From what I could see at that moment, Arizona had a profusion of exciting hidden gems and best-kept secrets. Its lesser-known destinations overshadowed all of the popular attractions we had visited a year ago.
Off the Beaten Path: Top 10 Hidden Gems and Best-Kept Secrets in Arizona
Roshan drove slowly. Thanks goodness, there was no traffic. In fact, not a single car was heading in the same direction.
It had been about 15 minutes since we entered Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A trail into a slot canyon we were looking for was supposed to emerge already. So by that time, it became clear that we had missed one of the first hidden gems we were about to explore in the northeastern corner of Arizona.
Meet Arizona beyond Its Hidden Gems
Home to word-famous Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona enjoys a steady influx of visitors every year. Those who wish to discover the state beyond its most popular natural wonders, flock to luxurious spas and enticing hiking trails in and outside Sedona.
Once the best-kept secrets of Arizona, wondrous Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon illuminated by its signature light beams allure the visitors of the state to the area right on the outskirts of the small town of Page.
No doubt, Arizona has plenty of natural and man-made attractions that amuse locals and visitors alike. At one point, we had followed a trend and took a great pleasure in exploring these marvelous landmarks.
During our recent visit to the Grand Canyon State, however, none of them interested us. A few hidden gems, or as many call them the best-kept secrets, of Arizona did, though. And we certainly went far off the beaten path to find them.
TOP 10 HIDDEN GEMS AND BEST-KEPT SECRETS IN ARIZONA
1. Cathedral Wash Trail
Even though we had clearly missed the Cathedral Wash Trailhead upon entering Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, majestic sandstone formations along Lees Ferry Road quickly dispelled this disappointment.
The wide at the bottom rocks narrowed their “spires” as if they tried to touch the sky with them. Taking advantage of this secluded location, mushroom rocks forsook all the precaution and festooned the northern part of Arizona right off the main road.
Although we still berated ourself for our lack of attention that had forced us to miss the trailhead, these secret landmarks quickly compensated for the lost time.
Yet one of the most remarkable hidden gems in this part of Arizona awaited us a few minutes later. Once we made a U-turn and drove back closer to the entrance we had come from, missing the Cathedral Wash Trailhead, located on the right side of the road at this time, was impossible.
The Cathedral Wash Trail runs under a tiny tunnel under Lees Ferry Road before diving into a constantly changing slot canyon. The stony walls along the 1.5-mile hiking path rise gradually.
Pretty broad at the beginning, the trail narrows as you hike farther. Approximately 0.4 mile into the hike, the tall walls turn into giants towering over the deep canyon. The hike, as you would call it, stops at this point. Scrambling over large rocks and walking on protruding ledgers becomes your next activity.
Not so Hidden Gems in Arizona
Eventually, the walls retreat. The trail meets the canyon floor once again. And you are off to meet a few more hidden gems in this part of Arizona. Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River, both located on the other end of the Cathedral Wash Trail, are certainly not considered the best-kept secrets of the state.
Yet this particular spot where the river is so clear and the great abyss showcases only one side of its massive walls can surely fall into the category of the hidden gems of Arizona. Who knows it better that rafters that travel past the towering cliffs down the whirling river to new adventures and hidden spots in Arizona?
2. Grand Falls
Grand Falls is, as its name suggests, grand. Yet not many newcomers know about this secluded waterfall, which makes it one of the biggest hidden gems in Arizona. The roaring giant sits northeast of Flagstaff, on the Navajo Nation territory. At 181 feet high, it’s higher than Niagara Falls.
And if it’s not enough, the color of the cascading water resembles the shades of milk chocolate. Considering these unusual tones, the locals has nicknamed this secret waterfall the Chocolate Falls.
But it’s not the only feature that sets Grand Falls apart from some other hidden gems in Northern Arizona. Dispersing its splashing water in all direction, the waterfall creates distinctive rainbows that rise above its floor.
The Arizona’s largest hidden waterfall puts on a dazzling show thorough the year. Yet the best time to admire these natural performances are March and April.
3. Wupatki National Monument
The northern region hasn’t been one of the best-kept secrets of Arizona forever. Nearly 900 years ago, the area thrived. It supported the ancient Pueblo peoples for nearly a century.
Yet when the climate changed, the ancient tribes started leaving their thriving cultural and trading center. Today, Wupatki National Monument is the epitome of Arizona that went backward from a host of the popular towns to an area packed with the hidden, almost forgotten gems.
The once fertile soil that attracted the first permanent residents doesn’t produce anything but weeds. And even these are scarce. On the other hand, abundant secret ancient ruins still remind of the heyday of Northern Arizona.
The survived remains of the old dwellings stop the visitors in their tracks in different parts of the monument. The most prominent ancient hidden gems in this region of Arizona can be found along the Wupatki Pueblo Trail, Wukoki Pueblo Trail, and the Citadel Pueblo.
READ MORE: The 6 Best Ancient Stand-Alone and Cliff Dwellings in Arizona
4. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
You don’t need to drive far to find another hidden gem in Arizona. Adjacent to Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument unveils a few other secrets of the area. The youngest volcanic area in the region, Sunset Crater surprises its infrequent visitors with hiking trails that run though hardened black lava.
Peeking into a cider cone is the ultimate reward that awaits those who go off the beaten path in search of the hidden gems in Northern Arizona. This activity, however, started gaining popularity.
It got to that point that the favorite Sunset Crater Trail started alluring more adventure seekers than it could safely accommodate. To preserve the area, the trail was permanently closed a few decades ago.
The Lenox Crater Trail stepped in to offer a stunning alternative route. It delights the locals and visitors of Arizona with splendid views of such hidden gems as the Bonito Lava Flow, O’Leary Peak, and Sunset Crater Volcano itself.
5. Sycamore Falls
Sycamore Falls stands out among the other hidden gems in Arizona for one reason. A seasonal attraction, the waterfall shows its true potential to only a handful of the travelers that calculate the time of their visits right.
Considered a best-kept secret of Arizona even among the locals, Sycamore Falls nestles in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. The closest town, Williams, is only 15 miles away from here.
While such close proximity allows for a quick adventure into the woods almost any time of the day, the waterfall doesn’t shed its “hidden gem” status until spring run-off. Summer thunderstorms that normally occur between July and September revive the waterfall once again.
For the rest of the year, Sycamore Falls remains dormant. Only a tiny trickle plunges into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. This, pared with the secluded location, allows Sycamore Canyon remain one of the best-kept secret destinations in Arizona up to this day.
6. Hualapai Mountain Park
Hualapai Mountain Park has a far greater neighbor that steals the show again and again, leaving the humble park underrated and unexplored. Located on the outskirts of Kingman, a getaway to Grand Canyon West Rim and its popular Skywalk Experience, Hualapai Mountain Park stays on the radar of mostly the locals.
The Sky Island, as they call it, however, is truly one of the most impressive hidden gems in entire Arizona. Surrounded by a vast desert, this isolated mountain range is out of this world.
While scorching sun and gusty winds force the visitors of Arizona look for shelter indoors, Hualapai Mountain Park stays cool and protected from the forces of nature throughout the year.
A myriad of easy hiking trails crisscross the area, bringing this hidden spot one step closer to the oblivious visitors. In winter, you can alway count on this secret spot to find a winter wonderland in the northwestern corner of Arizona.
7. Lava River Cave
One of the tiniest hidden gems sits just 14 miles north of the Arizona’s city of Flagstaff. Concealed inside the Coconino National Forest, the Lava River Cave is a mile-long lava tube cavern.
The dark cave is nowhere as popular as some other favorite and secret locations in Arizona. Somewhat spooky and freezing-cold even in summer, this hidden gem was formed roughly 700,000 years ago. Melted lava from an erupted nearby volcano flowed through the area, emptying out the cavern along the way. Stone icicles “grew” from the ceiling, pointing out where a final explosion of volcanic heat occurred.
While the Lava River Cave is still regarded as one of the most protected hidden gems in Arizona, more adventurers strive to see it in person. All secret places get discovered, after all. Or maybe like a magnifying glass, the relatively small size of the cave supersizes the attention this hidden area in Northern Arizona has received lately.
8. Montezuma Castle
The area near Camp Verde is packed with some ancient hidden gems Arizona is famous for. Once home to the Sinagua Indians, Montezuma Castle has stirred up interest among history buffs since 1906. To protect the cultural heritage of the Native Americans, Theodor Roosevelt proclaimed the area a national monument.
But the massive cliff near Beaver Creek had enticed its first settlers centuries before that. A real hidden gem even back then, the region provided protection and abundance of food. While the river and fertile soil ensured a steady supply of food, the giant limestone cliff enabled the ancient tribes to build their primitive abodes. Nearly 20 rooms were built inside the rocky wall.
The Sinagua Indians left Montezuma Castle by 1425. What forced them to get moving is still a mystery to be uncovered. Their old dwellings, however, have been protected and shared with those who long to see more of Arizona and its best-kept secrets and hidden gems.
9. The Wave – One of the Most Restricted Hidden Gems in Arizona
An elusive rock formation in Marble Canyon interests every adventurous traveler exploring the American Southwest. Resembling the Fire Wave in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, the Wave is a colorful depression located along the border of Utah and Arizona.
Many sacrifice a lot to reach this exclusive secret attraction of Arizona. The visitors hike for six, often more, miles a day to get a chance to walk on and photograph the Wave. Yet despite its popularity, the landmark remains one of the most regulated hidden gems in Arizona.
To get to the Wave, you must obtain a hiking permit. With only 64 of them available per day (48 online, 16 walk-in), the chances of venturing into the untrodden desert realm are pretty slim. Thus, you must plan your visit to this secret location months in advance.
The odds that you can get a lucky walk-in ticket diminish even more during the busiest months: April, May, September, and October.
10. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Any cliff dwellings are in essence secret locations. This is especially true when you look at the ancient lodgings in Walnut Canyon National Monument. Located mere 17 minutes from Flagstaff, Arizona, the area is home to some 25 ancient dwellings hidden in a cliff.
It’s been nearly 900 years since the Sinagua Indians occupied the area. The rich soil and secluded location worked perfectly for the first permanent settlers that lived in the region for almost 150 years.
By 1225 – 1250, the ancient tribes left the present-day Walnut Canyon area. Their houses remained some of the most unreachable hidden gems in Arizona for nearly 600 years.
With construction of the railroad underway in the 1880s, treasure hunters flocked to the area. Soon one of the best-kept secrets in Arizona was on the verge of complete disappearance. To protect what was left from the first settlers, in 1915 the area was declared a national monument.
The secret cliff dwellings remain one the most protective hidden gems in Arizona up to this day. While a new, convenient Island Trail allows the visitors to get closer to the area that the ancient Sinagua peoples accessed by roped and primitive ladders, walking into the cliff dwellings in strictly prohibited. These hidden gems must be protected for many other locals and visitors of Arizona to enjoy.
11. London Bridge in Lake Havasu City
We have a surprise bonus for those who made all the way to the end of this list of the hidden gems and best-kept secrets in Arizona. Residing in Lake Havasu City since 1971, the London Bridge is one of those unique attractions that get worldwide recognition, but are still unknown in their home country.
Truth be told, Arizona is not even the original home of the London Bridge. The centuries-old structure connected the banks of the River Thames in London for more than a century. Later when it wasn’t able to accommodate ever-growing traffic of the city, it was sold to American businessman Robert P. McCulloch, dismantled, and shipped to Arizona.
The historic bridge was rebuilt in Lake Havasu City between 1967 and 1971 and has been one of the most intriguing hidden gems in Arizona ever since.