The Most Incredible Places in Arizona (That Aren’t The Grand Canyon)
Half the state looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss.
Just over a decade ago I came to Arizona with low expectations and an exit plan. After all, I was leaving the glorious Pacific Northwest for what I thought was nothing more than a big, desolate desert with little to offer beyond the Grand Canyon and a four-year degree from the biggest party school in the country.
I’m still here.
Arizona completely shattered my pessimistic expectations. Where once I was a skeptic, now I’m one of those people that explain away the sweltering summer months with phrases like, “It’s just a dry heat.” Because even in the driest, hottest weather, Arizona is an absolute stunner.
It’s a state where orange-hued slot canyons give the desert a psychedelic vibe, and colorful sandstone formations could trick even the most earthbound explorer into thinking they’ve wandered off to Mars. Here, creative communities with unexpectedly rad food and drink scenes serve as your jumping off point for adventure. Ancient deserts seem painted by unseen artists, waterfalls run both deep-brown and turquoise blue, and campers can drift to sleep beneath an unforgettable heaven of stars.
That canyon? It is indeed grand. But look beyond it and you’ll discover a state whose beauty all but ensures you’ll want to stay for the long haul.
Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentStretching over 290,000 miles in northern Arizona, this sherbet-hued dreamworld is incredibly scenic. Here you can discover Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch, the latter being the longest slot canyon in the world. Adventure seekers can take the path less traveled and conquer the 6.4-mile unmarked hike to The Wave and achieve Instagram glory with an iconic shot from the top of the sandstone formation, which seemingly emerged from a Dr. Seuss drawing. This trip does take some pre-planning; there is a walk-in and lottery system for the 20 permits that the Bureau of Land Management issues each day. Fingers-crossed one of them has your name on it.
SedonaI can’t tell you exactly what it was at the time, but something brought me to Arizona…and looking back, maybe it was the pull of Sedona’s legendary psychic vortexes. I’m not the only one feeling the tug of some sort of unknown spiritual energy: Nearly 3 million tourists visit Sedona annually, a figure that’s tripled over the last decade or so. Just a day trip from Phoenix, Sedona is a new-agey town surrounded by forests and red-rock buttes that thrust into the heavens like skyscrapers. Recognized for their powerful energy and scenic views, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, Airport Mesa, and Cathedral Rock are said to be the strongest vortexes around town. What does a vortex feel like, exactly? You’ll have to experience it for yourself
TucsonDid you know that once a year, over 60,000 crystal aficionados, fossil smugglers, royal princes, and all manner of rockhounds flock to Tucson for the Gem and Mineral Show? Luckily, the vibe in this deeply underrated city is less Uncut Gems-stressful and more easygoing, outdoorsy, and inexpensive—making it a city on the rise for artists and creatives. It’s conveniently nestled between landmarks like Saguaro National Park and Mica Mountain, and home to institutions like the Tucson Museum of Art and the University of Arizona. The aforementioned gem show usually ends without a stark raving mad Adam Sandler risking it all, but who knows? Anything can happen in the desert.
Mission San Xavier del BacLocated just 10 miles from Downtown Tucson, this stunningly beautiful mission was founded in 1692 and built in 1700, which makes it the oldest intact European structure in the state of Arizona and the best example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the country. Referred to as The White Dove of the Desert, the church’s interior is brimming with original statuary and detailed mural paintings that portray motifs influenced by both the Spanish and Tohono O’odham people; a style that is truly unique to Arizona and absolutely unmissable when passing through Tucson or nearby Saguaro National Park.
Saguaro National ParkAbout 20 minutes from Tucson, Saguaro National Park’s giant—and I mean HUGE—saguaro cacti will convince you that you’ve wandered straight into an Old Western. Enjoy the view from your car on either the Cactus Forest or Scenic Bajada Loop Drive; spot ancient rock carvings on the Signal Hill Petroglyphs; or hit the trail at the Valley View Overlook or Mica View Loop. Due to the pandemic, public programs are currently suspended, but all roads and trails are open to the public.
Grand FallsAlso known as Chocolate Falls thanks to the fact that it looks like it’s overflowing with Yoohoo, Grand Falls is a natural waterfall system positioned within the Painted Desert on the Navajo Nation. Topping out at 185-feet tall, Grand Falls is notably Arizona’s largest waterfall (it’s even taller than Niagara). Despite its grandeur and size, Grand Falls isn’t constantly flowing like its counterpart in the east. Fed by the Little Colorado River, Grand Falls turns the faucet on only during certain times of the year, including Arizona’s monsoon season and during wintertime snowstorms. For this trip, timing really is everything.
Monument ValleySince the 1930s, Monument Valley’s iconic desert landscape has been featured in dozens of movies and western-style films. With its tower-like red sandstone bluffs and long-stretched highway, Monument Valley’s panoramic scenery is essentially the picture of the American Southwest. Parts of the area, including Hunts Mesa and Mystery Valley, are only accessible by guided tour. However, road-trippers can drive through the park on a dirt road that winds 17-miles. A trip through the park takes about two to three hours from start to finish.
BisbeeBisbee’s reputation for being a little eccentric isn’t exactly a lie. The town has been nicknamed “Mayberry on Acid.” Hell, they even printed it on t-shirts. Nestled in the Mule Mountains just 10-miles north of the Mexico border, this copper mining town-turned-artist colony provides travelers an offbeat experience against a backdrop of historic mines, psychedelic art displays, houses on stilts, assemblies of art cars, and highly interesting lawn decorations. All of that comes punctuated by old classics, including the century-old Mimosa Market, and newfangled trappings like the Airstream rentals that seem to define the modern day desert vacation.
Painted DesertMillions of years in the making and spanning more than 953,000 acres from Grand Canyon National Park to Petrified National Forest, the aptly named Painted Desert is a living canvas brushed with a palate of red, pink, and lavender, which make for epic sunset views. The unique landscape consists of innumerable impressive formations and features created by volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes. About 25 miles east of Holbrook is Petrified Forest National Park. It takes some imagination to see it, but this area of what we know call Painted Desert was flourishing with vegetation and trees some 200 million years ago before volcanic lava basically destroyed everything in its path. The petrified wood, made mostly of quartz, is all that’s left today.
FlagstaffJust when you think you’ve got Arizona all figured out, she hits you with that UNO Reverse. This time, it comes in the form of Flagstaff, just 45 minutes north of Sedona. Flagstaff seems to make up for what the rest of the state lacks: Humphrey’s Peak, the state’s tallest mountain, replaces the usual sandy expanses. The Arizona Snowbowl, the state’s biggest ski resort, defies the dry desert heat (as does the city’s annual 108 inches of snowfall). A national forest surrounds the town with 1.8 million acres of green ponderosa pine trees where you might expect cacti and tumbleweeds. And if you need a stiff drink to recover from the shock of just how wrong you were, Flagstaff is also known for being one of the Southwest’s best cities for craft beers. If you didn’t know, now you know.
Cottonwood / JeromeCottonwood is the star of Northern Arizona’s sly reputation as a wine region, thanks in large part to Maynard James Keenan—yes, the lead singer of Tool. In 2007, he and a partner launched the Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, now Arizona’s best-selling and highest-volume winery using estate-grown grapes. The fun continues at places like Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria, where you can enjoy local wine alongside hearty Italian food, as the Lord intended. Cottonwood’s restaurant and bar scene is surprisingly hefty for such a small town. And just 15 minutes down the track, the hillside village of Jerome offers yet another Keenan-owned winery, Caduceus Cellars, ghosty attractions like the Jerome Grand Hotel, and the Gold King Mine, where you can explore old mine shafts, a working sawmill, a collection of over 180 rusty vintage vehicles, and even pan for some gold. Make room in your photo roll.
PageFor the uninitiated, Page looks like nothing more than a desolate spot on the map near the statline crossing into Utah. Look a little closer. Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, local secrets for years, have become some of the most photographed natural attractions in the Southwest (thanks, Instagram!). A quick hike will get you to the Horseshoe Bend overlook where you can get a bird’s eye view of the Colorado River and horseshoe-shaped meander below. And in a state with no shortage of unique geological formations, some of the most puzzling and fascinating just be found at Antelope Canyon. Guided tours are required, but the supernatural beauty of it all is definitely worth it.
Located in the Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls—or Supai Falls—is undoubtedly a special, dare I say magic, place. There is a somewhat-rugged 10-mile hike in to see the turquoise blue natural wonder, but sturdy hiking shoes, plenty of water, and a good attitude is all you really need. Absolute must-sees such as Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls, and the confluence of the Colorado River are all within hiking distance from your camp if you’re feeling ambitious. Reservations and permits are required for all hikers and campers, and can be secured online prior to your adventure. As of August 2020, some travel restrictions are in effect.Also note that Havasu Falls is not the same as Lake Havasu City, so don’t rock up to the Grand Canyon expecting to find a secret metropolis. The latter is out on the California border and is just as worthy of a visit to check out London Bridge, the second biggest tourist attraction in the state.