Home to the world-famous Grand Canyon, one of the best-known natural wonders of the world, Arizona showcases some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. The much-photographed Monument Valley, volcanic fields, and gorgeous rock formations highlight different stages of Earth’s geology.
In stark contrast with the barren rocks, the Sonoran Desert, home of the giant saguaro, tells a different story -- a story of survival in a waterless area, defying visions of the desert as a dry and sand-filled land.
In the center of the state is a transition zone, with deciduous and pine forests and more lakes and reservoirs than you would expect.
Scenic drives offer the opportunity to experience some of Arizona’s varied topography and dramatic landscapes. You can find these drives in every corner of the state, and they feature everything from lava flows and cactus gardens to canyon rims, mesa tops, and pine forests. The following are only a few of the drives you can take to experience the gorgeous landscape of Arizona.
1. Grand Canyon South Rim Scenic Drive
Showcasing the world-famous Grand Canyon, the 57-mile South Rim Drive starts in Cameron, just off Interstate 89 North, and runs through Grand Canyon National Park. Running along the Little Colorado River Gorge, the road offers opportunities to stop at two overlooks.
Inside the national park, Desert View is your first stop, where you can walk up to the Lookout Tower, enjoying the Native American art on its walls and gorgeous views of the canyon, including the Colorado River at the bottom. Next, you’ll have the opportunity to stop at all the viewpoints, or park at the Main Visitor Center and explore the rim on the trails. Then keep driving to Grand Canyon Village, the park’s headquarters. Here, you’ll find all the park’s amenities, including dining and lodging choices.
The drive is open year-round, though it gets extremely busy in the summer, especially on weekends. The best times to visit are the shoulder seasons. Winter gets cold, but it offers an opportunity to visit without the crowds.
Note: Because it is located in the Navajo Nation, the road from Cameron to Desert View is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can still drive it in the opposite direction, from Grand Canyon Village to Desert View. Watch the advisories to see when the rest of the stretch will open.
2. Sedona To Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive
The scenic road, Interstate 89A, starts 2 miles south of Flagstaff at Exit 337 off of Interstate 17 South and heads through a ponderosa pine forest. Make sure you stop at Oak Creek Vista Point for gorgeous views of Oak Creek Canyon. From here, the road follows steep switchbacks down to the canyon floor and continues along the creek. Here, you’ll find two campgrounds and day-use areas with picnic tables, if you wish to stop.
Halfway through the canyon, you’ll reach Slide Rock State Park, one of the most popular swimming areas in the state, where the creek rushing through the slippery rocks creates a natural waterslide.
The scenic drive ends in Sedona, known as one of the most beautiful small towns in the United States, filled with art boutiques and surrounded by gorgeous red rock formations.
This scenic road gets very busy during the summer months, especially on weekends. Campgrounds in Oak Creek Canyon are first come, first served, so if you’d like to camp, make sure you get there early. If you’re trying to get to Slide Rock, avoid weekends and go early.
3. Sunset Crater And Wupatki National Monuments Scenic Drive
This 35-mile scenic drive turns off U.S. 89 just 10 miles north of Flagstaff and circles back to the highway farther down the road, passing through the spectacular volcanic fields around Sunset Crater and the ancient ruins of Wupatki.
Stop at the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, where you can explore the lava fields and cinder cones by walking the Bonito Vista, Lava Flow, or Lenox Crater Trail.
Farther along the drive, enjoy the gorgeous vistas of the colorful Painted Desert. Stop at Wupatki National Monument and the smaller ruins on the premises to learn about the people who lived in the area thousands of years ago.
You’ll find picnic tables at each of the stops along the road as well as a campground across from the Sunset Crater Visitor Center. All other amenities -- including gas, food, and lodging -- are available in nearby Flagstaff.
The drive is open year-round, and it’s beautiful in all seasons; you’ll enjoy it no matter when you go.
Editor’s Note: Wupatki National Monument made our list of lesser-known national parks and monuments you should visit. See the full list for more inspiration.
4. Apache Trail Scenic Drive
A National Scenic Byway, the 44-mile paved and gravel Apache Trail crosses the rugged northern part of the Superstition Mountains just northeast of Phoenix, offering access to three reservoirs and gorgeous desert scenery.
Named for the Apache people who once used this trail, the road winds through canyons and mountain ridges, offering plenty of pull-outs where you can enjoy the surroundings. It starts at the Goldfield Ghost Town, goes to Lost Dutchman State Park, and then heads north and passes Needle Vista, with gorgeous views of the Superstition Wilderness.
You’ll drive through hills filled with giant saguaros and wind down to Canyon Lake. Past it, you’ll come to Tortilla Flat, the only “community” (with a population of six people) along the drive, which is home to a cafe and gift shop. Farther along, the road turns to dirt and narrows in spots, but it features some amazing scenery.
Apache Lake, located in another deep valley, has a recreation area worth a stop. The last 10 miles of the scenic drive parallel the lake until reaching the Roosevelt Dam, a National Historic Landmark. Roosevelt Lake marks the end of the scenic drive.
The drive is open year-round, but the best times to enjoy it are winter and the shoulder seasons; temperatures are high in the summer, often in the 100s.
Pro Tip: Only partially paved and narrow, this road is not fit for RVs or large vehicles past Tortilla Flat. It is slow going, with steep grades, blind curves, and narrow bridges. There are no gas stations on the road, and only limited amenities are at Tortilla Flat.
5. Kayenta To Monument Valley Scenic Drive
The best-known and most-photographed scenic road in the Southwest, featured in movies like Forrest Gump, this stretch of road through the Navajo Nation is a visual experience you’ll never forget. The rough, barren land, with its sparse vegetation, showcases some of the best geological features of our planet. The sandstone in all shades of rust, orange, purple, and red, eroded into surreal forms, is striking.
The 22-mile stretch of U.S. 163 runs from Kayenta to the Monument Valley turnoff, passes into Utah for a few miles, and then returns to Monument Valley in Arizona.
Along the way, you’ll drive through mesas and ridges, cross the deep Laguna Creek, and drive by Comb Ridge. One of the most striking features of this landscape is the sharp peak of Agathlan, a large volcanic rock formation visible for miles.
But nothing compares to the first view of the vast Monument Valley, filled with rock formations of all shapes and sizes rising 400 to 1,000 feet from the flat surface.
Note: Since this road is fully on the Navajo Nation’s territory, it might be closed or restricted in certain areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the Navajo Nation is asking everyone to refrain from visiting. They may have roadblocks set up in some areas. The Monument Valley Tribal Park is closed at least until January of 2021. After that date, please check the Monument Valley home page for updates.
6. Sky Island Scenic Byway
This 25-mile paved National Forest Scenic Byway, one of Arizona’s most beautiful drives, ascends the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon in the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The road travels from the saguaro-filled Sonoran Desert to the fir-filled summit, offering scenic views with plenty of camping and picnicking opportunities.
One of Arizona’s “sky islands,” the mountains tower above the surrounding environment, offering a refuge from the desert heat. Temperatures drop as much as 25 degrees from the bottom of the mountain to the end of the road.
You’ll find plenty of scenic overlooks; Windy Point is considered one of the best. Higher up, you’ll enter the pine forest, a much cooler zone where you’ll find plenty of hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds. The road ends at Summerhaven, but just 2 miles before reaching the rustic village, you can turn toward the ski area, where you can take a trail to the summit of Mount Lemmon.
The road is open year-round, though the highest areas might be closed during the winter. It’s popular during the summer, when you should avoid visiting on weekends, if possible.
7. Willcox To Chiricahua Scenic Drive
This 42-mile road takes you along the southern edge of the Dos Cabezas Mountains before climbing up Bonita Canyon to the scenic Massai Point at the Chiricahua National Monument. The scenic byway, following Arizona Highways 186 and 181, passes through the shrub- and cacti-filled landscape of the Upper Sonoran Desert to fir and pine forests at the highest elevations.
But you’ll find the best scenery in the unique and remote Chiricahua Mountains, filled with towering rock formations. Massai Point, the end of the road, is the climax of this drive, home to the area aptly nicknamed the “Wonderland of Rocks.”
The road is open year-round, though it’s best experienced during the shoulder seasons, since summers tend to get hot, and during the winter, parts of the road may be closed due to snow.
Services are available in Wilcox, but none farther on. You’ll find campgrounds in Coronado National Forest and at the Chiricahua National Monument.