Most Exhilarating Drives in Arizona

Arizona isn’t just desert, saguaros, and blue sky. Arizona is chock full of brilliant roads for scenic driving enjoyment. Here are a five Arizona roads you might consider adding to your bucket list.

The Apache Trail

The 42 mile journey down the historic Apache Trail is one of the most beautiful scenic drives in Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 42 mile journey down the historic Apache Trail is one of the most beautiful scenic drives in Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

lf you like your roads unpaved, occasionally one lane, and your blind mountain turns without a guardrail, then the Apache Trail (AZ-88) is for you. While there is blacktop from Apache Junction to just past Tortilla Flat, from there the road is at its most primitive. It hugs the sides of the mountain, alternating from two lanes down to one with either no guardrail at all or the mere illusion of one crudely fashioned from narrow pine boards that wouldn’t stop a coyote.

The Catalina Highway

Views of canyons, valleys, lush forest, rocky outcrops, and breath taking vistas all the way. It's the only paved road that leads you to the top of Mt. Lemmon and is noted as being one of the most scenic roads in all of the South West. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Views of canyons, valleys, lush forest, rocky outcrops, and breath taking vistas all the way. It’s the only paved road that leads you to the top of Mt. Lemmon and is noted as being one of the most scenic roads in all of the South West. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entering the Santa Catalina Mountains just 25 miles northeast of Tucson, you’ll find yourself accelerating at the foot of Mount Lemmon. Named for botanist Sarah Plummer Lemmon, you’re going to have a lot more fun than she did in 1881 when she made the first ascent by horse and on foot.

Climbing to over 9,000 feet, with a near 7,000-foot elevation change in a mere 24 miles, the Catalina Highway (also called the Mount Lemmon Highway) is a brilliant ascent with countless curves, numerous vistas, and three major switchbacks. The best news is since there’s only one paved road up this mountain, when you reach the top, you’ll have no choice but to turn around and let gravity assist in your descent.

A little over halfway down, at the apex of the biggest switchback, do yourself a favor and pull off at Windy Point Vista. There’s a scenic overlook that gives a great view of the descending road and a great photo op. Take it in.

Route 66

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this lively "ghost town” that provides, not only a number of historic buildings and photograph opportunities, but the sights of burros walking the streets, as well as costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies strolling. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this lively “ghost town” that provides, not only a number of historic buildings and photograph opportunities, but the sights of burros walking the streets, as well as costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies strolling. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While perhaps any old strip of Historic Route 66 can provide a bit of a warm fuzzy, there are some stretches where that nostalgia can also live in the here and now. When they built this road, they weren’t blasting and bulldozing through mountains to straighten the path. The road went where they could find a place to lay it down.

Starting in Kingman, head west off I-40 towards Los Angeles and you’ll find yourself without a lot of company on the stretch of Old Route 66 to Oatman. More than half of this 26-mile adventure is made up of long straight stretches occasionally interrupted by a simple curve.

But be ready for the twisties as you near Oatman. It’s those last nine miles from Cool Springs to Oatman that supply many (perhaps even most) of the photos you see of Arizona Route 66. Keep your eyes peeled as you slow to enter town. Oatman prides itself on the wild burros that roam the streets, and you wouldn’t want to be the ass who wrecks his car swerving to miss one of the town’s furry little friends.

Route 89A

Climbing the tight bends and switchbacks through the Mingus Mountain area you'll approach Jerome and views of the Verde Valley beyond, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climbing the tight bends and switchbacks through the Mingus Mountain area you’ll approach Jerome and views of the Verde Valley beyond, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another brilliant bit of rapidly rising mountain two-lane is AZ-89A, from Prescott Valley to Cottonwood. You’ll climb over 2,000 feet on this 31-mile stretch of tight bends and switchbacks through the Mingus Mountain area. Those wanting to obey the multitude of 15, 20, and 25 mph curve signs (certainly you among them) have plenty of scenic turn-offs. Go on a weekday. Tourists own this road on weekends, as the old mining town of Jerome is quite the destination and 89A is the one road there.

U.S. 60 through the Salt River Canyon

Historic Miami-Globe as viewed from Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park . © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Miami-Globe as viewed from Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park . © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the middle of the 32,000 acres that are the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, State Route 60 is a narrow ribbon buckling through the harsh terrain. By starting in Apache Junction you’ll traverse the 1,200-foot-long Queen Creek Tunnel cutting through the mountain at a 6 percent upward grade.

Now you’ll climb 4,000 feet via tight bends, S-curves, and the three consecutive switchbacks plunging into the canyon. The first half of this trip twists through the Tonto National Forest with views of the Superstition Mountains—the second half winds through the more brutal terrain of the Fort Apache Reservation where you’ll chase the Salt River for a while. Here, the canyon dictates the road. There shouldn’t be a lot of traffic, so it’s good for a scenic drive.

Spend time exploring Superior, Miami-Globe, and Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park before continuing onto San Carlos Reservation with stops at Apache Gold Casino and RV Park and Peridot Mesa, a broad hump of land often ablaze with poppy fields starting in late February and carrying on through March.

The Peridot Mesa vent is a part of the San Carlos volcanic field located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Peridot Mesa vent is a part of the San Carlos volcanic field located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past mile marker 268 on U.S.-60, turn left on a dirt road marked by a cattle guard framed by two white H-shaped poles. It is recommended that you drive a half-mile down this road. We just parked and walked around and saw poppies, lupines, globemellows, desert marigolds, phacelia, and numerous other flowers along the road and sweeping down hillsides. It was an amazing sight.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

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