Arizona is a state filled with places of natural beauty unseen anywhere else on earth. The most obvious is the Grand Canyon, a site everyone identifies with Arizona. After all, Arizona is the Grand Canyon State. The unique giant saguaro cactus only grows in the Sonoran Desert, its gorgeous bloom being the state flower of Arizona. And everyone also associates Arizona with the famous Meteor Crater, the best-preserved meteorite impact site on earth.
And while all these places are synonymous with the state, Arizona is home to several additional unique sites, both natural and manmade, that don’t seem to belong here. The following are only a few of them.
1. Petrified Forest
Though most of Arizona is a desert now, millions of years ago, it was a lush tropical rainforest. In the Late Triassic Period, this tropical landscape was home to early dinosaurs, giant trees, and lush vegetation. Not something you’d expect from the desolate, though beautiful, desert landscape you see there today.
As much as the thought of a tropical jungle in Arizona, the natural environment in Petrified Forest is just as fascinating, and unexpected even in the land of giant cacti and deep canyons. The badlands of the Painted Desert might not allow much vegetation to grow but offer a colorful landscape.
You’ll find this unique environment in Petrified Forest National Park, in eastern Arizona. For the best experience, visit in the winter or early spring.
2. The World’s Largest Stand Of Ponderosa Pines
Most people don’t think of pine forests when they think of Arizona, though everyone who visits the state knows that Flagstaff is home to a ponderosa pine forest. However, no one expects it to be part of the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world.
Covering 2.5 million acres, this strand of ponderosa pines stretches from the higher elevations of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff to the Arizona/New Mexico border. It covers elevations from as low as 2,600 feet to 12,633 feet and encompasses parts of Tonto, Kaibab, and Apache-Sitgreaves forests. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including endangered species, like the Mexican spotted owl.
Some of the best places to enjoy this forest are in and around Flagstaff, and on the Mogollon Rim.
3. Montezuma Castle
The name Montezuma is definitely not associated with Arizona, yet a stunning cliff dwelling named Montezuma Castle is one of the major attractions of the state. While the cliff dwelling, built by indigenous people of the desert, the ancestors of present-day native tribes of Arizona, belongs here, its name is misleading.
The legendary king Montezuma has never set foot in the land that is now Arizona, and the site named after him was built centuries before he was even born.
Carved into the limestone rock wall, the five stories high cliff dwelling known as Montezuma Castle features 20 rooms but is far from being a castle. Instead of being home to one royal family, it housed an entire village.
To see this spectacular cliff dwelling, visit Montezuma Castle National Monument, about 90 miles north of Phoenix, just off I-17.
4. Montezuma Well, A Natural Sinkhole And Spring In The Desert
Part of the same National Monument, you’ll find an unexpected spring and a natural sinkhole filled with water in the high desert of Arizona. The round, deep blue lake was created by a collapsed limestone cave above one of the shallow lakes that covered Verde Valley millions of years ago.
Underground springs feed this sinkhole with a diameter of 386 feet and a depth of 55 feet. The water enters an underground stream and flows through 150 feet of limestone before it re-emerges by an irrigation ditch. Sections of this irrigation ditch date back about 1000 years. Ancient people recognized the value of the constant supply of warm, 74-degree water and used it to make a living in the area.
The natural sinkhole is now part of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, and makes a great stop, especially on hot summer days, when the temperatures in and around it are much lower than in the surrounding desert.
5. The London Bridge
You’d think the London Bridge would be, well, in London. However, the original London Bridge, immortalized by the well-known nursery rhyme, has been in the desert of Western Arizona for half a century. Built in 1831, not designed for the heavy traffic it was getting in the early 1960s, the bridge was indeed “falling down” as the rhyme suggested, or rather sinking into the River Thames.
But instead of demolishing it, in 1963 the city of London sold it. The highest bidder was Robert P. McCulloch, who was building a town on the shores of Lake Havasu in Arizona, and thought the bridge would be a great addition. Taken apart and rebuilt brick by brick, the famous bridge now stretches across a channel of the Colorado River in the middle of the desert.
And, as a reminder of where it came from, an “English Village” greets visitors near the bridge, complete with gift shops, fountains, a post office, and phone booths resembling those in London.
6. Navajo Bridge Across Marble Canyon
Considering that Arizona is a desert state, it has its share of unique bridges. Spanning across the gorgeous Marble Canyon and the Colorado River below, along Route 89A, the Navajo Bridge comprises two almost identical bridges.
The original, which opened in January 1929, was the highest steel arch bridge in the world at the time. After its first 66 years of existence, as cars and trucks became larger, the narrow bridge was no longer enough. So, in 1995, an identical but larger bridge was built downstream for vehicle traffic. The old one is still open for pedestrians, who can walk across and enjoy the gorgeous views of the canyon and the Colorado River 467 feet below.
Near the bridge, on the west side, you’ll find a seasonal Interpretive center and bookstore, while on the east side, Navajo craft vendors have an outdoor store set up.
7. Arcosanti, The World’s First Arcology Project
The idea of a self-contained town might be an answer to our growing ecology problems, and it’s not a new one. However, you would not expect to find it in the desert of Arizona. Arcosanti, the world’s first arcology project, just north of Phoenix, dates from 1970. Arcology combines architecture and ecology, integrating the design of living quarters into the idea of ecology. The project’s mission is living within a limited environmental footprint, offering an alternative to urban sprawl.
The idea didn’t take off (or, at least, it hasn’t yet), but that doesn’t stop the handful of residents from living there while continuing to research and experiment to inspire more sustainable communities.
Designed for multiple uses, the structures in Arcosanti host cultural programs, performances, and workshops. You can visit this unique place, take tours, participate in events, even spend the night in one of its rooms.
8. The Mystery Castle In Phoenix
While Arcosanti is the product of the work of thousands of people, another unique project built from recycled materials is the work of one man from Seattle. The idea of the castle originated on the beach where he used to take his daughter and build sandcastles with her. Sad about the castles being washed away by the water, his daughter wished for a strong castle she could live in, built in the desert, where there is no water.
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Boyce Gully, the man with this vision, moved to Arizona, far from his family. Once in the desert near Phoenix, he built the castle for his daughter, using native stone and recycled materials he found nearby. Though he died before he could send for his family, his daughter, Mary Lou, moved into the “castle” where she lived and offered guided tours until her death in 2010.
The Mystery Castle, listed in the Arizona Historic Register and a Pride of Phoenix Award Winner, is now run by the Mystery Castle Foundation and is open for tours from October to May.
9. The Only Metric Interstate In The U.S.
The U.S. measures distance on the highways in miles, even as most of the world measures them in kilometers. So imagine motorists’ confusion, when, driving on Interstate 19 in Southern Arizona, they see them in kilometers. The first time I noticed this, I thought we crossed the border to Mexico and somehow I missed it.
Though it might seem that the road uses kilometers because of its proximity to the border with a country that uses the metric system, this has nothing to do with our southern neighbor. The signs date from 1975, when Congress declared metric as the preferred system in the U.S. So they changed the road signs on I-19 connecting Tucson, Arizona, to Nogales, Mexico, posting distances only in kilometers.
America’s metric system was short-lived, lasting only 7 years. However, the road maintained its unique identity thanks to the locals, who didn’t want to change the signs.
To understand the distances on this road, it helps to know that one kilometer is about half a mile, so you are closer to your destination than the numbers suggest.
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