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Arizona's State Parks

These parks have long been filled with Wild West history, Native American culture, and natural beauty. With new funding, they're now coming into their own.

Slide Rock State Park in Arizona, picture
Photo caption
Slide Rock State Park gets its name from a natural water slide formed by the slippery bed of Oak Creek.

From the craggy mountains of the Sonoran Desert pincushioned with saguaros to the craters and canyons of the Colorado Plateau, the national parks of Arizona have long attracted visitors from around the world. Arizona contains 22 national parks, monuments, and historic sites. Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Montezuma's Castle, and Saguaro National Monument come easily to mind. But now, with new funding, the Arizona State Parks are coming into their own.

Some seven years ago a diverse group of supporters, realizing that the Arizona State Parks were filled with wild west history, Native American culture, and displays of the natural forces that created Arizona, lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill establishing the Heritage Fund. This fund would earmark $20 million in state lottery money for the parks and the Game and Fish Department. With strong support from the Governor, the bill was passed in 1990, and Arizona's state parks finally had a consistent funding source.

The passage of the Heritage Fund was a windfall for the parks—the Arizona legislature hadn't been too supportive of the parks in the past. Six years later, rangers proudly show off new facilities, officials boast about newly acquired land, especially the incredible Kartchner Caverns near Benson that will open to the public in November of 1997, and educational programs are flourishing.

You can pass a state park on almost any trip through Arizona. Many offer RV hookups or camping facilities (generally $8-$15 per day). Day-use entrance fees range from $2 to $5.

Here are just a few of our favorites:

People galore at Slide Rock State Park, Sedona

Slide Rock is one of Arizona's most popular state parks. Seven miles north of Sedona, water-cooled flat rocks along Oak Creek offer respite from the heat, and a delightful place to slip and slide into the water. It's a striking scene just below the sharp peaks of the Secret Mountain Wilderness. There are also green fields and picnic tables, a volleyball court, and a cliff-top 1/4-mile nature trail. All sit on the old Pendley Homestead where visitors can meander through one of the few farms from the early 1900s left intact in the canyon today. The Pendleys planted apples that are still harvested, and you can buy the juice at the snack bar. Rangers offer guided walks through the grounds spring, summer, and fall, and bird walks April through November. The park is open 8 to 7 during summer, 8 to 5 in winter, 8 to 6 in fall and spring. (520) 282-3034.

Camera and hiking boots required at Red Rock State Park, Sedona
Five miles southwest of Sedona lies Red Rock State Park, an area once home to the Sinagua and Yavapai Indians. These 286 acres, at an elevation of 3,900 feet, are rich in wildlife and in stunning views of cathedral-like red rock formations. Red Rock is one of Arizona's newest state parks—the land was acquired from the Bureau of Land Management in 1986. The park has an exemplary Visitors Center and environmental education center, picnic areas, and five miles of hiking trails on ten developed trails. Pick up an ethno-botanical trail guide to help you identify the fourwing saltbush, or the broom snakeweed, or soaptree yucca, or the netleaf hackberry plants. The trails wander up and down hills and valleys. Guided Sedona hikes are held year-round. The park is open 8 to 6 in summer, and 8 to 5 in winter. (520) 282-6907.

Wildlife watchers rejoice at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Cottonwood
Bald eagles call the Verde River home in fall and winter, great blue herons live along the river year round, and a good place to see them is Dead Horse Ranch State Park. The river runs right through it. This area offers both desert landscape and a rich riparian area. Over 100 bird species and 350 native plant species live here, and hiking trails wind through the park's 320 acres. Depending on the season, you may see river otters, black hawks, coyotes, or beaver. Visitors can canoe, hike, bird watch, fish in the stocked lagoon, or relax at one of the grassy picnic areas. The park borders the Coconino National Forest, where more trails offer riding and hiking opportunities. Dead Horse is open year round. Camping fee is $10, $15 with hook-up. (520) 634-5283.

High on the hill at Jerome State Historic Park
Once a booming mining town, and home to the United Verde Copper Mine and the Little Daisy Mine, then a ghost town, Jerome is now an artists' village. Start your visit at the old Douglas Mansion, which offers an expansive view of the Verde Valley. It's now the Jerome State Historic Park (and once was home to the owners of the Little Daisy Mine). Here you'll learn that copper brought this hillside town to life when Winston Churchill's grandfather, Eugene Jerome, agreed to finance a mining project in 1882. Around the 1920s nearly 15,000 people called this precarious hillside town home. Years later, the town's foundation faltered due to open pit mining. The business district began to slide—the jail ended up 225 feet from its original site. After the mines closed, the town's population dropped to about 50 people. Jerome was rediscovered by artists in the '60s and '70s. The State Park is also a museum—don't miss the model of the astonishing mining tunnels that twist and wind like worms through this hillside. The park is open daily from 8 to 5. (520) 634-5381.

A slice of history at Fort Verde State Historic Park
In 1873, Tonto Apache Chief Chalipun surrendered to General George Crook at Fort Verde. Today, only the parade ground and four of the original twenty buildings that made up this post remain. See what an army medical office looked like over a century ago, or take a look at the museum in the Administration Building (now Visitor Center). Locals offer historical reenactments and living history programs; October 2 is Fort Verde Days, the local community's biggest event. The park is open daily 8 to 5. (520) 567-3275.

Big wonder at small Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
In 1877, while being chased by Apaches, prospector David Gowan discovered what is thought to be the world's largest natural travertine bridge (the span is 183 feet high). To dodge the Apaches he hid in a high cave inside the arch of the bridge for two nights, and on the third day ventured out to find an exquisite green valley, and he claimed squatters rights. Today visitors can poke around the historic lodge in the valley that is now the Visitor Center. Take a short but steep trail into the ravine to see the caves. Or, there's a lookout at the top. Both views of this strangely carved geologic wonder are spectacular. Rainbows shimmer through the waterfall that tumbles from the top of the bridge to Pine Creek below. The park's 160 acres lie in a narrow canyon surrounded by the lush Tonto National Forest. Tonto Natural Bridge is open 8 to 6 in summer, 9 to 5 in winter (although it may be closed during heavy winter storms). (520) 476-4202.

By moonlight in Lost Dutchman State Park
Local legend has it that in the 1880s a German, Jacob Waltz, hid a fortune in gold in the rugged Superstition Mountains. Legend says Waltz would disappear into the mountains, and reappear with gold, and he always out-foxed followers by traveling at night. Fortune seekers still hike into the Superstitions, through the 320 acres of the Lost Dutchman State Park, looking for the Deutschman's lost gold (Deutschman, which means German, turned into Dutchman.) Today, rangers lead full-moon hikes in the winter months, weaving through silhouettes of a classic desert landscape, and Saturday hikes beginning in November. The dramatic Superstitions loom over saguaros and splayed ocotillo plants. Cholla cling to what they can get their needles into, and hiking trails drop through sandy washes. Stop by the Visitor Center for maps. The park also offers shaded picnic areas, and camping. (602) 982-4485.

An appreciation of plants: Boyce Thompson Arboreteum State Park
If you have time for just one stop, this is it. The Boyce Thompson Arboreteum was created by miner William Boyce Thompson in 1923 to help "instill in humanity an appreciation of plants." The 3,000-plus plants that flourish here are from desert regions all over the world. Walk through the 323 acres, and Thompson's point will be made. Today the park, which lies beneath the rocky crags of Picketpost Mountain, is run by the state park system, the University of Arizona, and the Arboreteum Board. You can wander through the extraordinary cactus garden where prickly pears bloom bright yellow and red in spring, and learn the difference between buckhorn cholla and teddy bear cholla, or walk under the umbrella of the Mediterranean Fan Palm in the palm collection. Don't miss the arboreteum's herb garden, rose garden, two boojum trees, or the Demonstration Garden rich with water-efficient plants—its brilliant flowers will amaze. Boyce Thompson is also home to a plethora of snakes, insects, mammals, and over 240 species of birds. (A field checklist and a detailed trail guide is available at the Visitor Center.) Take your hiking boots, and leave yourself time for this remarkable spot. And don't forget your camera—even the surrounding wilderness is beautiful with saguaro, yucca, and agave. The park is open 8 to 5, daily, except Christmas. (520) 689-2811.

To the top: Picacho Peak State Park
The westernmost battle of the Civil War took place in 1862 in this area of eroded lava flows just off Interstate 10. The Confederates won, but retreated thinking that Union forces from California were on their way, and would be too strong to fight. Bring your hiking boots to climb to the top of dramatic Picacho Peak. On a clear day you can see both Tucson and Phoenix. Water is a must, and climbing gloves could come in handy because part of the 1,500-foot ascent includes twelve sets of cables that help hikers manage the steepest spots. You'll trek through tall saguaro, buckhorn cholla, palo verde, ocotillo, desert broom, and creosote. Animals you may see include javelina, mule deer, fox, jackrabbits, and bobcats. Birds often seen include Gambel quail, cactus wren, prairie falcon, roadrunners and many others. Picacho has many new and improved campsites, and shaded picnic areas. (520) 466-3183.

On foot or horseback in Catalina State Park
Under the northwest face of the Santa Catalina Mountains and the high peaks of Mount Lemmon lies Catalina State Park. Here hikers, campers, horseback riders and birders can wander the 5,550 acres of the park through streams, dry washes, and canyons that are full of desert wildlife. The area was once home to the Hohokam Indians, and ruins can be seen on the grounds. Some of the 150 species of birds here include roadrunners, great horned owls, elf owls, purple martins, and blue-throated hummingbirds. Pick up a checklist; park rangers offer early morning bird walks. Horse-riding trails zigzag through the park, and there's an equestrian center that can be reserved for travelers with horses. Or saddle up with Walking Winds Stables, just outside the boundaries for a guided ride of the park and forest beyond: (520) 742-4422. The park also offers group camping or picnic areas, and many a hiking trail that leads into the surrounding Coronado National Forest. (520) 628-5798.

How San Francisco began: Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
In 1752 the Royal Presidio of San Ignacio of Tubac was established by Spaniards to protect nearby Tumacacori, San Xavier, and Guevavi missions from Apache and Seri Indians. The village that grew around the presidio was the first European settlement in today's Arizona. It was from here that commandant Juan Bautista de Anza III led a group of pioneers on a trek to California to colonize San Francisco. Under Spanish, U.S., and Mexican governments, Tubac was taken over seven times by Apaches. The park's museum offers an overview of the town's history. Tubac is now an artists village, and much time can be spent wandering through galleries. (Try Cafe Fiesta for lunch.) Take your boots to wear along the Anza Trail, which starts at the state park and traces (and crosses) the Santa Cruz River. The trail winds four and a half miles to Tumacacori National Monument (pick up a bird list at the trailhead). Tubac Presidio is open 8 to 5 daily, except Christmas. (520) 398-2252.

Many an outlaw passed through these doors: Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park
Built in 1882, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park is a good place to start a visit to this infamous Southern Arizona town. The building once housed the offices of the sheriff—including John Slaughter, a local cattleman-turned-sheriff who virtually cleared the county of outlaws. The building was also office to the city recorder, the treasurer, and the board of supervisors. The jail was in the rear of the building, under the courtroom. Today the building houses exhibits on what really happened at the OK Corral, and on the silver mining that made Tombstone fortunes, or you can belly up to a bar where the Earps and Doc Holliday once hung out. Just a block away you can walk the wooden sidewalks past old theaters and brothels, the Tombstone Epitaph, and of course, the Corral (entrance is $2). The Courthouse is open 8 to 5 daily. (520) 457-3311.

Photography courtesy of Postdlf/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in July 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.