This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States features the very special State of Arizona, a breathtaking wonderland in the American Southwest. Our tour guide is my Embassy colleague Mischa Brewer, who grew up in Arizona and will share her personal perspective on the best things to see and do while on her home turf.
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Valley of the Sun
by Mischa Brewer
Stunning vistas and sunsets, Major League Baseball Spring Training, amazing year-round weather, vibrant culture, and historic landmarks … those are just a few of the best reasons to come to Arizona. Scheduling a trip is easy — with an average of 360 days of full sunshine per year, it’s always a good time to visit.
Arizona was the last of the contiguous 48 states to be admitted to the United States, joining February 14, 1912. It is located in the southwestern United States, sharing more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) of its southern border with Mexico. The famous Route 66 links Arizona to its neighbors California and New Mexico, making it a great place to take to the open highway for adventure.
To the north, Arizona borders Utah, and the famous Hoover Dam separates the State from Nevada. Centrally located within the State, Phoenix is Arizona’s capital and largest city (with 1.5 million people). The second largest city, Tucson, is only an hour drive away from the U.S./Mexico border. Arizona’s close proximity and historical links with Mexico have had a lasting impression on the State, with nearly 30% of Arizona residents claiming Mexican heritage.
With more than 6.5 million residents, Arizona is the 15th most populous State in the Union. It is about 10% larger than New Zealand in terms of landmass. Nearly 25% of Arizona is designated as Indian tribal land, a greater amount than any other U.S. State.
Twenty-two distinct tribes call Arizona home, and Arizona holds claim to the largest number of speakers of Native American languages of any U.S. State, with more than 85,000 people speaking Navajo alone. My great-grandmother was Cherokee, and I’ve always been proud that my home State continues to embrace the different tribes’ contributions to the spiritual, economic, and cultural life of Arizona. Some of my most prized possessions are my great-grandmother’s squaw dresses and jewelry.
The first stop on almost any itinerary to Arizona should be one of the undisputed Seven Natural Wonders of the World – the Grand Canyon. It is breathtaking in scope — 277 miles (446 km) long, 18 miles (29 km) wide, and more than a mile (1,800 meters) deep. A geological marvel, its walls expose almost 2 billion years of Earth’s history. Located just an hour’s drive from Flagstaff, it’s a great excursion for visitors, with spectacular view of Arizona’s famous “red rocks.”
The Grand Canyon is one of the most photographed places in the world, but pictures do not do it justice. The Canyon’s size, changing kaleidoscope of colors, exotic rock formations, almost mystical serenity, and grandeur can only be appreciated by visiting. Until you visit, here are a couple more examples of what you’ll see:
If just looking at the incredible vastness of the Grand Canyon isn’t enough, and you want a challenge, you can experience tramping, Arizona style, by hiking down to the floor of the canyon far below. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I think most Kiwis I know would be up for it.
Those who make the trek down will be rewarded with amazing views of the Canyon walls that most people never see, plus an opportunity to swim in the Havasupai Falls. There is a lodge at the bottom of the Canyon, or you can carry down a tent as you will want to stay overnight. Just bring warm clothing because the weather can drop below freezing in the desert.
For additional stunning views of the red rocks, I’d recommend Oak Creek Canyon. Developed from tectonic rifting as a tributary from the Verde River, the Canyon is located in the National Forest Reserve between Flagstaff and Sedona. Oak Creek is often called the smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon because of its spectacular beauty.
The water is deep enough in parts to dive off the cliffs into the water. It also features “Slide Rock,” often referred to as “nature’s water slide” because the slick features of the rocks are the perfect blend of smooth and steep to create fun summer memories. Be careful, though. As I learned as a little girl, the rocks can still be sharp enough to rip clothing.
Heading south, one of the most unique landscapes is the Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson. An icon of the American West, Saguaros are tree-size cacti that can grow more than 50 feet (15 m) tall and weigh more than eight tons. They are native only to the Sonora Desert, which stretches from Southern Arizona into Mexico.
The Park is more than 500 square miles (1,300 sq.km.) in size. From mountain biking in the desert, nature walks with incredible biodiversity, trekking, camping out under the stars, or the chance to live like a cowboy at a classic dude ranch, a visit to Saguaro Park is one to remember. I highly recommend it.
For a sampling of the State’s “Wild West” history, visitors can travel to Tombstone, one of the most notorious Western towns, where the motto is “too tough to die.” The famous shoot-out between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday and the Clanton Gang happened here at the OK Corral in October 1881. The most famous gunfight in the history of the American West, it has been memorializing in many Hollywood films. Visitors to Tombstone can see a reenactment of the famous fight at 2 p.m. each day.
For a more relaxed trip back in time, turn-of-the-century mining town Bisbee has reinvented itself as a hip hub of arts and culture, offering visitors a chance to browse trendy art galleries, enjoy gourmet restaurants, and stroll through charming vintage Victorian and European style neighborhoods. A must-see, in my view, is the Museum of the Bizarre, showcasing eccentric items collected from the town’s residents over the years, including the death mask of infamous John Dillinger and a plaster cast of Bigfoot’s footprint.
A visit to the Navajo Nation is a must as well, not only for the rich culture but also to learn about history. For example, during World War II the Allied Forces used the Navajo language, which at that time had no written counterpart, to code messages. Known as “Wind Talkers,” Navajo soldiers were deployed to communicate critical messages mobilizing troops and conveying strategies. The code was never broken during the war, and the Navajo Wind Talkers are credited with many successful battles that turned the course of the war, including at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima.
Many other tribes also invite visitors to come experience their way of life. Major groups include the Apache, Hopi, Yavapai, Zuni, and Pima. Visitors can enjoy cultural performances and shop for beautiful arts and crafts. The most famous is the beautiful turquoise jewelry. To see the very first peoples of the land, visitors can step back in time by visiting the archaeological sites of Montezuma’s Castle or the Upper Pueblo Dwellings in Tonto National Forrest.
With such vast landscapes one of the best ways to see Arizona is to take to the highway. More than 200 miles of the original Route 66 remain in Arizona today and include famous attractions like Holbrook’s Wigwam Village (where you can sleep in a concrete teepee), Jackrabbit Trading Post, Winslow’s famous corner (as noted in the Eagles’ song Take It Easy), Meteor Crater, and the pine forests of Flagstaff just to name a few.
The Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, two natural wonders, are just off this route as well. The Painted Desert is a large area of multi-colored badlands in the northeast corner of the State, at the famous “Four Corners” where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado all come together in a single point. Located in Navajo and Apache Counties, the Petrified Forest is similarly colorful badlands containing large deposits of petrified wood.
Further south off highway 19, about 10 miles south of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation, you’ll fine another special space, Mission San Xavier del Bac. The Mission church is considered by many to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.
Beginning in the 16th Century, Spanish explorers and missionaries established missions through the territory that is now Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Mission San Xavier del Bac was founded in 1692 by Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, and it remains a pilgrimage site that attracts large numbers of pilgrims every year. Eight or nine other missions still survive in Arizona and are well worth visiting as you tour the State.
And there then’s the food. Being so close to the Mexican border, another not-to-miss activity for visitors is sampling Mexican food at its best. My favorite Mexican restaurant is Macayos’ but there are many other tasty Mexican restaurants throughout all of Arizona. For more to tantalize the tastebuds, one can head to the longest running food festival in the U.S. – the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, which takes place every April. There are also far more ancient food traditions worth sampling.
Cultivation of crops began in Arizona more than 40 centuries ago, and large numbers of heirloom fruit, vegetable, and grain varieties and livestock breeds continue to be available. Saguaro and prickly pear cactus are prepared in various ways and are very tasty. There’s also the highly-prized Navajo-Churro sheep, which is supposedly the oldest surviving breed of sheep.
For sports lovers, Arizona has everything. There are four major professional mens sports teams — the Arizona D-backs (baseball), the Arizona Cardinals (football), the Phoenix Coyotes (ice hockey), and the Phoenix Suns (basketball) — as well as a women’s professional basketball team, the Phoenix Mercury. Nearly all Arizona stadiums have retractable roofs to shield spectators from the sun during summer months.
My favorite Arizona sports memory is Major League Baseball’s Spring Training. Every February to March the “Cactus League” — Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and of course, the Arizona Diamondbacks – comes to town. It’s been an Arizona tradition since 1947, and it is a great opportunity to see rising stars.
I love Arizona, and I know you will too once you visit …
Our State truly has something for everyone. Whether you want to bask in the great outdoors and the amazing Arizona sun, or enjoy world-class sports and recreation, or explore natural or human history, or learn about vibrant native cultures, or challenge your taste buds with new, old, and diverse cuisines, Arizona is a great place for you. Come see for yourself. I know you won’t regret it.
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I have been to Arizona many times for pleasure and business, starting in the summer of 1984 when my brother and I road-tripped through the State when we were students. I still remember being struck speechless — not a common occurrence for me — when I first stepped to the edge of the Grand Canyon. I also recall our journey across the vast Painted Desert, briefly interrupted by a surrealistic lightning storm that disgorged golf-ball-size hail.
The joys of Arizona are easy to access by either flying directly into Phoenix or cruising (by motorcycle, auto, or RV) from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or — if you are a Route 66 fan and have more time — from the Mother Road’s first mile in Chicago. I recall making the Phoenix to L.A. drive in less than 5 hours after a law firm retreat, but you’ll want to stop and explore rather than just rocket straight through.
For more information about what to see and do in Arizona, as well as for tips on where to stay and how to plan a trip, take a look at Arizona Guide, the official website of the Arizona Office of Tourism. It’s an excellent resource filled with ideas, destinations, and itineraries.
I would also suggest that you browse the National Park Service’s website to learn about the many national parks, national monuments, and national recreation areas available to you in Arizona. You can access here a complete list of those reserves with handy hyperlinks to the individual parks’ webpages.