Don’t get us wrong; the Grand Canyon easily deserves its place as one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. But its popularity does make Arizona sound like a bit of a one-hit wonder. Ask anyone outside of Arizona what we’re known for, and they’ll usually respond with “the Grand Canyon and being hot in the summer,” although not necessarily in that order.
Arizona offers a lot more on the nature front than most people think, from soaring mountains and pine forests to gorgeous stretches of desert. The next time you want to experience the awe of nature, here are five places in Arizona to keep in mind.
1. Tonto Natural Bridge
Less than two hours northeast of Phoenix along highway 87, the scenery provides a sharp contrast to our desert valley. Around the town of Payson, you’ll find a pine forest, plenty of other vegetation and somewhat cooler temperatures.
If you go a little out of your way, you can also see the largest natural travertine bridge in the U.S. and possibly the world (travertine is a type of limestone rock that’s popular for countertops and flooring). The bridge stands 183 feet tall and spans 400 feet from end to end.
Get a good view from the parking lots above, or you can hike down and experience it from the ground level. Learn more about this natural phenomena and the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
2. Slide Rock State Park
The second best-known natural wonder in Arizona, Sedona’s beautiful red rocks and desert vistas captivate everyone who visits. But the surrounding area doesn’t disappoint either.
Seven miles north of Sedona, for example, is Slide Rock in Oak Creek Canyon. Like the name suggests, Slide Rock features a natural water slide in the red sandstone rock ending in a refreshing creek.
Oak Creek Canyon offers visitors opportunities for scenic exploring and gorgeous photos. While you’re visiting, you can also enjoy the apple orchard and a tour of the Pendley homestead from the early 1900s.
Note that the site of the natural slide is extremely popular, so arrive early. The park opens at 8 a.m. and costs $20 per vehicle Monday to Thursday and $30 from Friday to Sunday, and holidays. Learn more about the park.
3. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
If you’re in the Grand Canyon region, head north on highway 89 toward the Utah border to experience the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. With heights of up to 3,000 feet above the ground, the Vermillion Cliffs are almost an inverted Grand Canyon.
Plus, you can also see the Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon and Paria Plateau, which are some of the most spectacular rock formations in the world. Get more information on the Vermilion Cliffs.
4. White Pocket
Tucked away in the Paria Plateau, and only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle or on foot, White Pocket doesn’t get many visitors. However, the liquid-looking rock formations there easily rival the more popular areas of the Vermilion Cliff National Monument. Learn more about White Pocket and how to visit.
5. Lava River Cave
With temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees, you want to avoid lava at all costs. However, once it cools or goes away, it can leave some fascinating structures behind.
Consider the Lava River Cave in Coconino National Forest just north of Flagstaff – about 2.5 hours from Phoenix. This mile-long tunnel formed 700,000 years ago when the outer edges of a lava flow cooled and the hot center of the lava kept going.
Visitors can walk through and see the wave-like patterns left behind and “flash-frozen” stone stalactites. Before you go, definitely read the Forest Service guide on how to dress and what equipment to bring. Otherwise, you could wind up bloody and frozen while stumbling around in the dark. But seriously, you should definitely check it out.
Want some spectacular scenery closer to Phoenix? Check out Hole in the Rock and some of our other favorite hiking spots around the Valley.
– Justin Ferris, Phoenix.org