A Guide to the National Parks of Arizona
Get ready to explore the Grand Canyon—and much, much more.
Maybe the Grand Canyon is already on your bucket list (for good reason), but it’s fair to say that the state of Arizona 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. We reached out to Phoenix native Sharlot Hart, an archeologist with the National Parks Service. Hart has been with the organization for seven years, and has worked at five parks across Arizona.
First, suggests Hart, start by checking for upcoming events. If you’re the sort of person who likes to plan an outing around a cultural affair, something like the American Indian Arts and Music Festival at Casa Grande might be right up your alley. Otherwise, head straight to one of her favorite destinations.
Don’t Forget Tuzigoot
“Most people fly into Phoenix and then radiate out from there,” explains Hart, so most visitors head north on Interstate 17 in order to get to the Grand Canyon. And although Montezuma Castle (a 20-room dwelling nestled into a limestone cliff), is right on the way, most folks skip the fantastic Tuzigoot. This “hands-on experience” is only 25 miles out of your way and, unlike Montezuma, you can actually walk around inside the pueblo dwelling and touch its, says Hart. Bonus: The entrance fee for one park covers the other, too.
Related: A Guide to Crater Lake National Park
Check Out an Off-the-Grid Limestone Well
Most people don’t know about the gorgeous sinkhole just one more exit north—the Montezuma Well, says Hart. More than 1.5 million gallons of water flow into it daily, it has stayed at precisely 74 degrees for years, it’s got 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 like.
See a Lava Corncob Cast
Continuing north on 17, you’ll encounter a trio of monuments: Walnut (where you can see farmers’ dwellings in the canyon) Wupatki (ancient pueblos amongst the red rocks), and Sunset Crater, which has “one of my favorite artifacts ever,” rhapsodized our archeologist. When this volcano erupted about 900 years ago, it sent ash and lava everywhere, and preserved a perfect impression of a solitary corncob. Stop by the visitors’ center to marvel at it.
Related: A Guide to Denali National Park
Head West to the Grand Canyon
Most people head west out of Flagstaff to get to Grand Canyon, points out Hart, even though “Grand Canyon Village gets really, really crowded.” If you take 89A north instead, and then head west on 64 at Cameron, “you’ll enter the south rim on the east side and it’s a little less crowded.” Or check out the north rim of the Canyon, if you can get up there. (Warning: The north rim’s snowy season is from Halloween right through late spring!) A lot of non-locals forget just how high the rim of the canyon is, says Hart, and how easy it is to get sunburned or dehydrated up there. Ironically enough, the canyon gets much hotter as you climb down into it, so layer smartly, bring a ton of water and salty snacks, and listen to safety advisories.
Hike in the Petrified Forest
The iconic Petrified Forest, with its towering, oddball rock formations, is “amazing,” says Hart, and local off-the-beaten paths include the Devil’s Playground, where lucky permit holders can get a closer look at the hoodoos caused by the erosion of clay soil.
Visit the Casa Grande Owls
An hour’s drive south of Phoenix is Casa Grande, a 650-year-old house with an odd, 1930s-era hat of a roof that great horned owls have begun to nest in, says Hart. The house is incredible, too. “You can go see what people did when they didn’t have Walmart or Costco," said Hart. "They made amazing dwellings that were quite functional.”
Related: A Guide to Canyonlands National Park
Admire the Saguaro Petroglyphs
Get your cacti and prehistoric rock carving fix at Saguaro, the part of the world where John Wayne filmed his movies—really! Signal Hill is a popular spot for marveling at the petroglyphs (ancient etchings in rocks).
Head to the Mexican Border
Traveling south toward the border, take a day to check out Tumacácori, a stunning piece of architecture where Apache, O’odham, and Yaqui people once mingled with Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, soldiers, and settlers. Come December, visitors can even partake in an annual fiesta.
Get a Souvenir Coin
If only every workout came with a reward: As part of the “Hike for Health” challenge, you can hike the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a few hours west of Tumacácori, 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, but completely worth it if you love to be outside.