Many of America’s best destinations can be found in the Grand Canyon State. Visiting the pre-Columbian, Euro-American, Navajo Tribal Parks, and contemporary cultural and historical sites of Arizona is a spectacularly scenic way to learn about the many different peoples living in, and traversing the American West over 14,000 years! Here’s a guide to the favorite ones of top travel writers to live locally (most in Flagstaff and Phoenix) and visit regularly.
Cultural and Historical Sites in Arizona Map
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Not just the world’s most photographed rocks – this supremely beautiful landscape has been the home of native American tribal groups that settled down for periods of time in fertile river valleys.
Monument Valley lies on the border with Arizona’s northern neighbor, Utah, and is managed by the Navajo Nation. The 17-mile loop around the main mesas, buttes, and rock spires is one of the most incredible 17 miles you will ever travel.
Enjoy the scenery, but if you’re like me, you’ll love the opportunity to also learn what each butte and mesa mean to the Navajo people. For example, there are ‘gate post’ mesas (Sentinel and Gray Whiskers (named after a Navajo medicine man) mesas), buttes that represent male and female spiritual beings that look at each other, and so on.
Monument Valley is truly a sacred landscape to the Navajo, and there are a number of tours you can take where you can learn about the symbolism of the Valley’s rock formations to the Navaho, meet Navaho families, and buy authentic Navajo souvenirs.
By Monique Skidmore
Antelope Canyon is a place of cultural and spiritual significance for the Navajo Nation. Located in Northern Arizona outside of the city of Page, this incredible slot canyon is famous for its uniquely colored walls, beautiful light rays, and amazing photo opportunities.
Besides bringing tourism to the Navajo Nation, this canyon has been a part of the indigenous population’s history and landscape for hundreds of years.
According to Navajo guides, despite it being a desert landscape now, antelope used to roam the area. Although its name was not originally Antelope Canyon, it is now called that due to the folklore that has been passed down for generations of the animals that once roamed the land.
The canyon was created over a long period of time. As water rushed through the area during flash floods, the canyon was slowly carved out. The Navajo people view the canyon as an example of the power of mother nature and water.
Because of the power needed to form the canyon, the canyon has taken on a special spiritual and cultural significance for the Navajo nation, and all tours of the canyon are done in a way to protects the sacred landscape while informing visitors about its history.
By Shannon of Adventuring With Shannon
Navajo National Monument
One of the most exciting things in the USA (in my opinion) is the cliffside dwellings of the great river canyons of Arizona. Three of the best are part of the Navajo National Monument – Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House.
The last people to live in these dwellings left over 700 years ago. They are made in natural sandstone crevices which also contain springs. The Navajo words are what we use to describe the sites but they’re not very imaginative. For example, ‘Betatkin’ translates as “houses on the cliff”!
The canyons have been home to hunters and gathers and agriculturalists – about 2000 years ago the “Basketmakers” lived in this area and grew maize and fished in canyon rivers. It’s thought that prolonged droughts might have caused the canyons to be abandoned after thousands of years of occupation.
by Monique Skidmore
Grand Canyon National Park
Perhaps more famous even that Monuments National Park is a Natural Wonder of the World, the Grand Canyon. There’s nowhere in the world that you can see the incredible effects of erosion on our planet.
There are 278 miles (447 km) of Grand Canyon whose northern and southern rims plunge vertiginously to the winding Colorado River below.
But why is the Grand Canyon National Park a major cultural and historical site? It is the homeland of 11 associated native American tribes who were moved from their lands but who have returned to teach their children the stories and culture of their ancestors.
You can take advantage of the cultural demonstration and heritage days to learn about astronomy, ceramics, stories that the wind carries, agriculture, dance, ceremonies, and much more about the ongoing connection to the Grand Canyon of the 11 Associated Tribes.
By Monique Skidmore
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon National Monument preserves the remnants of the Sinagua people’s cliff-dwelling society in an unassuming canyon just 15 minutes from downtown Flagstaff.
Native tribes have been in northern Arizona for thousands of years, adapting to the hot, dry landscape’s challenges and eventually creating the first permanent settlements.
At Walnut Canyon, the Sinagua people planted their crops on the canyon rims and used the natural protection of the cliff sides to build their homes in sheltered alcoves.
This community thrived here for more than 150 years before leaving around 600 years ago. It’s still unclear to archaeologists why they left, abandoning their homes and many of the objects within them.
Walnut Canyon’s cliff dwellings remained intact for centuries; that is until the railroad made it to town and brought with it the first “treasure seeker” tourists in the late 1800s. The destruction was swift and shocking, with groups bringing in shovels and dynamite to find ancient souvenirs to take home.
The local community was outraged and lobbied for federal protection. They were successful in 1915 when Walnut Canyon National Monument was created. In the 1930s, the CCC added trails and shored up the ancient walls, preserving this unique cultural site for generations to come.
Today, Walnut Canyon is a perfect half-day trip from Flagstaff or a couple hours’ stop on an Arizona road trip.
From Rachel at Means to Explore
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is a hidden gem, bursting with all kinds of interesting history, no matter what kind of history buff you are. If prehistoric history interests you, you’re in luck- the park’s name may give it away, but it’s known for its stunning variety of ancient crystallized wood.
Over 200 million years ago, conifers were uprooted in a massive flood and were quickly buried, which slowed down the decaying process and allowed minerals to seep in and crystallize the wood. Today, you can walk on several of the park’s trails and gaze at the rainbow-colored pieces of quartz scattered across its rolling hills.
If you’re more into Native history, the park is also home to ruins left behind by the Pueblo people, from the 1300s. You can explore the crumbling remains of buildings and petroglyphs left behind by these people, who are believed to have migrated away, in 1380, due to climate change.
Finally, if your interest in history leans more towards Americana, Petrified Forest also holds the title of the only national park that contains part of historic Route 66, which was touted as the nation’s first all-weather highway, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Sections of the original road, constructed in 1926, have long been closed and forgotten about, but you can still relive America’s heyday- and get your kicks- in the national park.
By Jessica at Uprooted Traveler
If you are a spiritual person, the coolest cultural sites in Arizona you can visit are the Vortexes in Sedona. Vortexes here are said to hold especially high levels of energy that are advantageous for healing, meditation, and-self discovery.
The entire town of Sedona is considered a vortex, but there are certain areas around Sedona that have unique energies that are worth visiting. Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa, Bell Rock, and Red Rock Crossing are some of the most prominently known locations for vortexes.
As early as 600 A.D., the Sinagua people considered Sedona a sacred area, as proven by the ruins you can find by them and the Yavapai tribe nearby town. It is said that they lived on the outskirts of Sedona and traveled into the area for sacred ceremonies.
Tip: It’s important to be sure that the Vortex site you plan to visit is not intruding on a Native American sacred site!
Depending on the type of spiritual experience you want, there is plenty written about specific energies you can feel are certain locations. Many of these locations can be found along several hikes in Sedona, where you can really experience the beauty and nature around you.
These locations are accessible to anyone, which is why a visit to a Vortex is a must-do experience in Arizona. You’ll leave feeling refreshed, inspired, and energized, just like the indigenous people of Arizona once felt too!
By Emily at The Mandagies
If you’re a desert rat, ghost hunter, or road trip adventurer, look no further than America’s largest ghost town, Jerome, which sits 5,000’ atop Cleopatra Hill in central Arizona’s Verde Valley.
Many mining towns across the country have been lost and forgotten, but not Jerome.
Since its booming billion-dollar gold and copper mining days, the town underwent a bit of a rebranding, evolving from a ghost town of under 100 remaining residents to a thriving cultural hub where around 500 artists, musicians, small business owners, and historians have created a cozy community in a wide open desert setting with Wild West flare. This makes Jerome the perfect road trip destination to visit off Hwy 89!
They don’t call it “The Wickedest Town in the West” for nothing. In the town, you’ll find there is no shortage of things to explore. Enjoy the numerous art galleries, wineries, bars, restaurants, inns, and boutique shops. Paranormal lovers will also love Jerome’s haunted background. Take a ghost tour or visit a nearby spot in town where ghosts lurk around.
You also don’t want to miss Jerome’s historic highlights such as The Sliding Jail, Jerome State Historic Park, and Tuzigoot National Monument.
by Geeves Joy at Real Girl Review
Montezuma Castle National Monument
The rich Verde Valley in the center of Arizona has supported life throughout the centuries. The Verde River, and later the nutrient-dense sediment left after the eruption of Sunset Crater, were particularly beneficial to the Sinagua people. They inhabited the area from about 600 AD and built fantastic cliff dwellings between 1050-1425AD.
One of the best-preserved examples is Montezuma Castle National Monument, a structure built into a towering limestone cliff that the Park Service often describes as being similar to a “20-room high-rise apartment complex”. Its placement would have protected the Sinagua from monsoon floods in the summer and helped with temperature regulation throughout the seasons. It may have also protected them from unwelcome visitors.
The nearby Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Well offer unique windows into indigenous architecture in the pueblo style, but the multi-level skyscraper shape of Montezuma Castle is a truly singular showcase of skilled stone and mortar craftsmanship.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Montezuma Castle was once an important trading hub. Today it remains a sacred site for local tribes such as the Hopi, Yavapai, Apache, and Zuni who trace their ancestry back to the Sinagua. While its function has changed over time, its notability and nobility remain constant.
by Claire at The Detour Effect
Whiskey Row in Prescott, Arizona, is one of the state’s must-visit historic sites that is still just as fun to visit today as it was hundreds of years ago!
This street in Prescott was named “Whiskey Row” because of the large number of saloons running up and down the road (at one point, there were 40!). Whiskey Row was a popular destination thanks to the “gold rush” culture in Prescott. The town attracted settlers, cowboys, prospectors, miners, gunslingers, and even the occasional outlaw. Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp were infamous patrons at the establishments along Whiskey Row, especially The Palace Restaurant & Saloon—one of the top ten historic bars in the United States.
In July 1900, a fire destroyed the entire block of saloons on this iconic street, and they had to be rebuilt. Today, you can enjoy the “new and improved” Whiskey Row, filled with restaurants, shops, and plenty of bars and saloons! Stay at Hotel St. Michael, a historic hotel, and eat at The Palace while visiting Prescott. These two destinations are steeped in history and are must-visit spots during your stroll on Whiskey Row.
By Brittany at Travel by Brit
Arcosanti is one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona. Founded by architect Paolo Soleri in 1970, Arcosanti proclaims to be the world’s first prototype arcology. In essence, it is an experimental city based on the fusion of architecture and ecology or arcology.
The mission was to reimagine urbanism so that it can coexist in nature in a sustainable way. Instead of urban sprawl, they build upwards, not skyscrapers, but multi-floors. Buildings are not just used 8 hours to work or sleep, something is happening 24/7. There is a communal workshop, library, gym, and art studio. Art is encouraged and handmade metal and ceramic bells fund much of the communal expenses.
Everything is built with purpose like a roof with specially angled seats for star gazing. Energy is conserved using scientific methods to create wind tunnels, warmth when needed, and light. Food is grown on sight to use in the cafe which is open Thurs-Mon 8:30-3:30. Tours are available the same days and are given by volunteers in the community. It’s just an hour from Phoenix, Flagstaff, or Sedona, but if you really want to immerse yourself, spend the night in one of the guest rooms.
By Denise at Chef Denise
Tonto National Monument
In Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix and near Roosevelt, you’ll find Tonto National Monument high above the Salt River in the Superstition Mountains.
On the edge of the Sonoran Desert are two Salado-style cliff dwellings. Salado culture was created by the entrance to the Valley of different groups over time, including ancestral Puebloan and Sonoran peoples. Aspects of these cultures blended together and at Tonto, you can see the Pueblo-style adobe cliff houses and the pottery and stunning textiles of the Sonoran people.
No one knows what the Salado peoples of the Tonto Basin called themselves but like other canyon-dwelling societies in Arizona, the Salado peoples left their homes around the fourteenth century and moved to larger communities when prolonged drought made it too difficult to survive.
The uphill hike to the Upper Cliff dwelling is 3 miles (4.8 km) (roundtrip) and will take you between 3 and 4 hours. You need to take a LOT of water – usually 2 liters. It’s technically possible to take a guided tour, but it’s almost impossible to book one as they don’t occur frequently and take very small numbers.
By Monique Skidmore
Frank Lloyd Wright fans, and fans of architecture in general, will want to make a trip to Scottsdale and take a tour of Taliesin West.
This culturally significant site is a National Historic Landmark and was the winter home, school, and studio of one of the greatest architects in American history. Along with seven other of the architect’s sites, it’s also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Built in 1937, Mr. Wright and his students constructed Taliesin West using materials native to the desert landscape, such as rocks, sand, and wood. The result is a stunning and unique campus that blends seamlessly into its surroundings.
Visitors can take guided tours of Taliesin West, which include the living quarters, architectural studio, and theater. The tour also offers a glimpse into the daily life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices.
In addition to its architectural significance, Taliesin West also serves as the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School of Architecture at Taliesin. The school continues Wright’s legacy by training the next generation of architects in his principles and design techniques.
Overall, Taliesin West is a must-see destination for architecture enthusiasts and history buffs. Its stunning design and rich history make it a unique and memorable experience.
By Theresa at The Local Tourist
The Heard Museum, located in Phoenix, Arizona, is a one-of-a-kind museum showcasing Native American art, artifacts, and culture. It has a strong focus on educating the public about the cultures of the many indigenous peoples of the Southwest.
The Heard Museum’s galleries display a wide variety of Native American artifacts. Appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of decorative objects such as intricately worked silver belts and turquoise necklaces. Even everyday utilitarian items, such as baskets, pottery, and blankets, are handsomely embellished with vibrant designs.
You’ll also find a wide selection of artwork, ranging from traditional to contemporary art with a modern spin on Native American themes. These art galleries show that there is much more to Native American art than their traditional stereotypes.
Listen to audio guides through the museum app to gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the art and artifacts and their importance to the Native American way of life.
Enjoy a light lunch at the Courtyard Café, whose menu includes selections featuring indigenous ingredients with a Southwestern flair.
Purchase a unique souvenir and support American Indian artisans with a visit to the Museum Shop. You’ll find an extensive array of Native American arts such as Kachina dolls, unique jewelry, and brightly colored blankets.
By Lisa of Waves and Cobblestones
Pueblo Grande Ruin (Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park)
There are numerous historic sites in Arizona left behind by these Native American Indian groups, many now protected and administered by the National Park Service.
The Huhugam culture of the Hohokam and O’odham peoples flourished in present-day Phoenix until, like most of the sites in the Phoenix basin, they abandoned their lands around 1450 AD.
But for over a thousand years, from about 450 to 1450 AD a thriving architectural and irrigation set of structures were created at Pueblo Grande within what is now the Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park. It’s worth seeing the:
- ball courts
- enormous platform mound with retaining walls, and
- an extensive system of irrigation canals
The north side of the Salt River is the site of the canals and other platform mounds have been found along the river which suggests that the Huhugam culture operated a sophisticated community over a large area in order to have such a large and functioning water management system.
There’s a self-guided trail that leads to the National Historic Landmark which lies next to Sky Harbor International Airport. There are three galleries in the Pueblo Grande Museum to explore. The museum costs between $3 and $6 per person.
By Monique Skidmore
Casa Grande Ruins
Near Coolidge, Pinal County is the first cultural and prehistoric reserve (480 acres) in the U.S. The main structure on the reserve (full of historic sites) is the “Casa Grande,” (great house) which President Woodrow Wilson declared a national monument in 1918.
It is an adobe structure made by the Sonoran Desert people during the Hohokam period that was built early in the 1200s and abandoned by about 1450. The people of the Sonoran Desert are ancestors of the ancient Hohokam people who had an extensive trading network, were hunters and gatherers, and also non-intensively farmed the land.
The complex is made of adobe walls that are thickest at the base using traditional adobe processes. The inner structure is 4 stories high and is surrounded by outer structures that are three stories high. It was rediscovered by a priest in 1694 who called it ‘Casa Grande.’
This national historical landmark has stood almost untouched for 700 years since it was abandoned. You can’t walk inside the Casa Grande ruins, but you can walk around it. There’s a short self-guided tour, a visitor center, and a picnic area that you can easily drive to from Coolidge (Highway 87/287), and admission to the site is free.
Anyone interested in the American Southwest and its history will find Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area fascinating. Located at what had once been the only place to cross the Colorado River for a thousand miles, the crossing had been used for centuries by Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and American settlers.
Today, the National Heritage Area includes two state parks, wetlands, and a public square in downtown Yuma. The Colorado River State Historic Park tells the history of the river. It’s also the site of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot. Built-in 1864 and operating until 1883, the depot supplied all the U.S. Army forts in the Arizona Territory.
The other state park is the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. The first prisoners built their own cells, and from its opening in 1876, it was known for its harsh conditions. Today’s visitors can see the cells and even enter them if they dare. They can also learn how the local high school got the nickname Yuma Criminals.
The wetlands areas are popular spots for outdoor enthusiasts. Yuma East Wetlands, located at the base of the former prison, is a great spot for birdwatching. Yuma West Wetlands has picnic shelters, a beach, and a boat launch.
Pivot Point is a public plaza located where the first railroad crossed into downtown Yuma in 1877. There are interpretive panels as well as a 1907 Baldwin Steam Locomotive.
Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area is a unique destination that brings together many aspects of the past, including the many cultures that have called the area home.
By Theresa at The Local Tourist
Fort Bowie National Heritage Site
The existence of Forts in Arizona tells us that the people moving into these Indian lands felt the need to defend themselves and the stories they have to tell make them important Arizona historic sites.
Historic Fort Apache and the Fort Bowie National Heritage Sites are two of Arizona’s best-known historic landmarks.
Fort Bowie is near Apache Pass and the town of Wilcox in Southeast Arizona. It was a US Army outpost that saw terrible conflict with the four bands of the Chiricahua Apache. There were only 1000 to 1,500 Apache livingat Apache Pass and finally a ceasefire meant they were deported to Florida.
Here you can learn about important names in Native American culture and history such as Cochise and Geronimo, and of the violent and turbulent 1800s in the American West. There’s a 3 mile hike to the ruins and the Visitor Center and there’s a ruins trail to follow.
Tip: If you’re coming from New Mexico, remember that there’s no Daylight Savings in Arizona – the Fort is open 8 am to 4 pm daily on Mountain Stanard Time.
by Monique Skidmore
The shootout between lawmen Doc Holliday and his friends, the Earp Brothers and the notorious “Cowboys” only lasted 30 seconds. But that half-minute, over 100 years ago, changed the entire course of history for Tombstone, making it one of the historic sites in Arizona.
That gunfight immortalized each second, making Tombstone a popular destination for people to learn about the old west and the settling of our land.
The first thing people will tell you when you visit Tombstone is that the famous gunfight at the Historical O.K. Corral didn’t actually happen at the O.K. Corral. That’s a bit of Hollywood smuggery. “A gunfight at the OK Corral” sounds way better than “a gunfight in the alley on the side of C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street, six doors west of the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance”. Right?
Saloons with period costumes and tours with options of actual and satirical reenactments are waiting for visitors who want to find the best things to do in Tombstone, Arizona, the best-preserved western town in the USA.
By Rina at LA Family Travel
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Three historic Spanish mission communities are preserved in the Tumacácori National Historical Park in the Upper Santa Cruz River Valley in southern Arizona. Two of these are National Historic Landmark sites and the building that houses the Tumacácori Museum (1937) is also a National Historic Landmark site.
In 1691 the first Spanish Jesuit missions were established in the Pimería Alta region where there already existed native American Indian tribes – the O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache. Only the Mission San José de Tumacácori complex is open to the public, and the visitor center and museum are worth exploring.
Although it is the oldest in Arizona, the Mission San José de Tumacácori was move to its current site after the Pima rebellion on 1751. It was abandoned by 1848. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt preserve the site as the Tumacácori National Monument.
As well as wandering through the interesting site, you can take a guie tour an also search the mission records.
By Monique Skidmore
San Bernardino Ranch (Slaughter Ranch Museum)
On what is now the border of Mexico and Southern Arizona in the far southeast of the State is, San Bernardino Ranch, which is not only one of the most historic sites in Arizona but is also a National Historical Landmark.
John Slaughter created the historic cattle ranch and it became a major stop on the American west route to California. Slaughter became Cochise county sheriff and was credited for bringing law and order to the wild west, especially to towns like Tombstone.
The Slaughter Ranch house and major buildings can be toured, including the Johnson Historical Museum of the Southwest. It’s located on the Geronimo Trail, Douglas, Arizona, and admission is $5 and children enter free.
By Monique Skidmore
Visitng these astonishing historic sites will give you an unrivaled perspective on the pre-Columbian cultures of Arizona, the lives of the early Euro-Armercan settlers, and the struggles that occurred as thousands of people move across these traditional Indian lands on their way to the American West. And all of these cultural and historic sites sit amongst national parks that protect some of the world’s most spectacular scenery!