Being the last state admitted to the Union in the lower 48 states, no state defines the Wild West of yore than Arizona. Ghost towns, including a near ghost town that became the setting for a Hollywood movie that lit the imagination of young Americans ablaze in the boomer era is part of this lore, with the dramatic desert and mountain scenery only adding emotion to a past that most of us can only imagine.
Whether you decide to take in the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or trace the roots of Wyatt Earp in the town of Tombstone, your time in Arizona will rank among the best times you’ve had during your time in America.
What To Do – Culture & History
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and the Americans, native people inhabited the territory where Arizona resides today. The Heard Museum in Phoenix documents the stories of the tribes that have called this land home for eons before Europeans showed up on the scene, telling it through exhibits, their art (including some truly spectacular Kachina dolls), jewelry and other artifacts. The museum is also home to a number of performing arts festivals during the course of the year, so be sure to check out their event calendar prior to arriving in Arizona.
The ruins of one of the most highly developed Native civilizations in Arizona can be observed at Wupatki National Monument. Located near the city of Flagstaff, this historical site consists of 31 structures on over 35 acres of land. While most of the structures have largely succumbed to erosion over the years, the red sandstone ruins still give visitors an excellent idea of how the Puebloean inhabitants made their living from agriculture at a time when the climate was cooler and wetter, permitting the raising of crops.
Prior to it being taken by American forces in the Mexican American War in the mid 19th century, the land where Arizona is today belonged to Mexico, and prior to its independence, Spain. This different historic path led to the development of Catholic cathedrals like Mission San Xavier del Bac, whose primary purpose was to convert the local native population to Christianity. Today, the church has been restored to its former glory, with the intricate frescoes, sculptures and the steady stream of pilgrims being the chief attraction here.
With a Hollywood movie glamorizing the wild west days of this formerly sleepy provincial Arizona town, Tombstone has been brought back to life by tourists seeking a glimpse into its more prosperous and rough past. Built atop a silver deposit in the arid scrub lands of Southeastern Arizona, the biggest draw is the fact that one of the most violent gunfights in the history of the West was held here, as Wyatt Earp and his brothers faced off against a band of outlaws known as the Cowboys in a confrontation known as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Live reenactments of this showdown are held regularly throughout the high season, while the courthouse where many miscreants were sentenced to death by hanging is also a popular attraction for visitors to a place that very nearly became a ghost town in the early 20th century.
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
Being the most popular tourist attraction in the state, the Grand Canyon is a natural site that is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Measuring up to a mile deep, eighteen miles wide and 277 miles long, this national treasure is one of the most iconic sights in all of America. While sightseeing from the South Rim is the most popular activity for the vast majority of visitors, those that are more active should plan ahead and book a rafting trip in the summer, which takes participants along the Colorado River for several days, giving them a chance for immersion that a quick look can never grant.
While the Grand Canyon is easily the most impressive of the natural sights found within Arizona, another iconic landscape can be found in Monument Valley. Located on the lands of the Navajo Nation on the border with Utah, these rusty sandstone buttes have captivated travelers for centuries with their steep, precipitous nature, leading to them being a prominent back drop in many Hollywood Western movies made in the 20th century.
One of humankind’s greatest fears involves the prospect of a strike from the heavens, a catastrophic disaster that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. The well-preserved nature of Meteor Crater is a constant reminder of our vulnerability to these cosmic forces, as its one kilometer wide, 600 foot deep footprint lies in the desert of North Central Arizona in a telltale spherical imprint upon the landscape. Formed about 50,000 years ago, little remained of the meteor that struck this part of the state, but large nickel iron fragments found within the crater’s base can be viewed within the visitor center on site.
Of all the icons that define American deserts in popular culture, none stand out quite as readily as the Saguaro Cactus, whose fifty foot tall trunks can be found decorating the landscape all around Tucson. Saguaro National Park, divided into an eastern and western adjunct, protects some of the best specimens of this endangered plant, as well as other varieties of this spiny species.