The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

A sea of towering columnar saguaro cacti stretches out before you like a brigade of soldiers guarding the desert landscape. Formidable with their spiny armor, it’s hard to imagine America’s largest cactus is the species that needs safeguarding.

Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, this enduring symbol of the Southwest which requires just the right amount of heat and moisture to survive faces threats such as invasive species. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro (pronounced Sa-WAH-ro) cacti to thrive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These desert monarchs can grow upwards of 60 feet tall, weigh more than two tons, and live for two centuries. But while they’re certainly the park’s stars they’re far from the only reason it attracts more than a million visitors annually. For one thing, there are 24 other cactus species ranging from the fuzzy-looking teddy bear cholla to the pancake-shaped Engelmann’s prickly pear.

Despite the harsh desert environment an abundance of flora and fauna flourish here including such native species as the roadrunner, horned lizard, kangaroo rat, and the prehistoric-looking Gila monster. At the park’s higher elevations topping out at 8,666 feet, you’ll find oak woodland and pine forests that are home to black bears and the elusive coati which resembles a raccoon.

Saguaro National Park’s two distinct districts—the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District—are separated by the city of Tucson. The western district is lower in elevation, has denser patches of saguaro, and is known for its iconic Southwest landscape. The eastern section larger and more mountainous contains six biotic zones and 6,000 plant species and it’s second in biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Herbert Hoover established the area as a national monument in 1933 and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laid the groundwork for tourism by building walking paths and installing picnic benches and visitor shelters. It wasn’t until 1994 that the area earned national park status.

Today the park’s proximity to Tucson combined with recently installed handicap-friendly amenities ranging from paved walking paths to picnic tables with overhanging ends for wheelchair access makes it one of the nation’s most accessible national parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

Approximately 30 miles apart, Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western districts hug Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city with a population of 541,482. From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes. The western district gets twice as many visitors as the eastern district thanks in large part to its proximity to the bucket-list Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see below).

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each district has its own visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both offer accessibility features including designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved paths, and captioned orientation programs. Both also have bookstores, information centers, and water-filling stations.

The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon of water per day and during hot summer months at least one quart per hour when hiking. Be sure to have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pack with clothing layers since it can get cold at higher elevations. Neither visitor center has Wi-Fi and cellphone service is spotty throughout the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center (also called the West District Visitor Center) hosts a daily educational program on the Native American perspective on the saguaro that’s well worth the time.

The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (the East District Visitor Center) serves as the starting point for the scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8-mile, cacti-lined road that you can drive or bike. To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead with parking is about 2 miles along the drive and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to explore the western district’s foothills providing plenty of photo ops at pullouts and picnic areas plus access to trailheads. Although the 6-mile loop is unpaved you certainly don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It begins at Hohokam Road, a mile and a half west of the visitor center.

Since the park has no concessions pack a picnic lunch. Six picnic areas are accessible by vehicle—two in Saguaro East and four in Saguaro West—and each has a charcoal grill, a wheelchair-accessible pit toilet, and paved ground surfaces.

Saguaro is open daily except for Christmas Day. Annual visitation would almost certainly be higher if the summer months weren’t unbearably hot with triple-digit daytime temperatures. If you do visit in the summer, plan activities for early morning or the end of the day. This may be the desert but June 15 through September 30 is monsoon season so expect severe afternoon thunderstorms and even flash floods.

Cool temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the mid-70s make November to March prime time to visit.

And in spring—specifically the last two weeks of April through the first week of June—the park is a photographer’s paradise with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia, and canary yellow. June is a favorite time in the park. The flowers are usually at their peak. It’s an amazing sight to see but this isn’t the time of month to hike. Take in the blooms on a scenic drive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park or even camping options in the park’s western section. To experience the desert, reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night) which can be accessed only on foot and require a base level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains is a tough uphill day hike but worth the effort. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day. It’s a unique ecosystem up there.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the Douglas Spring Trail or the Arizona Trail both of which have campgrounds along the way if you prefer to break the trek up into two days. The original Manning cabin built in 1905 now hosts trail crews and researchers, and from April through September a ranger is stationed here. The six tent sites are nestled in a conifer forest at nearly 8,000 feet and temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees—a welcome relief from the valley floor’s sweltering heat. A waterfall fed from a large pond makes this one of the rare sites with a reliable water source.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night) plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

RV parks ranging from luxury resorts to the basic are less than a 30-minute drive away in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, Saguaro National Park offers treks for visitors of all abilities. No matter your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and pack plenty of water. And remember, those photogenic cacti are covered in spines so keep to the trail to avoid getting pricked.

For an easy stroll that doubles as an intro to the desert ecosystem walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the Cactus Forest Drive in the East District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West. Both paved trails include resting benches and interpretive exhibits on the park’s plants and animals.

The 0.7-mile Mica View Trail in the east which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot was recently flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and support wheelchairs. On this hike, you’ll likely glimpse Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers in their saguaro nest holes and you’ll take in views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

If you want to challenge yourself, try the eastern district’s Tanque Verde Ridge Trail by the Javelina Picnic Area off of the Cactus Loop Drive. The strenuous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet of elevation and passes through all six of the area’s biotic zones.

On the west side, access the King Canyon trailhead outside of the park off of Kinney Road and zigzag up to the summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountain Range. Approximately 7 miles round trip with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock walls carved with ancient petroglyphs and an old stone miner’s hut.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

In this, one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, take your pick of four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop next to the East District Visitor Center runs for eight miles on a paved, rolling road that you’ll share with vehicles. On the park’s west side, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off of Kinney Road, a gravel path passes a giant forest of saguaros.

Watch the sunset

The desert sunset may rival the saguaros as the park’s most Instagrammed natural wonder. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns a brilliant red that paints the sky in pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easy-to-access Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West District, catch sunset views through a forest of saguaros. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive remains open until 8 p.m. giving you plenty of time to pull off and savor sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook near the loop’s end.

Learn

Rangers typically lead four to six different daily talks and interpretive tours that explore topics including desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators such as the mountain lion. Both park visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Also, both districts co-host monthly stargazing nights with a local astronomy group. Participants must sign up in advance.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs including spirals and squiggly lines as well as drawings of animals, humans, and astrological objects have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park.

The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail which starts at the Signal Hill picnic area off of Hohokam Road in the West District. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

Tucson is flanked on either side by Saguaro’s western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson owns bragging rights to being one of America’s most bike-friendly cities as well as having America’s first and only UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

On the Loop, a network of 131 miles of paved bicycle paths you can access Saguaro National Park as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s go-to bike shops.

For a hearty breakfast before hitting the park, head to Prep & Pastry’s east side location on Grant Avenue and order the oven-roasted sweet potato hash and breakfast sandwich with avocado. After working up an appetite biking or hiking in the park reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and a braised lamb tostada at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails run by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican eatery in the heart of downtown for the best happy hour in town: two tacos for $5 and $5 sangria.

Two not-to-miss open-air shopping centers anchor downtown’s hip Mercado District on the west end of the city’s modern streetcar line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. At the latter, a collection of 10 indie businesses housed in repurposed shipping containers pick up nostalgic Saguaro National Park-inspired gear at Why I Love Where I Live and home goods crafted by local artisans at Mesa.

The burgeoning town of Marana, an alternate gateway to the West District is located about 15 miles north of the visitor center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café and stop by Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft ales brewed with local ingredients such as prickly pear fruit and mesquite flour.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

Located down the road from the West District Visitor Center, the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the state’s second-most-visited attraction behind the world-famous Grand Canyon. Part natural history museum, part desert botanical garden, and part zoo, this 98-acre, indoor-outdoor attraction showcases more than 55,000 plants from 1,200 native species along 2 miles of gravel and paved trails.

View native animals such as coyotes, raptors, hummingbirds, ocelots, and piglike javelinas in re-created habitats. Learn about the area’s geology in the Earth Sciences Center and view nature-inspired exhibits throughout the year at two on-site art galleries.

Geology fans detour to 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 15-minute drive southeast of Tucson in the community of Vail to explore its extensive underground cave network. One of North America’s largest dry caves it took more than two years to map the 2 miles of passageways open to visitors.

Guided tours, which range from 40 minutes to 3.5 hours, require a decent fitness level, as you’ll be descending 350-plus stairs, scrambling down ladders, and crossing rock bridges to view stalactites and stalagmites sculpted throughout millions of years.

Back above ground, you can mount a horse at the park’s La Posta Quemada Ranch for a guided trail ride.

If you’re a fan of art and history, visit the village of Tubac, 40 miles south of Tucson. Established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, Tubac has emerged as a destination for artists with top-notch galleries and studios. For tasteful souvenirs, this is your one-stop shop for turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo blankets, and mesquite furnishings. 

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park, less than a 10-minute drive from the village explores the region’s Spanish colonial past. The expansive grounds include a museum, the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, and the state’s second-oldest church.

Saguaro National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

Entry fee: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass including all passengers; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)

Best way to see the park: On foot or by bike along the Bajada Loop Drive or the Cactus Forest Loop

When to go: Winter and spring

Worth Pondering…

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

The Top 30 Places to Visit in Arizona

There are a lot of places to visit in Arizona—from admiring the Grand Canyon to experiencing cultural tourist attractions throughout its desert landscape

Arizona’s landscapes are nothing short of stunning. Towering buttes meet hills covered with saguaro cacti. The otherworldly landscape that often feels better suited for Mars than our planet is grounded by what has become Arizona’s other great draw: the proof of human history found in the sites and settlements of Ancestral Puebloans. These archaeological sites which include cliff dwellings, sandstone homes, and petroglyphs dot the state offering a reminder of the people who came before.

With a deep human history and a stunning natural landscape, there is plenty to explore in Arizona, including cities, national parks and monuments, and outdoor attractions. This guide is split into specific sections as Arizona has many different types of places to visit.

So let’s get started.

Best cities to visit in Arizona

Arizona isn’t all desert and canyons; the state has numerous cities that deserve visiting. The following cities are some of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Phoenix from Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix

Phoenix is the sunny state capital of Arizona. Located in central Arizona, Phoenix is surrounded by mountains and desert landscapes. Its location seems unlikely for a city with skyscrapers and luxury hotels shooting up from what (before 1881) was once sand and dust. However, its incongruous allure is all part of Phoenix’s charm.

Phoenix is the best place to visit in Arizona for a big-city experience. The city is bursting with creativity and attractions including more art galleries than you could see in a whole week.

Phoenix is also home to the Musical Instrument Museum, Natural History Museum, Phoenix Bat Cave, and Desert Botanical Garden.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Tucson

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily.

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back.

One of the top places to visit, San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic Mission. This national historic landmark was founded in 1692 and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors per year. The church is considered the finest Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Cottonwood

If Phoenix is best for a big-city feel, Cottonwood is best for the opposite. Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north.

Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and ’30s. Old Town antique stores, wine-tasting venues, six galleries, and three hotels!

Best National Parks to visit in Arizona

What would a trip to Arizona be without visiting a national park? Arizona’s national parks are renowned for their incredible attractions including the famous Grand Canyon.

You can explore the hiking trails, and biking trails, take off-roading tours, or book a scenic helicopter flight—it is up to you. These are the best national parks to visit in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is located just outside Tucson. It is a great place to visit for stunning scenery and hiking trails while visiting Southern Arizona.

The park is most known for its cacti. Indeed, in this national park, you’ll find some of the largest saguaro cacti in the U.S. Some of the cacti live up to 200 years old and grow at a very slow rate. The national park feels like an old American West movie scene and has over 90,000 acres to explore.

Valley View Overlook Trail is a short walk that should take around 20 minutes to complete while hiking to Signal Hill Petroglyphs, a must for anyone interested in ancient art and civilizations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park

If Petrified Forest National Park sounds fantastic, it’s because it is. However, if you arrive expecting a lush forest full of beautiful trees, you’ll be shocked. The national park is a barren landscape full of fossils and petrified, sliced tree trunks.

The petrified wood is scattered across the national park and you can drive the length of the park in around an hour or two—stopping at whatever spot catches your eye. Some not to miss places include Rainbow Forest Museum, Painted Desert, and Crystal Forest Blue Mesa hiking trails.

Wondering how this natural phenomenon occurs? Petrification of trees takes place when trees have been buried underground without oxygen for thousands of years. Over time, the decaying wood becomes mineralized and turns into fossilized stone creating a replica of the original form, just in a different material.

For a unique natural experience, Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best places to visit in Arizona. We recommend choosing this national park for anyone intrigued by natural mysteries and wanting a memorable experience in Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon! What can I say? The park is one of the best places to visit in the U.S., never mind Arizona. Visiting the Grand Canyon is at or near the top of most people’s bucket list.

South Rim and North Rim are the most popular areas to explore the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is the lesser-seen side of the Grand Canyon and is best for those who want a quieter place to experience this amazing wonder. South Rim is much busier and is packed with different hiking trails.

A popular hiking route is the Bright Angel Trail. The trail is well-maintained and relatively easy. It follows a side canyon, past cliff faces, and various switchbacks before finishing at Plateau Point. Plateau Point has stunning views of the canyon and the park’s scenery.

Of course, you can always splurge on a helicopter ride instead. Many tourists opt to view the canyon from above, which is one of the most exhilarating things to do in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of the state. For those who want to experience nature in the north, it is easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument covers over 80,000 acres and is home to the Spider Rock spire. The spire is a 700-foot-high sandstone rock. Spider Rock spire gained its shape by gradual erosion over time and experts believe it was once connected to a ridge. Nowadays, it makes an unusual natural attraction and a great photograph.

You can drop by the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center for expert local guidance on things to see and do. However, you should make sure to try a hiking trail or scenic drive.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce its first flower near the age of 35.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Chiricahua National Monument

About 27 million years ago, this Land of Standing-Up Rocks was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot-thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that makeup Chiricahua National Monument.

There are hiking trails, both short loops and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Best State Parks to visit in Arizona

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest.

More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than the Dutchman Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name.

You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas.

Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Patagonia Lake State Park

South of Sonoita, the blue waters of Patagonia Lake glisten for 265 acres. Unlike the craggy escarpments that border many desert lakes here it’s all rounded corners and gentle slopes. The surrounding hills ease down to the tall grasses that line the shore. A trail meanders from the beach to Sonoita Creek which formed the lake when it was dammed.

A marina provides boat rentals: canoes, pontoons, rowboats, and paddleboats. In a former life, this land was the home of the Sobaipuri and Papago tribes, both related to the Pima Indians. Today, it’s the home away from home for campers, birders, swimmers, sunbathers, boaters, and anglers.

Best Outdoor Attractions

After exploring the best national and state parks and cities, let’s look at Arizona’s largest category—its outdoor attractions.

Arizona is perfect if you love being outdoors and experiencing natural attractions. The state is full of things to see and do outdoors including visiting Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley. Ready to be inspired? Let’s take a look.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Monument Valley

Monument Valley is located along the Arizona-Utah border. If you want to visit easily, overnight at the Valley’s View Campground, and what a view you’ll enjoy especially at sunset. The valley is one of the most famous landscapes in the U.S. and easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

The valley is over 90,000 acres and is full of hiking trails and spectacular rock formations. It is most known for its towering sandstone buttes which you can experience on scenic drives or hiking trails. Don’t miss Forest Gump Point, the iconic viewpoint used in famous movies and is an important filming location in cinematic history.

The valley is a great place to cut through if you are planning an Arizona road trip. There are many things to see while driving through the valley and the scenery is perfect for memorable road tripping.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Lake Powell

If you are heading up to the Arizona-Utah border it is well worth detouring to Lake Powell. The lake is a stunning artificial body of water situated between Monument Valley and Grand Canyon National Park. It is a beautiful place to visit in Arizona. The lake’s bright blue water and orange sandstone surroundings cut a picture-perfect scene.

The lake is fed by the Colorado River and covers over 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a significant attraction on the lake and the vast stone arc is the largest natural bridge in the world. It is an excellent attraction to combine with enjoying the lake itself.

Many people spend a day or two staying along the shores of the lake. You may wish to visit on a day trip or book a campsite so that you can stay overnight. Full-service sites are available.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Fascinated by ancient culture and archaeological sites of inhabitation? Montezuma Castle National Monument is the place to visit. The site is home to several cliffside dwellings, built and lived in by Indigenous People around 1100 to 1425 AD.

Sadly, access inside the dwellings has now been prohibited in an understandable attempt to protect the site from excessive damage. However, visitors can take a virtual tour inside the houses. They look incredible from the outside and you can enjoy numerous hiking trails for different views.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Desert Botanical Garden

I mentioned the Desert Botanical Garden when discussing Phoenix. The garden is located in Papago Park in the center of Arizona’s capital city. However, the Desert Botanical Garden is worthy of a spot on our list in its own right.

Why is the Desert Botanical Garden so spectacular? The 150-acre garden has over 50,000 desert plants and is the ideal place to visit for a convenient desert experience. The botanical garden is an easy and fun alternative for those who don’t have time to visit major desert locations like Saguaro National Park.

Glen Canyon Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon Dam is situated in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a one million-acre reserve encompassing biking trails, hiking trails, and Lake Powell.

Planning a trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Park to visit Lake Powell? I recommend taking a detour to visit the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam is a hydroelectric power plant and has become an iconic attraction along the Colorado River.

Visitors can take boat tours to view Glen Canyon Dam up close or even fly over the dam for a flight experience. The 710-foot infrastructure is incredible from a distance and even more impressive up close. Of course, to save a bit of money, you can always walk across Glen Canyon Dam Bridge where you’ll still have great views over the dam.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead is another impressive artificial attraction. The lake has the highest water capacity of any U.S. reservoir and sits on the Nevada-Arizona border. If you love water activities and lakeside living, Lake Mead is one of the best places to visit in Arizona to unwind and relax.

Allow time to take a Lake Mead cruise as the contrast between desert and an oasis-like body of water is striking and best experienced from the water itself. You can also fish and boat on the lake.

If you are planning a road trip, Lake Mead is ideally located en route to Las Vegas. It is worth detouring to enjoy the lake and consider combining it with a visit to the nearby Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Hoover Dam

Once the tallest dam in the world, the Hoover Dam has a nostalgic kind of power. While it no longer holds that grand title, it is still one of Arizona’s best places to visit. Visitors quickly appreciate its power and strength. It is said that the dam could withstand the force of Niagara Falls which gives you an excellent perspective on how strong it is.

You can view the Hoover Dam from afar or drop by the Hoover Dam Visitors Center to book a guided tour. Tours typically include access to the Hoover Dam tunnels, an elevator ride to the top, and special access to functional rooms throughout the building.

If you are interested in architecture or just want to see a national historic landmark up close, the dam is great to visit. It is also combined with a trip to Las Vegas as the dam sits on the Nevada-Arizona border.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Jerome State Historic Park

Fancy indulging in a bit of history? Jerome State Historic Park is a fantastic place to visit in Jerome. The state park has a couple of acres surrounding Douglas Mansion which has been transformed into a quirky mining museum.

Visitors can wander through two floors of informative exhibits plus outdoor gardens. The museum balances general mining stories and the local town’s history. You can learn about region-specific minerals and mining processes through various mediums including cinematic videos.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. The Superstition Mountains

The Superstition Mountains cover 160,000 acres and are full of gorgeous mountainous and desert scenes. That is not what makes this place famous, though; it is the lost gold mines.

Legends of gold have kept mining companies and independent hunters searching the mountains for years. Many hunters have hit the jackpot and found lots of riches. You can join the crowds or find non-gold-related entertainment in the mountains.

You can visit the Superstition Mountains Museum, explore the surrounding Tonto National Forest, or hike along one of the various trails. These mountains are one of the best places to visit in Arizona for adventure.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Sedona

A magnet for outdoorsy types, Sedona enjoys a picturesque location at the base of Oak Creek Canyon surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land. You could easily get swept away in all the activities to be enjoyed nearby from hiking and biking to rafting and fishing but the town itself is also well worth exploring. Thanks to its longstanding connection to the art world—surrealist painter Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning moved here in the 1940s—there are more than 80 galleries to explore as well as street art and performing arts centers.

More places to visit in Arizona

These destinations are special additions to my guide on the best places to visit in Arizona. Whether they are a museum or sacred tribal lands they don’t fit into the outdoor tourist attraction category. I’ve given them a category of their own.

Here is my final subsection, my special list of more places to visit in Arizona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

26. Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona and there’s no way we couldn’t add this unique church to my list.

While I’m not placing the church in the outdoor attraction category, its exterior is a beautiful sight. The church is wedged between two sandstone buttes and has large, plain glass windows that give it a modern, chic design. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is not your typical church.

You can enter the church to look around or join a service if you wish. The church is near Sedona and plenty of other attractions so it isn’t too much of a detour to make.

Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is situated on the outskirts of Tucson. However, the museum deserves a place on this list in its own right.

The museum is a bit of everything from a natural history museum to a zoo and a botanical garden. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum covers 98 acres and includes an aquarium section and live animal exhibits plus flora displays in the botanical garden section. There is also an art gallery for visitors to enjoy.

You could easily spend a whole day at the museum. The museum is a chance to experience multiple attractions at once.

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway

Looking for a scenic drive? Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is an incredible, relatively short scenic drive that you can enjoy from Tucson. Short enough to comfortably squeeze into a day yet long enough to provide diverse scenes and attractions, this scenic byway is a great place to drive.

Mount Lemmon Highway starts near the outskirts of Tucson.

I recommend stopping at Babad Do’ag Scenic Overlook, Molino Canyon Vista, Thimble Peak Vista, Windy Point Vista, and Geology Vista Point. There are quite literally dozens of hiking trails and trailheads along the highway as well. You can easily park up and take a detour on foot.

Allow extra time again once you reach Mount Lemmon’s peak. There is Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Mount Lemmon Sky Observatory, and a Fire Lookout Station to visit. Mount Lemmon has a small town near the mountain top where you can grab refreshments and do some light shopping.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Tombstone

A relic of the Wild West that refused to become relegated to the history books, Tombstone has a legacy stretching back some 140 years. The Cochise County town started life in 1877 when prospector Ed Schieffelin arrived here in the hunt for silver. He struck lucky discovering huge reserves of the stuff—as well as large gold deposits—and the town boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unlike many similar places, Tombstone didn’t become a total ghost town. Today, it’s filled with everything from saloon-style restaurants to Western boutiques, all paying homage to the days when prospectors and merchants ran riot here. 

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Watson Lake

Although it may not be as well-known as big hitters like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, Watson Lake is certainly up there with Arizona’s most beautiful landscapes. This stunning natural lake situated just four miles from downtown Prescott provides a breathtaking backdrop for several outdoor pursuits including swimming, hiking, boating, and kayaking. For the best all-round tour, hike the six-mile Peavine Trail which loops around its granite boulders and follows along the route of the former Santa Fe Railway providing plenty of scenic vistas along the way. 

The Grand Canyon State is packed with wonderful activities and tourist destinations. Visiting Arizona is guaranteed to be memorable and you’ll stay well entertained throughout your stay. The state has so much to offer, whether you want a typical desert experience, a quirky tourist attraction, or a cultural immersion.

Have a fantastic trip. I hope you manage to experience at least a few of these best places to visit in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip south.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 25 Places You Must Visit

Arizona is an outdoor-lover’s dream with deep canyons, dramatic landscape, and a host of adventures where the land formations are the star of the show

Arizona is well-known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery. These beautiful, must-experience places are bucket-list worthy; some are well-known while others are hidden gems you might not have known about. From national landmarks to historical towns and breathtaking outdoor landscapes, here are 25 places to visit on your next Arizona road trip.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

The most obvious landmark and Arizona road trip (and the most breathtaking of them all) is the Grand Canyon. If you have never experienced the sight of this outstanding view you absolutely must add this to your bucket list. You can check into El Tovar Hotel which is a historic property that opened its doors in 1905 and has entertained celebrities and presidents for over 100 years. Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s edge, El Tovar has breathtaking views from every window and the resort’s dining room is as close to the canyon as you can get with cuisine that’s almost as memorable as the views as well as several hiking trails that will leave you speechless. Plus many photo opportunities!

>> Get more tips for visiting the Grand Canyon

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

What seems to be one of Arizona’s best-kept secrets is the interesting town of Bisbee. The former mining town is a small, unique community that sits high in the mountains near the Mexican border and in the far southeast corner of Arizona. With plenty of things to do, activities, events and festivals, shops, galleries, and nightlife plus birdwatching, gallery-gazing, dining, or pub-crawling, Bisbee will offer you a plethora of choices to keep you entertained.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Home to Lake Powell, The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water with a desert landscape and dramatic stone walls. One of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for land- and water-based recreational activities.

This gorgeous lake is located in northern Arizona, stretches up into southern Utah, and is part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. You can enjoy a summer’s day with perfect weather, cool water, amazing scenery, and endless sunshine. This is the perfect place to escape to and rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy the lodging and hop aboard a guided expedition.

>> Get more tips for visiting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Due to its distinctive culture, Sedona is truly a place unlike any other. Visitors can navigate remote canyons, rejuvenate at an energy vortex site, and experience the ancient culture of the Sinagua people. Throughout the red rock are multitudes of secluded viewpoints, cliff dwellings, and well-preserved petroglyphs. In downtown Sedona, you’ll find a vibrant art community dense with unique shops and galleries. Hikers and adventurous types will enjoy the various trails and renowned Pink Jeep off-road adventure tours.

>> Get more tips for visiting Sedona

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest. More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Catalina State Park

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Globe

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 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.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail

As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) winds through the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that meanders past three lakes and carves through canyons and over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam. 

Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed. 

>> Get more tips for driving Apache Trail

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels which preserve a bygone era. The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway an excursion between a historic depot and the canyon.

>> Get more tips for visiting Williams

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than “the Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name. You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lost Dutchman State Park

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War. These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

>> Get more tips for visiting Picacho Peak State Park

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels to date and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard-to-miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You can drive or walk across the dam for free or take a tour of the dam. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

With its impressive location tucked in the limestone cliffs in the desert of Camp Verde, Montezuma Castle is sort of like an ancient skyscraper. Towing some 80 feet above the valley floor, the 20-room residence was built by the Sinagua people beginning in around AD 1100 and served as an important shelter to escape floods. It was among the first four sites given the designation of National Monument back in 1906 with the site also including further dwellings around Montezuma Well, six miles from the castle.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

>> Get more tips for visiting Alamo Lake State Park

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

An old mining town-turned ghost town-turned tourist attraction, Jerome sits on a mountainside just above the desert floor. Jerome is unique and quirky, to say the least with the Sliding Jail in Jerome that was originally built around 1928 and was built on a clay slick; it soon began to slide and now sits 2,500 feet from its original location. While you’re there, you can visit the town’s most appreciated historical landmarks including the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. For the most memorable experience take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas. Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes, programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

>> Get more tips for visiting Red Rock State Park

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Surrounded by mountains, Tucson is a beautiful city set in the Sonoran Desert and is the second-largest city in Arizona. With many historic sites and cultural attractions, Tucson is a place to unwind and explore. Highlights include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, El Presidio Historic District, and Sabino Canyon. You will also discover hiking trails and afterward find a bite to eat at one of the many wonderful restaurants Tucson has to offer.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tucson

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

Along a 17-mile self-drive route along a one-way gravel road, you will find the heart of the valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. While visiting this area which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, you’ll experience the true Arizona desert feel with miles and miles of beautiful landscape and scenery of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, creating all the wonderful and majestic colors of the Valley.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

With its small-city feel and defined seasons, Prescott has tall Ponderosa pine trees, lakes, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. This charming town has much to offer including the Courthouse Plaza, Sharlot Hall Museum, Smoki Museum, Elks Theatre Opera House, Watson Lake, and numerous hiking areas including Thumb Butte Trail. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown restaurants or spend a night at one of the beautifully restored bed and breakfasts or hotels.

>> Get more tips for visiting Prescott

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

>> Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman

Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains, 28 miles southwest of Kingman along Route 66. Rising above the town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant’s Tooth. Often described as a ghost town, Oatman comes close to fitting the category considering that it once boasted nearly 20,000 people and now supports just a little over 100 people year-round.

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this living ghost town that provides not only a handful of historic buildings and photo opportunities but costumed gunfighters and 1890s-style ladies as well as the sights of burros walking the streets.

>> Get more tips for visiting Oatman

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Forest

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

You can’t come to the Wild West and not truly experience the Wild West with staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costumes to recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town that is great as an Arizona road trip. With top-rated attractions such as OK Corral, Allen Street, Boothill Graveyard/Gift Shop, and Courthouse State Historic Park, each shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind and gives you the chance to see and soak in the town’s history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tombstone

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Step back in time at the Historic Plaza and railway Depot. Gaze at Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the downtown Historic District.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus trip: Verde Valley Railway

Park the RV and board the train as you embark on a spectacular journey accessible only by rail. Powering the train are two EMD FP7 diesel locomotives built in 1953 for the Alaska Railroad. They were painted in 2019 with an apropos American bald eagle motif. Alert passengers may spot the U.S. national bird soaring in the canyon. From December to March, visitors have a greater chance of seeing these special raptors since migrating and resident bald eagles share the canyon during nesting season.

Worth Pondering…

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

Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

The park, located north of Tucson was closed last week after rains caused a wash to flood

Some 300 campers were stranded at Catalina State Park last week after heavy rains caused the Cañada del Oro wash to overflow. The park is located next to the Town of Oro Valley, 6 miles north of Tucson.

They headed back to dry land on Wednesday (January 18, 2023) as park rangers helped campers walk across the receding wash at the park’s entrance. The only road out of the campground was filled with wet sand making it impossible to drive across.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What stops people isn’t the water. It’s the sand.

“Doesn’t matter if you have four-wheel drive, you are going to get stuck,” said Catalina State Park manager Steve Haas. “You are going to get stuck. It is not the water that is going to stop you. It is about 4 to 5 feet of sand from the bottom of the road that is stopping people.”

The park reopened Friday, January 20 as crews continued to clear flooding debris and create a safe path to drive across near the park entrance. Visitors were requested to observe all rules distributed by rangers when entering the park and to use caution as flooding is still possible. Parking is only allowed in designated parking spots.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition, Catalina State Park released the following Facility Information, available on its website:

  • Significant rain and weather events may require day-to-day decisions on remaining open. The fire caused significant runoff and debris that can be dangerous to staff and the public.
  • Many areas of the park look different than they did prior to the Bighorn Fire. The burned areas host hazards such as fallen rocks, trees, debris, and potential flash flooding, and visitors enter these areas at their own risk.
  • Roads near campsites may face flash flooding which could prohibit campers from leaving the park until flooding subsides. 
  • We encourage advance reservations for overnight camping and RV sites.
  • Please maintain awareness of your surroundings and the weather at all times while visiting the park.
Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, this was the only flooding in the park and the campground was not affected. It would be really bad if there was this obstacle plus a whole bunch of flooding where people are located. That was not the case.

Many campers had been at Catalina since the holiday weekend. Some had been making the trek across the wash by foot to get food and supplies in Oro Valley.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A lot of people’s lives were interrupted but they were in a good spot.

Crews worked on Wednesday to try and dig out the sand and waiting for the water level to go down before letting people drive through. Haas said the campers aren’t in any danger. “They are totally safe on the campgrounds. It is outside the floodplain,” said Haas.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rangers said the flooding happens regularly during the summer monsoons. But campgrounds aren’t as busy during the summer.

“This past summer, we were closed 20 nights because of this,” said Haas.

The Big Horn Fire in 2020 took out a lot of vegetation making runoff from rainwater more extreme. The Canada del Oro arroyo and its tributaries carry runoff from the Santa Catalinas during rain storms—a common occurrence that can and does often lead to flooding during monsoon but something that occurs less frequently in the winter.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We found ourselves in a similar situation in February 2010 when we were campimg at Catalina State Park. Since we were self-contained and planned to spend a week camping in the park we were basically unaffected by the flooded wash. The photos in this article were taken at that time.

Campers were eager to get home but grateful to be safe. “We have bathrooms over there, we have fresh running water. This is Arizona, it doesn’t get cold. So, we are fine, but we are ready to go,” said one camper.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona State Parks officials said there are plans and a budget to build a bridge over the wash in the coming years so flooding won’t continue to be a common occurrence. Funding has been approved and the bridge is a work in progress in collaboration with ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation).

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 170 species of birds call the park home.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

One hundred twenty campsites are available that have electricity, and water, and are either tent or RV ready. The campground is located in the shadows of the famed Catalina Mountains. Native birds and wildlife abound and help make any camping trip a memorable experience. Two RV dump stations are available in the park.

Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Details

The park is open year-round

Entrance fee: $7 per vehicle (1-4 Adults)

Camping fee: $25 per vehicle per night

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day use hours: 5 am.-10 pm. daily

Visitor center/park store hours: 8 am.–5 pm. daily

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

An Unforgettable 3-Day Road Trip through Southern Arizona

See historic Spanish missions, sky islands, Arizona’s first wine region, and more on this journey from Tucson

The Southwest shines on this route through the saguaro-studded desert up into high mountains where rare birds flit and spectacular sunsets give way to dark skies spangled by stars. Tucson anchors this tour, rich in history, and resonates with the scents of great food and local wines. Consider adding a couple of days to the beginning or end of the trip to explore Saguaro National Park whose two districts are each about 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. ​​​

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 1: San Xavier del Bac, Tumacácori, and Tubac Presidio (57 miles)

Explore Southwestern history on visits to three Spanish colonial missions and enjoy the opportunity to stock up on spices. En route, you’ll encounter dramatic mountain vistas.

From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 19 for 8 miles and take exit 92 for San Xavier del Bac Mission. Fondly known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. 

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means Desert People. The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino established the original mission here in 1692.

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This dramatic, sugar-white church with a masonry vault roof was completed 105 years later. A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and are coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.

San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures, and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are draped in real clothing.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive south on I-19 another 39 miles to the serene Tumacácori National Historical Park. Indigenous peoples including the Nde, O’odham, and Yoeme frequented this lush area along the Santa Cruz River for generations.

The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit and later Franciscan priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission life became impossible because of the Mexican-American War cutting off supply routes, an increase in Apache raids, and a severe winter. The community made the difficult decision to leave Tumacácori taking their valuables with them to Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Explore the evocative grounds where many adobe structures have melted back into the earth. Enter the striking ruins. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue on I-19, but pause just one-third of a mile down the road at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. The wonderfully fragrant store sells everything from adobo to whole sage leaves. Don’t miss the house-made hot sauces which add jalapeños, green chiles, and spices to a tomato base.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backtrack north 4 miles on I-19 to the artsy town of Tubac for dinner at Elvira’s which serves contemporary Mexican dishes in a chic dining room. Be adventurous and try the hazelnut mole.

This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is located on the site of the former fort. This is Arizona’s first state park hosting a world-class museum and bridging Tubac’s past life to its destiny as an artist colony.

Where to camp: De Anza RV Resort, Amado (8 miles north of Tubac)

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Madera Canyon, Tombstone, and Bisbee (124 miles)

Start on a sky island, an isolated mountain that steeply rises above the desert daytime heat and overall harsh and dry conditions. Fifty-five of these peaks form the Madrean Archipelago stretching from Mexico into the Southwest and featuring some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

Driving upward can mimic a trip north to the Canadian border as you pass through dry scrub, grasslands, and oak and pine forests while ascending to where alpine species flourish. These ecosystems provide a refuge for humans and animals alike and offer world-class birding such as Madera Canyon, 12 miles southeast from Green Valley on I-19. This area perched high on the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains attracts 15 hummingbird species including the rare Calliope, North America’s tiniest feathered friend.

Proctor parking area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a good stroll, try the Proctor loop: a paved, accessible, three-quarters-of-a-mile route that departs from the first Madera Canyon Recreation Area parking lot. You may see deer and songbirds along the trail and look for the Whipple Observatory shining off to the west on Mount Hopkins.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amp things up in Tombstone, 65 miles to the east mainly via state routes 83 and 82. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes. Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons.

This town leans into its Western heritage especially the 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral which pitted corrupt, power-hungry lawmen against cowboys who moonlighted as thieves and murderers.

OK Corral © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fierce gunfight was quick and when the bullets stopped flying, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury lay dead. Billy’s brother, Ike Clanton kept his life that day but was eventually murdered near Springerville, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp needed weeks to recover from serious wounds but Doc Holliday was barely grazed by a bullet. Surprisingly, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Actors re-create the gunfight three times daily (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.) and many locals and visitors wear period dress throughout the compact historic center where stagecoaches still kick up dust.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience a different slice of Gilded Age history in Bisbee, 23 miles southeast on SR 80. Mining started here in 1887, thanks to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The “Queen of the Copper Camps” grew into the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco for a spell. It faltered when the mine closed in 1975 though it found new life as a refuge for artists, bohemians, and retirees. Check out its galleries and unique shops such as downtown’s Óptimo Custom Hatworks which sells stylish toppers made from toquilla straw and beaver- and rabbit-fur felt.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking the steep streets can be quite a workout. Refuel at Table on Main Street with drunken mushrooms sautéed in a garlic cream sauce made from Old Bisbee Brewery’s European-style pilsner.

Where to stay: Tombstone RV Park, Tombstone. In Bisbee, book one of 12 vintage trailers or even a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht at the Shady Dell, 4 miles southwest of town, primarily reached via SR 80.

On the road to Patagonia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 3: Wine country and Tucson (158 miles)

Wineries don’t readily come to mind when I think of Arizona but the state has a thriving and growing wine industry. Wine making in Arizona dates back to the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of this area. The modern wine era began in the 1970s. Arizona winemaking has grown from a curiosity to a serious scene since then.

Arizona has three wine trails—Sonoita/Elgin, Verde Valley, and Willcox. The Sonoita/Elgin region is where the modern Arizona wine era began. There are 10 wineries on the trail. 

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 70 miles west on state routes 80, 90 and 82 to Patagonia, a wine country hub known for its quirky cafés and boutiques. For lunch, stop at downtown’s Velvet Elvis—honoring the Mexican painting style, not the King—which the governor’s office named an Arizona Treasure. Try the Pancho Villa pizza with Asiago, jalapeños, and house-made beef chorizo.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Patagonia drive 13 miles northeast on SR-82 to Sonoita. Located right off of the main road heading into Sonoita, Dos Cabezas WineWorks has been serving up its wine since 1995. The wines are made with all estate-grown grapes and are mostly blends (except for their single varietal Syrah). Their blends are made using several different varietals and cover the gamut of whites, Rosés, and reds. The La Montaña may be the most memorable because it is a 50/50 blend of the bold Syrah and Petit Verdot. 

Drive northeast another 7 miles to Rune Wines the state’s only solar-powered off-the-grid vineyard. Rune is located at the top of the hill between mile markers 39 and 40 on Highway 82 in Sonoita (that’s how directions are given around here) and overlooks the beautiful Arizona landscape.  It offers tastings outside under a shade canopy where you can soak up panoramic views of the high desert grasslands. For a well-balanced red, the 2019 Wild Syrah pleases with bold berry notes.

The Old Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 82 percent of Arizona land is owned by Native tribes and state and federal governments large roadless stretches remain on the map. Since you can’t head directly west, backtrack 55 miles northwest to Tucson for the night mainly on SR 82 and I-10. Head to Tito & Pep, a bistro known for mesquite-fired cuisine for dinner. Seasonally shifting vegetable dishes dazzle here especially the roasted carrots with labneh, pomegranate, and sunflower seeds.

Where to stay: Tucson/Lazydays KOA or Rincon West RV Resort

Plan your road trip through southern Arizona with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Tucson Is For the Birds and Birders

The Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all but here are a few favorites to get you started

Tucson, Arizona, isn’t just a haven for snowbirds. It also is known as a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.

Tucson is for the birds, or maybe better said, Tucson is for birders. With the area’s desert, mountains, forests, mild winters, and proximity to tropical Mexico, sightings of more than 500 species of birds have been recorded.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a surprising diversity of birds here, thanks to what Tucson Audubon calls a perfect storm: varied elevations; generally mild climate; Sky Island ranges linking the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre; influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts; migratory flyways; and tropical areas south of the border.

I enjoy capturing photos of everything from butterflies and dragonflies to reptiles and mammals and that includes birds. As a person who likes being out in nature and one who appreciates observing and photographing wildlife, here are five of my favorite nature spotting and birding locations in and near Tucson.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located in northeast Tucson at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. This picturesque canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, part of Coronado National Forest, is one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Although no private vehicles are permitted in the canyon, a tram service is available. Visitors can take an enjoyable and educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile narrated tram ride through the canyon. Trams stop at several trailheads, providing access to 30 miles of trails throughout the canyon.

Vermilion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the wide variety of mammals in the canyon, birders might spot vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxias, gray hawks, western tanagers, phainopeplas, and peregrine falcons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Many folks picture the saguaro cactus (the largest cactus in the United States) when they think of Tucson. One great place to see a vast collection of these majestic plants is another of my favorite spots, Saguaro National Park which actually is two parks in one. One district lies east of Tucson (Rincon Mountain District) and the other is to the west (Tucson Mountain District); approximately 30 miles separate them. Both have well-maintained roads and numerous hiking trails. Note that vehicles more than 8 feet wide and trailers longer than 35 feet are not permitted on Cactus Forest Drive (east park) or Bajada Loop Drive (west).

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of the districts has distinctive characteristics. The west park has the greatest number of saguaro cacti, as well as an ancient petroglyph site. Visitors may spot birds and other wildlife in both parks. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, American kestrel, northern goshawk, and cactus wren, among many other species.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area and Saguaro National Park West. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Mexican gray wolf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 

On my “must visit list” is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson (adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and Tucson Mountain Park). The gardens at the museum have walking paths through a vibrant Sonoran Desert ecosystem that is home to native plants, butterflies, and birds. The museum also has natural enclosures (not traditional zoo enclosures) with mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican gray wolves, gray foxes, and other mammals native to the area, plus a free-flight bird aviary and a hummingbird aviary.

Raptor free flight demonstration © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A highlight of this is the raptor free-flight demonstration which provides an up-close look at hawks, falcons, and owls native to this part of Arizona. It was such an amazing display and photo opportunity that you plan to return a second day to take more photos.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

The fifth location is widely known among birders—Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon lies south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Santa Rita Lodge (located at 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road in Madera Canyon) offers overnight accommodations, as the name would suggest, but it also has a bird feeding area that is open to the public. Free parking is available for those visiting the viewing area which has limited seating and is wheelchair accessible.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, you can view and photograph a wide variety of birds in a natural setting. A telephoto lens in the 400mm to 500mm range works well. Among the wide variety of birds attracted to the area are the yellow-eyed junco, flame-colored tanager, painted redstart, Mexican jay, crescent-chested warbler, and 15 species of hummingbirds. You might also get a glimpse of an elegant trogon, a prized sighting for birders in southern Arizona.

Coronado National Forest offers several trails in the area with limited parking at the trailheads.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson boasts a wide array of natural and man-made attractions with something to interest everyone, including those who enjoy getting outdoors in nature. It is a renowned birding destination for visitors from far and near. It also is popular among snowbirds and other RVers, and RV campgrounds and resorts abound in the area.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As mentioned earlier, the Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all. In addition to the five birding locations listed above, you may wish to explore the following:

  • Tohono Chul
  • Tucson Botanical Gardens
  • Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
  • San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
  • Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
  • Ramsey Canyon

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark

Just south of Tucson, San Xavier del Bac Mission stands as an active church, an architectural wonder, and a testament to the Jesuit priest who founded it 300 years ago

Located nine miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, off Interstate 19, San Xavier del Bac is on San Xavier Road, just three miles southwest of Mission View RV Resort, our home base for exploring Tucson and regions south.

One of the oldest and best-preserved Spanish Colonial missions in the United States, its stark white walls and ornate baroque façade dazzle above the flat desert for many miles. Often called the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission is one of eight missions established in Arizona when the Spanish ruled the area.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising out of a sage-filled prairie that seemed to go to the end of the Earth—or at least to Mexico—I didn’t need road signs to guide my toad toward the church.

I explored the beautiful courtyard. Seven graceful arches surround a patio and a fountain once fed by natural springs that probably refreshed horses carrying church-goers.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Catholic mission was founded in 1692 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino and its remarkable building—now a National Historic Landmark—was added roughly 100 years later by Franciscan monks following the Jesuits’ expulsion from the territory. Original plans for San Xavier were for the mission to be the center of a larger system with a dual purpose of providing religious services and educational programs to the native people. This explains the comfortable historic meeting rooms neighboring the church that were built for larger groups to gather.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of the mission began in 1783 and came to an end in 1797, a remarkable endeavor considering the lack of resources in the area. Enduring wars, an earthquake, and harsh elements from the environment, the mission is in remarkable condition as a result of the loving care of the local Tohono O’odham American Indian tribe and is considered the most significant relic north of Mexico.

The Spanish Colonial architectural style is clear with white stucco walls and stunning three-story bell towers shouldering a baroque entryway enhanced with Franciscan reliefs. There is clearly a difference between the twin towers as one appears to be under renovation with parts on the top missing. The visitor quickly assumes the tower is being repaired, but that is not the case.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tower has always looked as it does today and the reason remains a mystery. Old bookkeeping records suggest that taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, and, therefore, the church remained unfinished. Another legend is that the tower has been left in this state until the “Excellent Builder” comes to complete the mission.

On this hot, sunny day, the coolness of the interior was a surprise. The air conditioning available is supplied by nature through intelligent design and expert choice of building materials.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next surprise comes when my eyes adjust to the darkness and my breath is taken away by the beauty and quality of this mission.

The entire structure is roofed with masonry vault making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U.S. borders. Little is known about the people who created the artwork that covers almost every square inch inside, including the ceiling. Some believe that artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico) were probably commissioned by the Spanish royal family.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main gold and red altar is decorated in Mexican baroque style. Its elaborate columns were built in guild workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta valley to the mission.

Research has proven that more than 50 statues were carved in Mexico then transported hundreds of miles to be gilded by local American Indian artists before installation. Once the sculptures were in place, area craftsmen—some of them ancestors of the mission’s current restoration workers and caretakers—added clothing created from gesso.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, San Xavier del Bac became the property of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan friar departed shortly thereafter and the mission lost all funds with which to maintain the facilities. The Tohono O’odham did what they could, operating a school for many years and protecting the mission from Apache raids.

In 1854, the United States purchased the area with the Gadsden Purchase and San Xavier once again became a Catholic-held entity under the Diocese of Santa Fe.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many more transitions of ownership followed including a time when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school for Tohono O’odham children. Within my generation, the mission became a nonprofit entity, supported partially by the Catholic Church. Mass is still held every weekend and is open to the public.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout these years, only basic care was performed to prevent the daily decay of the massive ornate interior and its thousands of artifacts and art pieces. Wood was used in most of the carvings which swells and shrinks from variations of climate and humidity. In order to clean the artwork and walls, a special mixed cleaner must be used sparingly and carefully to remove grime without removing paint. Paints were made of natural materials which are almost impossible to replicate today, and fade with time.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the restoration and maintenance work was done inside the church, sometimes on bended knees or lying on the floor. It is excruciating and exhausting work.

Yet, one tower remains unfinished.

Still an active church, San Xavier del Bac Mission retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious and educational needs of parishioners. The church and gift shop are open daily.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

10 Amazing Places to RV in December 2022

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in December

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.

—Proverbs 17:22, KJV Bible

This analogy from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs points out the link between emotional and physical well-being: Joy is a powerful emotion as beneficial for an ailing soul as medical treatments are for a sick or injured body. This passage from Proverbs 17:22 suggests that if we possess good cheer, our confidence, laughter, and trust are likely to radiate to those we encounter. Sharing kindness—be it through gifts, singing, rituals, or visiting loved ones—is a worthy and healthy practice this holiday season, and beyond.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in October and November. Also, check out my recommendations from December 2021 and January 2022.

The Barrio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Barrio Viejo

Barrio Viejo, meaning old neighborhood in Spanish, is an area near downtown Tucson that is an important, historical part of the community. This picturesque destination just south of the Tucson Convention Center lies between I-10 and Stone Avenue with Meyer and Main Avenues passing through the center.

The original Barrio neighborhood built between 1880 and 1920 was home to a diverse working class including Spanish, Mexican, Asian, and Hispanic. Using traditional Mexican Village architecture, houses were built of thick-walled adobe with a flat roof, wood beams, and ocotillo, or saguaro cactus ribs, coverings.

The Barrio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your tour of Barrio Veijo at Five Points, the corner of Stone and 18th Streets. Over many decades the houses have been painted bold bright colors with doors/windows becoming works of art. Public buildings also have been treated with the same effect. The Barrio has become a major tourist attraction constantly drawing photographers, artists, and tour groups. In 1978, the Barrio was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Langley, British Columbia

Go for a festive stroll through this charming village in the Township of Langley to experience the best the holiday season has to offer. The picturesque village is often used as a backdrop for many Hallmark Christmas movies, so you’ll definitely feel like you’re a part of one. With twinkling lights brightening up the historic village, it’s like it was made specifically for the small screen.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Art Deco World Wonder

Hoover Dam, once known as Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and Nevada. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression and was dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin Roosevelt. Its construction was the result of a massive effort involving thousands of workers and cost over one hundred lives. The dam was controversially named in honor of President Herbert Hoover.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since about 1900, the Black Canyon and nearby Boulder Canyon had been investigated for their potential to support a dam that would control floods, provide irrigation water, and produce hydroelectric power. In 1928, Congress authorized the project. The winning bid to build the dam was submitted by a consortium called Six Companies, Inc. which began construction on the dam in early 1931. Such a large concrete structure had never been built before and some of the techniques were unproven. The torrid summer weather and the lack of facilities near the site also presented difficulties. Nevertheless, Six Companies turned over the dam to the federal government on March 1, 1936, more than two years ahead of schedule.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam impounds Lake Mead and is located near Boulder City, Nevada, a municipality originally constructed for workers on the construction project about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. The dam’s generators provide power for public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Hoover Dam is a major tourist attraction with nearly a million people touring the dam each year. Heavily travelled U.S. 93 ran along the dam’s crest until October 2010 when the Hoover Dam Bypass opened. 

Goose Island State Park

Christmas in the Park

Experience Christmas on the Texas Gulf Coast at Goose Island State Park! See the park in lights, enjoy holiday activities, and CAMP FOR FREE when you decorate your campsite.

Visitors are invited to enjoy a FREE drive through the Live Oak forest to see campsites decorated in lights and join the park rangers at Santa’s Village at the CCC Recreation Hall for holiday crafts, games, hot chocolate around the campfire, and to drop off letters to Santa in the North Pole Mailbox.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campers who agree to decorate their campsite will CAMP FOR FREE! Reservations for participating sites are available only by contacting the park via email at GooseIslandSP@tpwd.texas.gov. Participating campers may begin arriving on December 16 and are eligible for waived fees on December 16 and 17. Community groups are encouraged to decorate a dark spot.

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Peach of a Water Tower

The Peachoid is a 135 feet tall water tower in Gaffney that resembles a peach. The water tower holds one million gallons of water and is located off Peachoid Road by Interstate 85 between exits 90 and 92 (near the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway). Usually referred to by locals as The Peach and by passing motorists as Mr. Peach or The Moon over Gaffney, the water tank is visible for several miles around these exits. An example of novelty architecture, the Peachoid is one of the most recognizable landmarks for travelers along I-85 between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.” Without a doubt, the best-known, most photographed water tank in America. It is painted to match the kind of peaches grown in the area using 20 colors and 50 gallons of paint.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Heart and Soul of San Antonio

The San Antonio River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is a public park, open 365 days a year. It is a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River one story beneath approximately 15 miles of downtown San Antonio. Explore by foot along the river’s walking path or jump aboard a river barge for a ride and guided tour. Lined by bars, shops, and restaurants the River Walk is an important part of the city’s urban fabric and a tourist attraction in its own right.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The River Walk winds and loops under bridges as two parallel sidewalks, lined with restaurants, shops, hotels, and more. It connects the major tourist draws from the Alamo to Rivercenter Mall, Arneson River Theatre and La Villita, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Pearl Brewery.

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, shop local favorites along the river’s Museum Reach at the historic Pearl. While at Pearl, dine and drink al fresco at The Food Hall at Bottling Department. Further south, immerse yourself in history at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park along the Mission Reach.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holiday Fun and Festivities at Bernheim

At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees.

With the holidays just around the corner, the Bernheim calendar is full of events to celebrate with nature this December. Except for Christmas Day, Bernheim is open the entire month with activities for every age.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bernheim’s Holiday Open House takes place on Saturday, December 4 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Visitor Center. Enjoy a festive day shopping in the forest. Browse the selection of gifts, locally-made crafts, Kentucky Proud and Giants merchandise, and other unique gifts for the nature lover in your life. Get in the holiday spirit with hot mulled cider and refreshments, hourly door prize drawings, holiday specials, and a 30 percent discount for Bernheim members.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gnomes are known the world over. Legend has it they travel and live in the forest freely, seldom seen by humans. Add some seasonal magic to your home this season by joining the Bernheim staff at one of two Forest Gnome Workshops to create this mythical forest character on Saturday, December 4 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., or from 1 to 2:30 p.m. while enjoying some hot cider, treats, and hot chocolate. Make this a family activity and enjoy building your gnome together. Children 13 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heaven on Earth

When it comes to standing in awe of nature’s magnificence, it’s hard to beat the Grand Circle Tour—especially the northern arc that carves across southern Utah and encompasses Zion National Park at the western edge and Arches National Park to the east. Of them all, it is Zion that offers outdoor enthusiasts the most varied, seemingly otherworldly terrain. At just under 230 square miles, Zion is relatively small by national park standards, and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion was carved out of the Markagunt Plateau by the Virgin River which carved down a half-mile into the sandstone as it rushed to meet up with the Colorado River exposing rock layers from the middle periods of the earth’s geological history. 

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. Take time to drive the beautiful Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. This 10-mile length of scenic highway sports a series of switchbacks and the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel en route to Checkerboard Mesa and the park’s eastern entrance.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Besh Ba Gowah Festival of Lights

The City of Globe, Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum presents the 34th Annual Festival of Lights celebration on Saturday, December 3, from 5 to 9 p.m. The festival delights visitors with a beautiful scene, a festive combination of the Southwest holiday tradition of the luminaria lighting combined with the artistry of American Indian cultural presentations.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year’s festival will feature 4,000 real candle luminarias illuminating the archaeological park’s partly reconstructed 800-year-old Salado culture ruins. Guests are encouraged to walk among the luminarias and experience the magic of the season. The warm glow of the luminarias creates a dramatic backdrop for cultural presentations by the internationally renowned Yellow Bird Productions.

Yellow Bird is a family dance group under the direction of Ken Duncan, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The group specializes in cultural presentations that celebrate the unique spirit of American Indians. Presentations will run periodically throughout the night until the festival concludes at 9 p.m.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Besh Ba Gowah Museum will be open to visitors for the duration of the event and guests are welcome to view the exhibits and browse the unique items available in the gift store.

The event will also have food trucks offering a variety of delicious treats and local specialty merchandise vendors.

Admission to the event has always been free although non-perishable food donations are encouraged in support of the Gila Community Food Bank.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since parking for the event fills up fast a free shuttle service is available. The shuttle will run every 15 minutes from 4 p.m. until the last call at 9 p.m. Shuttle parking is located at Globe High School, 437 S. High Street.

Make it a fun-filled weekend by also attending Historic Downtown Globe’s First Friday, December 2. Globe’s First Fridays, from 3 to 7 p.m., have become a hugely popular monthly event that showcases local businesses, restaurants, artists, musicians, makers, bakers and more!

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schmeckenfest 2022

Schmeckenfest is a wassail tasting and Christmas extravaganza in La Grande, Texas. Celebrate 16 years of Schmeckenfest on Thursday, December 1 from 5-8 p.m. A true community event, it also attracts visitors to the Square to sample many different types of wassail (hot cider) made by various business owners and community leaders in which participants hope to win the coveted honor of being named Schmeckenmeister.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This small-town Christmas festival also includes music, delicious treats sold by local nonprofit organizations, a Christmas parade, the lighting of the County Christmas tree on the Courthouse lawn, children’s activities, and a visit from Santa. There are numerous Christmas card-worthy photo opportunities around the Square as well as pictures with Santa.

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau

How Best to Road-Trip across the Southwest? Icons and Hidden Gems!

Favorite ways to see this region’s geological wonders, surreal sunsets, and wide-open spaces

Edward Abbey who immortalized the Southwest in his writing would be turning over in his grave in Cabeza Prieta Wilderness west of Tucson, Arizona if he knew that Arches National Park had to temporarily close its gates in mid-October because capacity was maxed out. The famous monkey wrencher saved a special venomous wrath for the kind of tourist who drove from one viewpoint to the next only to snap a photo and move on.

But Abbey who was a ranger at Arches in Utah for two summers in the 1950s (when it was still a monument) also understood that there’s no better region than the Southwest, a place of mind-bending geology, impossibly living fauna, ferocious wide-open spaces, a sublime light, and millennia of human history to clear the mind and make peace with the soul.

Cabeza Prieta Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have spent 10 winters in the Southwest and believe everyone can benefit from the solace and adventure these majestic landscapes provide. We all, however, need to grapple with how to responsibly recreate within them. If you choose to wander this wide-ranging southwestern road trip starts in Tucson and ends at Big Bend National Park and hits icons and off-the-beaten-path places providing an itinerary to the best of the region. It’s ridiculous how much jaw-dropping splendor there is on this trip.

In the words of Abbey: “For god sake folks… take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamn idiotic cameras… stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—walk upon our sweet and blessed land!”

Might I politely add: leave no trace, BYO water, and respect those who came before you?

On the road to Patagonia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route: Tucson, Arizona to Patagonia, Arizona

Distance: 64.8 miles

Your base camp: Patagonia

Patagonia, a no-frills mining and ranching town 20 miles north of the Mexican border cropped up in the middle of Pima, Tohono O’odham, and Apache territory in the late 19th century. It has been a beloved destination for birders almost ever since.

Mount Wrightson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adventures in Patagonia

Hikers and trail runners have easy access to the summits of 9,456-foot Mount Wrightson and the historical fire lookout station at the top of 6,373-foot Red Mountain.

Hummingbird at Patton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What has more recently put Patagonia on the map is its mountain bike and gravel cycling with 30 miles of new singletrack right from downtown on the Temporal Gulch Trail and endless miles of dirt roads in the San Rafael Valley. Take note: the Spirit World 100 gravel road race takes place the first weekend of November and sells out fast.

Vermillion flycatcher at Patton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a place to explore and experience the special birds of southeast Arizona. It is dedicated to the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds—and all of southeast Arizona’s astounding biodiversity. Two hundred twelve bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of Patagonia including Violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Considered a hidden treasure of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake is a manmade body of water created by the damming of Sonoita Creek. The 265-acre lake cuts a vivid blue swath through the region’s brown and amber hills. Hikers can also stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay

The Gravel House is built for small groups of cyclists with a straw-bale house that sleeps six and a wood-framed studio that sleeps two. Both have kitchens and share outdoor space to wrench on bikes or celebrate post-ride with a cocktail.

For a unique place to camp in the area, Patagonia Lake State Park features seven camping cabins with beautiful views of the lake. The 105 developed campsites offer a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV.

Road to Patagonia State Park

Where to Eat and Drink

Chef Hilda at the Patagonia Lumber Company serves a delicious menu filled with Sonoran specialties like fresh tamales, Carne adovada tacos, and barbacoa.

The new Queen of Cups restaurant and winery offers fresh pasta dishes and three house-made wines on the menu.

Raptor Free Flights demonstration at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Best Detour

Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a must-stop destination for travelers who want to learn more about the fragile yet resilient ecosystem they are traveling through. A highlight includes daily Raptor Free Flights where birds only native to the Sonoran Desert like the Chihuahuan raven, Harris’s hawk, and great horned owl fly free while an expert describes their attributes, habitats, and behaviors.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route: Patagonia, Arizona to Big Bend National Park, Texas

Distance: 624 miles

Your base camp: Terlingua, Texas

It might take you a few days to get to Terlingua because there are a lot of fun detours along the way (see below). But the wait is worth it. This town, once 2,000 inhabitants were strong and rich with cinnabar from which miners extracted mercury in the late 19th century now stands by its claim as one of the most popular ghost towns in Texas with 110 residents. It is now known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts and grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adventures in Terlingua

Sitting six miles west of the entrance of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua offers easy access to the 801,163-acre park’s offerings including rafting or kayaking the Rio Grande River, hiking the Chisos Mountains, or road cycling its low-traffic paved highways.

Big Bend Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just west of Terlingua is the storied mountain biking in Big Bend Ranch State Park including the challenging 59-mile Fresno-Sauceda IMBA Epic route known for long, steep, technical, and rocky climbs and descents. Heavy rains have washed out much of the park’s trails so check in with Desert Sports whose owners Mike Long and Jim Carrico (a former superintendent of Big Bend) provide a wealth of knowledge about where and where not to go and offer shuttles, guides, and equipment.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay

There are four campgrounds inside Big Bend National Park—three park-operated camping areas with various services and one by an outside company. The three park-run campgrounds are Chisos Basin Campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. All require advance reservations booked (up to 6 months in advance) through recreation.gov.

Where to Eat and Drink

Stop at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon, sit on the front porch, and sip a beer then head inside for tequila-marinated Texas quail, a Scorpion margarita, and a rollicking night of live music.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Best Detour

Chiricahua National Monument is 131 miles northeast of Patagonia. Stretch your legs on the 7.3-mile-long Heart of Rocks Loop that surpasses the most unusual formations in the monument including the aptly named Pinnacle Balanced Rock which looks like it might topple over any second.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three hundred eighty-two miles east of Chiricahaua is New Mexico’s White Sands National Park home of the world’s largest gypsum sand dunes. Take a ranger-guided hike to Lake Lucero to understand how the dunes are formed. Bring a tent and grab a backcountry permit at the visitor’s center (available the day of camping only) to sleep among the dunes preferably under a full moon.

Worth Pondering…

We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime.

—Thích Nhất Hạnh

Most Haunted Places in Arizona

Head to the state’s storied towns for autumn nights filled with eerie tales and ghostly apparitions. Plan your trip to the most haunted places here.

Wait…did you hear something? That creak? That rattle? That ghastly groan?!
In Arizona, you’ll find plenty of creepy noises—not to mention hauntings and paranormal activities—guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

Travel the state north to south to uncover everything from haunted hotels to ghost walks and ghost towns. Then see if you can still sleep with the lights off.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

Today, Jerome is known more for its liquid spirits, in particular, its award-winning wine; however, it remains one of Arizona’s most famous ghost towns and hauntings come with the territory. After all, it didn’t earn its reputation as the “Wickedest Town in the West” without reason.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the annual October Jerome Ghost Walk, you can wander the narrow passageways and steep streets to find costumed performers reenacting the shootings, mysteries, and love triangles that marked this former mining town.
Can’t make it? Book a night at the Jerome Grand Hotel. Originally opened as the town’s hospital in 1927, the 25-room hotel has had reports of strange occurrences and occasional sightings including those of a bearded miner and a specter since dubbed “Claude” who met his demise in the elevator shaft.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want dinner and drinks with more of the Jerome ghost town flavor? Enjoy a meal at the Haunted Hamburger followed by a nightcap and live music at the Spirit Room, a favorite watering hole where all the spirits are friendly.

Daytime delight: Steel your nerves for a night in a haunted hotel with an afternoon wine tasting at Caduceus Cellars where the pours all come from Arizona. Stop in earlier when the tasting room operates as a cafe for Italian espresso and lattes.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

Ghosts talk as you walk in Prescott while you learn about this town’s ghoulish past. Before Phoenix, Prescott reigned as the capital of Arizona (more specifically, the Territorial Capital) and it still retains much of its New World meets Old West charm as evident in its Victorian architecture and Whiskey Row saloons.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Palace saloon—often said to be Arizona’s oldest bar—is one such Whiskey Row establishment and Prescott’s most haunted spot. Multiple ghosts have been spotted here including one Frank Nevin who lost his business in a poker game and still haunts the bar and maybe hoping for a chance at a better hand. The Palace’s basement briefly even served as a temporary jail and those who have visited have reported feeling a “heavy presence” making it difficult to breathe.

Related article: Ghostly Experiences

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During A Haunting Experience, a weekend walking tour of historic downtown Prescott, you’re likely to visit The Palace while you explore the town’s spiritual side. The Trost & Trost-designed Hassayampa Inn is another. Here, it’s said a young bride—abandoned by her husband on their honeymoon in 1928—hanged herself from her balcony room. Perhaps she remains, waiting for his return.

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daytime delight: Just four miles from town, Watson Lake is a serene landscape that beckons hikers, kayakers, and rock climbers. Or fill up on the town’s history before hunting its ghostly residents at the Sharlot Hall Museum housed in the former Governor’s Mansion.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisee

Halloween is one roving street party in eccentric, artsy Bisbee. Throw on a costume and you’ll fit right into this southern Arizona town, once a copper mining center. (You’d probably be the other 364 days of the year, too, if we’re being honest.)

Related article: A Haunting Good Time: Your Guide to 5 Ghostly Cities Across America

Copper Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not sure where to start your ghostly hunt? Acquaint yourself with Bisbee’s past as a mining boomtown with a stop at Queen Mine Tours. You’ll head deep underground into the former Copper Queen Mine with former miners as they navigate the abandoned equipment and explain how turn-of-the-century mines operated. This is one tour best avoided by anyone with claustrophobia.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the evening, join one of Old Bisbee Ghost Tour’s numerous offerings including a walking tour of haunted spots and a haunted pub crawl during which “spirits” are guaranteed. Along with your share of ghosts, you’ll hear tales from Bisbee’s wild history and learn why so many of its former residents still haunt this mountain town.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all the walking, spend the night at a Bisbee haunted hotel such as the landmark 1902 Copper Queen Hotel. Guests and ghost hunters often try to prowl the upper floors in search of the hotel’s resident spirits—a tall caped gentleman, an ethereal dancing woman, and a young giggling boy.

Daytime delight: Main Street in Old Bisbee is peppered with charming stores and boutiques, perfect for art collecting and thrift shopping.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

Among the stories guests on the one-hour Tombstone Ghost & Murder, Tour will hear is that of 1888 ill-fated lovers George Daves and Petra Edmunds. One night, Daves spied Edmunds walking down Third Street with another guy. He shot at her and thinking he had killed her fatally shot himself (Edmunds survived). In death, Daves’s ghost is said to hang out on Third Street perhaps hoping for a reunion. Traveling aboard the original Tombstone Trolley Car, this tour shows there’s a lot more to Tombstone than the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral.

© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ghost City Tours offers two options in Tombstone: one for all ages and another just for adults. The Bullets and Bordellos Ghost Tour delves into Tombstone’s seedier past with tales of murder, suicide, and its infamous “houses of ill repute.”

Related article: 5 Haunted Places around America Perfect for a Halloween Road Trip (If You Dare)

Cochise County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daytime delight: The two-story Cochise County Courthouse designed in the Victorian style was constructed of red brick in 1882. The courthouse, a splendid example of territorial architecture, continued to serve as a county facility until 1931 when the county seat was moved to Bisbee. Today, visitors can enjoy a museum full of authentic interpretive exhibits on the history of Tombstone and Cochise County.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Douglas and Tucsom

Want more southern Arizona ghosts? Have a drink to calm your nerves at the tavern of The Gadsden Hotel in Douglas. The hotel, built in 1907, features a magnificent lobby and Italian marble staircase not to mention a few live-in ghosts including the members of a love triangle.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In downtown Tucson, Hotel Congress built in 1919 is best known for the capture of the notorious Dillinger gang. Although the gangster John Dillinger isn’t one of them, ghosts do seem to roam the hotel including a woman who smells of roses and a gentleman who peers out the windows of the second floor.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps ghosts are to be expected here—the hotel offers plenty of reasons to linger from live music at Club Congress to drinks in The Tap Room to a meal at Cup Café.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daytime delight: A trip to southern Arizona isn’t complete without visiting Saguaro National Park where vast forests of the region’s iconic cactus stretch as far as the eye can see.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Globe

In 1910, by the time the Gila County Jail and Sherriff’s Office in Globe was completed vigilante violence was more likely to claim the lives of inmates than the hangman’s noose. In one case, an unknown assailant shot and killed a suspect awaiting trial by hiding in a second-floor window in the courthouse across the alley.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though closed in 1981, the old jail remains a haunting place. Guides with AZ Ghost Tours take guests on a 3-hour tour through the jail’s sordid past and its history of infamous inmates. The jail is one of four locations tour guests can choose from with each one hosting up to 12 people for three hours.

Related article: Celebrate Halloween RV Style

One final note of caution before you head out searching for Arizona’s ghosts: Many events and activities are unsuitable for young children or have age restrictions.

Worth Pondering…

I’m just a ghost in this house
I’m shadow upon these walls,
As quietly as a mouse
I haunt these halls.

—Allison Krauss, Ghost in This House