We’ve all heard of the Grand Canyon. Many of us have hiked it. The desert state may seem like a harsh and unforgiving environment, but for those who pay attention, there are plenty of other natural wonders to discover. Step outside your comfort zone and discover Arizona’s other gems: the explosion of golden poppies outside Phoenix, one-of-a-kind rock formations, the state's ghostly history, and spectacular sunsets.
Chiricahua National Monument: The Place Where Hoodoos Reside
You’ve no doubt visited or at least heard of Utah’s world-renowned Bryce Canyon National Park. Less-well known, but no less spectacular is Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument. Set far off the beaten path on the Heart of the Rocks trail, you have the opportunity to view thousands of peculiar “hoodoo” rock formations. Often covered with lime green algae, these grayish-brown volcanic rocks have been weathered into pinnacle shapes so intriguing, they will have you itching to climb all over them.
Picacho Peak: A Riot of Color
People have used this distinctive peak as a landmark since prehistoric times, so no need to fret about not being able to locate it. Rising up 1,500 feet abruptly from the flat desert floor, Picacho Peak is where you should go if you’re looking for spectacular splash of color in the drab desert. Every spring, millions of poppies burst out of the dry soil creating golden fields highlighted with purple lupine and orange globemalllow.
The color doesn’t end there. If you’ve never seen an Arizona sunset, they're some of the best in the country. Perhaps it’s the raw, searing splash of reds, ambers, and deep violets. Or maybe it’s the tall saguaro cacti, silhouetted against the sky. If you take Sunset Vista trail to the top of the peak, you can catch a 360 degree view of your surroundings as the sun sinks deep below the horizon.
Jerome: A Relic of the Wild West
A place where phantoms of years past roam the streets, buildings have been known to slide straight off the mountain face and the cemetery harbors victims of ghastly mining accidents. Copper mining used to be the main economic draw. Now it’s tourism.
Anyone who traverses Jerome today will see antiquated buildings standing almost exactly how they were a hundred years ago when they sat on the second largest privately owned copper mine in the world. Hunt down a local tour guides to get a better sense of Jerome’s lawless past and hear about legends of old. They can steer you through what was once known as “the wickedest town in the West” (thanks to the large number of saloons and brothels). In your rush to soak up Jerome’s fascinating history, don’t forget about its modern attractions as there are definitely some characters worth meeting in its sizable art community.
Reavis Ranch: An Unexpectedly Tasty Hike
Although Arizona contains plenty of worthwhile hiking trails, the reward at the end of this trek through the Superstition Mountains is one-of-a-kind. And the scenery along the way isn’t too shoddy either.
There are three trail options but the most scenic leads you up through the rugged terrain to Reavis Saddle. From the saddle, the trail descends pleasantly into pine trees, meadows and past a meandering creek. The old homestead you’re hiking to was built in the 1870s by Elisha Reavis, the first known Anglo-American to settle in the area. This grizzled recluse created a farm and planted orchards along the creek that runs through the valley. Although now very overgrown, they still produce rather tasty apples. Eat up! There aren’t many places in the middle of the Sonoran Desert you can find fruit like this, free for the picking. It's your very own Garden of Eden.
Navajo National Monument: Ancient Ruins
Like many of the stunning natural features in Arizona, Tsegi Canyon can claim soaring red sandstone walls, sparse vegetation and a vast stillness that comes from a place long uninhabited. Within the canyon, however, are man-made creations completely unique to the area itself.
Navajo National Monument exists to protect the prehistoric Pueblo ruins that have survived since the 1200 and 1300s. Betatakin and Keet Seel are several miles away from each other but both are located under cliff overhangs and retain original architectural elements like roof beams, masonry walls and rock art. The sites are not highly publicized due to their remote location and the restrictions placed on visitor access. However, if you’re one of the lucky few to snag a spot on one of the guided hikes, know that you’ll be experiencing one of the best preserved Anasazi cliff dwellings in the world.
Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area: Get One With Nature
It seems impossible that a location offering kayaking, rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and four-wheeling would be off-the-beaten path, but that happens to be the case at Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. The roads leading into this preserved nature area are unfriendly and you won’t find a visitor’s center (or really any well-established infrastructure) but to the well-prepared and adventurous spirit, there’s no shortage of things to do. For a more mellow excursion, take a seat and watch the birds flit by (there are over 200 species that call the area home), explore prehistoric cliff dwellings, and keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep and other native wildlife.
Kartchner Caverns: A Well-Kept Secret
Kept a secret for 14 years after its initial discovery, Kartchner Caverns is still relatively unknown to outsiders.
Considered one of the top 10 limestone caves in the world, the caverns boast the world’s longest soda straw stalactite (more than 21 feet!), the impressive Kublai Kahn stalagmite, a column towering 58 feet overhead and the world’s largest formation of brushite moonmilk. What’s that, you say? Brushite moonmilk? Not actually drinkable or from the moon, the mixture consists of limestone and bat guano, a sparkling-white, creamy looking substance that cave enthusiasts go crazy about. Throw in several species of recently discovered invertebrates and Kartchner Caverns has all the right features to give you a once-in-a-lifetime underground experience.