A local’s guide to some of the lesser-known but incredible sights to see in Northern Arizona.
View from Wukoki ruins, Wupatki National Monument
It’s no secret that the Grand Canyon helped put the state of Arizona on the map in terms of wanderlust potential. It’s earned its spot at the top of southwest attraction lists with nearly 5 million visitors a year. You don’t want to miss it. But as travelers, we often pride ourselves in finding the "secret" attractions that make you feel like you’ve truly experienced a place and not just visited. When in Rome, and all that.
To be frank, the places we are going to tell you about are not technically "secret" at all. To locals and well-prepared travelers, many of these places are well-known and well-established attractions. Still, the large majority of travelers to the area do not visit them...and we think they are missing out. Clickbait? Maybe... but we hope this series helps any of you out-of-towners make the most of your trip.
We will also be your guide to some of the secrets of these attractions that many don't fully understand. All are Northern Arizona gems worth visiting in their own right or in conjunction with a Grand Canyon adventure.
Wupatki National Monument
Wupatki will, of course, come up on a number of AZ travel destination lists due to its status as a National Monument. But it is often overlooked in final travel planning because of the other Native American ruin sites that can be seen near the Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas.
Wupatki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument
Why You Shouldn’t Skip It
At just a 36-minute drive north of Flagstaff, you won’t spend much of your day getting there, and you’ll have access to sister site Sunset Crater (the cinder cone and lava flow from the Colorado Plateau’s youngest volcano) that shares the same access road and fees. You can make a day of it by visiting both or even try to make it to nearby Walnut Canyon, though you’ll likely want to take another day for that adventure.
Arizona is home to a wide variety of carefully excavated and preserved ruins. But what sets Wupatki apart is the sheer size and magnitude of what remains. Wupatki Pueblo, for example, was, for a time, the largest, tallest, and possibly the most influential pueblo around and served as a meeting and trading center for different cultures. It housed 85-100 people and was surrounded by thousands of others in nearby communities.
People lived in and utilized the land in the Wupatki area for over 13,000 years. Extended drought and migration traditions caused most to leave in the 1200s. But until then Northern Sinagua, Cohonina, Kayenta and Hohokam peoples farmed and thrived in this area building structures that incorporated giant existing rock formations, remains of which have held up hundreds of years.
Things to Do
Onsite you'll find a visitor center, museum and park rangers for answering questions along with Junior Ranger activities for the kids. There are four trails ranging from .2-.5 miles that take you to the Wupatki, Wukoki, Nalakihu, Citadel, Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos. The park also offers a variety of guided hiking tours of varying lengths and skill levels from October through April, and even a Crack-in-the-Rock overnight hiking experience during limited times of the year.
As you explore, don’t forget to stop by the blowhole at the Wupatki Pueblo site. What looks like a stone bench with a square hole cut out of the middle is actually a geologic marvel. It’s connected to a crack in the earth’s crust caused by earthquake and it reacts to barometric pressure up top, either blowing air that will make your hair stand up or sucking air back down. It is unknown exactly what meaning this feature held for the people who built the pueblo, but it holds cultural significance for modern descendants such as the Hopi and other tribes as a place for prayer, connection, and spiritual strength.
Wupatki Moonlight Bike Ride
Cyclists won’t want to miss this favorite local tradition, especially if you’re visiting during the summer months during a full (or near full) moon. The ride (or coast) begins at Sunset Crater and ends at Wupatki for a total of about 15 miles, entirely downhill. With glowsticks strapped to their bodies and bikes and grins on their faces, riders of all skill levels and ages begin their descent along the downhill paved road around 9pm when the moon is high and bright enough to light their way. Some accept the challenge to see if they can make it all the way down without pedaling, and hardcore cyclists might descend the 15 some miles and then turn around to tackle the uphill journey all the way back. But families and visitors will likely want to have a car waiting for them at Wupatki.
Slide Rock State Park
Many a travel website recommends a visit to the unparalleled Red Rocks region of Sedona, AZ, but trust us—there are a lot of red rocks, and deciding where and how to experience them can be daunting. Slide Rock State Park really is a great place to start, as it offers stunning views of said red rocks while also letting you enjoy the cool serenity of Oak Creek and a lesser-known bit of history.
Slide Rock State Park along SR89A
Rock Sliding and…Apple Picking?
Did you know that before it was a state park the area near Slide Rock was a homestead? A man named Frank Pendley homesteaded the area south of what we know as Slide Rock in 1910 with an apple orchard and vegetable crops. His son took over caring for the property through the 1980s as one of the largest privately owned parcels in Oak Creek Canyon (most of the land being managed by the U.S. Forest Service, back then as well as today). In 1982 the family decided to sell the property and Governor Babbitt jumped at the chance to get ahold of it. Through a several years long battle for funding, creation of various foundations and committees, and requests made to the legislature, the State Parks Board acquired the property in 1985. Working with the Forest Service they were able to include the Slide Rock property and Slide Rock State Park opened in October 1987.
Pendley’s apple orchard remains to this day. Harvest season in the orchard usually begins in late August, and tourists visiting in the fall months can enjoy apple picking and Fall Fest in the beginning of October. They also have a Family Campout event in September to introduce families to the camping experience and encourage them to have future adventures outdoors.
Let’s not forget the main attraction: an 80-foot-long natural sandstone waterslide. The park gives you access to about half a mile along Oak Creek where you can swim, wade, and, of course, slide down various rock formations rendered smooth and slippery by time and algae. It’s no wonder that Slide Rock consistently ranks in the Travel Channel’s Top 10 Swimming Holes in the United States.
Slide Rock, Oak Creek Canyon
You will inevitably run into crowds at Slide Rock State Park if you come in the summer months to cool off. But if you consider the park’s lesser-known events and offerings, fall can be a great time to visit, when the apples are ripe and the water temps are still swimmable.
If you’re hoping to explore Oak Creek but want to get away from some of the more crowded trails within and near the town of Sedona, West Fork is a must. Located about 10 miles north of town, this is a great 6.6-mile roundtrip hike that the whole family will love.
The trail has its own parking lot (set your navigation to West Fork Oak Creek Trailhead) but it can fill up during weekends and busy seasons (spring and fall), so arrive early or late afternoon and consider hiking during the week and/or during the off seasons of summer or winter. You will have to pay a parking fee of $11, which covers your vehicle of up to 5 people for the day, but unlike many other Sedona hikes, West Fork does NOT require a Red Rock (or any other kind of) pass.
West Fork Oak Creek Trail
You’ll hike about 3.3 miles in with a total of 13 creek crossings using stepping stones as you weave back and forth. You’ll know you’ve made it to the end when the water gets deeper and you reach the stunning “subway tunnel” of red rock. This is a great spot to take a breather, eat a snack or meal, and then head back the way you came. Don’t forget to look up along the way; high canyon walls and intermittent forested areas make for beautiful photos and a respite from the Arizona sun.
Experienced hikers can continue for another 7.4 miles past the subway tunnel (for a total of 14 miles) through to the end of the canyon, but it requires some bouldering, wading and even swimming. It’s a gorgeous challenge, to be sure, but if you decide to take it on, check trail websites, message boards and weather forecasts. If it’s been a particularly wet season and flooding has occurred, hiking can become challenging and even dangerous with high water levels combined with cold temps and debris obstruction.
As with any Arizona hiking adventure, bring layers, sturdy hiking shoes, sunscreen and plenty of water.
Sycamore Canyon is actually Arizona’s second largest canyon, and the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness offers plenty of hiking trails, camping opportunities, stunning views, and serene wilderness experiences. But the crown jewel that many locals aren’t even aware of is Sycamore Falls.
Sycamore Falls, AZ
Located in the Kaibab National Forest just 15 minutes from Williams, AZ (and only a 5-minute drive from Backland) it’s easily accessible and only requires a ¼-mile hike.
This is a seasonal attraction, so you’ll have to plan your trip accordingly. Come during spring run-off or after a monsoon during July-August to be sure to see the falls in all their glory. Basalt cliffs tower dramatically above a natural stone pool below into which run two different falls. The area is known as Paradise Forks, with a waterfall at the head of each fork. After you’ve seen the first, head over to the opposite side to see the other. Mornings and sunsets are ideal for capturing the best pictures.
Dry Season Activities
Winter and dry summer months may yield a low or non-existent flow, but the area is still worth visiting in the dry season. The falls are a popular rock climbing and slacklining destination, so if you’re up above, don’t throw rocks over the edge to ensure the safety of climbers and hikers below.
Hikers can stop at the falls or take one of the other scenic trails that branches off from this point such as the trail to Vista Point or even the full 11-mile loop of Sycamore Rim Trail.
If you’re looking for a very different but equally beautiful canyon landscape, consider heading to the southeast trail system to tackle Parsons Springs Trail or Taylor Cabin Trail for a desert riparian habitat.
Backland Glamping: The Ultimate Hidden Gem
As a relatively new lodging experience for Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona visitors, we’d like to think that we could be included on this list of secret attractions. But we definitely don’t want to stay a secret. Consider Backland Glamping Resort the best place to rest your head on any Northern Arizona adventure. Come glamp with us—then tell your friends!