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Arizona National Parks: Your Guide to Planning Amazing Desert Adventures

Posted April 12, 2022

A woman, man and two young girls pose in front of the Grand Canyon wearing light jackets.A woman, man and two young girls pose in front of the Grand Canyon wearing light jackets.
A woman with long, black hair wears a white sweatshirt and blue tank top in front of a grey exterior.

Nikol Fisher

Nikol is a wife, mother, attorney and travel influencer/blogger. She loves spending time with her family, reading, writing, cooking and crafting. When they aren’t traveling, Nikol is busy planning her family’s next travels. She loves to explore new destinations with her family and share their everyday life and adventures. Nikol hopes to inspire and show other parents that traveling with children is not only possible, but also enjoyable.

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Travel has looked different for many of us during the pandemic. With safety as a top priority, my family was personally drawn to America’s national parks — many of which could be reached by car and offered ample space to spread out and spend time outdoors.

In the last year and a half alone, we’ve visited 20 national parks!

Most recently, Saguaro National Park, one of three Arizona, marked the 25th park we saw together as a family.

To help you plan a visit to these beautiful desert destinations, I’m sharing my insights and experiences at each park, including pro tips, where to stay and more.

For this trip, we stayed at Holiday Inn Club Vacations® Scottsdale Resort. On its own, this resort is a wonderful option for a fun-filled family vacation (or staycation), but it’s also the perfect home base for exploring any of Arizona’s national parks.

Two young girls in a pink (left) and yellow (right) t-shirt with denim shorts and sandals stand near a decorative main gate sign that reads 'Holiday Inn Club Vacations Scottsdale Resort.'Scottsdale Resort

Let’s start with some info about the different national parks in Arizona and what makes each one special.

What National Parks Are in Arizona?

Arizona is home to three beautiful and diverse national parks: Saguaro, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon. We have now been fortunate to visit all three!

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is home to America’s largest cacti and protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor.

Unique to the Sonoran Desert, its giant saguaros sometimes reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

A young girl in a white dress, straw hat and sunglasses looks up at a tall cactus under a cloudy blue sky.

The park is divided by the city of Tucson into two districts: the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District, about an hour apart from each other.

Though the east side is larger and has more hiking trails, the west side is lower in elevation, and you’ll be able to see more saguaros if you don’t have a whole lot of time to explore the park.

We hiked the Desert Discovery Trail and the Valley View Trail, both of which were family-friendly and let you see the saguaros up close.

A vast valley full of cacti underneath a cloudy, blue sky.

Pro Tip: If you visit the west side of the park, there’s a short, paved interpretive trail next to the Red Hills Visitor Center.

The Cactus Garden Trail can be accessed from the north exit of the visitor center or from several spots in the parking area.

Markers along the trail point out useful information about many of the plants. This is a great place to learn the names and many of the unique desert plants and cacti you’ll see during your visit.

Our favorite was the teddy bear cholla cactus!

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park, located near Winslow in northeastern Arizona, contains one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood.

These ancient trees have crystallized into rainbow colors over 225 million years and make up the Rainbow Forest, which is also home to the Rainbow Forest Museum.

At the museum, you can view paleontology exhibits and access many trails to see the petrified wood up close. We enjoyed hiking the Giant Logs Trail and the Crystal Forest Trail.

Two young girls, a man and woman stand wearing hats near a large petrified wood stump in the desert under a cloudy blue sky.

Additionally, Petrified Forest National Park features remnants from 13,000 years of human history, including the remains of villages, tools, grinding stones, diverse landscapes of wild grasslands, Painted Desert vistas and multi-hued badlands.

A man and two young girls wearing red walk a trail along the Blue Mesa Park.

Pro Tip: It’s illegal to collect or remove petrified wood from the park. There are gift shops within the park that sell petrified wood (that was collected from private land, not in the park) to keep as a souvenir.

However, there are also many gift shops just outside of it in Holbrook that also sell petrified wood with better selection and prices. We stopped at Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co. and picked up quite a few souvenirs!

Grand Canyon National Park

Drawing nearly six million visitors each year, Grand Canyon National Park is one of the oldest and most visited national parks in the country, and undoubtedly, it’s Arizona’s best-known one … for good reason!

The views are absolutely incredible, and everyone should be so lucky as to visit the Grand Canyon at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles (446 km) of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands. It’s home to the Grand Canyon, the immense gorge that’s a mile (1.6 km) deep and up to 18 miles (29 km) wide.

It’s absolutely enormous, and you could easily spend several days exploring this beautiful place!

However, it’s also entirely possible to see many of the highlights if you only have one day in the Grand Canyon.

A woman, man and two young girls pose in front of the Grand Canyon wearing light jackets.

You can check out the Grand Canyon through either the South Rim or North Rim, but the majority of visitors choose the South Rim because it’s open year-round, 60 miles north of Williams and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff.

The North Rim is closed for the winter between December 1 and May 15.

We visited the South Rim a few years ago and had a wonderful time hiking several kid-friendly trails, including the South Rim Trail and the South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point.

Two young girls and a woman dressed in blue walk on a trail alongside the Grand Canyon.

Pro Tip: Our biggest advice to anyone visiting the Grand Canyon (particularly the South Rim) is to get away from the crowds that stick to areas near the Visitor Center and Village.

If you drive just a little bit farther, you’ll get the most amazing views of the canyon and Colorado River from the Desert Watch Tower and other viewpoints nearby!

A worn, brick watch tower overlooks the Grand Canyon.


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Tips for Visiting Arizona’s National Parks

Now that you have “the lay of the land,” here are some of my top national park tips for planning your own adventures in Arizona.

Plan your visit for the fall or spring.

We’ve been to Arizona during the spring, summer and fall. The best time to visit is definitely fall or spring, when the temperatures are cool in the mountains and warm in the desert.

During the summer months (June, July and August), it can get pretty hot in the desert, so just keep that in mind when planning your trip.

And in the winter, the temperatures can really drop near the mountains — and yes, it snows in Arizona!

Bring more than enough water and sunscreen.

Regardless of when you’re going, if you’re planning on doing any hiking, always take enough water and sunscreen with you on the trails.

Find the best hiking trails for your group.

Do your research ahead of time and figure out which hiking trails are best-suited for your party based on length and difficulty.

You can always stop by any visitor center to pick up a trail map and talk to a park ranger for recommendations.

Get a Junior Ranger booklet for the kids.

Additionally, if you have kids between ages 5–12, consider picking up a Junior Ranger booklet at any national park visitor center.

These booklets are free and contain useful information and fun activities for your children to complete as you visit each park.

When they’ve completed their booklets, they can turn them in to any national park ranger to earn their Junior Ranger badges.

Two young girls in matching blue and white dresses wear two Junior Park Ranger badges in front of a green backdrop reading, 'Grand Canyon National Park'.

Where Should You Stay to See National Parks in Arizona?

Scottsdale makes a great home base for visiting all three of Arizona’s national parks because it’s conveniently located within driving distance to each one.

From where we stayed at Scottsdale Resort, Saguaro National Park is just a two-hour drive, Petrified Forest National Park is a little over three hours, and Grand Canyon National Park is about three and a half hours away.

Because of the proximity to the parks, you could potentially take a day trip to each of them or make Scottsdale a stop on your southwest road trip.

There are so many great things to do in Scottsdale that offer a nice break from hiking adventures.

Exploring national parks is exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting, which is why it was such a comfort to know that at the end of each day, we would get to go back and relax at the resort.

Here were some of our favorite things about it and what to consider when looking for places to stay.

Spacious Villas

Scottsdale Resort literally has everything you need to make it your home away from home.

The floorplans range from one- to four-bedroom villas, and they all include:

  • Fully equipped kitchens
  • Dining and living room areas
  • A sleeper sofa
  • A furnished patio or balcony
  • A full-size washer and dryer
  • High-speed internet access

A kitchen interior space with black appliances and light, granite countertops overlooking into the living room area. The full kitchen in a two-bedroom villa at Scottsdale Resort

We stayed in a spacious two-bedroom villa, and it was so nice to have a place where everyone could spread out.

There are grocery stores close by, and we loved cooking most of our meals in the villa. It was also great having a living room where we could watch movies or play games.

But the best part was having separate bedrooms! We still put our kids to bed on the early side, and anyone who has shared a single hotel room with their kids knows there’s nothing worse than sitting in a dark room waiting for your kids to fall asleep.

Because the kids had their own room, that meant that after they went to bed, my husband and I could enjoy time to ourselves out in the living room, kitchen or in our own bedroom — with the lights still on!

(From left to right) A woman, man and two young girls play a card game while kneeling near a coffee table and green chair indoors.

Pools

Our kids are happiest anywhere there’s a pool. At Scottsdale Resort, there are FOUR!

You can enjoy the pools year-round; they’re heated to 82 degrees and open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Pool towels are conveniently provided in your villa, too.

Two swirling waterslides, one green and white the other orange, are surrounded by palm trees and a pool.The Splash Canyon waterslides at Scottsdale Resort

We made sure to check out and use all four pools, but of course, we spent most of our time at Splash Canyon, which has waterslides and a splash zone. The best place to cool off on a hot Arizona day!

(From left to right) A man, two young girls and a woman in matching swimwear sun away from an outdoor splash pad area near a building exterior under palm trees and a blue sky.

Activity Center

Located on-site is an awesome, indoor Activity Center, which offers games, like ping pong, pool and table shuffleboard, as well as comfy couches and TVs.

There are also activities offered daily, which are especially great for kids, both complimentary and some arts and crafts that can be done for a small fee.

You’ll get a schedule when you check in and you can drop by the Activity Center any time you want. Our family especially loved Candy Bar Bingo!

A young girl in a pink rashguard suit holds a complete bingo card and a candy bar while seated near a table.

Dining

If you don’t want to cook all your meals in your villa, there’s a great on-site restaurant where you can have a delicious meal in a beautiful Southwestern setting.

ArteZania Kitchen & Cantina is open daily for lunch and dinner and offers traditional Mexican food with a modern twist using locally sourced ingredients.

Next door at the Marketplace, you can grab coffee and delicious breakfast items, along with convenience items, groceries, snacks, drinks and souvenirs.

Southwestern decor-themed dining room at Scottsdale Resort in Arizona. ArteZania Kitchen & Cantina at Scottsdale Resort

Between having fun at Splash Canyon and the resort pools, as well as the Activity Center or just relaxing in our villa, we got to enjoy some much-needed, quality family time.

The weather was still nice and warm enough to enjoy the pools, but not unbearably hot either.

Because of this, it was also wonderful to get outdoors and explore one of Arizona’s great national parks on this trip. Nothing quite compares to that Arizona desert landscape!

If you’re searching for a fun family getaway, Scottsdale and Arizona as a whole are the perfect destinations.

A woman in a floral dress, two young girls wearing white dresses, and a man in a red shirt and khaki shorts wear hats and sunglasses in a desert surrounded by cacti under a blue, cloudy sky.


Our guest bloggers are compensated for their writing contributions and honest opinions.

All information is subject to change. This article is a curated guide and is neither sponsored nor considered an official endorsement. Please be sure to check information directly with any/all tours, guides or companies for the most up-to-date and direct details.

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A woman with long, black hair wears a white sweatshirt and blue tank top in front of a grey exterior.

Nikol Fisher

Nikol is a wife, mother, attorney and travel influencer/blogger. She loves spending time with her family, reading, writing, cooking and crafting. When they aren’t traveling, Nikol is busy planning her family’s next travels. She loves to explore new destinations with her family and share their everyday life and adventures. Nikol hopes to inspire and show other parents that traveling with children is not only possible, but also enjoyable.

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