Not all destinations are created equal: there are vacation spots outfitted to grab your attention – mega resorts, rock-climbing walls, water slides. But, these don’t come close to the real thing. Venturing into Northern Arizona – the Arizona less travelled – be prepared for a mesmerizing land of vast canyons, sculpted red stone mesas and unspoiled backcountry. There is nothing else like it on the continent; many visitors find themselves pulled into the magical and spiritual quality of this part of the state.

mittensJohn Harwood

Must See, Must Do

  1. Head to the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise or sunset – the best time to watch the ancient rocks bathed in a rich red and orange glow.
  2. Stand agog at the world-famous Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte at Monument Valley.
  3. Take a Navajo-guided hike into the canyon at Canyon de Chelly. Or gaze over Spider Rock – Navajo women warn their children to be good or Spider Woman will carry them off to her home atop the towering sandstone spire.
  4. Rent a houseboat and soak up the solitude of Lake Powell.
  5. Window shop for Navajo rugs at the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. The 1883 architecture is intact and it’s still the spot for high quality Navajo rugs, jewelry, and baskets.
  6. Visit the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa and learn about the oldest culture on the continent.

trainkidscowboysGrand Canyon Railway

Bring The Kids

If the end-of-the-day goal is to produce smiling kids who fall into bed, Northern Arizona delivers. There’s something about tales of the Wild West that produces a grin. And the chasm known as the Grand Canyon? Look for eyes as big as saucers. The sights and experiences of Northern Arizona are something that adults and children can experience and enjoy together. That’s how family memories are made.

  • Kids can be sworn in as a Grand Canyon National Park Junior Ranger through the National Park Service Junior Ranger Program. The honours come with a badge – just like the regular park rangers wear.
  • As “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” Williams is home to the depot of the century-old Grand Canyon Railway line, which makes daily trips to the park’s South Rim. Travel in refurbished historical passenger cars and dome cars.
  • Night and day are both perfect times to visit the Lowell Observatory and peer through the nighttime telescope and the solar telescope. A special tour includes the Pluto telescope, used in the 1930s to discover the hypothetical ninth planet in the solar system.

Cultural Connections

There’s something about this part of Arizona – known as the Four Corners – that renders many visitors speechless. It’s not just the dry open spaces, the strange landforms or the rainbow of colours. It’s also the melting pot of ancient cultures: to the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni, this spiritual land is sacred. For tastes of rich Four Corners culture:

  • The images of Monument Valley are familiar from countless films, television commercials and postcards. It is the ancestral home of the Navajo people, who offer guided jeep tours and sell traditional Navajo arts, crafts, food and souvenirs.
  • Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona displays the spectrum of baskets, kachina dolls, jewelry and textiles of the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo cultures. On the third Friday of each month there’s a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s collections.
  • Wupatki National Monument is known for the rich archaeological remains at a thick-walled pueblo. Don’t miss the short trail leading to the geologic curiosity – a blowhole in the rock surface where air rushes in and out at velocities up to 55 kph. According to Native legend, this is where the Earth breathes.
  • Close to the border with Utah, the ruins at Navajo National Monument contain two of the largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest.
  • Centuries-old Hopi pueblo villages are grouped on the plateaus of First, Second and Third Mesa – the villages are home to an intensely spiritual people who value their traditional ways. The Hopi Arts Trail is a way for visitors to connect with the artists and galleries on the Hopi mesas. Hopi art includes basket weaving, kachina doll carving, pottery and silversmithing.
  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument protects one of the largest archaeological preserves in the country with more than a dozen major Anasazi ruins. It is considered one of the most spiritual spots to the Navajo.
  • There’s a tree in the middle of the wooden dance floor at The Museum Club on Route 66 in Flagstaff. That’s just one of the quirky touches at the historic landmark that has hosted musical giants including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
  • Williams touches a different bit of a culture, with a large dose of Old West and Route 66 Americana.
  • At the downtown intersection in Winslow, visitors stop to admire the mural and statue marking the lyrics – Take it easy – of the song made famous by The Eagles.

People At Play

Man cannot live by canyon visits alone, and luckily Northern Arizona offers up a full menu of distractions for playing on land and in the water.

  • In the high desert? At a cool summit elevation of 3,500 metres, Flagstaff’s Arizona Snowbowl boasts an average snowfall of 660 centimetres, 40 runs and a deliciously long ski season from mid-December to mid-April.
  • The blue waters of Lake Powell – the second-largest manmade lake in the United States – are a playground for boating, fishing and camping. Houseboat rentals are especially popular.

Natural Resources

Whatever metric you pick to analyze the country’s natural wonders, it all falls aside when stacked up against the jaw dropping landscape of Northern Arizona. It has it all: canyons slicing deep into the Earth, ancient volcanoes, meteor craters and a “forest” of petrified wood. Creating a short list? Near impossible.

  • The Grand Canyon – Arizona’s most distinguishable landmark and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – slices more than 1.6 kilometres deep and 445 kilometres long, cut by six million years of erosion. The more adventuresome can explore the park on hiking paths (along the rim and into the canyon), by bicycle, on muleback, by an open-top Jeep tour, in an airplane or helicopter, and by rafting trips on the Colorado River.
  • Hike along the paths through the black jumble of lava flow at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. When the volcano erupted 900 years ago, it created a stark, otherworldly landscape.
  • At the Petrified Forest National Park, ancient trees that grew 225 million years ago were buried in volcanic mud and changed into weirdly multi-coloured fossils.
  • Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park contains some of the nation’s most beautiful landscapes: immense sandstone buttes, beautifully sculpted red mesas and pinnacles set against a brilliant blue sky.

Digital Resources