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Off-the-Beaten-Path Arizona Adventures

Oh Arizona, with your sunny days, red rocks, and jaw-dropping canyons it was so easy to get lost in you - at least for a bit.


While most people know, or have heard of, places like Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Sedona, and of course the big daddy of them all: The Grand Canyon. In truth, the sixth largest state in the USA actually has a lot more to offer.

The gorgeous state of Arizona. PC Flroian Schneider.

Hidden caves, abandoned buildings said to be the home of satanic worshippers, and even an unused bunker meant to house 2,000 people. Yes, we would say Arizona has much more than just a big canyon (jk, the Grand Canyon is pretty dope).


Here are a few off-the-beaten-path places that should top your list if you ever find yourself in the Copper State.


Chloride Ghost Town

Part ghost town - part art installation, this abandoned mining town in northwest Arizona is a curious place to spend the afternoon in. The town was founded in 1862 due to the high amounts of silver, turquoise, and gold in the region. At its peak, it was home to 75 mines and 5,000 people. The town began to decline in the late 20s, and a fire that burned it almost entirely to the ground seemed to seal its fate.


While today the town does have its “touristy” side: mock gunfights, Arizona’s oldest post office, and an all-female gun fighting troupe, there is much more than meets the eye. For example, as mentioned previously, the bizarre junk art that lines the roads in the less historic area of town. Then there are the murals. Located 1.3 miles from town on a rough 4 wheel drive road, lies a massive piece of artwork (2,000 square feet in fact), done by a local prospector named Roy Purcell in the 1960’s. The mural, titled “The Journey” is deep in symbolism, including showing a yin yang symbol and the fertility goddess.

How to Get There: Chloride is about an hour and a half from Las Vegas (right off Hwy 93) and roughly 3 and a half hours from Phoenix (also on Hwy 93).


Cinder Lake Crater Field

Before a big event (sporting, musical, speech), you probably need to practice. But what if the thing you are planning to do has never been done? And better yet, what if the thing you are planning to do is done not on this planet? Well, that is where Cinder Lake Crater Field comes in. Located just north of Flagstaff, this former volcano was the training ground for NASA astronauts before their fateful trip to the moon.

How cool is this?! PC Arizona Daily Sun.

Chosen because of its porous gravel, the site had to first look more like the moon (making it easier to simulate for the astronauts training), so scientists came in and used hundreds of pounds of dynamite to create various craters. While many of the craters have somewhat disappeared today - thanks to weathering and erosion - you can still get a feel for what the faux moon would have looked like. Presently the area is part of the Coconino National Forest and is a popular spot for off-roading.


How to Get There: Head out on Interstate 40 from Flagstaff, then take exit 201 towards Page, Arizona. Then go 8 miles on Route 89 before turning onto Forest Service Road 776. Go down that for 1.5 miles before you reach the Cinder Hills Off-Highway Vehicle Area.


Grand Canyon Caverns Underground Suite

Today it might just be a fun and unique place to spend the night, but at one time the Grand Canyon Caverns Underground Suite was thought to be the last resort for up to 2,000 people.


The year was 1961 and then president John F. Kennedy decided to build a safe place for evacuees in case bombs began to rain down - this was the Cuban Missile Crisis after all. He decided the Grand Canyon Caverns was the perfect spot. So he moved enough supplies, including beds, TVs, radios, and a library, as well as enough food for a month, down to the caverns.

Today the suite is operated by Grand Canyon Caverns Motel, which sits 220 feet above. While you can rent the suite for a night (and thanks to the extreme depth and insulation of stone it might be the quietest room in the world) you can also take a tour.


How to Get There: Located on Historic Route 66 (near Radiator Spring Gas), it lies about an hour and half west of Flagstaff and almost two hours from Grand Canyon NP.


The Domes

Originally built to facilitate the manufacturing of computers in the 70s and 80s, the Domes were never actually completed. Half-finished foundations, crumbling walls; all of this makes for a fun and interesting pit-stop. Though beware there could (possibly) be some bad juju going on.


Some of the locals believe the abandoned facility is a popular spot for ritualistic witchcraft and satanic worship (you know, whatever). Most of those beliefs center around the tunnels on the eastern end of the facility. Though there is no evidence to support these claims, it might be smart to stay away from the tunnels out of safety concerning the questionable stability of the structures.

As of January 2019, the domes are still standing, though one has already collapsed, which has led to a crackdown on trespassers. Be aware that the ruins are on private land and you are trespassing. This could lead to law enforcement intervening. Be smart.


How to Get There: Located about one hour north of Tucson near the town of Casa Grande.


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Way down south, and we mean waaay down south - practically in Mexico, lies one of the prettiest biosphere reserves in the entire US. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument might not be one of the most well-known national monuments in the United States, but that is why it is so special. It is absolutely beautiful, even designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve, wild and somewhat hard to get to. On our Southwest road trip, we made sure to take the detour and see it for ourselves, and in the end, it might have been one of our favorite stops.


The park is the only place in the US where the organ pipe cactus grows wild, but the Sonoran desert oasis is also home to many other types of cacti, including the saguaro. It is also home to many animals, like owls, coyotes, scorpions, and tarantulas. We recommend stopping by and spending a couple of days during the month of January: everything is open, the weather is perfect and the creepy crawlings (as our camp neighbor put it) aren’t out yet.

How to Get There: About an hour and a half west of Tucson, down Hwy 86. You can also stop at Kitt Peak for a cool astronomy lesson.


Ajo

We have (probably) all been there. You are on a road trip and you stumble across a town that had previously just been a random name on a map but is now blowing you away with its unexpected charm and beauty. That is what Ajo was like for us.


Located in southwest Arizona, Ajo was once a copper mining hub - and even today you can still very clearly see the trace of that past. With its remarkable Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, mild climate (at least in the winter), and nearby adventures, the town quickly made a mark on us - plus they have a pretty sweet coffee shop downtown.

The sunny town of Ajo. PC Backroad Packers.

Learn more about Ajo here, and why it is not just a beautiful town but also a good symbol of what happens when people of different backgrounds come together.


How to Get There: Ajo is just north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (about 30 minutes from the visitor center). So about an hour and a half from Tucson as well.

Arizona is a special place. While on the surface it might just be a wide-open, dry desert spotted with metropolises, in truth there is a lot that lies beneath. If you want to learn more about Arizona and the treasures it holds then check out this article.

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