Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. In fact, with its protected petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many national parks and monuments as Arizona.
Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those still waiting to be discovered by the masses.
Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world.
At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also 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. Whether you hike a historic trail like Bright Angel, Hermit, or Kaibab, or enjoy a sunset or sunrise from the rim, you feel like you’re seeing deep into the secrets of the earth.
Wildlife is an often unsung highlight of a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. From bighorn sheep to little brown bats, the canyon is home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic or extremely rare. It is also a great place to spot California condors. Once dangerously close to extinction, the huge birds are now making a gradual comeback with the help of careful wildlife management. In 2018, the Grand Canyon was home to six nesting pairs; watch them soar overhead at Yavapai and Yaki points and Lookout Studio on the South Rim.
Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees.
Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper.
But while its name gives away Petrified Forest National Park’s main attraction, the fossils are only part of the story. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock. Leave time for a longer hike, such as the Jasper Forest Trail, along which you’ll quickly find yourself alone in the spectacular landscape.
Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country.
Recognized worldwide as a symbol of the desert, 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. These ancient survivors only appear naturally in the Sonoran Desert—which stretches across the southwestern United States—and thrive in their eponymous park.
Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, 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 popular Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.
One of the most popular times to visit Saguaro National Park is late spring into early summer, when the saguaro bloom with enormous waxy white flowers (the Arizona state symbol). But hikers love the park year-round. Take the Freeman Homestead Trail into a desert wash to try and spot great horned owls nesting in the cliff above. In spring, hike the Hope Camp and Ridgeview Trails for some of the park’s most vivid wildflower displays and expansive views into Box Canyon, which is sometimes studded with waterfalls after a rain.
Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places.
First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C.E., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Canyon del Muerto, Canyon de Chelly, and Monument Canyon contain more than 800 ancient archaeological sites between them and are held deeply sacred by the Navajo and other tribes. Today, Navajo families still farm and spend time in this remote spot in the northeastern corner of Arizona.
Established as a national monument in 1931 to protect vulnerable archaeological sites and artifacts, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is unusual in that it is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but located entirely within the Navajo tribal homeland. Visitors aren’t permitted to enter the canyon unaccompanied, but self-guided driving tours are available along the north and south rims. On these drives, you can stop at overlooks to peer down at ruins like Mummy Cave, which is carved into the sheer cliff, and Antelope House, standing at the base of the canyon walls. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman.
You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep or horseback tour with a Navajo guide. Half- and full-day tours traverse the rough river bottom and bring you close to ancient ruins, caves, and petroglyphs. If you don’t have time for a tour and can manage a vertiginous descent, the only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins.
Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person.
There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers; Michael J. Fox—as Marty McFly—zoomed past them in a time-traveling car, the Transformers crashed through them. Thelma and Louise even ran out the final leg of their journey here.
Its cinematic fame may be why Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park welcomes many visitors from outside the United States; in the lobby of the park’s View Hotel, you’re just as likely to hear German, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Portuguese, Korean, Hindi, Spanish, and Chinese as English.
Like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is on Navajo tribal land and still inhabited by families who have lived here for centuries, but this park is entirely administered by the Navajo Nation. You’ll need to hire a jeep or high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to experience everything the park has to offer; go with a Navajo or Hopi guide to learn the cultural context for the Ancestral Puebloan cliff paintings, remote sandstone arches, and window rocks. Time your visit to experience both sunset and sunrise here and you’ll take some of the most vivid photos of your life.
Why: Hike up a volcano cinder cone and traverse a lava flow.
You don’t have to go to Hawaii to experience the excitement of climbing a volcano. The dramatic jet-black lava flows and towering cinder cones of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, just half an hour north of Flagstaff, are the remnants of an active volcano that last erupted a thousand years ago—not so far back in geologic time.
To see the full spectrum of volcanic activity at the monument, start off hiking the Lava’s Edge Trail through the jagged coal-colored 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. It’s not possible to climb to the top of Sunset Crater—it’s been closed since 1973 to protect it from erosion—but a one-mile trail up 7,250-foot Lenox Crater provides great views of Sunset Crater and the surrounding Bonito lava flow.
Why: The desert pueblos have been standing for almost a millennium.
A good companion to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is Wupatki National Monument, where you can tour the open grassland pueblos of ancient Sinaguan communities thought to have been driven away by the erupting volcano. One entrance fee covers both parks, which are just 17 miles apart and connected by a scenic drive.
Visitors are allowed to go inside the 900-year-old Wukoki Pueblo and see the intricate adobe construction that’s stood the test of time. Don’t miss the short hike up to Citadel Pueblo, which is perched atop a steep hill and enjoys views across a lava-studded desert dotted with other ruins.
Why: You can wander through ancient cliff dwellings high in a rock-walled canyon.
As you descend the long steep stairway from the visitor center into Walnut Canyon, the windows and doors of ancient dwellings tucked between uneven rock layers quickly begin to 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. The ruins, which date back to the 13th century, are just 10 minutes from downtown Flagstaff and are still open to the public, unlike those in many other national parks and monuments. From the foot of the stairs, follow the trail to one of the simple pueblos and step inside; 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.
A second popular feature of Walnut Canyon National Monument is the Rim Trail, which offers overlooks with good views of the cliff dwellings below. The fertile lands atop the mesa were once farmed by the Sinagua; today, summertime visitors can visit a demonstration garden to taste the corn and other staples that once fed these ancient communities.
Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings.
In 1906, following the passage of the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first four national monuments. One of these was Montezuma Castle. It is considered one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably sophisticated example of Sinaguan architecture.
In 1951, the park service stopped allowing visitors to mount ladders to the ruins, as erosion was degrading the delicate surfaces. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.
Conveniently located just off Highway 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix, Montezuma Castle National Monument also incorporates nearby Montezuma Well. The spring-fed travertine pool is uncommon in the area, and once provided precious water for Sinaguan communities. Here, you can see humbler dwellings and the remains of an irrigation system, parts of which still irrigate local farmers’ fields. A shady trail through the oasis is a popular place for bird-watching; the NPS rangers lead guided bird walks twice a month.
Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock.
Chiricahua National Monument’s two unofficial names, the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks, tell you all you need to know about why it’s become one of southern Arizona’s most popular hiking destinations. Twenty-seven million years ago, ash from a volcanic eruption compacted into rock, creating a thick layer of rhyolite that eroded and fissured into the fantastical formations. The result is a Dr. Seuss–like landscape of sculpted pinnacles, mushroom-capped hoodoos, and precariously balanced rock towers that now have colorful names like Grottoes, Wall Street, and Big Balanced Rock. Popular trails include 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 an abundance of migrating birds. In the Faraway Ranch Historic District on the east side of the park, the restored, rough-log Stafford Cabin is open for tours on weekends and provides a fascinating—if daunting—view of pioneer life in this rugged territory. Located 120 miles southeast of Tucson, the park is isolated, but many combine a visit with a tasting tour of the Willcox wine region.
>>Plan your visit with AFAR’s Guide to Arizona