Arizona—the Grand Canyon State—is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. Beyond the iconic Grand Canyon, experiences await you in every direction and in every corner of the state. Arizona is home to 47 national parks, monuments and refuges as well as 29 state parks that showcase mountains, buttes, deserts and hidden lakes. Visitors often start exploring Arizona from Phoenix, the state capital and the fifth largest city in the United States.
Today, Phoenix is a destination as well as a gateway to further adventure in the rugged deserts, lakes and canyons around its edges. Here are some sites to visit around the city:
Phoenix was not the first town to arise along the banks of the Salt River. Explore Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park to see where the ancient Sonoran Desert people once lived and farmed.
The145-acre Desert Botanical Garden strives to be the premier center in the world for the display, study and understanding of desert plants and their environments. Visitors from around the world come here to appreciate the beauty of the garden and to enjoy its outdoor trails, special events and education programs.
The Heard Museum is one of the world’s finest destinations for learning about American Indian arts and cultures with its 11 exhibition galleries, free guided tours, outdoor sculpture gardens, renowned café, art gallery, trading-post style shopping and more. Be sure and watch the Heard’s Native People of the Southwest video series.
There is a reason National Geographic named Phoenix one of "America’s Best Hiking Cities." Phoenix’s South Mountain Park is the largest municipal park in the United States with 16,000 acres and 51 miles of trails for hiking, wildlife viewing or horseback riding. Other Phoenix area trails and desert preserves include Camelback Mountain, Shaw Butte and Piestewa Peak. The Tonto National Forest is another “backyard” desert playground for urban dwellers—tubing on the Salt River is an Arizona summer tradition!
If you’re traveling from Phoenix toward Tucson on Interstate 10, it is just a short side trip to the town of Coolidge to visit Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. Here the ancient, four-story Casa Grande or “Great House” still stands. Check the park website for a map and directions and be sure to read our Spotlight article on Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
From Casa Grande Ruins as you drive south on Interstate 10, be sure and look to the west for the distinctive 1,500-foot peak. Picacho Peak State Park is known for its hiking trails, for spring displays of Mexican Gold Poppies and for reenactments of a Civil War skirmish that occurred here. From the interstate, also keep your eyes peeled for the Ostrich Ranch at the foot of the peak!
With 350 days of sunshine, Tucson and the surrounding area is a great destination for outdoor, historical and cultural adventures. Start exploring some of the area's history with a walking tour along the turquoise line of the Presidio Trail in downtown Tucson. Then check Visit Tucson for more ways to discover this enchanting area!
The Arizona State Museum celebrates the state’s enduring cultures with exhibits on Arizona, the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
Saguaro National Park’s two districts are separated by Tucson’s one million residents. The Rincon Mountain District (east of the city) is known for its towering “sky island” mountain peaks. Drive or bike the scenic Cactus Forest Loop or enjoy wilderness hiking. The Tucson Mountain District (on the west) is known for its first-class visitor center, stunning stands of saguaro cacti, hiking trails and desert scenery. The Tucson Mountain District also provides easy access to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as well as Old Tucson, a theme park and movie studio.
Don’t let the word “museum” fool you! At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum you’ll find yourself eye-to-eye with 300 animal species including mountain lions, prairie dogs, Gila monsters, hummingbirds and more. The 21-acre walking museum includes animal enclosures that blend into the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where you will also see more than 1,200 kinds of plants along two miles of footpaths.
Recreation activities on the Coronado National Forest are nearly as diverse as the people who come to visit. Desert dwellers find any water source irresistible, which explains the popularity of Sabino Canyon . Book one of the popular Sabino Canyon ramadas for a picnic, hike the Sabino Canyon trail or the more rugged Bear Canyon trail, or take a guided tram tour.
The forest is also known for its “Sky Islands”—mountains strung across southern Arizona separated by “oceans” of desert. A drive on Pinaleno Swift Trail Scenic Drive is the equivalent of traveling from Mexico to Canada (in terms of plant life). Mt. Lemmon is the quintessential Sky Island—whether you want to enjoy mild winter temperatures in February or beat the desert heat in July, Mt. Lemmon has it all (just choose your elevation wisely). In the winter, you can downhill ski or play in the snow at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley.
Also in this area (east of Tucson) is Ironwood Forest National Monument, a true Sonoran Desert showcase with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 4,200 feet and whose Ragged Top Mountain is the biological and geological crown jewel. Explore Biosphere 2, a three-acre University of Arizona scientific research facility where you can tour five different habitat types under glass: ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a tropical rainforest, savannah grasslands and a fog desert.
Tucson is 25 miles from the Mexico border and the area’s Spanish heritage is in evidence everywhere you look. Be sure and check the National Park Service American Latino Heritage itinerary for even more sites!
Catholic missionaries founded the mission at San Xavier del Bac in 1692. Called the “White Dove of the Desert” it was completed in 1797 and is still an active Catholic church that continues to serve Tohono O’odham. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time.
Father Francisco Eusebio Kino established the mission at Tumacácori in 1691. In 1775, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza of Tubac led 300 people from here to the San Francisco Bay to establish a Spanish colony and presidio. Reserve a place on one of Tumacácori’s guided backcountry tours along a 4.5-mile segment of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, also known as the Anza Trail, to view the ruins of Guevavi and Calabazas missions. You may also be interested in our Spotlight on Tumacácori.
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park preserves the ruins of the oldest Spanish Presidio site in Arizona, established in 1752. It housed cavalrymen to protect settlers from Apaches and Seris and served as a base for further Spanish exploration.
From Tucson, it is possible to plan a loop through southeastern Arizona and include several of the following stops along the way. You’ll find southeastern Arizona’s grassland landscape contrasts with the lower elevation Sonoran Desert areas around Tucson. Between Tucson and Tombstone, you might include a stop at Las Cienegas or Kartchner Caverns. After visiting Tombstone, consider adding San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, or venture to the picturesque mining town of Bisbee. Chiricahua National Monument is also an easy day or overnight trip from Tucson.
At Las Cienegas National Conservation Area on Highway 83 near the town of Sonoita, the Bureau of Land Management manages the Empire and Cienega ranches along with portions of the Rose Tree and Vera Earl ranches. Fans of classic western movies will recognize this landscape of rolling grasslands and oak-studded hills. The area connects several “sky islands” and provides lush riparian corridors that are irresistible to both people and wildlife.
Undiscovered until 1974, Kartchner Caverns opened to the public in 1999. Prime features of this relatively pristine cave (now preserved within a state park) include the Throne Room and the Big Room.
From boomtown to bust, Tombstone earned its nickname, "The Town Too Tough To Die." Visit Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, then walk through the old town and on the same streets where Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp walked 130 years ago.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area stretches from the U.S.-Mexico Border north to Benson. The 57,000-acre area includes 40 miles of meandering riparian area along the upper San Pedro River. There are numerous opportunities for wildlife viewing and birding, picnicking, primitive camping, pre-historic and historic site visiting, hunting, hiking, fishing, biking, horseback riding, guided hikes, interpretive site visitation and weekend children’s programs.
Visit picturesque, historic Bisbee for a taste of Arizona’s mining history. Walk through the Bisbee Historic District, charmingly restored neighborhoods of Victorian and European-style homes perched miraculously on the hillsides. Obtain a map of Bisbee’s “Thousand Stairs” at the Copper Queen Plaza Visitor Center and climb to some of the most beautiful spots in Old Bisbee, or join the annual Great Stair Climb each October.
Chiricahua National Monument preserves a “wonderland of rocks” and many ways to explore and enjoy them. Tour scenic Bonita Canyon Drive, hike the Echo Canyon trail or the Silver Spur trail to Faraway Ranch. Non-reservable camping is available. Wilcox Playa is a fantastic winter birding “hotspot” on the way back to Tucson.
Northeast of Phoenix you’ll find rugged canyons, the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains. Choose any of the routes or stops below to piece together an exciting road trip!
Think Arizona is all desert? Would you be surprised to learn there are 31 lakes in Arizona? Three of these lakes—Canyon, Apache and Theodore Roosevelt—are on the Salt River within the Tonto National Forest. Lake Roosevelt is the furthest from Phoenix, but the paved highway makes it the easiest to reach (check the Roosevelt Lake page for directions). Spend a day here boating, fishing, birding or hiking. From the Roosevelt Dam, you have the choice to continue on pavement via Highway 188 to Globe, Arizona, (be sure to visit the ancient cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument), then follow US 60 back to Phoenix. Or try the alternate, more adventurous (unpaved) route, the 39-mile long, winding dirt Apache Trail Scenic Byway (Highway 88). The Apache Trail travels through the rugged Superstition Mountains and the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area. The scenery is awe-inspiring, but only if you do not mind heights. Take extra care; sections of the road are one-way with turnouts, and the final stretch of the road includes a 1,000-foot drop while hugging a cliff face (pulling a trailer of any type is NOT recommended). Stop at the vista points to view the scenery and take photographs. To celebrate your safe journey, stop at Tortilla Flat for a break and a meal or to camp.
From the Phoenix area, drive east on US 60 to Superior where a visit to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum will instill an appreciation of arid-land plants. Continue to the historic mining towns of Globe and Miami, and after entering the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the highway drops 2,000 feet and makes a series of hairpin turns to the Salt River and a landscape of mysterious valleys, rocky spires and vertical cliffs. Whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing are some of the attractions when the river runs high from melting snow in the White Mountains. Continue on US 60 to the town of Show Low on the Mogollon Rim (made famous by western writer Zane Grey).
Within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains offer ample opportunities for summer hiking , fishing and mountain biking under the shade of ponderosa pines. Learn about all the things you can do on Mount Baldy, the second highest peak in the state, by downloading the Recreation at Mount Baldy brochure. In the winter, Sunrise Ski Area offers snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and downhill skiing. The White Mountain Apache Tribe also offers recreation opportunities.
If this is your first trip to Arizona, then a trip to the Grand Canyon is a must. The South Rim of the canyon is less than four hours from Phoenix and is open year-round. Travel north on Interstate 17 and you’ll have several scenic “detours” and stops from which to choose on your way to the Canyon.
At Montezuma Castle National Monument the 20-room high-rise apartment nestled in the towering limestone is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America. The site is just a short two-mile side trip from Interstate 17.
From Interstate 17, Highway 260 transports you to the historic copper mining town of Jerome. Once known as the wickedest town in the West, the settlement grew from a collection of tents to a roaring mining community. Learn about life in a copper mining town at Jerome Historic State Park. From Jerome, you can continue to Clarkdale to visit Tuzigoot National Monument or to board the scenic Verde Canyon Railroad. From Clarkdale, you can reach Sedona on Highway 89A.
From Interstate 17, take the Red Rock Scenic Byway (State Route 179) to Sedona (or if you’ve been visiting Clarkdale as described in the previous listing, follow Highway 89A). Read our Spotlight article on Sedona’s Red Rock Scenic Byway. On your way from Sedona to Flagstaff, you can gawk at yet more breathtaking scenery along Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive.
In Flagstaff, Arizona, just two hours north of Phoenix on Interstate 17, you have ascended from the low-elevation cactus forest to the tall ponderosa pines. The snowcapped San Francisco Peaks sit just north of town and are visible for miles. Spend a day exploring the area before heading up to the Grand Canyon.
Take some time to explore historic Route 66 and the Railroad Addition Historic District. Visit the Museum of Northern Arizona for exhibits that explore the unique cultures of the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and other Native American tribes that live on the Colorado Plateau. Stop at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park and learn about the prominent Riordan family. Hike Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona (12,633 feet), on the moderately difficult Humphreys Peak Trail within the Coconino National Forest. The popular 4.75-mile long trail starts at 8,800 feet at the Arizona Snow Bowl ski area and ascends to 12,633 feet (the elevation gain can be strenuous). Consider ending your day at the Lowell Observatory (hours vary by day and season). Flagstaff is the world’s first designated International Dark Sky City and the chances are good you’ll have spectacular views of the night sky.
Learn about the recent, in geologic terms, volcanic activity that occurred in northern Arizona during the 11th and 12th centuries by visiting Sunset Crater National Monument. At nearby Wupatki National Monument follow the scenic drive to view examples of ancient pueblos.
You’ll pass through the Kaibab as you travel north from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon. The Kaibab offers layers of opportunity for peace, solitude and discovery, including four designated wilderness areas and numerous opportunities for hiking, hunting and fishing. The Kaibab also offers Ten-X Campground which is a good alternative to busy Mather Campground.
From Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon is about 90 miles. If Grand Canyon National Park is your final destination, the South Rim makes a great base from which to explore. Just be sure to stay here for a while—you need more than just a few hours to experience this wonder!
Travel north from Flagstaff on US 89 to US 89A (alternative) and you might view California Condors along the face of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, or visit Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where Lake Powell and its unique red-rock and slot-canyon rich shoreline stretch for hundreds of miles from Page, Arizona, or hike or camp at Jacob Lake Recreation Area en route to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
If your plans include venturing beyond Arizona’s borders to Las Vegas, California or into the Grand Circle of the American Southwest, be sure to check Destination: Las Vegas, Destination: Colorado as well as the National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage List of Travel Itineraries that include American Southwest, American Latino Heritage and Route 66 itineraries among many others.