April is prime season for gassing up the station wagon or the Harley and heading out on the open road. Arizona has some of the most gasp-worthy scenic byways in the West, winding their way through unmistakable evidence of geological and ecological marvels. Roll down the windows, whizz by in wonderment, and stop to hike, photograph or admire Spring’s wildflowers.
Apache Trail – This 41.5 mile rugged, hairpin-winding drive takes visitors from Apache Junction east of Phoenix to a final reward of the Tonto National Monument, just southeast of the small community of Roosevelt. Take Highway 88 to its terminus at Highway 188, then travel southeast about 3 miles to the turnoff for Tonto National Monument. Points of interest along the way include Lost Dutchman’s State Park, the Superstition Wilderness, Tonto National Forest, Theodore Roosevelt Lake and Fish Creek Canyon. Allow 5 hours for this drive, and be prepared for the second half’s unpaved (but well worth it) grading. For more details, we like this resource:
Salt River Canyon – Salt River Canyon is sometimes called the mini-Grand Canyon, and the views from the bridge where US-60 crosses over the roaring Salt River has been described as the most dramatic in Arizona. From Phoenix, this 270-mile round trip makes for an excellent day trip, with plenty of time to stop at numerous overlooks, and in old mining towns of Globe, Claypool and Miami for some antique shopping, dining or a stay-over. Or, book a Salt River rafting trip with one of a handful of skilled and reputable outfitters for a memorable day of heart-pounding adventure. From Phoenix, take US-60 into the Tonto National Forest, through Globe. Turn north onto SR-77/US-60 and continue approximately 40 miles to the bridge at the bottom of Salt River Canyon. For more details, check out:
White Mountain Scenic Road – Starting just south of Pinetop-Lakeside in Hon-Dah, an Apache word for “welcome” or “be my guest”, the White Mountain Scenic Road curves east along Highway 260, offering riders views of thick Ponderosa forest. Turn south onto Highway 273 to catch views of Sunrise Lake, Sunrise Ski Resort, the second highest peak in Arizona – Mount Baldy – and Crescent Lake before turning back toward the north on Highway 261 toward Eager-Springerville, where the scenic drive terminates. In all, 67.3 miles make up this mountain trek through sacred Apache lands. For more details on wildlife and points of interest, go to:
Monument Valley Scenic Loop – In perhaps Arizona’s most remote corner lies one of perhaps the state’s most photographed and iconic rock formations: the East and West Mitten Buttes of Monument Valley. On this 17-mile unpaved but well-graded loop drive, most of the otherworldly rock formations and outcroppings are visible, which is good because deviating from the loop is not permitted without a native guide present. Begin in Kayenta, AZ – the town closest to this Navajo Tribal Park – and take US-163 north across the stateline into Utah where you’ll find the turnoff to Monument Valley. For more details on the monuments you’ll see from the loop, including a detail map and descriptions, visit:
Kaibab Plateau – North Rim National Scenic Byway – If you’ve visited the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, then you know the Kaibab Plateau scenic drive traverses some of the most awe-inducing landscape in the Western U.S., not to mention that it ends at the North Rim, which many argue offers the most dramatic views of the Grand Canyon. A mix of dense ponderosa and conifer forest and picturesque meadows, the Kaibab – the Paiute Indian word for “mountain lying down” – offers visitors a chance to glimpse deer, squirrel, wild turkeys and other wildlife amid the quaking aspen and pine that dominate the landscape. Begin and end at Jacob Lake, a tiny unincorporated town at the head of the scenic highway of State Route 67 where it meets US-89A. Get more information about the Kaibab Plateau here:
Arizona 89: Wickenburg-Prescott-Jerome-Sedona
A favorite among motorcycle riders and sports car drivers, the ride from Wickenburg to Sedona along State Route 89 is like leaving the present and speeding through the Wild Wild West. Ditch the multi-laned Interstate-17 and take a ride starting in Wickenburg for a short spell on US-93 and turn off onto SR-89 for the climb of your life up the steep Yarnell Hill, an elevation change of 2,500 feet in just six winding miles. Cruise through micro-towns of Congress, Yarnell and Wilhoit and approach the popular Valley resident escape of Prescott from the south. Stop here for a quick break along Whiskey Row – a portion of SR-89 called Montezuma Street in town, where bikers, antiquers, locals and tourists gather constantly. Turn briefly onto Highway 69/Gurley Street and reconnect with SR-89 to ride through the bigger-than-life Granite Dells. From there, connect with SR-89A for graceful curve around the back of Prescott Valley before turning northeast again toward the former ghost town of Jerome. Twists and turns and sheer cliff drop-offs make this portion of the ride at times terrifying and always jaw-dropping, and you’ll be handsomely rewarded by the charm, almost lawlessness and artistry that is the signature of the hillside town of Jerome. Continue down a few more hairpin turns to the city of Cottonwood and on to Sedona, a destination that has been described so many times elsewhere that we hardly need to go into it here. At 122 miles (but at least 3 hours) each way, you can do this scenic drive as a day trip, or plan an overnight in Prescott, Jerome, Cottonwood or Sedona before returning the same way or along I-17. For more on this zig-zag route, visit:
Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road – If you love wine, local art, or birds and butterflies, drive the Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road and be sure to include a short side loop around some of Arizona’s best wineries. Begin your trip in Nogales, AZ along the border with Mexico and head north on SR-82, taking time to explore Patagonia Lake State Park and the adobe-lined artist community of Patagonia. The breezy town is fun to poke around and have lunch, and it’s a haven for bird watchers and butterfly enthusiasts, since hundreds of species of each migrate to the area each year. Continue up SR-82 toward Sonoita, taking a quick detour down SR-83 and onto the loop created by Elgin Road and Lower Elgin Road. Between Elgin, Sonoita and Vail, you’ll find eight local Arizona wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms, making this area the heart of southern Arizona wine country. Return to SR-82 and head north to Vail and the intersection with Interstate-10, taking in the sweeping views of Arizona’s Mountain Empire – the surrounding Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains – which are sure to leave you dreaming of red varietals, brightly-colored lepidoptera and rugged cowboys.
What are your favorite Arizona scenic drives? Leave us a comment and share your Arizona travel tips.