Arizona’s Six Best-Kept Secrets

Six spectacular towns with all the beauty and none of the crowds of Arizona’s more popular vacation venues.

Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

When you’re looking for adventure, year-round warm weather and beautiful landscapes, it’s hard to beat Arizona. There are three national parks, 13 national monuments, plus 11 national memorials and national historic sites. And while many travelers flock to the Phoenix and Tucson areas, there are a number of small Arizona vacation towns that offer world-class outdoor experiences without the crowds. Next time you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon State, consider visiting one or more of these six stunning towns that stretch from northern Arizona to about as south as you can get before you enter Mexico.

Stand on the Corner in Winslow

Standin' on the Corner Park in Winslow, Arizona
Standin’ on the Corner Park in Winslow, Arizona Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

If you’re traveling along Hwy. 40 through Arizona from New Mexico headed to or from Grand Canyon National Park, Winslow is a must-stop. This town made it onto the pop culture map when the Eagles recorded the 1972 song Take It Easy, which includes the line, “Well, I’m standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see . . .”

Fifty years later, you can stand on the corner in the heart of downtown  and pose with a bronze sculpture of a man standing on a corner and a fun trompe l’oeil-style mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford. Ringed by art galleries, an old-fashioned soda fountain and Route 66 souvenir shops, Winslow is a trip back in time. In fact, it still has the original Route 66 concrete roadway on 2nd and 3rd Streets laid down when the road served as the winter route West for travelers headed to California.

About a minute walk from the corner is La Posada Hotel, completed in 1930 and designed by Mary Colter, a visionary architect who designed a number of landmarks, including Hopi House, Desert Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon National Park. Hotelier Allan Affledt and his artist wife Tina Mion restored the hotel, putting it back on the lodging map after it had been closed for decades. Walk in its gardens, explore its museum and art gallery and spend the night here. Don’t miss dining at the award-winning Turquoise Room owned by James Beard-nominated chef John Sharpe.

Minutes from Winslow, you’ll find Homolovi State Park, which has ancient ruins, great camping and excellent night skies programs. You’re also close to Petrified Forest National Park, an uncrowded, unsung gem of the park service. As an aside, it’s one of the few national parks that allows dogs on its trails. Explore the Painted Desert, Puerco Pueblo, a 100-room pueblo and more.

Stay Cool in Pinetop-Lakeside

Pinetop-Lakeside in Arizona
Pinetop-Lakeside in Arizona Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

An hour and 35 minute drive southeast of Winslow leads you to Pinetop-Lakeside. A summer resort area that’s home to the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine trees, this green corner of Arizona is a forested, lake-filled oasis. It sits at 6,804 feet, meaning summer temperatures are milder than say, Phoenix, which sits at 1,086 feet.

But it’s higher elevation also spells magic in the winter. Snowier winters make for a snowflake-filled paradise for skiers, snowboarders and snowbikers at Sunrise Park Resort. Just 38 miles away, the ski resort is owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Greer, Ariz.

But when the weather’s warm, 65 lakes and streams traverse this White Mountains area, beckoning you to spend as much time as possible outdoors. A number of cabin resorts line some of them, making the area a fishing and boating paradise. Plus, you can hike or mountain bike along the White Mountains Trail System, which links 200 miles of trails.

Local events are filled with small-town fun and humor and include Wine in Our Pines, 4th of July Mutt Strutt and Putt Putt Pub Crawl.

Saguaro-Dotted Hills in Superior

Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona
Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

For outdoor fun and a quirky historic copper mining town, head to Superior, Ariz., just an hour east of Phoenix. It’s home to a variety of gems from excellent hiking trails, a rock climbing mecca, the grave of Wyatt Earp’s wife and an outstanding botanical garden.

Stroll among palm and Eucalyptus groves, cork oaks, agaves, aloe plants and more at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Founded in 1924 and spanning nearly 400 acres, it’s Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden. Then head three miles east to downtown Superior for lunch and to shop at its boutiques and art galleries.

For avid hikers and mountain bikers, head to the Legends of Superior Trail, a 11.65-mile-long trail that passes through the Sonoran Desert, Arnett Canyon, which is home to a riparian forest, Queen Creek Canyon and more. Picketpost Mountain Trail is a four-mile, out-and-back that leads you to incredible views of Superstition Mountain, Iron Mountain, Weavers Needles and more. Plus, there’s a mysterious mailbox at the top. Off-roaders should hit the 35 miles of trails on the Montana Mountain Loop.

Superior has been a mecca for climbers for quite some time. You can watch them at Queen Creek Canyon, which offers more than 1,000 climbing routes and 2,000 bouldering routes. The area also has campgrounds.

For quirky western lore, head to the Historic Pinal Cemetery where Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock Earp is buried. She was the rough-and-tumble lawman Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife who died by suicide in 1888.

Pinal City Ruins is another attraction. It’s the site of a former silver mill town that went bust in the silver crash in the late 1800s. The Superior Historical Society and Bob Jones Museum is another place to fuel up on the pioneer history of the town. Tucked in a small Tuff shed, you’ll find the World’s Smallest Museum next to the Buckboard City Cafe.

Wine and a Secret National Park Site in Clarkdale

Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona
Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

This hidden gem is just 10 minutes from the classic hippie-turned-artist town of Jerome and 30 minutes from the red rocks of Sedona. Originally the town where Jerome’s miners and their families lived, Clarkdale offers a quaint small-town with unique attractions, including a four-hour scenic ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad.

To explore the outdoors, hire a river guide or rent your own kayaks to float down the Verde River, one of the Southwest’s last remaining free-flowing rivers. Then head to Tuzigoot National Monument, an uncrowded national park site. You can explore the ruins of an ancient Sinagua Indian pueblo that sit on a hilltop. The site was occupied more than 1,000 years ago. You can also take a trail along the Verde River to Tavasci Marsh, home to many plant and animal species, including deer, javelin, bobcats and more.

Afterwards, stop by Chateau Tumbleweed, a tasting room and winery. Started by two husband-and-wife couples with decades of work experience in Arizona’s wine industry, this hot spot offers a fantastic patio to sample Chateau Tumbleweed’s wines. Choose from more than a dozen red, white and rosé wines to pair with a charcuterie plate. The patio is dog-friendly.

Get Artsy in Tubac

Tumacacori Mission National Historical Park near Tubac, Ariz.
Tumacacori Mission National Historical Park near Tubac, Ariz. Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

An artist’s paradise filled with potters, painters, sculptors and more, the vibrant historic town of Tubac sits in southern Arizona 45 minutes directly south of Tucson. It’s home to Tubac Presidio State Historical Park and a deep history as the area was once home to Apache and Tohono O’odham peoples. It is Arizona’s first state park and the oldest Spanish presidio in Arizona. It was established in 1752.

At Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, you’ll discover a wide range of histories from the Native American tribes who lived in the area, Spanish settlers, Mexican settlers, American pioneers and Arizonan history. There’s an 1885 schoolhouse that has desks, artwork and books from that time period. There’s even a dunce cap sitting on a wooden stool in the corner.

The Anza Trail starts here, which was where Juan Bautista de Anza took his first steps, along with 240 men, women and children on his 1,200-mile trek to San Francisco in 1775-76. Today, much of the land along the trail, to and through California, sits on is private, but you can walk a 4.5 mile section that connects the state park with Tumacacori Mission National Historical Park. The mission was where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people and European Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, settlers, and soldiers convened in peace and conflict. The trail follows a river and is flat and largely tree-lined, but bring water and a sun hat.

Historic Ajo in Southwestern Arizona

Dancers at a Food Festival in Ajo, Ariz.
Dancers at a Food Festival in Ajo, Ariz. Photo: Courtesy Visit Arizona

Visit an uncrowded national park site when you stay in Ajo, Ariz., which sits just 43 miles north of the Mexican border. Ajo is the closest community to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is one of the best examples of Sonoran Desert wilderness.

Just 30 miles from Ajo, the monument offers hiking, gorgeous road biking and scenic drives full of stops along the way. Before you hit the road, however, check the park website or in the visitor center for temporary road closures for border infrastructure and construction activities. For a two-hour, mostly gravel drive, point your wheels toward Ajo Mountain Drive. It’s also a great biking loop. Tip: there is no water along the way, so bring it with you. And never leave your bike unsecured anywhere in the monument. There are four picnic sites along the loop.

For a longer scenic drive, do the 41-mile Puerto Blanco Drive. It takes 4-5 hours to do both the North Puerto Blanco and South Puerto Blanco loops. You’ll drive past Red Tanks Trailhead, Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Dripping Springs and Quitobaquito Springs.

Then head back to Ajo, a former copper mining town that is full of stunning Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture, much of it built in the early 1900s. The gorgeous historic plaza, dating back to 1917, has shops, restaurants, a post office and two mission-style churches. It’s anchored by a park in its center. You’ll be able to see the Curley School from the plaza, which is home to artists and artisan classrooms. The Ajo Train Depot, home to the chamber of commerce, is also worth checking out. It served the Tucson, Cornelia and Gila Bend railways back in the day.

There’s also the Ajo Community Golf Course where you might spot roadrunners, deer or even coyotes. And the Ajo Historical Society Museum is located in St. Catherine’s Indian Mission.  Beyond the town, get an extraordinary view of the New Cornelia Open Pit Mine that gave rise to the town. There’s a lookout where you can see the mining pit that stretches more than a mile wide and was once the world’s largest copper mine. It almost looks like a meteor crater.

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