By the time I finally got to Petrified Forest National Park, it felt long overdue. The park had been stalking me for years, showing up in the books I was reading, the movies I was watching, the podcasts I was listening to. It was everywhere, jumping around on the edges of my periphery trying to get me to pay attention to it, to actually visit.
It was the end of the day in Arizona and I was alone. I’d passed the day’s last visitors on the way in, watched them pull out of the parking lot, a little dust kicking up behind them as they faded into the desert. Then, it was just me and the ghosts of Wupatki National Monument.
When I visited Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, I spent 15 minutes talking to a volunteer about what it feels like to be there first thing in the morning, to wander through the ruins before the tourists arrive. He talked about the people who used to live there, the ones who built the centuries old site, who used to call the place their home. He told me he knew they were still there, that he felt them in those quiet morning moments.
The first time I visited the Grand Canyon it was not enough. We were just passing through, quickly, on a time-limited, cross-country road trip. We had hours there, only a few, and we spent our time staring into the canyon, wondering how such an impressive and incredible thing could be real.
Later, as we drove to Palm Springs, we talked about going back, about the next time. We both knew we’d be back, both agreed we wanted to go below the rim.
So I went to Arizona for my 34th birthday and spent six days scampering from Tucson to Flagstaff and managed to visit seven of the state’s 22 national parks.
MY 6-DAY ARIZONA NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY
I started my adventure in Tucson, flying in late on a Wednesday and heading almost immediately to bed.
DAY 1. SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Coming from the East Coast, I was up super early on my first day in Arizona, and I set out just after sunrise for Saguaro National Park, getting there before almost anyone. I started in the Rincon Mountain District, the park’s east side, mostly because it was closest to my hotel.
I drove the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, then hiked part of the Douglas Spring Trail, taking it through the desert and past saguaros to Bridal Wreath Falls. Then, famished, I headed into Tucson for a Sonoran Dog, some tacos and a beer at BK Taco. The Sonoran Dog is a must-eat for anyone visiting Tucson and it was ridiculous and also delicious.
After checking in at my hotel and taking a short nap, I headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, the park’s west side, to watch the sunset and soak in a little bit more park time before the day ended.
For dinner, I hit one of Tucson’s many downtown breweries and went to bed early like the little old lady that I am.
DAY 2. DESERT MUSUEM, SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK & CASA GRANDE RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Just outside the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is where I started my second day in Arizona. It’s definitely worth a visit for those who enjoy animal encounters and want to learn more about Sonoran Desert, plus, it’s adjacent to Saguaro, which is where I headed after the museum, to drive the Bajada Loop Drive through the park and scamper along a few trails.
After that, I headed north, aiming myself toward Flagstaff, which is about four hours north of Tucson. I stopped in Casa Grande for In-N-Out Burger and then headed to my second national park of the trip, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, located right between Phoenix and Tucson.
I then headed north and the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is one I’d recommend to anyone visiting Arizona. You gain a few thousand feet of elevation as you go, winding your way through saguaro-covered mountains before entering the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world.
I made it to my cabin just after sunset, set up my bed, dropped off my luggage and then headed to downtown Flagstaff, which is incredibly charming, and had dinner and a few beers at Flagstaff Brewing Company, which incidentally has the largest whiskey selection in the state.
DAY 3. SUNSET CRATER VOLCANO NATIONAL MONUMENT & WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT
No lie, y’all, my third day was a bit of a train-wreck. I drove all the way to Petrified Forest National Park, watched a pronghorn prance his way across the road in front me and only then realized I’d left my camera sitting on my bed back at the cabin. So I turned around, went back to the cabin, grabbed my camera and some lunch, then headed to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and the almost-adjacent Wupatki National Monument, my third and fourth national park of the trip.
If I’d had more time and hadn’t spent half the day driving across Arizona, I would have visited Walnut Canyon National Monument, which is just outside Flagstaff.
DAY 4. PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, WINSLOW & GRAND FALLS
I woke up early on my fourth day for round two at Petrified Forest National Park. It’s insane, that place. It’s beautiful, with blue and red mesas, incredibly sweeping landscapes, part of old Route 66 and, of course, petrified wood. I hiked a little bit, scampered into the wilderness area as well and, mostly, I just couldn’t stop smiling. It’s an incredible place.
On the way back toward Flagstaff – it’s about a 90 minute drive from there to the Petrified Forest – I stopped in Winslow for a drink and some tacos at Relic Road Brewing Company and to say hello to
Standin’ on the Corner Park
Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano in the San Francisco volcanic field. It likely erupted around 1085 A.D., more than 900 years ago, and vastly changed the landscape. Sunset Crater, a 1,000 foot high cinder cone, took the place of open meadows and forests. Cinders and ash blanketed more than 800 square miles and extensive lava flows extended away from the crater. The local Sinagua people abandoned their settlements and headed for safer lands, like Walnut Canyon or Wupatki, which today operates in close conjunction with Sunset Crater National Monument.
In looking at the landscape, I thought about these people, about what they must have thought and felt before the volcanic explosion, when the ground first started shaking. We know a lot about these things now, about the science of the earth, about volcanoes, but they knew, too, I think, what it meant when the earthquakes started. Still though, I can only imagine what it must have been like to behold a land so vastly changed.
All these years later, and it still feels recent. Yes, there’s a national park surrounded by a national forest there now, with a road through it and a visitor center and trails to hike and scenic pull-offs. And there are trees and plants and animals, too, but part of the earth is still scorched, still bearing the marks of a catastrophic event that happened more than 900 years ago.
I don’t usually do a lot of research before visiting a park. I want to learn when I’m there, want to gather advice and information from the rangers or volunteers I talk to. So going in, I was mostly blind. I figured there was a volcano. But beyond that, I knew mostly nothing. I was still reeling from the change I’d experienced coming to Flagstaff from Tucson and hitting Sunset Crater made the constant even more vibrant.
So, I went to the visitor center, got a cancellation in my passport, grabbed a park map and asked the ranger what to do. He pointed me down the road, suggested a few hikes and sent me on my way.
In 1928, a film company wanted to detonate a bunch of explosives on the side of Sunset Crater to create an avalanche for a movie called Avalanche. People were very much not okay with this plan and, after public outcry, President Herbert Hoover created Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
At a little more than 3,000 acres, the park itself is not huge. Nearly half of it is the Bonita Lava Flow and almost a quarter of it is Sunset Crater. Today, it is surrounded on all four sides by Coconino National Forest and there’s a 34-mile scenic loop that winds through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument up to Wupatki National Monument, leading you through ponderosa pine forests in the beginning and then dropping 2,000 feet in elevation to scenery dotted by red rocks and painted deserts.
At just 15 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. Route 89, visiting the park is easy. If you read through the exhibits at the visitor center and hike one (or more) of the park’s trails, you’re looking at a visit of 1-3 hours, depending on how fast you’re moving and how often you stop for photos. Trails range in length from a quarter mile to 3.5 miles and no backcountry hiking is allowed in order to protect the ecological and archeological integrity of the park.
The trails of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are open from sunrise to sunset every day, while the scenic drive is open day and night, every day of the year. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each and every day, except for Christmas.
I started heading north from Tucson, toward Flagstaff where I planned to spend the next few days, still undecided on whether or not to stop at Casa Grande Ruins.
But I was hungry. I needed gas. Suddenly, I remembered In-N-Out has locations in Arizona and I’d already spent 36 hours there without scarfing down a snack from my favorite regional fast food joint. I asked Siri if there was an In-N-Out on my route, and, like magic, the next one was in the town of Casa Grande, just a few miles from the ruins.
It was a sign, I figured. I was meant to eat a cheeseburger and visit the ruins of Casa Grande, it seemed, and so I did.
HISTORY OF CASA GRANDE RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Somewhere around 1350 A.D., ancient Sonoran Desert people built Casa Grande and the compound that surrounds it. It is one of the largest prehistoric structures in North America. Archeological evidence suggests the people who lived at Casa Grande developed irrigation farming and had an extensive trade network, as well as time for recreation.
But we don’t know why they built the site, or what purpose it served for these ancient people, called Hohokam. This archeological term is used to describe the ancient farming people who lived in the southern deserts of Arizona from the first years A.D. to about 1450 A.D. It’s not the name of a specific tribe or language, but is used to describe the people based on their building and pottery styles. Many of today’s tribes trace their history back to the people of Casa Grande and consider the site a sacred place.
Around 1450 A.D., the site was abandoned. With no written language left behind by the people who lived there, the first written account of Casa Grande comes in 1694, from Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit, missionary and explorer. He used the words “casa grande” (or “great house”) to describe the ruins and the name stuck.
Later expeditions visited the ruins in 1775 and 1846 and the 1860s saw the arrival of a railroad line just twenty miles west of the ruins along with a stagecoach route that ran right past the Casa Grande, which brought visitors, vandals, graffiti artists and souvenir hunters to the ancient site.
In the 1880s, anthropologists, philanthropists and historians reported on the conditions of Casa Grande and stirred up awareness of the site. In 1889, a petition presented to the U.S. Senate requested government action to repair and protect the ruins and, in 1892, “President Benjamin Harrison set aside one square mile of Arizona Territory surrounding the Casa Grande Ruins as the first prehistoric and cultural reserve established in the United States,” according to the National Park Service.
The first shelter roof went up in 1903 and excavations and repairs started a few years later. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson named Casa Grande Ruins a National Monument and transferred management of the ruins to the National Park Service.
The current shelter roof was finished in 1932 and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. In the late 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built several structures to assist and support park operations, but since then the site has remained pretty much unchanged.
GREAT HORNED OWLS
According to a volunteer I chatted with at the park, owls have a long legacy at Casa Grande National Monument. A pair of great horned owls moved into rafters of the Olmsted shelter shortly after it was built in 1932 and it’s entirely possible and quite likely that a pair has been there ever since.
During my visit, the resident owls were nesting and were quite active. The female, nestled into the ruins and sitting on her eggs, was a little hard to see clearly, but the male was hanging out in the rafters, keeping his owl wife in his sights and watching as tourists meandered around the ruins.
Normally these creatures are nocturnal, but they’ve made their home in a National Park and visitors keep them up and on guard during the day.
The best part, for me, was when they hooted softly at each other. It was barely audible over the noise of other guests, but it was incredible to hear.
The owls are at the park year-round and mate for life. Sometimes they leave remnants of their dinner scattered around the park and the staff always does an early morning sweep of the place to make sure there aren’t any rabbit bits lying around to horrify visitors.
IN CONCLUSION & SOME NICE TO KNOWs
I’m real glad the fast food gods put an In-N-Out in Casa Grande and that I took the time to get a hamburger and experience these incredible ruins. The scale of the building is hard to gauge in photos, but it’s more than three stories tall and quite imposing in real life.
The volunteer I talked to said he felt the spirt of the ancient Sonoran Desert people there and kept returning year after year to volunteer there for that reason. It was clear in talking to him that he was passionate about the site, about the history there, including all the unanswered questions we have about the people who lived there more than 650 years ago.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is between Tucson and Phoenix, in Arizona, and I spent about an hour there. If you tack on a ranger-led program, watch the video or read everything in the museum, your visit could stretch closer to two hours.
The desert is hot, especially in the summer. Hydrate or die, y’all. Also remember that sunscreen and a hat are really great things to have when you’re scampering around the desert.
There’s a shaded picnic area at the park that’s pretty nice and all parts of the park are accessible via paved or hard-packed dirt. Dogs are welcome too, so long as they are leashed.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is open year-round, with summer hours running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May through September, and winter hours running 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through April. Admission to the park is $10 or free with an America the Beautiful pass.
I’d ended up there by chance. The original plan had been to fly roundtrip from Phoenix, spending a night or two there before heading north to Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and some of the smaller national monuments in northern Arizona. When rental car prices topped $400, I called foul and starting exploring other options, like flying into Tucson and out of Phoenix, and, amazingly, car rentals from Tucson to Phoenix were less than half of what a roundtrip car from Phoenix would have cost.
So I bought the plane tickets, booked the hotel rooms, the car and redesigned my itinerary to include Tucson and, most importantly, Saguaro National Park, which sandwiches Tucson between the Tucson Mountain District in the west and the Rincon Mountain District in the east.
HISTORY OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument, then just a portion of what is today the Rincon Mountain District of the park. Talk of creating a place to preserve the iconic saguaro cactus plants had started in 1920, with members of the University of Arizona’s Natural History Society. When Hoover established the national monument, it didn’t get much notice, but it was a big deal for the people of Arizona who worked hard to protect the saguaros.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred management of Saguaro to the National Park Service later in 1933, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Cactus Forest Loop Drive along with additional infrastructure. The national monument open to the public in the 1950s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added 16,000 acres to the monument, including what is now the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro. In 1994, Congress combined the two districts and redesignated Saguaro as a National Park with a total of 91,716 acres.
RINCON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S EAST SIDE
I visited the east side of Saguaro National Park first, mostly because it was closest to my hotel. I was there just after the park opened at 7 a.m., and immediately jumped on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a paved one-way, eight-mile loop that circles the western side of the Rincon Mountain District. The drive includes numerous pull-offs, trailheads for short and long hikes, picnic areas and countless opportunities to get up close and personal with saguaros.
For an easy introduction to the desert, the Desert Ecology Trail highlights some of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, is paved and just 1/4 mile in length. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, and it’s also wheelchair accessible.
The park includes around 195 miles of trails, so whether you’re looking for a quick scamper or a wilderness hike, Saguaro has it. Part of the Arizona National Scenic Tail, which runs for 800 miles from the Mexican border to Utah, also cuts through the park.
After I drove the Cactus Forest Loop, I stopped in at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center to pick up a park patch and get some hiking advice. From there, I headed north, to the start of the Douglas Spring Trail and followed it to Bridal Wreath Falls, located about 2.7 miles down the trail. The path was rocky and gained about 1,000 feet in elevation by the time I got to the falls, but it was well worth the effort and provided some absolutely stunning views of Tucson.
TUCSON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S WEST SIDE
After my hike I took a taco break, checked in to my hotel & headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Depending on traffic, the two park districts are about 45 minutes apart. The east side of the park is slightly bigger and the includes a paved road, but the west side felt denser, more populated with visitors and, allegedly has a denser population of saguaros. That said, both sides include many miles of trails, large wilderness areas and an enormous saguaro population.
That first night I stuck to the main road leading into the park and wandered through the Desert Discovery Nature Trail as the sun set. Like the Desert Ecology Trail in the Rincon Mountain District, this is a short, paved loop that’s easily accessible and dog-friendly.
The next morning I headed first to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s not part of Saguaro National Park, but it’s right on the border of the park and provides an in-depth education on the Sonoran Desert and the plants and animals that live there. It’s part zoo, part museum and part desert botanical garden and houses 230 animal species and 1,200 plant varieties.
After the museum, I headed back into Saguaro National Park, stopping first at the Red Hills Visitor Center and then heading out to drive the unpaved six miles of the Bajada Scenic Loop. Like the loop drive in the eastern district, the Bajada Scenic Loop includes several scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas.
During the drive, I stopped at almost every opportunity to take in the desert views, including at the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail is short, steep and rocky and leads through two washes and then up a ridge to a view of the Avra Valley.
I also trekked the easy quarter mile out and back to Signal Hill, where you can easily see dozens of petroglyphs. I saw petroglyphs for the first time in New Mexico last year and seeing these remnants of past civilizations continues to impress and amaze me.
Both sides of the park are really, really incredible. I’m a Virginia girl and seeing the saguaros and the rest of the pricker-covered plants of the desert felt like entering a different world. The forests I walked through at Saguaro National Park are a totally different kind of forest than I’ve ever walked before and I’m so glad I ended up in Tucson and was able to explore this incredible place.
If you’re planning your own adventure to Saguaro National Park:
- drink a lot of water and then after you think you’ve done that, drink a bunch more.
- wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off your beautiful face.
- get off the road and hike, either on one of the park’s many short trails or on a longer, bumpier, rock-filled and cactus-lined trail.
- stop for tacos and a Sonoran hot dog to keep you fueled for adventure time.
- explore both sides of the park; they’re different and similar and even after thinking about it for a week, I’m still not sure which one is my favorite.
- mind the weather, as summer temperatures can make the park unbearable in the afternoon hours.
Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily and the Rincon Mountain District is open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Visitors centers are open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free with an American the Beautiful pass, or $15 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle and $5 per person entering the park on foot or on a bicycle. To ensure you arrive at your intended park district,
use the addresses listed here