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Insider’s Guide to the Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona

With its red-rock vistas, ancient pueblos, and homegrown culinary scene, Northern Arizona awakens the senses and nourishes the spirit.
Photograph by Michael George

Photograph breathtaking Grand Canyon views

From its postcard-perfect perch on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Desert View (elevation 7,438 feet) offers sweeping vistas of the Painted Desert to the east, the Colorado River to the west, and the North Rim straight ahead. Dial up the dramatic effect by entering Grand Canyon National Park through the East Entrance, making the spectacular Desert View your first scenic photo stop.

A quarter-mile trail leads from the parking area to the Desert View Point overlook at the rim. Elevate your perspective by climbing 85 steps up the adjacent Desert View Watchtower. Built by famed southwest architect Mary Colter in 1932, the 70-foot stone tower has an open-air, rooftop observation deck. Look closely to try and spot petroglyphs in some of the tower stones, many of which were hand-picked by Colter.

Photograph by Michael George

Take a short hike to big views at Yavapai Vista

The family-friendly Yavapai Vista Trail puts 360-degree views of Sedona’s iconic red rocks within easy reach. Hike a half mile from the parking lot to the scenic Yavapai Vista Point overlook. From here, you can head back to the car or connect to a larger network of hiking and mountain biking trails.

If time allows and you’re up for day-trip adventure, hike the 8.2-mile Hiline Trail loop beginning and ending at the Yavapai Vista trailhead. The moderately challenging route connects to Baldwin, Templeton, and Slim Shady Trails, and delivers opportunities to photograph Sedona’s signature Cathedral Rock from a lesser-seen southeastern perspective.

Discover ancient petroglyphs at Rock Art Ranch

Get a glimpse of early Arizona life at Rock Art Ranch, located 25 miles southeast of Winslow and Homolovi State Park. The private cattle ranch, which sits on land thought to have been nearly continuously occupied for the past 10,000 to 13,000 years, is named for its centerpiece attraction—the famous Chevelon Canyon petroglyph site.

Call Rock Art Ranch owner Brantley Baird to arrange a guided tour of the secluded canyon and to hear a folksy, oral history of the property. In the canyon, spend time viewing and photographing the ranch’s namesake rock art: a vast collection of petroglyphs (some estimated to be at least 9,000 years old) carved into the walls by Anasazi Indians.

Photograph by Michael George

Explore the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park

Color your Instagram feed with no-filter photos of dazzling Painted Desert buttes, hills, and mesas. Extending into the northern portion of Petrified Forest National Park, the rainbow-striped rocky badlands create an otherworldly setting for photography, hiking, and scenic drives. Enter the national park through the Painted Desert Visitor Center entrance (I-40, exit 311) to learn the science behind the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.

From here, drive two miles north for the views at the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark and for off-trail adventure in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area. The backcountry area is trail-less, so you’re free to blaze your own path around the red and orange sections of the Painted Desert. There is a one-mile (round-trip) Painted Desert Rim Trail worth hiking for the jaw-dropping scenic overlooks.

Photograph by Michael George

Splash and slide in a red-rock swimming hole

Slide Rock State Park is named for its nature-made water slide, an 80-foot long sandstone chute funneling the tumbling water of Oak Creek. A layer of algae makes the rocks slick, adding to the adventure—and fun—of the slide. In warm weather, ride the slide, and soak and swim in the creek. Wear water shoes and arrive early since the parking area fills up quickly.

The park sits on the former Pendley Homestead, a 43-acre apple farm located in historic Oak Canyon. When it’s too cold for swimming, hike the park’s short trails. The paved Pendley Homestead Trail is an easy, quarter-mile walk leading past original and new apple orchards, the original homestead house and apple packing barn, and other historic structures.

Photograph by Michael George

Take a wildflower walk in the wilderness

Add a splash of color and a dose of natural wonder to a walk in the woods on the Lockett Meadow Inner Basin Trail No. 29. Located within the Kachina Peaks Wilderness northeast of Flagstaff, the trail begins on a primitive road in Locket Meadow. Follow the gravely path about four miles to the Weatherford Trail, leading into the Inner Basin. Serene and secluded, the basin is a verdant sub-alpine wonderland nestled on the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks.

June to mid-September is the best time to witness the trail’s incredibly diverse flora—such as quaking aspen, ponderosa pine, mountain snowberry, and native wildflowers like firecracker penstemon and silvery lupine. Arrive prepared for a backcountry adventure, since weather conditions can change rapidly in the high-elevation (8,600 to 10,500 feet) setting.

Photograph by Michael George

Visit prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan villages

North-central Arizona’s ancient roots run deep at Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff. Spread across nearly 35,000 acres of starkly striking mesa, hills, and washes, the windswept site preserves dozens of copper-colored pueblos and other sandstone structures occupied by Ancestral Puebloans people some 900 years ago. The monument is named for the largest pueblo, which has about 100 rooms and is easily reached via a half-mile loop trail from the visitor center.

Drive the 34-mile Wupatki and Sunset Crater scenic loop to see sweeping desert and red-rock views and to access trailheads to larger pueblos, such as Wupatki, Citadel, Nalakihu, Lomaki, and Box Canyon. Be sure to detour east off the loop to visit remote Wukoki pueblo, where you can go inside a well-preserved, ancient stone tower.

Photograph by Michael George

Savor the flavors of Northern Arizona

Flagstaff’s Coppa Café brings the bounty from nearby farms, ranches, and forests directly to the table. Ingredients such as foraged cactus, pine nuts, and wildflowers; locally grown produce; house-cured meats, and house-made cheese give the cozy, European-style café its distinctive Northern Arizona flavor.

Adding to the local charm are the chef-owners, husband and wife Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti. For the couple, the café is more than a stage to perform their culinary artistry, which includes showstoppers like Fioravanti’s bite-sized chocolate bouchon cakes and other to-die-for desserts. Guests are welcomed like family and the vibe is refreshingly laid-back. Pull up a chair and sit awhile, lingering over the multi-course tasting menu or sumptuous seasonal dishes, such as roasted cauliflower and mushroom risotto, smoked root vegetable lasagna, and red wine poached eggs.

Photograph by Michael George

Stand on the world’s largest known natural travertine bridge

Nature carved the architectural rock centerpiece of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson. Towering 183 feet above Pine Creek and measuring 150 feet wide, the park’s bridge is thought to be the planet’s largest natural travertine formation.

Stand on top of the bridge and explore the 400-foot-long tunnel underneath. To see the bridge from below, hike one of the four steep trails leading down into Pine Canyon. Prepare to rock hop and scramble a bit on the initial descent and on the return trek to the rim. As you hike, look for another only-in-Tonto natural wonder: pine trees and cacti growing side by side. Add a waterfall cave to the adventure by hiking into the canyon via the aptly named Waterfall Trail.

Photograph by Michael George

Hear live country music at an old-school honky tonk

Channel your inner Dierks Bentley (a Phoenix native) at Matt’s Saloon, a rollicking honky tonk on Prescott’s historic Whiskey Row. Named for the more than three dozen saloons situated on the block during gold rush days, the “Row” has mellowed since the late 1800s with the addition of galleries, hotels, and shops. Matt’s Saloon, located in a former mercantile-turned-speakeasy, evokes the spirit of the block’s early days.

Embrace the Wild West vibe while two-stepping on the dance floor or wowing the crowd with your crooning on a Wednesday karaoke night. Most Thursday to Sunday nights, Matt’s hosts live country music acts. Since the honky tonk is a must-stop for music heritage buffs, there’s also the possibility of impromptu performances, such as the one by Bruce Springsteen, who stopped by on his way to the Grand Canyon in 1989.

Photograph by Michael George

Picnic and play at Crescent Moon Ranch

Come for the dazzling red rock-cliff views and stay to swim in the cool, clear water of Oak Creek at the Crescent Moon Picnic Area. Located at Red Rock Crossing, south of Sedona, the picnic area is part of Crescent Moon Ranch, an 1880 homestead managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The ranch house is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s the jaw-dropping Cathedral Rock backdrop and tree-lined creek that make Crescent Moon a must-do day trip.

Pack a picnic, play in the water, and photograph the rock formations and surrounding sycamore and cottonwood trees. For a scenic hike, follow Templeton Trail (about an hour round-trip) from the picnic area upstream along the base of Cathedral Rock. The fairly level trail leads to Buddah Beach, the Instagram-famous vortex site dotted with hundreds of prayer cairns (rock stacks).

Photograph by Michael George

Tour Arizona’s futuristic eco-city

Be inspired by Arcosanti, the forward-thinking “urban laboratory” founded in the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix, near Cordes Junction, by architect Paolo Soleri, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé. Soleri’s innovative design vision—termed “arcology" (architecture plus ecology)—started taking shape in 1970 and remains a work in progress. About 60 people live and work in the experimental community, which welcomes visitors to walk the grounds and learn about the self-contained town’s ethos of “elegant frugality” on a one-hour guided tour (offered hourly, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding noon).

For a deeper dive into the Arcosanti vision of seeking “equitable and sustainable relationships between human activities and the Earth’s ecology,” consider attending one of the community’s immersive, six-week workshops or the annual May FORM festival, a three-day celebration of music, art, architecture, ideas, nature, wellness, and community.

Photograph by Michael George