Few places in America offer such startling variety of natural features as Arizona. Deep canyons give way to rugged snow-capped mountains. The world’s largest contiguous forest of Ponderosa pines merges into the arid Sonoran Desert.
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. In fact, with petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many National Park Service sites as Arizona.
Land of sprawling burnt red and orange deserts and other-worldly rock formations that have to be seen to be believed, Arizona is seemingly made for lovers of the great outdoors and scenic road trips. It’s also home to villages dating back thousands of years of history, sacred sites, world-famous protected areas, and endless skies, yep this US state has soul! Here are the best—and most beautiful—places to visit in wonderful Arizona…
I’d have to start my Arizona list with one of the most popular and famous national parks to visit in the country. This beautiful national park is the home to the majestic Grand Canyon which houses layers and layers of red rocks. These divulge in millions of years of geological history.
Some of the popular viewpoints which will give you a stunning and up-close view of the Grand Canyon are Mather Point, Yavapai Observation Station, and the renowned architect Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio and her Desert View Watchtower.
If you delight in gazing at towering red rocks or driving through rugged canyons, then go to Sedona. If you admire exquisite art or are captivated by amazing architecture, then go to Sedona. If you want to see ancient cliff dwellings, hear tales of Hollywood cowboys or thrill to outdoor adventures, then (you guessed it) go to Sedona. Sedona is a must-stop.
Related Article: The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 16 Places to See & Things to Do
One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has isolated sandstone mesas, buttes, and a sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times. The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.
Climbing more than 6,000 feet, Mount Lemmon Highway begins with forests of saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert and ends in a cool, coniferous forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Prepare yourself for breathtaking views and a climate change that would be similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Canada in a mere 27 miles. Every thousand feet up is like driving 600 miles north offering a unique opportunity to experience four seasons in one trip. This scenic drive begins at the northeastern edge of Tucson.
Vermilion Cliff National Monument
Easily one of the most beautiful places to explore in Arizona this wonderful national monument is located in Coconino County. It protects the Vermilion Cliff, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon, and Paria Plateau. You can drive by the U.S Highway 89A between Jacob Lake and Marble Canyon in the state to reach this picturesque location. Some of the top sights to check out include White Pocket, Buckskin Gulch, Waterholes Canyon, Navajo Bridge, and The Wave.
Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs, and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area.
Just outside of Sedona, the Red Rock Scenic Byway boasts everything from breathtakingly beautiful rock formations to ancient Native American cliff dwellings. If you’re a believer in the supernatural, you’ll find the Byway is sprinkled with what like-minded folk refers to as “vortexes” of spiritual energy—two of the biggest are Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock, formations which are stunning regardless of your personal beliefs.
Related Article: What Makes Arizona Such a Hotspot for Snowbirds?
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.
The Sinagua people began building the limestone and sandstone hilltop pueblo around the year A.D. 1000. They expanded the settlement over the next 400 years to involve 110 rooms housing more than 200 people. Then, in the late 1300s, the inhabitants began to abandon the pueblo. By the time the first Europeans arrived, Tuzigoot had been empty for nearly 100 years. It’s believed the citizens joined what are now the modern Hopi and Zuni tribes or stayed nearby and became the ancestors of people now belonging to the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.
Prescott is surrounded by ponderosa pine forests and enjoys a cooler climate that’s perfect for experiencing all four seasons in the outdoors. This is a nature lover’s paradise with lots of opportunities for camping, horseback riding, fishing, kayaking, and mountain biking. Check out the downtown historic area as well as Watson Lake, the Lynx Lake Recreation Area, and Whiskey Row.
Red Rock State Park in Arizona offers a classic Southwestern outdoor experience for visitors around Sedona. The beautiful red rocks and local wildlife can be viewed and enjoyed as you hike the 5-mile trail network around the park. You can arrive at this 286-acre park in less than 20 minutes driving from downtown Sedona which makes for a convenient stop when in the area. Nearby attractions include Slide Rock State Park, Oak Creek Canyon, Coconino National Forest, and Prescott National Forest.
Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.
Related Article: The Most Beautiful Places in Arizona (That Aren’t the Grand Canyon)
Oak Creek Canyon
This gorgeous gash in the landscape has a spectacular feature: you can drive through it! A wonderful road built in 1929 runs the entire 13-mile length of the canyon. During the 2,500-foot elevation drop into Sedona, the pine trees fade in your rearview mirror as brilliant orange-and-red sandstone bluffs and steep canyon walls appear on your right. The forested canyon floor ranges from a mile wide at the top end to 2.5 miles at the mouth and up to 2,000 feet deep from the creek to the tops of the highest sheer red cliffs.
The spirits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Brothers live on in the authentic old west town of Tombstone, home of Boothill Graveyard, Birdcage Theatre, and O.K. Corral. After getting its start as a silver mining claim in the late-1870s, the settlement grew along with its Tough Nut Mine becoming a bustling boomtown of the Wild West. From opera and theater to dance halls and brothels, Tombstone offered much-needed entertainment to the miners. The “Town Too Tough to Die” town contains many preserved buildings from the 1870s and 80s.
In the foothills of the Pinal Mountains, sits the former mining camp known as Globe. Founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1907, this lovely town is brimming with century-old buildings, cottages, and hillside houses. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park features stunning partially restored ruins of a Salado pueblo along with an accompanying museum. The historic downtown area is perfect for leisurely strolls and shopping for antiques while the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is a great spot to explore and experience the talent of some incredible artists.
Verde Canyon Railroad
Park the RV and board the train as you embark on a spectacular journey accessible only by rail. Keep your eyes on the scenery as the engineer takes you on a four-hour, 40-mile round-trip excursion between two national forests through a 680-foot tunnel and past ancient ruins and towering red rock buttes. Gaze at the remote wilderness through large windows as you sit comfortably in climate-controlled passenger cars complete with restrooms. Or choose to enjoy the open-air viewing car for fresh canyon air and an amazing 360-degree panorama.
Related Article: Snowbirding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert
For a few years, Bisbee was the “it” destination, named Arizona’s prettiest small town by a number of travel sites. That level of attention may have dwindled but the former mining town is as beautiful as ever. A stroll down Main Street reveals buildings that look much as they did a hundred years ago, now occupied by restaurants and boutiques rather than miners and speculators. If you head 3 miles south to Lowell, you’ll find a strip of former service stations and garages repurposed as stores and restaurants.
A National Scenic Byway, the 44-mile paved and gravel Apache Trail crosses the rugged northern part of the Superstition Mountains offering access to three reservoirs and gorgeous desert scenery. Just off U.S. Highway 60 near Mesa, designate a driver to keep their eyes on curves and hairpin turns while passengers “ooh” and “ahh” over the lakes, mountains, and canyons in Tonto National Forest’s wilderness areas. The road begins near Goldfield Ghost Town, a re-created Wild West town, complete with gunslingers. You’ll pass Canyon Lake, where you can cruise on the Dolly Steamboat.
Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains. Rising above the town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant’s Tooth. A shadow of its former self this living ghost town offers a handful of historic buildings and photo opportunities, costumed gunfighters, and 1890s style ladies. Burros from the surrounding hills wander into Oatman daily and mosey around town blocking traffic, greeting visitors, and chomping alfalfa cubes sold by the local shop owners.
Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and, often in the spring, overlook a sea of wildflowers. Enjoy the beauty of the desert and the amazing views.
An ancient civilization carved clever dwellings into the sturdy rock of what is now a famous monument. A lot more than Montezuma attracts people to the site—Wet Beaver Creek, a flourishing spring and interesting wildlife are just a few things to put on the list when stopping through.
Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert, 40 miles east of downtown Phoenix. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Wilderness and 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.
Related Article: Why Arizona is the Ultimate Road Trip Destination
Chiricahua National Monument
Situated in southeastern Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument spans an elevation of 5,124 feet at the visitor center to a peak of 7,310 feet at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. That elevation makes it a cool mountain getaway where you can hike amid wildly eroded rock formations.
Colorful architecture and mountain backdrops define Tubac’s Southwest scenery. See both at Tumacácori National Historical Park, where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people once dwelled. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park offers a glimpse at 2,000 years of Arizona history. Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world-class galleries situated along meandering streets with hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.
See just how lush the desert can be at this oasis of more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation. At 392 acres, Boyce Thompson is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden founded in the 1920s. There are 3 miles of trails and the most popular is the 1.5-mile main loop that offers a perfect overview.
A charming National Historic Landmark on Cleopatra Hill, Jerome is a former mining town. Meandering around the hilly, winding streets, visitors will discover galleries and art studios. Not forgetting its past, Jerome offers history buffs a wealth of experience through the Mine Museum, displaying artifacts representing the town’s past and present, and the Jerome State Historic Park, home to the Douglas Mansion.
This up-and-coming town in southeastern Arizona is attracting visitors who come for its wineries and tasting rooms, but you’re here to hike in Chiricahua National Monument and see the sandhill cranes. The majestic birds winter in the Sulphur Springs area and Willcox is the perfect hub. Thousands of cranes roost in Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a shallow lake that is a flurry activity at sunup and sundown when birds depart and return in a swirling cloud of feathers.
To experience the magic of the giant saguaro cacti up-close, look no further than Catalina State Park near Tucson. There are easy nature trails here and also longer and more challenging trails for experienced hikers. The park spans 5,500 acres of foothills, streams, and canyons and is home to over 150 species of birds. RV camping is available.
From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approach, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls. You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm there.
Read Next: The Most Exhilarating Drives in Arizona
The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.