9 Epic Adventures in Arizona
With the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest, and the wild desert in its backyard, Arizona is a place like no other. The Southwestern state has once-in-a-lifetime experiences you aspire to check off your bucket list, along with more approachable yet just as spine-tingling trips that take you off the beaten path.
Here are nine adventures — some easily accessible, others requiring a bit more effort — that not only come with a built-in sense of accomplishment, but also show off the varied beauty of the Grand Canyon State. Prepare to get epic.
1. Hike to a bucket-list waterfall
Best time to go: April to October
Havasu Falls is as popular as it is peerless; consequently, securing the necessary permits is as tough as the 10-mile (one-way) hike to the drop-dead gorgeous waterfalls. If you have the opportunity to make it here, go for it! But know that Havasu isn’t the only waterfall oasis in the state.
Case in point: The hike to Fossil Springs via Bob Bear Trail, an 8.6-mile round trip down to a powder-blue plunge pool with waterfalls, grottoes, and caves (permits are required April 1 to October 1). Stock up on sweet and savory empanadas at PIEbar in Strawberry before you go, and spend the day soaking in the sun and cool blue-green waters. Be sure to snap a photo of Fossil Spring’s glorious “toilet bowl” while you’re there.
2. Kayak the Colorado around Horseshoe Bend
Best time to go: March to November
Seeing Horseshoe Bend from the cliff’s edge at the 1,000-foot overlook is a must. The photo-famous U-shaped curve carved by the Colorado River is even better in person (psst: early morning means fewer people and better lighting!) than it is in all those Google image results you’ve no doubt admired.
But to really immerse yourself in this natural phenomenon, kayak it with a backhaul outfitter from Lees Ferry. Choose between the put-in at Petroglyph Beach for a 10-mile journey (four to five hours) and Kayak Beach for 16 miles (six to nine hours). You’ll be so spellbound by the soaring red rock cliffs of Glen Canyon against the tourmaline-green waters, you’ll barely notice the tourists above. Finish it off with an ice-cold beer and crispy fried chicken at BirdHouse.
3. Witness the red rocks of Sedona from a Pink Jeep
Best time to go: September to June
Sedona’s spectacular red rock landscape is the stuff of postcards. Go off-roading with Pink Adventure Tours and wheel around (and over!) iconic rock formations and down nail-biting descents. Book the two-hour Broken Arrow tour for up-close views of Submarine Rock and Chicken Point.
If you’re on your own two feet, skip the well-known hikes and opt for the Cockscomb-Ground Control-Outer Limits Loop (3.7-mile lollipop loop, one to two hours), a twisty path that weaves below the red rock columns of the Cockscomb formation. For a dead-simple photo op, take a panoramic sunset selfie at Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout. Cap your day at Elote Cafe with their famous smoked pork cheeks in chile sauce and a margarita.
4. Take a hike — any hike — in Phoenix
Best time to go: September to June
A mere eight minutes from downtown Phoenix, South Mountain Park & Preserve is a 16,000-acre playground with prime trails and views. Hike Mormon Loop to National Trail Loop (4.7 miles roundtrip, two to three hours) past petroglyphs and epic rock formations. Take a quick detour to Hidden Valley Natural Tunnel, where Flintstones-sized boulders create a photo-worthy covered passageway.
Fuel up on farm-fresh omelets at Morning Glory Café or order a post-hike picnic from The Farm Kitchen, two picturesque eating spots at The Farm at South Mountain. Bonus: Former trading post Scorpion Gulch is full of Insta-worthy photo backdrops.
5. Play the slot canyons in Page
Best time to go: September to May
You can’t take a bad photo of Antelope Canyon, a sandstone slot canyon east of Page on Navajo Tribal Land known for its wave-like walls in sunset colors. Choose Upper Antelope if you’re chasing light beams and more expansive passages, while Lower Antelope has tighter squeezes and ladders to climb. Either way, a tour guide is mandatory.
Another epic slot canyon excursion: Score a hard-to-get permit to The Wave and walk across an ocean-like wonderland of rippled rocks in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Only 64 permits are awarded per day for the 6.4-mile roundtrip hike. If you miss out, no worries — unforgettable views (of the night sky especially) are guaranteed at Shash Diné Eco Retreat, where you can sleep in a covered wagon, Navajo hogan, or an industrial cube on stilts.
6. Have the ultimate Grand Canyon adventure
Best time to go: September to November, March to May
There’s nothing wrong with admiring the Grand Canyon from a cliff-edge viewpoint, but if you really want to experience this natural wonder, you need to hike into it. Imagine catching the sunrise on the way down South Kaibab Trail and then the sunset on the climb up Bright Angel Trail. This rim-to-river-to-rim trek with a 5,000-foot elevation change is a true bucket-lister, no permits (but definitely some training) required (19.2 miles, nine to twelve hours).
Afterward, snap pics of the 440-foot-long suspension bridge over the mighty Colorado before stopping at Phantom Ranch for a much-deserved lemonade. Sleep under the stars in a posh private dome at Clear Sky Resorts – Grand Canyon.
7. Car camp at the Mogollon Rim
Best time to go: May to October (but skip the summer monsoons)
The Mogollon Rim is an eyeful — a massive wall of rock stretching for 200 miles. Drive Forest Road 300 (aka Rim Road) between state routes 87 and 260 north of Payson, a 45-mile scenic journey that skirts cliffside elevations of 7,000 feet. You can rent a Boho Camper Van out of Phoenix for dispersed camping with a view (definitely snap a pic from Rim Lakes Vista overlook).
Hike the Cabin Loop Trail starting from General Springs Cabin and visit historic forest service cabins while passing perennial springs (inner loop 18 miles; outer circle 27 miles). One your way back to Phoenix, detour to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to see the largest natural travertine bridge in the world.
8. Mountain bike in Flagstaff
Best time to go: April to November
With Arizona’s highest mountain and bragging rights as the world’s first designated “International Dark Sky City,” Flagstaff draws visitors for its big peaks and big skies. Enjoy views of both by renting a mountain bike from Cosmic Cycles and hitting Shultz Pass Loop (12-mile loop), a fun and flowy trail that climbs 1,000 feet through pine forests and rushes 4 miles down to Shultz Creek Trail.
Come nightfall, you can stargaze at Lowell Observatory and glimpse star clusters, nebulae, and Saturn’s rings from the six state-of-the-art telescopes at their Giovale Open Deck Observatory. When you’re done, sleep and sauna at High Country Motor Lodge, a revamped roadside motel with vintage vibes and a Nordic spa.
9. Explore a wonderland of rocks in Willcox
Best time to go: September to May
Chiricahua National Monument is 27 million years in the making, a 12,000-acre rocky wonderland of rhyolite spires, hoodoos, and balanced boulders. Set your boots to the Echo Canyon Loop for grottoes and neon-lichen rocks (3.3 miles; two to three hours) or Heart of Rocks Loop to see Pinnacle Balanced Rock (7.3 miles, four to six hours).
For the most epic views of the park, drive to Massai Point for a sunset picnic (pick up paninis and pie at Apple Annie’s Country Store in Willcox). Stay in Quonset huts and sip local wine at Rhumb Line Vineyard, resting up for tomorrow — because in Arizona, it’s sure to be just as epic.