Sedona (Arizona)

Driving Through America’s Southwest – Day 1

Southwest Trip: Day 1 – Arrival (Sedona)

For every trip to the southwest, the first day is strategically the most important. It defines the success of the entire trip. There is a lot going on day one.

Air Travel

First, it is an air travel day. The goal is to reach our destination as early as possible. After being delayed twice during connection stops on previous trips, I have learned to always book direct flights to minimize the chance of delays.

For us, Las Vegas is the most logical destination to fly into since it is located within driving distance from the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Death Valley, and Sierra. But, what makes Las Vegas prohibitive for driving trips is the price of rental cars.

If you rent a car in Las Vegas and return it to the same location, the prices are reasonable. But, if you want to return the car to another city, it is much more expensive. I do not mean like double in price; I mean four to five times higher. Since we planned to fly home from San Francisco, landing in Las Vegas and renting a car was out of the question.

Sedona (Arizona) - Southwest Trip: Day 1 1

Instead, we flew to Phoenix where, no matter where you return your rental car, the price does not change. It is also still within driving distance to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

Car Rental

Next, the challenge is to rent the right car. Since we were planning to do lots of dirt road driving, I absolutely wanted a four-wheel or an all-wheel drive car.

When booking the car a month in advance, I selected the Toyota 4Runner class of car and specified we needed at least an AWD model in the comments. But, I guess no one reads customer comments because when we arrived at the car rental hub in Phoenix, there was no AWD model available. After long negotiations, they upgraded us two levels and gave us a new GM Traverse, which is a full-size SUV.

Although it was overkill for two people, it saved us a couple of times during those stormy nights since we could comfortably sleep in it.

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The final challenge on the first day was to load up on food.

The goal is to have enough provisions to stay off the grid for at least seven days. We approach this task strategically and know the precise list of items we need to buy.

The first stop is always Walmart where we purchase a cooler. Since it is impossible to bring a cooler or even camping chairs on the plane, we always buy these items on the first day of our trip and then leave them behind on the last day at the car rental when we return the car. Over the years, we have dumped at least a dozen coolers and over two-dozen camping chairs.

In recent years, Walmart made traveling much easier because of the Ship To Store service. Now, I can shop for supplies online from the comfort of my home and, if the particular store does not have it in stock, they will ship it to that location free of charge. All I have to do is stop at the store and pick it up at the counter.

I love it!

The second stop is at Costco where we load up on provisions. This is another advantage of traveling in the United States—your Costco membership goes a long way. We load up on produce, cheeses, and our favorite California wine.

Normally, we are ready to start our trip at this point but, this time, I made another short stop in Phoenix.

Specialty Food

I discovered that when you are on long camping trips where you have to cook on a daily basis, the most strategic food to have on hand is Russian-style canned meat. It has its origins in the Soviet military during the Cold War. The meat, which is mostly beef, was stored across the country in bunkers to feed the military in the event of war.

The biggest advantage of this particular type of meat is that it could be stored up to 10 years at room temperature.

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This type of canned meat is still popular in Russia and is available at any Russian food store across North America. What makes this meat ideal for camping is that you can have a nutritious and tasty dinner in just minutes. Cook rice in boiling water for eight to nine minutes until it is ready. Dump the contents of the can into the rice. Since the meat already has plenty of spices in it, dinner is ready. It is fast and reminds me of my childhood.

Related: Big Sur Coastal Drive – Top Photography Spots

We stopped at the Russian grocery store in Phoenix and bought six cans of Soviet-style canned meat. By then, it was late afternoon when we left Phoenix and headed toward Flagstaff.

Quick Stop in Sedona

It is a two-hour drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff, leaving us with only a couple of hours to spare for a short stop at Sedona. Instead of driving to Sedona using Arizona’s busy State Route 89A, we decided to test the off-road capability of our rental car and drove through the mountains taking the rough and rocky Schnebly Hill Road.

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Arizona. Sedona> Schnebly Hill Road
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Arizona. Sedona. Schnebly Hill Vista Overlook

Because of poor road conditions, it took us a while to reach Schnebly Hill Vista Overlook where you have a nice view of Sedona Valley. Unfortunately, the weather was unfavorable for photography. The air was hazy with no clouds in the sky. The only way to capture the Sedona Valley view was to shoot directly into the harsh sun.

Schnebly Hill Vista Overlook

The good news is that we managed to test the off-road performance of our rental car, which performed admirably. We reached a small motel on the outskirts of Flagstaff after sunset and were ready to start a real adventure the following day.

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Schnebly Hill Vista Overlook

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

8 thoughts on “Sedona (Arizona) – Southwest Trip: Day 1”

  1. I’m already loving this diary – I’m from Australia, but have been hiking in these magnificent areas a number of times, unfortunately before I became interested in photography. Looking forward to the trip.

    • In 2 days I am leaving for Utah again, 9 days this time 🙂

      • Are you going to be in Moab, our location for two more weeks?

        • Moab is too crowded for my taste. I will be camping in Escalante and Capitol Reef Nat Park

          • I know what you mean. Biggest obstacle to Milky Way shot at Balanced Rock last night was finding 30 seconds without headlights of tourists leaving the park doing random light painting on the structure. Need to go deeper jnto park.

          • Congrats to your wife on Schnebly Hill climb. Braver than mine.

  2. Thanks for sharing your journey and the helpful road trip tips!

  3. I’ve been here! That road is quite rough, white knuckle driving at its finest!! We did it in our live-in Astro van (it had very good off-road tires- KM2’s) but the looks we got from people were priceless! It’s a gorgeous view. I’m glad you got to experience it’s beauty!


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