Back roads. Byways. Scenic highways. Arizona is chock full of them. Here are five of our favorites.
Route 66: small-town America, with a side of kitsch
'Get your kitsch on Route 66' might be a better slogan for Arizona's scrubby stretch of Mother Road, with its lumbering dinosaurs, a wigwam motel and a prank-filled ice-cream shop.
Western Arizona is home to one of the longest stretches of pure, unadulterated Route 66 – 173 free-range miles that never join the interstate. From Topock, on Arizona’s western border, Route 66 rolls north to Oatman, passing through the town’s craggy hills, begging burros and hokey Old West charms. Then it’s a twisting drive past tumbleweeds and saguaros on the way to the Black Mountains and a final push to Kingman.
North of I-40, vast plains of nothing are linked by tiny villages. First up is Hackberry, with its eclectic general store (toilet seats! in the yard!), then Valentine and Truxton. Next is dusty Peach Springs, tribal capital of the Hualapai Reservation. Kitsch roars its dinosaury head at Grand Canyon Caverns, luring you 21 stories underground for an ubercool cavern tour and even an overnight stay. Burma Shave signs pass the time on the way to Seligman, a funny little town that greets travelers with retro motels, loads of gift shops, a road-kill cafe and a squirt of fake mustard. The route here merges onto I-40, but it reappears just a few miles down the road.
Next up is friendly Williams, a railroad town loaded with courtyard motels and mom-and-pop diners. Route 66 parallels the train tracks through Flagstaff. From here, must-stops include Meteor Crater and the Take It Easy town of Winslow. Finish this trip in kitschy style by snoozing in a concrete tepee down the road in Holbrook.
Hwy 89/89A: Old West meets New West
Buckle up for Old West sites, red-rock canyons and some serious altitude gain from Wickenburg to Flagstaff. Weekend art walks, a burgeoning wine trail, stylish indie-owned shops and restaurants all add some 21st-century sparkle.
Start in the dude-ranch town of Wickenburg, 60 miles west of Phoenix. Hwy 89 leaves town via Hwy 93, bending toward the Weaver Mountains like it has no choice. The road levels out at mountain-topping Yarnell, then swoops easily past grassy buttes and grazing cattle in the Peeples Valley.
Mountain curves return as the road enters the Prescott National Forest, soon dropping into Prescott’s historic downtown (home to Whiskey Row and towering Thumb Butte).
Follow Hwy 89A to Jerome and hold on tight. Zigzagging reaches epic proportions in Jerome, a former mining town cleaved into the side of Cleopatra Hill. On the way to Sedona, detour to wineries on Page Springs Rd.
The 30-mile stretch of Hwy 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff rises up through dramatic Oak Creek Canyon. Be sure to stop at Slide Rock State Park, where the rollicking Oak Creek pushes swimmers through a rock slide. The road levels off and glides through ponderosa pine into fun and funky Flagstaff.
Apache Trail: Rugged Adventure
This isn’t your grandmother’s Sunday afternoon drive – unless your grandmother has a hankering for 45 miles of rabid road that snarls, barks and shakes off its pavement as it slobbers through peaks and canyons east of Phoenix.
From Apache Junction, Hwy 88 heads north toward the craggy Superstition Mountains. First up is the tourist-trappy Goldfield Ghost Town. At Lost Dutchman State Park, vast blooms of desert wildflowers await – with the best blooms occurring after a wet winter.
From here Hwy 88 snakes up to Canyon Lake, the first of three Salt River lakes along the route. Up the road, settle into a saddle-topped barstool in Tortilla Flat. The pavement ends 7 miles ahead, and that’s when this mad dog bites: narrow hairpin turns drop 1500ft down Fish Hill over just a 3-mile stretch. It’s tight, treacherous and not recommended for RVs. The pavement returns, soon passing Roosevelt Dam, the first large dam to flood the Southwest.
Monument Valley: Iconic red rock loop
From a distance, the rugged sandstone formations of Monument Valley look like a prehistoric fortress, a huddled mass of red and gold protecting ancient secrets. But as you drive closer, individual buttes and craggy formations break from the pack, luring you closer with sun-reflected beauty and unusual shapes.
The closest town to Monument Valley is Kayenta, a cluster of gas stations, motels and restaurants at the junction of Hwys 160 and 163. Like Monument Valley, Kayenta is part of the sprawling Navajo Reservation, at 27,000 sq miles the country’s largest reservation, which spills across state lines into Utah and New Mexico. Hwy 163 leads to Monument Valley and the 17-mile loop around it.
The Monument Valley Scenic Drive ($20) is a dusty, bumpy dirt road that winds beneath the sandstone formations, most named for the objects or animals they resemble, from the Mittens to Elephant Butte. Budget about two hours for the drive.
Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Rd: for the birds (and wine)
Arizona’s Mountain Empire – tucked between the Mexican border and the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains – is a breezy haven for bird-watchers and wine-tasters. Hwy 82, the road running through the region, is a scenic alternative to I-19 between Nogales and Tucson.
From Nogales, pick up Hwy 82 north. The first stop for bird-watchers is Patagonia Lake State Park. Hawks, eagles, turkeys and great blue herons have all been spotted here.
Adobe-lined Patagonia is the best place for burgers, Mexican food or Elvis-inspired pizza before venturing north to the wineries. Several tasting rooms are clustered on Elgin Rd 20 miles east of Hwy 82. For an extended drive that takes in more bird habitats and a ghost town, drive east on Hwy 82 until you hit Hwy 80, the road to Tombstone. Back in Sonoita, the original drive continues north through oak trees and grasslands. If real life beckons, leave swaying grasslands behind, finishing this bird-watching boondoggle at I-10 with a short drive west to Tucson.
This article was first published in January 2011. It was updated February 2016.