Arizona Holiday Planning Guide
Known as the "Grand Canyon State," Arizona boasts deep gorges, dense forests, sprawling national parks, and modern ski resorts. Native American reservations take up about a quarter of the state, housing several tribes and offering visitors a chance to discover the varied cultures of the country's indigenous population. A patchwork of diverse tourist attractions, Arizona features exclusive golf courses and upscale shops as well as cactus-covered canyons and stretches of desolate desert straight out of old Westerns. Though the state still clings to its Wild West flavor, its busy college towns packed with young students from around the world exude a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Places to Visit in ArizonaPhoenix
: The largest state capital in the country, sprawling Phoenix is a massive agglomeration of neighborhoods and suburbs, complete with a pulsing nightlife, tons of shopping options, professional sports, and an impressive skyline.Sedona
: Sedona's breathtaking sandstone formations, colored in fiery hues of orange and red, remain one of the town's biggest draws for Arizona holidaymakers, along with a thriving arts scene and plethora of outdoor activities.Grand Canyon National Park
: Home to one of the world's most famous geological landmarks, Grand Canyon National Park features towering red rocks, stunning landscapes and vistas, and massive chasms accented by the winding strip of the Colorado River far below.Tucson
: A rising hub of the tech and optics industries, trendy Tucson also ranks among the nation's fastest-growing areas. This bustling student town features an interesting fusion of European and Latin cultures and plenty of lively nightlife.Williams
: Chock-full of Victorian-era buildings, historical homes, and surrounding hiking trails, charming Williams lies on the legendary Route 66, giving you easy access to the highway as well as trains to the Grand Canyon.Page
: Right at the edge of the state's vast canyonlands, Page makes a great base for exploring outdoor attractions in Arizona; plus, the cute little town offers plenty of sun-soaked, lakeside recreation of its own.Flagstaff
: Arizona's mountain mecca, Flagstaff sits right next to Route 66, enticing travelers with its easily accessible outdoor fun and active folk music scene--all the while maintaining its Old West charm thanks to a beautifully preserved historical downtown district. Cottonwood
: Nestled in the Verde Valley and surrounded by mountains, Cottonwood offers a quaint alternative to bustling Sedona, with plenty of options for wine touring, golfing, and gallery-hopping, plus access to the valley's wilderness.Tombstone
: A quintessential Wild West settlement and site of the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone truly transports you back in time. This 19th-century frontier city boasts picture-perfect saloons and storefronts, tons of entertaining reenactments, and a beautiful historical center.
Saguaro National Park: Split into two parts within the dusty hills of the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro National Park teems with plant and animal life, including gila monsters, javelinas, prickly pears, and the largest forests of saguaro cacti in the world.
Things to Do in Arizona
Popular Arizona Tourist AttractionsArizona-Sonora Desert Museum
: Explore a zoo, historical display, and garden all rolled into one, wandering more than 3 km (2 mi) of paths and through the museum's beautiful array of desert landscapes packed with native species.Desert Botanical Garden
: Home to a mind-boggling selection of plants from the world's warmer climes, Desert Botanical Garden pays special attention to plants native to the Arizona desert.Antelope Canyon
: You'll feel like you're delving into the heart of the rock itself at Antelope Canyon, a stunning slot canyon where you can climb down and tour between its winding, highly photogenic sandstone walls.Chapel of the Holy Cross
: Built directly into red rock buttes, the architectural oddity of Chapel of the Holy Cross gazes out over the Verde Valley, offering gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape.Horseshoe Bend
: An eye-catching geological curiosity, Horseshoe Bend offers you the chance to see the Colorado River practically looping back on itself in a breathtaking canyon setting packed with sheer cliffs.Cathedral Rock
: Undoubtedly among the most iconic places to visit in Arizona, the sandstone faces of Cathedral Rock rise monolithically above the valley, offering fantastic hiking trails and some of the state's best photo opportunities.Grand Canyon South Rim
: The more accessible side of the world-renowned geological marvel, Grand Canyon South Rim contains numerous viewpoints and a visitors center to help you appreciate the otherworldly views out over the 446 km (277 mi) long canyon.Sabino Canyon
: Avid hikers will want to include Sabino Canyon on their Arizona trip. Take advantage of numerous popular walks of various difficulties and explore the rugged hills and rocky cliffs--home to waterfalls, cacti, and plenty of desert animal species.Musical Instrument Museum
: Filled with more than 15,000 objects on display representing hundreds of different cultures, countries, and tribes, the Musical Instrument Museum stands as the largest such collection in the world.Meteor Crater
: The result of a massive meteorite impact around 50,000 years ago, Meteor Crater is an impressive sight; at nearly 1,200 m (3,937 ft) across and 170 m (570 ft) deep, the immense indent offers a breathtaking view, along with an interactive visitor center detailing its history.
Planning an Arizona Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Arizona with Kids
Thanks to a combination of vast stretches of pristine wilderness and bustling urban centers, you'll find absolutely no shortage of places to visit in Arizona while on a family-friendly vacation. City-centered attractions cluster in and around Phoenix
, and Chandler
, with the surrounding suburbs providing tons of options for accommodations, dining, and evening activities. Of course, much of Arizona's appeal lies in the beauty of its natural wonders, and no Arizona itinerary would be complete without a visit to Grand Canyon National Park
and its litany of incredible landmarks. Monument Valley, partially over the border in Utah, also stands out as an impressive stop. The small towns of Page
provide great access to a multitude of outdoor attractions, serving as reliable jumping-off points into the great expanses of the state's central region. Tombstone
, with all of its Wild West charm and activity, can keep the kids entertained for days on end--whether strolling its fun-filled streets or witnessing a reenacted cowboy showdown.
Things to Do in Arizona with KidsPhoenix
feature a wealth of world-class museums and educational institutions that can be enjoyable city breaks or daylong extravaganzas of their own. Pima Air & Space Museum
and Children’s Museum of Phoenix
draw scores of visitors each year with their stunning collections, while Phoenix Zoo
and Reid Park Zoo
allow the kids to get up close to their favorite animals in their natural habitats. In Tombstone, check out Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park
or Tombstone Gunfighters Old West Show
for a taste of Old West action.
You could easily spend an entire Arizona trip in the Grand Canyon, where family-friendly activities and attractions abound. Most of these are focused around the more developed Grand Canyon South Rim
. The North Rim
is also an option, though keep in mind that you'll have to make a huge detour in order to drive around the end of the canyon. Kids can enjoy the head-spinning views at Grand Canyon Skywalk
or Hopi Point
, which also serve as solid photo ops. Hiking Bright Angel Trail
to the canyon's floor is tiring, but allows the family to delve directly into the canyon itself. If you prefer to stay up top, try heading for Rim Trail
; this paved trail with easily manageable terrain stretches for 21 m (13 mi) along the canyon, replete with breathtaking viewpoints. You can even hop aboard the park shuttle afterwards to head back to the parking lot or make your way to another point on the trail. Other spectacular outdoor areas perfect for letting the kids stretch their legs and expend some energy include South Kaibab Trail
, Oak Creek Canyon
, and Camelback Mountain
, while locales like Cathedral Rock
are sure to impress all members of your family. Red Rock State Park
, with its huge forests of juniper and other trees accented by striking red rock formations, makes for a scenic day out.
Of course, if all that Arizona sightseeing leaves you a little overheated, you can always don your swimsuit and cool off. You'll find waterparks, pools, and swimming holes throughout the state, but many of the biggest and most popular lie in the south. Big Surf Waterpark Tempe
and Wet 'n' Wild Phoenix
in the capital feature big-time wave pools, water slides, and plenty of places for any adults hanging around to kick back and relax in the sun. Alternatively, try boating and going for a dip in the expansive Lake Pleasant Regional Park
Tips for a Family Vacation in Arizona
Hiring a car is undoubtedly the best way to go for a family vacation in Arizona, as it gives you unfettered access to the state's most popular sites and lets you move at your own pace. In fact, depending on your plans, it's virtually impossible to rely solely on public transportation--particularly when exploring the great outdoors and traversing large stretches of the state's vast desert landscape. On a different note, remember that many of the most popular attractions in Arizona feature some pretty rugged terrain, some of which can be outright dangerous, so keep a close eye on the little ones when exploring canyons and cliffs and ensure they are supervised at all times. Visitor centers in major parks can help direct you towards attractions and routes best suited for children. Lastly, touring Arizona can also leave kids very dehydrated at just about any time of the year, so be sure to encourage them to drink plenty of water.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Arizona
Cuisine of Arizona
Thanks to a long and storied history of habitation by Native American and Hispanic populations, along with the influx of European and American settlers, Arizona boasts some of the oldest and most interesting culinary traditions in the United States. While Arizona shares plenty of regional flavors and ingredients with the rest of the American Southwest, its local fare has significant differences from nearby New Mexico and Americanized Tex-Mex dishes. It instead retains many food traits from the bordering Mexican state of Sonora, particularly in Phoenix
. Flour tortillas, rather than corn, are king in much of Arizona, and are often topped with melted cheese as a popular snack. Beef is very common in local cooking, so be sure to try "carne asada," "carne seca," or other types of shredded beef during your Arizona trip. "Menudo" and "pozole," two kinds of soup made with tripe and pork, respectively, are served up with a tantalizing array of chopped toppings and garnishes. As with elsewhere in America, tamales and enchiladas are popular, though in Arizona you'll likely find them made with colored corn masa and a dizzying selection of brightly colored sauces. According to some in Arizona, the state gave birth to the famed chimichanga, though multiple restaurants and cafes claim to have invented the extravagant fried burrito. The native Navajo, Pima, and Papago people of Arizona, along with many other smaller tribes, have also contributed greatly to the state's palate, infusing it with tons of chilis, peppers, and beans, as well as the tasty sweet treat known as fry bread. To sample something unusual, consider ordering a dish made with prickly pear cactus, either fried up Southwest-style or made into succulent jams and candies.
Shopping in Arizona
Thanks to the state's fantastically warm weather and lack of precipitation, outdoor and partially outdoor shopping malls are a ubiquitous feature of Arizona's cities and towns. Many of these meccas of commerce feature Southwest-style architecture and design, built with plenty of faux-sandstone structures and fountains. Not only can you browse a variety of well-known stores, but the selection of food courts, bars, and even boutique cafes allows you to spend the whole day if you want. La Encantada
in Tucson and Biltmore Fashion Park
in Phoenix rank among the best of the best when it comes to upscale shopping from a variety of big-name brands. Scottsdale's Kierland Commons
and Scottsdale Quarter
offer tons of classy stores and designer chains, and even give you the chance to take a break from the heat at a movie theater after a day of perusing local wares. Alternatively, the glitzy outdoor section of Westgate Entertainment District
is also a solid choice for an evening out, surrounded by the big lights of the theaters and plenty of palm trees. If you're looking to do some smaller-scale shopping during your Arizona vacation, make time for visiting the plethora of art galleries, craft stores, and local independent shops in places like Flagstaff, Scottsdale, and Sedona. Meanwhile, smaller towns like Prescott
, and Page like to show off their own shopping streets and marketplaces, which provide lots of opportunities to pick up a souvenir or memento of your trip to Arizona.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Arizona
History of Arizona
For thousands of years, the territory of modern-day Arizona has been home to a vast number of Native American tribes, cultures, and peoples, who built their homes and societies across the region. The Pueblo, Mogollon, and Sinagua people were some of the largest and most influential, building sizable settlements within Arizona's many canyons, cliffs, and rugged geological features. You can see an example of these cliff dwellings during your Arizona trip by visiting 800-year-old Walnut Canyon National Monument
or Montezuma Castle National Monument
, both built by the Sinagua.
As Spanish colonial explorers made their way towards the western coast of North America, the native tribes were eventually subjected to European rule. One of the most influential of these colonials was the famed conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, the first European to set eyes on the Grand Canyon. These settlers brought with them Roman Catholicism, which they spread across their New World empire, encompassing much of the American Southwest and Mexico. During their rule between the 16th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish established a number of religious missions; check out Mission San Xavier Del Bac, a 17th-century Franciscan venture that still stands as the state's oldest European-built structure and one of the top attractions in Arizona.
Upon Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, Arizona became a part of this new empire's Alta California territory. However, this integration was relatively short-lived, as Mexico found itself at war with the expanding United States in 1846. American, Mexican, and Native American units battled across the territory and the surrounding southwestern region, and after the fall of Tucson in 1846 the U.S. army swept southward into Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo saw America gain control of huge swathes of northern Mexico, including Arizona. However, the last southern section of the state, home to Tucson
, was not acquired until 1853, when Mexico sold it off to the United States as a part of the postwar Gadsden Purchase. At this point, what is now present-day Arizona belonged entirely to the New Mexico Territory. Just a decade later, war once again came to the region, when the southern portion of the territory broke off and joined the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Despite a few minor Confederate victories against Union forces, they were driven out by 1862, though this would-be rebellious region was still represented in the Confederate congress until the end of the war. In 1863, Arizona was split from New Mexico, becoming its own territory. Pay a visit to Picacho Peak State Park
to glimpse the site of the 1862 Battle of Picacho Pass, the American Civil War's westernmost battle.
The post-Civil War period saw a great deal of western expansion and development in the U.S., and frontier boomtowns sprung up all across Arizona. These settlements grew into the legendary towns of the Wild West, as outlaws, rival families, and law enforcement struggled against one another. Tombstone was one such settlement, and the gunfight at O.K. Corral
in 1881 remains perhaps the Old West's most famous shootout. In 1912, Arizona was admitted as the 48th state.
World War II saw the involvement of many of Arizona's native Navajo people in the American armed forces, where they served in fully racially integrated units, a rarity for the time. Perhaps most famous were the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of nearly 400 people who passed radio messages for the United States in the Pacific Theater using the highly complex Navajo language. This made it impossible for the Japanese to decode the messages, and played a huge role in the American war effort and ultimate success in the Pacific. Add Navajo Village Heritage Center
to your Arizona itinerary to learn more about the Navajo tribe and their history.
After the end of war, Arizona experienced a massive population boom, as retirees and vacation-goers flocked to the state to take advantage of its weather, establishing huge communities and suburbs of out-of-state transplants. However, much of suburban Arizona suffered a major property market crash as a part of the 2008 recession in the United States, leading to a massive drop in home values.
Landscape of Arizona
In the northern portion of the state lies the semi-arid Colorado Plateau, characterized by plenty of expansive plains and its distinctive red rock geology. Make your way to the northeastern corner of the state and you'll find the meeting point of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the only border in the U.S. where four different states touch. Visit Four Corners Monument
to see the spot for yourself and try your hand at sticking one appendage into each state at once, or gaze in awe at the layered hills of Painted Desert
. Near Flagstaff rise the forested slopes of San Francisco Peaks
, a series of volcanic mountains surrounded by dry plains on the margins of the plateau. This range includes Humphrey's Peak
, which stands as the state's highest point at 3,851 m (12,633 ft). Arizona also boasts numerous mountain ranges across the state, including the White Mountains, Virgin Mountains, and the Sierra Estrella. Also featured on the plateau is the massive, 446 km (277 mi) long Grand Canyon, one of the world's most incredible geological formations and home to the mighty Colorado River.
Arizona's central region, known as the "transition zone," is characterized by huge cliffs and rugged escarpments as the plateau descends into the lowland desert basin. Mogollon Rim
marks both a geographical and ecological boundary, as vegetation and wildlife in the area transitions from mountain-dwelling species to those adapted to the desert reaches. Farther south, the state transforms into the dry expanse of the Sonoran Desert. If your tour of Arizona takes you into these parts, you'll discover countless small mountain ranges piercing the flat landscape, plus the towering cacti of Saguaro National Park.
Holidays & Festivals in Arizona
Arizona, like the rest of the United States, celebrates most major Christian, Western, and American holidays, and the New Year, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are met with plenty of fanfare in most towns and cities. The state's large Hispanic population, many of whom are Catholic, tend to place a big emphasis on Easter as well.
The state also boasts tons of events celebrating its famed Wild West heritage, with get-togethers like the Gathering of the Gunfighters in Yuma
in January and the Tucson Rodeo in February. Also keep an eye out for all-around good fun at events like October's Arizona State Fair, Phoenix Oktoberfest, the Tucson Folk Festival, and even April's International Mariachi Conference.
During your trip to Arizona, look for listings of local festivals, markets, performances, and special events held frequently across the state. Most tourism-heavy towns feature craft fairs, farmers markets, and similar gatherings, and plenty of smaller festivals are often advertised by word of mouth. Additionally, cities like Phoenix and Tucson, as well as the tourist hubs of Flagstaff, Scottsdale, and Sedona, are always host to countless musical performances.
Arizona Travel Tips
Climate of Arizona
As with its landscape, Arizona's climate has two distinct zones. The southern part of the state and lowland areas generally feature scorching summers and warm, mild winters, with the warmest temperatures arriving between June and September and the coolest between November and February. Phoenix and its surroundings regularly reach daily highs of more than 38 C (100 F) during the summer months, and can easily top 18 C (65 F) even in the middle of winter. However, despite the dry climate of the Sonoran Desert, southern Arizona can receive thunderous summer monsoons, accompanied by plenty of lightning, pouring rain, and occasionally dangerous flash floods. Northern Arizona, however, is a different story. Much of the top third of the state lies atop a mountain plateau, and though it boasts a dry climate the temperatures on the whole are much lower. Snow in the mountains around Flagstaff, for example, along with freezing nighttime temperatures, are not uncommon in the coldest months, and even summer brings a much milder daytime heat. Keep in mind during your trip to Arizona that, regardless of the season, the arid climate means that day and night temperatures can swing quite significantly, so be sure to pack accordingly even during the blazing days of summer.
Transportation in Arizona
Though Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs are served by a decent light rail system that runs late into the night, and popular tourist hubs like Flagstaff also have some buses, public transportation in Arizona as a whole leaves much to be desired. That said, the state and its urban areas benefit from a very solid network of freeways, making traversing large distances a breeze. Cities are very car-friendly, many with vehicle-oriented grid layouts, so navigation on wheels is simple and straightforward. Therefore, renting a car is by leaps and bounds the best and most efficient means of transport during your Arizona trip, as it maximizes your time spent sightseeing and helps you get the most out of your vacation--just make sure the air conditioning works.