9 Amazing Landmarks You Didn't Know Were in Arizona
You know about the Grand Canyon, no doubt. Now discover what else geology, ambition, and technology have produced as you explore some of Arizona's lesser-known landmarks.
Mention Arizona and many people think of a few cacti and cow skulls tucked in the sand dunes. Yes, we have those, but they are just the beginning—though actual sand dunes are rare here. (The Sonoran Desert, which covers much of southwestern Arizona, is surprisingly lush.)
In the sunniest corner of the country, nature and humanity have left their mark in unexpected ways. Visit Arizona and explore sites on par with more famous sites like Niagara Falls or Seattle's Space Needle.
1. London Bridge, Lake Havasu City
London Bridge isn't falling down—it's framed by palm trees on a channel off of the Colorado River.
Built sometime during the 1830s, the bridge was unable to withstand the heavy automobile traffic that descended on the British capital in later decades; by the 20th century, it began sinking into the River Thames. So, in 1968, the City of London put it up for sale to the highest bidder. Sensing a brilliant opportunity to put his community on the map, Arizona entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch paid nearly $2.5 million dollars for it. Of course, he then had to get the 932-foot-long bridge halfway across the world.
Each of the exterior stones was given a number, and the whole thing was carefully disassembled and shipped to California, via the Panama Canal, before being trucked to Lake Havasu City on Arizona's western border. Four years, and another $7 million in fees later, the reconstruction work was finished. Now you can kayak or jet ski under these venerable but curiously located arches.
2. Meteor Crater, near Winslow
Formed by a nickel-iron meteor screaming towards Earth at around 26,000 miles per hour, this is one of the best-preserved meteorite impact sites on the planet. Nearly a mile wide and more than 500 feet deep, Meteor Crater formed around 50,000 years ago when the landscape was dominated by grasslands and grazed upon by woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths.
Scientists seeking to understand similar structures elsewhere in the solar system come here to study. Tours for the rest of us run every day, and you can find the crater about 18 miles west of Winslow in northern Arizona. Space, well…it just rocks.
3. Cochise Head, Chiricahua National Monument
The profile of one of the Apaches' most noted leaders dominates the horizon within Chiricahua National Monument in the far southeast of the state. Unlike Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, this likeness didn't require artists or dynamite. Time and erosion created the resemblance to the profile of Chief Cochise—just tilt your head to the right. There's even a tall evergreen tree in the distance that stands in for the leader's eyelashes.
The best view is a short hike above the hoodoos, from the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain.
4. Taliesin West, Scottsdale
Come to this 500-acre preserve on the southern slopes of the McDowell Range by Scottsdale to see "organic architecture" perfectly executed. Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and teaching space from the late 1930s onwards, the low buildings of Taliesin West use desert-scavenged, sun-bleached rocks (some with petroglyphs carved by indigenous peoples) and local wood to create a building that feels like a stunning extension of the desert.
As the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and a base for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, many of the country's most recognized designs began here. Join a docent-led tour and get a peek at the drafting room, where some of the most iconic buildings in the country were conjured up, including New York City's Guggenheim Museum.
Arches aren't just found in the red rock landscape of Utah's national park—Northern Arizona shares the same geological idiosyncrasies. In fact, what was once thought to be one of the largest arches on the planet, Wrather Arch, is right here in the Grand Canyon State. Some people have said it's tall enough that the Taj Mahal could fit under it, though that's been disputed. Either way, yeah, it's big.
6. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, near Flagstaff
In the 11th century, the ground here suddenly opened up and began spewing rock and lava. The local Sinagua people had to abandon their nearby villages and meadows as Sunset Crater, relatively young compared to its cousins stretched out in a string of volcanoes in this part of the country, did what volcanoes do best.
In the 20th century, NASA brought Apollo astronauts here to train for their lunar landings—you'll see why on a visit. To protect the fragile land, you can no longer walk the trail leading to the moonlike crater, all brilliant reds and golds; however the trail at the base—studded with cinder deposits, lava flows, wildflowers, and pines—remains popular with hikers. For a deeper knowledge of the 3,040-acre national monument's ecology and history, join a guided tour.
7. "THe Airplane Boneyard," Tucson
The world's largest airplane boneyard is right here, in Tucson. Low humidity, high altitude, plus naturally hard alkaline ground make Davis-Monthan Air Force Base the perfect "cemetery" for storing airplanes for spare parts. You may have seen this place in TV shows, music videos, or in a movie or two. Home to more than 4,400 planes, it's a surreal sight. Tours are sadly no longer available; however, you can still view more than 400 historic aircraft at the nearby Pima Air and Space Museum.
8. Sky Islands, Southeastern Arizona
Visitors to Southeastern Arizona are often struck by the vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the lowlands. Emerging from a "sea" of lower elevation desert, the mountain ranges here have been given the zen-like name of Sky Islands—cool, forested refuges for black bears, cougars, and humans just above the saguaros and prickly pears.
Topping out at 6,000 - 10,000 feet, where temperate and tropical zones meet, these ecosystems are some of the most diverse in the world and support more than half the bird species of North America. Look out for rare ones like the thick-billed parrot and Buff-collared Nightjar, as well as 18 species of hummingbirds.
One of only 11 national scenic trails in the U.S., the Arizona Trail runs from the Mexican border south of the Huachuca Mountains all the way north to the border with Utah along the Kaibab Plateau. Only hikers, horseback riders, and cyclists (and cross-country skiers in winter) are allowed on the trail, so it's beautifully peaceful as you get to know the region's varied landscape—and those Sky Islands—up close.
9. San Rafael Valley, Southern Arizona
Aside from some scenes shot in California studios, most of the classic musical Oklahoma! was filmed in the San Rafael Valley, in the border country near the city of Nogales. Bordered to the west by the Patagonia Mountains, to the north by the Canelo Hills, and to the east by the Huachuca Mountains, it's here where you'll find pronghorn antelope who share the rolling terrain with…vineyards?
Yes, Arizona's faux-Oklahoma has become wine country, with an increasingly known terroir from the regions around Sonoita and Elgin. Sip, taste, and drink in the landscape.
A language teacher during the week, Joseph Cyr is fueled by wanderlust, the outdoors, and language learning. After living in Georgia, Seattle, Paris, and Nicaragua, he and his wife are currently at home among the saguaros and mountains of Tucson, Arizona. On weekend mornings you're likely to find him on a canyon trail-run, iPhone strapped to his wrist, on the lookout for photos, working up an appetite for kimchi-quesadillas.