Oh America, the beautiful.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that created The National Park Service, it read in part, "[...] and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Almost a century later, national parks and monuments continue to do just that, boasting everything from impressive natural made wonders to the ruins of peoples past. Monday, August 25, is the 88th birthday of The National Park Service, and they're celebrating this milestone with a party of sorts -- Free National Parks Day -- and everyone's invited.
See also: 5 Places to Visit in Arizona
At last count, 401 areas have been assigned national park status across the country -- including everything from wildlife refuges to forests to recreation areas. Approximately 133 of these federal lands charge entrance fees, be it for individuals or motor vehicles. During fee-free days entrance fees, commercial tour fees, and transportation entrance fees are all waived. However, camping, third-party tours, concessions, and certain reservation fees may still apply at the park's discretion.
Beyond Arizona's state parks, plenty of designated national parks, monuments, and recreation areas are scattered from the Four Corners northeast to the deep Southwest, offering something for everyone. Aside from The Big Three (more information below), our aptly-nicknamed Grand Canyon State boasts five times as many monuments. All are included in this fee-free birthday celebration.
Grand Canyon National Park
It would be impossible to create this list without the grandest of them all. Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most popular parks in the country. Despite closures last year, the natural attraction drew four and a half million tourists last year and generated approximately $475,000,000 in visitor spending.
Open year-round, the South Rim is about an hour and a half away from Williams and Flagstaff, while the North Rim, the less traveled but equally breathtaking area, is located in a more remote area on the "Utah" side of the canyon. Drive up for a day trip, an overnight excursion, or a multi-day descent into the canyon, but be sure to give yourself a few hours minimum to explore the rims alone. Guided tours, mule trips, and river trips are all popular events, so plan accordingly.
Saguaro National Park
Talk about the Southwest or desert to just about anyone worldwide and they'll come back with one chief descriptor: cacti. The spiny vegetation is synonymous with our state, and Saguaro National Park just outside Tucson is a place to see them in all shapes and sizes. Tours are available for hikers, bikers, and drivers led by rangers. The park is separated into an east sphere and a west sphere 45 minutes apart (Tucson sits in the middle), so plan ahead if you want to tackle both.
Petrified Forest National Park
Northeastern Arizona is home to some of the state's more unexpected natural treasures, and the Petrified Forest National Park is certainly one. The 146-square-mile park is known for its fossils of everything from wood to alligators and encompasses the vibrant badlands of the Painted Desert. Plan for the drive to take two or three hours, depending on stopping and gawking. Or make a day of it and stretch your legs with hikes around Blue Mesa, Crystal Forest, or Painted Desert Rim.
Agua Fria National Monument
The most recently declared on the list (courtesy of President Bill Clinton in early 2000), but certainly not the youngest, the Agua Fria National Monument contains 450 prehistoric sites, four unique pueblo settlements, and intact petroglyphs. The sprawling 71,000-acre monument is only 40 miles north of Central Phoenix near Black Canyon CIty and Cordes Lakes, a distance growing rapidly shorter as our city expands. Visitors can enjoy hiking, big game and bird hunting, and scenic drives.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Indigenous peoples called Canyon de Chelly home for nearly 5,000 years, building pit houses and take advantage of the natural water resources. Today, members of the Navajo community still live, farm, and raise livestock on the canyon floor. Scenic drives and a single public hiking trail offer opportunities for self-guided tours, but because the canyon is in Navajo held land, tours down to the base or overnight camping are only allowed with certain permits.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Technically in Coolidge, not Casa Grande, the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument preserves pueblos from the Hohokam culture, including "The Big House," as the park's name suggests. The area is perfect for picnicking and brief, self-guided tours after a visit to the museum.
The park was undergoing renovations earlier this summer, which included a brief closing of the Visitor's Center. The park remains open to the public -- for free -- during this construction period. Visit www.nps.gov for updates or call 520-723-3172 before you go.
Chiricahua National Monument
Nicknamed "A Wonderland of Rocks," which admittedly doesn't seem all that appealing at first, Chiricahua National Monument is an impressive site at nearly 12,000 acres, boasting numerous unique nature-made formations. Explorers can enjoy eight miles of paved driving trails or 17 miles of unpaved hiking paths, ideal for viewing the natural beauty of structures like the Kissing Rocks or Duck on a Rock. All entrance and camping fees have been waived through Tuesday, September 30, making this one a fee-free choice through summer's end.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
It's 800 years old, has twenty rooms, and will certainly outlast every McMansion you'll pass on the drive north up Interstate 17. Montezuma Castle National Monument is a crowd-drawer, featuring self-guided chances to explore the five-story cliff dwelling through thick sycamore and steep limestone.
Navajo National Monument
Using natural sandstone and built on the remains of prehistoric homes before them, the Tsegi Phase pueblo villages feature architectural details still seen in modern-day building, like support beams and masonry walls. Then again, they also employ hand and foot holds. The Navajo National Monument is a place for visitors to explore these creations through ranger guided hikes and Betatakin Canyon rim trails. There are two on-site campgrounds Sunset View and Canyon View, available for overnight trips.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
An idyllic place for scenic drives and wilderness watching, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument boasts a diverse system of landscapes, animals, and 640 types of desert vegetation. Bring plenty of water and food: the closest town, Lukeville, is practically barren and five miles away, just north of the Mexico border. The largest neighboring community, Ajo, is 34 miles north of the park.
Parashant National Monument
Given the technical, hyphenated name of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, the monument is essentially the land surrounding and including its namesake. Roughly the size of Rhode Island (1,212 square miles), the expansive lands offers and ideal place for camping, off-road driving, and night sky observing. Areas are isolated, so prepare accordingly.
Pipe Spring National Monument
It seems fitting that a dry desert would celebrate an area where water runs free. At Pipe Spring National Monument, settlers from Native Americans to pioneers and ranchers created homes there. The area now houses museums and guided tours that offer insight into history.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
The largest naturally formed bridges on the planet, Rainbow Bridge National Monument would be nearly inaccessible if it weren't for our fair state. While the bridge technically is in Utah, it is only reachable via boat or on foot courtesy of the Forbidding Canyon by way of Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Plan accordingly, the bridge draws upwards of 300,000 visitors per year.
In addition to the Rainbow Bridge, we share the famed Monument Valley Park with our neighbor to the north. The tribal park is held by the Navajo people and is not eligible for the fee-free day, but still certainly worth a trip.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Nearly 900 years ago the Sunset Crater mountain -- which wasn't really a mountain at all -- erupted, covering the area with lava and changing the landscape forever. It was given national monument status in 1930 to preserve the geological implications brought on by embers, which gave way to unique, colorful, rugged terrain.
Tonto National Monument
Rediscovered throughout the Sonoran Desert, cliff dwellings were the ideal protection against predators and vying tribes during the 13th through early 15th centuries. The Tonto National Monument offers access to the Tonto Basin, with views of Roosevelt Lake, and a walk-through of a 700-year-old home surrounded by striking wildlife.
Tuzigoot National Monument
The Tuzigoot community and its crowning hilltop achievement, Tuzigoot Pueblo (a hundred room, multiple story creation) was built by the Sinagua people (who also created Montezuma's Castle) in 1000 A.D. and was abandoned four hundred years later. Today the monument is 42 vast acres, popular with museum- and trail-goers alike.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Just outside of Flagstaff, the limestone and pine covered walls of Walnut Canyon are as beautiful now as they were practical then. Hidden in the sides of the canyon are numerous cliff dwellings also built by the Sinagua people between 1125 and 1250 A.D. Camping and overnight stays are not permitted, but visitors can hike along the canyon's rim to get a closer look.
Wupatki National Monument
Researchers and preservationists have dug up many items traded along the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico in the ancient-esque ruins of Wupatki National Monument. Set aside a solid two hours to tour all distinct five pueblo areas, including Wupatki and Wukoki. Expect a half-mile hike in between each point. Pack a lunch and some binoculars, neighboring Doney Mountain Trail offers bird's-eye views of the entire area.
Other national recreation areas to explore include the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Fort Bowie National Historic Sites, and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
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Upcoming fee free days include Saturday, September 27, in honor of National Public Lands Day, and Tuesday, November 11, in observance of Veterans Day. The National Parks Service offers fee-free entrance days six times per year.
For a complete list of Arizona offerings and more details, visit www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparks.htm.