Arizona, like Utah and California, is a state particularly rich in National Parks and National Monuments (natural areas protected by the U.S. government), and undoubtedly, the icon of the Southwest is the Grand Canyon, an impressive gorge carved into the depths of the earth.
But unlike the other two states mentioned, Arizona can also boast the parks on the Indian Reservations (especially in Navajo Nation), where some of the most amazing wonders of the Southwest are found, of which Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon are the best known.
If you also consider parks and viewpoints in addition to the national parks, the natural wonders of Arizona are too many to count. However, in this article we will focus only on the best parks (it would be better to say the main ones because always a matter of taste), remembering that, if you are interested in a more complete overview you can refer to our guide on how to organize a tour in Arizona.
Map of the Best Parks in Arizona
The Grand Canyon is a deep gorge about 280 miles long and almost 19 miles wide, and for all intents and purposes, it’s the most famous national park (though not the most visited). It is so immense that there are 3 “parks” that can be visited (not counting the remote areas) in the Grand Canyon: the South Rim (southern margin), the most visited and known area, the North Rim (northern margin), less frequented by tourists and a little more difficult to include in an itinerary, and the West Rim (western margin), run by the Hualapai Tribe and famous for the Skywalk, the transparent observation platform that gives the impression of walking suspended in the air in the middle of the Grand Canyon.
For more information about the 3 areas, advice on which one to choose and how to plan your visit, you can refer to the page on our website entirely dedicated to the Grand Canyon.
Monument Valley, which is dearly regarded by the Navajo, is one of the most fascinating and breath-taking valleys in America and has been used among other things as a backdrop for numerous Western films. Road trip enthusiasts are enchanted by the iconic profile of Monument Valley, with its imposing monoliths standing out on the horizon.
If driving on the bumpy dirt road in the park doesn’t dissuade you, you can drive through the sacred Navajo lands with your car, through these impressive monoliths, or, as many do, you can choose to go on a tour accompanied by a local guide, so that you do not have to drive your car over rough terrain.
Although it is not a particularly large park, Monument Valley has many secrets to reveal, such as viewpoints like Forrest Gump Point or John Ford Point, or hidden valleys like Mystery Valley. To make the most of your experience in this park, I recommend you read our page on Monument Valley.
Arizona’s Top 3 is truly impressive when you consider that it includes, in addition to Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the world’s most famous slot canyon known as Antelope Canyon. What makes this narrow canyon so popular are the captivating shapes of its rock faces and the beautiful colors that are created when the sun’s rays pass through the narrow cracks of the canyon.
Antelope Canyon is divided into 2 sections (Upper and Lower) and, unlike the other parks mentioned here, can only be visited if you go on a guided tour, which must be booked online in advance. A local Navajo guide will accompany you for about an hour or so through the winding canyon, giving you plenty of time to take all the pictures you want. To help you choose which section to visit and to book the tour, please read our guide.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
The park was listed in 1931 in the National Monuments Register of the National Park Service, and is actually located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, which still regulates the park’s hiking and camping permits. There are two main reasons to visit this park, the first being its impressive rock formations (the most famous are the 2 pinnacles of Spider Rock), and secondly, the ruins of ancient tribal settlements of Anasazi and Navajo among others.
You can experience the incredible beauty of the park even by driving in your car on the Scenic Drive that runs along the edge of the canyon, where you can admire 10 overlooks. If you want to take a nice walk at the bottom of the canyon, you can go on the White House Ruins Trail (which leads to some ancient ruins), the only trail that can be accessed independently without a Navajo guide.
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
Often erroneously identified as two different parks, Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are actually a single national park, where you will be awestruck by things the likes of which you have never seen before, such as forests of ancient petrified trees, colorful desert expanses reminiscent of the work of a painter and lunar landscapes (Blue Mesa) characterized by bizarre rock formations with streaks of different shades. These are the landscapes that await you.
You can also admire the beauty of the park by driving along the 6-mile long Park Road, with its panoramic viewpoints. Along this road, you will have more than one opportunity to stop and enjoy the beauty of the park. Alternatively, those who love walking can go along the various trails in the petrified forest.
Saguaro National Park
Lovers of Western landscapes will surely recall the famous cacti that are the background of many vintage movies. Well, in the deep south of Arizona, near the city of Tucson, a national park has been created to protect this specific variety of cacti, known as the saguaro cactus.
The park, which is divided into 2 separate areas (west and east section), has many hiking trails, but can also be easily traversed by car, which still allows you to see the famous cacti up close. To learn more about how to organize a visit to this park, you can read our in-depth guide.
As I have mentioned previously, Arizona is home to countless natural wonders and here I have described only the main ones, but, as it often happens, many natural marvels considered “secondary” are no less beautiful than the ones traditionally listed as the top places to visit. For this reason, please read the following resources which will give you a more complete overview of places to visit in Arizona: