One site pays tribute to a distinctive cactus species, others to unusual rock formations, and still others to the haunting ruins left behind by early indigenous people: When it comes to spectacular diversity of terrain and cultures, the national monuments that dot the state of Arizona definitely deliver.
Overall, Arizona has 19 national monuments. That is in addition to its three iconic national parks — Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Petrified Forest — as well as a number of national historic sites and recreation areas.
While virtually all of the national monuments are worth a visit, several stand out for their fascinating histories, singular views, or varied hiking opportunities. Over the years, I have visited many of Arizona’s national monuments, and their special qualities never cease to amaze me.
Based on travels through my home state, here are eight can’t-miss national monuments in Arizona.
1. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
My favorite among all of the Arizona monuments, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is big on not just its namesake cactus, but on views and culture as well.
Located in the far southern region of Arizona, just a 10-minute drive from the Arizona/Mexico border town of Lukeville, Organ Pipe is remote. But that works in its favor in the stunning vistas from the trails and scenic drives that can seem to be in the middle of nowhere.
One not-to-be-missed experience in the park is a drive along the Ajo Mountain Scenic Route, where you’ll pass by stands of towering organ pipe cacti and many other species as well. If you’re up for a short hike along the way, stop at the Double Arches Trailhead, about halfway in, for a 1.2-mile round-trip hike that will get you near the base of the park’s amazing rock arches, one on top of the other.
Because of its fairly warm winter climate, Organ Pipe is a popular spot for camping during the winter months. The park’s Twin Peaks Campground features 208 campsites.
Pro Tip: The historic mining town of Ajo makes the perfect base for exploring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. See How To Spend A Perfect Day In Quaint Ajo, Arizona for the best things to do in the area.
2. Chiricahua National Monument
Also in the southern reaches of the state, but 240 miles east of Organ Pipe is another spot unlike any other: Chiricahua National Monument, known for its otherworldly rock formations.
A true wonderland of rocks, Chiricahua is the top spot in Arizona to see hoodoos, or thin spires of rock that rise precariously from the dry earth. A series of rugged trails will get you to the iconic Heart of Rocks, which, as its name implies, is in the middle of the rocky scene.
Pro Tip: For more on this southern Arizona gem, check out my story Chiricahua National Monument: 9 Things To Know Before Visiting.
3. Agua Fria National Monument
Among the newest of Arizona’s national monuments is the sprawling 71,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument, which was designated in 2000.
The monument takes in two massive mesas and the canyon of the Agua Fria River. It offers a number of remote hikes — some that feature refreshing waterways and pretty spring wildflowers. One of my favorites is the Badger Springs Trail, located just off Interstate 17 about 60 miles north of Phoenix. The trail follows the bed of a wash, and after a wet winter, you might walk through a trickling flow of cool water on your way to the larger flow of the Agua Fria River.
Pro Tip: Agua Fria National Monument makes a great stop on the popular road trip between Phoenix and Sedona. For other stops, see my article Classic Arizona Road Trip: Phoenix To Sedona.
4. Tuzigoot National Monument
Tuzigoot National Monument is a testament to the old real-estate adage “Location, location, location.” Along with the intricate 110-room structure that dates back 900 years or more, I always marvel at the view spread out before. For miles, the fertile Verde River Valley can be seen from high atop the ruins. The scene is vivid green in the spring and summer and turns to gold in the fall.
Tuzigoot, which was excavated and reconstructed in the 1930s, is located in the central Arizona town of Clarkdale and is definitely worth a stop on a visit to the Verde Valley/Sedona area.
Pro Tip: The Verde River town of Cottonwood is located just a few miles from Tuzigoot National Monument. For things to do there, see 11 Best Things To Do In Charming Cottonwood, Arizona.
5. Montezuma Castle National Monument
The Verde Valley is also home to another reminder of the ingenuity of the early native people — Montezuma Castle National Monument. The name is no exaggeration; the five-story stone-and-mortar marvel certainly evokes a feeling of grandeur.
Still, contrary to popular belief, the structure was occupied by the Sinagua people, not by Aztec royalty. “There’s no historical connection to the Aztec emperor for whom it’s named — the structure was abandoned more than 40 years prior to his birth,” says the website.
Because of its location just a few miles off Interstate 17 and less than 100 miles north of Phoenix, Montezuma Castle is a popular Arizona destination, attracting about 350,000 people each year.
Pro Tip: For more details on Montezuma Castle, check out How To Spend A Day At Montezuma National Monument.
6. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Yet another example of the native peoples’ ability to adapt to the harsh desert landscape is available about halfway between the major cities of Phoenix and Tucson at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
The undisputed star of the monument is its namesake Great House, the massive packed-earth structure that dates to the 1300s.
The four-story building is just one aspect of the ruins, which also reveal a prehistoric system of canals for irrigating crops. Cotton has been a crop in the area for centuries, and canals reportedly began fueling the region’s farming about 3,500 years ago.
Pro Tip: While exploration of the ruins can be done in a few hours, there are plenty of other things to do in the area. For ideas, see my article 9 Tips for Exploring Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
7. Walnut Canyon National Monument
The territory of the Sinagua people stretched all across central and northern Arizona, and the remains are on exceptional display at Walnut Canyon National Monument. There, visitors can stroll from cliff dwelling to cliff dwelling, following in the footsteps of the native people who came before.
Located in the high country of northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon also features a combination of rugged mountain terrain, pine-tree vegetation, and wildlife. More information on a visit to the national monument is available in the article 7 Incredible Things To Explore At Walnut Canyon National Monument.
8. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
A lesson in the geologic formation of the mountainous terrain near Flagstaff awaits about a half-hour drive northeast of the northern Arizona mountain community at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
There, visitors can take in a colorful volcano cinder cone and the stark lava fields that surround it. The national monument’s website notes that the crater is only part of the story. “Around 1085, the ground began to shake, and lava spewed high in the air,” it says. The eruption that occurred changed both the landscape and the people who lived there.
A number of easy and moderate trails allow for a close-up look at the landscape. More information about exploring the area is available in the article 7 Best Things To Explore In And Around Sunset Crater.
Pro Tip: Sunset Crater makes a perfect first stop on the beautiful Arizona road trip from Flagstaff to Page.Editor’s Note: The National Park Service announced on August 18, 2022 that the Sunset Crater Volcano is partially open with limited services following the Tunnel Wildfire destruction. The Lava Flow and A’a trails are open. The Visitor Center, Lenox Crater and Lava’s Edge Trails, as well as the Cinder Hills Overlook remain closed. For the most up-to-date information, please visit NPS.gov.
When To Visit
Arizona’s climate is roughly split between the desert regions of the south and the high country in the north. The south can be extremely hot from late spring through early fall, while the north can be chilly and snowy from late fall through early spring. Southern monuments like Organ Pipe, Chiricahua, Agua Fria, and Casa Grande are best visited between late fall and early spring, when temperatures are cooler in the desert. Northern monuments like Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon are best visited between late spring and early fall. Central Arizona monuments like Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle have fairly mild weather year-round.
Pro Tip: Typically, two national monuments in the Navajo Nation — Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly National Monument — would be high on my list of can’t-miss spots in Arizona. But as of spring 2021, all Navajo Nation parks and recreation sites remain closed until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More information is available here.