When you think of mountains, does your mind automatically go to Colorado? If so, maybe you should rethink that and focus on the mountains in Arizona instead.
It’s actually one of the most mountainous states of all, with over 3,000 named peaks around the state. Many of them are favorite challenges for hikers and climbers, and some have long been considered sacred by Native Americans.
Where in Arizona will you find these mountains, and are they worth visiting? Let’s find out!
What Parts of Arizona Have Mountains?
Arizona isn’t all mountains, of course. Many people rightfully associate it with flat, dry deserts studded with those tall saguaro cacti. Some of the desert regions are flat as a tortilla, and there are deep valleys, too. But overall, Arizona has some of the most varied topography you’ll find out west.
The state is home to all or part of more than 200 separate mountain ranges. They’re not confined to one particular area of Arizona. As we’re about to uncover, you’ll see that they‘ve popped up in virtually every region.
Why Is Arizona So Mountainous?
To explain why there are so many mountains in Arizona, we’ll get a bit technical, or at least geological. It’s because the top layer of the earth shifted millions of years ago.
Encyclopedia Britannica describes this groundbreaking process of plate tectonics this way: “The Pacific Plate and the North American Plate came into contact and created the major tectonic forces that uplifted, wrinkled, and stretched Arizona’s geologic crust, forming its mountain ranges, basins, and high plateaus.”
Traveler’s Tip: Get to know Arizona as a “beach state” and visit these 7 amazing beaches in AZ.
What Are the Main Mountains in Arizona?
Most of Arizona’s most prominent peaks are in the Flagstaff area, in north-central Arizona, and are part of the San Francisco Range. The tallest mountain in Arizona is Humphrey’s Peak, in Coconino County, which reaches 12,633 ft.
Agassiz Peak (named for a geologist) is just 277 ft shorter. Fremont Peak has an elevation of 11,973 ft, and Doyle Peak is 11,460 ft high.
Another significant summit is Mount Baldy, Arizona’s fifth highest at 11,404 ft. It’s farther to the south and east in the White Mountains. It’s a holy place for Apaches, and you need special permission to visit.
The 10,274-foot Mount Graham, about 70 miles northeast of Tucson, also has a high profile.
The Best Mountains in Arizona
Let’s take a look at some of Arizona’s different mountainous areas, where they’re located, and what makes them unique. Some of the mountain ranges are completely within the boundaries of Arizona. Others are found mainly in neighboring states, or Mexico, with only portions inside Arizona.
The lower part of Arizona is nothing but desert, right? Nope. This range is east of Tucson in the state’s southeastern corner, near the borders of New Mexico and Mexico.
These mountains are sometimes called Sky Island because they look more like rolling hills than sharp, distinct peaks. The centerpiece of the range is Chiricahua Peak, which is 9,759 ft high. Ponderosa pines and fir trees dominate the landscape.
When you leave from Phoenix heading to the northeast, it won’t be long before you see these famous landmarks. Iconic symbols of Central Arizona, the Four Peaks, are part of a designated wilderness area in Tonto National Forest.
Hikers love this territory in part because of the dramatic changes in elevation and scenery. Apache Lake at the bottom is just 1,900 ft above sea level, and Brown’s Peak tops out at 7,600 ft.
You’ve seen this one if you’ve ever traveled between Phoenix and Tucson on Interstate 10. At around 1,500 ft tall, it’s a molehill compared to some of the mountains on our list. But its shape and presence are captivating nonetheless, and it’s in the middle of beautiful desert plants and animal life.
This mountain is the focal point of a namesake state park that includes a campground, hiking trails, and a Civil War battlefield.
San Francisco Mountains
This is where you’ll find the state’s highest point, Humphrey’s Peak. It got its name from a former Union Army general who became chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Humphrey’s Peak is only about 23 miles from Flagstaff but takes nearly an hour to drive to U.S. 89. The range itself is made up of volcanic mountains and is in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area of the Coconino National Forest.
There are more than 200 mountains here in east-central Arizona, and most are on the Fort Apache Reservation. With numerous small lakes and rivers, the White Mountains are a popular recreation destination throughout the year.
They mark the eastern end of a geological feature called the Mogollon Rim, which sweeps across the state. Mount Baldy, which we mentioned earlier as one of Arizona’s tallest, is the highest peak in this range.
Just east of the Phoenix metro area, this spellbinding summit rises 1,817 ft above the Sonoran Desert. It’s part of a range of jagged formations that seem to constantly change colors in the changing light conditions.
An eclectic museum has exhibits on the legendary Lost Dutchman Gold Mine plus movie-making artifacts, including the Elvis Chapel. It’s a prop left over from filming the western-theme Elvis Presley film “Charro!”
East of Tucson, these mountains are protected as part of an 8,590-acre wilderness area in the Coronado National Forest. At 8,666 ft, Mica Mountain, covered in pines and spruces, is the highest point of the Rincon range.
With their deep canyons and rocky ridges, they’re a favorite spot for hikers and backcountry campers. Those wanting to go underground can explore the depths of Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a massive network of dry caves.
Santa Catalina Mountains
Another range outside Tucson is Santa Catalina, often called the Catalina Mountains for short. These mountains outline the northern and northeastern edge of the city, and their most prominent peak is Mount Lemmon (9,157 feet).
Just like with many other mountains in Arizona, you’ll find plenty of Ponderosa pines here. Some of the canyons also bear a variety of hardwoods, including maples, oaks, aspens, and ashes. They also have the distinction of being the southernmost snow skiing destination in the U.S.
Santa Rita Mountains
Towering around 6,000 ft over the desert, these are about 40 miles south of Tucson and stretch for about 25 miles. Along with the Chiricahuas and others, they are considered one of the Sky Island ranges.
A round-trip hike to the top of Mount Wrightson covers 16 miles and has an elevation gain of over 4,200 ft. Another popular activity is visiting the observatory with six telescopes on nearby Mount Hopkins.
How Many Mountains Are in Arizona?
It seems like it may be difficult to put an exact number on the mountains in Arizona, but someone has. Various sources, including the Visit Arizona tourism group, say there are 3,928 separate mountains in Arizona.
Another Fun Fact they list is that there are 26 mountains in the state that are at least 10,000 feet high. According to PeakAdvisor, 3,380 of the mountains in Arizona have names.
Are Mountains in Arizona Worth Visiting?
Some people are beach people, and some are mountain people. We must be an exception because we love both. We also love slowing down and taking the time to discover the unique attributes of the different places we visit.
You may know Arizona as the Grand Canyon State, but its scenic summits aren’t just in its northwest corner. And there’s much more to the rest of Arizona than the desert.
If you love the mountains, there are many places in Arizona that are absolutely worth visiting. While the Rocky Mountains are certainly imposing and dramatic, these in Arizona have a magnificence all their own.
Have you ever explored the mountains in Arizona?