Towering Cacti, Ancient Forests, and the Grandest Canyon; Arizona’s National Parks Have It All

Each of Arizona’s national parks offers a wildly different experience, all awe-inspiring by their own rights. From Saguaro’s colossal cacti, and Petrified Forest’s preserved prehistoric plant-life, to the Grand Canyon’s, well, grand canyons, Arizona has a lot to offer. Whether you’re a novice explorer planning your first national park adventure, or a master patron of the Arizona parks, there is always something new and exciting to be found in the youngest of America’s contiguous states.


Saguaro National Park / Photo: Tom Tash - Chimani
Saguaro National Park | Photo: Chimani

Located to the east and west of Tucson, Arizona, the two sections of Saguaro National Park are the manifested embodiment of Arizona’s stereotypical desert mountain region, protecting 1.6 million of the states iconic saguaro cacti. These longstanding plants grow at very slow rates which can range widely depending on each plant’s conditions, most notably precipitation. Capable of living for up to 200 years, the tallest saguaro ever recorded was 78 feet tall. The spring season may be the best time of year to visit the national park as the occasional showers it brings trigger the blooming of the desert wildflowers. The Saguaro’s bloom is a particularly marvelous sight and has accordingly earned the title of Arizona’s state flower.

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The Rincon Mountain District to the east of Tucson includes an 8-mile Cactus Forest Drive and a variety of picnic areas and trails, including the Cactus Forest Trail that can be used by mountain bikers. The western Tucson Mountain District is more mountainous and includes the striking Red Hills, a 5-mile loop road, and a short trail leading to a large collection of petroglyphs. A four-mile hike leads to the top of Wasson Peak, known for its great views.

Petrified Forest National Park | Photo: Andrew Kearns/CC by 2.0
Petrified Forest National Park | Photo: Andrew Kearns/CC by 2.0

The Late Triassic period may have occurred 218 million years ago, but it comes to life again at Petrified Forest National Park. The 146-square-mile park also includes portions of the Painted Desert. A 28-mile scenic drive winds through the park, offering multiple opportunities to see the eponymous petrified logs. These monuments to ancient 200-foot-tall conifers were buried by preservative mud, sand, and volcanic ash long ago. Visitors can also experience the vividly colored rock layers of the Chinle Formation that give the Painted Desert its name, visit the historic Painted Desert Inn (now a museum), hike to a pueblo site rich with petroglyphs, and even see a house built by Puebloan people out of petrified wood. The parks preserved wonders are not limited to petrified wood and cultural artifacts; it also features fossilized ferns, cycads, ginkgoes, giant reptiles, and amphibians, as well as early dinosaurs. Today the park is anything but barren with current inhabitants including pronghorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, lizards, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Tom Tash/Chimani
Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Chimani

With more than 5.5 million annual visitors, the Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited national park in the country. Most visitors to this 1.2-million-acre park arrive in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, where they’ll find the famous El Tovar Hotel, park headquarters, iconic rim overlooks (accessible by free shuttle buses), and the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail, leading to the inner canyon, Indian Garden, and ultimately the canyon floor and the Colorado River. While many are satisfied to spend a few hours taking in the views from the South Rim, that is just a tiny fraction of what Grand Canyon National Park has to offer. Far more remote, the North Rim rises 1,000 feet higher and has its own visitor center and lodge. In addition to overlooks and scenic drives, the North Rim offers access to the Kaibab National Forest for hiking and camping. Venturing below the rim of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon is no lark. The elevation change is dramatic (7,000 feet), and the desert environment can be extremely challenging. Well-prepared visitors who make the journey by pack mule or on foot are rewarded by some of the world’s most spectacular scenery in relative isolation. Overnight accommodations are limited to the Phantom Ranch lodge alongside the river and camping. Raft trips on the Colorado River offer a unique way to view the canyon, although arranging a trip with an authorized outfitter isn’t cheap and requires a fair amount of planning time, often as long as three weeks.

Home to perhaps the most diverse set of desert biomes in the world, when it comes to visiting Arizona’s National parks, when you’ve seen one you have definitely not seen them all! No matter which national parks you choose to visit, you are sure to be impressed by the grandeur and history of the Sunset State.

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