An Awe-Inspiring Journey to Arizona’s National Parks and Monuments

Monument Valley Arch


Of the many reasons to journey to Arizona’s magnificent parks and monuments—educational to relaxing experiences, and time to bond with friends and family while taking in the sites—science links the wonders of nature to increased positivity. Researchers at UC Berkeley showed that experiences of awe, which the Grand Canyon State has in spades, lead to all kinds of good stuff. From greater altruism and more community-oriented behavior, in addition to potentially serving as a crucial ingredient in nature’s healing powers on the body, visiting the national sites that make this region of the southwest so amazing makes it easy to reap the benefits.

This trip guides travelers through breathtaking views on the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Dr. Seuss-like landscape of Chiricahua National Monument to the painted deserts and ancient tree trunks in the Petrified Forest National Park and beyond. You’ll have every opportunity to bear witness to wonder all throughout this 10-day journey, which will take you to Arizona’s greatest natural hits. (While visiting these magnificent sites, take care to treat them with the respect they deserve by employing the helpful tips on sustainable practices of Visit Arizona’s “Leave No Trace” approach.) Get ready for an awesome time that gives new meaning to the word.


Trip Designer

Visit Arizona

Visit Arizona invites you to discover life on a grander scale. The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, defines the destination’s beauty, while diverse landscapes across the state, rich and ancient history, and thriving culinary culture offer plenty more to discover. From Tucson’s fine dining to the ski slopes of Flagstaff and the curves of the Colorado River, adventures await all types of explorers.

Trip Highlight

A Painted Landscape

A dazzling feast for the eyes and the soul awaits at the Petrified Forest, where you’ll explore mineral-tinted landscapes, painted deserts, and striated canyons, and marvel at the fossilized ancient tree trunks in a rainbow of colors.

DAY 1Chiricahua: The Wonderland of Rocks

If you’re not driving, fly into Tucson, rent a car, and get ready to rock! You’ll drive two hours to Chiricahua National Monument, which more than lives up to its two unofficial names—the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks. During the 1860s and 1870s, the Chiricahua Mountains sheltered the Apache tribe, led by chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, as they resisted colonization by white settlers. Before that, twenty-seven million years ago, ash from a volcanic eruption compacted into rock, creating fantastical formations with sculpted pinnacles, mushroom-capped hoodoos, and precariously balanced rock towers that have been given names like Wall Street and Big Balanced Rock.

The area is one of southern Arizona’s most beloved hiking destinations, with popular trails such as Echo Canyon, the Upper and Lower Ryolite canyons, and the Heart of Rocks Loop. Wildlife viewing is best along Bonita Creek Trail, where you might spot deer, coatimundis, and flocks of migrating birds. In the Faraway Ranch Historic District on the east side of the monument, you’ll see the restored, rough-log Stafford Cabin which gives a birds-eye view of pioneer life in this rugged territory. [Note: tours are currently cancelled.]

Part of what makes this destination so fascinating is how isolated it is, but many visitors combine a trip here with a tasting tour of the Willcox wine region. Book a stay in an 1873 historic adobe building at nearby Dos Cabezas Retreat, located off Highway 186 just south of Willcox, about 40 minutes from Chiricahua.
African American_Day 2.jpg

Saguaro National Park at sunset.

tonda/Getty Images/iStockphoto

DAY 2Saguaro: Marvels of Time

A little over an hour-and-a-half drive brings you to Saguaro National Park. Think about the passage of time as you consider the majestic saguaro can live as long as 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be just two inches high. Explore the park from both sides. The west side of the park, in the Tucson Mountain District, is where you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features the park’s Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes. Behold the enormous white flowers (the Arizona state symbol) when the saguaro bloom in late spring into early summer.

It’s a great place to view wildlife too. Take the Freeman Homestead Trail into a desert wash to try and spot great horned owls nesting in the cliffs above. In spring, hike the Hope Camp and Ridgeview Trails for some of the park’s most vivid wildflower displays and expansive views into the Box Canyon, which is sometimes studded with waterfalls after a rain.

Drive 90 minutes to Phoenix, en route to your next stop at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Camp Verde, to break up the drive. On your way to Phoenix, stop for a visit at the Casa Grande National Monument if you have time. Then check into the Gila River Indian-owned Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass and sample James Beard Award-nominated chef Ryan Swanson’s imaginative southwest cooking at Kai on the premises. Bison Crème Brulee, anyone?
Montezuma Castle National Monument

Christine C. Photographie

DAY 3Montezuma Castle: An Historic First Monument

Just under two hours north brings you to one of the first four national monuments, Montezuma Castle National Monument, following the 1906 passage of the Antiquities Act by President Theodore Roosevelt. Considered one of the largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, it’s a sophisticated example of Sinaguan architecture carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground. The structure contains more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories. A short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits demonstrate what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

The grounds also incorporate nearby Montezuma Well, a spring-fed travertine pool that once provided water for Sinaguan communities. Here, you’ll see more humble dwellings and the remains of an irrigation system, parts of which still irrigate local farmers’ fields. National Park Service rangers lead guided bird walks twice a month along a shady trail through the oasis that’s popular with birders.

Flagstaff, about an hour away, is the nearest city en route to the next leg of the trip. Your home for the night will be Little America, a luxurious retreat set in a 500-acre forest. For dinner, try The Northern Pines, which offers elevated family-friendly fare with 15 beers on tap.
Footpath and Cliff Dwellings carved in stone, Walnut Canyon, Arizona

Footpath and Cliff Dwellings carved in stone, Walnut Canyon, Arizona

ES3N/Getty Images/iStockphoto

DAY 4Walnut Canyon: Ancient Cliff Dwellings

After an easy 10-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff, you’ll wander ancient cliff dwellings that date back to the 13th century, high in a rock-walled canyon at Walnut Canyon National Monument. As you descend the steep stairway from the visitor center into Walnut Canyon, the windows and doors of ancient dwellings tucked between uneven rock layers come into view. These were the homes of the Sinagua people, hollowed out of the softer rock layers and walled in with simple masonry. The result was a natural fortress, reachable only by narrow trails that snaked along ledges in the cliffs.

From the foot of the stairs, a trail leads to one of the simple pueblos. Step inside and a world opens up: through the window you can see into the neighboring homes all the way across the chasm. Look down, and hundreds of feet below is Walnut Creek, from which the residents would have sourced their water. Hike along the Rim Trail for overlooks with good views of the cliff dwellings below. The fertile lands atop the mesa were once farmed by the Sinagua. In summer, visit a demonstration garden to taste the corn and other staples that once fed these ancient communities.

Stay over for the next two nights at La Posada in nearby Winslow (about an hour drive away), which will break up the drive to the Petrified Forest the next day. It has the historic charm of an 18th century Spanish hacienda. Load up on breakfast burritos or replenish at lunchtime with Navajo tacos or Vegetarian Tepa Burgers (made with Sonoran Tepary beans) at Painted Desert Diner.

DAY 5Petrified Forest: Jaw-dropping Fossilized Beauty

Drive 90 minutes from Winslow, and marvel at the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago, at the Petrified Forest National Park. The massive trunks turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of beautiful colors, including citrine’s yellow, amethyst’s purple and jasper’s red-brown. You’ll explore the mineral-tinted landscape, with its painted deserts and striated canyons, and walk the paved hiking trail that loops around the blue-white rock of Blue Mesa in the pastel-hued badlands. Ponder your existence on a longer hike, such as the Jasper Forest Trail, along which you’ll quickly find yourself alone in the spectacular landscape.

Continue on another night at La Posada in Winslow and eat on premises at The Turquoise Room, for regional contemporary cuisine like Bison short ribs and Navajo-Churro lamb or a locally grown vegan salad.
Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

zrfphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

DAY 6Wupatki: Step 1,000 years back in time

Drive from Winslow for a little more than an hour to get to Wupatki National Monument, whose desert pueblos have been standing for almost a millennium. Also check out Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument while you’re here if you want to trim a day off the trip. (One entrance fee covers both parks, which are just 17 miles apart and connected by a scenic drive.) Tour the open grassland pueblos of ancient Sinaguan communities thought to have been driven away by the erupting volcano. Inside the 900-year-old Wukoki Pueblo you’ll see the intricate adobe construction that’s stood the test of time. Take a short hike up to Citadel Pueblo, which is atop a steep hill and enjoys views across a lava-studded desert dotted with other ruins.

Check back into the Little America Hotel for the next two nights. Try the Tinderbox Kitchen, one of Flagstaff’s most beloved restaurants, which will delight both carnivores (braised beef shoulder with parsnip, black garlic and horseradish) and omnivores (ancient grains with mushroom, turnip and kale). After dinner, hit the Flagstaff Ale Trail to quench your thirst and give your mouth a taste of awe from Flagstaff’s excellent breweries.
Bonito Park at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is full of wildflowers like these cowpen daisies after winters with sufficient snowfall provide the moisture on top of soils created by the volcano's eruption 1,000 years ago.

Bonito Park at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

chapin31/Getty Images/iStockphoto

DAY 7Sunset Crater Volcano: Like Walking on the Moon

You’re just a half hour away from an outing that will have you hike up a volcano cinder cone and traverse jet-black lava flows—all the remnants of an active volcano that last erupted a thousand years ago in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Spend the day traveling through geological time: Start by hiking the Lava’s Edge Trail through the coal-tinted basalt of the Bonito lava flow.

Then continue on to the Lava Flow Trail, which hugs the base of the volcano below cinder fields that sparkle in the sun. While it’s not possible to climb to the top of Sunset Crater (it’s been closed since 1973 to protect it from erosion), a one-mile trail up 7,250-foot Lenox Crater provides awe-inspiring views of Sunset Crater and the surrounding Bonito lava flow. It’s here in Sunset Crater where Neil Armstrong and other astronauts trained for the Apollo Mission. Indeed, you may feel like you’re walking on the moon when visiting.
Monument Valley_An Pham_ANZ8948


DAY 8Monument Valley: An Icon of the Wild West

Get up early to enjoy hearty fare like the Santa Fe breakfast burrito or the Korean Fried Chicken sandwich at Little America Hotel’s Silver Pine Restaurant & Bar before heading to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (due to reopen later this year), a site within the Navajo Nation that’s about a three-hour drive north from Flagstaff. Rent a jeep or high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to experience everything the park has to offer (a permit is required for off-highway use); go with a Navajo or Hopi guide to learn the cultural context for the Ancestral Puebloan cliff paintings, remote sandstone arches, and window rocks. You’ll be on Navajo tribal land, which is still inhabited by families who have lived here for centuries, and the park is entirely administered by the Navajo Nation.

Don’t be surprised if it all feels very familiar—it’s the living embodiment of the Wild West with several cinematic moments filmed here over the decades: John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers; and Michael J. Fox—as Marty McFly—zoomed past them in a time-traveling car. Thelma and Louise even ran out the final leg of their journey here.

Whether you choose the lodge, RV park, or campgrounds at Gouldings for the night (just 10 minutes from the park), expect endless views with resort-style amenities. Relax and rejuvenate in the indoor pool or on the sun deck, and feast on authentic southwestern and Navajo flavors in the Stagecoach Dining Room.
horizontal view of Grand Canyon at sunrise

horizontal view of Grand Canyon at sunrise

frederic prochasson/Getty Images/iStockphoto

DAY 9-10Grand Canyon: A Grand Record of Geological Time

Rise early to drive a little more than two-and-a-half hours to the South Rim. When there, use the free shuttles operated by the National Park Service to get around the South Rim of the Canyon. At 277 miles long, it’s the biggest canyon in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world, providing a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Hike a historic trail like Bright Angel, Hermit, or Kaibab, and be sure to enjoy a sunset or sunrise from the rim. On your travels throughout the canyon, see how much wildlife you can spot, keeping your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, and California condors (look for them flying high overhead at Yavapai and Yaki points and Lookout Studio on the South Rim). The canyon is home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic or very rare—such as the California condors, which are making a comeback after near-extinction, due to careful wildlife management. Ride bikes on Hermits Trail, take a Jeep or Hummer tour, and plan ahead to arrange a ride on a mule to the bottom or along the rim on horseback.

You’ll want to stay at El Tovar Hotel at the South Rim, considered the crown jewel of the National Park Lodges. Eat on premises at El Tovar Dining Room for fine dining at dinnertime (order the roasted duck entree with chipotle cherry demi-glace), and creative Southwestern breakfast foods, such as polenta corn cakes with prickly pear pistachio butter. The El Tovar Lounge has stunning views of the Grand Canyon to enjoy over Navajo nachos and duck confit sliders. Fly or drive out of Flagstaff on your last day, with eyes and heart opened wide after the awe-inspiring journey.
More From This Author