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Arizona is a large, diverse state, offering a wide range of natural wonders, home to everything from desert scenery to forest-covered mountains and lakes. If you’re trying to figure out what to do during your visit, putting at least some of these options into your itinerary is sure to make for a memorable vacation.
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What Is It? Canyon de Chelly is a nearly 84,000-acre canyon that’s considered to be one of the most sacred places on the planet, with its beauty rivaling even that of the Grand Canyon on a smaller scale.
Why Do It? This astounding natural wonder and top national park in Arizona reflects one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes on the continent and is renowned for its steep canyon walls dotted with lush greenery and hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins. Its artifacts, rock imagery and architecture are all extremely well-preserved and provide a glimpse into the lives of the canyon’s earliest inhabitants. A Navajo Indian community still lives within the canyon floor and herds sheep during the summer. The main gorges of the canyon include the 26-mile long Canyon de Chelly as well as the adjoining 35-mile Canyon del Muerto, made up of sheer, heavily eroded sandstone walls rising dramatically over the valleys below.
Good to Know: If you aren’t acrophobic be sure to visit the Spider Rock Overlook where you can take in views of Speaking Rock and Spider Rock that plunge 1,000 feet to the canyon floor below.
What Is It? Hiking to Havasu Falls is on the bucket list of many travelers.
Why Do It? Located in Havasupai Canyon, a very remote area that’s part of the Havasupai Native Reservation, to get here, you’ll have to make a 10-mile trek which follows about a dozen switchbacks from the trailhead before flattening out and following red sandstone cliffs into the Indian village of Supai, the only place in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by Pony Express. If that sounds like a bit too much work, it can also be reached by horseback excursions and helicopter rides.
Good to Know: When you get there, you’ll step into one of the most breathtaking places you’ve probably ever seen, with the crystal clear cerulean waters plunging down fiery red cliffs into travertine swimming holes at the bottom. In addition to Havasu Falls, there are four other major waterfalls nearby, Upper and Lower Najavo Falls, Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls.
What Is It? Of course, the Grand Canyon is one of the most popular attractions in the U.S., and many come to Arizona just to take in its brilliant colors and inspirational panoramas.
Why Do It? One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it measures in at an average width of ten miles, a depth of one mile and length of 277 miles, but those numbers really can’t prepare you for what you’re about to see when you gaze out over the rim. And, you really should do a lot more than that.
Good to Know: Taking a mule ride down to the bottom is a once in a lifetime experience – overnight rides go deep inside and include a stay at Phantom Ranch, but if you only have a short time, the Canyon Vistas Rime Ride is a great way to get an up-close and personal look too.
What Is It? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson.
Why Do It? Although the endless cacti that cover the beautiful Sonoran desert landscape are an incredible sight to see, the park offers much more, including prehistoric petroglyphs, historic sites and wildlife viewing. Within the vast mountain ranges of the park, there a number of activities available such as scenic drives, hiking and biking that will allow you to explore the area and the giant saguaros that sometimes reach as high as 50 feet. Late winter through early spring is an amazing time to be here, as temperatures are mild and the wildflowers are in bloom.
Good to Know: Watch for animals like coyotes, desert tortoises and javelinas in the lower elevations, and the Mexican spotted owl, deer and black bear in the upper elevations of the park.
What Is It? Bisbee is renowned not only for its scenic beauty but its quirky character and street art.
Why Do It? A colorful, historic mining town and a funky artist town, it sits a mile up in the southeastern region of the Mule Mountains. Filled with Victorian-era homes perched precariously on the steep hillsides, many can only be reached via a climb up an old deteriorating stairway built right into the mountainside – and some are available to rent for short stays. The street art is truly a sight to see, however, spread throughout the city around just about every corner. Even some of the cars have been transformed into works of art. There are beautifully painted murals, mosaic walls created with a kaleidoscope of glass bottles and broken tiles, and so much more.
Good to Know: The town is also lined with an interesting collection of art galleries and artist studios, antique shops, museums and restaurants.
What Is It? In March each year, thousands head to Arizona to watch their favorite major league baseball teams prepare for the coming season.
Why Do It? Going to a game is a great way to enjoy the often idyllic weather that spring brings, plus tickets are cheap, things are more relaxed and it’s easier to meet the players and get an autograph after the game too.
Good to Know: Catching a spring training game allows you to get a peek at the baseball of the past, before corporate sponsors and monster-size stadiums turned it into something less intimate. Here you can actually hear the calls of the umpires and see the expressions on the players’ faces, without shelling out an arm and a leg for tickets, hot dogs and drinks.
What Is It? One of the most beautiful places in the U.S., there are few other spots where you’ll find a landscape that is as dramatically colorful as this.
Why Do It? The giant red rocks soar into the nearly always brilliant blue sky that has inspired artists and photographers for decades. Explore the hidden canyons, bike or hike the miles of red rock trails, indulge in treatments at a world-class spa and even experience the powerful transformational energy centers known as vortexes. Sedona has long been known as a spiritual power center as the power that emanates from the vortexes produces some of the most remarkable energy on Earth.
Good to Know: Some say that you can actually feel it, but whether or not you believe the vortexes actually exist, there is one thing that’s undeniable, people are drawn here for something more than just its incredibly stunning beauty. And, after dark, the haze-free and often cloud-free skies make for some of the best stargazing anywhere.
What Is It? Located east of Winslow, Petrified Forest National Park offers the chance to experience one of the largest and most vibrantly colored collections of petrified wood, historic structures and archeological sites among the picturesque beauty of the Painted Desert.
Why Do It? The “trees” of this forest are fragmented, fossilized logs spread across a vast area of grassland. Many are gigantic – up to six feet in diameter, and at least one spans a ravine, forming a natural bridge. And, at 225 million years old, they’re as ancient as the first dinosaurs that roamed the planet in the Late Triassic period. One of the best ways to experience it is on foot. Designated hiking trails range from less than a half-mile to three miles, with each promising a spectacular view.
Good to Know: If you’re looking for a bigger adventure, you can also hike in the Wilderness Area, on a day hike or on an overnight backpacking trip, though there are no marked trails. Along the way, lizards, rabbits and birds are frequently spotted, and you might see coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, Pronghorn antelope and a host of other creatures too.
What Is It? Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam, are located on the border of Nevada and Arizona.
Why Do It? At the time of the dam’s completion in 1936, it was one of the largest manmade structures in the world, and one of the largest single producers of hydroelectric power. At 726-feet-tall and 1,244-feet-long, its vast size can only truly be appreciated by seeing it in person – and, the growth of the entire Southwest can be tied directly to the electricity created by it. Public tours are available, and you can also enjoy all sorts of activities in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, including lake cruises, boating, fishing, swimming, canoeing and more.
Good to Know: The Lake Mead Visitor Center, located on the Nevada side four miles northeast of Boulder City, provides information on all of the activities and services in the area, including scenic drives, along with trail maps, brochures and more.
What Is It? Located just outside of Page in the heart of Navajo Country, Antelope Canyon may be the most photographed slot canyon in the world.
Why Do It? It’s made up of two separate canyons, and can only be accessed via a tour with a Navajo guide. Upper Antelope has wider walkways that make it easier to access and is renowned for its incredibly dramatic light beams that create spectacular photographs.
Good to Know: Guides will also share the history and geology of the canyon with bright red sandstone and seemingly flowing rocks that will literally take your breath away.
What Is It? A short, less than three-quarters-of-a-mile hike from Route 89 near the town of Page, will bring you to one of the greatest natural wonders in the country: Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River.
Why Do It? Although it’s considered to be the top attraction in the Lake Powell area, it’s actually not part of Lake Powell, and an excellent example of a formation known as an “entrenched meander.”
Good to Know: This stunningly dramatic landscape offers some outstanding hiking among the red rocks that overlook the river, as well as the chance to take some amazing photos, standing at the edge of the canyon.
What Is It? Tombstone was once known as the town that was “too tough to die,” and today, it’s one of the country’s best destinations to relive the days of the Old West.
Why Do It? This was the place where the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place in 1881 – a 30-second gunfight pitting the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. Find out who won, if you don’t already know, by paying a visit yourself – you can practically hear the gunfire, the sounds of the saloons and the buckboards clip-clopping down the dirt streets.
Good to Know: If you just can’t get enough of Tombstone’s fascinating history, book a reservation on Dr. Jay’s Walking Tour, where you’ll get a whole lot more than just the tourist version. The old courthouse, transformed into an outstanding museum, also does a great job at separating fact from fiction in this town that’s well-known for an exaggerated legend, with a host of exhibits telling the story through objective eyewitness accounts and historical records.
What Is It? Roughly 50,000 years ago, a rock fragment broke away from the asteroid belt and rocketed toward our planet at about eight miles per second.
Why Do It? Composed of nickel and iron, weighing 300,000 tons and measuring around 164 feet across, when it entered the earth’s atmosphere it became a massive fireball that streaked across the sky over North America, ultimately crashing with a force equal to 10 megatons – or about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Good to Know: The crater, named after Daniel Barringer who was first to suggest that it was the result of a meteorite impact, is still privately owned by the Barringer family, and most often referred to as the Meteor Crater. The crater measures about 4,000 feet in diameter and 570 feet deep and is located near the town of Flagstaff in northern Arizona.
What Is It? A scenic drive through Monument Valley, set along the border of Arizona and Utah, will bring you to the heart of a wonderland of spires, buttes and red rock creations.
Why Do It? One of the most enduring and definitive images of the American West, it took eons of wind and rain to carve the gargantuan red-sandstone monoliths into the fascinating formations that stand today, many of which jut hundreds of feet above the desert floor in a scene that’s remained untouched for centuries. The isolated red mesas and buttes surrounded by a vast, sandy desert have served as the setting for practically a countless number of movies, with nostalgic images that will be especially familiar to John Wayne fans.
Good to Know: To make the most of the experience, try to arrive before the sun comes up so that you can capture the sunrise behind East and West Mittens. The drive includes 11 numbered stops and takes at least two to four hours, as you won’t want to rush through this glorious landscape.
What Is It? This castle may not be the royal palace you imagined, but it’s no less fascinating.
Why Do It? Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde in north-central Arizona boasts one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the country. It dates back to the 12th century, and is one of a number of ancient dwellings in this region, including the Walnut Canyon, Tonto, Wupatki and Tuzigoot national monument, though it’s arguably the most spectacular. Used by the Sinagua civilization, the five-story structure features 20 rooms and is built into a recess in a white limestone cliff, sitting about 70 feet above the ground, resembling an ancient high-rise apartment complex.
Good to Know: When first re-discovered, the ruins were believed to be Aztec in origin, with European-Americans naming it after the Aztec emperor, but it actually predates the birth of Montezuma II by a century. The site also includes a visitor center and museum displaying a wide array of artifacts and relics like stone tools, bone needles, millstones and shell ornaments.
What Is It? Arizona is sometimes referred to as the Copper State, which is in part due to the Verde Valley, renowned for its mineral riches.
Why Do It? The valley was once home to a number of copper mines that lured settlers to the region as well as allowing the surrounding towns, like Clarkdale and Jerome, to develop. In Clarkdale, stop into the state’s newest museum, the Arizona Copper Art Museum, to view exhibits on the historical, scientific and artistic importance of copper.
Good to Know: The true highlight in the valley, Verde Canyon Railroad, is a must to experience, bringing passengers some of the most amazing scenery of the state’s “other grand canyon” that can be reached by car.
What Is It? This picturesque park is nestled in a valley surrounded by forest near Payson, protecting a natural bridge that’s believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world.
Why Do It? It stands 183 feet high, hovering over a 400-foot long tunnel, and measures 150 feet at its widest point. A series of underground springs with mineral-laden waters in a narrow, V-shaped ravine, have built up large deposits of travertine through which the creek has eroded a passageway, leaving the rocks above it standing, serving as a natural bridge. The bridge is surrounded by pine trees, and fern-draped grottos and flowing streams line the narrow canyon upstream. You can stand atop the bridge at any of four observation points as well as explore the rocks in the tunnel.
Good to Know: By hiking one of the four trails that descend into Pine Canyon, you’ll be able to capture the true glory of this geologic wonder.
What Is It? Eliphante was named for the elephant-like entrance to one of the structures in this bizarre home that serves as one of the kookier examples of outsider architecture.
Why Do It? Listed as part of the Smithsonian’s SOS initiative (Save Outdoor Sculptures), it was built starting in 1979 by an artist couple, Michael Kahn and his wife Leda Livant Kahn. It was the first of a number of mixed media structures that now sit on three acres of land in Cornville, all created with materials that were found over a period of about three decades.
Good to Know: While most of the works were built by the Kahns, it also includes a number of pieces created by visiting artist-in-residence guests over the years.
What Is It? Santa Claus, Arizona may be one of the weirdest ghost towns you’ll ever see.
Why Do It? It sits in the sizzling hot sun of the Mojave Desert, among the bizarrely-shaped Joshua trees and strange rock formations – definitely not a place you’d think Santa would want to be, considering his traditional home is the North Pole. Some say it was really never any more than a marketing gimmick, started in the 1930s to attract tourists and sell real estate.
Good to Know: All of its businesses had a Christmas theme, and visitors could even meet Saint Nicholas himself, all year round. Eventually, it became better known as a place where you could mail a letter from the post office to your kids who wanted a letter from Santa.
What Is It? Located in southern Arizona, Kartchner Caverns State Park is home to the world’s longest stalactite formation.
Why Do It? Visitors take an underground guided tour to experience this amazing, hidden world, discovering the delicate eco-system of limestone caves and the longest known “Soda Straw” stalactite in the world. The site boasts a huge Discovery Center, which features interactive exhibits that explain how the cave was discovered, and how formations developed, as well as discussing geology, the bat population and paleontology.
Good to Know: There are also campgrounds, hiking trails, shaded picnic areas, a deli, an amphitheater, and a hummingbird garden.