Arizona offers so much natural beauty. In just a few hours you can go from a desert landscape of stately saguaros to a tranquil setting of ponderosa pines and cooler temperatures. And let’s not forget that one of the seven wonders of the world—the Grand Canyon—attracts people from all over the globe to take in its majesty. If you’re hitting the road through the 48th state, these are the spots that can’t be missed.
THE GRAND CANYON
There's some things that photos can't capture, like the colors and textures that reveal themselves when seeing a famous Van Gogh painting in real life. The Grand Canyon, a masterpiece carved out by the Colorado river, is a similar experience. Standing before its vast expanse of layered rocks fills you with a sense of awe in both its grandeur and beauty. No matter how many images you've seen of the Grand Canyon, it's something that must be experienced firsthand.
The South Rim is the more popular destination, accessible off Interstate 40 from Flagstaff. But for those who want a less crowded experience, the North Rim near Utah is the way to go. RV camping is extremely limited, so check ahead before planning your trip.
There are landscapes in the United States that are world renowned. Yosemite, the Redwoods, and Monument Valley offer scenic panoramas that can’t be experienced anywhere else.
In the northern portion of Arizona, near the Utah border, lies Monument Valley. From the rocky desert floor rises sandstone buttes of reds and browns, reaching into a horizon that seems to have no end. Just like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a must see for any trip through Arizona, and a truly American experience.
Most people will drive over the Hoover Dam straddling the Arizona/Nevada border and not even take notice of the feat of engineering before them.
It’s well worth the diversion, even for a few minutes to take a stroll and stare down its tidal wave of concrete, expected to last for centuries. There are also tours of both the Hoover Powerplant and dam for those who want to learn the massive effort it took to construct, and how it opened the Southwest to new cities and further development.
When driving through the area, you may even see some bighorn sheep among the rocky ridges: keep your eyes open!
A 10-mile trip by hike or horseback, Havasu Falls may be one of the most gorgeous places in the Grand Canyon. With pools of the most turquoise blue filled from cascading waterfalls, and towering walls of jagged travertine rock, it feels like something made up in a fantasy novel. But its beauty is very real.
With a rustic lodge and camping, you’ll find a pleasant slumber in this natural wonderland.
Reservations are hard to come by, with a website that grants them on a lottery system. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll experience a trip you’ll never forget.
GRAND CANYON SKYWALK
Afraid of heights? You might want to sit this one out. But for those who want the experience of walking out 70 feet over the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon Skywalk is a horseshoe shaped bridge of steel and glass, giving you the sensation of walking on air.
Though not as famous as Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend offers another chance to experience some of the best of nature Arizona has to offer. There are plenty of hikes, rafting trips, and even flight tours to take you around this gorgeous southwestern landscape. If you’re traveling through Page, Arizona, Horseshoe Bend is well worth checking out.
From animals native to the southwest—like javelinas, red-spotted toads, and Mexican gray wolves—to exotic wildlife from around the world—like lions, orangutans, and zebras—you’ll find species of every kind at the Phoenix Zoo.
What’s nice is that everything is connected with rustic paths, making it a mainly outdoor experience: perfect for a spring or fall day, or early in the morning during the summer months.
DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN
Right down the road from the Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden is another must-see destination for nature lovers.
Spread out over 55 acres, you not only get to see cacti and flowers native to Arizona, but varieties from around the world. If you’re around during the winter holidays, you must check out their nighttime Las Noches de las Luminarias tour, with luminary lanterns lining the path, creating a southwest version of a winter wonderland.
They also keep their website up-to-date on where Arizona flowers are blooming and where you need to go to experience the floral brilliance of the desert.
Right in the middle of Phoenix is the rising swell of rock that is Camelback Mountain. Though it’s in an urban setting, it’s still a nice slice of the desert to experience. Hiking the 2.5 mile route, up 1,300 feet through Echo Canyon with huge slabs of rock towering overhead, makes you forget that you’re in the heart of Phoenix. This hike is rated as extremely difficult and though it’s short, it can be intense. Don’t even attempt this during the summer as overheating and getting dehydrated are very real dangers.
The alternate Cholla Trail is a bit longer hike, and also rated as difficult, with some steep sections and loose gravel, taking around three hours at a moderate pace. Many choose the Cholla Trail, as there’s more parking available than Echo Canyon. If you’re there at the right time, you may be treated to a sea of orange wildflowers.
With a six-mile hike through a flow of curving sandstone walls, swirled with ridges and lines, The Wave is a favorite among outdoor photographers. Located on the Arizona/Utah Border, it’s 48 minutes from Monument Valley.
The Wave only offers 20 permits per day, with 10 in person and 10 online, to limit visitors’ impact, making it a cherished opportunity to get in. December through February are less crowded, giving you a better opportunity to score a permit.
Some 44 minutes from Flagstaff lies Meteor Crater. Approximately 49,000 years ago an asteroid scorched through the sky, exploding onto the surface and leaving a 570-foot deep and almost one-mile wide crater. For those who love outer space, this is a must-see. For others less inclined… well it’s just a big hole with lots of gravel.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
If you’ve seen one saguaro, you’ve seen them all, right? You couldn’t be more wrong. Close to Tucson, Saguaro National Park is filled with its namesake cactus. If you manage to make it there in late spring or early summer, you’ll get to see these cacti in full bloom, with pretty white flowers dotting the green of their branches.
Along with all of these wonderful saguaros are the animals who inhabit the ecosystem. Black-tailed jackrabbits hop through the pebbled landscape, and there’s the ever present coyote. If you’re lucky, you may see a bobcat. Birders will be excited to spot cactus wrens, hooded orioles, and screech owls, among many others.
With an abundance of plant and animal life, Saguaro National Park is proof that the desert is far from barren.
Launched in 1991 in Oracle, Arizona (close to Tucson), Biosphere 2 was an experiment in sustainability—with a number of different ecosystems interwoven within its glass confines. Scientists planted crops, raised and processed their own animals for meat, and were dedicated to living in a self-sustaining environment. It was an ambitious effort, but problems like ants and cockroaches that infiltrated the space and low oxygen levels complicated things. Scientists managed to make it two years sealed within its structure.
Today, the University of Arizona now oversees Biosphere 2, and they’ve made it an active research facility. They offer tours to the public that get into the science behind Biosphere 2, explaining why their research is so important in studying sustainability. Even if you’re not a science lover, this is such a unique space. Where else can you experience a rainforest, savanna, mangrove and other ecosystems…all under one roof?
Just a short drive from Horseshoe Bend lies Antelope Canyon. With sloping walls of rock, and dramatic light beaming through its crevices, you’ll want to have a camera or smartphone on hand to capture all of its geological wonder. There are two hikes—one for Upper Antelope Canyon and one for Lower Antelope Canyon—each being a moderately easy one-hour hike each.
If you’re traveling through Arizona, you should educate yourself about the First Nations people who originally inhabited it. From weaving to ceremonial masks, dolls, and other art, a visit to the Heard Museum immerses you in Native American culture and history. You’ll walk away with greater knowledge and understanding of the important civilizations who first lived upon this land. The Heard Museum also hosts numerous markets and events, so check out their website to see what’s happening during your time in Phoenix.
OAK CREEK CANYON
On the way to Flagstaff, via Sedona, is the beautiful drive north through Oak Creek Canyon. Dotted with oak and pine trees, you’ll enjoy a gentle winding road that rises in elevation. For those traveling during the fall, you’ll be treated to bursts of oranges, reds, and yellows from the changing leaves. You’ll also find easy hikes and swimming spots throughout its beautiful expanse.
When Frank Lloyd Wright built this part-time residence and place of study in 1937, it was a pristine desert. Now surrounded by homes, Taliesen West is an architectural jewel shining in the suburbs.
Both the interior and exterior have all of the artistry and attention to details that Wright brought to his work. Though the on-site school of architecture is no longer active, it’s still a worthy journey through the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright.
ARIZONA SCIENCE CENTER
With an ever revolving host of exhibitions the Arizona Science Center offers plenty of fun and education. If you’re traveling with children, they’ll find plenty to love at the Arizona Science Center—and so will you. Some of their recent exhibits have included Victoria the T-Rex, the Science of Gross, and Stellar Space Science. Whatever you’re interested in, you’ll no doubt find something at the Arizona Science Center that you’ll enjoy and that will captivate your imagination.
WILDLIFE WORLD ZOO
On the west side of Phoenix in Litchfield park is the Wildlife World Zoo. From the Safari Park full of African animals, like cheetahs and gazelles, to Dragonworld, with its salt water crocodiles, you’ll get to see so many animals rare in these parts. With such a variety of creatures, Wildlife World Zoo offers so much for the price of admission. There’s even an aquarium.
If zipping around on jet skis, boating, or water skiing are your thing, you’ll want to make the 3.25-hour drive from Phoenix up to Lake Havasu. With a surface area of more than 30 square miles, there’s plenty of room to get out there and enjoy all the lake has to offer. There’s also a multitude of RV parks where you can get set up with all the amenities.
Please note: Lake Havasu attracts huge amounts of college kids during spring break. For those who enjoy their quiet time, you’ll want to steer clear during that time period.
Finding your own path
The fantastic thing about Arizona is the diversity of what it has to offer. From the ancient petroglyphs and Native American cultural sites of the desert, to the modern glass buildings dotting the Phoenix skyline, it’s a place of wonderful contrasts.
We hope that you find all that you’re looking for as well as make some discoveries along the way as you travel through this glorious expanse of the southwest.