Grand Canyon national park
Other canyons on earth are longer and wider (Australia’s Capertee Valley is both) and deeper (Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal), but none is as famous as the Grand Canyon, with its intricate layering, maze-like side canyons, vivid colours and epic visual scale. It’s 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, cutting down through more than two billion years of geologic time, exposing some of the oldest rocks on earth.
To visit the Grand Canyon, in north-west Arizona, choose between the more developed South Rim, which is open year-round, and has drive-up overlooks, museums and mule rides, or the more secluded North Rim, which is higher in elevation and closed to vehicles from mid-October until mid-May because of the snow (skiers and snowshoers are welcome). The average distance across the canyon is only 10 miles, but there are no bridges for cars and the 215-mile drive from one rim to the other takes five hours. Both rims offer lodging and camping options, as well as a selection of trails descending into the canyon. Or you see it from a rafting expedition down the Colorado river.
Top tips Standing on the edge of either rim is awe-inspiring, but nothing beats actually getting down in the canyon. Do not attempt to hike from the rim to the Colorado river and back in one day! To spend the night in the canyon, you need backcountry hiking and camping permits. Or book a mule ride to Phantom Ranch, one of the most remote lodges in the national park system. Summer temperatures can be sweltering in the canyon. Winter is often the best season for hiking, though backpackers should be prepared for snow and ice.
Useful links The Grand Canyon Association, accommodation, hiking, mule trips
Vermilion Cliffs national monument
If you’re visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, make time for a detour to these little-known but spectacular cliffs on the Utah border, near the town of Page The 1,000m cliffs plunge down from the Paria plateau, one of the grandest wildernesses in the country.
There are few trails and no roads in this remote, rugged landscape, but it’s not inaccessible: the area has been inhabited for more than 12,000 years, as evidenced by the ruins and petroglyphs found throughout the plateau. To experience this incredible area on foot, you’ll need some luck in the backcountry permit lottery and some serious wilderness knowhow.
Less wilderness-savvy visitors can settle for crossing the stunning Navajo Bridge, which links the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon, east of Grand Canyon national park. The drive along Alt 89, a paved scenic road, from Navajo Bridge to the North Rim Village, skirts the base of the Vermilion Cliffs.
Top tip The Wave, in the Coyote Buttes North region of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Wilderness, could be the single most psychedelically spectacular rock formation in the country. Only 20 permits a day are given out for access to The Wave. Half are available through an online lottery and half from the visitor centre at Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument in Kanab, Utah, just over the state line from Fredonia.
Useful links Vemilion Cliffs website, wilderness permits, Wave permits
Wupatki and Sunset Crater national monuments
Southern Arizona is the more populous part of the state today, but historically more people lived in the north-central plateau. Home to the ancient Pueblo people (formerly known as the Anasazi) Wupatki national monument, north of Flagstaff, has the ruins of five pueblos, built from slabs of the region’s brick-red Moenkopi sandstone.
Most of the large pueblos at Wupatki were constructed after the violent eruption of the nearby Sunset Crater volcano, in around 1085. Ash was spread over 800 square miles of land, forcing the temporary evacuation of the region. But the ash also improved the soil for farming and Wupatki’s pueblos flourished by 1100. Today, Sunset Crater national monument protects the massive cinder cone volcano and the surrounding lavascapes.
The five largest pueblos at Wupatki can be visited in a day and make for a nice trip from Flagstaff or a scenic detour on the way to the Grand Canyon. Camping is available at Sunset Crater national monument. The Wupatki visitor centre provides trail guides.
Top tip The Wukoki pueblo is a little further off the main road than the other pueblos, but its castle-like stance atop a large rock outcrop makes it the most dramatic.
Useful links Wupatki national monument, Sunset Crater National Monument
Montezuma’s Castle national monument
Montezuma’s Castle has nothing to do with Montezuma, the Aztec emperor who reigned in Mexico long after these cliffside ruins were abandoned. The misnomer was coined by white explorers who rediscovered the ruins in 1860 and reasoned that the spectacular place must have been built for a king.
This cliffside complex, one of the largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, was actually built around AD700 by the Sinagua people and abandoned in 1485, probably after a long period of drought. The 20-room dwelling, which was more of an apartment complex reached by ladders than a fortress, probably housed about 50 people.
An easy paved trail leads out to the ruins. Accessing the ruins via ladders has been banned since 1951, and there are no camping or lodging facilities within the park, but accommodation ranging from primitive campsites to upscale luxury hotels can be found in the surrounding Coconino national forest and nearby Sedona and Flagstaff.
Top tip Skip Interstate 17 in favour of the scenic route Alt-89 to Montezuma’s Castle through Sedona’s spectacular red-rock country.
Useful links Montezuma’s Castle website, Sedona lodging
Walnut Canyon national monument
With its deep, sinuous curves through striking white Kaibab limestone, Walnut Canyon would be an attraction in itself, even without its numerous cliff dwellings. More than 80 single-family homes are found tucked into natural limestone overhangs in this canyon, just 10 miles east of Flagstaff.
The small rooms, just big enough to cook and sleep in, were built between 1125 and 1250 by the Sinagua people, who also constructed the distinctly different Montezuma’s Castle, about 30 miles south. The site was abandoned possibly due to drought or tribal warfare.
Many of the structures in Walnut Canyon can be visited along a paved one-mile loop trail that descends 55m from the visitor centre on the rim.
There are no camping or lodging facilities within the park, but camping is available in the surrounding Kaibab and Coconino national forests and hotels abound in nearby Flagstaff.
Top tip The Grand Canyon International Hostel in Flagstaff provides cheap bunks and private rooms to travellers of all ages, as well as shuttle services to the Grand Canyon, Walnut Canyon and other nearby attractions.
Useful link americansouthwest.net/arizona/walnut_canyon/national_monument.html
Meteor Crater national natural landmark
Around 50,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths roamed eastern Arizona, an iron-nickel meteor the size of three school buses streaked across the sky and slammed into the earth with a force greater than 10 megatonnes of TNT. The impact left a massive circular hole in the earth’s crust, just off the interstate near Winslow. It’s a mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and about 170m deep – and now known as one of the world’s best-preserved examples of a meteor crater.
Meteor Crater is actually privately owned, but it’s open to the public and recognised as a national natural landmark. A well-appointed visitor centre displays copious information about how the crater was formed and its long road to recognition as a meteor crater, as opposed to a volcanic feature. RV and tent camping is also available on site, or down the road at Homolovi state park.
Top tip Visitors are no longer allowed to hike down into the crater, but you can join one of the guided tours that explores its rim.
• Useful link Meteor Crater website/
Canyon De Chelly national monument
Canyon De Chelly is a sacred place. Carved into the sandstone bedrock of north-eastern Arizona, near Chinle, the three spectacular canyons, De Chelly, Del Muerto, and Monument, lie at the centre of the Navajo Nation and at the heart of many native legends.
These canyons have been occupied for thousands of years, more continuously than anywhere else in North America; the Ancestral Puebloans, Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo have all called this place home. Today, Canyon De Chelly is operated as a national monument on Navajo Tribal Trust Land, the only national monument not owned by the federal government.
Because the Navajo people still call Canyon De Chelly (pronounced de-shay) home, visitors are restricted from exploring without a native guide. Unaccompanied visitors can follow the scenic North and South Rim drives, with overlooks along the lengths of the canyons, including at Spider Rock, an iconic sandstone spire that towers 230m above the canyon floor.
To see more, you’ll need to hire a native guide to escort you on either foot, 4×4 or horseback. Book your tour ahead of time or stop by the visitor centre for recommendations. Tent and RV camping is available at the Cottonwood campsite.
Top tip You don’t need a guide to hike down to the White House Ruins, a three-mile circular trek that drops 150m down into the canyon. The trail begins six miles east of the visitor centre along the South Rim drive. Remember, as with all canyons, hiking down is optional; getting back up is mandatory!
Useful links Canyon De Chelly website, tour information
NPS-approved tour companies: footpathjourneys.com, canyondechellytours.com, canyondechelly.net
Monument Valley Navajo tribal park
Monument Valley has long been used as a dramatic backdrop for Hollywood westerns, but the even biggest movie screens don’t do justice to this incredible landscape in north-east Arizona. Monument Valley is named for the dozens of free-standing sandstone buttes and monoliths that tower above the sweeping sagebrush landscape. Bridging the state line between Arizona and Utah, the formations serve as a fitting gateway to south-east Utah’s famous red-rock country.
The land is held by the Navajo people, and visitors must pay an access fee to drive through the tribal park on a 17-mile dirt loop, which is suitable for all cars when dry but impassable after a storm ( usually in late summer). Tours to other areas, such as Mystery Valley and Hunts Mesa, can be arranged at the visitor centre, off Highway 163. There is no camping within the park itself, but many opportunities can be found to the north and south.
Top tip Be sure to get out of the car and experience some this wide-open landscape on foot via the 3.2-mile Wildcat trail, around the West Mitten butte. It’s self-guided and open to the public. Other access to tribal land requires permits and/or guides.
Useful link navajonationparks.org
Petrified Forest national park
Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, what is now eastern Arizona was a humid, subtropical rainforest. Evidence of the arid desert’s greener past is preserved in an astonishing collection of petrified trees within this national park.
During the Late Triassic period, fallen trees were buried by sediment with a high content of volcanic ash. Over the years, quartz crystals gradually replaced the organic wood matter, petrifying the trees. The high quartz content makes the petrified wood very hard: it can only be cut by a diamond-tipped saw.
The national park is also known for its fossils (plants dating back 225m years, reptiles and dinosaurs) and a colourful landscape known as the Painted Desert. The park is bisected by interstate 40, making for a convenient rest stop 50 miles west of the New Mexican border. There are no developed camping or lodging facilities within the park.
Top tip Visit the Rainbow Forest Museum and pick up a trail guide for the ½-mile Giant Logs trail, which features some of the largest and best-preserved petrified trees in the park. Remember: removal of petrified wood or other material is strictly prohibited by federal law!
Useful links: hiking trails, nearby lodging and attractions
Saguaro national park
Few symbols of the south-west are as distinctive as the towering silhouette of a saguaro cactus. But despite their ubiquity on license plates and T-shirts, saguaros are only found within a small slice of southern Arizona. Hundreds of these sentinels, up to 15m tall, are protected within the bounds of Saguaro national park, on the outskirts of Tucson.
Saguaros need all the protection they can get. The giant cactuses can live over 250 years and weigh several tonnes, but their single trunk and relatively soft flesh make them vulnerable to vandalism. In Arizona, harming a saguaro in any way is illegal, with serious consequences such as hefty fines and even jail.
Saguaro national park is split into two districts, west and east of Tucson. More than 150 miles of well-maintained and marked trails wind through the park. Summer temperatures can be deadly, so aim for mornings and evenings in autumn, winter and spring. There are no developed campsites in the park, but walk-in backcountry camping is allowed and a wide range of accommodation can be found in Tucson and surrounding areas.
Top tip Plan to visit in late May or early June, when the Saguaros are blooming with huge white waxy flowers. The nectar attracts all manner of wildlife, including many species of bat and bird.
Useful links hiking, backcountry camping, more camping options
Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance writer and photographer who makes her home on the back roads of North America, living and working out of a tiny solar-powered Teardrop camper
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