Arizona is peppered with sensational landscapes – deserts lacerated with zig-zagging canyons, vast brightly coloured cliffs, boulder-filled creeks, and of course, the ultimate crack in the earth: the Grand Canyon. Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson takes on the national parks of this southwest American state.

“I’ll take them!”, I cry enthusiastically to a heavily bejewelled, tie-dye-dress-clad shop assistant. I’m trying on the comfiest pair of sandals I’ve ever worn. They’re made of yoga mats, which seems entirely appropriate, as I’m in Sedona, northern Arizona, the first stop on a clockwise round trip from Phoenix, in search of all the national parks it’s humanly possible to squeeze into a week. This particular little town has an unusual appeal – it’s believed by some that energy lines converge here to create a spiritual power spot, or vortex. Shops full of crystals and gemstones abound, and there are more healers and psychics in a one-mile radius than at Glastonbury’s Green Fields. I’m not exactly sold on the vortex issue, but you can’t beat the setting. Surrounded by the dazzling boulders of Red Rock State Park, Sedona is stunning from all angles.

It’s wildfire season, and nearby Oak Creek Canyon, enclosed by dramatic red-and-white cliffs, has been ablaze for days; it’s off-limits, as is, disappointingly, the popular tourist-spot of Slide Rock, where a natural water slide runs through the creek. My boyfriend and I take the less adrenalin-fuelled and fire-free option of hiking around the impressive Bell Rock (shaped – you guessed it – like a big ringer), via a stop at the spectacularly situated Chapel of the Holy Cross, built high into Sedona’s buttes and with fantastic panoramic views from its huge glass-paned front wall.

Red Rock State Park, Sedona, USA, ArizonaMonument Valley: Image by Helen Abramson

We have to take a detour to drive to our next stop, Flagstaff, 30 miles north of Sedona, as the direct highway 89A route is closed due to the fires. However, on arrival we are blessed with quality breweries (try Mother Road Brewery) and good food including sublime burgers from Diablo and tender ribs from Big Foot Bar-B-Q – conveniently set in a ladies’ clothes store. This university town is a pleasant surprise; the streets are buzzing with activity, and it’s obvious that this is a lively, fun, and on-trend kind of place, which somehow manages to remain unpretentious. It’s also 7000ft (2130m) above sea level, and though the altitude isn’t all that high, we seem to go a bit light-headed after one drink and are generally a little overexcited about everything. Either that, or we just ate too much BBQ meat.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is only about an hour and a half’s drive from Flagstaff. Nothing prepared me for the scale of this colossal crack in the earth; pictures don’t do it justice. It’s just so incomprehensibly huge. I have to squint to see the other side, and between that and tiny, little, insignificant me are dozens of mounds and giant rocks, each one an array of different colours, layered by hundreds of millions of years of erosion into profoundly captivating patterns and waves.

South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, North AmericaGrand Canyon: Image by Helen Abramson

20 more places to make you feel insignificant >

The approach to Marble Canyon, just south of the Utah state line and where the Grand Canyon begins, is not one you’ll forget in a hurry. On one side sit the Vermilion Cliffs, intensely red and imposing, and on the other are flat plains cut with deep crevasses, where creeks run down to the Colorado River. We hike through one of these mini canyons, down Soap Creek. The route is tough; it involves a long scramble down a large boulder field, where people have left helpful little piles of stones to show the way, and a descent down a rope ladder of questionable structural integrity, over a 25ft drop.

We hear the rapids before we see them, and the roar of the Colorado River is a welcome sound after a few hours in 40-degree heat. This isn’t far from Lees Ferry, where rafting trips begin their journeys downriver, and there are little beaches you can camp on along the way. However, preferring a real bed, we stay at the Cliff Dwellers Lodge, eat succulent BBQ ribs (again) and wonderful avocado pie (it really does work), and join local fishermen as they sit round a campfire and take the mickey out of our British accents under a star-filled desert sky.

We break up the journey to Monument Valley with a stop at little-visited Canyon de Chelly, deep in the Navajo Nation (Native American-governed territory). Set into the bottom of the canyon’s sheer sandstone walls sit the sheltered remains of the homes of Ancestral Pueblo Peoples who lived here from 750 to 1300 AD. The homes are still relatively intact, and, looking at them, you can begin to envisage how this ancient tribe, who preceded the Navajo, lived, back when the floor of the canyon was filled with lush rainforest.

Petrified forest, Arizona, USAPetrified Forest: Image by Helen Abramson

The iconic sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, on the Arizona/Utah border, look exactly how you’d imagine. Incredible, stark and seeming to pop out of nowhere, these rocks are the American Wild West of Hollywood movies, and the sight is eerily familiar. Staying in a hut at the campsite down the road and waking up to see a sandstorm take over the valley is enough to make me realise it is indeed very real, and not a postcard come to life.

Two hundred miles south of here, in the Petrified Forest National Park, lie the remnants of a land before time. Around 225 million years ago, uprooted trees flowed downriver and were deposited and buried by sediment filled with volcanic ash. The logs turned to stone (petrified) and transformed into a multitude of colour. The cross-section of a tree ranges the whole spectrum – an astonishingly beautiful sight. The ridged mounds of sedimentary rocks that make up the landscape of the national park look almost moonlike, and with the ancient logs scattered about, it seems even more other-worldly. Another day in Arizona, another epic, unforgettable sight.

Getting around

You’ll need a car to get to and around Arizona’s national parks. We used Hertz car hire: www.hertz.com, +44 (0)843 309 30 99. If you’re heading towards Page from the Grand Canyon, note that Highway 89 is closed from the junction with 89A to Page, due to a huge pavement buckle in Feb 2013 and is estimated to reopen summer 2015. In the meantime, you’ll need to take a detour via 89T.
Explore more of Arizona with the Rough Guide to the USA. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month