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Fly to the national parks in ArizonaFly to the national parks in Arizona

Arizona’s national parks include one of the greatest spectacles on Earth: the Grand Canyon. But there are many other scenic wonders in this diverse state, including iconic cacti and sacred landscapes.

  • The one-and-only Grand Canyon, looking northeast from Hopi Point at sunset. Photo by Paul Fundenburg via Flickr.
  • Mary Jane Colter designed Phantom Ranch, which is built of native wood and stone. This historic oasis is nestled at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, on the north side of the Colorado River, tucked in beside Bright Angel Creek. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Inside the Sun Room of the Grand Canyon Lodge, perched at the edge of the North Rim. Beyond the lodge, numerous hikes and drives lead to astounding views of the Colorado River some 5,800 feet below. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • The iconic buttes of Monument Valley provide dramatic flightseeing opportunities. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Monument Valley’s East and West Mitten Buttes rise steeply to about 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • On your Monument Valley tour with a Navajo guide, you’ll see the sights made famous by John Ford’s films starring John Wayne. This spot, where the horse and rider stand, is called Ford’s Point. You’ll also see places that are special to the Navajo, or Diné. Ask any questions you want; the guides are happy to share their culture with visitors. Photo by Dsdugan via Wikipedia.
  • Monument Valley’s sandy floor is siltstone, deposited by the meandering rivers that carved this valley millennia ago. The red color is from exposed iron oxide. Photo by Mark Weston via Flickr.
  • The “Crystal Forest” area of Petrified Forest National Park. The logs are fossilized specimens of a massive extinct conifer forest that grew here along rivers during the Late Triassic period, about 211–218 million years ago. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • The collared lizard can reach 15 inches in length and is the largest lizard in Petrified Forest National Park. Photo by Tyler Karaszewski via Wikipedia.
  • These striped rocks, in the new eastern section of Petrified Forest National Park, show how different minerals were deposited in the clay over long periods of time. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Ancient petroglyphs, pecked into large rocks, are visible in multiple areas of Petrified Forest National Park. This photo was taken on the summer solstice. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • The Painted Desert Inn on Cachina Point in Petrified Forest National Park, photographed on a winter morning. This national historic landmark now functions as a museum. The park’s mostly barren terrain varies from gentle hills and major petrified logs in the south to eroded badlands in the north. To take advantage of sunset across the Painted Desert, in the park’s northern region, begin your visit at the southern entrance, off Highway 180. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Cliff dwelling in Walnut Canyon National Monument. The well-preserved structures show handprints left by the builders, while the ceilings are stained black from cooking fires. Photo by Joe Hackman via Flickr.
  • Sunset over Saguaro National Park, Arizona. Photo by Saguaro Pictures, courtesy Wikipedia.

Grand Canyon National Park: Don’t miss the opportunity to overfly the canyon; get a copy of the Grand Canyon VFR chart and fly one of the corridors. To visit the South Rim, land at Grand Canyon International, where you can rent a car or hop on a shuttle. Stand at the rim and marvel at the floods that sent all that sediment out to the Pacific Ocean over the last five million years or so, leaving such a giant, beautifully carved landscape. Several lodges are located on the South Rim, including the iconic El Tovar and Bright Angel (both on the National Register of Historic Places). You can rent a bike and ride along the rim, or explore further by hiking or taking a traditional mule ride to the canyon floor, where you can spend the night at Phantom Ranch. By contrast to the South Rim, the North Rim sees much less tourist traffic. Land at Page and drive to the North Rim’s fabulous Grand Canyon Lodge.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park: Visit the Gouldings website airstrip page to sign a waiver and send a copy of your insurance prior to your flight to Monument Valley, which lies in Utah just north of the Arizona border. Gouldings has a lodge, museum, gift shop, and restaurant, plus, your tour can pick you up here so you don’t need a car. Monument Valley (most of which is in Arizona) is Navajo land and you’ll be accompanied by a Navajo guide who grew up here. Another lodging option is The View hotel, run by the tribe; arrange airport pick-up when you reserve your room, which comes with panoramic views of the valley and its iconic buttes.

Lightning flashes over the Grand Canyon in this 30-second exposure taken from Lipan Point. Photo by Adam Schallau, courtesy U.S. Dept. of Interior.

Petrified Forest National Park: Fly to Winslow, as Holbrook lacks rental cars. This park is especially beautiful in winter with a slight dusting of snow and the sun at a low angle. Easy loop drives take you through a number of areas where you can get out and explore, or camp overnight. The park has northern and southern sections, with a narrow corridor in the middle. Food service is available only at the northern entrance, also the park headquarters. There’s no lodging, just backcountry camping, or you can stay at the historic La Posada in Winslow, the last and most elegant of the Fred Harvey hotels built by the Santa Fe Railroad. It was designed by Mary Jane Colter, the great Southwest architect also responsible for the Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon and La Fonda in Santa Fe.

Fred Worthy gazes up at an old giant saguaro that rises some 30 feet above the eastern Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Photo by Crista Worthy.

Walnut Canyon and Wupatki National Monuments: Both these monuments are close to Flagstaff, a quick flight west of Winslow. At Walnut Canyon you’ll descend a short way into the canyon and walk along a series of cliff-dwelling rooms occupied by the Sinagua people from about 1100 to 1250 CE. It’s a bit like a smaller version of Colorado’s Mesa Verde, but there are generally few tourists here and you can explore on your own. Children love to climb inside the ruins and let their imaginations run. Wupatki National Monument preserves a multi-story Sinagua pueblo dwelling built with red sandstone bricks. Other structures include a community room, ball court, and fascinating geological blowhole where air flows in and out according to atmospheric pressure changes. Two-hour and overnight ranger-led hikes are offered to backcountry sites, normally off-limits to the public.

Saguaro National Park: Class C Tucson International is the closest airport; good fuel prices are available at Premier Aviation. Saguaro National Park has two distinct sections, just east and west of Tucson, and preserves the Sonoran desert habitat of the giant saguaro cactus, synonymous with the West. Saguaros can exceed 40 feet tall and 150 years in age, and often don’t grow their first “arm” until they are 75 to 100 years old. Walk among these giants on your own or take a guided tour. You can camp in the wilderness or golf at the luxurious Lodge at Ventana Canyon.

Panoramic view of the pueblo dwelling and other structures at Wupatki National Monument. Photo by Stephen McCluskey via Wikipedia.
Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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