From road trips to relaxing getaways, there are things to do in Arizona for every type of traveler.
When someone mentions a trip to Arizona, no doubt the first image that comes to mind is the number one attraction: the Grand Canyon. And while that might be one of the top places to visit in Arizona, the state offers so much more than this gigantic wonder, including 300 days of sunshine each year, the incomparable Sonoran Desert landscape (the most complex and hottest desert in North America), rich history and culture, and best-in-class modern-day amenities, including resorts and spas, golf courses, wineries, and museums. Here’s a sampling of some of Arizona’s top experiences.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ARIZONA?Everyone knows Arizona is hot. Phoenix can hit temperatures over 120 degrees, and is considered the hottest major city in the United States. So, the summer months can be blistering and uncomfortable, and it’s often best to avoid them. But spring and fall can offer pleasant temperatures, as can winter. However, the nights can be freezing–literally.
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Make a Pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon
Nothing can compete with the awe-inspiring power of Mother Nature, and visiting the Grand Canyon is a memorable experience. One of the most unique ways to get there is on the Grand Canyon Railway, which has enchanted visitors since 1901, taking them from Williams to just steps away from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Don’t miss the Wild West Shootout at the 1908 Williams Depot before the train departs, and keep an eye out for strolling musicians and bandits during the ride. The South Rim is the most popular because it’s the most accessible (consider reservations months in advance for tours or other special experiences). If you have several hours to explore, try a hike along the popular Bright Angel trail. Travel as far as you’re comfortable—just remember to bring plenty of water and keep in mind that you have to hike the same distance, uphill, to get out.
Look Into the Past at the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
One of Arizona’s lesser-visited natural wonders, the Petrified Forest National Park is nonetheless something special. In just an hour or two, you can drive backward through time, witnessing colors and textures from millennia past. Check out Newspaper Rock, and through the provided binoculars, glimpse 500-year-old petroglyphs. Your day of time travel is not over, as a portion of the Painted Desert is located within the northern section of the Park (most of the rest of it resides in remote areas of the Navajo Nation). Forget your impression of brown and dull desert land; the Painted Desert is awash in color, from deep red hues to lovely lavender. It’s like the sunset imprinted itself on the land. Visit the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, located near the north entrance of the Petrified Forest National Park, to take in the views from several vantage points.
Find Your Vibe in Sedona
If the Grand Canyon is king in Arizona, then Sedona is its beautiful queen, yet another masterpiece of Mother Nature that leaves visitors aghast at the colors, vistas, and serenity. Some say that Sedona’s allure is more than skin deep, and within the red rock majesty lie four vortexes, or centers of energy. The many metaphysical and crystal shops in the town have maps to the vortexes; among the most popular is the Bell Rock vortex, which is said to strengthen and balance masculine and feminine energy. And if vortexes might not be your thing, no worries: the spas in Sedona—particularly at L’Auberge de Sedona’s L’Apothecary, and the Enchantment Resort’s Mii Amo, which is set to reopen in Fall 2022—are sure to provide an otherworldly escape as well. For a hit of adrenaline, hikers rave about the iconic Devil’s Bridge and West Fork trails, while helicopter rides over the red rocks are sure to take your breath away.
Play Golf at One of 300+ Courses Across the State
Baseball is America’s pastime, but golf is Arizona’s. When it comes to teeing off, no city can offer the caliber of golf courses quite like Scottsdale. Pick your course of choice: Want to play a rugged desert course? Check out Troon North. Feel like walking in a pro’s shoes? Then the award-winning courses at TPC Scottsdale (home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open) are for you. Want to channel Scotland? Then head to the Kierland Golf Club, where a bagpiper plays each night at dusk. Other don’t-miss spots outside Scottsdale include Quintero Golf Club in Peoria, the Canyon Course at Forest Highlands in Flagstaff, and The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain, in Tucson. If you didn’t travel with clubs, here’s a mulligan: most on-site pro shops can outfit you with all the gear you need for your day on the greens.
Learn About Native American Art and History at the Heard Museum
Offering the most comprehensive collection of Native American art in the world, the Heard Museum is a must-visit for any traveler in Phoenix. View not only painted works of art, but also textiles, pottery, and jewelry. You’ll be so taken with the wares, that it’s not uncommon to find a treasure in the museum’s gift shop. Offering works from Arizona-based artists, it’s one of the best places in the city to find a souvenir worth cherishing for years to come. The World Championship Hoop Dance Contest has been held here for 30 years, and these colorful and artistic performances provide a glimpse into the cultural traditions shared by multiple Indigenous communities.
See Famous Photographs Come to Life at Monument Valley
Ansel Adams’ photographs might have introduced you to Monument Valley. Hollywood Westerns probably enticed you to visit. And when you finally do, you’ll realize that this remarkably remote region of Arizona and Utah is impossible to view in a single frame. Like much of Arizona, this region is best viewed by hitting the road. A single, 17-mile drive along Valley Drive will provide views of the famous monuments you learned in your youth—the Mittens and Totem Pole, among others. It takes 2-4 hours and will cost $20 per vehicle. You’ll likely find it’s worth every penny.
Discover the Beauty of Cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden
Quick: Describe a cactus. Did you use the words “green,” “prickly,” or even “ugly?” Then you need to visit the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where you’ll quickly learn that a cactus also can be fragrant, colorful, and downright beautiful. Offering an up-close view of more than 4,000 species of desert flora, the garden is a glorious rebuttal to any claims that deserts are void of life. The Garden is fully accessible via wheelchair, and most trails are stroller-friendly. If you visit during the spring or fall, you’ll be treated to the Butterfly Exhibit, where thousands of butterflies take flight.
Raft on the Colorado River
If a simple hike along the Grand Canyon isn’t exciting enough for you, just add water, and your experience will have all the adrenaline you need. Colorado River rafting trips have become the experience of choice for thrill-seekers. Sign up for a single-day adventure to jostle your joints. For the full experience, consider a multi-day adventure where you’ll brave rapids, watch nature, and view northern Arizona from a different vantage point.
Pay Respects to Native American History at Montezuma Castle National Monument
One of the best aspects of road-tripping through Arizona—in addition to the incredible views—is that historical sites are often, literally, a freeway exit away. Such is the case with Montezuma Castle National Monument. Located about halfway through the drive from Phoenix to Sedona or Flagstaff, Montezuma Castle is a 600-year-old dwelling that’s amazingly preserved. A simple, paved trail leads you past the monument. While you can’t go inside, you can get a good look while stretching your legs. Bonus point: It’s dog-friendly, too, as long as Fido is on a leash.
Live Out Your Wild West Fantasies in Tombstone
The vast expanses of golf courses and spas might make it seem like the Old West has disappeared from Arizona. Not quite. The Wild West spirit is very much alive in towns such as Tombstone and Bisbee, Western towns where the mining boom gave way to outlaws and shootouts. In Tombstone, you can witness a recreation of the famous O.K. Corral gunfight and dine in a saloon. A short drive away, you can rest your head at a Victorian hotel in Bisbee.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Interstates might be efficient, but they’re missing one big thing: charm. Fortunately, Arizona has the perfect diversion: classic American Route 66. Take a bypass from Interstate 40 and drive the 75 miles from Seligman to Kingman. Stop for lunch at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. Along the way, you’ll see beautiful scenery, your blood pressure will drop a bit, and you’ll remember that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.
Experience the Magic of Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
One of the most photographed places in Arizona, Antelope Canyon, makes you question texture and matter. How can rock look liquid? How can something so smooth also be fierce? If you’re driving to Page, this site is a must-visit (note: the only way in is by booking a guided tour through an authorized Navajo tour company, and advanced reservations are recommended as there’s a daily passenger limit). Experts recommend taking pictures at high noon. And be prepared for blowing dust—the colorful rocks, after all, are petrified sand dunes. Once you’ve taken in this ancient marvel, it’s time to visit another just 5 miles down the road: Horseshoe Bend. Here, you’ll find the Insta-worthy horseshoe-shaped curve in the Colorado River that’s just a 1.5-mile walk from the parking lot (read: no actual hiking required for a view from the top!). It’s least crowded at sunrise and most crowded at sunset, so plan accordingly.
Witness Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Shop for Crafts
Often overshadowed by the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is yet another one of nature’s masterpieces in northern Arizona. Home of pueblo ruins that date back to 350, it’s still the residence for a Navajo community that lives along the canyon’s floor. You can drive the 36-mile South Rim on your own—there are overlooks, so you can stop and take a view. But if you want to get closer or learn more about Navajo history and culture, consider hiring a guide from a tour operator such as Ancient Canyon Tours. Stop by the Hubbell Trading Post south of Canyon de Chelly if you’ve got an itch for shopping during your northern Arizona journey. Beautiful rugs can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars here. Hand-made jewelry, baskets, and other crafts also are available.
Play at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
One of the most kid-friendly sites in Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum provides one of the best places for little ones to see the desert without concern of being stung or poked. Equal parts museum, zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden, the Museum has every type of desert creature imaginable—scorpions, snakes, hummingbirds, coyotes, a raptor-free flight, and much more.
See the Desert’s Most Famous Cactus In Saguaro National Park
There’s an old joke about travelers in Arizona: A guy from the East Coast came to Arizona and saw a saguaro cactus. His response? “Same to you, buddy.” While reactions to seeing Arizona’s iconic cacti range from curious (yes, some of them look like they’re making a rude gesture) to fearful (yes, those needles are sharp), a visit to a site such as the Saguaro National Park can help explain why Arizonans love these towering wonders so much. They’re amazing feats of nature—with a lifespan of up to 200 years—and can extend to 60 feet tall. They don’t produce their first arm until around age 50. Visit the national park in Tucson, and you’ll see an entire forest of them.
Tour the Old Mining Towns of Bisbee and Jerome
The Wild West was wild for a reason, and you’ll learn why on tours of the most infamous old mining towns. Start in Jerome (a day trip from Sedona), where you’ll learn about the rise and fall of what was once the world’s largest copper mining town and its most notorious residents, from brothel owners to Bill the Kid. In Bisbee (south of Tucson), a mining town that was once the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco thanks to its booming copper and precious metal industry, don a hard hat and headlamp to explore the underground on the Copper Queen Mine Tour. Both towns offer plenty of spooky ghost tours and macabre stories of their most haunted spots.
Relax at World-Class Resorts and Spas
People travel from around the world to enjoy a little downtime at Arizona’s many lavish resorts and wellness spas. Castle Hot Springs in Morristown is an actual palm-tree-lined desert oasis that used to host the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts but now offers farm-to-table dining and natural hot springs. Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney’s Resort & Spa in Paradise Valley, is nestled into Scottsdale’s iconic Camelback Mountain, offering wellness classes, an infinity pool, and Asian-inspired spa treatments. Set aside your city slicker ways and check into Tucson’s Tanque Verde Ranch, an all-inclusive dude ranch set on 60,000 acres where guests can participate in various activities from horseback riding and mountain biking to yoga and fishing.
Sip Your Way Through Arizona’s 120 Wineries
You might assume that grapes don’t grow well in Arizona because of the climate, but state 48 is full of surprises. In fact, Arizona has three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and is home to 120 wineries and tasting rooms, divided into six distinct regions. The Verde Valley Wine Trail is a popular option, with 24 winery-operated tasting rooms winding through Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Sedona, Page Springs, and Clarkdale. Sonoita, known as Arizona’s original wine country because it earned the state’s first AVA designation, is located about an hour south of Tucson and boasts soil on par with France’s Burgundy region. And if you’re interested in vineyard tours, choose the Willcox AVA. Finally, several wineries have opened up tasting rooms along the Scottsdale Wine Trail if you don’t want to venture too far from Phoenix to imbibe.
Feel the Rhythm at Musical Instrument Museum
A museum that rivals Smithsonian-level quality in the heart of the Valley of the Sun? Yes, it’s true. Travelers looking for an interactive museum experience housed in a gorgeously modern building designed by an award-winning architect should head straight to the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). Here, you’ll find more than 8,000 instruments from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Latin America, Europe, and the United States/Canada. The audio and video technology incorporated into the exhibits allows visitors to see and hear the instruments in their original cultures and contexts. There’s also an Experience Gallery where you can test your musical chops and play the instruments. When it’s too hot to do anything else in Phoenix, this air-conditioned indoor venue is exactly where you want to be.
Tour Taliesin West, a UNESCO Heritage Site
Architecture enthusiasts would never dream of visiting Scottsdale without paying a visit to Taliesin West, the winter home and studio of architect and visionary Frank Lloyd Wright. Book a tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark, which Wright and his apprentices constructed largely of desert masonry (local rock and sand bound with cement) in a style that blends harmoniously with the local landscape—an aesthetic he used throughout the hundreds of innovative spaces he designed. Choose from a self-guided visit, audio tour, or guided walking tour that includes indoor and outdoor exploration across the property grounds.
Kayak the Salt River and Look for Wild Horses
Once the Lower Salt River opens for summer recreation, that’s where you’ll find throngs of Arizonans and tourists alike floating in tubes to keep cool. Kayaking and standup paddle boarding are also popular options on this 200-mile river, which provides much of the water supply for Greater Phoenix. No matter how you decide to spend your time on the river, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping scenery and possibly mustangs, the wild horses often seen within a few hours of sunrise and sunset. These descendants of 17th century Spain roam freely along the 18-mile stretch of the Lower Salt River that’s open for summer activities and are often spotted near Saguaro Lake.
Count the Stars at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory
It’s highly unlikely most of us will ever explore outer space, but you can visit the “home of Pluto” without enrolling in astronaut training: Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is credited with the discovery of Pluto in 1930. Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City in 2001, limiting light pollution and creating ideal conditions for astronomical research and star gazing. A general admission ticket gives you all-day access to the Observatory, including the 125-year-old Clark Refractor used to discover the expanding nature of the universe, plus you can view distant gas clouds and galaxies through six state-of-the-art telescopes in the open-air observatory. There’s plenty to check out during the day, but the real magic happens after the sun goes down.
Go Skiing in the Desert
At 9,157 feet elevation, Tucson’s Mount Lemmon certainly isn’t the tallest peak in Arizona—that honor goes to Humphreys Peak just north of Flagstaff, which stands 12,637 feet high—but it should still be on your list for outdoor adventures. Why? For starters, during the one-hour drive up, you’ll ascend 6,000 feet and cross six vegetation zones, including Sonoran Desert, Semi-Desert Grasslands, Oak Woodland and Chaparral, Pine-Oak Woodland, Ponderosa Pine Forest, and Mixed Conifer Forest (it stops just shy of the highest recognized level, Alpine Tundra). At the top, you’ll find the southernmost ski resort in the continental United States and 22 trails that range from green circles to black diamonds. Even if you aren’t into skiing or decide to visit during summer, you can still enjoy the gorgeous views from the Sky Ride ski lift. And, there’s more than 2,000 rock climbing routes, plus plenty of hiking and biking trails.
Take a Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride Over the Desert
Looking for a fresh perspective? Nothing beats an aerial view of Arizona, and while helicopter rides and sky diving are popular choices, they don’t compare to a scenic hot air balloon ride. Soar through the skies and enjoy the panoramic views and electrifying hues of the Sonoran Desert with Rainbow Ryders (the official hot air balloon ride operator at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta). Choose from sunrise or sunset rides, depending on the time of year, and you’ll see why this is a don’t-miss bucket list experience.
Explore the Limestone Caves at Kartchner Caverns State Park
If you’ve ever heard someone explain that Arizona is a “dry heat,” it’s true — except at Kartchner Caverns State Park, where the limestone cave at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains maintains a stifling 99% humidity year-round. This living cave (read: the formations are still growing!) was discovered in 1974, and the stalagmites and stalactites formed by dripping water over 200,000 years are pristine and beautiful. In the Throne Room, you’ll find one of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites and the tallest column in Arizona called Kubla Khan. Reservations for guided tours are strongly encouraged.