Top 5 Arizona State & National Parks

The Grand Canyon may already be on your bucket list (and for good reason), but it’s fair to say that the state of Arizona has a lot more to offer than its celebrity park: It’s home to 21 National Park Service sites and 27 state parks.

Arizona has a reputation for being all desert, sand, and cactus, but with its canyons, craters, ancient ruins, and enduring legends, the state is home to some of North America’s most astonishing landscapes.

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Cactus, ponderosa pines, aspens, and fir trees are all to be found at Saguaro National Park. The 92,000-acre park ranges between 2,300 feet in the West (Red Hills Tucson Mountain District) to 8,482 feet in the East (Rincon Mountain District). Thanks to such an extreme elevation, Saguaro National Park is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, making it one of the most biologically diverse parks in the country.

Each district has its own visitor center, where guests can learn about the park’s plants and animals, geology and archaeology, ranger-led events and interpretive activities.

Petrified Forest National Park

Colored by iron and manganese, red, pink, orange, and purple hues paint the landscape, making it a true work of natural art for photographers to explore. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colored by iron and manganese, red, pink, orange, and purple hues paint the landscape at Petrified Forest National Park, making it a true work of natural art for photographers to explore. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few hundred million years ago, rivers and streams flowed through a lowland basin where thickets of coniferous trees, some 9 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall, towered over the landscape. Over time, some of those trees fell, were washed downstream and buried. Time passed, lots of time, and woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica. Meanwhile, Earth’s land mass shifted.

Today, those trees are the main attraction of Petrified Forest National Park. But there’s a lot more to the park than the trees. In addition to jaw-dropping vistas of the Painted Desert, the park holds an assortment of fossils, Native American ruins, and petroglyphs, along with 50,000 acres of wilderness that hikers can explore.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

This resident Great Blue Heron is one of 200 species of birds that inhabit Dead Horse Ranch State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This resident Great Blue Heron is one of 200 species of birds that inhabit Dead Horse Ranch State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Ranch State Park packs a lot into 423 acres. Visitors may enjoy RV camping, fishing, biking, and hiking. There are places to picnic, trails to hike, bike, and horseback ride.

The park revolves around life on the Verde, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Sonoran Desert.

The wildlife activity changes with the seasons. You might see otters, hawks, bald eagles, great blue herons, coyotes, raccoons, mule deer, frogs, and toads. Well-maintained trails ramble along the river, climb red rock hillsides, and duck through stands of cottonwoods and mesquite.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Wahweap Marina offers boat launch ramps, swim beaches, boat tours, and houseboat and small boat rentals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wahweap Marina offers boat launch ramps, swim beaches, boat tours, and houseboat and small boat rentals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a sprawling, remote gorge in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Dozens of side canyons spill into it, sloping creeks and red-walled slots flanked by high cliffs, hoodoos, and arches.

Glen Canyon’s 1.25 million acres encompass Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam, and Lees Ferry, known for its trout fishing and as the put-in spot for Colorado River raft trips.

Lake Powell Resort and Wahweap Marina offer RV camping on the lake, boat tours, and watercraft rentals of all kinds, from houseboats to kayaks.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Driving the canyon rims and viewing the canyon from the overlooks is an excellent introduction to Canyon de Chelly and gives you an idea of how else you might want to explore the canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the canyon rims and viewing the canyon from the overlooks is an excellent introduction to Canyon de Chelly and gives you an idea of how else you might want to explore the canyon. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step back in time at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Steep Canyon Walls cradle hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins.

Recognized as one of the longest continually inhabited landscapes in North America, see pueblo ruins built between 350 and 1300 A.D. ―as well as a contemporary Navajo Indian community that still inhabits the canyon floor, herding sheep during the summer months.

Two self-guided drives follow the rims of the canyon. At the end of the South Rim Drive, take in the sights from the popular Spider Rock overlook, featuring the park’s signature formation.

Take advantage of one of Canyon de Chelly’s many campsites in the Cottonwood Campground.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

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