As the winter bears down on most of the country, there are few places in the US where the weather is warm and mild. Many think of jetting off to Hawaii with the rest of the tourists seeking the sun, but there is another place that offers spectacular views, inexpensive lodging and loads of outdoor adventures … Arizona.
The Grand Canyon state isn’t just a desert in the Southwest. This state has far more surprises than most non-natives know. With two modest ski resorts in the northern region and one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, Grand Canyon National Park, you can spend a day in the snow, and three hours later be back in the Valley of the Sun sipping a cocktail by the pool. Although during this time of the year, you may want to make sure your resort has a heated pool. Evening temperatures dip down into the 40s even 30s, but the warm 75 degree days are great for any outdoor activity.
The best time to visit Arizona is in the spring. It’s the most expensive time, especially in the Phoenix area due to baseball’s spring training season, but the wildflowers are crazy beautiful and pop up just about anywhere after a little rainfall. Even the cactus put on a spectacular show during this time of the year.
Grand Canyon National Park
Probably the most visited site in the world, the Grand Canyon is a spectacular natural beauty. Most people take a trip to the rim to view the enormous gaping hole carved by centuries of rapid flowing water through the terrain, but river rafting down the Colorado River at its base, is a great way to see the amazing cliffs along the canyon. Be prepared to hit some rapids in certain areas on the river, and when booking a tour, check the age recommendations for any river trip you decide to take, as some areas are for experienced adults only. There are many things to look out for along the river and trails; Horseshoe bend, wildlife and constant changing water levels. Rainfall further up the river and the Glenn Canyon dam can cause the water levels to rise rapidly, so be cautious if you are hiking along the river’s edge. Never leave your kids unattended as the river can be unpredictable and could sweep them off into the flow before you know it. It may look beautiful and serene, but this river is wild and fast.
Havasupai Falls is another great location for the avid hiker. This area is a favorite for those wanting to experience the transition from the warm rim to the cool sometimes cold interior. It is an endurance hike, so make sure you have plenty of water, food, energy and time! You can take a guided tour on the back of a mule, but this has it’s own challenges. You may not be doing all the walking, but riding on the back of a sure-footed stiff-legged animal can be hard on the butt and possibly your nerves. If you and your family are the adventurous type, this is definitely a great way to experience the canyon.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
One of the greatest things about this state is, just when you think you have seen all there is to see, you stumble upon another mind-blowing scenic view. Many of the roads throughout the state will appear flat and uneventful, but give them a few more miles and you’ll eventually come to another enormous canyon or towering rock formation. This area borders Kaibab National Forest and includes Paria Plateau, Vermilion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes, and Paria Canyon. The 280,000 acre area has elevations as high as 7,100 feet and petroglyphs can be found along the walls of the canyon reminding visitors of earlier Puebloans and other native people who once lived here.
The southeast side of the park is the most picturesque. It’s just off the US 89 and US 89A on your way to Page or the Grand Canyon, but its worth the trip to see the winding rock formations and petroglyphs. A permit is required for hiking in Coyote Buttes North (the Wave), Coyote Buttes South, or an overnight stay within Paria Canyon.
During the spring, this area usually has mild temperatures with a calm subtle breeze drifting across the terrain. It’s not uncommon to encounter a quick furious storm during the early spring season, and if you’re in one of the canyons…flash floods are common. Fortunately, the storms are usually short-lived and leave behind a slight sweet scent of the high desert.
While you’re in this area, try to plan your trip to include Lake Powell. Lone Rock camp grounds are a great place to camp along the lake. This area gets really packed during the summer months and holidays, so check ahead for an available site. If you aren’t into camping, but would love to see some of the area. You can book a tour from Wahweap Marina on the Rainbow Bridge Tour. As a kid, I spent many summers up in this area exploring with family and friends the vast channels that drain into the Lake. After eighteenn years of exploring, I still have yet to see it all, but I have some amazing memories of climbing along the smooth orange-red striped walls of the canyons and water skiing on the glass-smooth bluish-green lake. It’s a wonderful place for kids to roam, swim, fish and water skiing. If you have the time, the best way to experience the lake is by houseboat. Watch out during monsoon season, July thru September, as violent storms are known to creep up and thrash the boats about the lake.
Sunset Crater National Monuments
About 930 years ago, lava flowed from the Sunset Crater Volcano. The 1200° C liquid created a river that covered almost 4.5 kilometers of land before it finally cooled and solidified. To the west of the Sunset crater there are self-guided trails around the base of San Francisco Peak, a dormant volcano where the city of Flagstaff has built one of Arizona’s ski resorts.
As you head east from Sunset crater, you enter a flat grassland area with little to see before you arrive at the wooded mountains of the Mongolian Rim, except… a huge depression. 0.74 miles wide, just 6 miles south of the I-40. The Meteor Crater was created 49,000 years ago by a meteoric impact. This area is privately owned and will cost you $16 per adult and $8 for children five and older to see it.
Canyon De Chelly National Monument
This area offers many options for families to choose from when visiting the area. There are two scenic drives along the rim, but if you want to see some of the amazing sites this area has to offer, try a ranger guided tour, horse back riding or a self guided tour through the canyon. The visitor center has maps and more information on the sites. Be sure to have a map on hand before you go, the Navajo Nation does not have reliable GPS or cell phone service!
Planning on headed back to the city life? You may want to venture toward the local communities within the Tonto National Forest. There are plenty of small towns off the I-17 that are worth visiting. Prescott, the original capital of the state; Jerome, an artist community on the cliffs; and Sedona, Arizona’s version of Santa Fe. The area is beautiful year round with spectacular fall foliage, mild winter snowstorms, cool temperatures in spring or mild sun drenched summers. It is a great reprieve from the intense summer heat of the Sonoran desert and offers an endless selection of hiking trails for all ages.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
If you haven’t guessed, the best time to see this area is sunrise or sunset, but you won’t be disappointed when you venture out to this far Northeastern end of the state anytime of the day. These rock formations are incredibly tall and hypnotic. The main highway, Highway 191, that runs through this region offers some striking views, but to really see some of the more spectacular formations, you’ll want to get off the main highway. Keep in mind that this area belongs to the Navajo Nation, and if you want to take any private roads, you’ll need a guide or permits.
There is a scenic drive along the 17-mile dirt road, you can schedule a Jeep tour guided by local Navajo, go for a ride on horseback or get a bird’s-eye view from a hot air balloon.
Petrified Forest National Park
Like most areas of Arizona, this area has a great deal of ancient geography. Some may walk through the area and never realize they are looking at the remains of trees that lived millions of years ago, now just beautiful petrified rocks. The process of creating a petrified rock is similar to that of creating a dinosaur fossil. Over a long period of time, millions of years, the live tissue is replaced with minerals. Why did this happen? This area use to be a very dense forest, but time and volcanic activity changed the area, leaving behind some striking topography.
Don’t plan on taking a piece home as a souvenir. This area and all its contents are protected, preserved for generations to come. There are many shops throughout Arizona where you can purchase a petrified rock, but this area is not the place to take a selection.
If you are eager to see some greenery after spending the day in the dust, head down U.S 180 to St Johns, turn south onto U.S. 191 and drive to the small town of Alpine. This area has a population of wolves, elk, coyotes and bears. There are plenty of places to camp in the forest or lakeside. Don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous and take a county road to the many lakes and rivers throughout the area.
Saguaro National Park
We just returned from the Sonoran desert, and it always amazes me how incredibly beautiful and intense the sunsets are in the area. Pictures don’t do it justice. The colors are so brilliantly red, it appears to set the clouds on fire, and it continues right up until the sun’s light slowly fades away to black. Powerful, unforgetful and even haunting….especially if you have ever experienced the intense summer heat of 114 degrees hours before it sets.
The Park has acres of towering saguaro that stand majestic and defiant through the harsh weather of the Sonoran desert. They appear shriveled, weak and weary from long periods of drought and are a constant reminder of how unforgiving the desert heat can be on all its creatures, but soon after the fast and furious monsoon arrives, the saguaro rebounds and swells…almost doubling their circumference as they suck up water through their incredibly wide sprawling network of roots.
Many tourist come to the Saguaro National Park during the summer to experience and “survive” the intense heat, but after spending one too many summers working out in the extreme heat, I prefer the spring. The weather is warm, the wildflowers are blooming everywhere, and you are more likely to get a glimpse of wildlife.
When you’re finished touring this picturesque area, Canyon Ranch in Tucson is a wonderful place to enjoy the luxurious side of the Sonoran desert, located just east of the Park.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
This has to be one of my favorite places to visit in the spring. The wildflowers are abundant, the area feels pristine and alive with wildlife. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled. There are some breathtakingly beautiful canyon areas underneath drifting majestic white clouds. It’s a birders and photographers paradise.
There are places to camp within the park, scenic drives and roads for biking. Be aware that temperatures can get hot, so pack plenty of water and keep you and your family well hydrated. Kids dehydrate quicker than adults, so keep a close eye on them and be sure to watch for signs of dehydration (dry mouth, headaches and fatigue).
Ajo Mountain scenic drive is one of the most popular drives in the area. January through March a free three-hour ranger guided van tour is available, but space is limited so make reservation ahead of time by signing up at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. Another popular scenic drive is the Puerto Blanco Drive. It’s a 37 mile drive with access to Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin and Quitobaquito Springs.
Montezuma’s Castle National Monument
An ancient Pabloan cliff dwelling dating back to 1100 AD, the Sinagua people built this structure 90 feet up a limestone cliff, possibly to escape the flooding of the river below. This impressive structure of limestone is located near the town of Camp Verde, off Interstate 17, at exit 289.
A short distance from the visitor center, you arrive at the base of the castle. Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed inside the dwelling, but you can visit the site any day of the year, except Christmas, from 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
The 1/3 mile hike also takes you through a beautiful sycamore forest and along spring-fed Beaver Creek. Temperatures are very mild in this area, but you could get a few spring showers, so be sure to check the weather before you go.