In the heart of the American Southwest, Arizona is filled with natural wonders, vibrant cities, and charming small towns. The Grand Canyon draws tourists from around the globe, but those who venture deeper into the state will find all kinds of unique places and interesting sites. While cities and towns like Phoenix and Sedona make great vacation destinations, you can head beyond the urban centers to discover Native American cliff dwellings and remnants of ancient cultures, historic ghost towns from the mining days, and a landscape perfect for outdoor adventures. Arizona is home to desert, lakes, mountains, slot canyons, saguaro cactus, buttes, waterfalls, and even a volcano with downhill skiing, all of which offer a world of possibilities for travelers.
1 Grand Canyon
Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking out over the endless ridges of colorful cliff walls and deep ravines, it’s impossible not to be inspired by this natural wonder. The canyon walls glow in the late afternoon sun, revealing hues of orange, red, yellow, and everything in between. One of the biggest attractions in America, and certainly in the state of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is nothing less than spectacular. This incredible landscape has been carved out by the Colorado River, seen in the distance far below.
Most visitors see the canyon from the South Rim, where there are numerous lookout areas all along the road, and walkways running along the canyon’s edge. The North Rim provides a different view altogether, but the road is closed in winter. For those who want a closer look, it is possible to hike down into the Grand Canyon or take a helicopter flight over and through the canyon.
Surrounded by stunning red rock mountains and buttes, Sedona has one of the most beautiful settings in Arizona. About a 1.5-hour drive north of Phoenix, Sedona is a popular day trip from the city, but the town is worthy of much more than just a few hours. The drive into town from the south, through the Village of Oak Creek, is stunning and offers numerous scenic pullouts.
Sedona’s main street (89A) is full of interesting tourist shops, art galleries, and restaurants and is an easy place to spend an afternoon. All around Sedona, you’ll find great hiking and mountain biking trails, but Jeep tours, one of the most popular things to do here, provide an even easier way to get out into the landscape. Also in the surrounding area are a number of ancient Native American dwellings, which you can visit on your own or as part of a Jeep tour.
Sedona is considered by many to be a highly spiritual place. It is known for its energy vortexes, found at a number of sites around the town. In downtown, you’ll also find New Age shops and unique opportunities, from UFO tours and aura readings to psychics and crystal sellers.
3 Monument Valley
One of the most iconic images of the Southwest is the sandstone buttes that dominate Monument Valley. This area, straddling the border between Arizona and Utah, includes jagged rock formations, stone spires and buttes, and sand dunes. At the heart of the valley is the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, where you’ll find an impressive visitor center and a 17-mile self-drive route along a one-way gravel road through the park. You can also take a guided tour to explore the area more thoroughly. If you don’t have time to go into the park, you can appreciate some of the views from the highway.
4 Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water, desert landscape, and dramatic stone walls. Home to Lake Powell, one of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for both land-based and water-based recreational activities.
The Glen Canyon Dam was constructed between 1956 and 1964 to block the Colorado River and create Lake Powell. There is still a 15-mile section of Glen Canyon downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, which stretches from the dam down to Lees Ferry.
The town of Page is a good base for exploring the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and surrounding region. The largest marina on Lake Powell, Wahweap Marina, is located just 7 miles north of Page. One of the area’s biggest attractions is the nearby slot canyons of Antelope Canyon. Depending on the section of the canyon, visitors can either simply walk through a narrow slot canyon with shafts of light penetrating through the top, illuminating the red walls, or repel down into a canyon. Photos of Antelope Canyon are often found on postcards or in fine art galleries. Visitors can visit Antelope Canyon on a guided tour.
Phoenix is a great base for exploring Arizona but it’s also a major destination in the winter for golfers and sun-seekers, who simply want to enjoy a stay at a resort or spa and spend a little time basking in the heat of the desert. In the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, which includes Scottsdale and Mesa, you’ll find great shopping, dining, golf courses, desert parks for walking, hiking, and biking, and some outstanding attractions. Topping the list of places to visit around Phoenix are the Heard Museum and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.
6 Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam is one of the world’s great engineering marvels. This massive structure, completed in 1935, crosses the Colorado River, linking Arizona and Nevada. It is 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. Lake Mead held back by the Hoover Dam, is the largest artificial lake in the United States. It is 110 miles long and holds the equivalent of two years of flow of the Colorado River.
Visitors can drive or walk across the dam for free, although there is a charge for parking. Another option is to take a tour of Hoover Dam or the Powerplant. On-site is the visitor center, with information on the dam and tours, and a café with some basic food options.
Located along a mountainside high above the desert floor, Jerome is an old mining town, turned ghost town, turned tourist attraction. A steep hill with switchbacks is the main street through town, and where visitors will find interesting stores and restaurants. Views from the streets and some of the shop windows are amazing. Many of the old buildings have been renovated but some still stand as ruins, creating a very interesting dynamic. This town is a popular day trip from Sedona, Prescott, Phoenix, or Flagstaff. There is also accommodation for those who want to spend the night. The town’s history can be appreciated at the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.
This town is unique, to say the least, and has many interesting and quirky sites. The Sliding Jail in Jerome was originally built around 1928. Built on a clay slick, it soon began to slide and now sits 2,500 feet from its original location. The Jerome Grand Hotel, built-in 1927, is the highest public building in the Verde Valley, and it offers breathtaking views. The Bartlett Hotel was once one of Jerome’s finest hotels but today stands in ruins.
8 Havasu Falls
Near Supai on the Havasupai Indian Reservation is the 100-foot Havasu Falls. The pools at the base of Havasu Falls have a bluish-green tint to the water, and the fall is forked so it appears that there are two falls when the river is flowing heavily. In the canyon of Havasu Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, some 450 Havasupai Indians (the “people of the blue-green water”) live a secluded life, subsisting on their modest farming activities but now mainly dependent on the tourist trade. In this paradisiac valley, Havasu has created a number of waterfalls and carved out basins in the travertine rock which form attractive bathing pools.
Day hiking is not allowed here. Visitors need to make reservations, obtain a permit, and pay a fee. Access is via a long hike, horseback or mule, or helicopter.
9 Canyon De Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is home to spectacular Native American cliff dwellings set along steep-sided canyons, with walls up to 1,000 feet high. In the main canyon, some of the key attractions are the White House Ruins, constructed circa 1050 and discovered in 1849, and Spider Rock. The White House is the best known of the more than one hundred cliff dwellings. The only self-guided hike in the park, which leaves from the White House Overlook on the South Rim, descends 600 feet to the White House Ruins. Other cliff dwellings include the Antelope House and Mummy Cave (in which mummies were found) in the Canyon del Muerto. Most of the ruins, which are largely inaccessible to visitors, were occupied from around AD 350 to 1300.
You can tour the site on your own by driving along the North and South Rim Drives and stopping at the pullouts. Although you can easily see ruins nearby, many of the lookouts also have scopes that let you pinpoint ruins on the distant walls. From spring until fall, you can join a free ranger-led hike or take a private tour of the canyon.
In the far south of Arizona, near the Mexico border, is one of Arizona’s most interesting towns and possibly one of its best-kept secrets. The former mining town of Bisbee is a unique little community set high in the mountains.
After the mines here closed, Bisbee became a ghost town, and squatters took up residence. Eventually, the town became a haven for artists and hippies. Today, it is a prosperous small town with an eclectic mix of residents, all kinds of unique shops and restaurants, and many interesting things to see and do. Homes, many of which are former miners’ cabins, line the hills surrounding the historic downtown area. Many of these residences are only accessible via long sets of stairs that lead to the town center below. Views from the upper streets and hillside homes are incredible, looking out over mountains all the way to Mexico. In the hills above the town are a number of informal hiking trails.
Bisbee is a popular day trip from Tucson and surrounding areas, often combined with a stop in Tombstone.
11 Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead National Recreation Area spans 177 miles of the Colorado River and includes Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. The area’s 1.5 million acres stretches into southern Nevada.
The area offers boating and water sports, camping facilities, fishing, and hiking opportunities. Lake Mohave is 67 miles long, making it the smaller of the two major lakes in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Like its counterpart, Lake Mohave is an artificial body of water, held back by Davis Dam. Willow Beach is a small resort town on the Colorado River with accommodation, restaurants, a marina, and fish hatchery.
Tombstone offers a modern look at an Old West town. Staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costume recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town. Every shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind, but you can still see some of the town’s history in the historic sites, including the famous O.K. Corral and the Boothill Graveyard. Also of note is the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, housed in the original courthouse, which is now a museum.
13 Petrified Forest National Park
Large pieces of petrified wood, along with fossilized plants, fish, and reptiles, have been revealed in great numbers in what is today Petrified National Forest in the Painted Desert. The park access road allows visitors to drive passed many of the highlights and short interpretive trails allow for close up looks at a variety of unique sights. The Visitors Center provides insight into the ecology and geology of the park and is a good place to start before heading out on the drive.
14 Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is a great place to experience the desert landscape around Tucson and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. The park has two sections, an east, and a west portion, located on the east and west side of Tucson, approximately 30 minutes apart. Both offer great opportunities to see the desert flora and fauna with roads and hiking trails. Hikes range from easy walks to challenging trails that lead up into the high mountains, reaching up to 8,000 feet in elevation. Visitors can visit both sections of the park on the same entrance ticket or park pass.
15 Antelope Canyon at Page
Seen in countless photographs in galleries all over Arizona, Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon located just outside of Page. The sculpted, twisting sandstone walls rise up around you, with shafts of light breaking through from the narrow opening above as you walk through the canyon. Visitors can tour Upper Antelope Canyon on a guided tour, although once you reach the canyon, you are given plenty of free time to explore on your own and at your own pace. The canyon lies within the Navajo Nation reserve boundary.
16 Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is an International Biosphere Reserve situated in southwestern Arizona, on the frontier with Mexico. The main feature of the monument is the namesake organ pipe cactus, but the area is home to three distinct desert vegetation zones and some 30 different species of cactus. The organ pipes grow up to 23 feet high and bloom from May to July. Because of the often extreme heat during the day, it opens up its flowers only after sunset.
The area can be explored on various roads and hiking trails, but the two main scenic drives of note are Ajo Mountain Drive and Puerto Blanco Drive. You can access hiking trails off both of these roads.
17 Tumacacori National Historical Park
Tumacacori National Historical Park, located south of Tucson, preserves the ruins of three early Spanish colonial missions on 47 acres in southern Arizona. San José de Tumacácori and Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi were established in 1691 and are the two oldest missions in Arizona. The third mission, San Cayetano de Calabazas, was established in 1756. The site was abandoned in 1848 due to Apache raids, neglect, and terrible winter. Tumacacori became a national monument in 1908 and the two Spanish missions, Guevavi and Calabazas, were added to the site in 1990.