Explore Arizona

Saguaro National Park

Cactus, ponderosa pines, aspens and fir trees are all to be found at Saguaro National Park. The 92,000-acre park ranges between 2,300 feet on the west side of the part to 8,482 feet at the summit of Rincon Peak on the east side. Thanks to such an extreme elevation, Saguaro National Park is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, making it one of the most biologically diverse parks in the country.

Hikers appreciate the miles of trails, most of which are open to equestrians. Each district has its own visitor center, where guests can learn about the park’s plants and animals, geology and archaeology, ranger-led events and interpretive activities. The busy season at Saguaro runs from about November through mid-April. During that time, rangers and volunteers present a number of interpretive programs each day.

Details: Tucson, 520-733-5158, www.nps.gov/sagu.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Wupatki and neighboring Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments encompass a great deal scenery and history. The features of both parks can be seen during a scenic drive along a paved loop road. That’s the Painted Desert in the distance.

About nine centuries ago, a volcano exploded, burying the landscape under lava and cinders. Even after 900 years, the lava looks as if it could flow again at almost any time. The Lava Flow Trail (1 mile round-trip) loops amid flows and cinders. At the far end of the loop, enjoy a view at the foot of the cinder cone, which almost looks like black sand from a tropical beach.

Details: 16 miles north of Flagstaff off U.S. 89, 928-526-0502, www.nps.gov/wupaand www.nps.gov/sucr.

Meteor Crater

Meteor Crater, before it became a tourist attraction, was simply a curious indentation in the earth amid the rangeland between Flagstaff and Winslow. There was speculation that it was caused by volcanic activity.

But in 1903, Daniel Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer, was convinced the impact was caused by a meteor and was further convinced the meteor deposited large amounts of iron into the ground. He took out a mining claim. Mining proved fruitless and ended in 1929 after scientists determined the meteor likely vaporized on impact. The crater became a tourist attraction in the 1940s.

Visitors can explore the informative museum as well as see the crater.

Details: About 45 miles east of Flagstaff off Interstate 40, 928-289-5898, www.meteorcrater.com.

Chiricahua National Monument

The Chiricahua Mountains are best known for spectacular hoodoos and rock formations. A hike called the Big Loop covers 9.5 miles and is a veritable greatest hits of rock formations and scenic views. Shorter, equally pleasing hikes are plentiful. The Chiricahua Mountains extend for miles beyond the monument, with elevations greater than 9,000 feet.

The mountains were battered by the Horseshoe II Fire in 2011, but most areas have reopened. Just know that dead and downed trees can pose a hazard. The monument also includes the Faraway Ranch historical site, a campground and a visitor center.

Details: 36 miles southeast of Willcox off Arizona 186, 520-824-3560, nps.gov/chir.

Slide Rock State Park

The park is named for a natural water chute that kids of all ages love to glide down in summer. It’s crazy popular in summer, but consider a visit in autumn, when the leaves are turning, the crowds are thin and you can walk among the apple trees and historical buildings.

Originally the area was known as the Pendley Homestead, for Frank L. Pendley, who planted apple trees beginning in 1912. He was the first to successfully irrigate land near Oak Creek, and his system is still used in the park. Hike the flat, easy Pendley Homestead Trail to see apple orchards, the original Pendley home and barn and beautiful canyon views.

Details: 6871 N. Arizona 89A, Sedona, 928-282-3034, azstateparks.com/Parks/SLRO.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

Tonto Natural Bridge is an impressive span. The man who first documented the bridge came across it while being chased by Apaches. David Gowan, a prospector, hid in a cave inside the bridge for three days. Despite that unfriendly welcome, Gowan claimed the land by squatters rights and persuaded his family to emigrate from Scotland to settle there.

It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world, standing 183 feet high over a 400-foot-long tunnel that measures 150 feet wide. The half-mile Gowan Loop Trail leads down the bank of the creek — and several steep flights of steps — to an observation deck near the tunnel under the natural bridge. Two other short trails provide good views of the park’s features.

Details: 10 miles north of Payson off Arizona 87, 928-476-4202, azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA.

Petrified Forest National Park

A few hundred million years ago, the desolate, high-desert plains in northeastern Arizona straddled the equator. Rivers and streams flowed through a lowland basin where thickets of coniferous trees, some 9 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall, towered over the landscape. Over time, some of those trees fell, were washed downstream and buried. Time passed, lots of time, and woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica. Meanwhile, Earth’s land mass shifted.

Today, those trees are the main attraction of Petrified Forest National Park. But there's a lot more to the park than the trees. In addition to jaw-dropping vistas of the Painted Desert, the park holds an assortment of fossils, Native American ruins and petroglyphs, along with 50,000 acres of wilderness that hikers can explore.

Details: 25 miles east of Holbrook off Interstate 40, 928-524-6228, www.nps.gov/pefo.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Dead Horse Ranch State Park packs a lot into 423 acres. Visitors may enjoy camping, fishing, biking and hiking. There are places to picnic, trails to hike, bike or horseback ride on, and many nearby attractions. Cabins and campgrounds are available; reservations are taken over the phone or online. There is canoe access for those who want to run the Verde River.

The park revolves around life on the Verde, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Sonoran Desert. The wildlife activity changes with the seasons. You might see otters, hawks, bald eagles, coyotes, raccoons, mule deer, beaver, ducks, frogs and toads. Well-maintained trails ramble along the river, climb red rock hillsides and duck through stands of cottonwoods and mesquite.

Details: 675 Dead Horse Ranch Road, Cottonwood, 928-634-5283, azstateparks.com/Parks/DEHO.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Land and water. Desert and mountains. Hardscrabble wilderness and luxurious houseboats. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a land of contrasts. The sprawling, nearly 1.5 million-acre park, which encompasses Lake Mohave as well as Lake Mead, stretches from Laughlin, Nev., in the south to Overton in the north. It abuts Grand Canyon National Park in the east and reaches nearly all the way to Las Vegas in the west.

Part of what makes the recreation area different is its location. It sits at the intersection of three of North America's four deserts — the Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran. Boating (bring your own or rent one) is one of the most popular activities there, but visitors also can hike, camp, swim and take scenic drives. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including bighorn sheep.

Details: North of Kingman in northwestern Arizona, 702-293-8906, www.nps.gov/lake.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a sprawling, remote gorge in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Dozens of side canyons spill into it, sloping creeks and red-walled slots flanked by high cliffs, hoodoos and natural arches. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Glen Canyon’s 1.25 million acres encompass Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, known for its trout fishing and as the put-in spot for Colorado River raft trips. Easy-access hikes at Lees Ferry include Paria Canyon, Spencer Trail and the River Trail. Visitors also can explore Lonely Dell Ranch, home of John D. and Emma Lee, Mormon pioneers who operated the ferry in the 1800s.

The Glen Canyon Natural History Association offers 45-minute guided tours of the dam. Walk-up admission is first-come, first served; reservations can be made at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, on U.S. 89 west of the dam. 928-608-6072, glencanyonnha.org.

Lake Powell Resort and Wahweap Marina offer lodging on the lake, boat tours (including one to Rainbow Bridge, a large natural arch) and watercraft rentals of all kinds, from houseboats to kayaks. 888-896-3829, www.lakepowell.com.

Details: Page, in northern Arizona, 928-608-6200, www.nps.gov/glca.

This article was originally published in The Arizona Republic.