Family in Sunset Crater lava field

A family plays with lava rocks in the lava field at Sunset Crater National Monument, Arizona. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

One quarter of all Americans think that the Grand Canyon is near Las Vegas, and not in Arizona, making the mistake of adding hours and boredom in getting to one of the most beautiful places on earth. Flying into the Grand Canyon State makes it possible to see any of seven different national monuments on the road from PHX to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Petroglyphs on overlook of Agua Fria River

The Agua Fria River canyon cuts through this plateau exposing one of the most significant systems of prehistoric sites in the American Southwest. Credit: Bureau of Land Management, Wikimedia Commons

Agua Fria National Monument, Black Canyon City, Arizona

Agua Fria National Monument. 45 minutes north of Phoenix, I-17 exits 256, 259 or Cordes Junction. More set up for sight-doing, Agua Fria is a rich mix of high desert and Mogollon Rim country (Pronounce it like the locals, mo-GEE-yun, with the “G” like “gone”). The monument has canyon overlooks, varied vegetation, and numerous archeological sites. It has steep canyons with waterfalls and water running almost year round.

Montezuma's Castle National Monument

Montezuma’s Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona, was misnamed by explorer’s for the Aztec king. Credit: Tomas Castelazo

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument. 90 minutes north of Phoenix, I-17 exit 289 near Camp Verde. When it was first found by American pioneers, this ancestral pueblo of the Sinagua people was thought the be a castle of the legendary Montezuma. The well-preserved cliff dwelling was built without metal tools at a time when most of Europe was still living in mud hovels. Evidence has been found of trade between the Sinagua and people on the Pacific coast and in Central America.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot pueblo was an outlier overlooking a significant Arizona wetlands. Credit: National Park Service

Tuzigoot National Monument, Cottonwood, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument. 90 minutes north of Phoenix, I-17 exit 287 west, 15 minutes, to Cottonwood. This ancestral pueblo stands at the crossroads of a major trade route of ancient people. The hilltop location allowed the Sinagua people to see for miles when traders were arriving. The site also encompasses an unique Arizona wetlands.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Ancestral pueblo hidden in the canyon walls at Walnut Canyon National Monument. Credit: National Park Service

Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona

Walnut Canyon National Monument. 15 minutes east of Flagstaff, I-40 exit 204.The deep green and cream-rock canyon guarded a water source for the Ancestral Pueblos. Two of their villages border the two mile moderately-difficult hike to the canyon floor from the Visitor Center on the rim.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona

Family in Sunset Crater lava field

A father shows something special to his children at Sunset Crater National Monument. Credit: Eric Jay Toll

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. 20 minutes north of Flagstaff, on U.S. 89. The Sinagua people were living in the area when Sunset Crater erupted a thousand years ago. The landscape is black with the cooled lava flows. Islands of greenery are growing in the lava and pumice scattered across the volcanic landscape on the edge of the Painted Desert. Sunset Crater sits on the edge of the Flagstaff volcanic field, a collection of more than 600 cinder cones and ancient volcanos—including Arizona’s tallest mountain, Humphreys Peak (12,637 feet)—that drops away into the Painted Desert shimmering in the sunlight to the east.

Wukoki pueblo at Wupataki National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona

Wukoki pueblo at Wupataki National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona. Credit: National Park Service

Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona

Wupatki National Monument. 40 minutes north of Flagstaff on U.S. 89 connecting with Sunset Crater on a loop road. The monument is home to some of the few publicly accessible ancestral pueblos in Arizona. A two-hour driving tour allows visits with some short, easy hikes to the main pueblos. A thirty minute stay in the monument includes a visit to the visitor center and Wupatki Pueblo, the largest in the park.

Little Colorado Gorge Tribal Park

Just before Grand Canyon National Park Desert View (East) entrance is the Little Colorado Gorge Navajo Tribal Park. Credit: Don Graham, Flickr, WikiMedia Commons

Little Colorado River Gorge Navajo Tribal Park, Cameron, Navajo Nation, Arizona

Little Colorado River Gorge Navajo Tribal Park. 20 minutes before Grand Canyon Desert View (east) entrance on Arizona Highway 64. Visitor and permit center at Hwy. 64 and U.S. 89 intersection in Cameron. Although not a U.S. national monument, the sacred confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers can be seen from roadside overlooks or short hikes. In the spring or after monsoon rains, Grand Falls of the Little Colorado are also a beautiful side trip. Carrying the colored sands of the Painted Desert, the falls run brown and are also called “Chocolate Falls.” Remember that the Navajo Nation is essentially a separate country within the boundaries of the U.S. Obey speed laws and respect the Navajo’s belief that this landscape is sacred ground.

A red rock butte in the middle of a desert plain

Lonesome Butte, a red rock butte at Monument Valley Tribal Park, as seen from Artist’s Point. Photo: Eric Jay Toll

Other nearby national monuments and parks worth side trips

While the seven national monuments in Arizona are possible to see add one day to a Grand Canyon trip, there are other natural wonders in the Four Corners region worthy of adding days to any trip. Tribal parks are Navajo Nation parks. All others are managed by the National Park Service.

Antelope Canyon Tribal Park, Page, Arizona

Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Navajo Tribal Park, Chinle, Arizona

Four Corners Monument Tribal Park, U.S. Route 160 on the border of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, near Mexican Water, New Mexico

Hubbell Trading Post National Historical Park, Ganado, Arizona

Monument Valley Tribal Park, Kanab, Arizona

Navajo National Monument, Shonto, Arizona

Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park, Holbrook, Arizona

Window Rock Tribal Park, Window Rock, Arizona