The Best National Parks in Arizona
Maybe the Grand Canyon is already on your list of must-sees in Arizona (for good reason), but it's fair to say the state has a lot more to offer than its celebrity park: It's home to 21 other National Park Service monuments, recreation areas, memorials, and historic sites.
If you're planning a trip to Arizona and want to take a deep dive into some of the state's treasured natural and historic attractions, here are the scenic spots that are well worth a visit.
Grand Canyon National Park
Open year-round, Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim has more lodging, restaurants, museums, and services, but its popular Grand Canyon Village can be packed in prime summer months. If you're keen on encountering fewer people, and you plan to visit between mid-May and mid-October, make your way to the North Rim. In either location, you'll encounter spectacular views of the world-famous canyon that was carved by the Colorado River millions of years ago and later a sacred home to 11 different Native American tribes.
It's easy to get sunburned or dehydrated at the Grand Canyon since its rims are more than 7,000 feet in elevation. Ironically enough, the canyon gets much hotter as you descend into it — by foot or by mule — so layer smartly, bring a ton of water and snacks, and listen to safety advisories.
Saguaro National Park
Get your cacti and prehistoric rock carving fix at Saguaro National Park, the part of the world where John Wayne filmed his famous Westerns. This park has two sections on either side of Tucson: Rincon Mountain District to the east of the city and Tucson Mountain District to the west. The eastern district is larger and has 128 miles of hiking trails, while the newer western district has 43 miles of trails. Both feature plenty of opportunities to snap photos with giant saguaro cacti — just stay on the marked paths. Signal Hill on the west side is a popular spot for marveling at petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings).
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park wows visitors with its towering, oddball rock formations and fossilized logs that are more than 200 million years old. While you can easily drive through the park and stop at marked overlooks, you'll get a better feel for some key sights — including the Painted Desert and the remains of a centuries-old pueblo — by strolling along short walking trails. A remote, off-the-beaten-path adventure can be found at Devil's Playground, where lucky permit holders can get a closer look at the hoodoos caused by the erosion of clay soil.
Montezuma Well at Montezuma Castle National Monument
Montezuma Castle is a 20-room dwelling nestled into a limestone cliff, built around 1050 by the Sinagua people. While this ancient structure is an important visit to learn more about the former Verde Valley inhabitants, another key stop is just an 11-mile drive to the northeast.
Montezuma Well is a gorgeous sinkhole, also managed by the NPS and a sub-unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument. More than 1.5 million gallons of water flow into it daily, it has stayed at precisely 74 degrees for years, it has a beautiful blue-green hue, and it contains animals that can't be found anywhere else in the world, including a water scorpion. No swimming here (see: water scorpion), but there's a picnic area where you can carefully dip your feet if you'd like.
Tuzigoot National Monument
If you're intrigued by Montezuma Castle, head northwest about 20 miles to check out Tuzigoot National Monument. At this interactive experience, unlike Montezuma, you can actually walk around inside and touch the 110-room pueblo. Also of interest is a museum that showcases ceramics, textiles, and tools found in this village inhabited by the Sinagua people. Bonus: The entrance fee for one park covers the other, too.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
When a volcano northeast of Flagstaff erupted about 900 years ago, it sent ash and lava everywhere, preserving a perfect impression of a solitary corncob. Stop by the visitor center at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument to marvel at it. You can also take the accessible mile-long Lava Flow Trail to check out the geologic features left behind by the most recent volcanic eruption in Arizona.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
An hour's drive south of Phoenix is Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, which preserves a 650-year-old house built by the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People. It remains a mystery what exactly this structure was used for, whether a way station or a gathering place. Today it's inhabited by great horned owls, bats, and other animals. This national monument is free to visit.
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Take some time to check out Tumacácori National Historical Park with its stunning piece of architecture where Apache, O'odham, and Yaqui people once mingled with Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, soldiers, and settlers. The well-done museum is filled with artifacts that help tell the history of this part of southern Arizona, the Santa Cruz Valley.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
If only every workout came with a prize. As part of the "Hike for Health" challenge, you can traipse along the trails at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and snag a souvenir coin as a reward. Cacti, flora, fauna, and iconic western scenery abound here, and there's plenty of campground space, too. It's off the beaten path, on the border of Mexico, but completely worth it if you love the outdoors.