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If your group is looking for eye-catching vistas, outdoor adventure and a tantalizing taste of the great American Southwest, the address is Arizona.
A color-splashed mosaic of blazing red rocks, majestic mountain ranges and cactus-studded desert landscapes right out of the movies, the state of Arizona wows visitors with its scenic beauty and geological diversity. National parks, state parks, national forests and tribal lands beckon those looking to feast on the wonders of nature.
As for the Grand Canyon, there’s simply nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Flowing through the mighty canyon, the Colorado River offers whitewater thrills, and other mighty bodies of water—such as lakes Powell, Mead and Havasu—provide refreshing recreation as well.
Besides mile after mile of scenic splendor gracing its wide-open spaces, Arizona brims with cultural treasures. Favorite tourist destinations highlight Native American heritage and rip-roaring reminders of the Wild West. Dynamic cities like Phoenix, Mesa and Tucson are flush with urban amenities, and character-rich towns like Wickenburg, Tombstone and Bisbee bristle with Western flair. Throughout the state, groups will enjoy shopping for Native American arts and crafts, cowboy kitsch and other wares distinctive to the region. And tour planners will want to spice their itineraries with meals featuring Southwestern flavors.
Groups will find many places that recall Arizona’s Old West days. In southeastern Arizona, Tombstone was a silver boomtown infamous for lawlessness and violence. Today “the town too tough to die” abounds with Western-themed attractions, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Re-enactments of the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral feature actors portraying Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clanton Brothers. In the old mining town of Bisbee, an artist enclave close to the Mexican border, tourists don a hardhat, yellow slicker and miner’s lamp for the Queen Mine Tour, an underground exploration of one of the 20th century’s most productive copper mines.
Goldfield Ghost Town, along the Apache Trail byway near Apache Junction, also hearkens back to frontier times. A collection of weathered wooden buildings on the remains of an 1890s mining community, this fun-filled tourist magnet offers shops, two museums, a gold mine tour, gold panning, horseback rides, narrow-gauge train rides and off-road jeep tours through the desert.
The architectural gem of Tucson is Mission San Xavier del Bac, built from 1783-1797 by Spanish missionaries. Called the “White Dove of the Desert,” the parish church of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation is distinguished by its domes, arches, carvings and murals.
In Sierra Vista, 70 miles southeast of Tucson, stands Fort Huachucha, an active military installation dating from 1877 and former headquarters of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, the first all-black regiment in the U.S Armed Forces. Exhibits on the elite units of African-American men and women, which served from just after the Civil War through World War II, highlight visits to the Fort Huachuca Museums.
Groups also can go back in time riding 1950s-era passenger cars on the Grand Canyon Railway, which is powered by vintage diesel locomotives. Strolling musicians, Western characters and a mock train robbery provide entertainment on the trip between Williams and South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Travelers looking for 20th century road-trip nostalgia will find it in shops and eateries in Williams and other northern Arizona towns that lined Route 66, the legendary highway that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Mother Road’s story comes alive at the Historic Route 66 Museum in Kingman, located between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on the longest remaining stretch of Route 66.
At Montezuma Castle National Monument in central Arizona, visitors can see the ruins of a cliff dwelling built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Believed to have been inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo people, the five-story castle contained 20 rooms and once was accessible only by ladders. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge preserves the four-story Casa Grande (Big House) from the same period.
The Navajo Nation, in northeastern Arizona, is rich in American Indian history as well. The sovereign nation of the Navajo tribe is home to a dozen national monuments, including Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where ruins of ancient villages and pictographs adorn red sandstone walls. Tours led by Navajo tour operators showcase places like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, whose surreal sandstone monoliths have appeared in many Hollywood movies.
The park’s visitor center, near the Arizona/Utah border, has excellent exhibits on Navajo life. Groups touring Navajo Tribal Land also will want to see Petrified Forest National Park, named for the fossilized logs scattered across its 50,000 acres. A land of colorful mesas, buttes and badlands, the park contains part of the Painted Desert.
In Phoenix, the Heard Museum boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of Native American art in the world. Treasures range from paintings, sculptures and photographs to baskets, jewelry, pottery, textiles and carvings. The visually appealing Phoenix Art Museum, a masterpiece of architecture, houses art from around the world within its soaring concrete walls and has one of the country’s most acclaimed fashion collections.
Even those who are not musically inclined will enjoy Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum, which exhibits instruments from almost every country on earth, from horns, harps and harmonicas to banjos, bagpipes and balalaikas. Everyone gets a high-tech audio guide that provides soundtracks for videos at more than 300 sites in the spacious, light-filled galleries. In the Experience Gallery guests can beat a drum, pound a gong, strum a guitar or pluck the strings of a harp.
Another one-of-a-kind musical place perfect for groups is Mesa’s Organ Stop Pizza. Diners in this cavernous, theater-like space feast on pizza and pasta while being serenaded by tunes belted out from the “mighty” 1927 Wurlitzer organ. During 40-minute sets, the organist presents a program that might include anthems from Phantom of the Opera and Star Wars, Big Band numbers, patriotic tunes and medleys from movies like The Sound of Music.
Some of Arizona’s most intriguing cultural institutions interpret the Sonoran Desert. The most outstanding examples are the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo, aquarium, botanical showplace and natural history museum.
Arizona certainly has a number of jaw-dropping destinations ideal for communing with Mother Nature. Whether groups are content to sit back and relax or prefer some physical challenges, they will find their perfect adventure on the state’s rivers, lakes and trails.
One of America’s top spots for whitewater rafting, the Colorado River provides thrills in the Grand Canyon area, from peaceful float trips to adrenaline-pumping rides through the rapids. Outfitters offer guided trips ranging from a half-day to a week or longer. Hualapai River Runners, operated by the Hualapai Tribe, has a popular one-day whitewater trip starting and ending in Peach Springs, at the western gateway to the Grand Canyon. Passengers enjoy wildlife viewing, hike to Travertine Cavern Falls and have lunch on the banks of the river.
Offering a Colorado River option tamer than whitewater rafting, Yuma River Tubing in Yuma provides the tubes and a shuttle ride up the river. Then relax as you float your way back down. Choose from 1-, 2½- and 5-mile floats.
Your group can enjoy all the comforts of home while cruising the open waters and hidden canyons and coves of Lake Powell. Part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in far north-central Arizona, Lake Powell, with 2,000 miles of shoreline, is one of the largest manmade reservoirs in the country and almost synonymous with houseboating.
Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas in Page rents houseboats that accommodate up to 12 guests overnight and also offers boat tours past vermilion monoliths to Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural bridge.
On Lake Mead, extending beyond the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead Cruises’ narrated paddlewheeler excursions shed light on the dam’s construction. Both lakes Mead and Powell are popular for swimming, waterskiing, kayaking, paddleboarding and fishing.
Groups following the scenic Apache Trail byway often schedule a 90-minute sightseeing cruise on Canyon Lake aboard the Dolly Steamboat paddlewheeler. Binoculars are provided for spotting bighorn sheep that inhabit the sand-and rust-colored cliffs bordering the secluded inner waterways.
Hiking and biking opportunities abound for those who’d rather stick close to land. What better way to appreciate the splendor of Tucson’s Sonoran Desert than setting out on a trail in Saguaro National Park, home to stands of stately saguaro cactus that typify the landscapes we associate with Arizona.
Besides taking in panoramic views from ridgelines, your tour members will be captivated by the exotic flora—from creosote bushes and groves of mesquite to the surprising variety of cacti. In Grand Canyon National Park, the family-friendly Bright Angel Trail takes you into the depths of the gorge. Or consider a trek along the canyon rim on the back of a sure-footed mule.
Pedaling through desert scenery is a great way to explore the environs of the Phoenix area, which abounds with mountain biking trails for all skill levels. A good option for beginners is Papago Park’s Double Butte Loop, a 2.3-mile trail that offers fine views of the park’s red rock formations.
Brown’s Ranch trail system at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in the northern metro area, between Scottsdale and Carefree, has beginner and intermediate trails with incredible vistas of the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Guided mountain biking and hiking trips in metro Phoenix are offered by Cactus Adventures, Sonoran Outdoor Adventures and Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A forest of glistening stalactites and stalagmites awes groups touring southern Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns State Park, a subterranean wonderland deep below the Whetstone Mountains in Benson. Even those in wheelchairs can negotiate the wide concrete trails that wind through the spacious underground chambers.
While most guest ranches in the Rocky Mountain states close down for the winter, those in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert provide a relaxing, warm-weather vacation experience when much of the country is buried in ice and snow. Horseback riding is the main focus, but these Western fantasy worlds offer other activities as well.
Wickenburg, 54 miles northwest of Phoenix, was once known as the Dude Ranch Capital of Arizona and still lures city slickers who dream of a true cowboy experience. No one will get bored at the resort-style Rancho de los Caballeros, which boasts tennis courts, a heated pool, a day spa and even an18-hole golf course. Other Wickenburg ranches are Kay El Bar, Rancho Casitas and Flying E.
Tucson’s Tanque Verde Ranch is surrounded by 60,000 acres of Saguaro National Park. In addition to trail rides, guests can mix things up with mountain biking, national park hikes, nature programs, tennis and pool time. White Stallion Ranch is another laid-back Western paradise in Tucson.
At Tombstone Monument Ranch, just outside of Tombstone, guests can go for one-hour trail rides, stay overnight, and even take part in cattle drives and other chores. The working ranch is set up like an 1880s Western town.
Although Arizona restaurants offer every type of food imaginable, from classic Italian recipes to Japanese sushi, hungry travelers really look forward to chowing down on specialties inspired by the cultures of neighboring Mexico and the state’s Native American population.
Foodies, moreover, will delight in products grown on local farms and vineyards. Yes, vineyards. Who knew that Arizona is a wine-producing state?
Fans of Mexican food will find plenty of places serving up superb renditions of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and other dishes familiar to the American palate, but some eats are unique to Arizona and the Southwest. Take the Sonoran hot dog, for instance.
This South-of-the-Border twist on the American favorite features a grilled beef frankfurter wrapped in bacon, topped with pinto beans and garnished with condiments like chopped tomatoes and onions, jalapenos, mustard and mayonnaise—all sandwiched into a split-top roll. The most famous purveyor of Sonoran hot dogs is El Guero Canelo, a 2018 James Beard Award winner that has three locations in Tucson and one in Phoenix.
Nothing is more iconic to Arizona than cactus, and the plant, particularly the prickly pear variety, is commonly found in foods and drinks. Purplish-red items range from prickly pear candy and jelly to prickly pear vodka and margaritas. Tortilla Flat Country Store and Ice Cream Shop, in a tiny community east of Phoenix, scoops up a prickly pear gelato. Maya Mexican Restaurant in Prescott offers prickly pear breakfast burritos and a platter featuring grilled cactus, while the menu at Sedona’s Cowboy Club lists cactus fries with prickly pear sauce.
On tribal lands and elsewhere in Arizona, travelers can savor Native American cuisine. Indian frybread is often eaten in taco form, with the fluffy bread serving as a shell for the choice of meat. The View Restaurant, overlooking the stunning landscape of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, offers Navajo tacos made with frybread, along with mutton stew, red chile pork posole (a hominy soup) and other traditional Navajo fare.
Hogan Family Restaurant in Tuba City and the Hopi Cultural Center, a motel and restaurant on the Second Mesa, are also worth the trip for their frybread tacos and other fare using indigenous ingredients. For dessert at the Frybread House in Phoenix, you can have the fried dough drizzled with chocolate, powdered sugar or honey.
Culinary-minded travelers in the Mesa area satisfy their taste buds at sites on the Fresh Foodie Trail. At Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, Arizona’s largest organic peach grower, owners Mark and Carrie Schnepf can arrange a farm-to-table meal along with a cooking demonstration and trolley or miniature train ride through the orchards. The cafe/bakery turns out homemade goodies, including peach cinnamon rolls and peach jalapeno bread. Down the road, a tour and classroom session on olive oil at Queen Creek Olive Mill can be paired with a meal in the Tuscan-inspired eatery or al fresco under the olive trees.
Joe’s Farm Grill, another stop on the Fresh Foodie Trail, is located in Gilbert on an agricultural community called Agritopia. The restaurant (in a converted 1960s farmhouse) takes pride in its local organic ingredients; everything is made from scratch. Also on the grounds are a coffee shop famed for its luscious cupcakes, plus a micro-winery and brewery.
Three of Arizona’s elevated regions have established themselves as producers of award-winning wines, and the state counts some five dozen wineries. Not far from the red rocks of Sedona, grapes flourish in the Verde Valley. The Verde Valley Wine Trail features more than 20 vineyards and tasting rooms. An hour south of Tucson, a dozen welcoming wineries can be found in the neighboring towns of Sonoita and Elgin. The Willcox area, east of Tucson, is home to 11wineries and tasting rooms.
Innovative microbreweries provide cold refreshment across the state. The Flagstaff Brewery Trail showcases 15 establishments in Flagstaff, Williams and Sedona. At Barrio Brewing Company in Tucson, the state’s longest-running independent brewery, guests dine in an industrial-chic taproom and out on a patio with views of mountains and trains rumbling past. In the Phoenix-Mesa area, groups can enjoy beer, food and behind-the-scenes peeks at several breweries on customized bus outings organized by Arizona Brewery Tours.
From suburban-style malls and museum gift shops to quaint downtown commercial districts and sophisticated art gallery centers, Arizona brims with opportunities for bringing home something special from your trip.
For many travelers, Native American arts and crafts make the perfect keepsakes. Vibrantly colored rugs and blankets, turquoise and silver jewelry, carved kachina dolls, pottery, baskets, sand paintings, dream catchers. These and other items iconic to the American Southwest are available for purchase at various shops on Tribal Land and the region’s Hopi villages. Traditional trading posts, some of them dating back to the 1800s, include Hubbell, Cameron, Keams Canyon and Goulding’s.
The place for Native and Latin American crafts in downtown Tucson’s El Presidio district is Old Town Artisans, which houses a half-dozen shops and galleries in an 1850s adobe building that covers a city block. Weavers sell their masterfully designed baskets and trays in the plaza at San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson. In Phoenix, the Heard Museum Shop offers the finest in authentic Native artworks, plus a good selection of books on the Southwest.
Metro Phoenix boasts some two dozen major shopping malls. Enjoy shopping for apparel and souvenirs in downtown Phoenix’s open-air Arizona Center or scout out bargains at Outlets at Anthem, located 30 minutes north of the city center. Arizona Mills in Tempe is home to Sea Life Arizona aquarium and the state’s largest IMAX theater as well as popular national retailers.
Scottsdale claims some of best shopping in the Valley of the Sun, and its downtown Arts District has one of the biggest concentrations of art galleries in the Southwest. Stores in Old Town Scottsdale, with its rustic storefronts and wooden sidewalks exuding Old West flair, sell Western wear, Native crafts and trinkets of all kinds, plus food products ranging from salsas to prickly pear treats. Perhaps a small cactus plant or some San Francisco Giants merchandise (Scottsdale is the team’s annual spring training home) will be your memento of choice. Scottsdale Fashion Square is a massive, three-story mall with 250-plus shops.
Glendale is known as the Antique Capital of Arizona. The historic district’s tree-lined town square (Murphy Park), red-brick sidewalks and old-time gaslights provide a charming setting for the dozens of specialty shops that purvey antiques, arts and crafts, jewelry, period clothing and Western memorabilia.