It might be an obvious one, but there’s really nothing else we could have put at the top of the list. This dramatic scar in an otherwise nondescript landscape of ponderosa pine forests is the country’s most famous natural landmark. It’s even given Arizona its nickname – The Grand Canyon State. Over millions of years the incredible power of water has carved out the mile-deep canyon, revealing the many layers of rock we see today. The southern section of the national park, which is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019, is by far the most popular place to see this Wonder of the Natural World, however, we highly recommend heading to the North Rim which is open between mid-May and mid-October. Unless you’re travelling in from south-western Utah, it does takes a little longer to reach. But when you get there, the views are just as impressive and there are far fewer people to share them with. And it’s not just during daylight hours that there’s something to see; on the Bortle Scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky, the Grand Canyon is Class 1 – an excellent dark-sky site. On a clear night, stars, planets and even the arc of the Milky Way are visible to the naked eye.
It doesn’t matter how many John Wayne films or car-in-a-desert adverts you’ve seen with those rust-coloured buttes and mesas as a backdrop, you can’t beat experiencing it for yourself. It’s not just the natural features that make the Monument Valley Tribal Park special, there’s a tangible spiritual atmosphere; this land is sacred to the Navajo, just as it was to the Ancestral Puebloans before them. Join a tour of the landscape and you’ll discover the valley’s history, learn the names of the rock formations and hear stories that have been passed from one generation to the next. Round off your time with an overnight stay at The View and make sure you set your alarm for just before dawn – there’s nothing quite like a Monument Valley sunrise.
From 12,000 BC, Ancestral Puebloans lived in the north-eastern corner of what is now Arizona. For reasons that are not clear to this day, entire communities migrated away from the area in the 12th or 13th Centuries AD and their earth and cliff dwellings were left to ruin. If you’re staying in Flagstaff, we recommend visiting Wupatki National Monument to see the remains of an ancient village, or Walnut Canyon National Monument with its well-preserved cliff settlement. If you’re travelling between Sedona and Phoenix, learn more about the pre-historic Sinagua people at Montezuma Castle. Today, over a quarter of Arizona is covered by tribal land and there are 22 sovereign American Indian communities. As you travel around the state you’ll get to know a little more about the culture of the Navajo in the Four Corners region, and the Havasupai whose ancestors have lived in the Grand Canyon for hundreds of years.
Culture, spirituality and natural beauty combine in this desert settlement at the heart of the state. The red rock cliffs create a geological amphitheatre around Sedona and the deep green of the surrounding pine forests create a beautiful contrast against the sandstone. This has to be one of the most scenically spectacular city backdrops in the country. Some visit for the hiking – there are 120 trails in the local area of varying elevation and length – while others come to peruse the galleries in this artsy town or to sample the city’s renowned culinary treats. What really makes Sedona stand out from the crowd is its spiritual side. It’s believed that there are four swirling centres of the Earth’s energy around the city, otherwise known as vortexes. These are sacred to American Indians and have drawn many people seeking spiritual enlightenment to the area for decades.
Perhaps due to the rusty-red landmarks of the state’s north-east corner and the cacti-strewn deserts to the south and west, many people think of Arizona as an arid state. In reality, the landscapes are much more varied than you might expect. Enter Flagstaff, a historic railroad town surrounded by Earth’s largest ponderosa pine forest and sitting in the shadow of the sometimes snow-capped San Francisco Peaks. It’s a gloriously laid-back city that’s full of culture and contented residents who have a love of good coffee and craft beer. It’s also just a short drive from one of the state’s few ski resorts.
The best way to experience the incredible diversity of Arizona is to hit the open road. Our Best of Arizona Self-Drive, a round-trip from Phoenix, is a true celebration of the state. It takes in places you may never have considered visiting such as Lake Havasu, the new home of the original London Bridge, and the city of Tucson in the far south of the state, as well as visiting each of the highlighted destinations on this list.
Thanks to Arizona’s position between other premier road-trip states, it’s easy to drop by on a more extensive itinerary. The natural wonders of northern Arizona are easily combined with Utah’s numerous national parks, while our So-Cal & Arizona Desert Drive Self-Drive from San Diego to Scottsdale, which passes through Palm Springs and Sedona, is an epic desert adventure. And then of course, there’s the Mother Road. Some of the best preserved sections of the old Route 66 can be found in Arizona, so check out the kitsch-but-characterful Americana for yourself in Flagstaff, Williams, Kingman or Seligman.
Scottsdale is the dream post-drive retreat, beautifully enveloped by the Sonoran Desert. It has plenty of luxury resorts, world-renowned spas and golf courses and an Old-West-meets-21st-Century vibe. There’s plenty to do if you can’t stand or sit still for too long – think hikes in the foothills, stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking on the Salt River and horse riding. There are plenty of urban adventures to be had too with theatres, museums – including the highly-rated Museum of the West – and a whole host of art galleries located throughout Old Town Scottsdale.
For many, the chance to live the life of a cowgirl or cowboy in the Wild West is a bucket-list experience. With its railroad heritage, abandoned mining towns and sprawling ranches, Arizona is the place to do it. There are a wide range of Old West relics throughout the state such as reconstructed ghost towns that romanticise the days of outlaws and gunfights, historic trading points, Spanish mission towns and living museums. In southern Arizona, to the south east of Tucson, is one of the most famous Western sites of all – Tombstone – where you can walk in the footsteps of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, major players in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While you’re in the area, we recommend a stay at the Tanque Verde Ranch, a guest ranch hidden away in the Rincon and Catalina foothills not far from Tucson. As well as joining trail rides and horsemanship courses, you can hike, bike and fish or just relax and enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes of southern Arizona.
This feature was published on 3 January 2019. The information within this feature is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of print. Feature by Emma Tibbetts.