In a state of dramatic natural wonders, Eastern Arizona is often overlooked. This is unfortunate, as it’s one of Arizona’s great outdoor playgrounds. In the White Mountains, northeast of Phoenix, you can hike, fish, swim, and at night gaze upward at millions of twinkling stars. The region’s winter sports are just as varied: you can ski downhill or cross-country, snowboard, snowshoe, and snowmobile. Any time of year, you can glimpse age-old fossils and brilliant colors on a drive through the Petrified Forest, where the Painted Desert showcases hues of red and orange you never thought existed in nature.
The White Mountains are unspoiled high country at its best. In vast tracts of preserved primitive wilderness, the air is punctuated with piercing cries of hawks and eagles, and majestic herds of elk graze in verdant, wildflower-laden meadows. Past volcanic activity has left the land strewn with cinder cones, and the whole region is bounded by the Mogollon Rim—a 200-mile geologic upthrust that splits the state—made famous as the "Tonto Rim" in the books of the best-selling Western author Zane Grey. Much of the plant life is unique to this region; this is one of the few places in the country where such desert plants as juniper and manzanita grow intermixed with mountain pines and aspen.
Volcanic activity also gave us the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. Once a great steamy swampland, the area experienced seismic activity that forced the swamp’s decaying plant matter underground, where it eventually turned to stone. The Painted Desert, which cuts through Petrified Forest National Park, is famous for its multihued sedimentary layers.
The human aspects of the landscape are equally appealing. Historic Western towns are outposts of down-home hospitality, and the prehistoric sites are reminders of the native cultures that once flourished here and are still a vital presence. The Fort Apache Indian Reservation, home to the White Mountain Apache tribe, is to the north of the Salt River, and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation is to the south. Visitors are welcome to explore most reservation lands with a permit, which can be obtained from tribal offices. In the more recent past, historic Route 66 made its imprint on the region.