This article was originally published on August 22, 2014. It was updated on April 15, 2019.
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." More than 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.
Maybe it's been a while since you explored them. But now is a great time to get out there and make friends with nature, because Free Park Day is happening on Saturday, April 20. It's the start of National Park Week, which runs through Sunday, April 28.
At last count, 419 areas have been assigned national park status across the country — including everything from wildlife refuges to forests to recreation areas. Approximately 110 of these federal lands charge entrance fees, be it for individuals or motor vehicles.
In Arizona, eight monuments and four parks typically charge admission fees, so those are the best places to begin if you’re all about saving money during free park days. We’ve marked them with an asterisk, to save you some legwork. And we’ve listed all the state’s national parks and monuments here, as a friendly reminder that they’re all worth a visit.
During fee-free days, you’ll find that 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. It’s worth hopping on the National Park Service website before you head out, just to check the fine print – including any timely alerts about trail closures or weather conditions.
Beyond Arizona's state parks, plenty of designated historic sites, national parks, memorials, monuments, and recreation areas are scattered from the Four Corners northeast to the deep Southwest, offering something for everyone. Happily, all are included in Free Park Day.
Canyon de Chelly
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*
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.
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.
Arizona is home to one of the most popular parks in the country. Open year-round, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon 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.
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.
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. 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*
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.
Given the technical, hyphenated name of the 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.
Petrified Forest National Park
Northeastern Arizona is home to some of the state's more unexpected natural treasures, and Petrified Forest National Park is certainly among them. 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, Martha’s Butte, Painted Desert Rim, or Red Basin. Also, check out a new exhibit related to the area’s history while you’re there.
It seems fitting that a dry desert would celebrate an area where water runs free. Settlers from Native Americans to pioneers and ranchers created homes in the area. The Pipe Spring National Monument region now houses museums and guided tours that offer insights into the region’s history.
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.
Sunset Crater Volcano*
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. Sunset Crater Volcano was given national monument status in 1930 to preserve the geological implications brought on by embers, which gave way to unique, colorful, rugged terrain.
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.
The Tuzigoot community and its crowning hilltop achievement, Tuzigoot National Monument (a 100-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, comprising 42 acres, is popular with both museum- and trail-goers.
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 at Walnut Creek National Monument, but visitors can hike along the canyon's rim to get a closer look.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
* These parks and monuments regularly charge fees.
The National Parks Service offers fee-free entrance several days each year. Upcoming fee-free days include Sunday, August 25, in honor of the National Park Service anniversary; Saturday, September 28, for National Public Lands Day; and Monday, November 11, in observance of Veterans Day.
For a complete list of National Park Service offerings in Arizona, visit nps.gov/state/az.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.