Must-See Destinations in Northern Arizona

Northern Arizona Map
Visiting Northern Arizona.

Boise Matthews

In the dead of summer, it's easy to get sick of the heat. At this point, when you have almost no vacation time left, the perfect escape is a long weekend getaway. Gas up the vehicle, put a cooler in the back, pack your good walking shoes, grab a camera and your favorite baseball cap, bring at least one other driver to share the burden, and head up north!

Northern Arizona has a variety of historical sites and natural wonders, and there are many ways to enjoy the high country. If you've already visited the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, we highly recommend the national monuments.

The national monuments are administered by the National Parks Service, and there is a small admission fee per vehicle. Without exception, very impressive are the condition of the parks, the helpfulness of the employees and rangers, and the thoughtfulness with which the trails and stopping points are organized.

At each place, you can stop at the visitor's center, peruse the exhibits, and use the facilities. You can also pick up a free color pamphlet about the park, the history of the area, and the park's importance from both an archeological and anthropological perspective.

No matter how you plan it, you'll have an amazing weekend, see several of Arizona's wonderful national parks and monuments, and have a collection of spectacular pictures.

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Sunset Crater

Sunset Crater, aerial view
Harvey Lloyd / Getty Images

Sunset Crater is a cinder cone. It erupted in the year 1064 and represents the most recent volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area. Sunset Crater had periodic eruptions over the next 200 years. It's now 1,000 feet high.

Sunset Crater is about 15 miles north of Flagstaff. At one mile, the Sunset Crater Trail is an easy and relatively short walk through the lava fields formed by the volcano. It's hard to imagine that you're even in Arizona while walking through the vast area of ash and lava rock.

The ash from the volcano has covered as much as 800 square miles. Around the year 1250, red and yellow ash shot out of the volcano resulting in the colorful reddish glow that led to its name.

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Wupatki pueblo
Witold Skrypczak / Getty Images

Wupatki is another 14 miles up the road from Sunset Crater. Wupatki is an incredibly well-preserved pueblo with about 100 rooms. A self-guided tour is all you need to see this fascinating structure. If you walk the trails and stop at the Visitors Centers to look around, both Sunset Crater and Wupatki should take you three to four hours.

The Wupatki Pueblo was built in the 1100s. At different times, the Sinagua, Cohonina, and Kayenta Anasazi peoples resided here. Between 85 and 100 people lived at Wupatki at one time. Life revolved around growing corn, and people relied on stored water.

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Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon
Judy Hedding

At Walnut Canyon, you'll see how the Sinagua lived in the cliffs of the canyon. The Sinagua name means "without water," and it is amazing to imagine how they farmed and lived in these canyon walls. Walnut Canyon is the only place on this list for which there were warnings about the strenuous nature of the hiking trail.

The Island Trail (all concrete and steps) provides the opportunity to walk beside the cliff dwellings. It's slightly less than one mile. Walking back up is steep (240 steps), and there are many benches along the way to stop and rest. If you can, though, walk this trail -- it's definitely worth it -- and take your time going back up.

The Rim Trail is easier and shorter, but the elevation is high here: 7,000 feet. Take this into consideration when deciding which trail to take. Unless you do both trails, one and a half hours should be enough.

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Painted Desert and Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest National Park
Carol Polich Photo Workshops / Getty Images

Reserve 2 to 3 hours for a visit to the Petrified Forest National Park on the Colorado Plateau. This is another incredibly unique location, and those interested in geology will be very happy here. Walk the trail in the middle of petrified wood strewn across the landscape as far as the eye can see. Do not touch, and don't take any pieces! But do stop at the various points along the road on the way through the Painted Desert.

On the Colorado Plateau and on the road to the Painted Desert, there is wonderful natural beauty. The mounds you'll see look like sand piles, but the sandstone layers, clay layers, siltstone layers, and hematite giving the hills of the Painted Desert its wonderful colors are actually roadmaps to the geologic history of the area. 

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Canyon de Chelly

Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly
Judy Hedding

A visit to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "duh shay") should be on your must-see list if you want to see beautiful and historical natural wonders in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly is on the Colorado Plateau where the earliest record of human presence dates from between 2500 and 200 B.C. Canyon de Chelly is really several canyons, including Canyon del Muerto. In the deeper part of the canyon, the walls are more than 1,000 feet above the canyon floor.

The periods of human history here are broken up into periods: Archaic, Basketmaker, Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, The Long Walk, and Trading Days. The national monument was established in 1931 and encompass about 84,000 acres. It lies within the Navajo Reservation. Although the Canyon is administered by the U.S. Government, it belongs to the Navajo people who continue to live in and around it today as they have for centuries.

One of the most photographed points in Northern Arizona is Spider Rock. It is at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. Spider Rock is about 800 feet high and has roads and farmed land on the canyon floor. There is also livestock in the canyon.

A jeep tour inside the canyon is advisable; many of the sights are not visible from the rim. There are several ruins with living and storage areas and ceremonial rooms called kivas. Fortresses were built for protection from invaders.

The White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly is about 1,000 years old. There are two dwellings: an upper and a lower. At one time, the walls of the lower structure reached up to the base of the upper dwelling, which was covered with white plaster. It is not Navajo; it was built by ancient Pueblan people.

Canyon de Chelly is two hours up the road from Petrified Forest, and there are two rims. The North Rim Drive is 34 miles round trip, and the South Rim Drive is 37 miles round trip. There is no entrance fee. This is Navajo private land, and they observe Daylight Saving time, unlike Phoenix or Flagstaff.

Obey the speed limits and the laws here. If you have enough time, you can arrange for either a four-hour or eight-hour jeep tour into the Canyon. Either way, you can enjoy the ruins and the beautiful canyon.

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Before You Go Home

View from Mount Humphreys
Judy Hedding

Hopefully, you can get a little rest before you get back in your vehicle for the ride home, which should take you about six hours. If you have an extra day, though, head back to Flagstaff and visit the Arizona Snowbowl, or ride the skyride to the top of Mount Humphreys. It takes 30 minutes each way, and you'll spend only about 15 minutes on top.