1. Search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine
Nothing more perfectly sums up Arizona’s sense of adventure than the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The truth behind the legend is harder to pin down than a Gila monster, but the gist is that somewhere hidden in the Superstition Mountains, just east of Phoenix, is a gold mine once tended by German immigrants Jacob Waltz and Jacob Weiser.
The two men pulled untold amounts of the precious metal from the mountain before a murderous run-in with — depending on who you ask — Apaches or each other left all who knew the mine’s location dead.
To this day, adventurers set out into the Superstitions in search of the mine. Sadly, more than a few have met the same fate as Waltz and Weiser.
If you’re not particularly interested in hunting for gold, there are still more than a dozen access points into the surrounding wilderness that can take you on a short day walk or a multi-day expedition. Give the Peralta Trail a shot — this nearly five-mile hike is one of the state’s most popular.
2. Longboard (or bicycle) down Mt. Lemmon
Rising 9,000-plus feet in the north of Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and, for longboarders, one of the truly epic runs in the country. The 20-plus miles of highway are paved smooth and offer great views and a challenging ride.
Don’t take my word for it — check out the plentiful YouTube videos. And watch out for the cactus!
3. Hike the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim
You simply can’t have a conversation about Arizona adventures without mentioning the Grand Canyon. And the 24-mile Rim-to-Rim Hike is an immense challenge that gives those who complete it an intimate understanding of the canyon that’s impossible to attain without dipping below its surface.
Start on the North Kaibab Trail and descend 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon, where the Colorado River awaits. On the way down, you’ll pass through every ecosystem that exists between Canada and Mexico. Cross the Colorado and connect with the Bright Angel Trail and return to the surface along the South Rim, passing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of history preserved in the surrounding rocks.
Most guides suggest planning on two to five days to complete the trail at a regular pace. For more tips, visit Grand Canyon Hiking.
4. Ride horses around the legendary landscape of Sedona
If the red-rock cliffs that preside over Sedona don’t make you pause, it’s time to book a trip to Mars, because Earth has nothing left to offer. In the early evening, the spires reflect a reddish purple hue that no photo could ever hope to do justice. Whether or not you subscribe to New Age beliefs, it’s easy to understand why people say there’s an energy here that’s different than anywhere else on the planet.
From taking a walk to taking a Jeep tour, there are many ways to explore the desert scenery around the cliffs, but none gives you the chance to interact with nature on its own terms quite like riding a horse. Horseback trips typically last between one and three hours, with sunrise and sunset options available. Beyond the red rocks, you can catch glimpses of the Verde Valley, the Mogollon Rim, and, if you’re lucky, some wildlife as well.
5. Explore the Petrified Forest
While it may not be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, the Petrified Forest National Park offers an amazing place to see extinct species. Many of the fossilized logs that dot the floor of the 146-square-mile national park belong to long-extinct trees. Interestingly, the site of the park is not where an actual forest stood, but rather an ancient riverbed where fallen plants accumulated.
To get the most out of your Petrified Forest adventure, forget the trails — the National Park Service administers eight Off the Beaten Path routes. Check out Devil’s Playground, an especially old part of the park. Only three permits are handed out for it each week, with information on how to access the route supplied only to those granted permission to take on the journey.
6. Off road to ghost towns
While Arizona is a state known for its epic highways and scenic views, even more happens off the state-maintained thoroughfares. For every ghost town worth a visit, there’s a main road to take you there and a secret second entrance for those with a hearty sense of adventure and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
Off-roading, or “wheeling” to the initiated, is a great way to see Arizona’s wild lands and get a dose of history as well. Many off-road trails pass through old mining towns and other long-abandoned remnants of human habitation. The Bradshaw Mountains Trail takes you past the ghost town of Bumble Bee, which was once a stagecoach stop for the U.S. Cavalry.
Traveling by these backroads is probably one of the most vastly under-appreciated ways to explore the state. There’s simply no way to not feel like a pioneer when you cross a mountain path or stream named for some long-deceased prospector. For a good off-roading guidebook, try the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails, or check out the Off-Highway Vehicle Program at AZStateParks.com.
7. Explore both well-known and secret ancient cliff dwellings and ruins
Arizona is home to some of the most famous cliff dwellings in the world. Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley is an 800-year-old, five-story structure built by the Sinagua Indians and one of the best-preserved examples of such a site. Three hours northeast, on Navajo land, is Canyon de Chelly and its White House Ruins.
While many of Arizona’s ruins require a guide or sit inside well-developed tourist sites, there are still plenty that demands a more intrepid spirit. The Sycamore Canyon Cliff Dwellings north of Clarkdale lie at the end of a tough drive and hike, but exploring these magnificent ruins away from the masses is a worthy payoff. Just remember that when there’s no park ranger to keep an eye on things, it’s up to you to ensure these locations remain intact and pristine for the following generation of explorers.
8. Stand in a shaft of light in Antelope Canyon
There are other slot canyons outside of Arizona, but few, if any, can truly compete with the beauty of Antelope Canyon. Located east of Page in Navajo tribal land, the roughly quarter-mile-long canyon is a tight squeeze through a wonderland of colored sandstone, speckled shafts of light, and a smooth sandy floor. There are two canyon routes here, the Crack and the Corkscrew; both offer jaw-dropping palettes of light and color. Don’t you dare enter without your camera (and the mandated guide).
9. Tour Hopi country
If you’re fortunate enough to take part in a tour of Hopi land, you won’t just see some of the most beautiful terrain in the Southwest — you’ll also be given a lesson in the importance of living in harmony with nature and showing respect for all things, alive and otherwise. The Hopi inhabit 12 villages spread across three separate mesas in northeastern Arizona. These homes have been occupied continuously for centuries, longer than most — if not all — settlements in the U.S. Your tour will include explanations of Hopi beliefs and culture, panoramic views from the high villages, and of course culinary treats.
Make sure to review the visitor etiquette (which includes refraining from taking photos or recordings of any kind) before you go. This is one Arizona-only adventure you can’t post to Facebook — which makes it all the more special.
Originally published on Matador in 2015, parts of this story were edited and updated in October 2018.