How To See Arizona’s Best Highlights In 1 Day

Southwest, USA By

If you only have one day on vacation in Arizona, then make it a good one.

We had just spent the previous week road tripping around Arizona in our RV. We visited Horseshoe Bend, drove past the Grand Canyon and missed Antelope Canyon - the one place we desperately wanted to see and had no time for on our long drive from Zion National Park to Monument Valley.

Then Viator suggested we try the Arizona Highlights Day Trip: Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell and Glen Canyon with River Rafting. Practically our whole vacation squeezed into one day. Perfect for vacationers with less time up their sleeves, but still craving the adventures of a jam-packed Arizona break.

You could spend hundreds on hotels, RVs, and car hire if you have the time… or you could just go straight for the jackpot. A sunrise above the majestic Grand Canyon, lunch at unmissable Horseshoe Bend, a wander through mesmerizing Antelope Canyon and a rafting trip down the icy blue waters of the snaking Colorado River.

View of Colorado River from Horsehoe Bend lookout

The Grand Canyon: A Sunrise Unlike Any Other

Our day started long before dawn. We left the kids in their beds as we packed up the RV and drove 1 hour to Grand Canyon National Park Airport. My sister was RVing with us, but had decided to spend the day in the RV. So we left her with the keys and headed into the airport to collect our included on-the-go breakfast box consisting of a muffin, apple, juice and yoghurt.

The sun was already starting to peek over the horizon as we boarded the small 12-seater aircraft and within minutes we could see the golden first morning light streaming across the Grand Canyon. No words can adequately explain the beauty of soaring above one of this planet’s most beautiful natural wonders at dawn. Faces were pressed against the windows, mouths gaping, soaking up the vastness, colors and contours. Since a photo speaks a thousand words, perhaps this will inspire you for an early morning rise.

Flying over Horseshoe Bend

Antelope Canyon: Essential Arizona

Our small plane touched down in Page, Arizona where we were transferred to an open-aired truck destined for Upper Antelope Canyon. I had done oodles of research and read dozens of blog posts from those who had been before us. I was warned about being herded through the canyon, about the crowds making the highly-desired photos almost impossible and I was ready. 

Open-air transport to Antelope Canyon

Thankfully for us we arrived before 9 am. This tour is at the perfect time. We had no pushy groups behind us so each photo was tourist-free and the morning light created striking shadows with deep auburn hues.

We spent one hour walking through the canyon at a very easy pace. The kids could easily keep up, especially in the footsteps of their frequently-stopping, camera-happy father. And aren’t we glad he was. Look at these. 

Do you see the dragon’s eye?

The Colorado River: A Rafting Adventure

It was barely after 9am and we already had two grand adventures under our belt. But it was time to move onto the next one.

Our open-air all-terrain vehicle dropped us off at the rafting office to don life jackets and listen to a safety briefing.

It was during this briefing that my son decided to scale a small wall, proceeding to fall headfirst over the other side. Screaming, crying, a crowd of people. He broke his glasses (argh!) and a rather large bump started forming on his forehead. I feared the highly anticipated 5-hour rafting adventure was about to sink like a rock.

A helpful staff member was quickly called and Caius was checked over thoroughly. They provided ice and asked what we would like to do. After questioning Caius and seeing if he was lucid and awake he decided he still wanted to go. The sweet boy cried the entire coach ride to the river. And then once we reached the boat, I never saw another tear. This boy was born for water. 

During our time at the rafting office bagged lunches were given out which included cookies, sandwiches, an apple and a few other tidbits. Our walk to the raft required hard hats, since apparently people throw things down from the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge sitting 699 feet (213m) above. 

Glen Canyon Bridge

Our large motorized raft contained 20 other guests. There were 2 rafts packed to the brim... Slightly over-packed in my opinion, but we carved out a niche and got comfortable. We had been warned to lather on plenty of sunscreen as the 5-hour trip down the mighty Colorado River was in direct sunlight with no shade. And it was hot. So heed the advice: lots of sunscreen, lots of water and a broad hat. The boat never really went fast enough for a hat to fall off, but just fast enough for a light, cool breeze to lift off the water and skim through your hair. And while it’s a good idea to bring your own water, there’s a freely available water dispenser on board with paper cups.

The tour down the Colorado River lasted about 5 hours and was broken up by 2 comfort stops. Our guide pointed out fascinating rock formations and shared stories about the canyon’s history. The world effortlessly floated by on that raft. The slight splash of the raft’s lapping wake the only sound piercing the calmness and occasional conversation from other guests or the entertaining anecdotes from our guide.

If you are brave enough to jump into the freezing waters, you can find a little temporary relief from the desert heat. But I was only game to get ankle deep. The water in the canyon is freezing! It only takes 7 minutes of immersion before you can’t utter a word and about 12 minutes before you are likely to be declared dead. Our kids enjoyed a very quick and refreshing dip or two, but I just managed to get my feet wet. 

Tip: To search for your Grand Canyon rafting trip among all 15 top outfitters at the same time, try Advantage Grand Canyon's Trip Finder.

Horseshoe Bend: The Best Place (Possibly In The World) For Lunch

One of the stops was right in the heart of Horseshoe Bend. We had visited this portion of the Colorado River during our RV trip a couple days prior, and we had flown over it that very morning. Now we were sailing through it. And we got to disembark right at the start of the bend to eat our lunch. 

The smooth canyon cliffs are so lofty (1000 feet to be exact), I could barely see the crowds at the lookout above. I had seen the bend from every angle and from water-level it was still as incredible as above. 

Cliffs in Horsehoe Bend

After Horseshoe Bend we sailed down the river and finished up at Lees Ferry, which marks the start of the Grand Canyon.

Our tour guide strongly recommended stopping there, because, well…he said you can actually get shot on sight by NPS if you pass by Lees Ferry. I didn’t try so can’t confirm that.

5 hours was a long time in the sun and I could not wait to get off the raft and soak up the crispy cool air-conditioned bus. Plus, there was water. Ice-cold water, the most welcome relief after sailing in the sizzling Arizona sun. 

The Grand Canyon: A Coach Tour

After such a long, eventful day we let the sway of the bus lull us to sleep and the whole family enjoyed a much-needed nap.

The bus stopped for one comfort/tourist sales stop at the 100-year-old Cameron Trading Post. Caius was still asleep on the bus, but the rest of us stretched our legs and picked up a celebratory ice cream.

Back on the bus the scenery really began to intensify and we caught regular glimpses of the epic Grand Canyon through the trees, as well as occasional local wildlife (elk and deer).

View of Grand Canyon from bus

The End: 12 hours later

It was a long day. In only 12 hours we had managed to fit in a whole week’s worth of adventure and sightseeing.

The bus pulled back into the carpark of the the Grand Canyon National Park Airport where the day began. In fact, right alongside our RV so we had only a few short steps before we were home.

Well, steps and then a 2-and-a-bit-hour drive to our next RV park. But the best part about that drive was that the kids could go straight to bed. 

The Bottom Line

If you are short on vacation time this year you don’t have to forsake a healthy dose of adventure and nature. This once-in-a-lifetime trip packs the best highlights of Arizona into one magical day.This is one tour you’ll remember forever.

Reader Comments...

"I respond to every comment by direct private email. I look forward to your feedback" -

This is such a great way to compress the sights into one day- the photos are breathtaking!

Stephanie Be Jun 28th, 2016

I've just booked my antelope canyon tour! So excited and this link is wonderful!!

Chels Templeton Jun 29th, 2016

It may be a long and tiring day but boy, does it look worth it. I simply HAVE to see (and photograph) all these canyons one day. Viator do some great tours and the ones I've done have been good value. This does sound full-on but as you say, you'll remember it forever. (So glad the fall was nothing too serious).

Kathryn Burrington Jul 4th, 2016

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