Hidden Gems in Arizona No Family Should Miss

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two kids looking for fish in Watson Lake, one of Arizona's hidden gems

While the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon is Arizona’s claim to fame, the southwest state has many hidden gems that will thrill families. From a mystery castle and caverns to ghost towns and chocolate waterfalls, Arizona is sure to delight those seeking off-the-beaten path places.

Without a doubt, Grand Canyon National Park is a bucket list destination in Arizona. But while on a road trip to the famous national park, stop along the way to uncover Arizona’s hidden gems.

Also known as the Grand Canyon State, Arizona is the sixth largest state with a wildly diverse landscape and natural wonders. Explore parks, lakes, rock formations, cacti-studded landscapes, sandstone canyon walls and pine tree forests. History buffs and outdoor adventurers will find many things to explore on foot and by car, including a section of Route 66.

Here’s our list of 16 hidden gems in Arizona no family should miss.

Waterfalls that look like chocolate milk, one of Arizona's hidden gems
The chocolate milk-colored water pours down the terraces of the Grand Falls near Leupp, Arizona. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Enjoy Grand Falls: AKA “Chocolate Waterfalls”

Chocolate Waterfalls sounds yummy but this is no Willy Wonka Factory. Grand Falls earned its chocolate falls nickname because of the rich, brown color from Little Colorado River sediment. The nearly 200-foot tall waterfalls are located in the Leupp Chapter of the Navajo Nation, about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff.

TravelingDad Eric Jay Toll says it’s a unique, natural phenomena that’s well worth the 90-minute roundtrip drive from Interstate 40 at Winona. Grand Falls Arizona is not far from Grand Canyon National Park, and definitely within reach of Petrified Forest National Park. It’s about a four-hour drive from Phoenix.

Read More: Arizona’s Top Resorts for Families

hidden gems in arizona
Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park. Photo credit: Stock Unlimited

Drive through Monument Valley

One of the best ways to see this red-sand desert region is via the looping 17-mile Valley Drive. Head to the Arizona-Utah border to see the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Some of these monuments stand over 1,000 feet tall.

hidden gems in arizona
Kartchner Caverns State Park. Photo courtesy: Arizona State Parks & Trails

Explore Kartchner Caverns State Park

The cave system was discovered by two young men in 1974. But it wasn’t until 1988 that it became an Arizona State Park. The Kartchner Caverns Tours opened to the public in 1999. Various guided tours are available. Learn about the history of the caves through hands-on exhibits at the Kartchner Caverns State Park Discovery Center.

hidden gems in arizona
The park’s pinnacles stand several feet in height. Photo credit: Frauke Feind/Pixabay

Rock Out in Chiricahua National Monument

See unique rock formations, also known as as “Wonderland of Rocks.” You can drive on an eight-mile paved road to see a forest of rock spires. In addition, there are 18 miles of day-use hiking trails. Each twist and turn leads to another vista of different shapes and sizes of rocks.

Chiricahua National Monument is located 120 miles southeast of Tucson.

Sandstone rock formations create The Wave. Photo courtesy: David Mark/Pixabay

Ride The Wave (Not really)

The vast sandstone structures that have a wavy appearance are situated north of Grand Canyon’s North Rim in the Paria Wilderness. Aptly called The Wave, the rock formations are made of Navajo Sandstone dunes that have calcified vertically and horizontally. Over time, they hardened into compacted rocks.

Exterior of the mystery castle, one of the hidden gems in arizona
The Mystery Castle was constructed with a hodgepodge of building materials. Photo credit: Susan Lanier-Graham

Discover Mystery Castle, Phoenix

Take a guided tour to learn about the Mystery Castle in the desert. It was built in the 1930s by Boyce Luther Gulley for his daughter Mary Lou Gulley. Battling an illness, he went to Arizona for the climate. While there, he built the castle from an assortment of building materials. The castle has 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces. 

It wasn’t until Gulley died in 1945 that his wife Frances Bradford Gulley and Mary Lou found out about the castle. The property became a tourist attraction in the 1940s.

Bison roaming around a car at Bearizona, one of arizona's hidden gems
American Bison and White Bison are among animals that live in Bearizona. Photo credit: Lucee Santini

See Wildlife at the Bearizona Drive-Through Zoo, Williams

View bison, wolves, rocky mountain goats and other wildlife from the safety of your car. The drive-through zoo travels through more than three miles of Ponderosa pine forest. It is home to 50 species of North American wildlife, including black bears, jaguars, bison, wolves, rocky mountain goats and bobcats, all seen in their natural environments. More than half of the animals who live at this safari park were rescued.

hidden gems in arizona
There are many ways to interact with animals in the Out of Africa Wildlife Park. Photo credit: An PHam

Visit Out of Africa Wildlife Park, Camp Verde

Meet animals that have been rescued, such as Boom Boom the rhino and Vista the Bengal Tiger. The Out of Africa Wildlife Park focuses on conservation and is home to many endangered species.

Interactive experiences include feeding a tiger and feeling a sloth’s hair. You can also soar above the animals on the Predator Zipline.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Spend the night in a western-themed Conestoga covered wagon at Verde Ranch RV Resort.

Teddy bear cholla is among the many unique cacti. Photo credit: Mike Goad/Pixabay

Learn About Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson

Plan to spend a day exploring this unique museum, zoo and gardens, which were designed to provide a natural habitat for wildlife. One SheBuysTravel who visits frequently with her kids says the museum is so vast they see something new each time. Hiking trails, petroglyphs, wildlife viewing and changing exhibits make this a must-see attraction in the Sonoran desert.

Watson Lake, a super day trip from Phoenix with many things to do
Beautiful Watson Lake, an easy day trip from Phoenix. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Fish at Watson Lake, Prescott

Watson Lake is characterized by the striated rock formations, and is one of Arizona’s best kept secrets. Although swimming in the lake is not allowed, you can fish, boat, canoe, kayak, hike, rock climb, camp and picnic.

hidden gems in arizona
Horseshoe Bend is a natural wonder. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Go Off-Roading at Horseshoe Bend, Page

Page is one of the best spots to experience Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and Arizona. But there’s another reason to visit this Northern Arizona spot. Horseshoe Bend (aka secret canyon) is a natural wonder. While there are more popular slot canyons near Antelope Canyon, they’re also more crowded.

One local SheBuysTravel says her family enjoys the Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon Tour. For a private tour, she recommends Horseshoe Bend Tours.

Slot canyon tours are appropriate for all ages. Passengers ride in an open-air vehicle from Page to Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon, which is on Navajo land. The tours are exciting and include off-roading with views of red rock.

SheBuysTravel Tip: It’s a good idea to wear tennis shoes or closed-toe shoes because the sand can get hot.

Explore the many weather-beaten buildings in Castle Dome Ghost Town and Museum. Photo credit: TraveLink/Pixabay

Discover Castle Dome Ghost Town

Explore an authentic ghost town located about 30 minutes outside of Yuma on the way to the Colorado River. The restored 1860s silver mining town has mining equipment and over 50 buildings. These include a bank, jail, blacksmith, Inn, church, etc.

Many of the artifacts were found in the Castle Dome mining district.

Read More: Check Out the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope Store in Jerome, a Ghost Town Near Sedona

See Montezuma Castle National Monument, Sedona

Montezuma Castle National Monument protects a 1,000-year-old high rise. You can take the self-guided trail past the five-story, 50-room Sinagua cliff dwelling. Stop at Montezuma Well to hike by more cliff dwellings, as well as pueblo ruins and a pithouse.

Built by the Sinagua Indians in the 12th century, it’s one of the most well-preserved cliff dwellings in the nation.

hidden gems in arizona
See petroglyphs and cacti in Saguaro National Park. Photo credit: Frauke Feind/Pixabay

Hike Signal Hill: Saguaro National Park, Tucson

Enjoy desert views while hiking on trails that lead to impressive petroglyphs estimated to be at least 1,000 years old. The 0.3-mile Signal Hill trail is popular for hiking, birding and horseback riding.

The park also preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor. The Signal Hill picnic area has tables and shade. Just north of the picnic area is a large petroglyph site.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Saquaro National Park gets super hot in summer, so plan accordingly and bring lots of drinking water. 

Peek into Apache Death Cave, Winslow

Located along the Old Route 66 in Two Guns, Arizona, the Apache Death Cave has a tragic history. According to legend, a group of Apaches attacked a Navajo settlement, killing nearly everyone inside in 1878. When other Navajo leaders discovered that Apache raiders were living in an underground cave, they set set it on fire. Forty two Apaches died in the fire. Many Native Americans believe the land is cursed. But adventure seekers looking for a thrill like to visit the site to get a peek at the cave.

hidden gems in arizona
Outlaws are among those buried in the 1878 Boothill Cemetery. Photo credit: Daniel Messer/Pixabay

Uncover History at Tombstone, Arizona

For an off-the-beaten path outing, visit Tombstone and take a journey through the past to the Wild West. For example, Tombstone was the site of the famous shootout at OK Corral in 1881. See a gallows replica and a cemetery where local outlaws are buried.

Learn more about Tombstone on a narrated guided tour. A  guide dressed in period costume rides a horse-drawn stagecoach and leads visitors through time along the downtown historic district.

Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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