Arizona’s backcountry has long been symbolic of the American wilds and somewhat synonymous with the rugged seas of desert and bluff, canyon and creek that feature in many of the iconic representations of the Wild West, from Clint Eastwood cowboy films to roaring packs of motorcycles on the ubiquitous Route 66. What’s more, Arizona is one seriously big state (the fifth largest in mainland North America no less!), encompassing lands as far south as the Mexican Bajas and as far north so as to swallow tracts of the Colorado Plateau’s spruce and fir forests. With such a kaleidoscope of environments in mind it’s perhaps not surprising that Arizona is home to a seriously formidable array of national parks and preserves as well. Here are five of the best natural hotspots within reach of the state capital at Phoenix, ranging from the weird and wonderful Petrified Forest to the breath-taking Grand Canyon in the north.
The arid and rugged swathes of the Tonto Basin are now iconic additions to the makeup of the Arizonan backcountry and home to this awe-inspiring National Monument, which casts visitors back more than 700 years into the history of the American West – to a time when pre-Columbian tribes dominated this southern backwoods of the country. Don’t miss the pièce de résistance, so-called lower cliff dwelling, where the adobe residential structures of these old cultures are still visible in nigh on perfect condition.
As the onetime home of the Sinagua people, this deep and rugged canyon to the south of Flagstaff is one of the most culturally-interesting National Parks on offer in the west. Visitors are invited to descend more than 6,000 feet from rim to floor, and delve into the millennia of human history that’s made evident by the preserved cliff dwellings and curious human constructions that are cut haphazardly from the rock. Of these, the most remarkable is undoubtedly the Montezuma Castle Monument, which stands, almost suspended, from a sheer rock face in the heart of the park; a veritable must see for any visitor to Walnut Canyon.
Split either side of the city of Tucson this arid patchwork of undulating desert hills and formidable cacti plants encompasses parts of the great Sonoran Desert (which stretches from inland Arizona to coastal California and even dominates some parts of the north Mexican Bajas) and both the Rincon and Tucson Mountain Ranges. There are individual visitor’s centres open to tourists in each of the two sections of the park, where guests are introduced to the curious flora of the desert-covered American west, from the giant and prickly saguaro cactus to the climate-defying shrub species that cling so unceremoniously to the bluffs.
This alien landscape of wild, red rocks and oscillating sand dunes has attracted eco-tourists to Arizona for quite some time. It encompasses swathes of old Indian tribal territory and displays some of the veritable natural wonders of America; from the pyramid-esque Tepee mounts, to the sun-scorched badlands near Tawa Point. But, while the panoramic vistas here are breath-taking to say the least, the vast collections of petrified woodland has also made it a much-coveted destination among geologists and geographers seeking insights into the past.
If there was ever a national park that needs no introduction, surely, this is it. The Grand Canyon is one of the North American continent’s defining natural wonders; 270 miles of sheer cliff faces and deep gorges carved out of Arizona’s northernmost wilds. Layer and layer of exposed rock has allowed scientists and geologists here and unrivalled glimpse at billions of years of natural history, while there’s also a collection of interesting Native American historical sites nestled deep in the nooks and crevices of the canyons. And, if that’s still not enough, just think of the views!