Arizona is beautiful, often breathtakingly so. From the Sonoran Desert in the south to red rock country near Sedona and the Grand Canyon in the north, the state features a staggering diversity of landscapes, perfect for day trips and adventures
I’m Mitch Stevens, founder and lead guide for Southwest Discoveries, a hiking and adventure company based in Tucson. Born and raised in New York City, I came to discover the great outdoors in Arizona and fell in love with the varied, unique terrains. Some of my favorite places to explore are the three wondrous and secluded hikes below; I encourage you to check them out should you find yourself in the southwest.
Mt. Ajo – Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Trip leader and interpretive guide, Beth Krueger, once spent four days camped at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located between Arizona’s Ajo Mountains and the Mexico border. While most hikers avoid summers in this part of the world, it’s Beth’s favorite season. She likes to savor the fruit of the organ pipe cactus, purported to be the best tasting in the world. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus appears – it’s rare here, but common in Mexico.
Beth and I collaborated on a late winter outing in the park’s nearly pristine desert wilderness. We marveled at magnificent organ pipe and saguaro cacti, extraordinary plants. The preserve is a showcase for flora and fauna that have managed to adapt to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this southwest region.
Together, Beth and I hiked 1.5 miles through dense stands of giant columnar cactus to the Bull Pasture overlook. There were exceptional views in every direction: just ahead of us, smaller peaks, canyons, and other rocks formations; in the distance, majestic mountains. It didn’t take long before the boulders and rock formations that were part of the backdrop at the beginning of our hike were right in front of us. And after a few short, steep switchbacks with some loose footing, the route gave way to amazing rock outcrops, including windows, arches and a series of huge cone-like stone formations that were fun to explore.
After another mile of hiking on a ridge line with stunning views and a short but fun boulder hop, we reached the peak of Mount Ajo, the tallest mountain in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We scrambled to the summit where more grand views emerged. A large colorful rock slab that looked like a spaceship and was covered in lime green lichen greeted us. It made for a great resting spot.
For a brief cyber journey of this southwestern wonderland, turn up your speakers and enjoy Organ Pipe Magic.
2. Rogers Canyon – Spirits of the Past in the Superstition Wilderness
Elisha Reavis dreamt of living live off the land in a beautiful place far away from the hordes of humanity, and realized that dream when he moved to a high mountain valley in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. There, he farmed, grazed and tendered an orchard. Ponderosa pines graced his ranch and a beautiful clear spring-fed creek watered the fruit trees he planted.
Five hundred years before Reavis arrived, the Salado peoples were eking out a living in Rogers Canyon and today, their fascinating cliff dwellings are visible from a hike just a few miles the Rogers Canyon trail junction.
Gradually, as we walked left from the junction, the landscape transformed from high desert grassland to riparian. There were huge, old sycamore trees, juniper, oak and mountain laurel. As we ventured deeper into the thick of Rogers Canyon, spectacular volcanic rock formations appeared. Different shapes seemed to be chiseled by the elements: a teapot, Queen Victoria’s crown. An immense boulder was perched precariously high up on the canyon wall.
We arrived at the Salado cliff dwellings. These well-preserved ruins, constructed over 600 years ago and located in a huge cave above the canyon floor, were the highlight of our day. At one time, as many as 100 people lived there in more than 65 rooms. Most of the ruins have all but vanished but there is still a lot to see, including impressive spires of volcanic rock, glowing in late afternoon sun and studded with trees and shrubs, across the way on the canyon wall. The entire scene was framed by buff colored rocks comprising the cavern itself.
Because the ruins are fragile and irreplaceable; the forest service asks that hikers tread lightly and respect this magnificent place.
3. Adventuring at Nankoweap
For hikers wanting to experience raw adventure and avoid crowds, the Nankoweap trail at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is one of the most enjoyable and epic treks in the southwest. Spectacular geology and out- of- this world views are the calling cards of this magnificent place.
The trail was originally constructed in 1882 by Major John Wesley Powell, the one- armed civil war veteran and explorer who is credited with leading the first group of men down the Colorado River and through the present day Grand Canyon in 1871. The trail was created so that Charles Doolittle Walcott, a geologist in the Powell party, could easily access the canyon and study its rock layers.
The first three miles of the Nankoweap Trail are a delightful romp through a high elevation forest of ponderosa pine, juniper and aspen. Then almost suddenly, the trail takes on an entirely different character as it plunges off the rim of the Grand Canyon to continue along a ridge-top. Arriving at Marion Point, we came right into contact with the geology that makes this part of the Grand Canyon so incredible and unique. The rock layers date as far back 300 million to 750 million years ago.
Unbelievable panoramas unfold from that point. The visible green ribbon along Nankoweap Creek lies 2,500 feet below and the forks of the creek extend far back toward the plateau, each separated by colorful rocky ridges and lofty buttes. The most striking of these is Mt. Hayden, a distinct and slender 400 foot Coconino sandstone spire at an elevation of over 8,000 feet.
The Grand Canyon should be included on every adventurer’s bucket list, and the spectacular, uncrowded Nankoweap trail is one of the best ways to experience the raw and unspoiled grandeur of this most magnificent gorge.