Sure, Arizona is home to more than 60 desert cactus species. But it also boasts six national forests, dozens of tranquil lakes, and 4.5 million acres of unspoiled wilderness areas. Here’s your guide to Arizona’s most verdant regions.
Best way to explore: hike and picnic
Madera Canyon is a north-facing valley in the Santa Rita Mountains with riparian woodland along an intermittent stream, bordered by mesquite, juniper-oak woodlands, and pine forests. With lofty mountain peaks, forested slopes, seasonal streams, and an amazing variety of plants and wildlife, Madera Canyon has become a popular recreational destination.
Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails that vary from paved, handicap-accessible trails and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson. The creekside trail that begins at Whitehouse Picnic Area is fantastic for spotting birds—more than 250 species have been documented in the canyon.
Prescott National Forest
Best way to explore: hike and canoe
When you drive picturesque State Route 89 through Prescott National Forest, any preconceived notions of Arizona as a vast desert will vanish. As the elevation increases, stands of desert chaparral give way to dense pine forests sprawling in every direction.
The Prescott National Forest is filled with special places including Lynx Lake and Thumb Butte.
On the edge of the forest sits Lynx Lake Recreation Area, a peaceful body of water ringed by trees. Located in the cool pines just outside of Prescott, Lynx Lake offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities including hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and picnicking.
The most distinguishing landmark in Prescott, Thumb Butte is famous for its towering ponderosa pines, picnic facilities, and access to world-class hiking trails. Interpretive signs orient visitors to the area’s flora and fauna, historical and cultural resources.
Best way to explore: ride the tram and hike
On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including soaring mountains and deep canyons. Tram routes provide access to Sabino and Bear canyons. Along the Sabino route riders are free to get off at any of the nine shuttle stops, do a little birding, have a picnic, or spend time along one of the many pools and cascades that grace Sabino Creek.
If riding the tram does not stir your sense of adventure, there are miles of hiking trails that wander throughout the area and lead deeper into the Santa Catalina backcountry. The wonders of the desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains are marvelous and accessible.
Verde River Greenway
Best way to explore: hike and bird watch
The Verde River Greenway State Natural Area sparkles and sings—sparkles with one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers and sings with its large population of nesting and migrating birds. More than 100 species of nesting and migrating song birds, raptors, and waterfowl have been sighted along the greenway, with additional sightings in adjoining Dead Horse Ranch State Park.
In addition to birds, the thick stands of cottonwoods and shrubs along the banks of the winding Verde River also support numerous animals with sightings of coyotes, raccoons, mule deer, and beavers.
To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.
—Aldo Leopold, 1937