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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Eight Unforgettable Days in Arizona & New Mexico

Arizona, one of America's most colorful states with its stunning red peaks, golden hills, and psychedelic sunsets. Home to one of the most dramatic geologic creations on Earth, ancient volcanoes and lava flows, towering peaks, colorful badlands, petrified forests and so much more. Nearly 85% of its more than 110,000 square miles comprises national forests, national parks, recreation and wilderness areas, wildlife preserves, and Native American reservations. The Grand Canyon State is also home to the largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pines in the world and holds the record for the most national monuments, tied with California at 18. During this trip, my dad and I explored two national parks, six national monuments, ventured into ancient Native American ruins, viewed incredible petroglyphs, walked the rim of a volcano, navigated through underground lava tubes, hiked into some of the most beautiful caves in the American Southwest, and so much more.


The map below illustrates nearly all of the stops on this adventure and clicking on each waypoint previews the photos found throughout the article.



Day 1: Lost Dutchman State Park & Sedona

Flatiron via Siphon Draw - 5.6 miles/2,600'
Soldier Pass Cave + Devil's Kitchen - 3.1 miles/600'

The trip started off by taking a relatively short yet steep hike up Siphon Draw to reach Flatiron in Lost Dutchman State Park, just forty minutes east of downtown Phoenix. Widely acclaimed as the top hike in the Superstition Mountains, this trail offers breathtaking views that come at the cost of some exertion. The initial easy mile is succeeded by a significant stretch of moderate scrambling before reaching the prominent peak known as Flatiron. Particularly noteworthy views unfold just before the summit, where the sheer cliff of Flatiron becomes visible to your right during the ascent. This trail is not to be underestimated—it poses a challenge, but every step is rewarded with awe-inspiring scenery throughout the ascent.


Siphon Draw Flatiron

Following Flatiron, my dad and I drove up to Sedona and set up shop for the next couple of days at Cave Spring Campground, a gorgeous campground down the road from Slide Rock State Park.


After setting up camp, we drove out to hike Soldier Pass to Soldier Pass Cave. A relatively uneventful hike leads to one of the more interesting caves in the area. Those with an extreme fear of heights might not find this one very appealing.


Sedona Soldier Pass Cave

On our return we decided to stop at Devil's Kitchen, a sizable sinkhole near the base of the Sphinx formation.


Sedona Devil's Kitchen

It's worth mentioning that trailhead parking is closed Thursday through Sunday, but can be accessed via free shuttle. Also worth noting, the shuttles do not wait a minute past stated departure times, so if you do take a shuttle make sure you're back at the trailhead in time. Parking is open Monday through Wednesday, but is limited to fourteen or so spots and parking on the nearby residential streets is prohibited.


Day 2: Sedona

Devil's Bridge - 4 miles/500'
The Subway - 6 miles/1,000'
Birthing Cave - 2 miles/300'

I'm a big fan of sunrise hikes in Sedona, and one of the most spectacular ones in Sedona is Devil's Bridge in Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. While there are various routes to reach it, my preferred starting point is the Mescal Trailhead. This trail guides you through a more forested and significantly less crowded area compared to other paths. During the cooler months, when overnight temperatures drop below freezing, agave cacti develop frost on their tips, creating a mesmerizing glow when illuminated by a headlamp.


The trail's elevation gain is gentle until just before reaching the bridge, where it steepens considerably. This was the third time that I hiked out to Devil's Bridge and luckily, this time I actually had it to myself. The photo below captured the scene just before sunrise, taken before any other hikers had reached the bridge. Brins Butte is prominently visible in the distance, dead center.


Devil's Bridge Sedona

The photo below was just moments after the sun had risen above the horizon, casting its light on Mescal Mountain in the background. At that point, about two dozen people had arrived, waiting their turn to take photos on the bridge. For more detailed info on this hike, check out Hike to Sedona's Devil's Bridge.


Devil's Bridge Sedona

After returning from Devil's Bridge and meeting up with my dad, we headed out to the Boynton Canyon Trailhead, which serves as the starting point for the Subway Cave.


The photo below captures the view from within the cave, which given its popularity, can become considerably overcrowded at times.


Sedona Subway Cave

We checked out the Sinagua ruins just around the corner from the cave and then backtracked to the trailhead. Following this, we headed over to hike out to the Birthing Cave, another popular hike in Sedona.


It's a fairly straightforward hike and upon reaching the top of the cave, there is a small nook at the back. Dad navigated the somewhat slippery rocks to access it and with his wide-angle lens, snapped a photo of me near the cave entrance. That's apparently the only way to get the shot below without cutting off portions of the cave.


Sedona Birthing Cave

After, we grabbed a bite to eat and headed back to the Cave Springs Campground for the evening.


Day 3: Sedona & Grand Canyon National Park

Cathedral Rock - 1.2 miles/750'
South Kaibab to Cedar Ridge - 3.4 miles/1,100'

With my dad sleeping in today, I decided to head out to Cathedral Rock for another sunrise hike. The trail is marked with large rock cairns that are easy to follow, even in darkness (with a headlamp) or low light, guiding you all the way to the overlook. Upon reaching the top, I encountered an end-of-trail sign, where I walked to the right to access the ledge pictured below. I was pretty lucky that morning and watched the launching of a few hot air balloons in the distance.


Sedona Cathedral Rock

After the ledge, I headed back to the end of trail sign and kept walking straight to reach a modest scramble and eventually the Cathedral Rock vortex. This turned out to be an amazing spot to watch the sun rise up over the horizon, along the edge of a spire.


Sedona Cathedral Rock

After returning from the hike, I picked up my dad and we headed a few hours north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, stopping at the Oak Creek Vista on Rt 89A along the way.


We grabbed a bite to eat, a hotel for the night, relaxed some, and then headed to the park to hike the South Kaibab Trail out to Cedar Wash. Since parking is prohibited at the South Kaibab Trailhead, we opted to park along Rt 64/Desert View Dr at coordinates 36.047117, -112.088801 and hike to the trailhead. The Arizona Trail (AZT) crosses over Rt 64 at these coordinates, and heading north along it leads directly to the South Kaibab Trailhead. The hike is what you would expect - all downhill on the way out and all uphill on the way back. Sunset was incredible.


South Kaibab Trail Grand Canyon

The section of the trail just below Ooh Aah Point, as captured in the image above, stood out as my favorite spot on the hike. To the right of the trail, in the shadows, you'll notice O'Neill Butte, named after the legendary Rough Rider Bucky O'Neill.


Day 4: Grand Canyon National Park, Wupatki National Monument, Shit Pot Crater & Dino Tracks

Shoshone Point - 2 miles/150'
Wupatki Pueblo - 0.7 miles/80'
Wukoki Pueblo - 0.3 miles/flat
SP Crater - 1.6 miles/900'
Moenave Dinosaur Tracksite

The following morning, both dad and I ventured out for a short hike to Shoshone Point, one of the most overlooked viewpoints along the South Rim. The views are stunning and offer a serene atmosphere with significantly fewer, if any, crowds. Newton Butte, a prominent formation just below and slightly west of Shoshone Point, and the pyramidal peak in the distance, Vishnu Temple, named after the Hindu deity and redeemer of the universe, Vishnu, contributed to a truly breathtaking view.


Shoshone Point Grand Canyon

After several visits to the Grand Canyon, we opted for a short stay this time and made a quick stop at the Desert View Watchtower before continuing our trip. Constructed in 1932 by Mary Colter, a trailblazing female architect of her era, the watchtower is influenced by the architectural style of the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest. Serving as a gift shop, the first-floor Kiva Room awaits visitors, while the upper sections, if reopened, remain a highlight among the park's attractions.


Desert View Watchtower Grand Canyon

Adjacent to the Desert View Watchtower, we encountered a memorial marking the Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site. On June 30, 1956, a United DC-7 and a TWA Super Constellation, attempting to provide passengers with better views of the canyon by navigating around towering cumulus clouds, collided, resulting in the tragic loss of all 128 passengers and crew members. Over the subsequent decades, remnants of the crash were discovered within the canyon, serving as haunting reminders of that fateful day.


Afterward, we ventured an hour east to Wupatki National Monument, a farming settlement built by the Ancestral Puebloans between 1100 AD and 1200 AD and abandoned by 1225 AD. The settlement thrived following the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater, which covered the area in volcanic ash, enhancing agricultural productivity and soil water retention. At its peak, the settlement was home to over 2,000 Cohonina, Kayenta, and Sinagua people.


With more than 800 discovered settlement sites, the Wupatki Pueblo stands out, featuring over 100 rooms, including a community room, above-ground kiva, and the northernmost ballcourt ever found in North America. Although the pueblo likely wasn't a residence, it served as a communal gathering place for the settlement's inhabitants.


Wupatki National Monument

Following Wupatki Pueblo, we drove three miles to Wukoki Pueblo, one of the best preserved prehistoric structures within the national monument. Unlike the Wupatki Pueblo, the three-story, seven room Wukoki has not been reconstructed and to this day the Hopi believe that those who lived and died in Wukoki remain as its spiritual guardians.


Wupatki National Monument

After Wupatki National Monument, we drove thirty minutes to the northern fringe of the San Francisco volcanic field to a nearly 900-foot-tall cinder cone with a somewhat less than flattering history. Presently known as SP Crater, its moniker wasn't always so. For some 70,000 years, it existed without a name until the 1880s when rancher and landowner CJ Babbit bestowed upon it the name Shit Pot Crater. Mr. Babbit believed its resemblance to a chamber pot warranted the rather candid title. Although the name stuck among locals, cartographers were less enthusiastic and opted to abbreviate it to the now-accepted SP Crater.


SP Crater Shit Pot Crater

One of the remarkable features of SP Crater is its hikeability. Better yet, reaching the top affords you a breathtaking view of the lava flow that emanated from its base, stretching 4.5 miles eastward tens of thousands of years ago. The ascent involves a relatively steep hike, navigating loose pumice for a third of the hike, but the panoramic views from the summit are truly incredible. From the lower northern rim, I observed the lava flow, while the higher southern rim offered views of Humphreys Peak, Sunset Crater, and several of the other 600 extinct volcanoes within the San Francisco volcanic field.


We then drove about 45 minutes from SP Crater to the Moenave Dinosaur Tracksite. The tracksite is situated on public land, and no guide or fee is necessary. However, the Navajo locals may offer to guide you for a cash donation. While you're welcome to accept their assistance, it's important to know that much of the information they provide is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the site features an abundance of 200 million-year-old dinosaur tracks, predominantly featuring what seemed to be Grallator prints.


Moenave Dinosaur Tracks

Afterward, we continued west to Chinle, Arizona to grab a bite to eat and a hotel for the night.


Day 5: Canyon De Chelly National Monument & Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Canyon de Chelly Spider Rock
Una Vida Ruins & Petroglyphs - 0.5 miles/flat
Pueblo Bonito & Chetro Ketl - 1.4 miles/flat
Pueblo Bonito Overlook - 2.5 miles/260'

The following morning, we got an early start and headed out to the South Rim of Canyon de Chelly to watch sunrise from Spider Rock. With the temperature in the negative, we made the visit a quick one.


Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly

After warming up, we made the three-hour drive to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the places I had been looking forward to most on the trip. The drive there involves a somewhat bumpy ride, particularly the last twenty miles along Route 57, which follows a rugged and pockmarked dirt road, better suited for higher clearance vehicles.


Upon reaching the visitor center, we snagged a self-guided trail guide for Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, which really enhanced our experience in the park. We chatted with the park rangers, purchased a Navajo cookbook, and discussed the nearby Sun Dagger Site, which we learned was not open to the public. We then went on a short hike to the Una Vido ruins and petroglyphs. While the ruins had little remaining, the petroglyphs proved to be well worth the short walk.


Una Vida Petroglyphs

We then drove out to Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, two of the park's most renowned pueblos. Often regarded as historically significant as England's Stonehenge and Peru's Machu Picchu, Pueblo Bonito stands as the largest great house in Chaco Canyon. Constructed in multiple stages between 850 AD and 1150 AD, this masterpiece comprises over 800 rooms, more than 30 kivas, and a spacious central courtyard spanning 3 acres. The interior walls showcase exposed timbers once utilized as roofs, and meticulously aligned doorways exemplify the craftsmanship of its builders.


Pueblo Bonito Chaco Canyon

The construction of the pueblo is estimated to have demanded over 800,000 man-hours. Simple math says that if its builders were to toil around the clock, 365 days a year, the completion would have taken over 90 years.


After spending a few hours wandering around Pueblo Bonito, we followed a trail behind the pueblo's rear wall where we discovered numerous petroglyphs, tool sharpening marks, and holes used in shelter construction etched into the adjacent cliffs. The trail eventually led to Chetro Ketl, another great house and the largest pueblo by area in Chaco Canyon. Constructed in stages between 990 AD and 1075 AD, it's estimated that over 500,000 man-hours were invested in completing its 500 rooms. The great kiva of Chetro Ketl, situated at the front of the pueblo, boasts a diameter exceeding 60', and the deep red hue evident along its masonry wall suggests the intentional use of fires during prehistoric times.


Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva

Having explored the immense pueblos at ground level, we headed down Canyon Loop Rd for half a mile to reach the Pueblo Bonito Overlook Trail. The trail showcases another sizable pueblo, named Pueblo del Arroyo, and a fun little scramble near the start before leveling off and tracing the cliffs toward the overlook. The vantage point at the overlook afforded us a truly magnificent view of Pueblo Bonito and some of the neighboring ruins.


Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Overlook

With the day coming to a close, we left Chaco for Grants, New Mexico, which positioned us well for the next day's first hike.


Day 6: El Malpais & El Morro National Monuments & Petrified Forest National Park

Big Tubes - 1.5 mile/150'
El Morro National Monument Loop - 1.8 miles/300'
Crystal Forest - 0.9 miles/flat
Giant Logs - 0.5 miles/flat

After securing our free permits at the El Malpais National Monument Visitor Center in Grants, we drove to the Big Tubes Area to hike the Big Tubes Trail. The initial drive through the monument was on a paved road, but as we approached the Big Tubes Area, the terrain swiftly transitioned into rough, potholed, and muddy conditions. These backcountry roads, aside from those leading into Crow Canyon, were the most challenging I had ever encountered.


Upon reaching the trailhead, we began our hike in search of two specific caves. The trail traverses an ancient lava flow, marked by cairns to guide the way. The first cave we reached was Big Skylight Cave, likely the park's most renowned cave. Descending into the cave involved a minor rock scramble, though individuals with a fear of heights might find it somewhat challenging.


Big Skylight Cave El Malpais

After exploring Big Skylight Cave, we continued on to reach Four Windows Cave. This was hands down the more interesting of the two that we were looking for. It also required a minor rock scramble, which could present problems for those with a severe fear of heights.


After exploring Big Skylight Cave, we continued along the trail to reach Four Windows Cave. Without a doubt, it proved to be the more magnificent of the two caves we sought. Similar to Big Skylight, it involved a minor rock scramble, potentially posing challenges for individuals with a severe fear of heights.


Four Windows Cave El Malpais

After wandering around for an hour or so, my dad spotted a dark passageway at the rear of the cave. Naturally, we threw on our headlamps and ventured into what turned out to be an ancient lava tube. We followed it for about a quarter mile before dad started feeling a bit uneasy, prompting us to turn back. For me, this was one of the coolest experiences of the entire trip.


Four Windows Cave El Malpais

Following our visit to El Malpais National Monument, we made our way to the nearby El Morro National Monument, yet another among New Mexico's thirteen national monuments. El Morro was formerly home to over 500 Ancestral Puebloans, who occupied a mesa-top pueblo consisting of more than 350 rooms around the years 1275 AD to 1350 AD.


At the base of the mesa, a water pool served as a natural landmark for explorers and travelers. Over the centuries, these individuals left personal inscriptions that still endure today. The earliest inscription, captured in the photo below, was made by Juan de Onate, the first Spanish governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, and is dated April 16, 1605.


Inscription Rock El Moro National Monument

From El Morro, we drove about an hour and a half to reach Petrified Forest National Park. Our first stop was the visitor center, where we caught a glimpse of a famous mountain lion petroglyph that I had been looking forward to viewing.


Petrified Forest National Park petroglyph

We then ventured to the Crystal Forest Trail, which proved to be truly remarkable. A paved trail guided us through an area showcasing some of the most vividly colored segments of 200 million-year-old fossilized wood in the park. Just to clarify, I am not seated on a piece of petrified wood. If there is one trail in the park to walk, this is it in my opinion.


Petrified Forest National Park Crystal Forest

Following that, we proceeded to the Giant Logs Loop for a sunset hike. The entire loop proved to be time well-spent, with its standout feature being a colossal, multi-segmented petrified log located near the beginning of the trailhead.


Petrified Forest National Park Crystal Forest Giant Logs

After, we headed for a bite to eat and a hotel in Holbrook.


Day 7: Winslow, Meteor Crater, Apache Death Cave, Walnut Canyon & Montezuma Castle National Monuments


Winslow
Meteor Crater
Apache Death Cave
Island Trail - 0.7 miles/250'
Montezuma Castle National Monument - 0.4 miles/50'

Day seven started with a short drive to Winslow, Arizona, and the Standin' On The Corner Park located at the intersection of 2nd St and N Kinsley Ave. As a devoted Eagles fan, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to stand on the corner near the flatbed Ford.


Winslow Arizona

After our visit to Winslow, we headed to Meteor Crater National Landmark. Following a brief video in the auditorium, we made our way to the overlook, eagerly taking in the awe-inspiring view we had anticipated for days. Later, we had the chance to chat with some of the staff who shared some fascinating stories about the site and its surrounding area. I highly recommend engaging with the staff and asking questions – you'll gain a wealth of knowledge if you have the time.


Meteor Crater Arizona

We then drove ten minutes to the Two Guns ghost town to explore the Apache Death Cave. The story here goes, in 1878, a group of Apache raiders attacked two Navajo camps near the Little Colorado River, killing everyone but three Navajo girls who were subsequently kidnapped. Upon learning of the attack, Navajo leaders sent a group of men to avenge the fallen camp, but were initially unsuccessful as the Apache seemed to have vanished into thin air after the attack. While searching along the edge of Canyon Diablo the Navajo noticed voices and warm air rising up from a fissure in the ground. Upon further investigation they discovered the voices and warm air were coming from the Apache raiders hiding in a cavern beneath them. After finding the mouth of the cave they scavenged up what they could, lit it all on fire, and threw it into the cave intending to smoke out the Apache and rescue the girls. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided that all of the Apache remaining in the cave were to be killed. After the trapped Apache had used up all of their water attempting to extinguish the fire, they cut the throats of their horses, used the blood to douse out the flames, and piled up the corpses near the cave entrance to hold off the Navajo. The Navajo showed no mercy, continuing to fuel the fire by throwing more sagebrush into the fissure. After the fire burned out and the smoke cleared, the Navajo broke through the barrier of charred horse corpses, stripped the forty-two dead Apache of their valuables, and left their bodies behind. From that point on, it's said that no Apache has used that cave for any reason. Local tribes later warned would-be pioneers about the cave, saying that the land around it was cursed, but settlers often passed off the stories as superstition.


Apache Death Cave

A rudimentary ladder guides you down to the cave entrance, and from there, how far you go is entirely up to your comfort level. Certain sections become quite narrow, and others necessitate crawling, but it's quite remarkable considering the story behind it. The photo below captures one of the main chambers of the cave. Given that most parts of the cave are pitch black, be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight.


Apache Death Cave

After the Apache Death Cave, we visited Walnut Canyon National Monument and hiked the Island Trail. Renowned as one of the state's more stunning canyons, Walnut Canyon features steep walls and petrified sand dunes adorned with numerous ancient Native American ruins, many of which we had the opportunity to walk through. Ruins dotted seemingly every direction along the hike through the canyon, surpassing our expectations on this short but impressive walk.


Walnut Canyon National Monument

We then traveled an hour south to reach what some regard as the most majestic of all Arizona's national monuments, Montezuma Castle National Monument. Situated nearly 100 feet up a sheer cliff, the five-story ruins once served as the home to the Sinagua people, who inhabited the region from around 1100 AD to 1425 AD. Constructed over three centuries, it comprises twenty rooms and accommodated as many as fifty individuals. Despite its name, the monument has no connection to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who wasn't even born until approximately forty years after the dwellings were abandoned. The name stems from a mistaken belief that he was responsible for the site. A brief paved walkway from the visitor center led us to several truly stunning views of the ruins.


Montezuma Castle National Monument

We then left for Phoenix for a bite to eat at the James Beard award-winning Fry Bread House and grabbed a hotel for the night.


Day 8: Phoenix

Piestewa Peak Summit Trail #300 - 2.4 miles/1,100'
South Mountain Preserve Petroglyphs - 0.3 miles/flat

In the morning, my dad stayed back at the hotel while I set off to hike Piestewa Peak. The trail was incredibly crowded, but the breathtaking views from the summit made it all worthwhile. I decided to scramble past where most hikers had congregated and discovered a quiet spot to enjoy on my own. After relaxing for a while, I took out my drone to grab a few shots of me standing on the peak. It turned out to be one of the most peaceful moments of the entire trip.


Piestewa Peak

Before making our way to the airport for our flight home, we made a stop at South Mountain Park & Preserve, located 25 minutes south of Piestewa Peak. Here, a small panel of petroglyphs near the beginning of the Desert Classic Trail made for a great way to end our trip.


Arizona South Mountain Park and Preserve petroglyphs

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