Sweeping from the lowlands of the Sonoran Desert in the south to the lofty San Francisco Peaks in the north, Arizona’s landscape is rich with deep canyons, arid plateaus, and thick forests.
Thanks to the diverse topography, virtually every region of the state has natural features that are worth checking out. Still, there are some that stand out for their singular beauty.
It’s hard, for instance, to underplay the splendor of the Grand Canyon, the United States’ only natural Wonder of the World. Or who could forget the corridor of sandstone buttes in Monument Valley, made famous by scores of Western movies, as well as that iconic cross-country run by movie character Forrest Gump?
And that’s not even to mention the luminous red rocks of Sedona, the prickly loveliness of a desert cactus flower, or the mighty power of the Colorado River.
Choosing just 12 is difficult, but here are a dozen of Arizona’s most beautiful outdoor experiences and the best seasons in which to enjoy them.
Winter In Arizona
1. Hit The Slopes At Sunrise Park Resort, Greer
One of the beauties of an Arizona winter is that you can be basking in the 70-degree temperatures of Phoenix in the morning and skiing or snowboarding on a pine-studded mountainside by afternoon.
Sitting high atop the gorgeous White Mountains of eastern Arizona, Sunrise Park Resort is known for its 65 runs spread over three peaks that range from a base of 9,200 feet elevation to 11,100 feet. When northern Arizona enjoys a snowy winter, Sunrise is said to offer skiing that rivals any in the Southwestern U.S.
Pro Tip: Sunrise is a four-hour drive from Phoenix, making it a perfect weekend getaway from the city.
2. Hike To The Top Of Phoenix, Camelback Mountain
As urban trails go, Camelback Mountain in Phoenix is hard to beat. Not only does it wind upward through splendid desert terrain, but it is also located right in the middle of the fifth-largest city in the nation.
The distinctive mountain that resembles a kneeling camel offers two routes to the top -- Echo Canyon and Cholla. Both trails are rated as extremely difficult. But the payoff for climbing 1,200 to 1,300 feet in just over a mile is magnificent views of the city spread below. (Note that the Cholla Trailhead is currently closed for maintenance.) Other easier Phoenix hikes can be found here.
Pro Tip: Wintertime, with its average high temperatures in the 60s and 70s, is an optimal time for the strenuous Camelback hike. For tips on how to successfully complete the hike, check out this article.
3. Boat Under The London Bridge, Lake Havasu City
For a beach scene in the middle of the desert, residents of Arizona and nearby California head to Lake Havasu City, a community along the Colorado River that is known as Arizona’s West Coast.
Along with its pleasant winter temperatures that range from the mid-60s to the low 70s in December, January, and February, Lake Havasu is best known for its pretty Bridgewater Channel where an enterprising developer in the 1960s recreated the London Bridge after purchasing the structure from the British capital.
Today, Bridgewater Channel offers a lively scene of boats speeding under the bridge and people wandering along the adjoining boardwalk. The area has 60 miles of navigable waterways, so it is the perfect spot to indulge in water sports of all sorts, with the rugged desert mountains as a backdrop. Spending time in the area? Check out my recommendations for a road trip from Phoenix to Lake Havasu.
Spring In Arizona
4. Swim Beneath A Waterfall, Havasupai Falls
Few waterfalls anywhere can compare with the sheer beauty of Havasupai Falls’ turquoise water cascading over a rugged canyon wall.
Located in the western Grand Canyon, Havasupai Falls is a quintessentially Arizona image, and droves of adventurous hikers converge on the site each year. For those able to make the arduous hike in and out, Havasupai Falls is a not-to-be-missed bucket-list trip.
The ultimate experience is to wade into the translucent pools that form below the falls. Late spring is a great time to make the trip, with May and June being optimal. Tips on how to do it are available in this article.
Pro Tip: Havasupai is not the only spot in Arizona to take in beautiful waterfalls. For others check out my picks for 7 Beautiful Waterfalls To Explore In Arizona After You’ve Seen Havasupai Falls.
5. Take In The Spring Cactus Bloom, Tucson
Springtime typically brings an explosion of cactus flowers all over Arizona -- from the vivid reds of the hedgehog cactus to the delicate pinks, yellows, and oranges of the barrel cactus.
Perhaps the most spectacular is the sight of a field of towering saguaro cacti all topped with crowns of waxy white flowers -- Arizona’s state flower. The best place to take in the sight is Saguaro National Park near Tucson in southern Arizona. Depending on the amount of rainfall, the bloom occurs from mid-May to mid-June.
The national park features a number of scenic drives and routes for hiking and mountain biking. Information on exploring the national park is available in this article, and road trip tips from Tucson are available here.
6. Explore Horseshoe Bend, Page
Among Arizona’s most recognizable sights is the elbow-like curve of the Colorado River known as Horseshoe Bend.
Tourists flock to the spot just south of Page to take in the ribbonlike river as it makes a 270-degree turn around a massive rock formation. A 0.75-mile walk gets visitors to the overlook, where the natural phenomenon is spread below.
Pro Tip: Although the overlook is an easy 15-minute hike over an even surface, the conditions can be hot and windy, even in the spring, so visitors should remember to carry plenty of water.
Summer In Arizona
7. Cycle A Historic Railroad Route, Prescott
A chance to cycle or walk along a route that once carried train passengers through the spectacular Granite Dells awaits at the 6-mile Peavine National Recreation Trail, one of few rails-to-trails routes in Arizona.
Along with the finger-like formation of granite rocks known as the Point of Rocks, the trail also offers outstanding views of the adjacent Watson Lake, which is among Arizona’s most gorgeous lakes. Because the trail follows an old railroad bed, it is mostly flat and easy for cyclists and walkers. For a more challenging route, head off the trail onto the scenic 4.8-mile loop trail around Watson Lake.
Pro Tip: Even in high-country communities like Prescott, temperatures often creep into the 90s and above in June, July, and August. If you do venture onto Prescott trails in the summer, be sure to get an early-morning start, and watch for monsoon rains in the afternoons.
8. Hike The Thompson Trail, Greer
Accolades abound about the Thompson Trail that follows the West Fork of the Black River as it meanders through a lovely wooded section of the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Take a walk along the 6.5-mile trail (round-trip) as it passes by colorful wildflowers and small waterfalls, and you are sure to agree.
Owing to high elevations in the 8,000-to-11,000-foot range, the White Mountains are considerably cooler in the summer than the low-altitude desert. Expect average highs in the 80s from May through September, compared to highs that can rise to 110 degrees or hotter in the Phoenix metro area.
The comfortable temperatures, green landscapes, and abundance of running water combine to make Greer and the surrounding trails and lakes a popular destination for an Arizona summer retreat.
9. Take To the Red-Rock Trails, Sedona
The Sedona area beautifully capitalizes on its wealth of red-rock terrain by offering more than 200 trails covering 300-plus miles. The inventory includes a huge choice of easy, moderate, and difficult routes through rocky terrain and along creek beds. The community attracts 3 million visitors a year, and many head to the trails -- either on foot or on mountain bikes.
Among the most popular spots to check out are the Devil’s Bridge Trail, the Soldier Pass Trail, and the West Fork Trail. You can hardly go wrong with a Sedona hike or ride, though, so don’t be afraid to follow some of the other trail signs that pop up all over the region.
Pro Tip: Like Prescott, Sedona has hot summer days and monsoon rains in the afternoons -- especially in July and August. The sunny days are beautiful in the red rocks, but plan to hit the trails early in the morning and be done by about mid-day.
Fall In Arizona
10. Drive Monument Valley Scenic Route, Navajo Nation
Sitting near the Arizona-Utah border is a valley of sandstone buttes so striking that it has been the location for myriad movies, commercials, and photoshoots.
It also famously was the spot where Forrest Gump, played by actor Tom Hanks, decided to stop running and turn back on his cross-country trek. The long view of the road with the buttes in the background has become a popular spot for photos and is known as Forrest Gump Point (which isactually located in Utah). Other notable points in the valley include The Mittens, John Ford Point, Three Sisters, and Elephant Butte. For more information, check out “Monument Valley: Things To Know Before Visiting.”
11. Soak Up The Golden Aspens, Flagstaff
Interspersed with the thick pine forests that Flagstaff is known for are delightful groves of white-trunked aspen trees with shimmering leaves that turn a lovely golden hue in the fall.
Although Flagstaff is remarkable in every season, the northern Arizona mountain town truly glows in autumn. Areas that show off the region’s fall colors include the Inner Basin Trail, Lockett Meadow, and the Weatherford Trail. Fall colors can also be seen from your car on the scenic drive to the Arizona Snowbowl resort. Find other ideas for how to spend a beautiful fall weekend in Flagstaff here.
12. Raft Or Hike Through The Grand Canyon
The vast Grand Canyon can be enjoyed in a number of different ways. Although many visitors choose to see it from the top looking down, a more interesting option is to venture deep into the canyon and see its walls from the bottom up.
Fall is the perfect time to take a day hike for two or three miles along the South Rim’s South Kaibab or Bright Angel trails. Tips for hiking in the Grand Canyon are available here.
Rafting trips offer another option for seeing the canyon from below. A range of options is available for floating the waters of the Colorado River as it winds through the base of the Canyon.
Winter and spring tend to be the best times to visit the desert regions of Phoenix and Tucson, while summer is a great time to visit the high country of northern Arizona. Fall is gorgeous all over the state, with warm autumn weather often stretching well into November and early December. If you’re looking for another unique experience to add to your Arizona bucket list, consider Katy Spratte Joyce’s “Arizona Wine Country: What To Know Before You Go.”