Whether you live in the United States or not, you’ve likely heard of the state of Arizona for one reason or another. What is Arizona known for? Maybe you know about some of its bustling cities, like Tucson, Phoenix, or Scottsdale. Or, maybe you’ve heard about its beautiful national parks – most notably, the Grand Canyon National Park. It’s possible you just know that Arizona is a state in the United States, but don’t know much else. No matter how much you know or don’t know, you’ve come to the right place to learn. Keep reading and you’ll find out what Arizona is known for and the best things to do while you’re here.
A Quick Look at Arizona
Arizona is the sixth largest state in the United States, with a population of 7.28 million in 2019. It is bordered by California to the west, Utah and Nevada to the north, New Mexico to the east, and Mexico to the south. It also intersects with Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico simultaneously, making it one of the states in the Four Corners Monument.
While there are a variety of parks and natural sites to visit in Arizona, the most famous is the Grand Canyon, but we’ll get into that later. There are a variety of others aside from the Grand Canyon, as well as museums, cities, restaurants, and more. Additionally, Arizona is well known for its universities and sports teams, which both bring many non-residents to the state each year.
Parks & Sites
If you are in Arizona, you absolutely have to visit some of the national parks and sites. While all of them are great, here are the nine most famous ones, in no particular order:
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Monument Valley
- Hoover Dam
- Havasu Falls
- Antelope Canyon
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Saguaro National Park
- Painted Desert
Grand Canyon National Park
I’m sure you knew this would be on our list. The Grand Canyon National Park is home to the Grand Canyon, one of the world’s natural wonders. Established in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park now draws in around five million visitors each year from around the world. It is one of the most visited sites in the United States for tourists.
You may be wondering what exactly the Grand Canyon is. Simply put, it is a huge canyon that is decorated with stunning combinations of erosional forms and geological colors. One of the most shocking parts of the Grand Canyon is its size: the canyon is 277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, and one mile deep. It has a north and south rim, both of which you should visit, if possible, to take in the full effect. The north rim, however, is closed for the winters, so plan accordingly.
There are a variety of ways to see the Grand Canyon. You can visit the park and walk some of the shorter trails, partake in a half-day, full-day, or multiple-day hike, go rafting through the canyon down the Colorado River, or do a helicopter tour for an aerial view. There are also a variety of lodging options, with accommodation both in and outside the park.
Named the number one Most Beautiful Place in America by USA Weekend, Sedona is a small desert town located near Flagstaff in central Arizona. It is well known for its beautiful natural scenery, made up of red-rock buttes, steep canyons, and pine tree forests. Sedona is also located near Red Rock State Park, which offers visitors a variety of trails to hike.
Another well-known aspect of Sedona is its focus on spirituality and wellness. Visitors often describe Sedona as a place with an incredible feeling of spirituality. Perhaps that is due to the native American influences or maybe to the focus on the mind, body, and soul – whatever it is, there is an overwhelming agreement that Sedona just feels spiritual.
Sedona is perfect for nature-lovers, adventure-lovers, or relaxation-lovers: it has it all. If you want to go to a spa, do some yoga, and shop around, surrounded by beautiful scenery, Sedona is the place for you. If you want to hike, ride mountain bikes, and climb rocks, you’ll find that in Sedona, too.
Monument Valley, located at the Arizona-Utah border, is a red sand desert known for its gigantic sandstone buttes in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Those who visit Monument Valley for the first time may feel like they’ve been there before. That is because Monument Valley is a popular location for filming Western movies. Pro tip: it’s a good idea to spend at least one day in the park so that you can see the different ways the sun hits the formations.
On the Nevada/Arizona border you’ll find the Hoover Dam, a concrete dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. The Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 after five years of construction during the Great Depression. Mainly, the Hoover Dam was built to generate hydroelectric power. Today, it generates around 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power, on average. When built, it was the world’s largest electric installation and is now one of the country’s largest.
When visiting the Hoover Dam, tourists can partake in a Guided Dam Tour, Guided Powerplant Tour, or Self-Guided Visitor Center Tour. For the Guided Powerplant Tour, it is recommended to buy tickets online in advance.
Okay, okay, this is technically a part of the Grand Canyon, but we thought it deserved its own section. Located in the Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls is a waterfall of Havasu Creek. While the waterfall itself is well-known, its location isn’t. If you’re in the Grand Canyon, make sure you don’t forget to visit this stunning blue/green waterfall.
To reach the Havasu Falls, visitors hike ten miles each way. You also must reserve a spot online, as all visitors are required to camp at the falls – day hikes are prohibited. This may seem like a lot of work for just a waterfall, but it is so incredible that it is worth all of the effort. If you’re not convinced, you’ll have to go see for yourself.
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon located to the east of Page, Arizona. It is located on protected Navajo land. The canyon is known for its incredible light shafts and angular uniqueness. There are two separate slot canyons within Antelope Canyon: Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. Visitors are encouraged to see both. It is also recommended to visit Antelope Canyon from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., so that you can see the full effect of the sun on the slot canyons.
To visit Antelope Canyon, you must book a tour with a native Navajo guide. You don’t have to do this in advance, but it is highly recommended.
Petrified Forest National Park
Located in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is a forest full of petrified wood – we know, the name is pretty self-explanatory. In the south of the national park is the most visited area of the park, the Rainbow Forest, where the colorful petrified wood is located. Additionally, Rainbow Forest Museum is located in the park. The museum is home to various paleontology exhibits and also serves as the starting point for many of the trails in the park.
The Petrified Forest National Park was established in December 1962, but the wonders of the park have existed at that location for over a century. While the Rainbow Forest is a must-see in the park, there are other popular destinations such as the Martha’s Butte and Red Basin.
Saguaro National Park
Have you ever wondered where America’s largest cacti are located? Lucky for you, you’ve come to the right place. Saguaro National Park is home to the United States’ largest cacti, the saguaro cactus. Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is easily reachable from Tucson, as it has two sections located on either side of the city.
Along with the cacti, the western part of the national park is home to the Signal Hill Trail, which leads hikers to petroglyphs of the ancient Hohokam people. In the east of the park is Cactus Forest Drive, a loop road that gives visitors incredible views of the desert environment. If you’re interested in camping, backcountry camping is available, but only by permit.
Last but not least is the Painted Desert, a desert of badlands. The Painted Desert is located in the Four Corners area, running from the east end of the Grand Canyon National Park into the Petrified Forest National Park. While there are many entrance points, the most accessible is from the north side of the Petrified Forest National Park.
The Painted Desert is filled with flat-topped mesas, buttes, and badland hills. Due to the colorful sedimentary layers, the landscape appears to be “painted”, giving it its name. The Painted Desert land is largely occupied by Navajo and Hopi reservations, which is why many Navajo paintings seem to resemble the desert. Fun fact: archaeologists believe that some of the rocks are around 213 million years old.
By this point, you’re more than familiar with the many natural beauties Arizona offers. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an urban scene in Arizona. It’s just the opposite, actually. Keep reading to find out more about Arizona’s principal cities.
First on the list of urban Arizona has to be Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix is Arizona’s capital and the fifth largest city in the United States. It is home to over 1.6 million individuals, which means that over 20% of Arizona’s population lives in Phoenix city. Located in south central Arizona, Phoenix is a great starting point for any Arizona adventures. If you’re looking for year-round sun and warmth, Phoenix, or the Valley of Sun, is the place for you.
There are a lot of activities to partake in when visiting Phoenix, for adults and children alike. Ranging from a botanical garden to museums, parks, and more, Phoenix has it all. Similarly, nightlife in Phoenix is not to be beaten. Head to downtown Phoenix, central Phoenix, or even neighboring Old Town Scottsdale and downtown Tempe to find bars, clubs, and restaurants. Phoenix also has teams in all four major professional sports: the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, as well as the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
You may be surprised to find Tombstone on this list, as it is a small town with around 1,200 residents. Tombstone is located in southeastern Arizona and it is well-known for its Wild West history. It was founded in 1879 and is an important town for America, in both its history and current cultural activities.
Those who go to Tombstone can learn about the wild, wild west in a variety of ways. The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park has a variety of exhibits, including one that has a replica of gallows. Head to Allen Street, a historically recognized street, to watch an outdoor theatre, O.K. Corral, re-enact an 1881 cowboy gunfight. See a show at the supposedly haunted Bird Cage Theatre. Or, if you’re looking to learn about historic outlaws, head to the 1878 Boothill Cemetery.
Scottsdale is Phoenix’s luxurious little sister, located just to the east of it and part of the Greater Phoenix Area. It is a desert city with beautiful weather, known for its spas, resorts, and golf courses. Though Scottsdale is known for its luxury accommodations, it definitely is the perfect mix of indoors and outdoors. Hikers can stop through Scottsdale to partake in one, or all, of Scottsdale’s five great hiking trails.
Okay, back to the indoors. Scottsdale is well-known for both its after-hours nightlife and dining scene. When in Scottsdale, make sure to try some of its best restaurants and Old Town bars. Other Scottsdale staples are the spas and golf courses, including the famous TPC Scottsdale. Due to all of the relaxing activities and warm weather, Scottsdale is a great place for a vacation to unwind.
Colorado may boast 300 days of Sunshine, but Tucson has it beat at 350 days of sunshine! Tucson is Arizona’s second largest city, with a population of over 500,000 individuals. We’ll get to Tucson’s activities in a moment, but the city is most notable for its natural beauty. Covered by the Sonora Desert and giant saguaro cacti, the mixture of sun and cacti transform Tucson into a uniquely beautiful city.
Tucson is also home to University of Arizona, one of Arizona’s principal universities. The students bring an energetic vibe to the city, especially in its nightlife scene. As it is one of the southernmost cities in Arizona, Tucson boasts a spectacular Mexican cuisine that you just can’t (and won’t want to) avoid. And of course, Tucson is home to a variety of museums, a zoo, outdoor and indoor sports, and everything else you could want in a city.
Page is a small city in Arizona, located in northern Arizona by the Utah border. Due to its location, Page is a great place for travelers to stop while driving along Highway 89. While other Arizonian cities may be more impressive urban locations, Page is a great starting or stopping point to visit many of Arizona’s natural wonders. Close to Antelope Canyon, the Glen Canyon Dam, Horseshoe Bend, and more, Page draws in visitors for its proximity to natural sites. It is also a great city to partake in outdoor sports, such as kayaking or canoeing, as it is more affordable, but the views will be just as beautiful.
We’ve mentioned food a few times already, so you had to know this was coming. But food always deserves its own section, especially in a place like Arizona.
Due to its proximity to Mexican, Arizonian cuisine has largely been influenced by Mexico. You’ll find some classic Mexican dishes, Mexican-American fusion, and Arizona’s unique spin on Mexican cuisine. The spin on the cuisine varies by region, and tends to be more authentically Mexican in southern Arizona, as it is closer to the border. That definitely doesn’t mean you can’t find delicious and authentic Mexican food in northern Arizona, though.
The other big influence on Arizona’s food and beverage scene is other western U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and western American cuisine in general. This can mean anything from trendy healthy foods to unique American dishes.
Nightlife is especially popular in the bigger cities, Phoenix and Tucson, but is equally important and delicious in Scottsdale and Tempe.
While Arizona’s main attractions may be outdoors, there is also an endless supply of interesting museums to visit. Most of the well-known museums are in Phoenix and Tucson, the two bigger cities, due to their booming arts scenes. Many smaller cities hold great museums too, such as Sedona and Scottsdale.
Here are some of the best museums in Arizona:
- Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, AZ
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Tucson, AZ
- Heard Museum – Phoenix, AZ
- Phoenix Art Museum – Phoenix, AZ
- Pima Air and Space Museum – Tucson, AZ
- Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West – Scottsdale, AZ
Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, AZ
One of the United States’ most unique museums is the Musical Instrument Museum, located in Phoenix. Founded by Robert J. Ulrich, the Musical Instrument Museum opened in 2010 and is now the largest musical instrument museum in the world. It is home to over 7000 instruments from 200 different countries.
Not only does the Musical Instrument Museum display musical instruments and educate visitors about them through the exhibits, it has galleries, events, concerts, and other activities. If interested, visitors can take a guided tour of the museum to learn even more than a self-guided visit. The Musical Instrument Museum is especially dedicated to children’s education, and has a variety of programs for kids of all ages.
It was rated Phoenix’s #1 attraction and ranked one of the top 15 museums in the United States by TripAdvisor.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Tucson, AZ
Tucson’s location in the Sonora Desert makes it an obvious locational choice for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We promised you indoor activities, but we’ll have to deviate for just a second, as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an aquarium, botanical garden, zoo, natural history museum, and art gallery all in one. This museum is world-renowned – how could it not be?!
It features over 2-miles of walking paths through a 21-acre landscape, as well as classes in the art gallery, special exhibits and events, and much, much more. Founded in 1952, this massive museum continues to grow and expand as years pass.
Heard Museum – Phoenix, AZ
Located in Phoenix, Heard Museum is a non-for-profit private museum dedicated to American-Indian art. Its mission is to be the world’s leading museum in presentation, advancement, and interpretation of American-Indian art. Heard Museum has a variety of art and exhibits, of course, but what’s more unique is its library and events.
As the museum is dedicated to the advancement of American-Indian art, their events tend to center around American-Indian art and culture. This includes a moondance event, a hoop dance event, and an Indian Fair and Market. Additionally, Heard Museum is home to a library with physical and online archives of Native American art and artists.
Phoenix Art Museum – Phoenix, AZ
Every state needs its standard art museum, and that’s exactly what the Phoenix Art Museum is. If you are in the mood to look at some incredible, well-known works of art, head to the Phoenix Art Museum. This museum has a huge collection, starting from the Renaissance spanning to present-day.
One cool aspect of the Phoenix Art Museums is the “Pay-What-You-Wish Wednesdays,” where you can pay the price of your choosing every Wednesday afternoon. Along with this, they hold both permanent and rotating exhibitions, events, and different educational programs.
Pima Air and Space Museum – Tucson, AZ
Located in Tucson is the Pima Air and Space Museum, one of the largest non-governmentally funded aerospace museums in the world. The Pima Air and Space Museum boasts over 350 historical aircraft, from a 787 Dreamliner to a Wright Flyer. If interested, you can take a guided tour of the museum to learn more.
The Pima Air and Space Museum hosts a variety of events, some of which are live-streamed. So, if you’re unable to attend in person, you can still watch the event and learn about all of the cool stuff going on. Similarly, the museum hosts education events, especially school and youth group programs.
Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West – Scottsdale, AZ
Surprise! The final museum on this list isn’t in Tucson or Phoenix, it’s in Scottsdale. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is located in Old Town Scottsdale, a cultural center of the city. This museum is owned by the City of Scottsdale and is dedicated to immersing guests into the history of the Greater Western Region. By educating and engaging guests on the West, the museum aims to celebrate the West and its history.
Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is home to various collections, exhibits, a sculpture courtyard, theater, and library/learning center. If you’re local to Scottsdale and particularly interested in the West, the museum recruits volunteers year-round.
A major part of Arizona is its universities. What’s unique about this aspect, however, is that the most well-known universities in Arizona are public universities.
The three most principal universities in Arizona are:
- Arizona Christian University – Phoenix, AZ
- #22 in Regional Colleges West
- Arizona State University – Tempe, AZ
- #117 in National Universities (tie)
- University of Arizona – Tucson, AZ
- #117 in National Universities (tie)
Each of these universities offer both great education and great experiences for students. They are also situated in cities, rather than small-towns, and give students the opportunity to learn from and engage with city-life. Moreover, they are all in Arizona, which means that students can enjoy the great outdoors and incorporate that into a part of their daily life.
Last but not least, we have Arizona sports. There are a plethora of major sports teams in Arizona, with just Phoenix holding all four major sports teams.
Instead of going through all of them, here are three of the most popular:
- Arizona Cardinals (NFL)
- Arizona Diamondbacks (MLB)
- Phoenix Suns (NBA)
It’s no surprise that Arizona’s most popular teams are located in or near Phoenix, as it is the largest city in the state. Each sport brings in millions of fans each year and is an important part of the Arizona culture. So, pick your favorite sport and go see a game!
Arizona is also very well known as one of the world’s premier golf destinations. With golf destinations like Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona offers some of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses in the world. Across the state, there are more than 300 courses, from desert landscape to wooded mountain courses. Within those 300+ courses, Arizona possesses plenty of opportunities for you to challenge your skills and allow you to relax on your vacation as few other places can. I can tell you from experience Arizona is one of the best states to visit or live in if you like to play golf!
Congratulations, you are now an expert on what Arizona has to offer! As you can see, it is an incredibly diverse state with an array of activities, landscapes, and much more. From the Grand Canyon to authentic Mexican food, to an aerospace museum, to 350 days of sunshine, Arizona truly does have it all.