Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. In fact, with its protected petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many national parks and monuments as Arizona.
Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those still waiting to be discovered by the masses.
Grand Canyon National Park
Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world.
At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era. Whether you hike a historic trail like Bright Angel, Hermit, or Kaibab, or enjoy a sunset or sunrise from the rim, you feel like you’re seeing deep into the secrets of the earth.
Wildlife is an often unsung highlight of a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. From bighorn sheep to little brown bats, the canyon is home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic or extremely rare. It is also a great place to spot California condors. Once dangerously close to extinction, the huge birds are now making a gradual comeback with the help of careful wildlife management. In 2018, the Grand Canyon was home to six nesting pairs; watch them soar overhead at Yavapai and Yaki points and Lookout Studio on the South Rim.
Petrified Forest National Park
Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees.
Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper.
But while its name gives away Petrified Forest National Park’s main attraction, the fossils are only part of the story. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock. Leave time for a longer hike, such as the Jasper Forest Trail, along which you’ll quickly find yourself alone in the spectacular landscape.
Saguaro National Park
Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country.
Recognized worldwide as a symbol of the desert, the majestic saguaro can live as long as 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be just two inches high. These ancient survivors only appear naturally in the Sonoran Desert—which stretches across the southwestern United States—and thrive in their eponymous park.
Saguaro National Park
is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features the park’s popular Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.
One of the most popular times to visit Saguaro National Park is late spring into early summer, when the saguaro bloom with enormous waxy white flowers (the Arizona state symbol). But hikers love the park year-round. Take the Freeman Homestead Trail into a desert wash to try and spot great horned owls nesting in the cliff above. In spring, hike the Hope Camp and Ridgeview Trails for some of the park’s most vivid wildflower displays and expansive views into Box Canyon, which is sometimes studded with waterfalls after a rain.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places.
First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C.E., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Canyon del Muerto, Canyon de Chelly, and Monument Canyon contain more than 800 ancient archaeological sites between them and are held deeply sacred by the Navajo and other tribes. Today, Navajo families still farm and spend time in this remote spot in the northeastern corner of Arizona.
Established as a national monument in 1931 to protect vulnerable archaeological sites and artifacts, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
is unusual in that it is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but located entirely within the Navajo tribal homeland. Visitors aren’t permitted to enter the canyon unaccompanied, but self-guided driving tours are available along the north and south rims. On these drives, you can stop at overlooks to peer down at ruins like Mummy Cave, which is carved into the sheer cliff, and Antelope House, standing at the base of the canyon walls. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman.
You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep or horseback tour with a Navajo guide. Half- and full-day tours traverse the rough river bottom and bring you close to ancient ruins, caves, and petroglyphs. If you don’t have time for a tour and can manage a vertiginous descent, the only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person.
There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers; Michael J. Fox—as Marty McFly—zoomed past them in a time-traveling car, the Transformers crashed through them. Thelma and Louise even ran out the final leg of their journey here.