Best National Parks To Visit Near Phoenix

As the temperatures rise and summer is close, Phoenicians start thinking about getting out of the heat, traveling to faraway destinations or just driving north of town. Since the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary, it is fitting to visit a few of these parks, at least those that are within driving distance from the city, close enough for just a weekend trip. If you are visiting Arizona in the summer and you want to spend time outside, I recommend to head in that direction as well, unless you want to feel like you are baking in an oven. Just a few short hours drive from Phoenix, we have some of the wildest and most interesting places on the planet, where you can walk through black lava, marvel at ancient dwellings, and enjoy one of the Wonders of the World.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Emese Fromm

Heading North on I-17, the only highway that takes you out of town North of Phoenix, just a short side trip from the highway is Montezuma Castle National Monument. It is worth a stop to rest and enjoy a few minutes or hours of calm in the shadows of large cottonwood trees. The short walk takes you to an interesting cliff dwelling that gave the place its name. Although Montezuma has never set foot in Arizona, the 45-room pueblo dwelling built by the Sinagua people indeed looks like an ancient castle carved into the rock.

Sunset Crater National Monument

Emese Fromm

For a truly unique experience visit Sunset Crater National Monument. Stop at the visitor center, where you can learn about the area through the interactive displays, then pick up a brochure and head out to the guided lava flow trail. Walk on black lava sand, touch the sharp lava rocks, marvel at the beauty of the vegetation returning after less than a millennium of the volcano's eruption, and feel the cold air rushing out from a lava tube. If you still have time and energy left, climb on top of and into a cinder cone volcano by following the well-kept trail leading up on Lenox Crater, and experience not only climbing on lava, but also the spectacular views of Sunset Crater and the Kachina Peaks.

Wupatki National Monument

Jeff Fromm

Continuing on the road that goes through this volcanic field, before heading back to the highway stop at Wupatki National Monument to learn about how the Ancient Pueblo People lived in the harsh desert, before and after the eruption of Sunset Crater. Pick up a brochure and learn about the site at the visitor center, then head back to the ruins. Walk through the multi-story "Tall House" that originally had about 100 rooms, sit in the kiva-like community room and go through the ball court. In addition to Wupatki, the National Monument includes a few other ruins, all worth the stop, especially Wukoki Ruins, where you can walk through the long abandoned rooms and enjoy a beautiful view of the surrounding desert.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

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Not far from this area, Walnut Canyon National Monument is also worth a stop. The visitor center is a good place to start here as well, then you can either take the hike down into the canyon or stroll along on the rim trail in the shade of the ponderosa pines, and stop at the canyon overlooks to enjoy the view. Hiking into the canyon is more of an adventure, since you get to climb stairs, walk through narrow ledges, and stop inside ancient cliff dwellings.

Grand Canyon National Park

Emese Fromm

There is nothing that can prepare you for the first glimpse of one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon. No matter if it is your very first visit, or you've been here numerous times, the first view of the canyon will always fill you with awe. If you visit the South Rim, which is the most popular side, be aware that it gets very crowded, so it is better to go on a weekday, and even so, try to get there early in the morning. There are opportunities to hike into the canyon for a truly great experience, but if you have time for only one thing, walk the rim trail and stop at each overlook. Although you have the choice to take the free shuttle, unless you are hurt or it is extremely hot, opt to walk the interpretive trail, where you can learn about all of the rock layers that make up the canyon, see the deer that live here, in addition of the view of the canyon that changes slightly after each bend.

To visit the North Rim, you need more time than just a weekend, but worth it if you are on vacation. It is far from any other town or city, so you need to make sure you have a reservation at the lodge if you plan to go there.

Emese Fromm has lived in Arizona for over 20 years, and explored just about every place in her state. She is a freelance writer and translator, her work has appeared in magazines like Travel Thry History, InTravel Magazine, TravelLady, Skipping Stones, Stories for Children. In addition she blogs about her travels at Travels Fromm AZ