The ghost towns and prehistoric ruins of the Grand Canyon State are layered with cactus forests, Joshua trees and fossilized tree trunks. Here are 9 interesting places to visit in Arizona.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Visitor Center 3 miles from Chinle on Route 7
Of all the spectacular canyons in Arizona, Canyon de Chelly is, in the eyes of many, the one possessing breathtaking beauty. Two scenic roads lead to lookouts with magnificent views of deep-hewn trucks, sandstone spiers soaring skyward, the Rio de Chelly flowing along the valley floor, and the ancient caverns of representatives of the Pueblo people, along the cliffs.
Since the Navajo live in the monument, visitors are only allowed in certain areas when accompanied by an authorized guide. The White House Trail is the exception, and the trail zigzags along a cliff to reach the bottom of the canyon, about 180 meters below. Although it seems impassable from above, the track is perfectly safe, as long as you have good shoes.
For a closer view of the ancient caverns, cross the Rio de Chelly and follow a track along the river. You will find ruins at the base of the cliff. Above you will see the ruins of the White House, perched on a deep ledge within the sandstone cliff. It will be strenuous to get back up the cliff, but the whole adventure is memorable. Check flood alerts at the Visitor Center before visiting. Additional excursions and ATV rides can be arranged, but reservations are required.
The center is open year round.
For more information: nps.gov/cach ; (928) 674-5500
The Hopi Cultural Center
The Hopi are believed to be descended from an agricultural people who first settled in the Southwestern United States 1,500 or 1,600 years ago. Today, the Hopi Villages, a fascinating blend of modern technology and ancient architecture, sit on three desert mesas.
The Hopi Cultural Center on the second mesa has a museum that also serves as an informal visitor center for the entire reservation. Exhibits chronicle the tribe’s long history, from the earliest times to the present day, including the Navajo, Spanish, and American invasions of its territory.
One of the most popular exhibits involves the kachinas, goddesses central to the Hopi religion. Among the artifacts on display are Hopi wedding garments, fine jewelry, pottery and baskets. Both the museum and the nearby Hopi Craftsmen’s Guild offer opportunities to observe various artists at work.
The museum is open daily, but hours can change frequently from November to January. Admission fee.
For more information: hopiculturalcenter.com ; (928) 734-2401
Hubbell Trading Post Historic Site
A visit to this trading post located on this 160-acre lot recalls the site’s heyday, when the trading post served as a social center for Navajo people.
Established in the late 1870s by John Lorenzo Hubbell, it is the longest operating trading post in Navajo territory. Now owned by the National Park Service, it sells Navajo, Zuni and Hopi foods and wares – turquoise and silver jewelry, rugs, towels and baskets. They speak English and Navajo.
It is possible to take the guided tour of the Hubbell House, which looks very much like it did 100 years ago. There are period wooden ceilings and the building is filled with superb Native American works. Then come through the farm, which the park decided to bring back to life with a garden to grow vegetables, terraced fields, Navajo-Churro sheep, Angora goats and other animals.
Admission fee. Open every day except on winter holidays.
For more information: nps.gov/hutr ; (928) 755-3475
The Joshua Trees of the Hualapai Valley
Turn east from Route 93 on the Pearce Ferry Route toward Dolan Springs
Believe it or not, these peculiar-looking trees here in the desert are members of the lilac family. They can grow up to 12 meters, and are covered with magnificent green-yellow or cream flowers in spring. According to legend, the Mormons gave this tree its biblical name because of its shape, with its branches pointing upwards, which reminded one of the prophet Joshua praying.
You will see the first Joshua trees beyond Dolan Springs. As you continue the trees will get taller and more frequent until finally after about 30km along the road you come to a forest.
The eerieness of the scene is made even more evident by the dramatic backdrop of the Grand Wash cliffs. There are a few facilities, but otherwise you will find yourself alone in the solitude of the desert. Everything is more than 1 km above sea level, so the temperature will not be oppressive.
Accessible year round.
For more information: americansouthwest.net/arizona/pearce_ferry ; (928) 767-4473
Colorado River Indian Tribes Museum
Second Avenue and Mojave Road, in Parker
Four different tribes live on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which extends into California. The Mojaves, Navajos, Hopis, and Southern Paiutes, who are known here as the Chemehuevis; all share a territory of nearly 300,000 acres. The purpose of the museum is to present the typical ways of life, stories and cultural characteristics that distinguish the varied cultures of these four tribes.
Outfits and models of the traditional houses of each tribe are presented, in addition to historical artifacts. The nearby ghost town of La Paz provided some long-standing pieces. Notable pieces on display include Mojave marble arrangements, Hopi kachina dolls, Navajo rugs and Chemehuevi baskets. Several pieces are for sale.
Open Monday to Friday, except public holidays. Admission is free, but donations are suggested.
For more information: (928) 669-7037
Petrified Forest National Park
I-40, sortie 311, Petrified Forest
The geological history of the park begins more than 200 million years ago, when trees of the same family as pines were transported here by water and buried in the mud of a major floodplain. The silica-rich waters slowly soaked the trunks. The silica eventually crystallized, turning the trunks into multicolored stone. Millions of years of erosion have created the region’s magnificent mesas, rugged lands and buttes, in addition to exposing the trunks.
The Rainbow Forest Museum, located at the southern end of the 45 km road that crosses the park, has exhibits that explain the paleontological characteristics of the area. Extraordinary specimens of fossilized logs along the mile-long Giant Logs Trail just behind the museum. Trails lead to Agate House, the multicolored ruins of a house built from petrified wood, and Long Logs, where ancient trees have remained intact.
One of the prettiest areas is Blue Mesa, about 20 miles north of Rainbow Forest on the park road. Here, erosion has left the trunks on rocky pedestals. A track of more than a kilometer leads from the mesa to the desert plains below.
Open daily, except Christmas. Admission fee.
For more information: nps.gov/pefo ; (928) 524-6228
Tonto Natural Bridge National Park
Off Highway 87, on NF-583A, 15 km north of Payson
A natural feature created by millennia of melting, shifting and weathering of rock, the Tonto Natural Bridge is a 150-meter bridge that terminates at Pine Creek. It is the most important bridge formed of travertine (limestone rocks accumulated by mineral springs), measuring about 60 meters high and up to 50 meters wide, which soars above an impressive canyon.
On the River Trail – one of three trails that wind through the lower canyon – you’ll see stalactite-like rock formations hanging from the bridge and the canyon walls. The Waterfall Trail takes you to a cave where plants hang from the ceiling.
The canyon and its main attraction were discovered in 1877 by Scottish prospector David Gowan, who hid in one of the many caverns while being pursued by Apaches; he later moved there with his family. Today, visitors tour the canyon and bridge from lookouts and trails.
Open year round. Free.
For more information: azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA ; (928) 476-4202
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
Highway 60, west of Superior
This collection of cacti and other warm climate plants was started in the 1920s by William Boyce Thompson, a mining magnate. The 323-acre living museum has become a stunning botanical garden and research center with over 3,000 species of plants from all over the planet. It is the oldest and largest botanical garden in Arizona.
Nearly a kilometer of criss-crossing paths, mostly flat and easy to navigate, wind through the gardens, and the scenery changes dramatically as you walk. Desert plants, including yuccas, palo-verdes, cholas and a huge 200-year-old saguero cactus seem to be in the wrong place when you look at the lush vegetation near Little Ayer Lake or the pomegranate trees, olive trees and Chinese pistachio trees gathered near a stream.
The plants give off an enchanting fragrance, and almost all year round, some will be in bloom. The best time to visit, however, is October through May. In summer, temperatures can approach 40 degrees Celsius.
Open daily except Christmas. Admission fee.
For more information: arboretum.ag.arizona.edu ; (520) 689-2811
Castle Dome Mining Museum
Route Castle Dome, Castle Dome City
The ghost town – abandoned buildings and dusty streets once roamed by hard-working people dreaming of getting rich – is an integral part of Old West history and legends. Allen and Stephanie Armstrong have dedicated their lives to bringing one of these ghost towns back to life.
In the 1870s Castle Dome City was larger than Yuma and was part of the silver and lead rich Castle Dome mining region, but in the 1990s when mining ceased the city was no longer more than a pale imitation of its former glory. The Armstrongs purchased what was left and spruced up or recreated more than two dozen buildings, including a hotel, church, blacksmith’s shop, saloon, dentist’s office, and precious metals grade office. Each is equipped with period furniture, artefacts and equipment mostly recovered on site and in the mines. The result is a colorful history of mining at its peak. A modern touch has been added: solar power.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from mid-May to September. Admission fee.
For more information: (928) 920-3062
Kartchner Caverns National Park
State Highway 90, Exit 302, Benson
In 1974, two cave explorers discovering the towering limestone mounds at the foot of the Whetstone Mountains followed the trail of a thin fault. To their surprise, they uncovered an extraordinary “living” cavern with formations forming an impressive amalgam of sizes, shapes, colors, descending for miles and continuing to grow.
Visitors can walk through this bewildering underground world and appreciate its impressive speleothems. The Kartchner Caverns are home to several unique formations, from small and delicate to massive ones. Within its walls, explorers will be able to see the first specimen of the formation of quartz needles in the shape of a bird’s nest recorded in a cave, the most imposing column in the state of Arizona, as well as the longest formation straw-shaped United States, measuring more than seven meters. In addition to pointing out the caves‘ particular formations, guides share anecdotes from its prehistoric past and still-active present.
Paleontologists have called this cave a treasure trove of local fossil history, thanks in part to discoveries of specimens including the skeletons of an 80,000-year-old Shasta ground sloth, a 14,000-year-old horse and a 11,000 years old. Today, the cave serves as a nursery for over 1000 female cave myotis bats.
Once outside the cave, visitors can stretch their legs on a scenic trail. The park also offers food counters, picnic areas and campsites.
Open year round. Admission fee.
For more information: azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA ; (520) 586-2283