Arizona often conjures up images of ochre deserts, sandstone monoliths, and the breathtaking Grand Canyon (it is the Grand Canyon State after all). Northern Arizona undoubtedly houses the motherload of scenic nature, including the Grand Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, and parts of the Glen Canyon. Add to that large swathes of protected lands belonging to various Native American tribes, with the largest group being the Navajo.
Here, you can hike up to scenic overlooks at various points along the Grand Canyon or head down low into Antelope Canyon or simply enjoy the mysterious energy of Sedona; all accessible from Las Vegas or Flagstaff.
Grand Canyon National Park
One of nature’s most captivating creations, the Grand Canyon forms a colourful chasm more than 1.6km deep and over 440km long. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the most visited location at Grand Canyon National Park where you can experience the Grand Canyon from close to two dozen viewpoints, each with their own unique attributes, and many that allow you to peer all the way down into the heart of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River.
Another popular area is Grand Canyon West (and the Grand Canyon Skywalk) which are easily accessible from Las Vegas, located within the Hualapai Indian Tribal Lands. The other scenic overlook is in Grand Canyon East at Horseshoe Bend, where thousands of visitors hike up to see the Colorado River wind its way around this massive rock formation, making the shape of a horseshoe.
Those looking for a quieter side of the Grand Canyon can head to the cooler (as it’s over 2,400m above sea level) North Rim, where hiking, sightseeing and ranger-led programmes are the primary activities.
Also in Northern Arizona, The surreal sandstone towers in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are located on the Navajo Nation – one of the largest American Indian tribes. This red sand desert region is on the Arizona-Utah border, known for its towering sandstone buttes that glow with rich red hues. This area has been filmed and photographed countless times over the years for movies.
From the visitor centre at Look-out Point, there are good views across three of the valley’s most photographed peaks: East and West Mitten Buttes, and Merrick Butte. The park has only one hiking path, the 5km Wildcat Trail.
You can also explore the canyon floor at Antelope Canyon in Northern Arizona – also known as Corkscrew Canyon – with its mysterious and haunting beauty. Located in the Lake Powell area, you can only explore this vermillion-coloured slot canyon on guided tours. The long narrow canyon walls are composed of sandstone which has been carved by millennia of wind and water into wavy patterns, with slivers of light streaming through the cracks adding an element of ethereal beauty.
When people refer to Antelope Canyon, they usually refer to Upper Antelope Canyon, which is more photogenic thanks to its light beams, falling sands, and very high canyon walls. Lower Antelope Canyon is arguably more fun, with narrow twisting passageways to squeeze – and slide – through and ladders to climb.
Lake Powell is the second-largest artificial lake in the US, and the Gunsight Bay area of the lake contains many canyons and bays, all of which are visually spectacular.
Another monument accessible from the lake is the Rainbow Bridge, one of the world’s (and Northern Arizona) largest known natural bridges, which is revered by the Navajo Indians. A boat trip is a great way to take in this epic scenery.
Located south of Flagstaff within the Coconino National Forest are the iconic red rocks of Sedona – stone formations that jut upwards from the desert floor to create a vivid setting that changes hourly with the light. The area is ripe with trails for hiking and biking (or the odd 4WD) among the forest of pinnacles, spires, buttes and domes.
One of the most scenic hikes is in Loy Canyon, where sheer vermillion cliffs and buff sandstone form a colourful backdrop for the desert garden on the canyon floor. The trail climbs to a high saddle at the top of Secret Mountain, a mesa with spectacular overlooks.
Sedona is also famous for its vortexes (or vortices) – it’s a “power spot” where people from all over the world have had spiritual and healing experiences.
Canyon De Chelly
Sitting at an elevation of over 1,600m, the comparatively little-known Canyon De Chelley in the heart of Navajo land showcases impressive ancient Native American pueblo ruins built into the steep sandstone canyons, the walls of which display ancient petroglyphs and pictographs. The sandstone walls rise over 300m, with several scenic overlooks. You can hike on the South Rim via a 2-hour round-trip that explores the famous White House Ruin or drive through the canyon on the two main routes.
The towering monolith of Spider Rock rises 245m above the canyon floor and is regarded as the centre of the Navajo universe, making this a sacred place to the Navajo people who still inhabit the valley floor.