ARIZONA HAS A CERTAIN magic to it. There’s the awe-inspiring sandstone buttes of Monument Valley and the hidden depths of Kartchner Caverns, the climate extremes, the enormous sky. The U.S. is home to only one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and it’s in Arizona. Here, we have scenery that’s basically designed to fuel artists’ imaginations. And that’s not even mentioning the quirky attractions like haunted hotels and the vintage Airstream trailer park.
Over six million visitors hit the Grand Canyon alone last year, making Arizona the eighth-most-visited state in the nation. But even with all those people, some places still fly under the radar — and you have to be here to really get to know them. Here are just a few of the things you’ll only understand once you’ve traveled to the 48th state.
1. It’s possible to sunbathe and ski in a single day.
And you don’t even need a private jet to do it. Fly into Phoenix, hang out with the cacti in the sun, and then make the jaunt to Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff — less than three hours by car — for an easy trip from one season to the next, all in the same day. The resort, with a base elevation of nearly 10,000 feet in the San Francisco Peaks, sees 260 inches of snow a year on average, so the snow under your skis or your board is almost always fresh. Up here, it feels like Christmas: snowy pines, creamy snow, and hot cocoa by the fire.
Back in Phoenix, it’s bikini season. With temps in the 70s and 80s in late fall and early spring, you can go from snow bunny to beach babe without any Zs in between. For this trip, you might want more than just what you can cram into your carry-on.
2. The quesalupa is not Mexican food.
Every time an Arizonan ventures into the drive-thru, a Mexican abuelita dies a little inside. That’s because Arizona offers some of the best and most authentic Mexican food north of the border.
James Beard-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s original Barrio Café was rated the #1 Mexican restaurant in the nation by Tabelog, and Café Poca Cosa is part of the local Mexican flavor that helped Tucson earn its spot as North America’s first UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. So put down that fourth-meal chalupa and pick up a local menu.
3. Tombstone isn’t just a Val Kilmer flick.
There’s nothing like standing on the site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral to remind you that the Wild, Wild West actually existed. Granted, a few historical details have been fudged in the name of Hollywood: The shootout between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys actually took place on Fremont Street, and Doc Holliday didn’t die in a sanitarium.
The locals that run Tombstone’s historical sites today are only too happy to correct these errors, and, yes, there are still locals — Tombstone is alive and well, and so is its history. Landmarks like the Birdcage Theatre and the Boothill Graveyard — the entire town, really — have been nearly untouched for over 100 years. It’s the “town too tough to die.”
4. Ghosts are people, too.
With its bloody Wild West history and American Indian spiritual lore, Arizona lays the groundwork for heaps of paranormal activity. At least, so say dozens of spook-hunting organizations operating in the 48th state. Most locals don’t actually want to “bust” these ghosts, since they’re good for tourism — or maybe because they’re actually real?
To see it for yourself, check out the Jerome Grand Hotel, and try to get into uber-haunted room 32. Oliver House and Copper Queen Hotel welcome regular ghost hunts in Bisbee, and there are a handful of ghost towns, too, like Fairbank. Even modern cities like Tucson have ghost tours of their old downtown areas.
5. Roadrunners look nothing like the cartoon.
I grew up watching good ‘ol Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to nab the elusive Road Runner — most of us did. Cue ACME anvil dropping. So imagine my surprise when I discovered the real-life inspiration behind the Looney Tunes’ tricky bird isn’t purple or ostrich-sized and doesn’t chirp, “beep-beep!”
A type of cuckoo found in the American Southwest, the mottled black-and-white bird is famous for its clown-like movements and speediness — up to 20 miles per hour. (Unfortunately, the inspiration for Wile E. has a top speed of 43 mph…you do the math.) Just one example of the incredible wildlife you’ll see in this part of the world.
6. You’re invited to fry an egg on the sidewalk.
In most parts of the country, this would just be a cliché. But here in Arizona, it’s a celebration: The Sidewalk Egg Frying Challenge is an annual July 4 tradition in the sleepy Southwest town of Oatman. Really — no yolk. However, full disclosure: Sidewalks aren’t that great at conducting heat, and winners tend to use magnifying glasses or aluminum foil to get the job done. Either way, it’s still impressive, and some of the competitors are pros — the best of the best will make it a full-on brunch with bacon and potatoes.
Tip: You can also bake cookies on your dashboard! In 2013, a meteorologist baked chocolate chip cookies on the dash of a Dodge van, taking advantage of desert heat in what has to be the best possible way.
7. Vortexes are actually a thing.
Or so they say. Sedona is as famous for its “powerful energy centers” as it is for breathtaking red rock formations. While you don’t necessarily need to buy into the woo-woo of it all, it’s hard to not feel something standing at the northern saddle of Cathedral Rock and looking down at the world like a god on Mount Olympus.
But if you do want to give the woo-woo of it all a shot, you wouldn’t be alone. The entire city of Sedona is purported to be a spot where the “veils to other dimensions are thinner,” but Cathedral Rock, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Airport Mesa, and Bell Rock are supposedly the hottest of hot spots. The first two are believed to be full of feminine energy (where energy enters the Earth); the latter two are believed to be masculine (where energy exits the Earth). Get to a spot, sit down, and breathe. Do you feel it?
8. There is water in the desert.
Sure, Arizona has gone through some intense drought periods and has its fair share of tumbleweeds, but the state isn’t exactly dry. While Stoneman Lake and Mormon Lake, both located south of Flagstaff, are the state’s only natural lakes, Arizona is home to more than 100 manmade (and beautiful) waterways, including popular tourist destinations Lake Havasu, Lake Powell, and Lake Mead. There’s plenty of opportunities for jet skiing, boating, wakeboarding, kayaking, tubing, and just plain splashing.
Tip: Experiencing the natural beauty of Arizona is best done from a kayak or raft on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Check out Hualapai River Runners for the best one-day trip you’ll ever take. The area also has hot springs and a “sauna cave” if rafting through the grandest canyon in the world doesn’t seem appealing enough on its own.
9. London Bridge isn’t falling down.
It’s also not in London. The famous 1830s structure that once spanned the Thames was auctioned off to Lake Havasu City founder Robert P. McCulloch in 1968. The entire purchase, including moving costs, approached a staggering $10 million. The bridge was dismantled brick by brick, shipped to the States, and reconstructed to link Lake Havasu City to an island nearly 1,000 feet offshore, and it’s still in use today.
On the 90-minute tour, you’ll see bullet marks from WWII and lamps fashioned from the cannons of Napoleon’s army. It’s actually quite a romantic walk, and the local lodges on Lake Havasu make for an easy — and well worth it — weekend getaway.
10. Saguaros are the vampires of the Southwest.
No, we don’t mean that the towering, regal cacti will suck the life out of you. Sure, like vampires, the prickly white spine of the saguaro do occasionally draw blood. More importantly, though, they’re about as close to immortal as a desert plant can get, living upwards of 200 years.
And they’re iconic. Though they’re sprinkled throughout most of the state, there’s no better place to appreciate the mighty cactus than at Saguaro National Park. It’s on either side of Tucson, and you’ll be glad you came when you see them lit up in the moonlight, alone in their mighty desert grandeur.
11. Walking on glass 4,000 feet above the ground is as exhilarating as it sounds.
It’s a daredevil’s dream and an acrophobe’s worst nightmare. Opened in 2007, the Grand Canyon Skywalk allows park visitors to stand on a U-shaped walkway directly above the canyon floor at Eagle Point — with only a sheet of glass between you and the canyon air below.
You’ll find it on the West Rim, and while you should see the park from all sides, this one is a can’t-miss. From this vantage point, nature doesn’t get much grander.