I remember the first time I arrived in Tucson on a starry night, trading Seattle’s dank autumn rains for the velvety balm of an Arizona desert evening. Saguaro cactuses were silhouetted against the sky, their thick limbs curving upward. The scent of warm, dry earth drifted on the wind. From the desert south, I soon drove north for my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, its red-rock grandeur dusted with snow.
Arizona’s natural wonders hooked me on that first visit years ago. Since then I’ve visited again and again, exploring the state by car, on foot and by river-rafting.
It’s not the big cities or the lush golf resorts that lure me. Instead, I go for the stunning canyon country, the cactus-studded desert, and the rich Native American cultural landscape. And, of course, the sunshine.
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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
This mesmerizing mile-deep gash in the earth is a scenic and geologic wonderland of rock. You could spend years exploring the Grand Canyon, walking along the 7,000-foot canyon rims; hiking the trails that plunge deep into it; and rafting the Colorado River that twists through explosive rapids in the canyon bottom. Or just sit in the cozy bar of the historic El Tovar Hotel on its South Rim and drink up the beauty (along with a cold beer, something I particularly welcomed after hiking the long, steep trail up from the river).
Some top spots: The South Rim Village is the main visitor area, with miles of walking paths along the canyon’s edge; several hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and trailheads. In summer it’s jammed with tourists. In late autumn and winter it can be cold, but it’s blissfully peaceful.
For a lovely, level walk, head west from the village toward the Hermits Rest area. The seven-mile-long trail, some of it paved, hugs the canyon’s edge with plunging views down into and across the canyon. I set out before sunrise to walk the trail, watching the monumental cliffs and rock spires emerge in the rosy light of dawn.
Shorten the walk by hopping on park shuttle buses on the nearby Hermit Road; buses run through Nov. 30 (the road then opens to private cars): nps.gov/grca/parkmgmt/hermit.htm
Drive east from the village to the park’s Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot stone tower on the canyon rim, built in 1932. Climb its narrow staircases, past Hopi murals, to observation decks. Get some history and more wondrous views.
Feeling energetic? Hike the Bright Angel Trail, which starts at the South Rim Village, down into the canyon (only the truly super-fit should hike to the canyon bottom and back in a day). Or take a multiday rafting trip along the Colorado River, the ultimate way to see the Grand Canyon.
Where to stay: I like the South Rim’s Bright Angel Lodge, a cozy, rustic one-story maze of old-fashioned rooms and cabins, some right on the canyon rim.
More info: nps.gov/grca (including accommodations and rafting information)
INTO THE NAVAJO PAST
Arizona is rich in Native American history, and visitors can see and explore the landscape and remains of villages where people lived more than 800 years ago.
At Wupatki National Monument, in the high desert near the 7,000-foot-elevation town of Flagstaff, the ruins of five pueblos — ancient villages — are scattered across the landscape. It’s a little-visited, 35,422-acre preserve with scenic drives and short, easy walks to the pueblo ruins, including Wukoki, whose walls seem to grow seamlessly out of the red-dirt land. nps.gov/wupa/
At Navajo National Monument in the state’s north, the ancient pueblo of Betatakin is tucked into a deep underhang of a sandstone cliff. The 13th-century cliff dwellings can be reached only on ranger-guided tours from May to September. It can be tough to get a spot on a tour, but it’s worth trying. There’s something magical about walking for several miles into the history and remoteness of Betatakin or taking the longer, tougher hike to the Keet Seel archaeological site. More information at nps.gov/nava.
You’ve seen Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, on the vast Navajo Reservation, or Navajo Nation, even if you don’t know it. The iconic landscape, far north and straddling the Arizona-Utah border, is the setting of classic Western movies and countless car ads. Its rust-red rock spires and massive buttes arise majestically from the high desert. Take a 17-mile self-guided drive or jeep tours with locals that take you deeper into the 91,696-acre Navajo-run park. navajonationparks.org
People have lived in the twisting canyons of Canyon de Chelly National Monument for more than 5,000 years — and still do. Tucked away in northeast Arizona, it’s managed by the park service and the Navajo Nation.
Navajo families still farm and tend livestock deep in the high-walled, narrow canyons, which are dotted with the remains of ancient pueblos and rock art. There’s no public access to the canyon bottoms (except for a steep trail down to the White House ruin), although visitors can drive high along the canyon rims and peer down. nps.gov/cach
Visitors can explore the canyon bottoms with a Navajo guide, however. I took a local’s tour, bouncing in the open-air back of his truck and listening to tales of canyon life. I got another taste of local life at a nearby restaurant where families, chatting in Navajo, tucked into the traditional fry bread and stew.
The Navajo Reservation, or Navajo Nation, is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, stretching over about 27,000 square miles, mostly in Arizona but also in New Mexico and Utah. It’s sparsely settled, with 250,000 Navajo living in everything from modern small towns to isolated rural hogans, the traditional rounded, packed-mud dwelling and ceremonial structures.
Majestic rock formations punctuate the vast landscape, which is traversed by wonderfully empty, two-lane roads (and long, remote dirt roads that only the very well-prepared should drive). If you like a road-trip vacation, a glimpse of another culture plus iconic Western landscapes, it’s the place to drive. discovernavajo.com
The smaller Hopi Reservation, surrounded by the Navajo Reservation, includes a dozen traditional Hopi villages. One of the oldest and most dramatic is Walpi. Inhabited for more than a thousand years, it’s perched hundreds of feet up on a steep, high-desert mesa.
Narrow unpaved paths weave between the stone buildings, many now used mostly for ceremonial purposes since there’s no running water or power. Walking through Walpi, where only the whistling wind interrupted the vast stillness, I could start to imagine the past lives and spiritual power of this remote place.
The Hopi run a hotel, offer guided tours and have created a Hopi Arts Trail (hopiartstrail.com), a driving guide that leads to the village galleries of pottery-makers, painters, silversmiths and other artists. In the villages, traditional dances and ceremonies sometimes are open to visitors. Get info at experiencehopi.com (and explorehopi.com)
In southern Arizona, I prefer the smaller Tucson to sprawling Phoenix, and even then I usually head for the hills (or at least the outskirts of town).
Saguaro National Park, which edges Tucson, is an epicenter of the Saguaro cactus, the iconic plant of the American West that studs parts of the Sonora Desert. The park also climbs sharply into the mountains to more than 8,000 feet, an island in the sky of cooler forests. Take a scenic drive in the park, hike or bike. Or just admire the cactuses. nps.gov/sagu
Nine miles south of downtown Tucson, Mission San Xavier del Bac gives a glimpse of Arizona’s Hispanic past. The Catholic church, gleaming white in the desert sun, was completed in the late 1700s and serves as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham, the Native Americans of the area. See the small museum and wander through the church’s ornate, gilded interior, one of the finest and oldest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the U.S. sanxaviermission.org
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 15 miles west of Tucson, has something for everyone — and it’s a fun as well as educational place that showcases native plants and animals through a zoo, botanical garden, natural-history museum and two miles of walking trails through the desert landscape. desertmuseum.org
Contact Kristin Jackson at email@example.com. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. Twitter: @nwtravelers