WILLCOX, Ariz. (CNN/Money) -
Autumn is a particularly good time to explore the desert Southwest, offering cooler fall temperatures instead of oppressive summer heat.
One of the best routes across this region is the I-8/I-10, which cuts a winding path through southern Arizona -- a region that, despite its desert isolation, features a wealth of nature- and history-based attractions. Here are some of the most interesting stops along the way -- some right near the freeway, others a short detour away -- running from west to east:
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Rte. 1, Ajo, Arizona
Situated against the Mexican border in southwestern Arizona (take Exit 115 on I-8 and drive about 55 miles south on Arizona Highway 85), this amazing site covers over 330,000 acres in the Sonoran desert, a starkly gorgeous region teeming with the site's titular cactus, found nowhere else in America. Organ pipe cacti can reach 25 feet high. And that's nothing: another cactus variety here, the saguaro, reaches 50 feet! Two dirt-road driving loops -- one takes about two hours, the other about twice that long -- provide spectacular views of the cacti and the majestic Ajo Mountains in the distance. Consider visiting in the evening, when the desert sky and remote location make for fantastic stargazing.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
1100 Ruins Drive, Coolidge, Arizona
Centuries ago, before Europeans began moving in droves to the New World, an agrarian civilization inhabited much of what is now Arizona. Among the most impressive and mysterious artifacts of this culture is Casa Grande -- the "big house" -- a four-story prehistoric structure that serves as the centerpiece to a village that had been abandoned by the time European settlers arrived. Casa Grande is pretty much in the middle of nowhere (take Exit 211 off I-10 and drive about 20 miles north on Arizona Highway 87), and its relative isolation just adds to its surreal appeal.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Route 90, Benson, Arizona
This incredible two-mile-long limestone cavern has an even more incredible story. The site was discovered in 1974 by a spelunker named Randy Tufts, who somehow managed to keep it secret for over a decade (even the property owners didn't know about it for the first four years) and then enlisted political support to have it preserved as a state park. Tufts was so worried that the cave would be exploited and ruined if its existence became public that many state legislators weren't even sure what they were voting on when they appropriated funds for the park. Happily, this extraordinary secrecy has resulted in a fascinating place -- tours of the cave allow visitors to see magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations, a huge "soda straw" (a limestone tube that's 21 feet long but only a quarter-inch in diameter), and an extensive fossil record. There are also hiking trails, camping facilities, and a visitors' center with modern interactive displays.
Amerind Foundation Museum
2100 N. Amerind Road, Dragoon, Arizona
More Autumn Drives
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If you're interested in Native American culture and history -- and let's face it, if you're traveling in the Southwest, you really should be interested -- a stop at this excellent museum is a must. It features one of the nation's best collections of Native American artifacts, all professionally displayed in beautiful mission-style buildings. The 25,000-square-foot museum, whose holdings number in the tens of thousands, is supplemented by a library with over 30,000 books, making it one of the largest public repositories of American Indian information. Easily accessible via Exit 318 off I-10.
Allen St., Tombstone, Arizona
Enshrined in several Hollywood movies and in American lore, the OK Corral is where the Earp Brothers -- Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan -- and Doc Holliday fought the McLaurys and Clantons in one of the most storied gun battles of the old American West. The town of Tombstone has essentially become a living museum (okay, it's a tourist trap, but a fun one) devoted to this moment in history, and there are many ways for visitors to learn about the shootout, from simple artifact displays to animatronic reenactments. You can even visit the old Boot Hill Cemetery, where the McLaurys, the Clantons, and many others are interred. Take Exit 303 off I-10 and head about 20 miles south on Arizona Highway 80.
Chiricahua National Monument
13063 E. Bonita Canyon Rd., Willcox, Arizona
Formed from volcanic stone -- the result of a massive eruption that took place 27 million years ago and was 1,000 times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens -- Chiricahua is a bizarre moonscape of odd geological formations. The 12,000-acre site offers spectacular hiking and bird-watching, and also features the Faraway Ranch, a pioneer homestead that serves as an excellent example of how early settlers carved a way of life from this harsh environment.