Phoenix Area Day Trips: Apache Trail, Mogollon Rim, Tonto Natural Bridge, Desert Belle cruise, Boyce Thompson Arbortem, and Kartchner Caverns
(Last updated September 2022)
Phoenix, Arizona, area offers many attractions for short-term and long-term visitors within the metropolitan area. (See my posts Ten Things To Do In Phoenix, Arizona and Greater Phoenix East Valley Guide.) But there are also some wonderful things to take in just a short distance outside the metropolitan limits. Check out these six ideas for day or half-day excursions.
1. Apache Trail
Apache Trail, east of Apache Junction, is a scenic, winding drive through mountains, canyons, and desert landscape. You can make this a half-day trip excursion, going as far as Tortilla Flat for lunch and then returning. The full circle trip going to the Roosevelt Dam, on to Globe, and back into the Phoenix area is currently not possible as part of Arizona State Route 88 east of Fish Creek Hill Overlook remains closed after extensive damage in 2019.
Read more in my post about Apache Trail.
2. Payson and the Mogollon Rim
Payson is approximately 80 miles from central Phoenix. It is a pretty drive on highway 89. Saguaros and other cacti give way to evergreens and oak trees as you slowly climb to 5,000 feet. Payson is a modern town with art galleries and antique stores on Historic Main Store. Payson sits on the western edge of the Mogollon Rim and is also known as the gateway to Arizona’s high country.
The Mogollon Rim is a roughly 200-mile-long escarpment with limestone and sandstone cliffs carved diagonally across Arizona reaching heights of 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. Highway 260 north of Payson takes you into the Rim’s mountains, ponderosa pine forests, and recreational areas.
For more information, read the article I wrote for Travel Awaits: How To Spend A Day At Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.
3. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is tucked in a valley surrounded by pine forest between Payson and Pine. It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. Travertine is a form of dissolved limestone created by spring water tumbling over rock.
Four parking lot viewing points provide visitors views of the bridge from above. Trails take you in the creek bed and under the bridge.
Read more in the article I wrote for Travel Awaits – Phoenix Day Trip: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
4. Desert Belle Cruise on Saguaro Lake
Saguaro Lake is a reservoir on the Salt River, created by the construction of the Stewart Mountain Dam. It is located in the Tonto National Forest in the East Valley 20 minutes from Mesa. Ninety-minute narrated cruises on the Desert Belle are a relaxing way to witness the flora and fauna first hand and learn more about the landscape. The Desert Belle is a 143 passenger, two level boat that sails from the Saguaro Lake Marina.
For more information about the Desert Belle and Saguaro Lake read the article I wrote for Travel Awaits: 5 Things To Do At Saguaro Lake.
5. Boyce Thompson Arboretum
The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, an hour drive east of Phoenix on highway 60, is my favourite place to see and learn about desert plants. The park features plants from the Arizona desert and deserts around the world, set in a natural setting with a mountainous background. Three miles of nature trails offer scenic views and take you past cacti, mesquite and other trees, a herb garden, a rose garden, a man-made lake, and even a eucalyptus grove.
Read more on my Boyce Thompson Arboretum post.
6. Kartchner Caverns State Park
Kartchner Caverns State Park is a “live” limestone cave 9 miles south of the town of Benson, which is 160 miles from Phoenix on the I10 south. On a 90 minute tour through the cavern, you will see a variety of unusual calcite formations, including stalacites dripping from the ceiling and stalagmites reaching up from the ground. Many of the formations have been growing continuously for thousands of years and are continuing to grow and form.
The cave was discovered in 1974, but did not become public knowledge until 1988, when it was purchased for a state park. Extraordinary care was taken in its development to preserve its pristine condition. Those precautions continue today as tour groups are carefully led through the caverns.
All tours are led by a trained guide. No self-guided tours are available. I experience mild claustrophobia from time to time and was concerned the tour might post a problem for me. I was fine. There was always ample space and light. Tours can fill up, especially on holidays. Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended. Videos on the park web site give an overview of what you’ll see.
For more information read the article I wrote for Travel Awaits – Phoenix Day Trip: Kartchner Caverns State Park.
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