The Natural Wonders of Arizona

Arizona is “The Grand Canyon State,” and yes, nothing else in the world is quite like Arizona’s most famous natural wonder. But you’ll also find other types of spectacular natural beauty: alpine tundra, evergreen forests, riparian canyons, snow-capped peaks, and flower-carpeted flatlands. Just be sure to time your visit with the seasons, and your dreamscapes will forever after be infused with Arizona’s natural wonders.

U.S. Hwy 89 A, Marble Canyon, AZ 86036, USA
Bordered on the south by its eponymous deep-red cliffs, the national monument is home to broad plateaus, endangered California condors, and some of the oldest petroglyphs in the United States. But the area’s greatest hit is the Wave, a dramatic, undulant orange rock formation. There are trailheads, maps, and minimally marked checkpoints along the trail leading to the famous spot, but unless you opt to hire an authorized guide, you’ll have to pick your way carefully across relatively untouched desert—that is, if you manage to snag one of the 20 daily hiking permits. Apply online four months in advance or enter the daily lottery at the visitor center in Kenab, Utah. Didn’t make it? Grab a map, make sure you have a spare tire, and explore the monument’s lesser-known slot canyons and gulches, or head to the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park; both are within a two-to-three-hour drive. You can always try again the next day. Permits are $6 and $7.
Lake Powell, United States
My uncle and I stood with my tripod on the lakeshore behind our houseboat, trying desperately to capture the massive red rock wall before us. It was one of my first lessons in night photography, and it wasn’t going great: there just wasn’t enough light despite the starry starry sky. I tried over and over, different shutter speeds, using spotlights, nothing worked...too dark. On my last try, I set the shutter speed to a few minutes, as the shutter opened, all of a sudden a houseboat from the next cove over set off fireworks. Their fireworks lit up the entire night sky, and shone their glorious light right on my rock face, resulting in this image.
Highway 98
Antelope Canyon has been on my “must see” list for a very long time so you can imagine my excitement when I got there. I love how the lighting and shadows made the most interesting palette of colors hug the sexy curves of the canyon. The land belongs to the Navajo nation and they are the one hosting the tours. You show up at the booth, pay $40 plus a land fee of $6 and off you go. The tour is about an hour long not including the 10 minute drive to the canyon.
Page, AZ 86040, USA
I saw this place in so many photos before but when I got there and saw it in person it was such an overwhelming experience. Getting there is easy. You take the Interstate 89 South from Page and after 7 minutes you get to the parking lot. The road is suffering some constructions down the road from here and it will appear as closed but go passed the detour sign anyway. Once in the parking lot you must walk about a quarter of a mile to the actual spot where Horseshoe Bend is located. Beware there are no protection rails so one must pay attention when approaching the edge. At 7am there are very few people around and it’s also a good time for photography. After the sun is high in the sky everything is too bright for decent photos.
Oljato-Monument Valley, UT 84536, USA
Nuzzled up against the Arizona border about 100 miles west of Four Corners are some 30 square miles of the most iconic scenery in the American West. Monument Valley is one of those places that you’ll recognize as soon as you see it, even if you’ve never been there before, as dozens of movies, TV shows, and even video games have used the area as a setting. It’s made up of mesas both small and large reaching up from the valley floor, some rising as high as 1,000 feet into the sky. Part of the Navajo Reservation, the area charges a $20-per-vehicle entrance fee to drive the dirt-road loop. Once in, however, you can also enjoy a number of hikes, or hire a guide for a horseback tour.
E Bonita Canyon Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643, USA
A couple of years ago, on Black Friday, my wife and I headed away from the malls of Tucson and into the mountains: Chiricahua National Monument, just west of the New Mexico border in SE Arizona, was one of the last strongholds of the Chiricahua Apaches, who called this area “the land of standing-up rocks.” This particular mountain peak is Cochise Head (elev. 8087'); cock your head to the right and it resembles a man’s profile. The ‘eyelash’ is formed by a tall Douglas fir tree. The volcanic formation is named after Chief Cochise, who died in 1874. About a decade after his death, several hundred of his surviving fellow Apaches were deported to Florida, never to return to their homeland again... The history of the American Southwest is a sobering mix of people on the move with conflicting labels: pioneers/invaders, defenders/terrorists, war/genocide, natives/aliens...It still hasn’t been all sorted out.
Arizona, USA
If, like most visitors, you head for Tucson between Thanksgiving and Easter, you’re probably seeking sun and warmth while the rest of the country deals with the winter blahs. And you’ll most likely find what you’re looking for. There’s a reason why golfers, cyclists, hikers, and runners flock to southern Arizona this time of year. But, once or twice a decade, the lush Sonoran desert might get a snowfall—it never lasts for long, but every saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and prickly pear cactus will be edged in ephemeral white. As soon as the sun comes up over the mountains, you’ll start hearing the drip drip drip of the inevitable melting...And by the next day you’re likely to be wearing shorts again. Saguaro National Park, which flanks both the western and eastern edges of Arizona’s second-largest city, is the ideal place to go for a hike in the rare desert snow. The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) division of the park has a hilly eight-mile one-way loop road with access to numerous trails. Drive slowly and yield to the runners and senior-citizen-cyclists-in-spandex with thighs of steel. Get out and up into the saguaro-studded hills before the unlikely landscape disappears...Keep your eyes open for bobcats, mule deer, and the pig-like javelina. (You’re less likely to encounter a rattlesnake in the winter months, but this is still desert wilderness.) And if there’s no snow, you might be treated to spring wildflowers. Don’t forget your sunscreen...
Payson, AZ, AZ, USA
Driving between Globe and Show Low in the White Mountains east of Phoenix, US 60 curves and descends dramatically into the Salt River Canyon. Some call it the ‘mini Grand Canyon.’ The highway snakes down some 2000 feet before climbing back up... Spring brings snowmelt and whitewater late summer, the monsoon rains are keeping the river muddy and turbulent...Several parking areas allow you to pull off the two-lane road; breathe in the views, stretch your legs on Apache land.
11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85737, USA
When the southern Arizona desert gets just the right mix of rains at the right time in fall and winter, the following spring can produce a riot of wildflowers. People around Tucson said that the spring of 2010 was one of the best displays in decades--poppies and lupine for miles...perhaps the most vibrant ‘show’ in a generation.
Hohokam Road, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
Just beyond the western edge of Tucson, you’ll find these Hohokam petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park. No one knows precisely when they were carved into the rocks, but Hohokam settlements in the Sonoran desert date back almost two thousand years. We went on a short hike among the saguaro to end up on this hilltop with this pre-Columbian art—not your typical suburban stroll.
Supai, AZ 86435, USA
There’s a reason this is one of the most iconic spots along the Grand Canyon. Located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation and hidden deep within a 20-mile round-trip hike, Havasu Falls’ sparkling turquoise waters are a popular destination for seasoned hikers who come for the amazing views, rock climbing, and swimming. The hike to the falls and back is best enjoyed with a preplanned route and plenty of stops for rest, food, and water. Because tribe members of the Havasupai, which means “people of the blue-green waters,” maintain the trails and work to keep their land as unspoiled and pristine as possible, reservations for campsites are limited and day hikes and drones are not allowed.
5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750, USA
Many who have not visited Arizona think that its saguaros grow in a Sahara-like setting...but the mountainous desert around Tucson hides many lush spots, like this riparian canyon on the NE edge of the city. Late fall paints the cottonwoods along the creek below cactus-studded slopes in Sabino Canyon. Hikers hike, runners run, and deer roam...
12350 E Roger Rd
Archaeological evidence shows human presence around this warm-spring-fed oasis NE of Tucson going back thousands of years. The grounds were a ranch from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries; today it’s free and open to the public. Weekends you’re likely to see families picnicking and piñata-breaking under the palms; mornings are a birdwatcher’s paradise. It’s just close enough to town to be a ready half-day escape from urban stress. I’ve not been along the Nile, but this is how I imagine it to look--an Arizona stand-in for Egypt...
Sonoran Desert
Hike into Bear Canyon on the northeastern edge of Tucson, and you’ll be rewarded (most of the year) with a view of Seven Falls, gushing out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Even though the hike in and out is around seven miles, it’s mostly flat. You’ll find that, as you’re zigzagging across the creek on large boulders, with cliffs above the cacti all around, traffic and strip malls are a world away. When you arrive at the falls, the rushing waters are a balm for the soul. Midwinter through the middle of spring is a good time to visit this oasis; the higher-elevation snowmelt guarantees flowing water and the daytime temperatures are comfortable. Midsummer monsoon rains can also fill this canyon, and flash floods can be a sudden danger.
Flagstaff, AZ, AZ, USA
As Phoenix heats up, many locals are desperate to escape the desert’s barren landscape and head north to Sedona. Only a two-hour drive from the city, on average, Sedona sees about 60% local valley traffic over the weekends. Route 89A, leading up to Flagstaff, provides many opportunities to veer off course and wander the many trailheads in Sedona. One particular trail is the West Fork Oak Creek Trail. Temperatures are at least 20 degrees cooler here and provides relief from the consistent 101-115 temps. You’ll find water holes and rivers and shade under the evergreens to keep cool and refreshed. Pack a picnic and spend a few hours exploring this trail as it weaves and winds through the forest and up against cliffs and the water’s edge. Hop from rock to rock crossing the stream at five different points along the trail. You won’t sweat too much here as it’s a fairly easy 3 mile stroll. You’ll know when you get to the end of the marked trail - it ventures on but I have yet to figure out how to follow it further to its 14-mile stretch. $9 entrance fee for the day. Word of advice: Get there EARLY to find parking during the weekend and summer months.
US 188, Payson, AZ 85541, USA
Hit the trails at the Cave Creek hiking area, about 30 miles north of town in the Tonto National Forest, to see the rare crested saguaro cactus in its fantastic fan shapes. Trail number 4 meanders alongside Cave Creek for most of the 10-mile trek, providing many opportunities to dip your toes. The trailhead is located off Forest Road 24, (480) 595-3300. This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue. Illustration by Michael Hoeweler.
4070 S Avenida Saracino, Hereford, AZ 85615, USA
Last April, I spent a morning hiking along the San Pedro River, just NW of Bisbee, AZ; the caterpillars were astoundingly abundant. When I stopped, I could hear them munching on leaves all around--a surround-sound of crunching, the aural fecundity of spring. Between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, the high grassland highway slowly slopes down to this cottonwood-lined river--one of the few free-flowing rivers left in the Desert Southwest. This ribbon of forest stretches from the Mexican border up towards the lower-elevation desert, providing a flyway for migrating birds and even habitat for the occasional jaguar (very rare). In the late 1980’s, this area was made a National Conservation Area, and it’s a nice shady walk in what can often be sun-blasted country.
Mt Lemmon, Arizona 85619, USA
On the northern edge of Tucson, you can drive through a condensed version of western North America’s ecosystem in about half an hour. On the way up the Mount Lemmon Highway (also known as “Catalina Highway” or “Sky Island Scenic Byway”), you traverse almost all of the different life zones you would encounter if you were to actually drive from Mexico to Canada: starting with the saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, up through grassland, junipers and oaks, pines, and finally a mixed-conifer forest with stands of aspen. You begin at about 2500 ft. and end up at almost 9100 ft. above sea level (about 760 to 2770 meters). In the summer, especially, southern Arizonans love this road: “thirty miles, thirty degrees cooler,” as the saying goes. When it’s 105 degrees down in the city, it’s a perfect 75 up on the mountain. In the winter, you can go skiing in the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.
Romero Canyon, Arizona 85619, USA
One of the best day-hikes from Tucson is just north of town, on the ‘back side’ of the Santa Catalina Mountains: Romero Canyon. Drive up to Catalina State Park for the trailhead, and you’ll begin trekking through mesquite woods and towering saguaros before beginning to climb the rocky foothills into this mountain range. Then you’ll scramble down into the canyon itself, with a flowing stream at its heart. Most years, even in the early summer dry season, you can still find pools to cool off in--it’s a popular trail for Tucsonans. (Just get an early--dawn--start.) Continue past the pools and you can hike all the way up to Romero Pass, in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wiliderness, where naturalists are trying to re-introduce a herd of mountain bighorn sheep. Late fall through early spring are perfect here... “Desert oasis” might be a hackneyed phrase when describing places like this, but desert-dwellers don’t take them for granted. Fortunately, when you’re in southern Arizona, seek and ye shall find...
2400 N Gemini Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA
Flagstaff, Northern Arizona‘s winter-playground-college-town, is often overlooked as visitors drive through it on their way to or from the Grand Canyon. But if you have time to linger, this town will reveal its charms. In recent years, it’s become a regional mecca for farm-to-table dining, with new restaurants repopulating its 19th-century downtown. After getting your fill of locavore dining and microbrews, work it off by going for a run or a hike up on McMillan Mesa, an ancient lava flow with superb views of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountains in Arizona. Buffalo Park has a two-mile loop through grassland and ponderosa pine forest, connecting to trails that go up into the wooded slopes. Remember, though, that Flagstaff is over 7000 ft/2133 m. above sea level--give yourself time to acclimate to the lower oxygen levels...
27 E Ramsey Canyon Rd, Hereford, AZ 85615, USA
When people think of southern Arizona and its border with Mexico, cactus and sun-baked sand may come to mind — but a mountain canyon with fall foliage, homestead cabins, and deer? Go high enough, and you’ll find this and more. The Huachuca Mountains climb to over 9000 feet just north of the border in Cochise County, about an hour and a half from Tucson. Toward the southern edge of the town of Sierra Vista, the Nature Conservancy has set up the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, which is ideal for hiking and birdwatching. The deer are tame, wild turkeys are common, and fourteen species of hummingbirds have been spotted among the 150+ species of birds that find refuge in this “sky island” — a mountain range that rises high enough above the surrounding desert to provide a cooler and wetter ecosystem. By late fall, the cottonwoods, maples, and sycamores transform the canyon into a landscape that would be reminiscent of New England if it weren’t for the omnipresent agave plants. Watch your step, and stay alert for the occasional black bear, javelina, or mountain lion. Chimneys, log cabins, and apple trees remain from early homesteaders who found refuge from the desert in these mountains, which were originally named “Huachuca"—meaning ‘thunder'—by the Apaches.
Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, AZ 85018, USA
With two hiking trails ascending 1,280 feet to its peak, Camelback Mountain is a great option for nature-fiends who like a challenge. Both the Echo Canyon and Cholla trails exceed a mile in length and are accented with steep grades. Average hiking times range from 1.5 to 3 hours round-trip, so pack accordingly and bring enough water.
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