Arizona boasts 22 national parks and monuments, including the second-most visited park in the country—Grand Canyon National Park. Together they comprise some of the most thrilling and memorable landscapes in the United States. People come from all over the world to visit Arizona’s natural and historic offerings. What they find: Vivid blue skies, red-rock canyons, conifer-scented mountains, and cactus-studded deserts that are the domain of coyotes, jack rabbits, and javelinas. Arizona holds the stories of ancient peoples and European explorers, and preserves a raw landscape tossed by volcanoes and scoured into Daliesque patterns. You never know what’s around the next bend, over the next ridge, or at the end of the next canyon.
Great family memories are made in places like this.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but here’s a top-10 list of the best (and lesser-known) parks of the 48th state. Each of them preserves a unique piece of Arizona’s cultural and biological diversity. Pick one or two you’ve never heard of, or go back and see one for the second or third time. You can never get enough Arizona.
Chiricahua National Monument
If Dr. Seuss had dreamed a park, he would have come up with something like Chiricahua National Monument. You and your family will be constantly amazed in this 12,000-acre wonderland of ancient rock spires, caves, mountains, and lava flows. Situated in the southeastern corner of Arizona, the monument started out with a volcanic eruption some 27 million years ago. Chiseled by the elements over the eons, the area became a rock garden of weird hoodoos and sculptures, towering up to several hundred feet. The Apaches called it the “Land of Standing-Up Rocks”. Do they look like buildings? Stone men? Giant petrified flowers? Let your imagination go wild as you explore the park’s 17 miles of trails or take the 8-mile scenic driving tour. And stop by Faraway Ranch, a historic pioneer homestead, for a glimpse at 1880s outback life.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Down on the state’s southern border, near the tiny town of Ajo, lies a parcel of land so important it has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve. That’s because it’s the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. These tall cacti, some of them 150 years old, stipple a rugged landscape perfect for travel by foot, horseback, or car. Whether you hike a backcountry trail, take a ranger-led tour to learn about the Sonoran Desert environment, venture out to see the cacti’s large white night-blooming flowers, or camp beneath a star-studded sky, you’ll come away with memories of a uniquely beautiful place.
Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
Some people call the North Rim “the South Rim of 50 years ago”. Whether you’ve visited the South Rim or not, you don’t want to miss this angle onto one of the nation’s greatest natural wonders. Sure, it’s remote and harder to get to, and it’s closed in the winter. But that makes your journey here all the more special. When you stand on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, far from the crowds, taking in the mind-boggling depths, the vastness of time, the subtle pinks and purples and ochres, when your mind floats like a raven on heart-lifting pillars of air, you’ll be thankful you made the effort to get here. Take a rim or down-canyon hike to enjoy the solitude and splendor; at night, camp out or stay in the rustic Grand Canyon Lodge.
Navajo National Monument
Ready for some real adventure? Those who love time travel and don’t mind a bit of walking will cherish this remote monument to the ancestral Pueblo, in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation near Kayenta. Guided hikes of three and five miles head out every morning for the Betatakin cliff dwellings, a spectacular archeological site that is remarkably preserved. Learn about the nomadic hunter-gatherers who constructed their homes here more than 700 years ago. If you’re up for a bigger challenge, you can take on the 17-mile roundtrip hike to the Keet Seel dwellings, or venture to the even more remote Inscription House. Steep switchbacks, sandy slopes, and stream-wading are part of the adventure. Camping is free.
Petrified Forest National Park
Take a walk through time at Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona near Holbrook. What is now the Painted Desert was once a lush forest. But some 200 million years ago volcanic lava blanketed the region and sealed the trees, ferns, and other plants in stone. Erosion freed the remains of the forest, now turned into huge chunks of colorful quartz. Take a trail to explore this huge spread of fossils and petrified wood, and, while you’re at it, peer into 13,000 years of human history, including the ruins of an 800-year-old, 100-room dwelling.
Saguaro National Park
One of the most striking emblems of the West, the giant saguaro cactus with its branching arms can grow up to 50 feet tall and live for more than 200 years. Two substantial tracts of Sonoran Desert outside Tucson preserve saguaro habitat as well as a piney mountain region that rises more than 8,000 above sea level. Check out the visitor center museums and then go for a walk or scenic drive and immerse yourself in this picturesque land. If you’re here at sunset, you’re in for a magnificent visual treat. To really get into the picture, go backpacking—with more than 165 miles of trails, you can explore a number of different ecosystems.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Red cinders and black lava flows in the heart of this park attest to the relatively recent volcano that erupted here in northern Arizona. One thousand years ago the earth disgorged lava and poisonous gases. That violent event resulted in a sunset-hued crater rim. Over time, life came back, and now wildflowers, pines, and aspens grow just beyond the crater, while inside cave-like lava tubes live insects, spiders, lizards, and bats. Investigate this fascinating landscape by foot or bike, take a guided walk, participate in a stargazing party, or join a campfire talk.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Get away from it all in this immense and secluded geological treasure. With 294,000 acres of gorgeous cliffs and canyons, this unspoiled playground along Arizona’s border with Utah offers any number of opportunities for outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing. One natural feature, the Wave, is a popular 5.2-mile roundtrip hike, for which you’ll need a permit. But even if you don’t get one, there are plenty of other breathtaking walks through the park’s cross-bedded sandstone canyons. This area boasts some of the most stirring natural scenery you’ll encounter anywhere in the United States.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
The only national park not owned by the federal government, Canyon de Chelly (“de Shay”) nestles within the wild country of Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. Take a guided or self-guided tour to views of the steep canyon walls that shelter hundred of Pueblo ruins dating from A.D. 350 to 1300. A Navajo community still resides on the verdant canyon floor and herds sheep in the summer. Hike the 2.5-mile White House Ruins trail on your own, or get a guide to take you into restricted areas of the canyon. There’s a campground within the monument, or you can stay in a motel in nearby Chinle.
Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area
A patchwork of historical parks and natural areas, Yuma Crossing in southwestern Arizona is restoring the region’s wetlands and reconnecting the city of Yuma to its historic downtown. A detachment of Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado's expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola explored the Colorado River through this area in 1540. As the agricultural town grew, the wetlands declined. Now the Yuma riverfront is coming back, and you can see it happening. Hike scenic riverside trails, paddle area backwaters, stroll the interpretive plaza, and enjoy the city’s fine restaurants and cultural offerings. In Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, learn how the bad guys of the 1800s were treated.
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