Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those undiscovered by the masses.
Grand Canyon National Park
It took millions of years for the Colorado to wear down the surrounding landscape and create the Grand Canyon.
Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world
At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.
Petrified Forest National Park
The slow process of fossilization transformed ancient trees into solid quartz.
Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees
Most visitors to Petrified Forest come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock.
Saguaro National Park
The iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park only grow in the Sonoran desert.
Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country
Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
This labyrinth of three narrow canyons has sheltered indigenous peoples for 5,000 years.
Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places
You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Would your house look this good 800 years from now?
Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings
Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert
Why: This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild
This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Thirty-One species of cactus have mastered living in this place, including the park’s namesake.
Chiricahua National Monument
“Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore.
Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock
The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.
Why: For more than 650 years the Casa Grande has stood as a meeting place and landmark
The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has starred in so many Hollywood movies that its silhouette is known all over the world.
Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person
There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers.
Tuzigoot National Monument
Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people.
Why: Witness the legacy of a people who lived in the Verde Valley 1,000 years ago
Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by a culture known as the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.
Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.
—ancient Navajo poem