When imagining Arizona, you probably think of the majestic Grand Canyon, idyllic Horseshoe Bend, red rocks of Sedona, the bustling cities of Tucson and Phoenix, or simply the endless picturesque desert scenery. While these renowned stops have certainly earned their esteemed reputations, Arizona is also a vast place with many other memorable discoveries off the beaten path. Here are a few lesser-known gems worth exploring in the Grand Canyon state.
Beginning in the northeast corner of Arizona, you might experience a strange sense of deja vu observing the otherworldly wind-carved buttes jutting conspicuously out of the flat topography. These odd mesas comprise Monument Valley, notable for being one of the premier desert landscapes for the movie industry. Admire these dramatic, alien-looking rock formations you have likely seen from iconic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vacation, Forrest Gump, or one of the several classic John Wayne westerns filmed here.
Continue west to stunning Marble Canyon, whose name comes from the often polished appearance of the towering, scenic fiery walls offering a more laid-back vibe than the state’s more well-known, grander cousin. Nearby, experience the more psychedelic side of Arizona within the striking scenery of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Tucked within an exceptionally isolated part of the state and boasting some of the most unforgettable desert scenery found in the United States, try to see if you can be one of the lucky few to score one of the daily lottery tickets to The Wave, whose intricate curved patterns running along the arid brown walls resemble that of a hypnotic ocean.
To the southeast, beyond the bright warm hues of the Painted Desert, lie the mysterious crystalline remnants housed within Petrified Forest National Park. The namesake woods, the remains of a Pangaean forest from over 200 million years ago, are also home to a collection of well-preserved ancient glyphs inscribed by tribes indigenous to the area in millennia past. Marvel at the cool colors of Blue Mesa, the vibrant badland scenery from Tawa Point, or take in the sheer number of years imagining the former glory of the massive trees scattered about the Crystal Forest.
Hop on I-40 in Holbrook and head due west to the entrance of endearing Flagstaff lying off of the famous old Route 66. While historically known as one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff has plenty to see in the form of vintage shops, cute cafes, and verdant parks, and exists as an oasis of sorts from the surrounding hot desert given its high elevation. The often snow-capped Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona, overlooks the town from a short 11 miles away, and the freezing temperatures in winter bring some seasonal variety and a puzzling juxtaposition to the state’s typically scorching reputation.
Southwest towards Prescott, at the top of a winding mountain road, and tucked conspicuously atop a cliff lies the peculiar artistic community of Jerome. Formerly the largest copper mine in Arizona and at one point the fourth largest city in the state, the once-raucous population of miners, bootleggers, and prostitutes that once called Jerome home led to the town adopting the moniker of “Wickedest Town In The West.” Present-day Jerome boasts the remnants of what is now one of the largest ghost towns in the country alongside lofty cliffside streets populated with mesmerizing art galleries, adorable cafes, and unbeatable views of the Verde Valley. Onward into Prescott proper, try a stay at the mountaintop Prescott Resort and enjoy a breathtaking sunset from your room. Afterward, head into town and enjoy the wild bars and bands in the historic Whiskey Row district.
Heading south on I-17, be sure to stop at the experimental community of Arcosanti. A practice in “arcology” (a portmanteau of architecture and ecology”), the town’s origins began in 1970 as a low-impact, sustainable community whose name comes from the Italian words “anti” and “cosa,” meaning “against things.” Consider a stay at the guest suite and explore the curvaceous, light-filled, futuristic-looking earthen structures that often blur the line between natural and manmade. Make friends with the residents who come from all backgrounds to engage in the unique lifestyle experiment offered here, and learn something new at one of the frequent workshops covering dance, music, ceramics, and sustainability.
Continue south and east around Phoenix to find a taste of old and new in the lively streets of Old Town Scottsdale. Catch some live music at one of the frequent outdoor concerts, browse a quirky antique shop, or walk into one of the many museums to learn about the Old West history of the metro area, now the tenth largest in the country. Have a drink and then explore the wealth of art galleries and exhibitions featured here year-round, changing month-to-month and ranging from a stampede of fiberglass stallions to dazzling light projections to the colorful works at SMocA, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Take AZ-101 to U.S. 60 east of Scottsdale to approach the towering peaks of the Superstition Mountains looming large over the horizon. The name comes from a prominent local legend of the enigmatic Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, said to contain untold riches and whose entrance has been lost to time. The tale lives on in the namesake Lost Dutchman State Park, whose enchanting desert trails filled with captivating saguaro cacti are a lovely sight to behold if you decide to try your luck in finding the fabled treasure for yourself.
Saguaro cacti are rarely found outside of Arizona, and fans of the funky flora will find much to love in Saguaro National Park just outside of Tucson. The park’s diminutive size, established to create a protective habitat for the thorny species, is perfect for brief road trips. See how many specimens of the beautiful saguaro blossom, the state flower of Arizona, you can find as you drive through the hills and mountains densely packed with the pointy plant.
Finally, hop on I-10 East towards the southeastern corner of Arizona to find the incredibly underrated Cochise County. Despite only having a population hovering around 125,000, the unassuming county contains an impressive density of noteworthy, overlooked attractions. Explore the mysterious, humid, and disorienting corridors of Kartchner Caverns State Park, whose twisted, otherworldly stalagmites, stalactites, and alien-looking, waterfall-like rock patterns and columns resemble something out of the works of H.R. Giger. The cave has a fascinating origin story in that it was discovered in the early 1970s by a couple of local spelunkers, whose half-century-old footprints can still be viewed inside. Its location was kept secret for over 10 years to protect the delicate ecosystem (be sure not to touch anything or leave any trace inside the cavern if you visit—even something as small as the residue of a human finger on the walls is enough to cause damage to the fragile subterranean environment). The Kartchner family, the owners of the land, eventually worked with the state to turn it into the compelling landmark it is today. Bereft of light pollution and designated an International Dark Sky Park, visitors can also expect a brilliant sea of stars and views of the Milky Way under the gorgeous desert night sky.
Lovers of the Old West will find plenty to enjoy in Tombstone, known as the “Town Too Tough To Die.” The town acts as a living, open-air museum to the lore of the Old West, with stagecoaches, staged gunfights, old-timey architecture, and period-accurate outfits on the locals being a common sight on the charming, dusty streets. Take the ghost tour and get spooked visiting the 10 most haunted places in town, go underground and explore the hilariously named, once silver-rich, dog-friendly Good Enough Mine, or check out the notorious site of the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral, an informative exhibit complete with a collection of statues of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and other participants recreating the deadly dispute.
South of Tombstone, continue towards Sierra Vista towards Ramsey Canyon, one of the most secluded and underrated in the United States. The perplexingly leafy landscape presents a sharp contrast to the typical aridity of Arizona with its location at the crossroads of mountain and desert topography. As a result, the canyon has one of Arizona’s most impressive collections of avian, mammal, and plant species. The rustic Ramsey Canyon inn, tucked inside a forest bursting with color in autumn, provides cozy, intimate accommodations for your journey to this remote part of the state and is within walking distance of the numerous lush trails filled with the songs of birds.
Finally, at the southern extreme of Arizona, a short 11 miles from Mexico lies the offbeat oasis of Bisbee. Another of Arizona’s former booming mining towns, modern-day Bisbee inexplicably became a thriving desert haven of counter-cultural spirits in recent years. Stay at The Copper City Inn for a dose of western charm, whose rooms come in Mission, Art Deco, and French themes, and offer proximity to all the weirdness Bisbee has to experience. Grab a bite of vegan chimichangas at Poco Market, and don’t miss The Loovre while you’re there, the quirky miniature art museum housed in the restaurant’s bathroom. The town likes to embrace its wild side with unique festivals, spectacular art, and eccentric events like the High Pirates of the Desert Weekend every August. Grab your best buccaneering costume, imbibe in some local rum, and search for the Great Bisbee Treasures together with your new friends.
John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.