Arizona; the home of the Grand Canyon, and a bastion of raw wilderness in the American south. Known by many as the land of frontiersmen, pioneers, wild Indian tribes and Mexican travelers, the patchwork of arid cliffs, eerie hoodoos and vast desert lands that weave their way over and under one another around the cities of Tucson, Flagstaff and Phoenix make for one of the best outdoors recreation offerings on the continent, with camping, hiking, swimming, creek walking, mountain biking, wildlife spotting and a great many other activities to boot. Here are five of the top-rated state parks in Arizona, each with its own unique glimpse at the raw and rugged natural world that’s just waiting to be explored in these far reaches of the south.
Visitors leaving their car in this truly dramatic state park are instantly confronted with sheer cliffs and rocky creeks, where the iconic panorama of the Gowan Loop Trail rope bridge only serves to entice one further into the depths of Tonto. While the main attraction is undoubtedly the mind-boggling, 120-metre natural travertine tunnel that is the park’s namesake, the original frontier lodge of the area’s first chronicler, David Gowan, can also be found nearby. Aside from the well-known Loop Trail, there are a number of other short walking routes around the arch, along with a smattering of picnic areas and a gift shop.
The meandering hiking trails at the Red Rock State Park pierce their way through the thick Coconino Forest, leading visitors along paths parallel to the famous Oak Creek waterway. Here the chestnut-colored bluffs of Cathedral Rock rise above a canopy of green and yellow hued sycamore and alder trees, while the daunting precipice of the Mogollon escarpment looms far in the horizon. With good connections to the city of Sedona, the park offers one of the most accessible introductions to the flora and fauna of Arizona’s desert ecosystems.
For more than 40 years Cattail Cove State Park has been offering rest, relaxation and an abundance of outdoors pursuits on the banks of man-made Lake Havasu. Boat rentals and water excursions leave regularly from the moorings here, offering visitors plenty of scope for exploring the curious coves, nooks and crannies that have formed around the miles of Havasu coastline. Guests also get some of the best fishing opportunities on the Colorado River, with striped bass and catfish flocking to the reservoir in great numbers.
Monstrous stalactites and gargantuan stalagmites converge in this subterranean treasure trove of natural wonder close to the city of Tucson in southern Arizona. Visitors enjoy regular tours that encompass the various marvels inside, from the elephantine walls and ceilings of the appropriately-named Big Room, to the record-breaking Throne Room, where it’s possible to spot the world’s largest tubular stalactite! Above ground, the Discovery Center offers all the scientific background needed for a full appreciation of the cave system, along with a gift shop and picnic facilities.
Home to one of the original pioneering irrigation systems in the rocky backcountry of Arizona, this state park now stands as a testimony to the innovative veracity of the region’s first inhabitants. But, despite its overarching historical character, as the name suggests the place is perhaps better known today for its naturally-formed water slide, which shoots daring riders across the rocky floors of Oak Creek Canyon. On-site there are also a number of hiking trails open for most of the year, allowing visitors to adventure deeper into the woods and cliffs around the creek.