Shutterstock Photo/Zack Frank Tonto National Monument, Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Shutterstock Photo/Zack Frank

The National Park Service will offer free admission to all of these sites on Aug. 25.

With the COVID-19 Delta variant keeping the pandemic alive, some are backing away from travel plans and big events once more. 

But luckily, that doesn’t mean having to stay inside. 

One option for getting out of the house is taking a trip to a lesser-known national park in Arizona, where large crowds can be avoided—unlike at the Grand Canyon—and the virus is less likely to spread outdoors. 

The National Park Service (NPS) asks visitors to avoid gathering in crowds, practice social distancing, wear masks indoors, wash hands for 20 seconds, and use trails at non-peak times. 

The trip could also be free! On certain days, the NPS offers free admission. The next free day is Aug. 25, the agency’s birthday. Find the full list here

Here are some spots that can satisfy any day-trip needs—just be sure to check the website or call ahead to check for any closures before heading out. 

1. Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Fort Bowie, about 90 miles east of Tucson, represents a quarter-century of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache tribe and the US Army in the late 1800s, according to the NPS. A 1.5-mile hike brings visitors to a visitor center and the ruins. 

The site also includes a cemetery that was active before and after the fort was in use. According to the NPS, 22-32 bodies may remain. 

The fort is also a good place to see wildflowers in the spring and summer. More than 600 plant species have been recorded there. 
For those wanting more information on the site’s historical background, ranger-led programs and guided hikes can be set up by calling 520-847-2500, ext. 1.

2. Montezuma Castle National Monument

For those looking for something more near the Valley, Montezuma Castle is about an hour and a half drive north of Phoenix. The castle, which the NPS describes as a “20-story high-rise apartment,” is built into the side of a limestone cliff. 

The Sinagua people lived in the area for over 400 years. After the site was established as a national park in 1906, visitors could climb ladders to access parts of the monument. But this caused damage to the structure, and public access was cut off in 1951. 

Can’t make it in person? The American Southwest Virtual Museum has photos of many of the castle’s artifacts online.

3. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

For a taste of the border, head to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, about 100 miles west of Tucson. The site, which is also an International Biosphere Reserve, features 30 species of cacti in addition to its namesake. 

There is evidence that humans lived there at least 1,600 years ago. The Hohokam people inhabited the area for about 1,450 years, and several miles of their canals are still visible in the park. 

The area has over a dozen hiking trails and two campgrounds. However, multiple roads are closed for public safety. Check the website before going to plan your route. 

4. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

While many people associate Flagstaff with Humphrey’s Peak, there’s another big sight to behold there—Sunset Crater Volcano. 

The 1,000-foot volcano erupted in 1085 and set off a plume of fire 805 feet tall. It took 400 years for vegetation to return to the area. 

There is another volcano nearby, too: the Lenox Crater Volcano. It is much older than Sunset but only 300 feet tall. 

Both volcanoes are included in the national monument, which was established in 1930. 

5. Tonto National Monument

For those looking to be near water, Tonto National Monument is located right next to Roosevelt Lake, about a two-hour drive from Phoenix. 

Visitors can see two cliff dwellings in an area inhabited by the Salado people from 1250 to 1450. There is still one complete room left, with walls built from stone and mud and saguaro ribs and clay used for the roof. 

The Woodbury Fire in 2019—Arizona’s seventh-largest wildfire in the state’s history—burned 88% of the national monument’s land, but neither of the structures were damaged. 

While the monument’s visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., visitors must begin their hike to the Lower Cliff Dwelling by noon. The trail can close due to excessive heat or lightning.