Hikers rest on the overlook at Ooh-Ah Point on the South Kaibab Trail, South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park. Credit: Eric Jay TollOne quarter of all Americans think that the Grand Canyon is near Las Vegas, Nevada, and not in Arizona.
That mistake adds over an hour of driving for a long boring ride before arriving at one of the most beautiful places on earth. Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport adds a chance to visit seven different national monuments on the road from Phoenix to Grand Canyon National Park.
From Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, these side trips add historic and scenic national monuments to any visit to the Southwest. Getting to any of the national monuments and tribal parks, or to all of them, involves many miles of scenic drives through the Sonoran Desert. Most of the national monuments are themselves, or adjoin, recreation areas in the national forests or tribal parks.
Taking them in order changes the scenery from the sandstone and igneous rocks of the Sonoran Desert to the stunning Red Rock of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners region. Throughout the national monuments and tribal parks, there are hiking trails of all difficulty levels taking visitors from parking areas into stunning desert landscapes.
As always, carry plenty of drinking water. At least one liter per hour per person is recommended, particularly during summer activities. This routing is a beautiful way to arrive in Northern Arizona and see national monuments, tribal parks, and national historical sites. Oh, and the four Arizona state parks along the way have not been incorporated into this article.
Some of the monuments are located on the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S. The Nation is bigger than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.
Virtually all of the national monuments and tribal parks are accessible from Interstate 17, which runs from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona, and U.S. 89, which is the route from Flagstaff north to the less-crowded east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. All of the national monuments, and most of the tribal parks, have a visitor center, which should always be the first stop. Up-to-date travel information, schedules of ranger-led activities, and usually a gift shop, are located in the visitor centers.
1. 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 southwestern plains. In the spring, rapidly flowing creeks and the Agua Fria River nurture a diverse collection of wildflowers.
From Phoenix, the first access point to Agua Fria National Monument is just 40 minutes from Sky Harbor. Badger Springs Road (Exit 256) leads to the Badger Springs trailhead and a 1.5-mile kid-friendly hike to the Agua Fria River, for which the national monument is named, the live springs and a waterfall (except in the summer). This is also a dog-friendly hike (leashes required). Water is present most of the year. There are large boulders that are kid-climbable at the base of the hike. The elevation gain is about 100 feet.
Agua Fria national monument is a magnet for off-road vehicles and mountain cyclists with its large road network. Bloody Basin Road (Exit 259) is passable in a passenger car—but take it slow and safe. There is one major stream crossing and several washes. A ten-mile drive and half-mile hike will take you to the Pueblo La Plata, a Sinagua-era ancestral mesa-built pueblo community with outstanding views from the Bradshaw Mountains to the Mogollon Rim (pronounced “moe-GEE-yun; hard “G” as in “Got”). Safety caution. The road will be difficult to impassable during or immediately after a rainstorm. While one of the washes has a paved crossing, the others are dirt. If the washes are running, do not cross. A stream flow as little as 5mph can float a car downstream.
The north end of Agua Fria National Monument, Cordes Junction and Cordes Lake Road (Exit 262), gives a taste of southwestern history—the 1891 schoolhouse site and the Teskey home site. Follow East Stagecoach Trail to S. Cordes Lake Drive. Turn right to the first four-way street, E. Quail Run Drive. Follow Quail Run Drive until it changes to 3M Ranch Road. For the school site, stay to the left at the second fork, which direct you to E-Z Ranch Road. For the Teskey home site, stay to the right on 3M Ranch Road. There are trailhead signs at both historic sites. The buildings are gone, but the foundations and stone fireplaces remain.
2. Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, Arizona
Montezuma Castle National Monument. 90 minutes north of Phoenix, I-17 exit 289 near Camp Verde. It’s a two-site national monument. The district closest to I-17 has the cliff dwelling. The other district is northeast of the pueblo and houses the oasis supplying water to the Sinagua peoples living in the area.
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. The pueblo can be seen from a one-third mile ground-level hike through the sycamore forest.
Montezuma’s Well is four miles north of the pueblo off Rim Rock Road. Then four miles east on East Beaver Creek Road. This water source provided irrigation and drinking water for Sinagua native peoples throughout the region. The ancient trail of ditches is still generally in use to move irrigation water to families now living in the area.
3. Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, 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 mesa-top location allowed the Sinagua people to see for miles when traders were arriving. The site also encompasses a unique Arizona wetlands. It’s located northeast of Clarkdale on Sycamore Canyon Road.
Tuzigoot is an ancestral pueblo with a surrounding trail allowing close access to and around the village. Visitors are not allowed within the remaining rooms, but the trail is perfect for kids, mobility-challenged and delightful photo opportunities.
4. 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. There are two major trails, the Rim and Island trails. The Rim Trail is less than a mile and is generally easy and level. The Island Trail is a one-mile loop. The trail passes 25 cliff dwelling rooms on its loop into the canyon. It’s considered moderately challenging because the rim of the canyon is at 7,000 feet. The thinner air at this elevation can affect people differently.
5. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona
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.
The nice aspect of Sunset Crater National Monument is it can be a drive-through visit with stops at a couple of overlooks, and then a beautiful ride to the nearly adjoining Wupatki National Monument. There are easy trails through the Bonito Lava Flow (and a chance to pick up huge chunks of lava that weigh very little.
For campers, the U.S. Forest Service operates the Bonito campground right at the entrance to Sunset Crater. Most of the hikes are short and moderate or easy difficulty with lengths of 1 mile or less. The exceptions are the Lava’s Edge Trail, which is moderately difficult and is a 3.4 mile round trip, and Lenox Crater, a moderately strenuous elevation gain in 1.6 miles round trip. Remember, Sunset Crater National Monument starts at more than 7,500 feet above sea level. Any hike with a climb is demanding on hearts, lungs and hydration.
6. 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 30-minute stay in the monument includes a visit to the visitor center and Wupatki Pueblo, the largest in the park.
The Ancestral Pueblos, ancestors of the Puebloan tribes in the Four Corners Region, built extensive villages—named with the Spanish word for village, pueblo. Unlike Montezuma’s Castle, the less-visited sites in Wupatki are accessible to visitors. The monument offers guided hikes that explore areas of the park off limits to the public. Guided hikes can last from two hours to two days.
7. 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. Picnic area and Marble Canyon overlook provide extraordinary views of the transition from the calm flat
8. Grand Falls, outside of Leupp, Arizona. Informal Navajo Nation Park
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. There is important information about visiting this free park. Online mapping programs do not necessarily provide the correct directions. See “Flowing Chocolate Milk: A Side Trip to Grand Falls AZ.”
Other nearby national monuments and parks worth side trips
While the eight national monuments and tribal parks in Arizona are possible to see by adding one day to a Grand Canyon trip, there are other natural wonders in the Four Corners region worthy of adding a few more 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
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, Page, Arizona
- Hubbell Trading Post National Historical Park, Ganado, Arizona
- Monument Valley Tribal Park, Kayenta, Arizona
- Navajo National Monument, Shonto, Arizona
- Petrified Forest National Park, Holbrook, Arizona
- Pipe Spring National Monument, Fredonia, Arizona
- Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Marble Canyon, Arizona and Kanab, Utah.
- Window Rock Tribal Park, Window Rock, Arizona