A Tic-Tac-Toe Look at the State
To describe such a big state, we chose to divide things into nine regions. We’ve described the regions briefly below, going counter-clockwise from the northeast, and finishing with the central section, where all the regions come together.
A reminder: Fill up often, take potty breaks where you can, and carry water. It’s a long way between towns in some areas of the state.
Northeast Arizona is home to the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Much of the interesting stuff in this area has to do with the tribes and their culture. Monument Valley became famous for its scenery because of the films shot in the area, but it’s also a Navajo cultural site. Canyon de Chelly was home to Navajos for hundreds of years before the U.S. cavalry, led by Kit Carson, forced them to leave for a time to live on a distant reservation, and it is their home still. It is also a beautiful and inspiring national park. The northeast regions is the Four Corners, too, where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet.
This is high desert country, with elevations higher than Denver and slot canyons that cut deeply into the great Colorado plateau along the northwestern side. Desert mountains are in the northeast and from the south the Little Colorado and its tributaries work toward the Colorado River itself. The weather ranges from hot and dry to cold and dry, with occasional cloud bursts to create raging mud rivers every so often. It’s beautiful, stark, wide-open space.
Flagstaff is the hub for the north central Arizona region, with the San Francisco Mountains to the north, the Grand Canyon and Marble Canyons beyond that, the Echo and Vermillion Cliffs, the Walnut Canyon and Wupatki/Sunset Crater National Monuments for entertainment and the junctions of I-40, I-17 and Route 66. It’s also the city closest to the top of Oak Creek Canyon. It has Amtrak service, too.
To the east, the desert stretches off toward New Mexico. To the west and north, the mountains and plateaus are covered with forests. Flagstaff and the surrounding area is wetter and snowier than the area to the east. The north-central region also has some of the youngest and some of the oldest exposed rock in the continental United States.
The northwest is desert mountains, the western Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, and the Colorado River. It’s old Route 66 and mining claims. For many people, this Arizona region is the route to Las Vegas up US-93 or to California via I-40. It’s also the Lakes Mead and Mojave. This section is divided by the Grand Canyon, with a northern section almost empty of towns and roads. The southern part isn’t a lot more occupied, but it’s worth a look for the magnificent scenery, the great dam and the glass walkway that goes out over a 4,000’ drop.
The land tilts downward to the west – it’s 5,200’ in elevation at Seligman and 540’ at Bullhead City – but there are mountain ranges that hide the drop off. Hualapai Peak, near Kingman, reaches 8,417’.
This is the Mojave desert, with Joshua trees along US-93. Lake Havasu is the home of London Bridge and a bunch of cool lighthouse replicas that serve as navigation points on the lake. On I-10, the town of Quartzsite is famous for its mineral shows in the winter, along with the amazing growth of its population each fall when the “snowbirds” arrive in their RV’s by the tens of thousands.
Lake Havasu was created by Parker Dam, which has the distinction of being almost entirely buried under the Colorado River. Of its 320’ of height, only 85’ are out of the river bed. Parker Dam provides Lake Havasu recreation, but its raison d’être is to provide water for Los Angeles and San Diego through the Colorado River Aqueduct and for Phoenix and Tucson through the Central Arizona Project.
The Sonoran Desert and the Basin and Range hold sway in southwest Arizona. Its low elevation and arid conditions make this a brutal country to cross, as hundreds of illegal immigrants discover each month, and the land is striped with mountains running in bands like stretch marks across the land. Yuma on the west and Gila Bend on the east more or less mark the width of this section of the state, and are connected by I-8. In the south, along the Mexican border, lie Organ Pipe National Monument and the border town of Lukeville. From there it’s only an hour’s drive to Puerto Peñasco on the Gulf of California. On the way from Gila Bend to Lukeville you can visit Ajo and Why.
Just across the border in California are the Imperial Dunes, which filled in for the Star Wars planet of Tatooine for some shots.
Phoenix lies on the north side, Tucson on the east, Nogales on the south, and the reservation of the Tohono O’Odham nation on the southwest. The Kitt Peak Observatory lies on the eastern edge of their land, about 50 miles southwest of Tucson. Saguaro National Park lies in two pieces, with Tucson in the middle. The Gila River Indian Reservation lies on the south side of the Phoenix metro area. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is also the area, as is the site of the westernmost battle of the Civil War at Picacho Peak.
I-10 cuts diagonally across from Tucson to Phoenix, meeting I-8 and I-19 along the way. The old road between the two cities is now AZ-79, which meets up with US-60 on the eastern edge of the Valley of the Sun.
Southeast Arizona is the Old West, with Tombstone, Fort Bowie, Fort Huachuca, and Chiricahua National Monument. It’s the land of the copper mine, with the Morenci mine being the largest open pit operation in the United States. The northern part is home to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and the south end of the scenic Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, which is US-191.
Douglas, in the far southeast corner of the state, is across the border from Agua Prieta, Mexico. Nearby Bisbee is an old mining town, with the Lavender Pit and Queen mines, but it’s also home to the Southeast Arizona Birding Observatory. Willcox plays host to 20,000 or more Sandhill cranes every winter and the area is world-famous for the hummingbirds and total number of species to be found there.
The Coronado Trail Scenic Byway runs its mountainous way from Morenci up to Eagar along the White Mountains. The Fort Apache Indian Reservation is in the southwest part of this section. US-60 winds its way through the magnificent Salt River Canyon between Globe and Show Low, which sits atop the forested Mogollon Rim.
On the northern side of this section, the land flattens out into high desert scrub. This is the home of the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. The Little Colorado flows north to meet the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon. The Salt River flows west to Phoenix, where it mostly stops, except in times of heavy rain and snow melt.
The central part of the state is bounded by Phoenix on the south, Flagstaff on the north, and Prescott to the northwest. Central Arizona is where it all meets. The Mogollon Rim, the Basin and Range, the Sonoran Desert, the high desert, the great Ponderosa Pine forests all come together here. I-17 runs north-south across the area and AZ-87 runs northeast to Payson and beyond.
The temperature range is just as wide, with snow in May in the higher elevations and 100-degree days from mid-May to the end of September in the desert. Almost all the population is in the Valley, though streamers of towns are extending up I-17. Payson and Pine are in the eastern section along the Mogollon Rim. In the far northeast part of this section is the Meteor Crater.