Arizona’s Geologic Wonders

By: Karl Samson

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March 4, 2013

The Grand Canyon State abounds in grand canyons, gorgeous gorges, monumental valleys and wondrous landscapes.

About the author

Karl Samson

Karl Samson

Although he lives in Oregon, for more than 20 years Karl Samson has been escaping his home state's rainy winter weather to dry out in sunny Arizona. He is the author of the Frommer's Arizona guidebook and has also written about Arizona for Sunset magazine.

Arizona could have been called the Sunshine State, but Florida laid claim to that name. Likewise, Arizona is certainly a Vacationland, but Maine already put that one on its license plates. Land of Enchantment? Taken. Treasure State? Taken. Gem State? Taken. However, Arizona has something that no other state can claim – the Grand Canyon.

So, in a state well known for sunshine, vacations, lost treasures and gem shows, the nickname Grand Canyon State makes it clear that Arizona is a land of geologic wonders.

The Grand Canyon and Other Grand Canyons

At more than a mile deep, 18 miles wide and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, more than lives up to its name, yet as grand as it is, it is just one wondrous canyon among many along the length of Arizona’s meandering Colorado River.

Far downstream from the Grand Canyon, the Colorado slices through the bedrock north of Lake Havasu to form the small but impressive Topock Gorge, a canyon that can be explored on jet-boat tours and by rental kayak.

Within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in Arizona’s Four Corners region can be found two other fascinating rifts in the landscape.

Antelope Canyon, just outside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, may be at the opposite end of the size scale from the Grand Canyon, but this narrow slot canyon, carved out of sandstone by eons of erosion, attracts visitors from around the world. Within convoluted canyon walls barely a shoulders’ width apart, soft indirect light paints solid rock in muted tones that elicit hushed, reverential whispers from those who venture into this hidden cleft.

Also in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly – a national monument known for its sheer sandstone cliffs – impresses not only with its geology but with its ancient cliff dwellings as well.

Lands of Standing Up Rocks

In southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument, an area known to the native Apaches as the “land of standing up rocks,” natural stone columns rise from the forest and boast such evocative names as Duck on a Rock, Punch & Judy and Kissing Rocks. Free shuttle service for hikers ensures easy access to the most beautiful areas of the monument, including the grand vistas of Massai Point.

Far more immediately recognizable are the mesas, buttes and pinnacles of Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation park that has long been a favorite of filmmakers and photographers. A 17-mile scenic drive affords dramatic up-close views of sandstone giants towering 400–1,000 feet tall.

In several places around the state, jumbled heaps of giant granite boulders clutter the landscape. The Granite Dells of Prescott and Cochise Stronghold in southeastern Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains are just two such topsy-turvy landscapes accessible by well-marked hiking trails.

Color My World

If you believed everything you read about deserts, you might think that Arizona is a drab landscape of brown and beige. The red rocks of Sedona, easily explored by foot or on popular jeep tours, make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

The boldly striped hills of the Painted Desert, much of which lies within Petrified Forest National Park, are another of Arizona’s colorful natural attractions. Plants, animals, and views are the highlights along popular walking trails throughout the park.

The aptly named Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, north of the Grand Canyon, veils the colorful Coyote Buttes, another favorite destination of photographers and hikers willing to make the four-wheel drive in. The buttes’ swirling facade looks like waves that have turned to stone.

Craters and Caves

Sunset Crater and the Barringer Meteor Crater, both located east of Flagstaff, may both be craters, but there the similarities end.

Sunset Crater, a national monument, takes its name from the many hues that color the flanks of this 1,000-foot-tall volcanic cinder cone that formed – along with the otherworldly landscape of lava flows around it – roughly 900 years ago. A drive to Cinder Hills Overlook offers an expansive vantage point.

At nearly a mile wide, the 50,000-year-old Meteor Crater is the best-preserved meteorite impact crater on earth, and visitors can view the mammoth crater with observation telescopes along the perimeter.

While most of Arizona’s geologic wonders are grand features of the landscape, some are hidden away from the bright Arizona sun.

Kartchner Caverns State Park outside Benson hides within its depths some of the largest and most impressive underground sights in the country. Guided tours take visitors past a 58-foot-tall stone column and a 21-foot-long stalactite.

At Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, water has carved a 183-foot-high cavelike tunnel that is believed to be the world’s largest travertine natural bridge. Visitors can hike under the bridge and marvel at this handiwork of Mother Nature.

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