Photo by Michael Landrum/Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
Horseshoe Bend gets crowded so go early for the best pictures.
With trails through canyons, lava tubes, deserts, and even ancient ruins, Arizona’s diverse landscape is a hiker’s paradise.
It may be nicknamed the Grand Canyon State, but Arizona is so much more than red rocks. In fact, the state’s landscape is wildly diverse, with everything from dense woods and snow-capped peaks in the north to the Sonoran desert, dotted with saguaro and yucca, to the south.
Throw in ancient cliff dwellings, tumbling waterfalls, and wildlife-rich oases, and you have something for everyone, from the family seeking a leisurely stroll to the serious backcountry explorer. Here are 10 top hikes for nature lovers of all ages and abilities.
Distance: 1.5 miles round-trip
Nearest City or Town: Page
The Instagram calling card of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Horseshoe Bend is one of those see-it-to-believe-it viewpoints that’s worth it despite the crowds. It’s also a hike that almost anyone can do, thanks to recent upgrades like a paid parking lot and a paved, ADA-compatible path to the overlook.
While Horseshoe Bend is an absolute must for first-time visitors to the Page and Lake Powell area, the trail sees 2 million visitors a year, so plan your visit for early in the morning or the end of day to avoid the congestion, and spend the rest of the time exploring the nearly 1.5 million acres surrounding the lake.
Distance: .3 miles to cave; 1 mile inside cave
Difficulty: Easy distance, but challenging because of rough terrain
Nearest City or Town: Flagstaff
There aren’t a lot of places in the continental United States where it’s possible to clamber through a long, well-preserved lava tube, so it’s no wonder that this hike is one of the most popular parts of the Coconino National Forest. Formed almost 700,000 years ago when a river of molten lava cooled from the outside in, crusting over while continuing to flow, the Lava River Cave is now a natural museum that serves as evidence of ancient volcanic activity. Wavy lines still mark the rocky surface where ripples solidified, and, at points, “lavacicles” hang from the tunnel ceiling.
The hike through the tunnel requires warm clothes to withstand the cave’s year-round temperature of 35 to 40 degrees and sturdy shoes to negotiate the rocks, which can be jagged in some spots and slick with condensation in others. The forest service recommends carrying three light sources because, once you’re inside, the darkness is absolute and you’ll want backup no matter what happens.
Distance: 6 miles round-trip
Nearest City or Town: Flagstaff or Sedona
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The only problem with 12-mile-long Oak Creek Canyon, a sheer-sided, red-rock river canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff, is that it almost has too many spectacular trails. Some were hewn from the rock by early settlers; they climb from the canyon floor to the eastern and western rims. Elevations range from up to 6,500 feet on the eastern side of the canyon to 7,200 feet on the western edge where the Red Rock–Secret Mountain Wilderness begins, meaning there are hikes here to challenge even the hardiest canyoneer.
A good place to start is the West Fork Oak Creek Trail, which crisscrosses a meandering stream through towering canyon walls. Beyond the first three miles, the hike becomes much more strenuous, so you should only attempt the whole thing if you don’t mind deep wading and boulder-hopping. Maps are available at the Oak Creek Visitor Center.
Distance: 2.4 miles round-trip
Nearest City or Town: Sedona
With a name like Eagles Nest, you’d expect this trail to be a strenuous climb. But with an elevation gain of just 300 feet, it’s a relatively easy way to earn bragging rights—and stunning views over Red Rock State Park. During the cooler months from October to May, Red Rock State Park is also rich in guided and themed hikes, including a geology hike every second Sunday of the month and an archaeology hike every third Sunday.
Distance: 0.5 to 5.8 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Nearest City or Town: Scottsdale
Like the biggest cactus garden you’ve ever seen, McDowell Sonoran Preserve spreads across 30,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert covered in prickly pear, chollo, hedgehog, and desert natives like agave and saguaro. Crisscrossed by 215 miles of trails—which are accessed via more than eight different trailheads—the preserve overwhelms with options, but the well-signed Lost Dog Wash Trailhead makes it easy to get started.
The broad, gently sloping trail, vivid with wildflowers from late winter through spring, branches off into the more ambitious trails to Sunrise Peak and Taliesin Overlook. If you’re hiking with kids, also consider the half-mile, stroller-friendly Kovach Family Nature Trail, which offers a great introduction to the region’s geology, flora, and fauna.
Distance: 4 miles round-trip to Siphon Draw; 5.5 miles round-trip to the Flatiron
Nearest City or Town: Phoenix
There’s no mistaking the rock formation known as the Flatiron, which juts out like the prow of a ship high in the Superstition Mountains northwest of Phoenix. From the trailhead in Lost Dutchman State Park, the hike begins with a deceptively easy meander through a meadow before launching into a steep ascent—you’ll cover more than 1,000 feet of elevation hiking up the canyon of Siphon Draw. As the Flatiron looms ever closer in your view, the rocks become a natural staircase, albeit a seriously challenging one.
Distance: 800 miles long
Difficulty: All levels
Nearest City or Town: Phoenix or Tucson
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Stretching 800 miles across the entire length of the state, the Arizona National Scenic Trail runs from the Mexican border to the Utah state line, connecting several beautiful parks and open spaces along the way. Begun as the passion project of a Flagstaff schoolteacher, the trail is divided into 43 passages, which can be hiked separately or as part of a longer journey. Many are also popular with mountain bikers. Particularly scenic passages include those through the Gila River Canyons, Tonto National Forest, Walnut Canyon, and Kaibab Plateau. Hikers can find more information on the National Forest Service website or purchase the Day Hiker’s Guide from the Arizona Trail Association.
Distance: 1 mile round-trip to Lower Cliff Dwelling; 3 miles round-trip to Upper Cliff Dwelling
Difficulty: Lower Cliff Dwelling is paved and easy; Upper Cliff Dwelling is easy to moderate
Nearest City or Town: Globe
All of Arizona’s national parks and monuments include spectacular hikes, many with unusual features like glittering petrified tree stumps and cave houses carved high into the cliffs. Less visited than some of the other ancient ruins, however, is Tonto National Monument, which protects two sprawling complexes built by the Salado people as far back as 1300 C.E. Thanks to the dry air in the caves, the multiroom dwellings remain astonishingly intact, their wooden beams, lintels, and smooth rock walls cemented with adobe still in place.
The 20-room Lower Cliff Dwelling is easily reached via a self-guided hike, but the Upper Cliff Dwelling, a massive collection of 40 rooms carved deep into a cavern, requires a ranger-led hiking tour to access. After a two-month closure due to damage from last summer’s Woodbury fire, the trail to the Upper Cliff Dwelling reopened in early January 2020 and reservations are now available. The views of Roosevelt Lake and the Tonto Basin are an added bonus.
Distance: 4.7 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Nearest City or Town: Tucson
Cascading down terraces of sparkling granite into crystalline pools, Seven Falls is the perfect place to cool off after a climb in the southern Arizona heat. The hike starts with a ride on the Bear Canyon tram from the visitor center in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area; the Seven Falls trailhead is the last stop. After a stretch through a desert of teddy bear cactus and ocotillo, the trail begins a gentle ascent through the canyon, then follows a series of steep switchbacks. Your reward for the climb is a sudden bend in the canyon, where you’ll find a cool oasis.
Distance: 7.5 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Easy through the valley; moderate to challenging with increasing distance and altitude
Nearest City or Town: Sierra Vista
Tucked into the Huachuca Mountains, the 279-acre Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve protects a unique ecosystem of plants and animals from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts as well as the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains. Visitors here will find 14 kinds of hummingbirds—more than anywhere else in the United States—along with 170 other types of birds. Winding through it all is the Hamburg Trail, which follows the sycamore-shaded banks of Ramsey Creek before climbing 500 feet up a series of steep switchbacks to a dramatic viewpoint over the San Pedro Valley.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Arizona
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