5 Great Arizona Road Trips

Written by Susan Lanier-Graham

September 11, 2021
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Arizona is home to some of America's most scenic roadways. Here are five Arizona road trips that showcase the state's beauty and diversity.

As I explore Arizona, I'm always fascinated by the diversity of the landscape. Striking contrasts—from deserts and volcanic outcroppings to massive canyons, Ponderosa pine-covered mountains, and verdant river valleys—are all within a few hours' reach of Phoenix. Keep in mind that you may be headed for rugged back-country roads or may encounter unexpected closures due to weather. We recommend you check area websites and ADOT closures before you leave. Here are five great Arizona road trips that I think best showcase the state's beauty and diversity, offering the most impressive views of the Grand Canyon State.

White Mountain Scenic Road

Miles: 90 round-trip loop
Hours with stops: 2.5 to 3

The White Mountain Scenic Road begins near Pinetop-Lakeside and winds through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest along AZ-260. Much of the sacred Apache land remains wilderness just off the highway. However, the paved drive—meandering through lush meadows, thick pine forests, and along the foot of Mount Baldy—makes it all accessible.

Keep your eyes peeled for enormous elk. I once awoke on a dark, snowy night to realize my husband had stopped on this scenic road. I almost screamed when I opened my eyes to see the most enormous elk I've ever seen. Since I grew up in the Colorado mountains, this is a big deal. He was huge. The state began reintroducing elk to the area from Yellowstone more than 100 years ago.

Take a detour on AZ-373 south for 5 miles to the mountain enclave of Greer. If you drive through town, the road ends along a scenic creek, ideal for a picnic. Greer also is home to the quirky Butterfly Lodge Museum. The log cabin, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1913 for Western writer, guide, and outdoorsman James Schultz. It offers a glimpse into the rugged Arizona lifestyle of the early 1900s.

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White Mountains Sunset Arizona road trip

Sunset in the White Mountains. Photo courtesy AZ Office of Tourism and Judi Bassett.

Back on AZ-260 before Eagar, make a loop south to zigzag along AZ-261 and AZ-273 before picking up AZ-260 again. Along the way are several lakes, including the 900-acre Sunrise Lake known for its trout fishing. At an elevation of 9,100 feet, this also is a great summer campground.

Puerto Blanco Drive, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Miles: 37 round-trip loop
Hours with stops: 4

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on Arizona's southern border along AZ-85, is an International Biosphere Reserve and the world's northernmost location for large stands of organ pipe cacti.

The 37-mile Puerto Blanco Drive along the Puerto Blanco Mountains travels deep into the monument and boasts some of the most scenic views of the Sonoran Desert with rugged mountain foothills and a tree-lined oasis fed by underground springs.

Organ Pipe Cactus - Great Arizona road trips

Organ Pipe Cactus Natl Monument. Photo courtesy AZ Office of Tourism

Along the drive, you'll find great spots for off-trail hiking with moderate difficulty. One fun hike, about 4 miles into the drive, is Red Tanks Tinaja. On the moderate 30-minute round-trip hike, you'll see holes (tinajas) carved into the red sandstone rocks by seasonal floodwaters.

Along the north section of Puerto Blanco Drive, cars easily can drive the first 5 miles leading to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area and trailhead. Here, you can take a 1.3-mile off-trail hike leading to the highest point in the Puerto Blanco Mountains, with views of Arizona to the north and Mexico to the south.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, continue past the picnic area on the one-way route for 32 more miles along the U.S.-Mexico border and back to AZ-85. There are great picnic spots near the now-abandoned Golden Bell Mine and a half-mile side trip takes you to a rare desert spring at the Quitobaquito Oasis. Along the road, you can spot old mines and wells.

Apache Trail Historic Road

Miles: 41.5 each way
Hours with stops: 3 to 5

The Apache Trail was completed in 1905 to aid the construction of the Roosevelt Dam. Now known as AZ-88, this trek begins with a paved road in Apache Junction and continues to Canyon Lake, where you can hop on board the Dolly Steamboat for a 90-minute scenic boat ride.

Great Arizona road trips

Book a 90-minute trip on the Dolly Steamboat. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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Continue along the paved road to Tortilla Flat, home to Superstition Restaurant & Saloon and the Country Store, which serves tasty ice cream.

After Tortilla Flat, the graded dirt road is winding and rough, but spectacular, filled with volcanic landscapes, hairpin turns, steep inclines, and many white-knuckle moments as the road curves past the second reservoir at Apache Lake with the craggy Superstitions in the distance. Passenger cars need to proceed slowly. Be sure and check the ADOT information for construction closures on AZ-88.

Apache Trail Jeep Tour - great Arizona road trips

Apache Trail Jeep Tour. Photo courtesy Visit Mesa

An especially impressive part of the drive is the approach to Fish Creek Canyon, where the road drops 1,500 feet in just 3 miles. Roosevelt Lake, completed in 1911, stretches for about 22 miles and is an ideal spot for boating, fishing, hiking, and picnicking.

Arizona road trips

One of my favorite Arizona road trips is the winding road around Roosevelt Lake. Photo courtesy Beau Bright via iStock by Getty Images

From Roosevelt Lake, take the paved AZ-188 back toward Globe. Just a few miles after you turn onto the pavement, you can stop at Tonto National Monument for a leisurely half-mile hike along a paved path to remarkable historic cliff dwellings.

Arizona road trips

Once you arrive in Globe, you can take US Hwy 60 back toward Phoenix. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Swift Trail Scenic Drive on Mount Graham

Miles: 50 round trip
Hours with stops: 5

Mount Graham in southeast Arizona is home to magnificent centuries-old Douglas firs and Mount Graham International Observatory, which includes three telescopes. Constructed in the 1920s to replace wagon trails, the Swift Trail (AZ-366) runs from the saguaro-studded Gila Valley up to the 9,000-foot peaks of the Pinalefio Range in Coronado National Forest.

This drive starts south of Safford and ascends 35 miles through the same ecosystems you would see on a drive from Mexico to Canada—desert landscapes, grasslands, woodlands, and Ponderosa pine forests.

arizona road trips

As you leave Safford behind, you begin to climb up toward Mount Graham. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

The first half of the drive is open year-round but closes to motorized vehicles near Shannon Campground from Nov. 15 through April 15. The last 13 miles are graded dirt, but accessible to passenger vehicles.

arizona road trips

Although you'll have to turn around at the campground after November 15, it's a great spot for a picnic the rest of the year. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

One of the area's best day hikes is to Heliograph Peak from Shannon Campground. The historic mountaintop held signal mirrors during the Apache Wars of the 1880s and offers breathtaking views across the Gila Valley.

Mt. Graham - Arizona Road Trip

Mt Graham – Photo courtesy Visit Graham County

Mount Graham International Observatory, home to three massive telescopes, sits atop Swift Trail’s Mount Graham. Stop by the Mount Graham off US-191 in Safford to hike nature trails, explore space in a simulated space shuttle, and look through the visitor center’s telescope. The Discovery Park Campus is open from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, and 4 to 9:30 pm on Saturdays. The campus offers guided weekend shuttle tours to the telescopes atop the Mount Graham International Observatory from mid-May through October with advance reservations.

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive

Miles: 14.5 one way
Hours with stops: 2.5

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive was the state's first scenic road, created along an old cattle trail, and is still one of its most popular. The drive follows AZ-89A from south of Flagstaff, along Oak Creek Canyon, and into Sedona. As you leave Flagstaff, stop at Oak Creek Canyon Vista for stunning views of the Mogollon Rim and the canyon.

Sedona Drive Arizona road trips

Red Rocks of Sedona Photo courtesy Visit Sedona

You'll also find a Native American marketplace that sells authentic turquoise and silver jewelry. If you want to park and hike the canyon, you will need to purchase a Red Rock Pass. Passes are available from self-serve kiosks at Oak Creek Canyon Vista and most major trailheads or online at My Scenic Drives. Along the drive, there are plenty of scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and picnic areas.

You’ll want to check out two popular swimming holes along this route—Grasshopper Point and Slide Rock State Park. Both are busy in the summer months when desert-dwellers head north for cool mountain streams.

Arizona road trips

Slide Rock State Park with its natural rock water slides in the Oak Creek Canyon is a popular tourist destination near Sedona. Photo by Raul Rodriguez via iStock by Getty Images

Related Arizona Road Trips and Adventures

Reading List About Arizona Road Trips

Arizona is the 48th state in the US. It wasn't a state until 1912 (Valentine's Day that year). But the state has a rich history, part of Mexico and Spain. It has been home to Native cultures for thousands of years. Exploring the state becomes even more intriguing when you discover a bit about the state's history and culture before you head out on your Arizona road trip. Here are a few of our recommendations for Arizona reading:

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When You Head Out on an Arizona Road Trip

I have traveled to a lot of places, yet I'm always amazed at the beauty in my home state. There are wow moments around every bend. I believe Arizona offers some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere. I hope you enjoy these Arizona road trips. Be sure to find out more on Wander, as our writers have some great ideas for your visit to Arizona and elsewhere as you explore the Southwest US.

As I explore Arizona, I'm always fascinated by the diversity of the landscape. Striking contrasts—from deserts and volcanic outcroppings to massive canyons, Ponderosa pine-covered mountains, and verdant river valleys—are all within a few hours' reach of Phoenix. Here are five great Arizona road trips that I think best showcase the state's beauty and diversity, offering the most impressive views of the Grand Canyon State.

5 Great Arizona Road Trips

Written by Susan Lanier-Graham

Founder and publisher Susan Lanier-Graham has traveled the world for the past twenty years, filling a passport or two along the way. She has wandered through the jungles of Thailand, explored the mysteries of the Great Pyramids, and shared the night with a leopard in Zambia. She sailed in the Mediterranean, sipped her way through Burgundy canals and Champagne caves. She followed Rembrandt’s footsteps through Amsterdam. Susan found her center on the red rocks of Sedona and soaked up an exquisite sunset over the Indian Ocean in Bali. Susan is always looking for wow moments around the world or across the street to share with adventure lovers everywhere. She has authored more than 75 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Susan is an award-winning travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). She is a Certified California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). Susan's work still regularly appears in print and online. Susan is an award-winning travel writer, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and is a Certified California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). Susan has worked as an ambassador for Travelocity and is currently a travel ambassador for Rocky Mountaineer. Her work regularly appears in print and online in a variety of publications. These include various AAA publications, Postcards for Travel Leaders, Alamo.com, Hotels.com, Fairmont.com, So Scottsdale, Uptown, Green Living AZ, Life Refined, Modern Luxury, Marriott.com, WHERE Arizona, WHERE Traveler Phoenix + Scottsdale, and more.

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