A woman in a yellow dress poses with two Old Western sheriffs.
O.K. Corral, Tombstone

13 Only-in-AZ Experiences

Arizona's a big state with a lot to see and do for just about anyone, but these 13 experiences are only found here.

1. Ride a mule into the Grand Canyon

Mules have transported visitors from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down the rugged Bright Angel Trail for over a century. As you saddle up for your journey, you'll be coached on how to keep your animal companion at just the right distance from other riders in the group as you bump along steep slopes, skinny rock passageways, and the suspension bridge over the Colorado River.

It's a 5.5-hour trip to Phantom Ranch (with several rest stops along the way). Once at the base, you'll be met with several cabins with bunk beds and hot showers. Dinner is stew or steak served family-style 'round the picnic table, but make sure you get some rest. The following day you'll have to steer your mule upwards out of the canyon.

2. Walk in Tucson's All Souls Procession

Honoring the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos, Tucson's All Souls Procession doesn't require you to paint your face in the traditional skull motif, though many do. Marching through the streets, you'll encounter mariachi bands, skeleton bird puppets, social activists, bagpipe players, and community members carrying framed photos of lost loved ones as volunteers collect prayer cards from passersby. The movement reaches a crescendo during the finale during which a giant urn filled with participants' prayer cards is set on fire, releasing its written offerings.

During the burning, aerial performers fly above on apparatuses while singers and drummers ring out their reverence over a crowd of 100,000, give or take a few thousand. Rebirth takes place as the slideshow of projected faces—those who have passed to the other side—dim. Then dance music cranks up in the nearby Mercado San Agustin, an outdoor market and courtyard, and the city celebrates life anew.

3. Feel the energy of Sedona's vortexes

Surrounded by red sandstone buttes, crumbling spires and towering mesas, the desert city of Sedona is known for its stunning scenery. But to the New Age set, Sedona's beauty lies in what can't be seen: its vortexes, heightened fields of cosmic energy said to radiate the power of the earth like a tornado or water swirling down a drain. This phenomenon is believed to facilitate prayer, meditation and the healing of body and soul; many Phoenicians make the two-hour drive north to the red rocks to "clean out" the residue generated by city living.

If all that's a bit too far out for you, come to one of Sedona's four vortex locations at sunrise or sunset anyway. Maybe you won't feel the subtle vibrations, but you'll be in for an incredible light show as the sun turns the desert peaks orange and blood red.

4. Hold a séance at Tombstone's Bird Cage Theatre

Even after the fire of 1882 and the silver mining bust, the Bird Cage Theatre stands as a rare original from the Wild West. Operational from 1881 to 1889, this bordello housed the "soiled doves"—women who came from as far as the East Coast to find adventure as performer prostitutes when Tombstone's streets were bustling with money and gunfire.

While the museum-like parlor is packed with poker paraphernalia and strange relics like the mythic merman, the hidden boudoirs hold the Victorian-era wooden beds of those private and pricey affairs. Most tours finish with the ghost-hunting crowd begging the tour guide for an "authentic" séance on the theater stage.

5. Gaze deep into the universe at Kitt Peak National Observatory

Situated at the apex of the 7,000-foot Quinlan Mountains on the Tohono O'odham Nation, the Kitt Peak National Observatory has the world's largest collection of telescopes. The 25-minute drive from the base provides some of the clearest mountain views in Arizona, but it's the telescopes in the Nightly Observing Program that illuminate the desert sky's star clusters and shooting comets. The program runs every night outside of the monsoon season (July 15 - September 1). The Tohono O'odham people will often have food vending in the area, or you can submit a request for a night lunch of deli sandwiches for your visit.

6. Visit the resurrected ghost town of Jerome

Perched 5,000 feet up Cleopatra Hill in the Black Hills of Yavapai County, two hours north of Phoenix, the old copper mining town of Jerome boomed right up until 1953 when the last of the copper deposits ran dry. The population plummeted from 15,000 to under 100 faster than you can say, "ghost town," but Jerome didn't stay quiet for long.

The 60s brought hippies who snapped up the town's crumbling buildings at rock-bottom prices. Today's population of 455 is a mix of craftspeople, chefs, writers and artisans who've remade Jerome as an artists' and oenophile's dream dotted with galleries and tasting rooms serving locally made wine. You can still see vestiges of Jerome's mining period as you wander the town's streets from the historic Connor Hotel over to the Haunted Hamburger.

7. Step into the 18th-century Mission San Xavier Del Bac

Interior of an 18th-century Spanish-era mission, with Baroque details, frescos and wood pews.
San Xavier del Bac Mission (Credit: Andrés Lobato)

When Spanish colonists moved northward from Mexico into Arizona, claiming the land for New Spain, Roman Catholic priests did their part by founding a series of missions near the Sonoran Desert mountain ranges. Perhaps the most beautiful of these colonial churches is Mission San Xavier Del Bac, just 8 miles south of downtown Tucson. Largely built by the people of the Tohono O'odham Nation under an order of Jesuit explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino, the mission was completed in 1797.

Today it's a pilgrimage site visited by thousands each year. Inside the gift shop, you'll find silver charms in the shape of various body parts—eyes, arms, heads, hearts. "Milagros," says the shopkeeper, "they're miracles. People buy a charm to represent the body part that ails them, and then leave them at the base of the [Virgin Mary's] statue for healing." The best view of the mission is from the adjacent hilltop, where a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes is enshrined in the rocks.

8. Tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

Recognized as "the greatest American architect of all time" by the American Institute of Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright chose to build his winter home and studio in the Sonoran Desert. Constructed between 1938 and 1940 in the foothills of Scottsdale's McDowell Mountains, Taliesin West showcases Wright's philosophy of "organic architecture." Local stone was used for the foundations, and glass walls integrate indoor and outdoor spaces. It now functions as the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and School of Architecture, and various tours of the buildings are run daily.

9. Discover "The Thing" on a throwback road trip

At Interstate 10 roadside attraction The Thing (aka, the "Mystery of the Desert"), an hour east of Tucson, pay your $5 admission fee ($10 for families) and enter a museum that tells a story of dinosaurs, aliens and Winston Churchill. It's an exhibit that must be seen to be believed, centered around the question: Are we alone in the universe?

The Thing is a testament to a lost history when sideshows and roadside attractions fed our macabre curiosities. At the end of your journey, you'll approach the true Mystery of the Desert that appears to be a ... well, that would ruin the surprise. Is it real? What is its purpose? Find out for yourself.

10. Eat the hottest food in the Southwest at Los Dos Molinos

Located in a hacienda once home to silent-era-western actor Tom Mix, the original Los Dos Molinos on 8646 South Central Avenue in Phoenix sells authentic New Mexican food like adovada ribs. The restaurant's title references two chile grinders and serves as a warning—this food is hot! Owner Victoria Chavez states on the menu, "I'm sorry we do not provide a mild sauce. I do not know how to make 'Mild.'" Chavez is the chef of the restaurant, preparing the dishes alongside her daughters. Try the shrimp Veracruz, which is served in a red chile sauce over rice with beans.

11. Sleep in the haunted Hotel Monte Vista on Route 66

The classic neon sign has been beckoning weary travelers off Route 66 for the better part of a century. Opened in 1927, this historic haunt sits in downtown Flagstaff's Heritage Square and was once where Mary Costigan—the second woman in the world to be issued a radio license—hosted her daily broadcasts.

Bootlegging was rife here during Prohibition, and when Hollywood began filming movies in Northern Arizona during the 40s and 50s, the Monte Vista was the hotel of choice for stars like Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. But the patrons who refuse to leave aren't Hollywood's elite. Reports of the Phantom bellboy announcing "room service" and a woman sitting in a rocking chair in Room 305 are well documented.

12. Visit an up-and-coming U.S. wine region

Arizona has arrived on the wine scene with vineyards producing high-quality, intensely flavored grapes that thrive in the state's arid, sunny climate. The Verde Valley Wine Trail is made up of four wineries and tasting rooms that run from Cottonwood to Cornville. At Oak Creek Vineyards, sample the Syrah and Merlots, distinctive due to their high sugar content. Javelina Leap Vineyards is the place to try award-winning Zinfandel.

Off the wine trail, the annual Prickly Pear Festival in Superior will help you hone your own skills with traditional classes on using the cacti's ruby-red fruit in various dishes and drinks. And the laid-back, self-serve wine bar GenuWine in downtown Phoenix sells a variety of Arizona wines, as well as the occasional ciders and meads, alongside cheese boards made with local snacks.

13. See the original Mel's Diner sign

Driving along NW Grand Avenue in Phoenix, you'll spot the giant coffee cup spilling out an arrow that points to Mel's Diner. While the beloved 1970s American sitcom Alice was filmed in a Burbank studio, you can still get a retro diner experience where the original sign stands.

Arizonans love their mammoth road signs that draw travelers to abandoned buildings, like the giant one above Mr. Lucky's nightclub that closed in 2004, or the My Florist Café sign that towers above the defunct restaurant. But the Mel's Diner sign invites tourists in to "Kiss My Grits"—and eat some, too!

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About the Author

Blissom Booblé

Blissom Booblé has worked as an English teacher, burlesque performer, flight attendant, and social advocate in the Deep South and in the Southwestern United States. Adventure is her calling. Read more of her provocative, unconventional, and fearless storytelling at thenakedpage.com.

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