The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Arizona
Sycamore Falls to Saguaro National Park, and every beautiful place in between.
Like many Arizonans, we have an unwavering appreciation for the natural spaces and outdoor recreation destinations found across every corner of the Grand Canyon State. It’s kind of hard not to, as more than half of our state is public land. And since we’re talking numbers, take these stats into consideration as you gear up for your next adventure. Arizona is home to six national forests, 31 state parks, and 24 established sites that include everything from monuments and memorials to historic locations and parks. There's just no denying that Arizona allows an unparalleled glimpse into the desert southwest, where vast red rock vistas coexist with snow-covered mountain tops. And it’s here where you will encounter some of the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen, if you’re just passing through or if you call Arizona home. There’s so much more to the Grand Canyon State than the Grand Canyon. These places prove it.
This year-round outdoor recreation destination boasts bird’s-eye views of the Santa Catalina Range and Coronado National Forest on the journey up to its 9,159-foot summit by way of the 27-mile Sky Islands Scenic Byway. During the sweltering summer months, this seasonal escape is a refreshing 30-degrees cooler than nearby Tucson Valley, which makes the modest mountain town of Summerhaven a popular summertime escape for hikers, campers, and rock climbers. When winter rolls around, Mount Lemmon draws in crowds of skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers all seeking fresh powder, which can be found at Mount Lemmon’s Ski Valley. The clear winter nights from the top of Mount Lemmon provide unobstructed views of the night sky where visitors can gaze into the vast cosmos from the observation deck of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
This “Wonderland of Rocks” is a geology paradise. Encompassing an awe-inspiring 12,025-acres, Chiricahua National Monument’s rugged and rocky landscape has the look of something you’d find on a sci-fi movie set. And it’s the uniqueness of the geologic features that earned this Southern Arizona area its monument designation back in the 1930s. Although unnatural in appearance, the most apparent natural features within park boundaries are the rhyolite rock pinnacles, some of which reach hundreds of feet into the sky. The statuesque natural wonders are beset by shallow caves, mountain formations, faults, ancient lava flows, and Turkey Creek Caldera, a larger-than-life extinct shield volcano. Not to worry, the chance of a volcano spewing is nil, that cataclysmic event happened roughly 27 million years ago.
Those of us who call Arizona home are really lucky. Not only do we have abundant sunshine for most of the year, access to unparalleled outdoor recreation, and an exceptional, and growing, culinary scene, our state is one of few places where the iconic saguaro naturally take root. The unmistakable tree-like cacti species is native to the Sonoran Desert. And the city of Tucson is flanked with miles and miles of desert wilderness areas dedicated to the preservation of the distinct cacti species. Ideally, Saguaro National Park is best explored by trail. Located on the east side of the park, Garwood Dam and Wildhorse Tank is a 6.4-mile moderate hike that will get you acquainted with the terrain. And to the west, Wild Dog Trail provides a lovely, leisurely 1.8-mile introduction to the cactus-dotted desert.
Sure, Havasu Falls may be at the top of your Grand Canyon State travel bucket list. But there’s another impressive Arizona waterfall that you should add to your lineup immediately—Sycamore Falls. Located just south of Williams and hidden among the pines within the expansive Kaibab National Forest, this ethereal waterfall impresses on its own terms and is best viewed during the spring run-off. Without the right timing you might just find a dry pool and daring rock climbers scaling the canyon walls instead of rushing water. After hoofing the 11-mile loop, Sycamore Falls is truly a wonderful treat. And the sights on the way in aren’t too bad either, you can expect pano views of lofty canyons, open meadows, and storybook-like woodlands on your journey into Sycamore Falls.
Stretching over 290,000 miles, this sherbet-hued dreamworld is incredibly scenic. Here you can discover Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch; 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 sandstone formation. 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 ‘em has your name on it.
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 sky like skyscrapers with streets lined with crystal shops and cafes, 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 in town. What does a vortex feel like, exactly? You’ll have to experience it for yourself in Sedona.
Did 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.
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.
Saguaro National Park
About 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 Falls, also called Chocolate Falls for its chocolatey milk-like appearance, is a natural waterfall system positioned within the Painted Desert on the Navajo Nation. Topping out at 185-feet tall, Grand Falls is Arizona’s largest waterfall. And 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 occurs only during certain times of the year, including Arizona’s monsoon season and during wintertime snowstorms. For this trip, timing really is everything.
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 after all. Parts of Monument Valley 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.
Anything goes in Bisbee, really. The town has been nicknamed “Mayberry on Acid.” They even sell T-shirts with the moniker emblazoned across the chest. Nestled in Southern Arizona’s Mule Mountains and just 10-miles north of the Mexico Border, this mining-town-turned-arts-colony grants travelers an offbeat experience against a backdrop of historic mines, psychedelic art displays, houses on stilts, assemblies of art cars, and other 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.
Millions of years in the making and spanning more than 953,000 acres across Arizona, from Grand Canyon National Park to Petrified National Forest, the aptly named Painted Desert is a living canvas of sorts brushed with rich colors in a bouquet of red, pink, and lavender hues 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 now call the 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.
Just 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 / Jerome
Cottonwood 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.
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 and you’ll see that Page has a lot to offer. You just have to know where to look. 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. Arizona certainly has no shortage of unique geological formations. Some of the most majestic might just be found at Antelope Canyon. Guided tours are required, but the supernatural beauty of it all is definitely worth it.
If I could only use a single word to describe this place I would probably land on “magical.” Located in the Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls, or Supai Falls, is unquestionably a special space. There is a somewhat rugged 10-mile hike to see the turquoise blue natural wonder, but sturdy hiking shoes, plenty of water, and a good attitude is all you need, really, other than the permit, of course. 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 from a fairytale storybook. 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.