Best Arizona Parks (Not Named Grand Canyon)

By local contributor
Roger Naylor

Cacti as tall as office buildings, remnants of ancient civilizations, legendary swimming holes, a forest turned to colorful stone and sparkling lakes. Yes, there’s more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon. Some of the best parts of this amazing state are protected in parks that aren’t named after a big hole in the ground.

 


SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK


AZ State and National Parks

222 miles / 4:10 hrs. RT

The Sonoran Desert stretching across the southern half of Arizona is home to the largest, most iconic cactus in the country. The mighty saguaro can grow as tall as a five-story building and sprouts a cluster of upraised arms as if reaching for the clouds. Saguaros can live to be 200 years old, and their blossom is Arizona’s state flower. The lean giants are celebrated in two segments of Saguaro National Park that bracket the city of Tucson. Each offers scenic drives, hiking trails and the most biologically diverse of all deserts.

 


LAKE PLEASANT REGIONAL PARK


AZ State and National Parks

104 miles / 2:10 hrs. RT 

No one appreciates water more than desert dwellers, so the numerous lakes shimmering on the outskirts of Scottsdale are beloved destinations. Big Lake Pleasant, ringed by cactus-dotted hills, makes a watery playground for anglers, boaters, swimmers, campers and hikers. Wildlife sightings are common at this unexpected oasis but keep a special eye out for the wild burros that are frequent visitors.

 


PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK


AZ State and National Parks

382 miles / 6:30 hrs. RT

A rolling prairie breaks apart against a cluster of inhospitable badlands in northeastern Arizona. Crumbling siltstone banded with seams of color shimmers and changes with the light. It’s hard to imagine while gazing across this wind-scoured landscape, but during the Triassic Period this was a tropical jungle patrolled by crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians and small dinosaurs. Remnants of that time—sprawling collections of colorful petrified wood—are found throughout the park.

 


SLIDE ROCK STATE PARK


AZ State and National Parks

264 miles / 4:48 hrs. RT

Nestled in Oak Creek Canyon north of Sedona, visitors to this park cool off in one of the most famous swimming holes in the Southwest. Stone banks throttle the creek into a narrow, frothy chute creating a natural water slide. Along the route are pools of varying depth, perfect for wading, swimming and cliff jumping. During other seasons, savor the tall canyon walls and the historic orchards of the old homestead where you can picnic like there’s no tomorrow.

 


WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT


AZ State and National Parks

368 miles / 5:50 hrs. RT

The dwellings at Wupatki were the work of the ancestral Puebloan People through the centuries, including the Hohokam, Cohonina, Kayenta and Sinagua cultures. They were constructed from thin blocks of Moenkopi sandstone, giving them their distinctive red color. Most were built more than 900 years ago on the volcanic plains of Northern Arizona in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks.

 


PICACHO PEAK STATE PARK


AZ State and National Parks

152 miles / 2:40 hrs. RT

The westernmost battle of the Civil War was fought on the flanks of a mountain that’s part of an eroded volcanic flow, about 76 miles southeast of Scottsdale. Today, such violence seems far removed from the peace and quiet of the park. Rising from the desert floor, the distinctive spire is veined by hiking trails. When conditions are right, Picacho features some of the greatest spring wildflower displays in the state, with waves of golden poppies spilling down the slopes.