Backroads and Beyond: Arizona Travel Destinations and Unique Things to Do

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Seeking a safe haven from the bitter New England cold, we touched down in Phoenix on a late February night. Truth be told, we were looking for more than sunny skies and moderate temperatures. We were searching for the most unique things to do in Arizona. And while we did venture off the beaten path, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that some of the most interesting Arizona travel destinations weren’t all that hard to find.

Unique Things to Do in Queen Creek, Arizona

Silly Mountain Hike

View of Superstion Mountains from Silly Mountain trail, a travel destination in arizona
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Our Arizona travels began in the up-and-coming Queen Creek area. Our local guide, Candace, was filled with ideas on where to start our adventures, but highly recommended hiking the nearby Silly Mountain. With such a unique name, it seemed hard to go wrong, especially when she described the views of the nearby Superstition Mountains and the interpretive nature trail that would educate us on some of the native flora.

Silly Mountain is located in nearby Apache Junction and sports 3.5 miles of trails covering up to 2,139 feet in elevation gain. That’s no silly challenge for those of us living at sea level but can be easily scaled to your individual skill level.

We tackled the Botanical Walk first, where Candace pointed out some of the most prevalent plant life in the area. Striking out from there, it was easy to hop onto the Palo Verde trail and begin the upward trek.

Seeking the best views, we transferred over to the Brittlebush trail where the ascending hike began in slightly more earnest. Soon, a switchback helped to even out the climb and diminish the upward burden, but it didn’t last for long. We jumped onto the aptly named Superstition View trail and followed the narrow rocky deer path up the side of Silly Mountain, thoroughly enjoying the company of the nearby Superstitions most of the way.

One of the best things about hiking Arizona’s Silly Mountain is the variety of trails and the crisscrossed nature of their layout. While some of the best sights are found in the higher elevations, it’s often possible to transfer to another trail if you find yourself overtaken by the height or the steepness of the rocky trails.

The Silly Mountain Arizona travel destination is easily accessed from Highway 60 in Apache Junction.

Testing the Acclaimed Cuisine of Cucina Madrigal

Claimed by Yelp as the number one restaurant in America and featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show, Cocina Madrigal was a must-stop destination on our Arizona travel itinerary. Owned and operated by Leo Madrigal, this highly acclaimed restaurant features unique Mexican eats tried and tested on the head chef’s grandmother.

We arrived around 1:30, without a reservation, and were lucky to slide into an empty slot in the customer agenda. In about 5 minutes, we were seated with menus in hand, but make no mistake. Both the inside and outside areas were packed, even at a time when lunch crowds are usually dissipating.

We ordered the Oaxaca Fundido to start and quickly realized why Yelpers were so enthused by Cocina Madrigal. Topping off our apps with chicken and Beef Birria enchiladas simply sealed the deal, filling one more slot in our list of unique things to do in Arizona.

Unique Things to Do in Arizona on Backroad Byways

Trying to outrun the threat of heavy rain, we headed south the next morning, to an area midway between Queen Creek and Tucson. It’s a place where Arizona travel destinations are in short supply, but we’d seen something intriguing on a map.

Seeking yet another unique thing to do in Arizona, we headed south on Highway 87. Leaving the sprawling new construction of Queen Creek behind, we soon found ourselves in the Arizona of yesterday, before rapid expansion had pushed humanity to the brink of desert farmland.

Dusty ranches sporting the remains of last year’s cotton crop were one of the more unique sights as we traveled south into Coolidge. From there, it was a left at the Nikola plant onto East Houser Road, and then about 10 miles down bumpy dirt roads to the Picacho Mountains Petroglyph Site.

Many would-be hikers have missed checking this rewarding exploration of their bucket list, because they were unable to locate the area. It’s actually pretty easy if you just follow Google maps. Be sure to look for the dirt turnoff and the state trust sign to isolate the spot.

You’ll be rewarded right from the parking area. This is where the largest concentration of petroglyphs can be found. A quick scramble up what appears to be a jumbled heap of stones reveals a mix of ancient scrawlings unfortunately mixed with a few modern forgeries.

Petroglyphs at the little-known Arizona travel destination, one of the many unique things to do in Arizona.
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A 3-mile dirt trail leads around the rock mound through dessert cactus and other flora. It’s a trail that can be easily hiked or taken by car if you have 4-wheel drive. We were even fortunate enough to cross paths with one of the areas wild burros, who was inquisitive enough about our trespass to pose for several pictures.

Heading Down to Tucson to Meet a Sagauro Cactus

The nice thing about using Phoenix as your base of operations when visiting Arizona travel destinations is its central location. Heading out on the third morning of our trip, we left Queen Creek after 9:00 am and still landed in the Tucson area before noon.

Tucson is often regarded as the poor and less desirable neighbor to the greater glamour of the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. I was recently on a conference call during which a colleague recommended Arizona as a great place to live.

“Except for Tucson,” she said. “I grew up in Tucson. Tucson is bad.”

Maybe it’s the difference in perspective between resident and traveler, but we found Tucson to be a delightful mix of old west and up-and coming, where desert meets mountain in a glorious collision that brings out more than unique things to do in Arizona.

The first Arizona travel destination on our bucket list that morning was Saguaro National Park. Designated as a national park as recently as 1994, Saguaro land was set aside to protect this unique habitat, home to the nation’s largest cacti.

Giant Saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park, an Arizona travel destination.

The park is separated into two sections. We tackled the eastern portion first, starting at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. This area of Saguaro features an 8-mile loop road through stunning vistas and multiple sightings of Saguaro cacti.

You’ll share the road with other vehicles as well as cyclists who seemed less than tolerant of automobile visitors who wanted to obey the speed limit. Several steep sections make this a perfect place to enjoy the thrill of downhill speed, but according to park guidelines, cyclists are required to obey posted speed limits. It’s something to keep in mind if you plan to make your visit on two wheels instead of 4.

The eastern section of Saguaro also offers a few different hiking adventures, most reached from the visitor center, but if you decide not to venture out on bike or foot, you won’t have to worry about missing out in this section of the park. Abundant turnouts and overlook parking provide the perfect opportunities to get up close and personal with Arizona’s famed cactus species.

Saguaro National Park West Side

We left our hotel the next morning bright and early as the sun was just beginning to put some heat on the day. We had an ambitious itinerary of Arizona travel destinations to see, beginning with a visit to the western side of Saguaro National Park.

It’s probably worth noting here the distance between the two sections of Saguaro. The eastern portion containing the Rincon Visitor Center lies well to the east of the city, near the suburban census designated area of Tanque Verde. The western section of the park sits nearly 30 miles to the west with the entire city of Tucson in between.

Most people who visit the west side likely begin at the visitor center off of North Sandario Rd. We wandered in using West Picture Rocks Road, and highly recommend this route. There are few sights more amazing than watching stands of Saguaro cacti marching up rocky mountain fronts as the road twists and undulates before you.

Picture Rock Road leading into Saguaro National Park in Arizona
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Picture Rocks Road eventually meets up with North Sandario Road, allowing you to drop south to see the visitor center. Unlike the same structure on the east side of the park, the Red Hills Visitor Center is built to showcase the environment, including a large back porch viewing area overlooking a wash and the staggering array of Saguaro life.

Another recommended Arizona destination included in this section of the park is the Bajada Loop Drive. This 6-mile graded dirt road takes you out of this world and right into the habitat of the Saguaro.

We stopped at the Valley View Overlook Trail and started up the terraced path, through wandering cacti, for a couple miles, enjoying the far-off sights of city life in the distance and the more immediate feel of immersion with the dessert landscape. It’s a beautiful hike you won’t want to miss, even if you only take the first mile up the moderate incline.

Valley View Overlook Trail in Arizona's Saguaro National Park West.
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Back in the car we resumed our course to our final Arizona destination within the park: Signal Hill and a stand of rumored petroglyphs. Rising along with the terrain, we soon found ourselves overlooking distant valleys, always accompanied by the companionable Saguaro.

At Signal Hill Picnic Area, we set out on foot once again, taking the short trek toward the petroglyphs. The trail was easy to cross even if it did lead uphill, and we soon faced another valley overlook in front of a mound of rocks.

The number of petroglyphs in this location were sparse compared to the Picacho Mountain site we visited earlier, but the specimens were certainly similar. They were also well protected, so don’t expect to enjoy the same rock scrambling adventure here.

While Saguaro National Park may not be one of the more unique things to do in Arizona if you’re looking for hidden off-the-path adventures, it is one of the more fascinating, and certainly a destination not to be missed if you’re visiting Arizona.

Scenic Drives Near Tucson

Tucson Mountain Park Arizona Travel Destination

The rest of our Tucson itinerary consisted of two scenic drives. The first, we picked up heading south upon leaving Saguaro National Park and jumping onto North Sandario Road until we picked up North Kinney Road.

North Kinney Road continues south toward the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—another unique thing to do in Arizona—before delving into Tucson Mountain Park. You’ll travel past the remains of Old Tucson, a closed and seemingly abandoned movie studio and theme park, as you journey over sandy landscapes.

We picked up West Gates Pass Road around this point and drove through desert and Saguaro until we hit a steep mountain switchback. Soon we were elevated above the desert floor, overlooking peaks and valleys. A small parking area offered an opportunity to scramble up the smooth rocky mountain face to a graffiti-covered stone lookout.

Stone lookout in Tucson Mountain Park, a unique thing to do in Arizona
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From the parking area, the trail looked sketchy and steep, but I was able to make it up in my Roxy slip-ons, shoes offering little in the way of gripping tread. The way down was a little more challenging, mostly because I was worried about slipping in my inappropriate footwear, but the view from the top was well worth the adventure.

Tucson Mountain Park covers 20,000 acres of land, so even if you don’t decide to visit the lookout, you’ll find plenty to do at this Arizona destination. Activities include an archery and shooting range as well as 62 miles of non-motorized shared-use trails open to hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. The views from some of the less-travelled paths are rumored to be spectacular, but for our excursion, we remained on the paved road.

Traveling a Road with Many Names

Mount Lemmon HIghway, also known as Catalina HIghway,  as seen from a viewpoint in Arizona
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I first heard it referred to as the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway, but it’s more commonly called the Catalina Highway, likely to describe it’s path into the upper regions of the Catalina Mountains. Signs located along the road also refer to it as the Sky Island Scenic Byway, a popular travel destination with locals but one not always recognized by visitors.

According to the USDA Forest Service, the road is 27 miles long and is the only paved route that will take you to the upper peaks of the Santa Catalina mountains. Like other scenic byways we’ve traveled, the Catalina Highway makes a rapid departure from flat terra firma, quickly ascending from the desert floor to reach a final elevation above 9,000 feet.

What’s most stunning about this scenic highway is the diversity of the geology, and the opportunity to watch the raw desert landscape change with elevation into a lush and green oasis. Cactus and other signs of arid life gradually fade as you climb and are replaced with a greater abundance of trees and soon towering evergreens. In fact, the Forest Service likens it to traveling from the Mexican desert to the high forests of Canada in the short 27 miles.

The Catalina Highway was built largely by the efforts of prison labor. Early prisoners on loan from Texas when the project began construction in 1933 were gradually replaced by Hopi, Mennonite and Japanese-American draft resistors during WWII.

The road finally opened in 1945 just as the economy boomed and Americans embraced the great road trip experience. For Arizonans looking for unique things to do, the Catalina Highway offered more than a day’s excursion. It was and still remains a chance to escape the heat and soak in the cool and fresh mountain air.

When we left the valley on a cool 65-degree day in February, the sun was shining and temperatures were moderate, comfortable to bear in long pants and a sweatshirt. By the time we reached the town of Summerhaven at the summit, we were surrounded by snow and encouraged back into our Connecticut winter coats.

Summerhaven is a small village comprised mostly of summer cabins, but the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin is one stop you’ll want to make. While there, make time to visit the Living Rainbow Gift Shop or stop for some treats at Stompin Grounds Coffee and Kettle Corn.

If you don’t mind traveling the steep roads and switchbacks of the Catalina Higway at night, be sure to book a reservation with the Mt. Lemmon Skycenter for the SkyNights Stargazing Program. You’ll be treated to an astronomy lecture, light dinner and a guided navigation of the night sky that includes a peak through the Schulman 32-inch and/or the Phillips 24-inch telescopes.

Heading Back to Phoenix, More Unusual Things to Do in Arizona

Rooster Cogburn Ranch Arizona Travel Destination

An ostrich poses for a picture at Rooster Cogburn Ranch, a unique Arizona travel destination.
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Leaving Tucson the next morning, we reconnected with our local guide, Candace, and met up at one of her favorite Arizona travel destinations, the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch. Fortunately, the name is a little deceiving and Rooster Cogburn offers more than the opportunity to view a working ostrich farm.

Upon entering the enclave, we were greeted by a herd of mini donkeys all vying for a quick snack from the cups of food that are included in the price of admission. An official looking man quickly pulled us aside and rapidly explained which animals should be given the different portions of food we’d been provided in our assortment of specialty items and curious accoutrements.

Even though the cursory explanation was rapid fire and not easy to absorb on first hearing, it’s pretty simple to determine that larger animals, such as deer, goats and ostrich, should be fed from the cups with bigger pieces of grain, while the included tokens should be used to purchase smaller grain for the more diminutive residents of the farm, such as the chickens and ducks.

The biggest question of the day was what to do with the clothespin, asparagus and small lidded tub of liquid. Fortunately, Candace knew the inner workings of the ranch and expertly guided our tour.

The first stop was the goat elevator, where boer goats inhabiting a raised platform vied for treats that were hand cranked to their perch. Next, we tried to feed the deer, but most were already full from the bounty of morning treats and ignored our offerings.

The ostriches were not nearly so picky and strutted around, heads bobbing, begging for anything we were wiling to put in their outstretched beaks. We stuck to the provided grain and mostly dropped treats into funnels mounted on the fence to avoid getting pinched, something that happens easily if you offer treats on outstretched hands.

Protecting fingers and thumbs is important to the owners of Rooster Cogburn. That’s why they provide clothespins for feeding asparagus to the tortoise population. Yes, we finally discovered the meaning for that.

For many, a visit to the Rainbow Lorikeets, also called Lovebirds, is the highlight of a visit to the ranch. Access is restricted to 8 or ten visitors at a time to ensure that each person has a chance to interact with the very friendly birds.

Lorikeets vie for nectar at the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, an Arizona travel destination.
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They landed easily on our outstretched arms, popped the lid off the tub of sugared liquid, and drank prettily, neatly cleaning the cup before chirping a friendly thanks and hopping off to visit another guest.

To end our morning at the ranch, the self-guided tour concluded at the gift shop and stingray tank, where for an additional fee, you can feed and pet a very active group of cownose stingrays.  

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument Arizona Travel Destination

Casa Grande Ruins outside of Coolidge, Arizona
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While maybe not as unique as the Rooster Cogburn Ranch, the Casa Grand Ruins National Monument is an Arizona travel destination you won’t want to miss if you’re in the area. Located on Highway 87, it lies directly on the way back to the Phoenix if you head first toward Queen Creek.

We stopped for about 30 minutes and toured the sites. The outer walking trail to the north of the parking area offers a view of the city walls, but you’ll have to rely on the interpretive signs to understand what you’re seeing. Most of the walls here have been fortressed with dirt that make it impossible to see the remains.

The more impressive portion of this destination is located beyond the gift shop, where what’s left of the prehistoric Casa Grande, an earthen home built of unreinforced clay, still remains. The ancient Sonoran Desert people who built the community left no written record and had abandoned the area by 1450 CE, so we can only rely on archaeological explorations and observances to interpret the site.

What we do understand from our more recent documented history indicates a story of vandalism and neglect, as this important historic monument was treated as a roadside tourist oddity, marked with graffiti and largely ignored as a significant piece of history. Fortunately, President Benjamin Harrison set the area apart as the nation’s first prehistoric and cultural reserve in 1892, protecting the ruins from future degradation.

Unique Things to Do in Arizona Aren’t Hard to Find

Thanks to Candace, our local guide, a few quick internet searches and about 45 minutes with Google maps, we found a number of unique things to do in Arizona. Some were the more common Arizona travel destinations—must-dos on any itinerary—but others were quirky or off-the-beaten path excursions that added additional color to our trip.

We hope you find this list of Arizona oddities and destinations helpful in planning your own southwestern adventure.

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Kathleen Hesketh

Kathleen is a travel agent with Mickey World Travel, a platinum level Authorized Disney vacation planner, where she helps people discover the magic of a Disney vacation and other travel destinations. She is also the chief author and editor for Seconds to Go - a travel blog where she shares experiences from traveling the U.S. with her daughter, Ali.

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