Grand Canyon. One of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World and one of the country’s oldest National Parks, the Grand Canyon’s history is layered in its geology. These rocky pages of the past afford spectacular 29-kilometre vistas when seen from the South Rim. On its 2,320-kilometre journey to the Sea of Cortez, the Colorado River has carved a legacy of sublime beauty that is 1.6 kilometres deep and 443 kilometres long. Its folds and furrows reflect more than two billion years of nature’s crafting.
While early explorers had only the Colorado as a means to traverse the canyon, today’s travellers have a choice. At the South Rim visitors can take an easy stroll or a longer hike as they look into the canyon’s depths. Or, hop a sightseeing bus headed for landmarks, catch a helicopter for a flight that skims the rim, or hike into the canyon for an overnight at Phantom Ranch on the Colorado.
For a memorable overnight, book a room at the Canyon’s historic El Tovar Lodge, which has welcomed guests for more than a century. Linger for supper in a dining room with a canyon view. Visit Hopi House for authentic Native American crafts, and explore the Kolb Brothers 1906 photography studio. It all adds up to an adventure offered nowhere else.
Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert. Millions of years ago the forces of nature replaced the woody pulp of ancient trees with bright jasper and quartz crystals. Today this 378-square-kilometre park offers breathtaking scenery along a 43-kilometre drive through the largest concentration of petrified wood in the U.S., and possibly in the world. The park’s northern reaches are called the Painted Desert, for the multicoloured formations pigmented by minerals that reflect light. Although visitors cannot legally take petrified wood from the park, authorized pieces are for sale at the park gift shop. The beautiful rock is treated as a semi-precious stone in jewelry, and as an ornamental stone in objects like bookends and clocks.
Meteor Crater. This gigantic hole in the ground was created 49,000 years ago when a massive meteor impacted the earth at nearly 72,000 kilometres per hour (yes, it just missed the gift shop.) You can view the enormous chasm from observation decks that overhang the rim. NASA saw the value of the moonscape-like site, and used it to train Apollo astronauts in becoming familiar with the lunar surface. It also played a part in the 1984 film Star Man, in which space alien Jeff Bridges woos an attractive terrestrial. Space fantasies are instantly fulfilled by touching the largest remaining piece of the meteor. It has a place of honour in the crater’s Museum of Astrogeology, its once-rough edges polished and shiny from the touch of millions of hands.
Monument Valley. Located in Arizona’s far north corner, this magnificent expanse of red sandstone is a 12,120-hectare Navajo Tribal Park within the Navajo Reservation. A seven-kilometre loop road meanders past crumbling rock creatures with names like Elephant Butte, King on his Throne, Three Sisters and others that have become famous through appearances in countless commercials, motion pictures and TV shows. The new View Hotel inside Monument Valley offers overnight accommodations with private balconies that afford unobstructed views of the famed formations called Left Mitten and Right Mitten.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Quite close to Monument Valley, the towering walls of Canyon de Chelly shelter a Navajo community that herds sheep and cattle, grows corn and squash as they did hundreds of years ago. Clients can drive their own 4-wheel drive vehicle along with an authorized Navajo guide, or take a guided jeep tour to explore ancient cliff dwellings. Beneath a sheer 150-metre cliff, White House ruins look down at a shady setting where Native American jewelry and crafts are for sale.
Mogollon Rim. This dramatic 320-kilometre-long escarpment marks the beginning of Arizona’s high country. The little resort community of Pinetop/Lakeside in the White Mountains, sits directly on the rim, with cabins, resorts, restaurants and shops catering to visitors to the piney woods. The Mogollon Rim Interpretive Trail follows the rim’s edge, providing amazing vistas on one side and fragrant forests on the other. Shaggy ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, pinon pine and gnarled, wind-twisted juniper speak to an area that winter treats harshly, but summer smiles on with benevolence as temperatures stay cool when Arizona’s deserts heat up.
Kartchner Caverns State Park. There are lots of caves around, but few are “living.” That means the limestone formations are still growing in near-100 per cent humidity. Another amazing thing about Kartchner Caverns is that the two spunky spelunkers who discovered it in 1974 managed to keep it a secret from the public until protective measures were in place, 14 years later. Airtight doors, misters, a controlled lighting system and designated pathways allow visitors to enjoy the cave, while protecting its priceless treasures. Two enormous 365-metre rooms are filled with brilliant colours, the result of natural chemical reactions, plus stalactites, stalagmites and whimsical geologic features created from hollowed-out limestone. This “live” cave has more than a kilometre of underground trails and a constant 68 degree temperature, despite the desert heat. Hour-long tours may be booked in advance.
Saguaro Cactus. This spectacular desert dweller is one of Arizona’s best visual ambassadors. When mature, a saguaro can be massive and many-armed, reaching a height of more than nine metres. Slow to grow, its first arms don’t develop until it is 50 to 100 years old. The spectacular pale, waxy flowers that appear on arms that are a year or two old are the Arizona state flower. They last just a few hours, then die. These iconic giants grow only in the Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona, and in a small portion of the Mojave Desert as it extends into Southern California. They are spectacularly concentrated in Saguaro National Park in Tucson. Yet the most recognizable cactus on earth shows up in strange places. If you’re watching a movie about Texas and you see a saguaro, you know it was filmed in Arizona.
Sedona Red Rocks. Hundreds of millions of years have gone into creating the buttes, spires, mesas and cliffs that define the red rock country surrounding Sedona. Water carrying dissolved iron has passed through strata of sandstone, leaving a legacy of red iron oxide on every cliff’s face. Their spiritual beauty has been acknowledged as sacred by Native Americans for centuries. Present-day gurus say that certain areas of highly concentrated energy called vortexes exist in formations including Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock and Airport Mesa. Other observers are content enjoying the spectacular sandstone scenery simply for its dramatic visual impact. A leisurely drive through the area lets each individual decide for himself.
Hubbell Trading Post. For more than a century, Hubbell Trading post in Ganado on the vast Navajo Reservation, has been a bartering centre. Blankets and baskets are stacked next to canned goods and display cases of turquoise jewelry. Started by John Lorenzo Hubbell and his sons as a means for Navajos to trade their wares for life’s necessities, it operates today much as it did then. The post trades for cash or barter. If you’re looking for an authentic Navajo rug, this is the place to come. Talented weavers, whose skills are sometimes the product of generations of craftspeople, still bring rugs to sell or trade. Prices can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars. It seems a small price to pay for a work of art, and a piece of history.
Taliesin West. Of course there’s another Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, but Taliesin West is unique, and as different from its eastern counterpart as day is from night. At the Scottsdale Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright built his studio, home and architectural campus in 1937, and occupied it until his death in 1959. With an enthusiastic guide, you can explore its walkways, fountains and terraces as well as the Wright’s private living quarters. Taliesin West still welcomes students, and is a working educational facility.
Arizona is proud to be an official signatory of the National Geographic Geotourism charter. Geotourism is defined as “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” It covers the Sonoran Desert region, which encompasses Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico.
In that context, the state has created Arizona Origins, a celebration of culture, nature, history and heritage. It includes Arizona’s ties to Sonora, the Mexican state that lies just to the south. When planning your trip, contact the Arizona Office of Tourism for a copy of the National Geographic Arizona-Sonora Desert Region Geotourism MapGuide. It highlights more than 80 experiences such as How to Shop for Native American Crafts, Following the Trail of Geronimo, Exploring Arizona’s Mines, Mineral Museums and Gem shows. On the Mexican side, it features El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and Fishing in Puerto Penasco.
Cochise Origins, a 22-minute video, focuses on themes unique to Cochise County in far Southern Arizona. See it at visitor centres in Benson, Bisbee, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Tombstone and Willcox as well as a number of attractions including Kartchner Caverns and the Amerind Foundation.