"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt." -- John Muir
Growing up in Oregon, I've always been partial to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest with its lush forests and soaring mountain peaks bordered by the Pacific Ocean.
That being said, I've come to appreciate the completely different beauty of the southwest and the desert after spending some time exploring Arizona's vibrant colors and unique formations during a recent trip.
While driving through Arizona, I was excited to experience all the different landscapes the state had to offer, from the Grand Canyon and Sedona up in the north, to the town of Tucson towards the south border.
On a more personal note, I also discovered hidden strength and determination while traversing some of the toughest hikes I've thus completed. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to push through a fear of heights and conquer an unforgiving terrain and formations that feel almost untouched by man.
Keep scrolling to see my list of can't-miss spots while visiting Arizona, from Wild West-themed parks to beautiful hiking spots to famous art galleries!
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is Arizona's most famous attraction for good reason, boasting the accolade of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Have you heard the saying that nature can make you feel small? While hiking the Grand Canyon, I felt like my presence was insignificant. Having stood for millions of years with trails leading down to a deep gorge carved away by the Colorado River, the Canyon is seemingly unaware of the presence of all the travelers that try to traverse it.
Hiking down to the floor can be a little nerve-wracking as an odd misstep can send you tumbling down into the canyon below or an overestimation of your abilities can leave you stranded. Around 250 overzealous hikers are reportedly rescued each year. Getting from the north rim to the south rim is recommended as a multiple-day journey even for experienced hikers, especially during the hot months of May to September.
While the somewhat steep Bright Angel hike from the South Rim might have reignited my fear of heights in a few sections, my day adventuring through the Grand Canyon was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had.
Visitors can enjoy sightings of plentiful wildlife and awe-inspiring views while making their way down and in the surrounding area. I would recommend getting up early to catch the sunset and the sunrise on the South Rim -- it's well worth it.
While making your way north to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix, a stop in Sedona is well worth a day trip. In my opinion one of the most visually appealing landscapes in the state, Sedona combines unusual red rock structures with opportunities for hiking, relaxation at one of the area's many spas, and a pervasive art scene.
Cathedral Rock, which is reportedly one of the most photographed views in the area, is a great hike with medium difficulty boasting big returns at the end of the trail.
The actual hike only gets steep at the very end, so wear your hiking boots or sturdy shoes. Devil's Bridge is also an Instagram-worthy option with a similar level of difficulty.
While checking out Sedona, take a short detour to Montezuma Castle, which is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings on the continent. While you can't climb up into the 20-room high rise structure, it was fascinating learning about the ingenuity of the ancient Sinagua dwellers and the unsolved mysteries of its past inhabitants, who are believed to have made their home there 800 years ago.
Sedona Art Galleries
In addition to feasting your eyes on Sedona's natural beauty, the area has a lot of great galleries as well as art festivals and tours. I would definitely recommend a visit to the famous Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where you can spend an hour or two checking out the different shops and cute Spanish-style architecture.
Saguaro National Park
A trip to Arizona wouldn't be complete without some cactus sightings, and Saguaro National Park -- so named because it houses the nation's largest cacti species -- is the perfect place to enjoy striking views of the desert landscape in Southern Arizona.
Both experienced hikers and visitors looking for a more leisurely stroll will find something here, with a 15-mile wilderness hike neighboring a shorter nature walk.
The Old Tucson Movie Studio
As the popularity of HBO's Westworld can attest, there is no shortage of interest in cowboys and the untamed "wild wild west" of the past.
The Old Tucson Movie Studio and Theme Park plays on this fascination with quirky shops and authentic artifacts. In addition, there are plenty of activities to choose from, like gold mining and a vintage train ride, as well as cool action stunts or a live musical show at the saloon.
In addition, movie buffs will appreciate the spot's history in the filmmaking industry. Western legend John Wayne starred in four movies shot here, as well as Hollywood A-listers like Ronald Reagan, Paul Newman, Bing Crosby, and Ingrid Bergman.
Seasonal Recommendation: Spring Training
When February comes around, the Valley of the Sun hosts many exciting spring training games from half of the 30 Major League baseball teams. After living in Chicago for a few years, I was happy to watch the Chicago Cubs and White Sox warm up for the season ahead in a more informal setting as well as check out some new talent.
Notable Eats: Kodo Sushi *****
The sister restaurant of downtown hot spot Harumi, the highly-rated Kodo Sushi in Scottsdale offers delicious and fresh sushi at reasonable prices. I would recommend trying the omakase platter, or the chef's choice, for a more adventurous experience.
Gerardo's Italian Kitchen ****
While Sedona certainly has its share of incredible fare, carbs and Italian food were calling my name after a day of hiking. The lobster ravioli at Gerardo's Italian Kitchen definitely hit the spot.