Deciding what to see in a state as large and enticing as Arizona can be a little overwhelming if you're traveling on a budget. There are so many amazing adventures – both extreme and serene – which will chip away at your budget, especially if you’re into taking backcountry tours or teeing off on championship golf courses.
But there are also ways to save, if you choose the right time for your trip and target the right experiences. Skipping the busy spring and fall seasons will bring discounts, but you'll miss out on the best weather. Also give some thought to how you plan to get around – a hire car isn't your only option in Arizona.
We've sifted through Arizona’s unique experiences, from Indigenous art to outdoor community film screenings, to find the best free things to do, so you can spend more time enjoying the Grand Canyon State.
1. Walk Phoenix's mural walls
You can learn a lot about a city’s culture and politics through its street art. Phoenix’s massive murals along Oak Street Alley and the Roosevelt Row arts district capture the zeitgeist of recent years and highlight the skills of its talented artists. Check out the 30 murals painted in honor of Black History Month. Take yourself on a self-guided walking tour to see outsize artworks depicting Black icons such as Serena Williams, Aretha Franklin and Barack Obama, among others.
2. Drive the Sky Island Scenic Byway
Just outside Tucson, the 27-mile Sky Island Scenic Byway will take you to the heart of Arizona’s impressive biological diversity. Starting on the East Catalina Highway, the journey takes you northeast on Mt Lemmon Highway through the Coronado National Forest, ending at the 9000ft summit of Mount Lemmon.
Otherworldly landscapes of hoodoos and crags await between those points. First, you’ll travel through the Sonoran Desert among saguaro cactuses, before leaving these ancient giants behind for high-elevation forests of cypress, sycamore and pine.
Planning Tip: Be sure to pause at pullouts to gaze at the awesome panoramas as you go. Windy Point and Geology Point are great places to stop. It's also worth exploring the waterfalls at Molino Canyon.
3. Learn about Arizona's Indigenous American art
Since opening in 1929, the Heard Museum in Phoenix has grown into one of the leading museums for the preservation, education and advancement of Indigenous American art. Along with a dozen exhibition galleries and outdoor sculpture gardens, the Heard also offers guided tours and interactive activities such as weaving Apache-style baskets and crafting Yaqui paper flowers. Admission is free on the first Friday of every month.
4. Discover petroglyphs at Prescott National Forest
Located in the Prescott National Forest, secluded hiking trails around Lynn Creek lead to prehistoric ruins and petroglyphs, reminders of the Native American communities who once thrived in this high-desert area near the city of Prescott. Parking at trailheads in Prescott National Forest is free on Wednesdays.
The 0.75-mile Lynn Creek Ruin Trail twists through the woods to an observation deck that overlooks an ancient pueblo and surrounding alligator junipers, prickly pears and pines, backed by the peaks of the Bradshaw Mountains.
A short drive away along an unpaved road (suitable for conventional cars if you go slow) is the 4.2-mile Salida Gulch Trail. Walk counter-clockwise on a mostly shady path lined with wildflowers to see a panel of petroglyphs gracing the stone on the left side about a mile in.
Planning Tip: Inexpensive camping is possible at numerous sites in Prescott National Forest for a rewarding overnight stop.
5. Gaze on Arizona's dark, star-filled skies
There’s something special about the night skies in Arizona. The state is home to five international dark sky communities – Sedona, Village of Oak Creek, Camp Verde, Tucson and Flagstaff – with the latter becoming the world’s first international dark sky city in 2001. These cities take steps to combat light pollution, which makes star-gazing all the more dazzling when it's ultra-dark. Simply find a park or trail, look up and see what sparkles.
Planning Tip: If stargazing really piques your interest, these stargazing maps and apps will help guide your exploration of the cosmos.
6. Admire the Modernist-era Chapel of the Holy Cross
Sedona’s Red Rock Scenic Byway (State Route 179) is infinitely eye-catching and the 250ft-tall Chapel of the Holy Cross, built into the sandstone, capitalizes on this natural splendor. There's no fee to visit this functioning Catholic Church, so you can experience the airiness of this architectural wonder inside and out for free.
Featuring an 80ft concrete cross on its exterior, this landmark Modernist building was conceived by sculptor and local rancher Marguerite Brunswig Staude in the 1930s and finally completed in 1956. In front of its floor-to-ceiling windows is a 33ft bronze crucifix created by a local artist, installed in 2018. Nearby, several hiking trails (Chapel, Little Horse, Twin Buttes, Submarine Rock) wind around the red rocks.
7. Admire Tucson's historic buildings
Although it’s only a 2.5-mile loop, the Turquoise Trail in downtown Tucson takes you on a journey back in time, passing 23 historic landmarks that you can explore at your own pace. Just follow the turquoise line painted along the way. Interpretive plaques provide information on sites such as the 1919 Hotel Congress (and its reputed ghosts), the 1930s Fox Theater and the Spanish Colonial Revival-styled Pima County Courthouse, all still in operation today.
It's also free to visit the historic Mission San Xavier del Bac, a heritage wonder founded in 1700 but rebuilt in the late 1700s in a harmonious blend of Moorish, Byzantine and Mexican Renaissance styles. The mission is about 8 miles south of Tucson and free 45-minute tours run Monday to Saturday. Donations are welcomed.
8. Visit an Arizona Buddhist retreat
The International Kadampa Retreat Center is an unexpected sight on historic Route 66 near Williams. During visiting hours at this Buddhist temple (see the website but mostly around lunchtime) you can go on a tour with a volunteer and admire its gilded structure, artworks and statues. This is a popular spot to study meditation; book in advance if you want to learn more.
Planning Tip: Even if teaching is in session, it is still possible to wander the grounds and drop by the gift shop and cafe.
9. Enjoy free entry to national parks, monuments and historical sites
Arizona has a trio of awe-inspiring national parks – Grand Canyon, Saguaro and Petrified Forest – and numerous national monuments and recreation areas. Each year, the National Park Service offers a number of free-admission days at places that usually charge a fee for entry. The scheme covers 14 sites in Arizona, including Sunset Crater National Monument, Lake Mead Recreation Area and Tonto National Monument, so check the website calendar and get planning.
Planning Tip: Visiting is only free for one day, so be realistic about how much ground you can cover. For the Grand Canyon, stick to exploring the South Rim – you can reach the East and South entrances to the national park by car in around 90 minutes from Flagstaff.
10. See a free film outdoors in Flagstaff
Outdoor cinemas are enjoying a renaissance and Flagstaff’s Movies on the Square in summer are free to all comers. Family-friendly films such as Megamind and Moana are screened outside in Heritage Square on Saturdays in July and August. Bring a folding chair or blanket and snacks for an evening of entertainment with the locals.