World-famous for being the Grand Canyon State, Arizona welcomes more than 4.5 million annual visitors, most of whom head to its famed natural wonders. Nevertheless, Arizona is also dotted with charming small towns and villages that are a nod to the state's renegade past. In fact, many of the more secluded settlements are former stomping grounds of gun-slinging cowboys, providing a cultural alternative to the awe-inspiring natural landmarks that the majority of people come to Arizona to see. While most visitors in the state arrive to the capital Phoenix and then travel straight to the famed Grand Canyon, if you have a little extra time on your hands, you can also visit some of the Arizona's best-kept secrets.
This small, sparsely populated town in southwest Arizona’s Pinal County was named after a U.S. army general by the name of Stephen Watts Kearny, who passed through the town in the 1840’s.
The endless, sprawling desert that surrounds Kearny makes a visit here even more rewarding. It feels like you’re a million miles away from civilization, and you can get a feel for the Old West that dominated America in centuries gone by.
Nowhere is this throwback better enjoyed than at Goldfield Ghost Town, where you can explore the abandoned buildings and wander around the wide-open streets that resemble a Western movie set. While slightly north of Kearny, lies the Riverside Stage Station, the site of many stagecoach robberies during the lawless times of the Wild West.
It was the last station that held the Apache Kid and other Apache warriors being transported to Yuma. For any Western movie fan, it’s a must-visit destination.
Being a small desert town, Kearny is also home to many hiking trails into the surrounding wilderness, including Pinal County’s four state parks, four wilderness areas and one scenic national route. From this are many subsequent tracks to follow, particularly the Lost Goldmine Trail and the Arizona National Scenic Trail, making Kearny the perfect place to begin your hike into the desert.
photography by: J Etzel
An unincorporated community in Navajo county, Woodruff is best described as a semi-ghost town. Although a small population of folk still live here, many buildings have been abandoned, as people left the small town to avoid the constant floods that would sweep into the community seasonally.
Not far from Woodruff is Silver Creek, a 72km long stream that is a tributary of the Little Colorado River. The canyons that rise up from the creek are an ideal spot for hiking, offering stunning vistas down to the water and out across the desert as far as the eye can see.
If you start your walk on the Woodruff Hiking Trail, you will eventually arrive at a beautiful little waterfall that spills into the Colorado River. It’s a lovely spot to sit with a picnic while watching the resident birds that pass by overhead.
Woodruff is also home to Blue Rooster Hunting Ranch, which is self-proclaimed to be the most refined hunting ranch in the state of Arizona. You can hunt various animals on the ranch, including bison, boar and game on the backdrop of the desert scenery. There is also a hunting lodge on site, accommodating up to ten hunters depending on availability.
Ajo is situated at the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, it’s a charming little town that brings lots of character to the otherwise barren landscape.
As is the case with many other towns in rural Arizona, Ajo is a historic mining community that was once thriving. Now, only 4,000 residents live here, but it’s a highly diverse and welcoming town that still has much to offer.
The nearby New Cornelia mining pit, formerly one of the largest copper mines anywhere in the world serves a breathtaking dystopian site. At over one mile wide, it’s possible to walk around the rim of the mine and look down into the turquoise lake at the bottom.
Additionally, Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of tribal and public land, home to hundreds of species of bird and wildlife that is unique to the area. You can hike independently through the nearby Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and even take some camping supplies and sleep out under the stars.
photography by: Jeff Hollett
It’s most likely that only few people have heard of Willcox, as it’s one of the best kept local secrets in Arizona. For a tiny town, it’s packed with attractions and where many of the state’s budding wineries that are quickly developing a good reputation for their delightful produce.
Offering sampling of local wine, the town’s Trust Gallery showcases the works of some of the region’s artisans and artists. It’s a great place to get a feel for the area’s culture before heading out and seeing what else the small town has to offer.
On the outskirts of Willcox, lies the formidable Chiricahua National Monument. It covers approximately 12,000 acres of the surrounding desert, and the jagged peaks that form the site reach up to 3 kilometers in height. You can walk amongst the peaks or drive through the park, thanks to the paved roads that have been added in recent times.
Bird lovers will also want to visit the crane observatory on E. Golf Course Drive, where visitors sit back on the grassy mounds surrounding the lake and watch the sandhill cranes take to the sky, a spectacle that will undoubtedly stay with you for a long time.
photography by: Eric McCarthy
Bagdad sits in the center of Arizona and claims to be “The best copper town anywhere”. The main attraction of this desert town is the mine overlook, where it’s possible to look down into the deep copper mine that once provided livelihoods to the town’s folk for many years.
When you head out of town and into the surrounding desert, you will be captivated by the landscape. Interestingly, the region is dominated by the enormous Saguaro cactus, the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert, while the occasional Joshua Tree will break up the vast banks of sand and rock that make the area dry and arid.
Perhaps the main reason to venture here is to get a feel for what a company mining town is really like. Bagdad is essentially owned by mining company Phelps Dodge, who own most of the mining land, most of the town’s properties and many local businesses.
It’s also a pleasant stopover for long drives between some of Arizona’s busier destinations, as Bagdad is only a couple of hours drive from Phoenix.
The charming little mountain town of Greer sits at an elevation of 2,547 meters, making it the highest town in the state and the fifth-highest anywhere in the United States. Locally referred to as the “town on the road to nowhere”, Greer is at the very end of highway 373 that stops at the town.
Greer is an excellent place to enjoy outdoor winter activities like skiing and snow tubing, given its mountain position. The town also boasts Arizona’s highest zip line, “The Apache High Flyer”, bestowed with stunning views from over the White Mountains.
Unlike the typical Arizonian arid landscape, more than 90% of Greer is natural forest and meadow, providing a refreshing respite from the harsh desert environment. You might even spot golden eagles soaring above the pines and many of the elk, deer and antelope that wind their way across the forest floor.
The absence of light pollution and the clear, crisp skies makes this secluded community one of the best places in the whole country to stargaze, as the night sky is exceedingly dotted with glistering stars.
photography by: Teri Ellis
It’s true that state borders in the US are not as important as an international border that separates two sovereign countries, however, when four state borders merge into one point, that is undoubtedly a fascinating rarity that one should behold.
The locality of Teec Nos Pos, home to the iconic “Four Corners Monument“, the quadripoint where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. It is the only point in the U.S. where four states meet.
The monument itself consists of 4 squares, where each contour of which represents the real border, giving visitors the opportunity to sit or lie down at the exact point where all borders meet, and by that being in four different US states at the same time.
The natural areas surrounding Teec Nos Pos are ideal for hikers, who often ascend to the top of Pastora Peak. At 2,867 meters, it is the highest point of the Carrizo mountains and offers a fabulous view down onto the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Before you pack up and leave town, be sure to visit Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, the perfect place to pick up some Native American souvenirs and some mementos of your time in the region. You can find some lovely gifts to present to loved ones, as well as some traditional Navajo decorations for your home.
photography by: Doug Kerr