6 of the Best Places to Explore Nature in Arizona

Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

My favorite trips are the ones stumbled upon. It’s a common occurrence in my household to pick up and leave on a day of leisure. I would rather sit in my car all day not knowing where I will end up than to sit in my house watching Nexflix. Direction never matters but, in the summer it feels liberating to get away from the heat. Higher elevation subdues the brutal sun – on my last trip it was upward of 105F at home but Flagstaff was a beautiful, balmy 75F. The road is unpredictable but, it makes each trip you take memorable. On such an occasion, a trip up the Beeline Highway landed my family unit in Winslow – in a windstorm- with thunderheads looming in the distance. On the plus side I got to stand on ‘a corner in Winslow, Arizona’ and I happened to be in a flatbed Ford. The destination is not the most important part of the trip – it’s how you get there. That’s all I will touch on with philosophy. The best part about central Arizona is you only need one or two hours to get anywhere if you live in the Phoenix/Scottsdale. Below I have compiled my favorite escapes that you can make a day or a weekend out of.

  1. Cave Creek, Arizona

Steel-cowboy-wild-west-artist-paradise? Nailed it: Cave Creek is calling your name, located off of the Carefree Highway. Don’t get me wrong the town itself is a tourist trap – but a worthy one. There are art galleries to your hearts desire; Good food, eccentric locals and if you are into football Cave Creek hosts a Bear’s, Steeler’s, Packer’s, and Viking’s bar. Let me tell you this place is WILD.

I frequent Cave Creek because of the fantastic hiking at Spur Cross Conservation Area which is about five miles north of Cave Creek. There are hiking options for all levels of ambition.

Looking for an easy stroll? Follow the Dragonfly/Jewel of the Creek trail. On this trail you will see the creek oasis where there are tall seemingly out of place oak trees. The area is cool and mostly shaded. Keep your eyes out for prehistoric rock art – petroglyphs – the whereabouts are not noted so it is up to you to keep your eyes peeled.

Want to break a sweat? Take the Metate or Tortuga trail. The Metate trail has an AMAZING collection of saguaro cactus and examples of metate grindstones which were used to prepare grains by the Native people who occupied the area.

Feeling Ambitious? If you have an entire day to spend (roughly 4-5 hours) and it isn’t too hot consider taking the Elephant Mountain trekk. It is an extremely tough hike that touches the boarder into Tonto National Park but summits at the prehistoric Hohokam fortress. Be sure to bring adequate water. I’m not kidding – it is up hill both ways 🙂

Spur Cross Travel Scout Kate MarraSpur Cross Travel Scout Kate Marra

Arizona Travel Scout Kate Marra

2. Flagstaff, Arizona

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument is one of the coolest attractions in Flagstaff. The entrance to the park is right off of the state route 89A – blink and you will miss it. The fee is $20 per person and it is well worth the experience. The lava flow field and cinder mounds alone were awe-inspiring. Make sure you grab a map at the ranger station before you start into the twenty mile national monument it will show you where all of the pull offs are.

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The second half of the park is dedicated to the Native people who occupied the land. There are amazing sites which showcase the pueblo villages which have been standing for nine hundred years. We visited the Wukoki Pueblo, Lomaki and Box Canyon ruins. Exploring can be cut short due to a threatening thunderstorm. Be aware of storms that prowl over the open prairie –  be ready to take cover when the thunderheads move in.

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Want More Ruins?

Badass Arizona History: The Note Pad of the Ancients

Badass Arizona History: Unreal Dwellings in the Red Rock

The trails in this national monument are very well maintained and are for everyone to enjoy. My only caution would be to bring adequate water and some lunch which you can enjoy at the numerous pull offs.

 

3. Sedona, Arizona

If you are into becoming one with nature – Sedona is the place for you! Nestled in red rock country and an hour south of Flagstaff is the eclectic city of Sedona. It has a little bit of everything for everyone – the main strip has art galleries, food, crystal shops, tee shirt shops, and so much more. Sedona is credited with having several large and rather powerful vortexes. A vortex is a location that is said to release earth’s energy. Whether you believe in it or not Sedona has always had a magnetic pull on me – it makes you feel raw and pure.  As you can probably tell I am mostly into hiking so I will go ahead and cut to the chase.

I have to admit – I can’t pick just one location as my favorite hiking spot – I have several. I will work on a separate post for the best hikes but for the sake of this article:

Bell Rock Hike – Red Rock Pass required, but accessible in parking area. Bell rock is an easy to moderate hike. Easy if you walk around the base but moderate if you climb the rim. This is a great hike if you are a climber and the elevation allows you to take in the views of the red rock surrounding.

Devil’s Bridge – moderate because of the elevation change and it is mostly open to the sun. This hike offers a walk through a small valley – at the end is a natural rock arch that you can safely walk across. I must warn you the height is dizzying but exhilarating.

Arizona Travel Scout Kate Marra

Fay Canyon – easy to moderate. If you stay on the maintained trail it is a nice easy walk through the canyon. It is pretty well shaded but I suggest sunscreen all the same. If you follow the un-maintained trail it’s a pretty strenuous ascent. The view at the top is amazing! you can see it in my slide show.

Arizona Travel Scout Kate MarraArizona Travel Scout Kate Marra

4. Jerome, Arizona

Jerome is an amazing find – not too many people know about it because it is essentially a ghost town that is on the up swing. In the 1800’s it was a copper mining town and fell into disrepair in the 1960’s until an artist commune moved in. The town itself is a work of art – it sits on a hill that has a view that takes your breath away.

Are you a Tool fan? Visit Maynard’s winery Caduceus Cellar in the upper corner of the small town. Jerome boasts two winery’s that are worthy of a visit, antique shops with curios from the 1950’s, boutiques, and a few great lunch choices.

I suggest the Haunted Hamburger which is always packed or the Mile High Grill which has great service and even better food.

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Arizona Travel Scout Kate Marra

 

5. Payson, Arizona (and surrounding areas)

Payson is a quaint cowboy town that is most popular for it’s rodeos. I haven’t had much time to explore the city of Payson but there are a few places that I have been able to fall in love with.

Tonto Natural Bridge – one word for this place is magical. As you descend into the canyon the first thing that hits you is the smell of water, the kind of musty, sweet smell. Then you see the arch – huge and carved out of the opposing side of the canyon. The greatest part is walking right through it! You can pick your way through the rocks and the river to the steps on the other side. Note: Pets are not allowed.

If you have additional time another great destination is family run Fossil Creek Ranch in Strawberry. Fossil Creek Ranch is a goat and llama farm as well as a creamery. The fudge is to die for and  so is the goat milk moisturizer. This is a perfect destination if you are traveling with kids (no goat pun intended). Fossil Creek Ranch offers felting classes, cheese making classes and ranch tours as well.

ALSO OFFERED: Llama hikes.For $30 a person you can lead llamas through the Mogollon Rim. Reservations are required.

Arizona Travel Scout Kate MarraArizona Travel Scout Kate MarraArizona Travel Scout Kate Marra

6. Holbrook, Arizona

Ok, so this last place isn’t in a cooler elevation but, worth taking a day trip. Once upon a time, Late Triassic to be approximate, Arizona was a tropical forest. As the climate changed trees fossilized and what was left behind became known as petrified wood. Petrified Wood National Park in Holbrook, Arizona boasts one of the largest deposits of petrified wood in the world. Along with 200 various plant fossils the desert area has also produced fossils belonging to phytosaurs (giant crocodiles) and Buettneria (giant salamanders).

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As if it cant get any more magnificent, keep driving through Petrified Forest National Park and enter the Painted Desert. The Painted Desert extends through the four corners area – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. The badlands are known for a signature rusty red but be sure to look out for shades of olive, lavender and ivory.

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Which Arizona hot spot would you like to visit?

Cobweb Clearer – Kate

The best part about central Arizona is you only need one or two hours to get anywhere if you live in the Phoenix/Scottsdale. Below I have compiled my favorite escapes that you can make a day or a weekend out of.

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33 thoughts on “6 of the Best Places to Explore Nature in Arizona

  1. Kate, You would think that Payson AZ would have donkey rides. This would have been a pack animal in the old days. Melanie M.

    “Sometimes leadership is planting trees under whose shade you will never sit.” Gov.Jennifer Granholm- Mich.

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    1. Most likely they do! I have not looked into it. I do know that most attractions like the Grand Canyon and similar places do have donkey rides.

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  2. I’m glad I came across this post! I’ve been wanting to include more of the American West into my own travels but generally, I don’t come across many posts that make me interested enough to venture outside of Vegas! LOL!

    Great tip on the ranch in Strawberry! I always like learning new things, so I’ll definitely be pinning this to my America board to revisit later when I finally make my way westward! 🙂

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    1. Awesome, thank you! That’s great to hear. There is WAAAYYYY more than just Vegas 😉 I’m kind of a pro at the Arizona, Utah, SoCal area so get in touch if you have any questions!

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  3. I’ve heard amazing things about the parks in Arizona – the Elephant Mountain trek sounds INTENSE! I hope to make it to all these spots one day!

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  4. Oh my gosh, a llama hike! I think I need to do that at some point in my life! Gotta save this just for that. My father owns an alpaca farm, and alpacas are very similar to llamas. It’s kind of a family obsession now.

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  5. Glad to hear about the Ilama hikes. After a recent hiking trip I sprained my ankle. Emerson is also my favorite poet..great line!

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  6. Payson sounds like a fun location. I really love old, cowboy-esque towns. This summer I’m committing myself to exploring more of the southwest and this post is SO helpful! Plus, road trips are always a blast. As long as I’ve got some good tunes and can roll the windows down every once in a while (weather pending), I’m good to go!

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    1. You wont have a problem with weather! Maybe wild fire but, the weather will be beautiful. Shoot me an email if you have any questions, Arizona is my home state.

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  7. All these sites look wonderful. Particularly Payson. I love places like these , just the hike has to be somewhat easy , which it seems is at many of these. The views around are also very beautiful.

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  8. We just visited Arizona for the first time about a month ago, and I fell in love! We drove through part of the state along our bigger road trip itinerary, so we didn’t get to see as much as I liked–pinning this so we can make a trip back to AZ (sooner rather than later!). 🙂

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  9. Northern Arizona has so many great hiking spots! Sedona and Payson, Arizona are definitely at the top of my list now! I’ve done plenty of hiking in Southern Utah but now I need to start doing some hikes in Northern Arizona!

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  10. Oh Wow! I used to live in LA and seeing this I really regret I wasn’t into exploring the world when I did! Arizona looks amazing. I’d love to visit… maybe one day, life will take me back in that corner of the world

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  11. I did a road trip and passed through Arizona. I didn’t stop by any of your list in afraid to say. I would live to see Jerome as ghost towns fascinate me. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is the other that interests me because who doesn’t like to photograph a volcano!

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  12. I really do want to check out the natural sights in Arizona. I always thought of the state has dry red rocks everywhere with sand but it isn’t and your photos has shown me that, it s a pretty state to explore. Love this. 🙂

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    1. I expected the same thing when I first moved to AZ. There are sections of dunes on the Utah boarder. Pretty to look at, hellish to hike in 🙂

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  13. Some really nice suggestions you have there. Really useful for me, since I’ll be visiting Arizona next month. Thanks for sharing

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  14. All of these places indeed offer an incredible view, but Payson is my favorite. There’s so much to explore in America… thanks to this post, I know a little better about planning a trip to Arizona 🙂

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  15. Wow, such amazing nature getaways. And I must agree that the random, unplanned road trips can be so much better. I never heard of wood fossils. The petrified wood looks interesting but the most amazing of them all seems to be the painted desert 🙂

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  16. Arizona has always been on all travel lists and the reasons are quite evident in your post. I am however drawn most to the fossils of Holbrook. There is something eerie and intriguing about the fossils. I would so love to explore the fossils of the giant crocs and the colorful sections of petrified wood.

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