Arizona is home to some of the most arresting desert vistas in the southwestern United States. Standing looking at the bend of a river in a canyon, a waterfall hidden at the end of a trail, a butte rising out of the red rock, or the cholla and cacti growing along the ribbons of the rocky cliffs, the serenity of Arizona’s wide-open spaces offer an opportunity for peace, quiet, and contemplation. With its wealth of national forests, parks, and monuments, there is plenty to see and do in Arizona.
The best way to get an intimate look at the natural beauty of the place is to take it in on foot. Like most western states, Arizona is massive, so you’ll probably need to make multiple trips to see all it has to offer. Once you get your first feeling of solitude in the wide, sunny expanse of its mountains and valleys, though, you’ll start planning your trip back straight away.
Despite the image of Arizona as simply rocks and desert, there are many attractive native plant species and several rivers that run through the state. In fact, roughly 27% of the state is covered with forest. Over a quarter of the state’s land is made up of Native American reservations, belonging to tribes such as the Navajo, which will offer a fantastic cultural and historical depth to your hike. Be wary, some of these reservations may require a permit or have restrictions on certain activities. Don’t worry though, if any of our sites have any such requirement or limitation, we’ll mention it below.
Of course, we can’t talk about Arizona without mentioning the Grand Canyon, the famous gorge of the Colorado river situated in the Grand Canyon National Park that draws millions of visitors a year and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The Grand Canyon, which President Theodore Roosevelt said was “beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world,” when he visited in 1903, is home to landscapes and natural features that will take your breath away. The National Park is home to several top-notch hiking trails, and we certainly can’t leave them off our list, but in order to try and show you a bit more of the state away from its world-famous Grand Canyon, we’ve made an effort to try and select a few more trails that are a bit more off the beaten path.
Safety while hiking
Anyone planning a hike in Arizona, especially during the sweltering summer months, must make sure to go well prepared. The temperatures are extreme, often very hot during the day but possibly below freezing at night. Make sure you bring plenty of water and pack extra snacks with nutrients to stay fit throughout your trek.
If you are brave enough to attempt a multi-day hike and want to make sure to plan your overnight camping ahead of time, go ahead and check out our guide for cool camping gadgets to maximize your experience and our camping blankets guide to make sure you have the right blanket to keep yourself warm through the cold nights in the desert.
Located just south of Flagstaff in Coconino National Forest, Parsons trail is the perfect introduction to hiking in Arizona. That’s not because the trail is for novices, but rather because it offers a sample of all the features you can expect to see while hiking in Arizona. Sycamore Canyon gives this hike a great sense of elevation, which puts it above some of the trails that traverse mostly flat land because in order to really sense how incredible Arizona is, you’re going to want to see it from every possible angle.
This trail is a 7.2-mile hike, so it’s easily done in less than a day. Make sure you bring swimming gear along, because the coup de grace of the Parsons Trail is an isolated swimming hole that is absolutely pristine. It has wildflowers and wildlife for your viewing pleasure, and there’s frequent enough human traffic for those who are concerned about going to far off the grid. Of course, those looking to really go out on their own exploring may want to consider another trail, although the swimming hole may be enough of a draw for anyone.
This trail is open year-round but it’s better during the week if you want less of a crowd. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. The trail becomes a little less maintained after the swimming hole, so if you don’t feel like going too far out or if you aren’t prepared when you get there, you can always take a luxurious walk to the swimming hole and then come back. Even the shortened version of this hike is sure not to disappoint!
This 10.4 mile round trip trail is located in one of the greener parts of Arizona, in the southern part of the state near Tucson. It is not the easiest trail, which may be one of the reasons you probably won’t see many people if you hike along it. Nonetheless, it boasts fantastic views of valleys and trees. Bear in mind that you will probably have to pay $10 to park in the parking lot, but it’s still much cheaper than some other trails in the state. You would also do well to keep in mind that this trail is very steep in places, and at 1,084 feet, the elevation gain is quite high, so pay attention to wind conditions when you’re planning your hike.
This trail is only a 4.3-mile hike, but it’s a difficult enough hike to keep you entertained. It should whet your appetite for a longer excursion! Located in the Lost Dutchman State Park, near the Superstition Mountains less than an hour’s drive from Phoenix, this trail offers great views of the sunrise, and since it’s not as long as other trails, you’ll have more time for off-trail exploration if you like. Tortoises, jackrabbits, and deer are frequently seen along this trail.
Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, though! Another word of caution: this trail intersects with some other trails within the park, so make sure you stay vigilant. If you get onto one of the longer trails, you could find yourself out of the water before you reach the end! It’s also not advised to attempt this trail in the summertime. The best time of year is between October and June, depending on the heat.
A nice feature about this trail is its shape, which is a loop so you don’t have to double back or turn around at any point. Its location within the State Park is very advantageous for anyone who wants to incorporate this hike into a longer trip, because it offers a campground and a few other attractions. Plus, there are other trails within the park that are both easier and more difficult, if this trail to Slot Rock doesn’t suit you.
For beginners or those hiking with children, check out the Treasure Loop Trail, while more expert hikers looking for a challenge can head over to the Flatiron via Siphon Draw Trail, which is more famous than the Praying Hands trail, but is also extremely difficult and includes some rock climbing. Definitely for experts only!
For those who enjoy a hike that keeps the heart rate up but don’t want to play Lawrence of Arabia, stick to this Praying Hands to Slot Rock trail. There is plenty of challa and cacti, including the Saguaro cactus, whose blossom is the Arizona state flower! Be careful if you see one because you can be fined heavily for destroying them. There are beautiful views of the landscape over a slight valley, and you can see the Superstition Mountains from some points along the trail. Getting to this trail from Phoenix is so short and simple, it makes a great selection if you only have a few days to spend hiking in Arizona.
This is one of two trails where we have to suggest that you go along with the crowd. It is not a hidden gem by any means, but it is easily some of the best views you’ll ever have. This trail is short and relatively easy most of the way, and it takes you up close to some of the most famous red rock buttes in Monument Valley, including West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte. This trail is the only way you can get up close to these gorgeous sandstone symbols of the American West without a guide. There are also many beautiful wildflowers to see along the way, and dogs are allowed on the trail as long as they have a leash.
The Wildcat Trail is a 3.9 mile hike that is best traveled between the months of April and October. This is absolutely going to be on almost everyone’s bucket list who travels to Arizona for a hike, but it is truly an unmissable experience. There are more rock formations to see in Monument Valley, including The North Window, Elephant Butte, and Three Sisters, so it will be well worth the trip. Bear in mind that this is in the Navajo Nation equivalent of a national park that expands over the state line into Utah, and the Navajo Nation charge $20 for entrance into the park. However, once you finish this breathtaking climb (and have your obligatory photoshoot), you can see a traditional Navajo living dwelling, called a hogan, to round out your physical excursion with some culture!
This trail is also a loop, so you won’t have to turn around at any point. Bear in mind that there is very little shade on this trail, so you will want to carry your water in a backpack of some kind to prevent it heating up in the sun. Make sure to bring along some hiking poles (or “trekking” poles) for the last part of this trail, which is made up of loose sand and may be hard to navigate when the trail makes an upward incline near the end. If you’re going to Arizona, this is one place people are going to ask you about, so make sure not to miss it!
This trail is a 4.0 mile hike located in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, named for Tom’s Thumb, a nearby historical landmark that offers fantastic views from a nice vantage point. We should point out that this is the first trail we’ve mentioned so far that is generally rated as being very difficult. It may not be impossible for people with a small amount of experience hiking, especially with enough water, but perhaps those unaccustomed to frequent changes in elevation should avoid this one. For everyone else, you will definitely feel accomplished after you finish this trail!
From Tom’s Thumb Trail, you can see breathtaking views of the southern McDowell Mountains and a little bit of Phoenix, if that’s your style. This trail is also great fun for mountain bikers, but again we must caution that those new to biking are better off starting elsewhere, because this trail is not an easy one. There’s no shade on this trail, either, so go prepared. This trail is no secret, so you’re likely to see other people while you’re out on your hike here, but the difficulty should keep away those who aren’t concentrated on hiking and taking in the beauty at hand.
This 3.5 mile hike takes you around Cathedral Rock, another unmissable sight in Arizona. While Cathedral Rock is one of the most photographed landmarks in Arizona, this trail to Red Rock Crossing is a good way to take in the famous landmarks while hiking through countless other unknown sights. It also features a river and has the added convenience of offering restrooms and a place to fill water bottles at the trailhead. There are many trails inside Red Rock State Park, but this one offers some of the best views for people who aren’t necessarily experts at hiking. For those up for a harder challenge, try the Cathedral Rock Trail. If you stick with the Cathedral Rock to Red Rock Crossing trail, look forward to a less strenuous trip around Cathedral Rock that has plenty of shady spots and a few places to swim.
You can bring your dog along on this trail as well, just make sure they stay near you because every now and then rattlesnakes are seen along the trail. That’s completely normal for Arizona, and the vast majority of sightings never lead to a bite or any injury. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even climb Cathedral Rock itself! Just make sure it isn’t going to rain because the rocks become extremely slippery if it does.
These two trails are located very close to one another in Page, Arizona, very close to the famous Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River turns itself around at the bottom of a lovely valley. The Antelope is a 0.6-mile hike and the Waterhole is a 2.8 mile hike, so even added together you should be able to cover these trails in about half a day round trip. The Antelope trail is a loop, so you won’t have to turn around, while the Waterhole Canyon Trail is an “out-and-back” which means that you will have to walk back the way you came when you finish the hike. Both trails offer fantastic bird watching and stellar views.
Like the Cathedral Rock Trail, both these trails are located in a Navajo Tribal Park. This one is called the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, and they also have an associated fee to hike these trails. It costs $8 to enter the park and it is mandatory to pay for a tour guide if you want to hike the trails. The guide will cost you between $20-$58, but they are informative and may be able to help you take pictures when you get to the main attraction, Antelope Canyon, also known as “Corkscrew Canyon,” one of the most beautiful examples of a slot canyon in Arizona.
Finally, we’ve gotten to the star of the show, the biggest deal in Arizona: the Grand Canyon. Before we get into the Widforss Trail, we have to note that there are an incredible amount of trails to hike in the Grand Canyon. There are countless monuments, natural formations, and viewpoints. The Canyon is really, really big. But the Widforss Trail offers the most unexpected, breathtaking views along a hike that is challenging enough to keep your breath fast but not so difficult that you don’t have time to take in these once-in-a-lifetime landscapes.
There are plenty of places to rest, so although the hike is challenging, you can probably handle it even as a novice, because there are shady places to stop for a while. This is a 9.1-mile hike, so everybody is going to want to pause for a moment at some point along the way. Be aware in your planning that this is an out-and-back, which means you are going to have to hike back the way you came once you reach the end of the trail unless you arrange for a shuttle.
One of the best aspects of the Widforss Trail is its forest setting. Of course, it’s not exactly a rain forest, but it is very pleasant to smell pine all along the hike around the Grand Canyon. The trail is best used from May to October. Another great thing about Windforss is its usually not very crowded, especially compared to the main tourist trail, the South Kaibab Trail. If you are going to see the Grand Canyon, and you aren’t looking for a really difficult hike, the Widforss Trail is the way to go.
Normally there is some nuance and deliberation when selecting the best combination of difficulty, beauty, and ease of organization among hiking trails. But when you speak about Arizona, the answer is very clear: one does not simply go to Arizona without hiking the Grand Canyon. So our pick is the Widforss Trail.
Now, granted, this is advice for those who only have time to hike one trail in Arizona, and may not be back again. It is undeniable that Grand Canyon National Park must be seen to be believed; it features on bucket lists across the world, and for good reason. Even for seasoned hikers and Arizona residents, the Grand Canyon is so vast, and its beauty so wonderful, that anyone who can go there does so.
In the interest of those who are looking for a trail to hike in Arizona and have already seen the Grand Canyon or have time to do more than one trail, our pick for second place is the Cathedral Rock to Red Rock Crossing. This Cathedral Rock trail has all the variety you can expect out of a good trail in Arizona, with shade for resting and places to swim.
The Cathedral Rock is a monument in its own right, but the hike to it is a glorious addition. Variety is the name of the game in Arizona trails, perhaps because the perception of the state from outside its borders is that it is only desert and rocks. However, rest assured there is so much more to see along these best hikes in Arizona!
Bonus tip: Take a look at this video for a sample of the breathtaking views of Cathedral Rock!