The Most Beautiful 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, ancient deserts seem painted by unseen artists and waterfalls run both deep-brown and turquoise blue. 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 Monument
Stretching 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.
MORE: Get a closer look at this naturally psychedelic wonderland
I can’t tell you exactly what it was at the time, but something brought me to Arizona… looking back, maybe it was the pull of Seodna’s vortexes. And 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 gem of a town surrounded by forests and red-rock buttes that thrust into the heavens like skyscrapers; all obvious reasons why so many seek out the new-agey Northern Arizona town. 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 the town. What does a vortex feel like, exactly? You’ll have to experience it for yourself in Sedona.
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Mission San Xavier del Bac
Located 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.
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Also 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.
MORE: Grand Falls is trippy. So too are these frozen ones.
Since 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.
MORE: Monument Valley also made our list of Most Beautiful Places in Utah
Bisbee’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 Southern Arizona’s Mule Mountains and just 10-miles north of the Mexico Border, this mining town turned arts 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. What made Bisbee so... Bisbee? After a lucrative and long-running mining boom, creatives from near and far found a home in the sleepy desert town. And there is certainly no denying that the creative influence remains very, very strong today in this underrated small town.
MORE: Bisbee’s lucky… these former mining hubs became ghost towns
Millions 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.
MORE: Check here before you plan any national park visit
For 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.
MORE: Everything you need to know about the otherworldly Antelope Canyon
Located in the Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls -- or Supai Falls -- is undoubtedly a special, dare I say magic,l space. 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 need, really (well, those things anda permit). 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.
This hidden cove is like something taken straight out of a fairytale. Don’t let the fact that it’s only accessible by some sort of watercraft get you down. Borrow a kayak from a friend (everyone knows a guy, right?) and set out on an aquatic quest to discover the green waters of the ever-so-enchanting Emerald Cove for yourself. Begin your journey from Willow Beach and paddle your heart out upstream. You’ll encounter the serene scenic site in no time. There’s 235-miles of picturesque Colorado River shoreline to explore here, too, so it’s not like you’re paddling in a vacuum.