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“In traveling, a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.” ~Samuel Johnson

Arizona A to Z: An ABC Guide

An alphabetical list of fascinating facts about
our state, from Astronomy to Zeniff!

We thought it would be fitting to make an “A-Z” list in honor of Arizona’s “AZ” postal code. This special section contains lots of fascinating facts highlighting many of the things that make Arizona so unique. Sit back in the shade or in the saddle, slip on your sunglasses or a cowboy hat and enjoy this journey across Arizona.

A – Astronomy - Arizona is an astronomer’s dream with some of the clearest night skies in the world. The state’s starry skies are almost as famous as its sunshine. Observatories have been built on mountains across the state. Many of these have extensive public outreach programs, offering tours and viewing opportunities.

B – Beale – In 1857 the U.S. Congress commissioned Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale and the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a wagon road across northern Arizona to the Colorado River. This was the first federally funded highway route in the Southwest, despite the fact that it was merely a primitive dirt track. Beale’s trail headed west toward Flagstaff, veered north through Peach Springs, and then south to Kingman. Beale’s expedition was unique in that it used camels as pack animals in an experiment to find out if they were adaptable to the American Southwest. Consequently, his route was known as the Beale Camel Road. Beale’s Wagon Road became a major interstate highway across the largely uninhabited northern Arizona Territory during the 1860’s-1870’s. This route would later be paralleled by a transcontinental railroad, Route 66, and Interstate Highway 40.

C – Colorado River – Over 90% of Arizona’s land area drains into the Colorado River, which empties into the Gulf of California south of Yuma. The Colorado River enters Arizona from Utah at about the midpoint of Arizona’s northern border, then curves south to form most of the state’s western boundary.

D – Desert – The Sonoran Desert of Arizona is the most famous American desert primarily due to its signature plant, the saguaro cactus. The saguaro is the world’s largest cactus, often reaching heights over 30 feet and weighing as much as three tons. The Sonoran Desert has been called the most beautiful desert in the world. No other desert is as lush and green, nor as rich in diversity of life. Along with the saguaro, the Sonoran Desert contains a varied assortment of plants including the palo verde, ironwood, creosote, ocotillo, prickly pear, cholla cactus, etc. Wildlife includes coyotes, javelinas, desert foxes, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, bats, deer, lizards, rattlesnakes, eagles, hawks, roadrunners, quail, and many more. Every spring, tourists come to Arizona from around the world for a chance to see and photograph the golden poppies, purple lupines, pink owl clover, orange globe mallow, yellow desert marigolds, white daisies, and other beautiful wildflowers that carpet the desert.

E – Explorers – Arizona’s written history began in the mid-16th century with the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Probably the first Spanish explorer to enter Arizona (c.1536) was Cabeza de Vaca. The first white man known definitely to have entered Arizona was Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan friar, who in 1539 said that he had seen the Seven Cities of Cibola. He was followed by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led an expedition from Mexico in 1540 in search of the seven legendary cities of gold, reaching as far as the Grand Canyon. However, the Spaniards found only Zuni Indian villages (near modern Gallup, New Mexico). Early in the 17th century, Spanish Jesuit missionaries journeyed to Arizona to bring the Christian faith and Spanish culture to the Indians. During the period of Mexican rule, a number of American adventurers – mainly prospectors and trappers – came to the territory in search of resources such as precious minerals, metals, and furs. In 1851, the United States sent Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves to make the first government survey of the 35th parallel. Captain Sitgreaves’ exploration party followed the Little Colorado River to Grand Falls, and then they continued south of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. In 1853 Lt. Amiel Whipple took a group of topographical engineers and scientists along the 35th parallel on a somewhat more southerly path than Sitgreaves. Whipple compiled extensive data on both the natives and the physical geography of the area.

F – Forest - Ponderosa pine forests cover much of the Arizona high country at an elevation of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet, often forming essentially pure stands covering thousands of acres. Though Ponderosa pine trees can be found in every state in the West, the largest continuous unbroken forest of Ponderosa pine is located in central Arizona, stretching from near Flagstaff along the Mogollon Rim to the White Mountains. While Ponderosa pines are by far the most common, other forest trees include aspen, spruce, and fir. Douglas fir trees are the tallest and are found in mountainous areas above 8,000 up to 11,000 feet. Fire is the forest’s fiercest foe.

G – Gadsden Purchase – In the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed at the close of the Mexican War on February 2, 1848, the Republic of Mexico abandoned its claim to Texas and ceded to the United States the territory now comprising most of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. But until 1853, a strip of Arizona land south of the Gila River and including the city of Tucson still belonged to Mexico. The United States government wanted that land because it was the most practicable route for a southern railroad to the Pacific. In a transaction called the Gadsden Purchase, an area of 30,000 square miles was purchased for $10 million. Although the United States would have preferred to draw a line straight across to the Gulf of California, General Santa Ana of Mexico insisted on keeping the Baja Peninsula along with a strip of land connecting it to the mainland. Thus the Gadsden Purchase added the area of land below the Gila River to where the present U.S.-Mexican border is located. Tucson suddenly became an American town. Just imagine what southern Arizona would be like today if the Baja was part of the United States and we had our own shoreline on the Gulf of California!

H – Humphreys Peak – Humphreys Peak is the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. Humphreys Peak was named in about 1870 for General Andrew A. Humphreys, an Army officer who was a Union general during the Civil War, and who later became Chief of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Humphreys Peak is the highest of a group of ancient volcanic peaks known collectively as the San Francisco Peaks, home to the only alpine tundra environment in Arizona. These peaks actually constitute the remains of a giant stratovolcano estimated to have been 16,000 feet high before blowing its top. From the top on a clear day you can see Bill Williams Mountain, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River Gorge, Hopi Mesas, White Mountains, and the red rocks of Sedona.

I – Indians – Arizona claims more Indian cultures than anywhere else in the United States. One-fourth of the state’s total land area is occupied by some 20+ reservations. The best-known tribes include the Apache (Indé), Hopi (Hopituh), Maricopa (Pee-Posh), Navajo (Diné), Papago (Tohono O’odham), Pima (Akimel O’odham), Yavapai, and Yuma (Quechan). Indian reservations are regarded as sovereign nations, making and enforcing the laws of their land. The term “Native American” may be politically correct, but most Indians actually prefer the term “American Indian” because anyone born in America is, by definition, a native American. Many Indian organizations - including the American Indian Movement, National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Congress of American Indians - use the term “American Indian” in their titles.

J – Joshua Tree – After the Sonoran Desert, the second most recognized name among Southwestern deserts is the Mojave Desert which lies in western Arizona. The main indicator plant of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua Tree, growing at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet. The Joshua Tree belongs to the genus Yucca in the Agave family. The tree-like plant grows densely for many miles along US 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman. This road is also known as the Joshua Forest Parkway. Two other prime locations in Arizona are the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness (way up in the far northwest corner of the state) and Grapevine Mesa, along the road to Pearce Ferry at Lake Mead. The Joshua Tree was first named by 19th-century Mormon pioneers, who thought that the upturned branches resembled the arms of the Old Testament prophet Joshua, waving them on to the promised land

K – Kofa - The Kofa game refuge encompasses 665,400 acres of pristine desert. It preserves the habitat of the desert bighorn sheep and the only native palm tree in Arizona. In the early part of this century, a number of mines were established in the mountainous areas of what is now the refuge. One of the most notable was the King of Arizona mine. It gave the Kofa Mountains their name – “Kofa” being contracted from King of Arizona

L – Luke – Luke Air Force Base is a major F-16 training facility for both American and allied pilots. Boasting more than 200 aircraft as well as 7,000 military and reserve personnel and 1,500 civilian employees, the base has been training pilots for America’s most advanced fighters since 1941. Luke was named for the first aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Frank Luke, Jr. During World War II, Luke Air Force Base was the largest fighter-training base in the Army Air Force. Deactivated in 1946, the base was reactivated in 1951 and in 1971 assumed the role as the main provider of fighter pilots for Tactical Air Command. Luke Air Force Base is located in Maricopa County, approximately 20 miles west of Phoenix in the City of Glendale.

M – Meteor – The Barringer Meteorite Crater (also known as "Meteor Crater") in Northern Arizona near Winslow is the best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth. The crater is a gigantic hole nearly one mile wide and 570 feet deep, with a rim that rises 150 feet above the level of the surrounding desert plain. It was created by a huge meteorite that crashed and exploded on impact, leaving fragments meteoritic iron - over 30 tons of it -scattered over an area 8 to 10 miles in diameter. Arizona's Meteor Crater so closely resembles craters on the moon that NASA used it as one of the official training sites for the Apollo astronauts. The new space museum with its educational exhibits, Astronaut Hall of Fame, Apollo space capsule, touchable 1,406-pound meteorite, and awe-inspiring view of the crater is a memorable experience for all ages. Learn more about it, take a virtual rim tour, and order items from their virtual store at See also, a highly informative site with historical and scientific info, an impact model, online meteorite game, interactive quiz, and links.

N – National Parks – From the Coronado National Memorial and Grand Canyon National Park to Saguaro National Park and Wupatki National Monument... Arizona’s great chasms, ancient volcanos, and desert ecosystems inspire the visitor at every turn. Native cultures and historic events are kept alive through sites dedicated to preserving their heritage. Arizona’s National Parks attract visitors from every corner of the U.S. and from other countries around the world. You could easily spend a lifetime exploring Arizona’s national parks, monuments and memorials.

O – Old Route 66 - The longest remaining continuous segment of Old Route 66 is located in Arizona, stretching approximately 150 miles from Ash Fork to Topock. Travelers can retrace the famous route through the towns of Seligman, Peach Springs, and Hackberry, then climb over the mountains and down into Oatman, before crossing the state line into California just like thousands of travelers did from the 1930’s-1950’s.

P – Petrified Wood – Arizona has the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world. Most of it lies between I-40 and US 260, about twenty miles east of Holbrook. This is where the Petrified Forest National Park is located. A 28-mile drive through the park provides access to scenic overlooks and hiking trails where you can see the fossilized logs. The prehistoric trees were knocked down by a flood and buried in sediments, where they were filled with minerals which turned them into solid stone. The Long Logs area contains the most colorful specimens.

Q – Quartzite – Rocks and minerals have always played an important role in the settlement and development of Arizona. Today, the winter population of Quartzite swells to one million during January-February, mainly because of the annual gem and mineral shows that attract rock enthusiasts from around the world.

R – Rough Riders – In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, 200 men from Arizona joined Theodore Roosevelt’s First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry from the West, nicknamed “the Rough Riders.” These soldiers included cowboys, miners, farmers, ranchers, accountants, stenographers, electricians, and others. Arizona gained a new image as “The Rough Rider State.”

S – Sunsets - Arizona is probably as well known for its brilliant sunsets as for its intense sunshine. Tropical and desert regions are both noted for the bright colors of their sunsets. They often look like natural works of art painted in the sky. The light that reaches the human eye early or late in the day is always more reddish in color. This is because at sunrise or sunset, when the sun is low in the sky, sunlight has farther to travel through the earth’s atmosphere. Light at the blue end of the spectrum scatters and isn’t able to travel as far as light at the red end of the spectrum. Both sunrises and sunsets are paler in hue when the air is clear. They are more spectacular during misty and dusty conditions when additional blue light is dissipated. The best sunsets occur when there are at least a few high clouds so the atmosphere has more particles to filter the sunlight.

T – Terrain – Few states display a greater variety of terrain than does Arizona. The state’s landforms vary from broad flat valleys and mesa tops to rugged canyons and mountains. Arizona’s varied terrain also results in a wide range of temperatures. This is because with every 1,000-foot rise in elevation, there is a 3-5 degree drop in temperature due to the air being less dense with altitude. Thus, Arizona has every type of climate from hot arid deserts at lower levels to alpine tundra above 11,000 feet. Just like in Alaska, the highest mountaintops are so frigid that trees cannot grow, where there are only small mosses and lichens. The point at which the trees suddenly stop and the tundra begins is called the timberline or tree line.

U – Underground – Arizona contains many old underground tunnels and mine shafts. The abandoned ones are too dangerous to enter, but there are some open to the public. The Gold Road Mine about 2½ miles east of Oatman and the Queen Mine in Bisbee both offer tours. Even though Arizona is not thought to be a cave-rich region of the country, approximately 1,000 natural caves have been identified here. Several “show” caves are open to the public, but the majority of Arizona’s caves are unimproved “wild” caves. Many are well-kept secrets even when they occur on public lands. Cave secrecy in Arizona is legendary, probably dating back to the Old West when bandits used caves as hideouts. Nowadays, the secrecy and limited access help preserve these fragile environments. Most of Arizona’s caves and caverns occur in exposed limestone near the Grand Canyon, running south to the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The mountainous areas of southeastern Arizona also have extensive limestone deposits that are riddled with holes and caves. Near Flagstaff there are a couple of underground tubes that were formed by subterranean lava flows. Even rivers in Arizona can flow underground. For most of its 100-mile course through the desert, the Hassayampa River near Wickenburg flows beneath the sandy surface but above the bedrock. (“Hassayampa” can be translated as “the river which flows upside down.”) The Santa Cruz River near Tucson also flows underground along parts of its 225-mile path. In addition, desert animals such as ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, snakes, tarantulas, and insects live in underground burrows to escape the heat.

V – Volcano – There are very few spots where the entire family can actually climb to the top of a volcano, and Arizona is one of them. Northern Arizona contains hundreds of geologically young but extinct volcanoes, some with accompanying lava flows. Almost all of the hills and mountains between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon are volcanic in origin. Most of the more than 600 volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field are basalt cinder cones. This includes Sunset Crater, which erupted in 1064 and buried nearby Indian homes. Sunset Crater itself is closed to hiking, but other cinder cones in the area may be climbed. The San Francisco Peaks themselves constitute the remains of a giant stratovolcano estimated to have been 16,000 feet high before blowing its top.

W – Wild West - Arizona is located at the historic heart of the Wild West. The American Old West – a.k.a. the “Wild West” – comprises the history, geography, people, legends and culture of the Western United States, most often referring to the latter half of the 19th century following the Civil War. During this time, the United States expanded from the East coast to the West coast, fulfilling its belief in Manifest Destiny. First promoting exploration and settlement of the land, by the end of the century the federal government had become a steward of the remaining open spaces. As the Old West passed into history, the myths of the Wild West took hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike. Popular author and Arizona resident Zane Grey helped to shape the myth of the West in 57 novels and 10 books of Western nonfiction, not to mention 130 films based on his work. Much of America’s Wild West history actually happened right here in Arizona. The Arizona Territory was home to some of the most feared outlaws and respected lawmen to walk the streets, from Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch to Prescott’s Whiskey Row. The city of Holbrook, once known for its cattle and cowboys, has a bloody history typical of the lawless days of the Wild West. Tourists can pick up a walking tour map at the historic courthouse to see places such as the Bucket of Blood Saloon and the Blevins House, site of a shootout between Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens and the Blevins gang. While a longtime feud between cattlemen and sheepherders played out in the Pleasant Valley War, the 1881 shootout at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral became the most famous gunfight of the Wild West. Many towns around the state have their own exciting stories to tell.

X – (San) Xavier – Jesuit missionary and explorer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino first visited Bac, “the place where water appears,” in 1692. Eight years later in 1700, Father Kino laid the foundations of a mission church there. He named it San Xavier in honor of his chosen patron, Saint Francis Xavier. San Xavier del Bac is considered to be one of the most beautiful mission churches in the Southwest. Its rounded parapets and graceful spires, imposing dome and lofty bell towers, shine brilliantly white against a vivid blue sky. Inside, the walls are elaborately painted with original artwork and the altar is ornately decorated with a dazzling gilt of color. San Xavier del Bac Mission is a fully functioning parish church that primarily serves the Tohono O’odham people but is open to all.

Y – Yuma – Yuma has been an important agricultural center since the 1930’s with the harnessing of water from the lower Colorado River. Today the region is one of the last remaining sizeable agricultural areas in Arizona. The irrigated farmland surrounding the city is an important producer of citrus, lettuce, melons, and vegetables for many communities in the western United States. Field laborers are bussed across the border from Mexico every day during the planting and harvest seasons.

Z – Zeniff – Arizona’s landscape is dotted with countless monuments to the attempts of pioneer men and women who once settled in the middle of the wilderness. The ruins speak of those who tried but did not stay. In the 1870’s, Mormon emigrants came down from Utah in their prairie schooners to live along the valleys of the Little Colorado River, the Salt River, the Gila River, the San Pedro River and their tributaries. There they grew crops and raised dairy cows. Zeniff was one of these early Mormon farming communities, about 15 miles southwest of Holbrook near Dry Lake in the Little Colorado River Valley. However, the settlement was regularly ravaged by floods and finally abandoned in 1933. All that remains are a few adobe walls.

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