Exploring Arizona

When I think of Arizona, I picture it as it might have looked in the 1950s with orange groves, turquoise and pastel houses in Phoenix, Native art and trading posts, saguaro cactus, and mule trips into the Grand Canyon.

I have absolutely no idea where this image comes from and it has only the most tangential relationship to the reality of Arizona either then or now, but it isn’t all fantasy. At some point on every trip here I come across something that is part of that picture. Indeed, on my very first trip I arrived late in the night and awoke in the morning to discover a scene outside my friend’s kitchen window that precisely fit my imaginary picture of Arizona. Her 1950s housing development was Phoenix exactly as I pictured it.

While I regularly visit the Phoenix area, there are still many areas I haven’t visited or have only passed through. Arizona is a big state with much more diversity than many people expect. There is something for everyone here.

The map below is one of my planning tools. It identifies cities and sites I’ve explored or hope to explore someday.

Spring is my favorite time to visit, when the sun is just starting to get hot and the flowers are in bloom. The vibrant colors of the desert in bloom is an amazing sight. Fall is also lovely here. Winters can be cool (or even very cold at higher elevations) and damp. Summer is blast furnace hot in much of the state, but comfortable (or at least bearable) at high elevations.

Note that traveling independently anywhere in Arizona without a car is almost impossible, even in Phoenix. On the other hand, the roads are generally good (if narrow) and the scenery is stunning, making it a perfect state for road trips.

Exploring Arizona

Arizona is a big state. To make travel planning a little easier, I’m dividing it into 4 parts:

  • Northern Arizona, including the Grand Canyon
  • North Central Arizona, an area that wraps around Phoenix to the north and east that includes Prescott, Sedona, Payson and Globe
  • Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun
  • Southern Arizona, including Tucson

Exploring Northern Arizona

 Northern Arizona is dominated by the Grand Canyon. But this part of the state also has forested mountains (complete with ski resorts), ancient cliff dwellings, a petrified forest, and a chance to step back in time along historic Route 66.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has National Park facilities for visitors along both the North and South Rim, with most visitors going to the easier to access South Rim. In addition, the Hualapai Tribe has services and a canyon skywalk on the West Rim along the West Rim.

I visited the North Rim years ago and fell in love. The surrounding area is densely forested, keeping it comfortably cool even in summer and providing a contrast to the red rock.

I finally made it to the South Rim in 2017!

I’d always heard the North Rim was better, but I have to disagree. The canyon looks even bigger and more expansive from the South Rim, with gorgeous colors in the rock. Sure, there are more people, but there is more than enough scenery for everyone.

Antelope Canyon

A number of years ago I saw a picture of Antelope Canyon at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew instantly I had to get there, but, in the end, it happened almost by chance.

Antelope Canyon is part of the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park. There are upper and lower sections of the canyon, both of which can be visited as part of a guided tour. I visited the upper canyon, which is the easiest to access.

This is one of a number of otherworldly formations in the Colorado Plateau. This gorgeous expanse of twisted red rock extends into Utah. It can be a dangerous place to hike, but the scenery is incredible.

Glen Canyon, I mean, Lake Powell

I only know this area from two sources:

  • The writings of the environmentalists who fought, and lost, the battle to preserve Glen Canyon. Their lyrical writing describes a place of majestic beauty. A place that I will never see as it was.
  • Pictures of Lake Powell, dramatic red cliffs rising straight out of the water. It is a landscape that thrills me.

I’m not sure if I have avoided Glen Canyon/Lake Powell because I am afraid that all I will see is what was lost or because I am afraid I might love it anyway.

Taking a houseboat out on the lake is an iconic American experience, and an experience that may not be available for years to come as the water level in the canyon drops. In the end we may have destroyed one of the most visually stunning landscapes in America for no reason at all. I probably should go out on the lake while I can.

Monument Valley

Perhaps the most famous landscape of the American west, Monument Valley is located on tribal lands in the four corners area. While it takes very little time to do a drive through tour of the area, visitors with more time will find a wealth of hiking and off-road tour options.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canyon National Monument may be among the more unexpected stops along historic Route 66. A scenic canyon in and of itself, it also houses a large collection of cliff dwellings. Constructed by the Sinagua about 1100 to 1250 CE, visitors today have the opportunity to walk along a large number of structures.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Located on Navajo lands, Canyon de Chelly National Monument protects a canyon system that has been continuously inhabited longer than any almost any other place in North America.

Petrified Forest National Park

Located along historic Route 66, Petrified Forest National Park offers both giant chunks of petrified wood and surreal landscapes. The petrified wood for which the park is named is found in high concentrations throughout the southern section of the park. The rest of the park is made up of an odd assortment of eroded multicolored hills. It’s an oddly beautiful place.

Historic Route 66

Route 66 ran across northern Arizona on its way from Chicago to California. Winslow, Flagstaff, and Kingman are all located along the historic route, but sharp-eyed drivers can find historic signs and buildings all along the way.

Exploring North Central Arizona

Sedona

Sedona is red rock country, one of the most striking landscapes in central Arizona. Spiritual seekers flock here, but so do adventures of all types. It’s also a busy city with lots of specialty shops and dining options.

Jerome, Clarkdale, and Cottonwood (Verde Valley and beyond)

This trio of historic mining towns along Highway 89A offer visitors a peek into Arizona’s past.

Tonto National Forest

The Tonto National Forest extends from the edge of Scottsdale, south and east beyond Globe and north to Payson and beyond. It includes all of the Superstition Mountains, stretches of saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, pine-covered mountains, and the ancient cliff dwellings of Tonto National Monument.

The Superstition Mountains

Easily accessible from Phoenix, the Superstition Mountains lie at the northeastern edge of the Valley of the Sun. If you don’t want to hike, the Apache Trail Historic highway makes for a challenging, but stunning drive. Mesa and Apache Junction on the west and Globe on the east are the main towns in this area.

The Apache Trail

Winding through spectacular scenery, a trip along the Apache Trail Scenic Byway is a special treat in spring when the wildflowers bloom.

Lost Dutchman State Park

Located along the base of the Superstition Mountains, Lost Dutchman State Park provides an excellent base for exploring the mountains via a network of trails that lead into Tonto National Forest.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Perfect for short or extended hikes, Usery Mountain Regional Park has both developed park areas and plenty of rugged areas.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Along the road to Globe, Boyce Thompson offers acres of native and exotic plants and beautiful hiking trails. Very little of it is a garden in the traditional sense, but it is a spectacular place — especially in spring.

Historic Miami and Globe

Coming from the west, visitors to the old mining towns of Miami and Globe pass through a stunning canyon. Once in the towns, there is an intriguing mix of old and new.

Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

Most visitors to Arizona spend at least some time in Phoenix or the surrounding area, which is often refered to as “the valley of the sun” for its abundant sunshine. Once a collection of independent towns and villages, today it is almost impossible to distinguish where one sprawling community ends and the next begins. Most of that development isn’t lovely, but don’t avoid it for that reason – Phoenix and Scottsdale are developing real downtowns with shopping, arts, and entertainment; there are art and cultural opportunities scattered throughout the area; and the valley’s location at the northernmost edge of the Sonoran Desert means that there is both plenty of options for hiking and botanically interesting landscapes to explore. And, of course, there are an overwhelming number of options for those just looking for a comfortable place to stay with a pool and warm sunshine.

Southeastern Arizona

Tucson

Saguaro National Park

Embracing the city of Tucson, Saguaro National Park preserves a classic cactus-filled Sonoran landscape.

Arizona travel journals

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Arizona”

  1. Arizona is perhaps my favorite state after California. But for its extreme weather I’d probably move there. Because my sister lives there I had the opportunity to visit the state up and down for over 15 years, so I am acquainted with many of the sites you mention here. However, I still have some catching up to do which proves this state makes a great travel destination.

    1. I didn’t know you had spent time here! You probably know things I have missed. I love AZ – there is so much to see. . . although you are right about extreme weather and I can’t say I have a lot of interest in being here in the summer. We’ll have to talk AZ sometime! Thanks for stopping by.

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