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If you’re the type of person who loves dramatic scenery and epic hikes with a dose of fascinating history, then add pretty much all of Arizona to your travel to-do list. There are lots of national parks and national monuments here that tell the story of Arizona’s geography, history, and native cultures. Some of these natural areas are very well-known around the world, while others are local hidden gems that might not be on your radar yet. Here are 10 of our favorite national parks and monuments in Arizona to get to know this wild and wonderful state.
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The most famous and popular park in Arizona is the Grand Canyon, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less spectacular. This canyon never ceases to impress visitors with its maze-like corridors, stunning colors, and wide range of hikes for all skill levels. The South Rim is more developed and crowded, so this is the place to come year-around for guided trips and museums. Meanwhile, the North Rim is more remote and secluded, making it a favorite spot among hiking enthusiasts between the spring and fall. You can take a rafting trip down the Colorado River, hike down into the canyon, or simply stay in a Grand Canyon lodge to make a weekend vacation out of this trip.
Rocks are rocks, and trees are trees…right? Petrified wood challenges this logic because it is essentially wood turned into stone over time. You can see an incredible amount of petrified wood at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, as well as the colorful landscape of the Painted Desert and fossils of ancient creatures, even dinosaurs. This is an awesome place to lace up your hiking boots and wander wherever you like without the confines of a designated trail.
There are many types of cacti that exist in North America, but perhaps none as iconic as the saguaro. These are tall and statuesque cacti that weigh several tons and can live a couple hundred years. The Saguaro National Park is easy to reach from Tucson, and you can choose which of the two sections to visit. There are lots of trails in the park but avoid the midday sun in the summer and bring lots of water for this desert climate. Late May is a great time to visit this park to see the cacti in bloom with beautiful flowers.
Many of Arizona’s national monuments feature ancient dwellings that were constructed by Natives out of stone, rock, and actually into the sides of cliffs. Walnut Canyon is a beautiful canyon that has over 80 ancient dwellings tucked away into its rock sides. It’s easy to get to this national monument from Flagstaff, and there’s a one-mile loop trail that’s paved and passes by many of the dwellings.
Between the cities of Flagstaff and Phoenix lies the town of Camp Verde and Montezuma Castle National Monument. This site isn’t huge with lots of trails, but it makes up for that in its impressive and well-preserved cliff dwelling that was built around the year 700. Historians believe that Natives left this dwelling in search of a more livable home after a long drought. They also believe that around 50 people lived in this dwelling, which you can easily see from an accessible trail down below.
The area around Flagstaff Arizona has many national monuments that you can visit, and Wupatki is another great one to stop by. This national monument is just north of the city and is home to multiple pueblos that were built in ancient times from red-brown sandstone from this region. This site is also near Sunset Crater National Monument, so it’s fun to visit both sites in one day. This volcano erupted around the year 1085, causing the Natives to evacuate and then come back later to build most of the pueblos that you’ll find in preserved ruins today.
Organ pipe cacti are a unique type of cacti that is rare in North America and best seen outside the Arizona city of Ajo. This national monument is an International Biosphere Reserve, and you can learn more about the rugged plants and animals that live here on a ranger-led hike or educational program at the amphitheater. There’s a nice, developed campground here to make a weekend out of this remote journey and see some incredible sunsets with towering cacti in all directions. This park is also very close to the Mexico border, so you can even take your trip international from here if you like.
It’s also worth taking a trip out to Chinle to see the sacred site of Canyon de Chelly. This is in the heart of Navajo Nation and a place where you can experience amazing overlooks and canyons that were home to ancient people. This is a monument that’s operated by the Navajo Tribal Land Trust, so you’ll need to hire a Native guide to escort you through the canyon.
Another great place to see ancient dwellings is the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which was once marked by a network of canals that were used for farming irrigation. The ruins here are shrouded in mystery, as we aren’t exactly sure if the “Great House” was used as a waypoint marker, a gathering place, or something else. You can also see Sonoran Desert plants and take a public tour of the ruins in the late fall and winter.
With swirling patterns and mysterious rock formations, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is in northern Arizona near the Utah border and the town of Page. This is a remote and rugged landscape that isn’t very developed with roads or trails, but that just adds to its natural beauty. You can get a backcountry permit to explore the area on foot or just cross over Navajo Bridge for great views from the top.