Arizona’s Geologic Wonders

Arizona abounds in grand canyons, gorgeous gorges, monumental valleys, and numerous wondrous landscapes.

In a state well known for the Old West, sunshine, lost treasures, and gem shows, the nickname Grand Canyon State makes it clear that Arizona is a land of geologic wonders.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is known for its sheer sandstone cliffs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is known for its sheer sandstone cliffs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At more than a mile deep, 18 miles wide, and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, more than lives up to its name. Grand as it is, the Grand Canyon is just one wondrous canyon and geologic wonder among many.

Far downstream from the Grand Canyon, the Colorado slices through the bedrock north of Lake Havasu to form the small but impressive Topock Gorge, a canyon that can be explored on jet-boat tours and by rental kayak.

Within the Navajo Nation in Arizona’s Four Corners region are two other fascinating rifts in the landscape. Antelope Canyon, just outside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, may be at the opposite end of the size scale from the Grand Canyon, but this narrow slot canyon, carved out of sandstone, attracts visitors from around the world. Within convoluted canyon walls barely a shoulders’ width apart, soft indirect light paints solid rock in muted tones.

Also in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly—a national monument known for its sheer sandstone cliffs—impresses not only with its geology but with its ancient cliff dwellings as well.

In southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument, an area known to the native Apaches as the “land of standing up rocks,” natural stone columns rise from the forest and boast such evocative names as Duck on a Rock, Punch & Judy, and Kissing Rocks.

More recognizable are the mesas, buttes, and pinnacles of Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation T

The buttes and pillars glow red as if molten lava were frozen in time. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The buttes and pillars glow red as if molten lava were frozen in time. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

ibal park that has long been a favorite of filmmakers and photographers. A 17-mile scenic drive affords dramatic up-close views of sandstone giants towering 400–1,000 feet tall.

In several places around the state, jumbled heaps of giant granite boulders clutter the landscape. The Granite Dells of Prescott and Cochise Stronghold in southeastern Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains are two such topsy-turvy landscapes accessible by well-marked hiking trails.

If you believed everything you read about deserts, you might think that Arizona is a drab landscape of brown and beige. The red rocks of Sedona, easily explored by foot or on popular jeep tours, make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

The boldly striped hills of the Painted Desert, much of which lies within Petrified Forest National Park, are another Arizona colorful natural attractions. Plants, animals, and views are the highlights along popular walking trails throughout the park.

Aptly named, The Wave is a splendid area of eroded rocks in the colorful Coyote Buttes area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Another favorite destination of photographers and hikers, the buttes’ swirling facade looks like waves that have turned to stone.

The boldly striped hills of the Painted Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The boldly striped hills of the Painted Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunset Crater and Meteor Crater, both located east of Flagstaff, may both be craters, but there the similarities end. Sunset Crater, a national monument, takes its name from the many hues that color the flanks of this 1,000-foot-tall volcanic cinder cone that formed—along with the otherworldly landscape of lava flows around it—roughly 900 years ago. A drive to Cinder Hills Overlook offers an expansive vantage point.

At nearly a mile wide, the 50,000-year-old Meteor Crater is the best-preserved meteorite impact crater on earth, and visitors can view the mammoth crater with observation telescopes along the perimeter.

While most of Arizona’s geologic wonders are grand features of the landscape, some are hidden away from the bright Arizona sun.
Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson hides within its depths some of the largest and most impressive underground sights in the country. Guided tours take visitors past a 58-foot-tall stone column and a 21-foot-long stalactite.

At Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, water has carved a 183-foot-high cave-like tunnel that is believed to be the world’s largest travertine natural bridge. Visitors can hike under the bridge and marvel at this handiwork of Mother Nature.

Granite Dells provide a scenic backdrop as you kayak or canoe along Watson Lake. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Granite Dells provide a scenic backdrop as you kayak or canoe along Watson Lake. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

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