Grand Canyon, the best-known of the 22 National Parks and Monuments in Arizona.

15 Great National Parks and Monuments In Arizona Worth A Visit

National parks and monuments in Arizona showcase and protect a variety of unique landscapes and historical sites.

Nicknamed the Grand Canyon State after one of its parks, Arizona is home to 24 National Park units.

This includes three major National Parks, a Historical National Park, and several National Monuments. However, they are all under the jurisdiction of the US National Park System, resulting in blurred lines.

So, what is the difference between these different National Park units?

Difference Between National Parks, Monuments, And Other National Park Units

One difference between National Parks and National Monuments have to do with the way they came into existence. Congress creates National Parks, while the National Government sets up National Monuments, usually through a presidential proclamation.

Another difference is their size. National Parks are larger than National Monuments. National parks need to be large enough to warrant an administration and a broader use. Size doesn’t matter for national monuments.

National parks need inspirational, educational, and recreational values. On the other hand, national monuments exist for their historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest.

Other National Park units include designations like national preserve, national memorial, national historic site, and several others, making it even more confusing.

However, all national park units highlight and protect unique landscapes and historic sites, including ancient ruins.

National Parks And Monuments In Arizona – And Other park Units

Besides national parks and monuments, in Arizona we have a national historical park, national historic sites, national historical trails, national recreation areas, and a national memorial.

Living in the state for three decades, I visited all of them, multiple times. During each visit, I learned more about them and about what makes each unique.

I am not trying to present all the national parks in Arizona in an article. You have the NPS site for that. What I can offer is a local’s insight and personal experiences about some of the best national parks and monuments in Arizona.

1. Grand Canyon National Park

The famous Grand Canyon is the best-known of the National Parks of Arizona.
View of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim

Grand Canyon National Park leads the list as both the most famous, most visited, most spectacular of the National Parks in Arizona. One of the natural wonders of the world it is the land formation the state is known for all over the world.

The enormous chasm carved by the Colorado river is famous for good reason. Nothing beats that first glimpse of it, no matter how many times you’ve seen photos or videos of it. I was in awe, speechless, the first time I stood on its rim, about three decades ago.

The immense canyon, one mile (1.6 km) deep and up to 18 miles (29 km) wide in most places, is truly a work of art of nature, showcasing different colored rocks, carved over millions of years.

South Rim

The South Rim is the most visited, easiest to access area of the National Park. Although it gets extremely crowded, especially in the summer months, everyone who visits Arizona still needs to see it. And no matter how crowded it gets, you can still enjoy it.

The views are spectacular, and you can walk the Rim Trail to enjoy them best. You might find solitude on some stretches even on the busiest days, since most people opt for the shuttle to get to different viewpoints.

North Rim

I prefer the North Rim even though we need to drive for a long time through nowhere-land to get there. As far as it is, the road through miles and miles of a pine forest is far from boring.

Once at the North Rim, you don’t have to deal with the same level of crowds.

You might even see deer in the forest near the rim. And, even better, the trail leading into the Canyon is an easier hike.

You can stay at the Historic Lodge. But even if you don’t stay there, the building itself is worth a look.

Closed in the winter, the North Rim is only for summer visitors, though.

2. Saguaro National Park

One of the National Parks and Monuments in Arizona, Saguaro National Park is home to the largest concentration of saguaros in the state.
A forest of saguaros in Saguaro National Park, AZ

Protecting and showcasing the symbol of the American Southwest, Saguaro National Park is one of the best-known of the National Parks and Monuments in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon.

It also has a special significance in Arizona. The largest cactus in the US, the giant saguaro, only grows in the Sonoran Desert. Even in this desert, it is limited to Southern Arizona.

Though saguaros grow all over Southern Arizona, including Phoenix and its vicinity, this is the place you’ll find the largest concentration of them. Saguaro National Park is home to over two million giant saguaros.

Separated by the city of Tucson, the park has two districts, East and West. Both have their own visitor centers with restrooms and water fountains.

Saguaro East (Rincon Mountain District)

If you are looking for the oldest and tallest saguaros, you’ll find them in the East District, along the Loma Verde loop.

The larger of the two districts, Saguaro East, features the Rincon Mountains, putting it at a higher elevation. Closer to the city, it also offers more hiking trails.

Saguaro West (Tucson Mountain District)

The saguaros on the west side might be younger, but you’ll find more of them. Featuring a denser saguaro forest, the west side offers a closer look at them through the six-mile unpaved scenic Bajada Loop.

Farther from Tucson, the drive to this side of the park is scenic. Besides a larger number of saguaros, you can also find ancient petroglyphs here.

Though open year-round, I wouldn’t visit the park during the summer months, unless I only planned to drive the scenic loops without getting out of the car. Winter is the best time to enjoy the hikes. However, if you want to see a saguaro in bloom, you might need to deal with some heat.

The giant cactus blooms in late April through May. To see the huge white flowers open, go out before noon. A night-bloomer, the giant saguaro closes its flowers by early afternoon.

3. Petrified Forest National Park

You'll find all the colors of the rainbow in some pieces of petrified wood in Petrified Forest, the most unique of the National Parks of Arizona.
You’ll find all the colors of the rainbow in some of the ancient logs turned to stone.

As the name suggests, ancient petrified wood fills Petrified Forest National Park.

Huge logs that look like parts of actual trees lay on the ground. However, on closer examination, you’ll find that this wood, fallen millions of years ago, has turned to stone. While doing so, it trapped gorgeous colors inside, from the deepest browns and reds to the brightest whites.

Walking through these ancient fallen stone-trees makes me feel like I’m on a different planet.

Though spectacular in its barren sort of way, the park is so out-of-the-way; we don’t visit it often. During our last visit, I remembered why I love this desolate area.

Besides the unique petrified forest, the park is also home to over a thousandarchaeological sites, ranging from one-room shelters to pueblos with up to a hundred rooms.

You can visit one of them, Puerto Pueblo. After the ruins, stop at Newspaper Rock, showcasing over 650 ancient petroglyphs, one of the largest concentration near each other.

Unique among the National Parks in Arizona, it offers a place of solitude, where you can be alone among the colors and shapes of the Painted Desert, surrounded by the remains of an ancient rainforest. It was also one of the first places we camped here, soon after we moved to Arizona.

4. Tumacacori National Historical Park

Tumacacori National Historical Park
The church and living quarters at Tumacacori

Tumacacori National Historical Park, in Southern Arizona, comprises a Spanish mission dating from the 1820s, and its surrounding area.

Built by European missionaries, populated by indigenous people, and surrounded by Mexicans, the park preserves the history of this congruence of cultures.

Though it seems the National Park exists to protect the mission, it has a much longer and more complex story to tell.

Long before the Spanish missionaries came to the area, Tumacacori was an O’odham village. When the first Spanish Jesuit missionaries arrived to the area in 1687, they turned Tumacacori into a frontier mission and later to a headquarters mission. In their colonization efforts, they baptized the natives and forced them into the Spanish way of life, to “civilize” them.

Other Indigenous people came in contact with the Spanish. The Yaqui liked and adopted the new religion and way of life, while the Apache fought them, and often raided the mission.

By the time the missionaries built the church, people from all the different backgrounds lived here, sometimes in conflict, often as friends.

The church is the focal point of the park, but it also includes living quarter and indigenous huts.

5. Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Spider Rock. Canyon de Chelly. Four Corners
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly

One of my favorites of all the National Parks and Monuments in Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, is on the land of the Navajo Nation. Though less imposing than the Grand Canyon, I prefer it for its more intimate feel.

Its rock formations, cliff dwellings, history, and the people who live there make the trip worth every time. It is the only place on the Colorado Plateau inhabited for a time-span of over 5,000 years without interruption.

Known as Tsegí Canyon to the Diné (Navajo), who live there now, the gorge is spectacular. You’ll find plenty of overlooks with some of the best views you can imagine. Hiking into the canyon is not as easy, though.

Until a few years ago, you could take a designated trail to the bottom without a guide. Now, you’ll need to join a ranger-led tour or hire a local guide to explore the bottom of the canyon. The experience is worth it. However, you can enjoy the canyon even from the viewpoints.

We hiked the self-guided trail several times, but our best experiences included trips inside the canyon with native guides. It was our first experience during our first trip there. Besides hiking in one of the most spectacular chasms in the US, we also enjoyed hearing first-hand stories about the natives who call this place home.

6. Navajo National Monument

Betatakin aka Navajo National Monument AZ
Betatakin at Navajo National Monument

Home to Betatakin Ruins, Navajo National Monument in the heart of the Navajo Nation, rivals Mesa Verde. The villages built in these alcoves by the Ancestral Puebloan people date from AD 1250-3000. You can see the cliff dwelling from the overlook at the end of an easy trail starting at the Visitor Center.

But getting to them takes a lot of work and planning. The only way to do it is to take a ranger-led, 5-mile hike. And since the tour starts early in the morning, you need to stay close by the night before. Or camp in the campground in the park.

We did it years ago when the Southwest was still new to us. I don’t remember it being too strenuous, but it was long and exposed.

Since you will find little shade on the trail, make sure you have enough water, a hat and sunscreen. I haven’t done this in years, so check with the rangers when visiting the site.

Though we don’t hike to the cliff dwellings, we stop at the park every time we drive through the area. We usually walk the rim trail and stop to see the spectacular ruins from a distance.

7. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Sunset Crater during sunset. View from Lenox Crater

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is one of my family’s favorite destinations in the state.

Close enough to Phoenix for a great day-trip destination, we drive up often, especially in the summer months. When we have the time, we also like to camp at the Bonito Lava Flow.

Lenox Crater offers a great hike into a cinder cone. From there, a trail leads to the Sunset Crater area.

Sunset Crater is a spectacular place. The first time I was there, I felt like I left Earth and landed on the moon. After multiple visits, I’m used to it now, but I’ll never forget my first glimpse.

The lava bed looked so surreal, I felt the need to walk on it, unaware of how sharp it was. Wearing full leather cowboy boots, my feet were safe, but the boots still have the cuts.

Weather is unpredictable there. We experienced a hailstorm once on a 4th of July weekend, while hiking on the lava flow to Lenox Crater. Rain that seemed to come out of nowhere soaked our tent several times while camping there.

On clear nights, camping in the park is the perfect way to experience some of the darkest skies in the state. When we do, we often walk outside on dark, moonless nights. The Milky Way looks clearer here than we could ever imagine.

8. Wupatki National Monument

The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm
The Tall House in Wupatki

Driving along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road, you’ll reach another national monument, protecting ancient villages.

Wupatki National Monument is close enough that it could be incorporated into Sunset Crater park, but it protects something different. Ancient ruins sit near the dormant volcano, reminding us of long-gone times.

Wupatki Pueblo, the largest of the ancient villages in the park, is home to the most imposing structure in the area. The four-story high Tall House once had about 100 rooms.

Visible from the Visitor Center, it is accessible by a paved trail that also takes you to several other structures, a kiva and a ball court.

Besides Wupatki Pueblo, the park is also home to several others. Featuring smaller structures, they are still worth a stop.

9. Montezuma Castle National Monument and Montezuma Well

Montezuma Castle - photo by Győző Egyed
Montezuma Castle (photo credit: Győző Egyed)

Protecting one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument, is a popular stop between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

We visited the site often over the years, and still bring all our out-of-town visitors. It’s an easy way to show off our gorgeous state and ancient cliff dwellings the Southwest is famous for.

The National Monument of Montezuma Castle is smaller than most. However, a glimpse of the “castle” carved into the side of a cliff is worth the stop.

When you stop, you can learn about the Sinagua, the ancient people who built and inhabited the village early Spaniards took for a castle built by the legendary Montezuma.

Montezuma Well, about a 20-minute drive from the “castle” is also part of this National Park. The highlight of this site is the well, a natural limestone sinkhole connected to an underground spring. The water offers enough moisture to create a green oasis in the high deserts of Arizona.

10. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Organ pipe cacti dot the landscape of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Showcasing a unique desert environment, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is near the Mexican border. So close, in fact, we can see the border town and the infamous wall from its trails.

Named after the unique columnar cactus resembling a pipe organ, the park is a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, protecting and an array of desert plant and animal life.

A great day-trip destination from Phoenix, the park also offers camping opportunities for overnight stays. Watch out for rattlesnakes when camping, though; it was the place I saw my first rattlesnake.

11. Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canyon NM, Arizona
View of Walnut Canyon National Monument

Protecting several cliff dwellings in a gorgeous canyon, you’ll find Walnut Canyon National Monument on the outskirts of Flagstaff.

We stop here often when we explore the high country of Northern Arizona. Hiking the rim, we enjoy views of Walnut Canyon and take the Island Trail to walk through its cliff dwellings. Sometimes we drive up on a day trip from Phoenix.

Walking down into the Canyon on the Island Trail is the most rewarding experience in the park.

The trail reveals alcoves and geological formations, besides the ancient homes. Prepare to walk up and down lots of stairs on the first part of the trail. Eventually, it levels though, and you’ll be walking on the side of the canyon, through homes abandoned thousands of years ago while enjoying amazing views of the Canyon.

For an easier trail, take the level and mostly paved Rim Trail. Enjoy the vistas from the top, and the company of squirrels and an occasional deer.

12. Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument – View from a trail

Known for its spectacular rock formations, and its history involving the Apache wars, Chiricahua National Monument is worth a visit.

Home to the only known jaguars in the US, it offers several hiking trails and gorgeous views in Southern Arizona. Chances are, you won’t run into one of the five jaguars, but any of the hikes in the “wonderland of rocks” is a true treat for the senses.

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we always enjoy the slow, winding road.

Of the hikes, the one to Echo Canyon is one of my favorites for its spectacular rock formations. And you don’t need to go far on the trail to see some.

Massai point also offers hiking opportunities among rock formations, while the Rhyolite Trail takes you into the forest near the Visitor Center.

13. Casa Grande National Monument

The "Big House" that gave Casa Grande National Monument its name.
The “Big House” that gave Casa Grande National Monument its name.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument preserves the remains of the village and the “Big House” of an ancient canal-making community. Close to Phoenix, we visit it often, as its own day trip destination, or a stop on a Southern Arizona road trip. Either way, we enjoy exploring the Big House and the surrounding area.

The remains of the largest structure are “big” indeed, standing four-story high in the middle of the surrounding flat desert. Part of a larger archaeological site, this house the most outstanding building at the site, also the largest one known made the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert.

Casa Grande was an ancient farming village, one of many along the Gila River. Since they needed water for their crops, they built canals leading from the nearby river. Working together, the settlements formed irrigation communities, building a network of canals.

The largest of these settlements, Casa Grande was also a ceremonial center, fact confirmed by the oral history of the O’Odham people. Siwan Wa’a Ki, the name they call this place, was “a place to pray and sing songs to the Huhugam spirits”.

14. Tuzigoot National Monument

the ancient ruins of Tuzigoot
The citadel of Tuzigoot

Tuzigoot National Monument in a remote area of north-central Arizona preserves an ancient village built by the same Sinagua people, who also built Montezuma’s Castle.

Built on a hilltop, the ancient village resembles a citadel, offering spectacular views in all directions. The paved loop trail circles the structure, and even offers entrance to a reconstructed room.

15. Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Monument showcases Salado-style cliff dwellings in Central Arizona. Close to Phoenix, the park is a popular day trip destination from the city.

The Salado people who built it were a mix of different cultures. Bringing together their best, they collaborated and mixed their individual traditions, eventually forming a new one.

The National Monument showcases tow separate cliff dwellings, the Lower and Upper ones.

You can visit the Lower Cliff Dwellings on your own, following a 0.5-mile paved path (uphill) from the parking lot. To visit the Upper Cliff Dwellings, you need to join a guided tour that takes about 3 – 4 hours.


In a Nutshell: About the National Parks in Arizona (including National Monuments)

  1. How many National Parks and Monuments are in Arizona?

    Arizona is home to 24 National Park sites. They include 3 National Parks, and National Historical Parks, National Monuments, National Historical Sites and National Memorials. They preserve either wonders of the natural world, or ancient archaeological sites.

  2. What are the three major National Parks in Arizona?

    Arizona is known for its three National Parks:
    1. Grand Canyon National Park
    2. Saguaro National Park
    3. Petrified Forest National Park

  3. Which National Park Sites in Arizona preserve wonders of the natural world:

    Grand Canyon National Park: Preserves one of the natural wonders of the earth, the Grand Canyon, a 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and one-mile deep canyon carved by the Colorado River.
    National Park since 1919.
    South Rim: open year-round
    North Rim: only open in the summer season

    Petrified Forest National Park: Protects a unique natural environment, filled with petrified wood, an ancient forest literally turned to stone.
    National Park since 1962, National Monument since 1906.
    Access: off I-40, northeast of Holbrook.

    Saguaro National Park: Protects a natural desert environment with a large concentration of giant saguaro cacti, symbols of Arizona and the American Southwest.
    National Park since 1994; National Monument since 1933.
    Access: Tucson, AZ

    Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Preserves a cinder cone volcano and its natural environment, formed by a volcanic eruption in 1085.
    National Monument since 1930.
    Access point: Northeast of Flagstaff.

    Chiricahua National Monument: Preserves a unique natural environment filled with rock formations, like hoodoos and balancing rocks.
    National Monument since 1924.
    Access: Willcox, AZ

    Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Preserves a desert environment, and international Biosphere Reserve, home to the unique organ pipe cactus.
    National Monument since 1937.
    Access: on the Arizona-Mexico border, south of Ajo.

  4. Which National Park Sites in Arizona preserve ancient archaeological sites:

    Navajo National Monument: Preserves cliff dwellings and ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo People. Main sites: Betatakin, Keet Seel, Inscription House.
    National Monument since 1909.
    Access: Black Mesa, on the Navajo Reservation.

    Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Preserves cliff dwellings and other ruins of the indigenous people who inhabited and still inhabit the area, from the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) to the Diné (Navajo).
    National Monument since 1931.
    Access: Chinle, Arizona, (Dinétah, the Navajo Reservation).

    Wupatki National Monument: Preserves ancient pueblos in Northern Arizona, in the Sunset Crater area.
    National Monument since 1924.
    Access: Northeast of Flagstaff, the Sunset Crater access road.

    Walnut Canyon National Monument: Preserves unique geological formations in the canyons, and ancient cliff dwellings and pueblos of the Sinagua.
    National Monument since 1915.
    Access: East of Flagstaff, off I-40/old Route 66.

    Montezuma Castle National Monument: Preserves a cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua people. Another site included in this National Park, the Montezuma Well, preserves a natural sinkhole forming a desert oasis and more cliff dwellings surrounding it.
    National Monument since 1906.
    Access: off I-17, between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

    Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: Preserves the ruins of an ancient farming community’s village of the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People.
    National Monument since 1918.
    Access: Coolidge, AZ

    Tonto National Monument: Preserves two ancient Salado style cliff dwellings.
    National Monument since 1907.
    Access: Roosevelt, AZ

National Parks in Arizona

Read More About Arizona:

Arizona: All About the Grand Canyon State

Explore Ancient Ruins in Arizona

The Best Museums in Phoenix

Best Hiking Trails in Phoenix

About the Author

Emese has been a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, for the past 30+ years. An avid traveler and explorer, she explored not only Arizona, but all of the Southwest with her family on multiple road trips during this time. Besides local insights to Phoenix, her articles about the state and the Southwest reflect an intimate knowledge of the area based on first-hand experiences. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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