5 of Arizona's Greenest Places

Sure, Arizona is home to more than 60 desert cactus species. But it also boasts six national forests, dozens of tranquil lakes and 4.5 million acres of unspoiled wilderness areas. Here's your guide to Arizona's most verdant regions.

Off-Road Mountain Bike Race
Off-Road Mountain Bike Race, Prescott

Hike and Picnic

Madera Canyon

Tucson is a city synonymous with the desert, but it harbors many leafy secrets. Madera Canyon—with its shady woodlands, meandering creek and ever-present birdsong—is among the best of them.

Just a 45-minute drive from Tucson Metropolitan Airport, the canyon cuts a narrow crease through the Santa Rita Mountains. The creekside trail that begins at Whitehouse Picnic Area is fantastic for spotting birds—more than 250 species have been documented in the canyon—while higher-elevation hikes can be found on Mount Wrightson.

To get to Madera Canyon, take I-19 south from Tucson to the Continental Road/Madera Canyon exit. Go east for 12 miles and follow the signs to the picnic area. Before you embark on your trek, stock up on provisions—from breakfast burritos to organic trail mix—at Johnny Gibson's Downtown Market in Tucson.

Scenic Drive and Lunch

Joshua Tree Forest Parkway

Driving the 75-mile Joshua Tree Forest Parkway along U.S. Route 93 is a rewarding way to admire the Seussian, green-pommed Joshua tree. It's likely you won't see another soul on this winding, breathtaking route.

Begin in Wickieup and continue south to Wickenburg. You'll pass through quintessential desert sights—saguaros, creosote, craggy mesas—before entering the otherworldly land of Joshua trees. They begin to pop up around mile marker 162, and from that point on, they dominate the landscape.

In Wickenburg, have lunch at the gourmet sandwich shop The Local Press. Order The Big Cheese—a melty stack of Brie and cheddar with seasonal jam on sourdough—and enjoy the restaurant's breezy patio.

Winter Sports and Summer Views

Coconino National Forest

You'll find the mystical red rocks of Sedona within the Coconino National Forest, but this region is also home to the world's largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest and the state's highest mountain peaks.

At Arizona Snowbowl, 14 miles outside of downtown Flagstaff atop the San Francisco Peaks mountain range, you can enjoy nature's bounty year-round. In the winter, soak up pristine blue skies and snow sports such as skiing, snowboarding and sledding. During the summer, hop on the chairlift ride, offered daily, for unparalleled views of the evergreen forest, red rocks, and even the Grand Canyon.

Water Play

Fossil Creek

Natural springs buried at the bottom of a 1,600-foot canyon formed Fossil Creek, a tributary of the Verde River and one of two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona.

Located near the towns of Strawberry and Pine, Fossil Creek's cool blue waters and abundant greenery beckon visitors seeking respite from the state's warmer climes. Remote and rugged, Fossil Creek's astonishing beauty takes skill (or at least four-wheel-drive) to access. Two options: Take State Route 260 near Camp Verde to Forest Road 708 and drive the dirt road 14 miles to the parking lot. Or tackle a strenuous four-mile hike down to the creek from Fossil Springs Trailhead.

Note: A permit is required April 1-October 1 and can be obtained at Recreation.gov. Permits cannot be issued on-site, so be sure to get one before you go, ideally a month in advance.

Canoeing and Historic Hotels

Prescott National Forest

When you drive picturesque State Route 89 through Prescott National Forest, any preconceived notions of Arizona as a vast desert will vanish. As the elevation increases, stands of desert chaparral give way to dense pine forests sprawling in every direction.

On the edge of the forest sits Lynx Lake Recreation Area, a peaceful body of water ringed by trees. Rent a canoe at the marina and ply the calm waters—a relaxing start to an overnight stay at Hotel Vendome in nearby Prescott. The century-old historic hotel bursts with charm and the front porch rocking chairs are the perfect place to sip local wine or craft beer.

If You Go

Arizona Snowbowl
9300 N Snowbowl Road, Flagstaff
(928) 779-1951

Coconino National Forest
(928) 527-3600

Fossil Creek
(928) 203-2900

Hotel Vendome
230 S Cortez St., Prescott
(928) 776-0900

Johnny Gibson's Downtown Market
11 S 6th Ave., Tucson
(520) 393-8544

The Local Press
69 N Frontier St., Wickenburg
(928) 684-8955

Lynx Lake Recreation Area
4505 Forest Service Road 611, Prescott
(928) 443-8000
Marina: (928) 778-0720

Madera Canyon
(520) 281-2296

Prescott National Forest
(928) 443-8000

About the Author

Courtney Kemp

A Texas native who has called California home for 15 years, freelance writer Courtney Kemp has spent many hours behind the wheel on both the open and heavily trafficked road. She enjoys exploring the West's abundant natural spaces and is on a constant quest to find spicy salsa and breakfast tacos.