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Which Arizona National Parks Are Best for Your Family?

Arizona is nicknamed “the Grand Canyon State,” but it is known for more than one famous national park. The beautiful state comprises twenty-two national park sites, making it a perfect place to astound and educate your kids. Let’s take a closer look at the Arizona national parks so you can plan your family vacation.

National Parks

Arizona boasts three full-fledged national parks. Each offers something unique with scenery and activities.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon. Photo credit: Omer Nezih Gerek

The Grand Canyon sits in Arizona’s northwest corner, about 60 miles from Williams and 80 miles from Flagstaff. One of America’s most iconic attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it draws visitors from around the globe. The canyon is more than a mile deep and stretches into the horizon as far as you can see.

Note the North Rim closes in winter, while the South Rim remains open year-round. Both rims deliver excellent views of the canyon and its colorful red, yellow, and chocolate layers.

Top Activities

Although many visitors are content to stare at the surreal canyon, it offers many things to do. Popular activities include hiking and horseback riding on the park’s trails. For those who prefer a more relaxed adventure, the park has scenic drives with many overlooks to soak in the stunning vistas and take pictures.

Visitors who enjoy watersports can boat or raft through the canyon on the mighty Colorado River. Stay late to observe a gorgeous sunset and watch the bright stars spread like glitter across the dark sky.

Wildlife

Grand Canyon harbors elk, bighorn sheep, and bison. Bighorn sheep may be found along the canyon’s rugged terrain, while elk quietly feed along trails opposite the canyon. Bison graze in meadows along the North Rim.

Petrified Forest National Park

colorful, petrified forest national park, arizona
Petrified Forest National Park. Photo credit: ArtTower

Located in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is a 1.5-hour drive east of Flagstaff. Despite its name, the park has few trees. However, it contains the remnants of a once great forest that thrived there. Visitors can admire stone logs, or petrified wood, scattered throughout the park.

Beyond the fossilized trees, Petrified Forest comprises colorful badlands, unique geological formations, ancient petroglyphs, and a portion of iconic Route 66.

Top Activities

Petrified Forest is a perfect one-day getaway for families. The park’s main road spans 28 miles, granting access to overlooks and hiking trails. Painted dunes and striated badlands highlight the park’s northern sections, while the southern region has more stone logs.

Although the scenic overlooks are lovely, the park offers many short hiking trails where you can get a firsthand look at the petrified wood and walk between giant mesas painted with gray, white, blue, and purple stripes. The scene feels like something out of a fairytale and will mesmerize your kids.

Those who enjoy American history can see a rusted body of an old Studebaker and a section of the famous Route 66. If your children love the Disney Pixar film, Cars, make the half-hour drive to Holbrook. The town resembles the fictional town of Radiator Springs. Your kids will light up at the sight of the Wigwam Motel, the inspiration behind the Cozy Cone Motel in the movie.

Wildlife

Petrified Forest is home to various animals, including coyotes, kit foxes, bobcats, mule deer, pronghorn, desert cottontails, and black-tailed jackrabbits. Your best odds of a sighting are near sunrise and sunset.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park Desert Giants
Saguaro National Park desert giants. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

If your kids watch animated shows, they likely have seen an iconic giant two-armed cactus, a symbol of the American West. Ironically, these cacti, or saguaros, only grow in the Sonoran Desert.

Take your kids to Saguaro National Park, where they can see nearly two million jolly green giants. The fantastic plants thrive in harsh desert conditions. Some are over 60 feet tall. Your kids will look to the sky in amazement.

The park has two districts. Saguaro East, or the Rincon Mountain District, has more beautiful mountains but fewer saguaros. Saguaro West, or the Tucson Mountain District, has a greater concentration of cacti.

Top Activities

Each district offers the park’s most popular activities; scenic drives and hiking. Looped roads provide overlooks where you gain excellent views of a giant cacti forest.

The park offers many trails where you can hike along the saguaros. Some deliver views of mountains or ancient petroglyphs. Your kids will love pointing out the different saguaros, some with many arms.

Saguaro National Park is a place you want to stay late. The park might deliver the best sunsets in the state. Towering cactus silhouettes against a painted horizon are spectacular.

As the sky blackens, white stars spark to life. With temperatures cooling, you can hear the desert animals emerge from hiding as they prepare to feed. The experience is exhilarating.

Wildlife

Due to the hot conditions of the desert, most animals hide during the day. Your best chances to spot wildlife will be around sunrise and sunset. Find a water source and keep your eyes peeled for roadrunners, mule deer, horned lizards, Gila monsters, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, and collared peccaries.

National Historic Sites

Although not full-fledged national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) manages all the remaining areas on our list. Arizona houses two unique national historic sites where your kids can learn more about our Native American history.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Located about 100 miles east of Tucson in southeastern Arizona, Fort Bowie National Historic Site was a 19th-century United States Army post used in battles with the Chiricahua Apache for nearly 25 years. Apache leaders Geronimo and Naiche surrendered in 1886, and the army eventually abandoned the fort in 1894.

The site provides a unique opportunity for your family to explore historic fort ruins. Other popular activities include hiking and picnicking. Kids can learn about Apache Pass and explore the fort while hiking a 3.0-mile round-trip trail. The park’s visitor center has exhibits and relics where you can learn more about the conflict between the United States and the Chiricahua Apache.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Nestled in northeastern Arizona about 120 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site opened in 1878 and still operates today. It is the oldest-running Navajo Nation trading post. Sheep and weaving are essential to the Navajo people, as they trade and sell rugs, jewelry, and arts and crafts. The park highlights this story.

Explore the trading post, homestead, historic barn, farming equipment, and two Navajo hogans or dwellings. Kids can see sheep and a few other farm animals. A few days a week, a master weaver demonstrates how to use a loom. Kids can give it a try as well.

National Historical Parks

Arizona’s lone national historical park was a melting pot of people, traditions, and cultures.

Tumacacori National Historical Park

Resting in southern Arizona about 50 miles south of Tucson, Tumacacori National Historical Park protects a museum and three historic missions founded by the Spanish:

  • Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi
  • San Jose de Tumacacori
  • San Cayetano de Calabazas

Tumacacori was a gathering place for various Native American peoples, missionaries, settlers, and soldiers. Some meetings were peaceful, while others led to conflict.

Explore the visitor center, original buildings, artifacts, and courtyard garden to learn more about this fascinating cultural crossroads. The park offers guided tours, including bird walks, moonlight hikes, and mission tours.

National Memorials

Arizona has a single national memorial that ironically honors a failed endeavor.

Coronado National Memorial

Near the Mexico border in southeastern Arizona, the Coronado National Memorial commemorates an epic journey led by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado in 1540. The Spanish explorer led an expedition of 339 European soldiers and hundreds of Aztec allies from Mexico City to what is now the American Southwest and Midwest. They had hoped to find the mythical seven cities of gold.

Although the treasure hunt lasted two years, Coronado did not find gold. He was scorned and called a failure. However, his journey revealed that land extended farther north than previously thought. It resulted in a collision of cultures, traditions, and technologies that still impacts our history.

You can learn about the Coronado Expedition and view historical exhibits in the visitor center. The area offers rugged but scenic hiking trails, birding, and caving.

Note the hike to Coronado Cave is rated moderate to moderately strenuous. Although the trek to the cave is only 0.5 miles, it has an elevation change of 500 feet and requires rock scrambling over slick boulders. Coronado Cave is best suited for older children.

National Monuments

Arizona houses a wide array of national monuments honoring places of natural beauty or historical and cultural importance.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Arizona national parks - Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Photo credit: Stephen Roth

Located about 150 miles northeast of Flagstaff in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument has stunning vistas of red sandstone canyons and sheer cliffs. Some of the canyon walls reveal preserved cliff dwellings.

The park offers two paved rim drives with impressive scenic canyon overlooks. Although both scenic drives yield fantastic views, the North Rim drive is best for morning photos, while South Rim pictures are best in the afternoon. Visiting the canyon floor requires a guided tour with a park ranger or through Navajo Nation.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Nestled 55 miles southeast of Phoenix in southern Arizona, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument allows you to see Native American ruins. You can explore the history of irrigation canals and their impact on a network of communities.

The site features a well-preserved “great house,” which remains a mystery to anthropologists and archeologists. Although we are still determining its purpose, your kids will marvel at its size and the work it must have taken to build such a structure in the 14th century.

You can tour the visitor center and grounds around the Casa Grande Ruins. The park offers a picnic area to relax, eat, and admire Sonoran Desert plants. Be prepared if you plan to visit in the summer. Temperatures regularly climb over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chiricahua National Monument

Arizona national parks - Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument. Photo credit: Tom Fournier

Sitting 120 miles east of Tucson in southeastern Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument is a “Wonderland of Rocks.” Your kids will marvel at the spectacular rhyolite rock pinnacles that rise hundreds of feet. With a small base, the towering rock spires look as if they could topple at any moment.

You can explore the 12,025-acre site by scenic drive or on foot. Take the 8-mile Bonita Canyon Drive up to Massai Point for a spectacular view from 6,780 feet. The park has hiking trails of varying distances and difficulty ratings, everything from a short stroll to a strenuous trek. All the paths yield fantastic views of the unique rock formations.

Grand Canyon – Parashant National Monument

If you have older kids who love hiking and outdoor adventures, the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument may be for your family. It is more rugged than the Grand Canyon and less crowded. The monument sits along the northern edge of the Grand Canyon in northwest Arizona.

Tall ponderosa pines, imposing canyon walls, and desert cacti dominate the remote landscape. The rough terrain highlights the dark rocks against a vast blue sky. It is an excellent opportunity for secluded hikes or nature photography. You will leave civilization behind here.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Arizona national parks - Montezuma Castle National Monument
Montezuma Castle National Monument. Photo credit: Strange Happenings

Located about 50 miles south of Flagstaff in central Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument has complex masonry structures built into limestone rock by the Sinagua people. President Theodore Roosevelt established Montezuma Castle as America’s third national monument in 1906, focusing on preserving Native American culture.

Your kids will be amazed at the sight of the 20-room high-rise apartment built into the side of a towering cliff. The park site contains unique artifacts, including hunting weapons and pottery. Montezuma Well is a lovely area for birding.

Navajo National Monument

Nestled in northeastern Arizona about 120 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Navajo National Monument harbors three well-preserved cliff dwellings built by ancestral Puebloan people in the 13th century:

  • Inscription House
  • Betatakin
  • Keet Seel

Inscription House and Keet Seel are currently closed to visitors. You can visit Betatakin only by taking a ranger-led hike. These guided tours regularly occur daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tours will either be a 3.0-mile or a 5.0-mile round-trip hike. Both trails have a difficulty rating of strenuous. Although an excellent opportunity to view cliff dwellings, the trek is best suited for older kids who enjoy challenging hikes.

The park offers three self-guided trails, each 1.0 mile or slightly less. Sandal Trail leads to an overlook where you can view Betatakin from above. Besides the guided tours, it is the only point in the park where you can see the cliff-dwelling village. It is an option if your kids are younger or do not enjoy strenuous hikes.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

a large cactus with a sky in the background
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photo credit: John Ward

Resting in south-central Arizona, about 120 miles southwest of Tucson, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument protects its namesake cactus and the Sonoran Desert. Organ pipe cactus is limited in the United States, only growing in certain areas with suitable climates and elevations. Most of these cacti in the United States grow here. Since the site houses a variety of unique desert plants and animals, it is also an International Biosphere Reserve.

The park offers scenic drives, hiking, camping, and birding. It can be a thrill for kids to see plants that only grow in a small area throughout the country. They will learn about the desert ecosystem and appreciate how plants and animals adapt to survive. If you plan a summer visit, the region regularly sees temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pipe Spring National Monument

Located 60 miles southeast of St. George, Utah, in northwestern Arizona, Pipe Spring National Monument protects three springs that provided much-needed water for centuries to animals, ancestral Puebloan people, and Mormon settlers.

The Mormon pioneers settled in the area in the 1860s, constructing various buildings, including a fort called Winsor Castle. Your kids can take a guided tour of the fort. They can also see a garden, museum, and ranch animals like horses and longhorn cattle. For those that like to hike, the 0.5-mile Ridge Trail provides excellent views of the Arizona Strip.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

If your kids love geology, visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. It sits 15 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. The region showcases a cinder cone, jagged black rocks, and hardened molten lava.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument offers two accessible hiking trails, Lava Flow Trail and Bonito Vista Trail, where you gain fantastic views of the lava flow and unique geological formations.

If your kids love stargazing, this is the park for your family. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is an International Dark Sky Park, and Flagstaff is the world’s first International Dark Sky City.

Tonto National Monument

Situated in central Arizona 45 miles northeast of Phoenix, Tonto National Monument preserves the ruins of two cliff dwellings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The rock houses were built and occupied by the Salado people.

Watch an educational film in the visitor center and view artifacts in the museum, including pottery and textiles. You can hike the 0.5-mile trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling but must take a ranger-led 3.0-mile round-trip hike to see the Upper Cliff Dwelling. Kids will be fascinated by the artifacts and the rock houses. It is an International Dark Sky Park if you want to stay late.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Located about 40 miles southwest of Flagstaff in north-central Arizona, Tuzigoot National Monument preserves the site of a 12th-century Sinaguan settlement built over a thousand years ago. Archeologists believe the hilltop pueblo village housed about 300 people in 110 rooms.

You can visit the museum and tour the ruins on a self-guided tour. The museum contains artifacts like tools, textiles, and ceramics. Park trails yield views of Verde River, Tavasci Marsh, and the Tuzigoot Pueblo.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Nestled 10 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Walnut Canyon National Monument holds a 600-foot deep canyon that housed Sinagua people in the 12th and 13th centuries. Hike the Island Trail, where you will discover 25 cliff dwelling rooms. The 1.0-mile round-trip trail is paved but steep. Accordingly, it is not accessible and has a difficulty rating of strenuous. It is best suited for older kids with hiking experience.

The 0.7-mile Rim Trail is rated easy and has overlooks with scenic views of the canyon and cliff dwellings. Younger kids will be comfortable on this path. Note the Rim Trail is being refurbished and will be partially open through October of this year.

Wupatki National Monument

Located 43 miles north of Flagstaff in north-central Arizona, Wupatki National Monument contains the ruins of a 12th-century Hopi village. The ancestral Puebloans built the town after the Sunset Crater Volcano eruption around A.D. 1080 forced them to relocate. Archeologists believe 85 to 100 people lived in the village with over 100 rooms. It included a community room and ballcourt.

Your kids can hike the short, easy trail to the Wupatki Pueblo. It also delivers picturesque vistas of the Painted Desert, highlighting the region’s beautiful red rocks.

National Recreation Areas

Arizona harbors two national recreation areas, each with essential water supplies for the nation and a fascinating history.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Arizona national parks - Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Pixabay

Over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry, Arizona, to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. The vast park comprises Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon Dam is the second-highest concrete arch dam in the United States, while Lake Powell is the country’s second-largest reservoir. The sheer size of the dam and reservoir will blow away your kids.

Glen Canyon offers water sports, including boating, swimming, and fishing. It is excellent for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing. Scenic drives deliver stunning vistas. Rent a boat and enjoy the lake for some unique family fun.

Beyond the recreational activities, your kids should find the Lake Powell story interesting. It formed after workers completed building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in 1963. The dam led to a massive water backup, creating Lake Powell. However, it also destroyed archeological sites and changed the course of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

America’s first and largest national recreation area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, sits in southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. Across its 1.5 million acres, you will discover picturesque landscapes of blue waters, mountains, canyons, and valleys. The park includes two vast lakes and nine wilderness areas. Although primarily known for its namesake lake, the park protects part of the Mojave Desert.

The construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in 1935 formed Lake Mead. It is the largest reservoir in America. Lake Mohave is a reservoir on the Colorado River in Cottonwood Valley. It sits between the Hoover and Davis Dams, outlining the border between Arizona and Nevada.

Summers get extremely hot in the region. Thankfully the park offers water sports like boating, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and scuba diving. Lake Mead has hiking, biking, and horseback riding for those who prefer to stay on land. If your family likes to stay active, you will find plenty to do in Lake Mead amidst the gorgeous scenery.

Wrap-Up: Arizona National Parks

Arizona offers beautiful landscapes, unique recreational activities, and rich history and culture. Whether you seek adventure or education, it is the perfect state for your family vacation. Tour the Arizona national parks with your kids and discover why the state is so much more than one legendary natural wonder.

This article originally appeared on Hello Sensible.

Featured image credit: Westwind Air Service

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Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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