles in a little under four hours as we traveled east from the lodge along the rim of the canyon. The tour stopped at Lipan Point, touted as the most scenic viewpoint on the East Rim drive. The Watchtower, designed in the 1930s by famed architect Mary Colter in the style of the ancestral Puebloan people, also offered stunning -- even soul-enriching -- views of the canyon.

The Grand Canyon offers endless opportunities for exploration, beyond what we discovered during our 24-hour visit. Thousands of visitors each year hike the park's various trails, bike along the Greenway trail and paved roads, enjoy airplane and helicopter tours, and brave rafting trips and mule rides.

Grand Canyon to Sedona (119 miles):

Coconino National Forest contains diverse landscapes.
Coconino National Forest contains diverse landscapes.

The diverse landscape during our southbound road trip between the Grand Canyon's South Rim and Sedona kept us busy with our cameras. In Coconino National Forest, the scenery ranges from deserts and ponderosa pine forests to volcanic peaks. Elevation in Coconino ranges from 2,600 feet to 12,633 feet at the summit of Humphreys Peak. A snowstorm caught us during a small portion of the drive, but we ended the journey with sunny skies in Sedona. I'd never seen such extreme climate changes in a 120-mile trip until this excursion.

Sedona area

Sedona's main attraction is no doubt its stunning array of red sandstone formations, enveloped in the area's celebrated spiritual energy. The Red Rocks provided a truly awe-inspiring backdrop for our outdoor adventures.

But first, shopping -- naturally a part of many girls trips, and ours was no exception. Sedona is filled with art galleries, boutiques, New Age metaphysical shops, antiques and even an outdoor shopping mall. Be sure to pick up made-in-Sedona cactus jellies, Native American crafts or even healing gemstones during your visit.

A skeptic finds inner peace in Sedona

A variety of tour operators offer Jeep rides near Sedona's Red Rock formations.
A variety of tour operators offer Jeep rides near Sedona's Red Rock formations.

Our first big adventure (beyond shopping) was a two-hour off-road tour in an open-air Jeep. Our professional driver, who doubled as an informative tour guide, showed us geologic formations and some of the trademark Red Rock formations. There are numerous outfitters who provide Jeep tours, and prices vary, depending on the type of excursion you select. We decided to bundle our Jeep tour with a 1½-hour horseback riding trip near the banks of the Verde River in Cottonwood, Arizona.

During our horseback riding adventure, in a place ironically called Dead Horse Ranch State Park (none of our horses died on this trip, by the way!), we rode under cottonwood and sycamore trees and enjoyed the panoramic views of Mingus Mountain. We finished our excursion with a picnic lunch near the horse arena, which was included in the tour package.

A view of Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.
A view of Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.

Back at our hotel in Sedona, we hopped into our trusty rental car and wandered to an amazing piece of architecture -- the Chapel of the Holy Cross. From some angles, the chapel looks as though it's rising from Sedona's famed rock formations, and many comment that the structure has "universal appeal" because of its unique design. Construction of the chapel was completed in 1956 to wide acclaim, and it was designed by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a former student of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

And while we didn't necessarily find religion during our visit, we fantasized what it might be like to get married in this church. But that will remain a fantasy, since the chapel doesn't perform wedding ceremonies.

A skeptic finds inner peace in Sedona

We finished our day with a visit to the spa, since Sedona is known for its spa treatments. (As are many girls trips!) I selected a package called New Beginnings, where I received a psychic reading, followed by a one-hour massage. The reading was marketed as a way for "clearing the old and expanding the new energies inside of me." We felt refreshed from our treatments and walked away from the experience more relaxed than when we first started. I'm not sure if I bought into the psychic reading, but it was interesting to hear what my future may hold.

Day trips from Sedona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is in Arizona.
Montezuma Castle National Monument is in Arizona.

The area around Sedona is rich in Old West and Native American culture and history.

During our visit, we hopped into our rental car and explored some nearby cliff dwellings, including Montezuma Castle and the Palatki Ruins. These ruins of cliff dwellings (plus many more we didn't have time to visit) stand as a monument to the ingenuity of the ancient people who built them hundreds of years ago. Trips to both locations were about a 25-minute drive from our Sedona hotel.

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Jerome, Arizona, a historic copper mining town that has transformed itself into a quaint tourist town filled with shops and eateries. We enjoyed a mouth-watering lunch at the Haunted Hamburger restaurant, which we're told is a favorite among locals for its juicy, thick burgers.

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We capped our trip with a visit to a winery region along North Page Springs Road, about 15 miles south of Sedona. (We had a designated driver!) Wine producers say cool nights and mild winters make ideal growing conditions for reds like merlot and cabernet.

It was a perfect (and tasty) ending to a fabulous girls trip.