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Arizona national parks/nature preserves

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Did You Know … ?

  • Petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park is quartz, weighing 168 pounds per cubic foot.
  • A saguaro cactus may weigh six tons, grow to 50 feet and live 150 to 175 years.
  • Rattlesnakes bite about 1,000 people a year in the U.S., but death from lightning is 20 times more likely.
  • It took the Colorado River an estimated 6 million years to cut its path in the Grand Canyon.
  • Route 66 passed through one national park, the Petrified Forest National Park.

Of (very) old wood, (very) large cacti

Millions of acres in Arizona are set aside for care by the federal government. Together, these lands provide a vast and fascinating collection of landscapes, flora and fauna.

National parks and other protected areas include lakes and rivers suitable for a wide range of recreational activities, picnic sites, hiking trails at all levels of difficulty, very serious rock climbing sites, scenic drives and more. They preserve the heritage of Native Americans past and present, plus some aspects of modern settlement history. They also seek to protect forests and endangered wildlife.

The three national parks suggest the variety. The Petrified Forest National Park, named for one of the world’s largest and most colorful collections of petrified wood, also encompasses the multihued Painted Desert, archaeological sites, fossils that are more than 200 million years old and native grassland.

The Saguaro National Park protects the saguaro cacti, recognizable for their huge size, ribbed casings and their “arms.” This park, while celebrating the quintessential desert plant, also has mountains and a dense forest. Both parks have wilderness areas for the most adventurous.

The third park, the 1.2 million-acre Grand Canyon National Park, is so grand it attracts 5 million visitors each year — and, while touched on here, has a separate listing at (

The Colorado River, at opposite ends of the Grand Canyon, leads to Arizona’s best-known water playgrounds: Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. They are manmade.

For those interested in the human past, rather than the geological, popular choices are the cliff dwellings abandoned hundreds of years ago, now on view at the Montezuma Castle, Navajo, Tonto and Walnut Canyon national monuments.

Further, the 84,000-acre Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located entirely on Navajo Nation lands, is noted for its steep canyons and hundreds of pueblo ruins. A Navajo community still lives on the canyon floor.

Hiking — especially if one includes vertical “walks” on canyon walls — is big in Arizona’s protected areas. There are trails in all the popular sites, as well as two national historic trails, both Spanish trails leading to California.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Plan a multiday backpacking trip into the Petrified Forest’s wilderness area. To camp, you need a permit, and group sizes are limited to eight. Alternatively, camp in the wilderness area that is part of the Saguaro National Park, for which a permit is also required.
  • Plan some watery fun at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Get out on the water of Lake Mead or Lake Mohave in a kayak or on waterskis. Or don scuba gear and find out what is under the water.
  • Venture into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, on the Mexican border, for a chance at seeing Sonoran pronghorn (endangered), desert bighorns and desert tortoises. Elf owls peek out of their holes in saguaro cacti — and rattlesnakes live here, too
  • Take a professionally guided raft trip on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. Taka self-guided rafting trip if you are sufficiently expert.
  • Horseback riding is an option in several parks and recreation areas, but conditions can be hot and/or dry. Choose a mountain bike for access to some of the scenery in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
  • Follow in the footsteps of settlers who, in 1776, walked what is now the 1,200-mile Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail from Nogales, Ariz., to new homes in San Francisco. It was the first overland route to connect New Spain with San Francisco.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Contemplate the lives of America’s early inhabitants when viewing the abandoned pueblos at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument or admiring the Montezuma Castle National Monument. The latter is described as one of North America’s best-preserved cliff dwellings.
  • Take a daylong trek in Saguaro National Park, which offers more than 165 miles of hiking trails.
  • Drive the Route 66 National Scenic Byway in Arizona, or at least the part that takes you through the Petrified National Forest, the only place where the telephone poles still stand beside the abandoned road.
  • In January, February or March, sign up for a free three-hour ranger-guided van tour of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the Sonoran Desert is the attraction. Alternatives are driving or cycling along one of the monument’s scenic drives.
  • Walk on one of the relatively short designated trails in the Petrified Forest such as the one-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail, which promises “spectacular views” of the Painted Desert.
  • Allow about four hours for the scenic drives for the best views of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which sits on Navajo Tribal Trust Land. Or, hire a guide or choose a tour company to explore the canyon more extensively on foot, on horseback or in a vehicle.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Tour the Painted Desert Inn, which formerly accommodated travelers on the historic Route 66. Now a National Historic Landmark, it is inside the Petrified Forest National Park.
  • Photograph the giant saguaro cacti found in the Saguaro National Park. Also, add photos of the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon to your collection.
  • Hear mariachi music and see folkloric dancers at the March fiesta celebrating the area’s Hispanic heritage at Saguaro National Park.
  • Settle down to a picnic in the Navajo National Monument. Also, while there, join a ranger-guided tour to cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
  • Look for your souvenirs or handicraft items in the parks’ gift shops.
  • Go fishing at the at Lake Mead National Recreation Area or the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (meaning Lake Powell). Try houseboat living on Lake Powell.

Additional Resources

For more information contact the Arizona Office of Tourism at