Why Arizona? 

The 48th state and last of the contiguous states admitted to the Union, Arizona is a contender for the top spot when it comes to natural beauty - sweeping canyons, jagged cliffs, towering ponderosa pines, shimmering lakes and of course miles of cacti in every shape and size.

  While the Grand Canyon is Arizona's most famous destination, the state is also home to many other national forests, national parks and monuments. On this trip we visited several notable ones, namely, Sunset Crater-Wupatki National Monument, Tuzigoot National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Petrified Forest National Park, Casa Grande National Monument, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Saguaro National Park.

More than a quarter of Arizona's territory is Federal Trust Land which serves as the home of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and other native american tribes. The section of Arizona Indian Country on Hwy 264 from Tuba City/Moenkopi to Ganado passes through sere and barren landscape with vast vistas from the the road. Plenty of panoramic views are availabe from atop tall mesas that the road climbs up and down.

We also explored the area along Dine' Tah "Among the People" Scenic Road that passes through the Navajo Nation taking in ancient ruins, museums and other attractions along the way.

The Photos

The photo album can be accessed here.



Day 1 Fly into Phoenix. Red Rock Country scenic drive from Prescott to Flagstaff through Sedona.
Day 2 Visit Sunset Crater-Wupatki National Monument. Drive Hwy 89 north to Tuba City. Hwy 264 east through Arizona Indian Country.
North Hwy 191 north to Chinle. Canyon de Chelly South Rim drive.
Day 3 Canyon de Chelly North Rim drive, Indian Road 12 through Dine'Tah to Lupton
Hwy 40 east to Petrified Forest National Park. Drive through Salt River Canyon to Globe.
Day 4 Roosevelt Dam and Apache Trail.
From Globe, Hwy 60 west and 79 south to Casa Grande National Monument at Coolidge
Interstate 40 east to Gila Bend, Hwy 85 south to Organ Pipe National Monument via Ajo
Hwy 86 west to Tuscon.
Day 5 Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park Drive to Phoenix

Total Miles driven: 2000

Red Rock Country

Red Rock country panorama, Sedona

While the state is noted for its desert landscape, less well known is the pine-covered high country of the Colorado Plateau in the north-central portion of the state. The Colorado Plateau is roughly centered on the Four Corners region and includes northwest Arizona. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River and its main tributaries. In the southwest corner of the Colorado Plateau lies the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Much of the Plateau's landscape is related, both in appearance and geologic history, to the Grand Canyon.

The nickname "Red Rock Country" suggests the brightly colored rock left bare to the view by dryness and erosion. Domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, goblins, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons are geological features typical of the Plateau. Strung along the length of Arizona's famed Route 89A, sandsone monoliths, shaped by the same forces that carved the Grand Canyon, form the vivid backdrop for this sinuous spin through some of the state's most bewitching desert wilderness.

Buttes and spires flank the city of Sedona

The city of Sedona lies at the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon, a distinctive and deep chasm. Rising high above Sedona and its hallmark canyon is the Mogollon Rim, a 2000-foot escarpment formed from ancient deposits of limestone, mudstone and sandstone when the area was the west coast of a still emerging continent. The city is surrounded by red-rock monoliths with quirky names like Coffeepot, Cathedral, Bell and even Snoopy.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument /Wupati National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Moument / Wupatki National Monument map

The Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is located in the northern central part of Arizona, less than 15 miles north of Flagstaff, protecting over 3,000 acres of lava fields, cinder deposits and archaeological ruins. It is one of the youngest volcanoes of the Colorado Plateau.

Following its eruption hundreds of years ago, the early settlers moved on to nearby Wupatki and Walnut Canyon. What remains are today fragments of the early villages protected today as archeoalogical sites.

A one mile self-guided loop trail at the base of Sunset Crater Volcano, that takes visitors back in time to the early 11th and 12th centuries, before the volcano changed this impressive landscape.

The same loop road that passes Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, passes through Wupatki National Monument, one of several sites preserving pueblos of ancient peoples.

The many settlement sites scattered throughout the monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People, more specifically the Sinagua, Cohonina, and Kayenta Anasazi. Wupatki was first inhabited around 500 AD. A major population influx began soon after the eruption of Sunset Crater in the 11th century (between 10401100), which blanketed the area with volcanic ash.

The pueblos all have a distinctive deep red color and were made from thin, flat blocks of the local Moenkopi sandstone.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly park map showing the North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive

Situated in the heart of Arizona's Indian Country, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced duh-shay) National Monument preserves ruins of the early indigenous tribes that lived in the area, including the Ancient Pueblo Peoples (also called Anasazi) and Navajo. The monument covers 131 square miles and encompasses the floors and rims of the three major river cut canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument.

Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Park service units, as it consists entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land which remains in the ownership of the Navajo Nation and is home to the canyon community. Access to the canyon floor is restricted, and visitors are allowed to travel in the canyons only when accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide. The only exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail.

Canyon de Chelly can be explored from the rim following both North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. Ancient ruins and geologic structures are visible, but in the distance, from turnoffs on each of these routes. We entered the park late afternoon and decided to explore the South Rim first. This drive (37 miles round trip) offers panoramic views of the canyon, the Defiance Plateau, and the Chuska Mountains to the northeast.

Spider Rock Overlook

The park's distinctive geologic feature is Spider Rock, a sandstone spire that rises 800 feet (240 m) from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. It has served as the scene of a number of television commercials. According to traditional Navajo beliefs the taller of the two spires is the home of spider woman.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park - park map

Petrified Forest National Park straddles the border between Apache County and Navajo County in northeastern Arizona. Named for its large deposits of petrified wood, the park covers about 146 square miles, encompassing semi-desert shrub steppe as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The northern part of the park extends into the Painted Desert, which was declared a National Monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.

The park contain America's largest deposits of petrified wood, a rich and colorful desert, many fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures, and more than 500 archaeological sites including amazing petroglyphs left by ancient cultures. A 28-mile park road offers overlooks with long-distance vistas of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.

The "Painted Desert" is located in the northern section of the park. Portions of this land were declared the nation's first wilderness are in the National Park System in 1970. The colors in the desert result from the minerals in the soil; the characteristic red color is due to iron oxides.

View of the Badlands at Tawa Point

Petrified log balanced on an eroding ridge at Blue Mesa

One of the most striking areas in the park is the fabulous Blue Mesa in the east central section. It is where some of the most impressive fossils were found and more are being discovered each year as erosion exposes new evidence. Fossils found here show the Forest was once a tropical region, filled with towering trees and long-extinct creatures. Several different species of fossilized plants, animals and reptiles have been discovered by paleontologists.

When trees were toppled by volcanic eruptions, they were swept away by flowing water and deposited in marshes and covered with mud and volcanic ash. Buried under layers of sediment, the logs remained buried for millions and millions of years undergoing an extremely slow process of petrification which essentially turned the logs to colorful stone. Blue Mesa offers a fascinating window into this process.

The area became covered with an ocean covering the logs with even more sediment. About 60 million years ago the ocean disappeared and was replaced with flowing rivers that gradually eroded over 2,600 feet of sediment depth slowly exposing the petrified wood that litters the landscape at the Petrified Forest National Park.

Logs are still embedded in stone - as the rocks weather away, the petrified logs are exposed bit by bit.

As the harder petrified wood protects the sedimentary rock beneath, erosion forms pedestals beneath the fossil trunks. Eventually, the elements become too much for the narrowing pillar of rock and all or part of the suspended log breaks away and tumbles to the ground. The Blue Mesa area is littered with petrified log segments. This area features other worldly, almost lunar landscapes with wildly sculpted hills and striated rocks. The signature bands of the badlands of the park result from the sedimentary layers deposited in the area.

Petrified log at Crystal Forest

Over millions of years, mineralized water replaced the cellulose fiber in a process that preserved some of the structure of tree rings and grain. Most of the resulting rock is silica in a non-crystalline form, colored by other minerals. Voids in the logs are often filled with crystals of quartz and amethyst.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located in extreme southern Arizona which shares a border with the Mexican state of Sonora. It is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran desert. While Organ Pipe Cactus grows plentifully south of the border in Mexico, the park is the only place in the United States where it grows in the wild.

It has an extraordinary collection of Sonoran Desert plants and animals. The monument is a showcase for creatures who have adapted to extreme temperatures, intense sun, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Altogether 28 cactus species live here, including saguaro and organ pipe.

Organ pipe Cactus

The main road through the park, Hwy 85, heads straight south towards the international border with Mexico. The northern part of the monument is in fact dominated by Saguaro which outnumbers Organ Pipe cacti in the park and we were a little confused about this. As it turns out the Organ Pipe Cactus is a gultton for heat and light and grows only on the warmer southern slopes where it can absorb the most sunlight.

Like its fellow cacti and other desert inhabitants, the organ pipe is attuned to rhythms of the sun and infrequent rains. When it blooms in the heat of May, June and July, it waits until the sun sets to open its lavender-white flowers.

The main backcountry scenic route in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the Ajo Mountain Drive, a mostly unpaved loop that heads towards the foothills of the Ajo Range, the high, rocky ridge which forms the eastern boundary of the preserve.

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro has been described as the monarch of the Sonoran Desert, as the supreme symbol of the American Southwest, and as a plant with personality. Since 1933 this extraordinary giant cactus has been protected within Saguaro National Park. Saguaro National Park has two districts, separated by the City of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District or Saguaro West, and the Rincon Mountain District or Saguaro East. We decided to visit the Tuscon Mountain district which is adjacent to the Arizona-Sonora Desert museum.

Preserved along with the Saguaro are many other members of the Sonoran Desert community, other cacti, desert trees and shrubs, and animals. In lushness and variety, the Sonoran Desert far surpasses all other North American deserts and yet paradoxically, it is one of the hottest and driest regions on the continent.

It is renowned for the variety of odd, all too human shapes it assumes, shapes that inspire wild and fanciful imaginings. Giant saguaro cacti, unique to the Sonoran Desert, sometimes reach a height of 50 feet in this cactus forest, which covers the valley floor, rising into the Rincon and West Tucson mountains.

Saguaro on the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive

The saguaro begins its life as a shiny black seed no bigger than a pinhead. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in numbers. One saguaro produces tens of thousands of seeds in a year. Saguaro seedlings that grow under sheltering plants such as palo verde and mesquie are shaded from the desert's intense sunlight, blanketed from winter cold, hidden from rodents, birds and other animals that eat them.

A saguaro's growth is extremely slow. Growth occurs in spurts, with most of it taking place in the summer rainy season each year. After 15 years, the saguaro may be barely a foot tall. At about 30 years saguaro can begin to flower and produce fruits.

By 50 years, the saguaro may be as tall as 7 feet. After about 75 years, it may sprout its first branches or "arms." The branches begin as prickly balls, then extend out and upward.

By 100 years the saguaro may have reached 25 feet. Saguaros that live 150 years or more attain the grandest size, towering as much as 50 feet and weighing 8 tons, sometimes more, dwarfing every other living thing in the desert. These are the largest cacti in the United States. Their huge bulk is supported by a strong but flexible cylinder-shaped framework of long woody ribs.

The saguaro collects water with a network of roots that lies about 3 inches below the surface and stretches as far out from the main stem as the saguaro is tall. In a single rainfall, these shallow roots, along with special small root hairs that grow in response to moisture, may soak up as much as 200 gallons of water, enough to last the saguaro a year.

Saguaros may die of old age, but they also die of other causes. Animals eat the seeds and seedlings, lightning and winds kill large saguaro, and severe droughts weaken and kill all ages. The saguaro is vulnerable during every stage of its life. Seen here in addition to the Saguaro is the Ocotillo and the prickly-pear cactus.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

We spent a significant part of the day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a renowned natural history museum, zoo and botanical garden, all in one place! Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region so realistically you find yourself eye-to-eye with flora and fauna typical in that habitat.

Our visit started with watching the Raptors Free Flight demonstration program. It is a dynamic bird of prey flight demonstration that occurs in the open desert showcasing natural behaviors of native birds. Unlike other bird flight shows, the Raptor Free Flight focuses the attention on the birds and how they behavior in nature. We were delighted to see a Gray Hawk, a Great Horned Owl, a Prairie Falcon and a Ferruginous Hawk all at close quarters. Some of the other birds we encountered included several Gila woodpecker, yellow shafted flicker, curve billed thrasher, bobwhite and several species of hummingbird. Walking through the we laid out botanical section of the park, we saw Palo Verde trees, and ocotillo bushes, often with a Gila woodpecker perched on the top. The park also hosts a family of javelinas (a type of peccary) and desert coyote.

As we were exiting the park, we noticed park officials wrapping up the tops of Saguaros. On inquiring about the reason, we found out that this was to protect them from the frost that was predicted for the coming night !

Videos: The Complete Playlist

Below is the link to the YouTube playlist. These are HD videos and can be viewed at 720p if you have a high speed internet connection.

Trip Tracks

Click here for the KMZ file for the trip. This can be opened in Google Earth.

Alternatively, you can view the waypoints and trip tracks in Google Maps below.

View Larger Map

Photos and Text: R. Venkatesh and Malini Kaushik