A local’s guide to some of the lesser-known but incredible sights to see in Northern Arizona.
Lava River Cave near Flagstaff, AZ
This week we finish our look at unique Grand Canyon area attractions and why you should consider adding them to your travel itinerary.
The Crack at Wet Beaver Creek
Arizonans love a good watering hole. Hot temps combined with precious little water often make cooling off as much a necessity as a luxury. We’ve shared a few popular Sedona options, but if you’re looking for an authentic Arizona swimming hole frequented mostly by locals, look no further than The Crack at Wet Beaver Creek. A beautiful destination of red rock formations for exploring, cliff jumping, lounging, swimming and wading, this local hangout located southeast of Sedona off of I-17 is stunning and the perfect place to beat the heat.
Wet Beaver Creek, Arizona
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No fees or permits are required for this adventure. You’ll park at the Bell Trailhead to hike about 3.5 miles one way to The Crack. The hike gets busy on weekends and holidays, so there is overflow parking at the Bruce Brockett trailhead, a trail that connects to Bell Trail and adds about half a mile to your hike.
The first 2 miles or so along Bell Trail are dusty, flat and hot; there is no shade and the scenery is nothing to write home about. The trail will fork, so stay to the left to follow Bell to The Crack. The last stretch involves some incline and effort.
Venturing right at the fork will take you to Weir Trail and another beautiful part of the creek. Your hike will be shorter, but you won’t have the cliff jumping options that are available at The Crack.
If at any point you’re willing to step off either trail down to the creek you’ll find great spots all along the way. But be prepared to do a little bushwhacking.
Know Before You Go
Remember that the hike along Bell Trail is not shaded, so protect against sun exposure with plenty of water, sunscreen and protective clothing. If you’re hiking out in the heat of the afternoon, wet some towels or clothing in the creek to wear back. Flash floods can also be a risk, so check the weather forecast beforehand. Cliff jump at your own risk and enjoy!
In the Age of Instagram, Arizona has, in many respects, become photographically synonymous with pictures of vibrant sandstone formations, specifically The Wave in Coyote Buttes or the whimsical curving orange walls of Antelope Canyon. These popular attractions are most definitely worth seeing. But due to their popularity, you’ll either be seeing them alongside hundreds of others (upper and lower Antelope Canyon) or you’ll have to win a permit lottery (The Wave), which can take years.
Sandstone Walls, Canyon X
Secret Canyon, Cardiac Canyon and Canyon X are all more secluded parts of Antelope Canyon that are less crowded than the popular upper and lower canyons and are available by tour only. These tours will run you $40–$300+ depending on the tour and outfit, but that might be worth it to you to experience these spectacular sights without having to face the crowds. You’ll have a Navajo guide lead you through the canyon providing information about the formation and history, and with fewer people, you can snap pictures to your heart’s content. Some of these tours also offer more private viewings of Horseshoe Bend.
If you’re up for a water adventure, consider opting out of all of the above and heading for Labyrinth Canyon. Only accessible by stand-up paddle board or kayak, this secluded slot canyon will give you all the feels of Antelope Canyon without the crowds and the high price tag for the experience. You just have to work harder to get there.
At Lake Powell you can take a boat from Antelope Marina over to the entrance of Labyrinth Canyon, anchor, and then take your smaller craft to the slot canyon. You can also paddle straight from the marina, but that’s about 11 miles and would likely involve an overnight plan.
You’ll paddle or kayak through the narrowing canyon until it becomes too narrow, at which point you can stash your paddle boards or kayaks in an alcove and continue on foot. There will be wet and dry sections depending on the season and water level. Once the canyon opens up, you can turn around and head back to your water craft.
Burger King: Kayenta, Arizona
No, we’re not raving about their Whoppers or promoting some kind of secret menu. But we do want to bring your attention to a unique display that just so happens to be at this out-of-the-way fast-food joint.
Burger King, Kayenta Arizona
Adobe Stock Image by Jovannig: https://stock.adobe.com/contributor/200879245/jovannig?load_type=author&prev_url=detail
Located in the town of Kayenta in northeastern Arizona (near the Utah border before you get to Monument Valley), this unassuming Burger King is home to one of the largest exhibits dedicated to the Navajo Code Talkers in the nation.
During World War II, the Marine Corps quietly chose 29 young Navajo men to create a code based on the unwritten and complex language of the Navajo people. It was a highly classified and highly successful form of communication that contributed to the major battles in the Pacific Campaign, saving countless American lives. Even at the end of WWII, the code remained unbroken.
The project remained classified until 1968, and with many of the code talkers reluctant to share their war experiences, the story of these remarkable young men often went untold. Owner of the Kayenta Burger King, Richard Mike, discovered that his father was a code talker decades after the war, and it is a fraction of his father’s memorabilia that is on display at the restaurant.
Today there are only 3 remaining Navajo Code Talkers, and they were not part of the original 29. As our nation loses these living testimonies, efforts have been made in both Arizona and New Mexico to create museums dedicated to their story. But funding and logistics have complicated those efforts. Until such a tribute exists, be sure to stop at the Kayenta Burger King if you’re headed in that direction to see evidence of this remarkable bit of history. If you’d like to learn more, there is another small exhibit in the back of the Historical Tuba City Trading Post, and there’s also a Navajo Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock, AZ that’s home to a large code talker statue.
Watson Lake: Prescott, AZ
Known for its unique granite formations and, at times, sapphire blue water, this is the first water attraction on our list that you won’t actually want to swim in. About 5 miles from the city of Prescott, AZ, Watson Lake offers a truly unique landscape and a host of recreational activities for the whole family.
Watson Lake, Prescott, AZ
The reservoir was created in the early 1900s when they dammed Granite Creek for irrigation purposes. Surrounding granite boulders known as Granite Dells have been dated back 1.4 billion years, and erosion over time has shaped the unique, rounded rock formations that we see today throughout the Watson and Willow Lake areas. Looming up out of the water these boulder sentinels look as if they’re guarding a cartoon or alternate universe, and they make for some exceptional views, climbing adventures and photo opportunities. While the water has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and has been declared unfit for swimming, there is still plenty to experience at this hidden gem.
Things to Do
Fishing, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, boating, and bouldering are all popular lake area activities. Parking at Watson Lake Park costs $3 per vehicle and you’ll have access to a large grassy area, picnic tables, grills, a playground, horseshoe pits, and an 18-hole disc golf course. There are also both reservation and first-come-first-served campsites.
A variety of hiking trails surround the lake including a 4.8-mile loop that takes you all the way around. And if you park at the Watson Lake Vista parking lot you can hike without paying the $3 fee. Peavine National Recreational Trail, which you’ll cover a portion of in doing the loop, follows the 1890s Santa Fe Railroad line and is a favorite of cyclists due to its smooth, hard-packed surface.
Know Before You Go
The dells and lake are fantastic subjects for photographers. Try visiting at different times of day and in different seasons to experiment with light and observe the brilliant displays of color on the water and granite.
Just as you shouldn’t swim in the lake, don’t let your pets drink from or play in it either.
There isn’t much shade at the campsites, so prepare accordingly for sun exposure.
Don’t forget to explore the Watson Woods Riparian Reserve located at the southern end of the lake that boasts gorgeous old growth cottonwood trees. And nearby Prescott is a beautiful stop with plenty of forest, history and local charm.
Lava River Cave
More commonly referred to by locals as the Lava Tubes, the Lava River Cave on the way from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon is a great place to visit for geology and adventure enthusiasts alike. Fourteen miles north of Flagstaff you’ll take Highway 180 to Forest Service Road 245, which takes you to Fire Road and the cave.
The cave was formed by a volcanic vent eruption near Hart Prairie. It’s approximately 700,000 years old and close to a mile long. The tunnel was made as lava cooled around the outside while molten lava continued to flow inside and then out.
Approaching the entrance can be a little daunting as it just looks like some dark holes in a precarious rocky façade. These holes form a skylight that you’ll climb through and down over fallen rocks to get to the cave’s floor. From there the cave opens up and you can make your way through the tunnel.
Entrance to the Lava River Cave
Adobe Stock Image by Gary Peplow: https://stock.adobe.com/contributor/210258240/gary-peplow?load_type=author&prev_url=detail
The passage is pretty straight forward, only breaking off into a second tunnel to the right that eventually meets back up with main tunnel. Ceiling heights throughout the cave range from 30’ tall to 3’ tall. Stay to the left for the easiest route with the highest ceilings. The right is passable, but it gets pretty tight.
Know Before You Go
Take at least three sources of light (think flashlights, headlamps, lanterns, etc.). A favorite rite of passage is to briefly turn off all light sources in the heart of the cave and try to see your hand in front of your face. Newsflash: you can’t. It’s really that dark. So don’t let yourself get stuck without.
Hardened lava ripples and fallen rocks make the floor of the cave uneven; sometimes it’s slippery, sometimes jagged, so wear appropriate closed-toe footwear, preferably hiking boots or athletic shoes with thick soles and traction.
Wear layers. The tubes are chilly (hovering around 42 degrees Fahrenheit year-round) and sometimes damp from snowmelt and rain.
Lava River Cave near Flagstaff, AZ
Leave furry friends at home. Not only is it hard for them to traverse the uneven, rocky terrain, but it can smell terrible for days down in the tubes if pets go to the bathroom in that cold, damp environment far from the natural elements that break down excrement.
While the cave is open year-round, the forest service roads that get you there do close for snow and mud in the winter. You can hike or cross-country ski from Highway 180, but know that it’s about 4 miles one way to get to the cave.
Make Backland your basecamp as you visit these amazing Grand Canyon area attractions
We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring lesser-known Northern Arizona attractions with us. With so many great experiences to choose from you’ll have reason to visit time and time again.
Backland would love to be your lodging home base for any and all of your adventures. Reserve your tented luxury suite today for an unforgettable glamping experience that will perfectly complement your Grand Canyon area itinerary.