While Arizona’s cities are well-known for their thriving landscapes of art and culture, the Sonoran landscape that surrounds most of the state’s larger municipalities harbors a similarly impressive collection of natural attractions. Arizona’s desert countryside is unrivaled in terms of the number and diversity of its geologic and ecologic destinations. These sites, which range from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest, attract millions of visitors every year.
1. Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is by far Arizona’s best-known geologic feature, known throughout the world as a symbol of the vast scales and distances of the American West. This natural wonder lies along the track of the Colorado for some 280 miles in the northern part of the state, stretching up to 18 miles across and plunging up to 1 mile below the surface of the desert plain.
Of the Grand Canyon National Park’s 5 million annual visitors, most take in the view from the South Rim. Beyond sightseeing, the canyon is a popular destination for hikers, river rafters and campers. Less-adventurous visitors may access the South Rim by car, though the North Rim is a 200-mile drive from the more popular vantage. Visitors access the Grand Canyon via Highway 180, which links to both Flagstaff and Williams.
2. Painted Desert
A popular setting for classic, Saturday-morning cartoons, the Painted Desert sprawls across much of the land in the northeastern Arizona, extending even into others of the Four Corners states. Attractions such as the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest actually lie within the boundaries of this beautiful region. The Painted Desert’s various layers of sedimentary rock have eroded over the millennia to form stripes of contrasting colors, lending the desert its name.
Metals such as manganese and iron within the mudstone, siltstone and shale oxidize in a variety of fascinating hues. In addition to sightseeing by car, many visitors to the desert travel to the Painted Desert Visitor Center or the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, the latter of which lies along Route 66. Interstate 40 provides the most direct access to the region.
3. Petrified Forest
Interstate 40 provides access to another of the Arizona desert’s most precious sites: Petrified Forest National Park. Lying around 200 miles east of the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest is home to a collection of fossilized trees that grew during the Late Triassic period, some 200 million years ago.
Also present are a number of interesting archeological sites that hold remnants of human inhabitation from as long as 13,000 years ago. In addition to the swathes of fossils, sightseers delight in the flora, fauna and geologic formations within the park. The Painted Desert Visitor Center lies within the park, near Holbrook, in addition to the Rainbow Forest Museum.
4. Meteor Crater
Visitors to the desert who drive from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest have a fine opportunity to see a true natural wonder that lies roughly equidistant between the two famous locations. Meteor Crater lies just off Interstate 40, serving as the physical reminder of a meteor that struck the landscape some 50,000 years ago. Estimated at 150 feet in diameter, that meteor’s impact left a crater 4,000 feet in diameter and 600 feet deep. A trip to the site’s visitor center yields access to trails, viewing platforms, an educational theater, science exhibits and a gift store.
Though those ignorant of Arizona’s many natural splendors might imagine the vast landscape to be void of interest, it is in fact home to collection of beautiful, one-of-a-kind destinations. Attracting the notice of innumerable visitors every year, these attractions are a testament to Arizona’s unique and interesting geologic history.