Arizona is called the Grand Canyon State for good reason but that natural wonder is far from the only gem in the state’s public-lands network of hidden lakes, lush rivers, towering red-rock formations, and slot canyons. Translation: there’s a slice of Arizona public land perfect for every kind of adventurer whether you want to stargaze deep in the backcountry or strike out from the city for a day hike.
Best for: The giant redwoods of the cactus world
Saguaro cacti exist only in North America and the Tucson area showcases this tree-like cactus species that can grow to over 40 feet tall. Head to Saguaro National Park for stunning desert mountain vistas framed by these big-armed plants. Don’t write off the summer months—saguaros start to flower in late April and they can bloom into early June. Park your RV in the campground at Catalina State Park or a full-service RV resort in Tucson.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Best for: Zipping across a desert lake on Jet Skis
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area defies the odds. Here, minutes from the iconic twists of Horseshoe Bend, you’ll find the massive, man-made Lake Powell. Boating is popular here and it’s easy to rent paddling gear or a motorboat at a lake-side marina. You can camp in primitive sites on the beaches of Lake Powell near Page at a 5-star RV resort at Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park, the new Antelope Point Marina RV Park, or even rent a houseboat to camp right on the lake itself.
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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Best for: A family scavenger hunt to identify dozens of different cacti
Along the state’s border with Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers stunning views and, you guessed it, cacti—31 species, to be exact. Traveling with the family? See how many varieties you can spot along the monument’s trails. Got kids that can’t be trusted so close to sharp and spiny plants? Cruise the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive instead. Always be sure to stock the car with a few gallons of water in case of a breakdown—this classic desert landscape gets hot in summer. Camp in the park for unspoiled night skies or book a full-service RV site in the nearby artsy town of Ajo.
Chiricahua National Monument
Best for: Geology tripping
Hike in the “Land of Standing Up Rocks” at the Chiricahua National Monument. Located in southeastern Arizona near the town of Willcox visitors experience this site of unique rock formations. Around 27 million years ago a volcanic eruption threw an enormous amount of ash into the air that fell back to the earth and eventually hardened into volcanic rock. Over the years that rock eroded into a wonderland of rock spires which creates a kind of rock garden you might expect to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. The spires—precarious, surreal pinnacles that can be several hundred feet in height—dominate the park’s landscape, while caves, mountains, and lava flows add variety to the setting. The park offers campsites or stay in an RV park in nearby Willcox.
Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area
Best for: Off-roading, hiking, wild sunsets
Straddling the state’s southwestern borders with California and Mexico, the Imperial Sand Dunes are like a massive waterless beach stretching for more than 40 miles. Some of the dunes reach 300 feet tall. Head to nearby Yuma for a permit and an ATV rental. The Colorado River flows through the heart of town. Visit the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and wander the Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Gateway Park, and West Wetlands before crossing the river on 4th Avenue.
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Best for: Hiking and fishing on man-made lakes
Just because Phoenix doesn’t get much rain doesn’t mean you can’t cool off in nearby lakes and rivers. And the Tonto National Forest though it’s packed with saguaro has both of these. Canyon Lake, about 45 minutes from Phoenix, is one of the smaller lakes along the Salt River and is a great place to paddle beneath cliffs topped with cactus. The lake is home to walleye, catfish, and yellow bass and is stocked monthly from November to March with rainbow trout. The Boulder Recreation Site offers a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. Lost Dutchman State Park features convenient locations for exploring the region as well as a campground with paved camping sites and electric and water utilities. Several trails lead from the park into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.
Best for: The most scenic desert landscapes you can possibly imagine
The Navajo Nation spans the northeast corner of Arizona and the southeast corner of Utah and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever find, period! Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on Earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. When you go, make sure to stay in the campground and eat at the restaurant within the park for a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine.
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Coronado National Forest Sky Islands
Best for: Birding and hiking in the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona
The Coronado National Forest’s 15 Sky Island mountain ranges offer awesome scenery, diverse vegetation from deserts to conifer forests, and a wide variety of recreation settings. Popular activities include hiking, camping, and birdwatching. The Coronado also offers mountain bike trails, OHV areas, lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian facilities, and a ski area. Campsites are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year-round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones. Madera Canyon lies on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Its higher elevation grants relief to desert dwellers during the hot months and allows access to snow during the winter. The extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.
Prescott National Forest
Best for: Where the Desert Meets the Pines
Located in mountainous central Arizona, the Prescott National Forest embraces over 1.25 million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded desert to pine-clad mountains with the elevation ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The forest contains 10 campgrounds and seven picnic areas. Most of the developed recreation sites are located in the pines with five of the campgrounds and two of the picnic areas situated near manmade lakes. Nearly 450 miles of scenic trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, or mountain biking are offered on the Prescott National Forest. Due to its proximity to downtown Prescott, Thumb Butte Trail is one of the most popular in the Prescott National Forest. Lynx Lake is a popular recreation area with mild weather, a cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, and bird watching.
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Petrified Forest National Park
Best for: Petrified wood and Painted Desert
Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils. The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.
Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.
—Joseph Wood Krutch