Nature Calls: Take Your Arizona Adventure to the Next Level
With an outdoor season that stretches well beyond most—and an almost unfair share of the country’s most stunning nature—the Grand Canyon State is calling. And not just to hardcore enthusiasts (though of course, there’s plenty to keep that group happy). Whatever your level of outdoorsiness, there’s an Arizona adventure, or several, to add to your just-go-do-it list. Read on for 21 of the best, along with our favorite places to refuel between outings.
Whatever your chosen activity, please check the relevant website for the latest safety precautions. They may include anything from prepaid timed entry to mask requirements and social distancing.
Ease on in…
Just as low-impact workouts can yield dramatic results, these minimal-exertion outings are all about maximal awe. Mix them in with more strenuous activities—or take it easy for your entire stay. Either way, Arizona won’t disappoint.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum - Tucson
Forget any preconceived notions of museums before you visit this Tucson icon: What you’re about to step into is a mostly outdoor series of gorgeous natural habitats. On paved, easy-to-navigate trails, you’ll wend your way past not quite all creatures great and small—but so many, you won’t believe the sheer variety of local life. A short list of can’t-misses includes prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, river otters and javelina (the wild boar’s oddly adorable desert doppelganger).
Pink Jeep Tours - Sedona
As legendary as the local hiking is (more on that soon), you can also take in some serious red-rock majesty—think spires, mesas and canyons—from the passenger section of an open-air Jeep. Granted, some of the off-road tours are decidedly bumpy, and that tends to be part of the fun. But you can always opt for something smoother, such as the new wine tour with Page Spring Cellars. (This one actually happens in a retractable-roof van—and though you’ll stick to paved roads, you’ll still get Insta-envy-inducing views of the famed Airport Mesa, Boynton Canyon and the Red Rock Loop Road before your alfresco wine tasting.)
Judith Tunnell Accessible Trail - Phoenix
Phoenix is home to one of the nation’s largest municipal parks: the approximately 16,000-acre expanse known as South Mountain Park/Preserve. Though all the resident hiking, biking and horseback riding trails are worthy in their own right, the Judith Tunnell Accessible Trail is beloved for its blend of, well, accessibility (this is a paved, ADA-approved half-mile loop that works for wheelchairs, walkers and strollers) and beauty (you’re surrounded by everything from saguaro-dotted foothills to ancient Hohokam petroglyphs).
Grand Canyon Skywalk - Peach Springs
Again, there’s no disputing the awesomeness of hiking here, and we’ll get to the Grand Canyon’s trails soon. But if you want maximum return on minimum exertion, you can’t beat a walk on a glass bridge that extends 70 feet out from the West Rim. With only your feet to obstruct the view, you’ll see straight down—oh, just 4,000 or so feet—to the canyon floor. Note that Grand Canyon West is about a three-hour drive from the South Rim (another visitor favorite, where you’ll likely want to spend at least one night) and the scenery en route between the two is stunning.
Where to stay
For a cushy intro to overnighting in nature, go for a glamping resort. If you’re saving your trip for spring, check out the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Award-winning Under Canvas Grand Canyon—a luxury tented camp in a piñon and juniper forest 25 minutes from the canyon’s South Rim entrance, where you’ll find plenty of additional adventures that range from easy to advanced. Other exceptional glamping options elsewhere in the state include Arizona Nordic Village (a collection of cabins and yurts outside Flagstaff, and about an hour from Sedona) and Shash Dine Ecoretreat (a glamping B&B and Navajo cultural experience outside Page, about two hours from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim).
Mid-level it up…
If you’re up for some moderate exertion, we can all but guarantee it’ll come with immoderate beauty in Arizona—particularly if you try these intermediate-level hikes (and one kayaking adventure).
Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
Considered the Grand Canyon’s “premiere hiking trail”—and P.S., the safest—by the National Park Service, the Bright Angel Trail is well maintained, vista-blessed, intermittently shady and perfectly within moderate bounds if you turn back at the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. (Don’t judge by mileage alone in the Canyon; you’ve got to factor in steepness, too.) Approximating an ancient indigenous route, this South Rim pathway follows a natural break in the cliffs and takes you through two tunnels and a switchback before you get to the first resthouse. If time and energy are on your side, pushing onto the two-mile switchback might still qualify as moderate. But beyond that, the trail gets steeper.
Huckaby Trail - Sedona
Part of Sedona’s Secret 7—which is to say, an insider favorite that’s not so well known among visitors—this more or less 5.5-mile moderate trail is like an open-air gallery of nature’s masterworks—among them, Steamboat Rock and Wilson Mountain. And for anyone who likes a little bonus adventure (and possibly refreshment), there’s a bit of creek-crossing on this hike, too.
The Big Loop Hike - Willcox
As stunning as the red rocks of Sedona may be, they hardly corner the market on otherworldly geologic formations in Arizona. Head to the southern part of the state—specifically, the Chiricahua National Monument east of Tucson—for a seemingly endless stretch of rhyolite pillars, or hoodoos, each carved more crazily than the last by time and erosion. And though you’ll find miles of hiking trails, the Big Loop gives you arguably the best overview you can get in one day. At 9.5 miles total, the hike isn’t short, but it’s still considered moderate—and mind-blowing.
Verde River Kayaking - Cottonwood
One of two state waterways to bear the Wild & Scenic designation, the Verde River in Northern Arizona’s wine country makes for excellent (and no expertise-necessary) kayaking well into November. And though simply paddling half a day through this lush landscape with a few baby chutes and riffles is reward enough, you may also want to consider the Water to Wine variation, with a stop at the riverside Alcantara Vineyards for an alfresco tasting.
Where to stay:
If you’ve graduated from glamping to old-school camping, Arizona serves up endless ways to sleep under the stars. (And in the remote corners of the state, those stars are ridiculous.) See for yourself at the Bonita Canyon Campground after a day of exploring the Chiricahuas. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, this old-school campground houses 25 individual sites in a pine and oak forest, each with a picnic table, grill, food storage box and tent pad. Other favorite options include the Mather Campground at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Sedona’s Manzanita Campground.
Go for the gusto…
In addition to advanced-level treks, Arizona is home to epic mountain biking. So if you’re feeling extra adventurous (and prepared, of course), throw one of these next-level adventures into the mix.
The South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
For one of the most stunning full-day hikes in the Grand Canyon, check out the six-mile stretch of the South Kaibab Trail that leads to Skeleton Point (where any day hiker should turn around and head back up). By the National Park Service’s estimation, you’ll get “panoramic views unparalleled on any other trail at Grand Canyon.” Plus, the very factor that makes people leery of the trail in summer—that is, constant sun exposure—means better winter hiking conditions. Read: relatively little ice or snow.
Finger Rock Trail - Tucson
One of the most iconic aspects of Tucson’s natural skyline, Finger Rock punctuates the Catalina Mountains with a spire that, yes, bears an uncanny resemblance to an index finger. And the 8.2-mile out-and-back trail that bears the feature’s name is one of the toughest and most adored in the area. The elevation gain tops 4000 feet, and along the way, you’ll find not just the predictably stunning views of the city and desert, but flora and fauna galore—from grazing javelinas to fuzzy chollas and towering saguaros.
Wilson Mountain Trail - Sedona
The highest of Sedona’s peaks, this 7,122-foot wonder is worth the strenuous hike (allot at least five hours) for the red rock panoramas alone. But then there are also the views down to Oak Creek, the Verde Valley and Sterling Canyon.
South Mountain Park/Preserve - Phoenix
The same vast municipal park that’s home to the Judith Tunnell Accessible Trail (see: Ease on in, above) boasts mountain biking trails at the other end of the spectrum, with miles of beloved—if slightly scary—singletrack to choose from. Aficionados tend to head straight for the gnarly and rock-strewn stretches, such as National and Geronimo.
Where to stay:
If you want to test your outdoorsy cred with something a notch more adventurous than standard camping—or even if standard camping would be fine, but there are no available reservations where you want to stay—dispersed camping may be the way to go: that is, camping outside designated campsites, where you trade amenities such as bathrooms and charging stations for having the place to yourself. Of course, you need to make sure that dispersed camping is allowed wherever you’re headed, and there are great dispersed camping options make sure you’re prepared to leave no trace. Once you’ve read up on dispersed camping near the Grand Canyon, such as Forest Road 688 off Highway 64. If you’re feeling super-adventurous, you can do multiday backcountry camping trips through the Grand Canyon, but you’ll need a permit. There’s also plenty of gorgeous dispersed camping to be done among the red rocks of the Sedona area. One favorite is north of the Schnebly Hill Vista off Schnebly Hill Road, where a “camping permitted” sign is your cue that you’ve come to the right place.
Where to refuel
From north to south, five Arizona f-n-b favorites:
Grand Canyon Area: Cameron Trading Post, where you’ll find arguably the most iconic Navajo Tacos (to the uninitiated, picture mounds of hearty goodness atop fry bread). The restaurant is open for take-out, and getting tacos to go is a messy but glorious must.
Flagstaff: Brix, home to farm-focused contemporary American fare that’s sourced from Northern Arizona and Four Corners producers. And though indoor dining is happening at reduced capacity, there’s also an extensive takeout menu.
Sedona: For organic and vegetarian- and vegan-friendly Mexican specialties with crazy red rock views, head to the patio at Tamaliza. And while everything is good here, the tamales are what the place is known for.
Phoenix: Pizzeria Bianco has long been declared by foodies nationwide as the home of America’s best slice, and with various Phoenix-area locations now open, you can dine in or take out to judge for yourself.
Tucson: Welcome Diner, one of the restaurants best known for embracing Tucson’s relatively newfound status as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. With an emphasis on hearty, homey local fare, this hot spot has recently resumed service with limited indoor and outdoor seating—and a great takeout menu.