Although plenty of canyons are promoted as “mini-Grand Canyons,” one that truly fits the bill is just four hours or so away from the actual Grand Canyon -- Arizona’s stunning Salt River Canyon.
Located in southeastern Arizona, just over an hour’s drive from the eastern edge of the Phoenix metro area, the Salt River Canyon route takes drivers down a steep and twisting road with a more-than-2,000-foot drop in elevation. It then continues up the other side for more of the same.
Not only does the scenic drive feature breathtaking views of the canyon walls and the blue ribbon of water that is the Salt River, but it also passes by stellar desert hiking, several quaint old mining towns, and a short detour drive to a fascinating prehistoric Native American site.
Note that some drivers find the sharp curves and steep grades of the Salt River Canyon drive frightening. Indeed, the first time I drove the scenic route, I happened upon a massive summer-monsoon rainstorm. Water was gushing down the rock walls of the canyon and forming deep, pebbly rivulets across the roadway. It was terrifying.
I recommend avoiding the canyon drive in any kind of inclement weather. When I returned recently on a clear sunny day in January, the road was much less intimidating and considerably more enjoyable. The best seasons to do the drive are winter (when snow is not forecast in the higher elevations), spring, and fall.
The entire one-way drive is about 140 miles, but you could drive the first 80 miles and take in much of the beautiful canyon terrain. Plan to take a full day to enjoy the route. Or, for an overnight adventure, book a room in the historic town of Globe.
Here are nine of the best stops to make along the Salt River Canyon Scenic Drive.
1. Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Just a few miles west of the small town of Superior lies the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, considered a living museum of the Sonoran Desert.
The 392-acre arboretum is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden. With scenic trails traversing a variety of terrain types, it is a popular day-trip destination for residents and visitors of the Phoenix-area Valley of Sun. Especially in the late fall, when the leaves on the towering sycamore and cottonwood trees are turning to bright yellows and oranges, the arboretum becomes an Arizona Instagram sensation.
The arboretum had been on my must-list for years, and I finally made it there in January 2021. Even though the leaves were a bit beyond their fall-color prime, the arboretum was still a lovely spot for a winter walk. I especially loved the moderate, 0.4-mile High Trail that rises above the meandering route of Queen Creek before crossing the creek on a picturesque footbridge. The easy, 1.4-mile Main Trail also offers a pretty overview of the park.
The many shady gardens are also great spots for bird watching, and I saw a number of people wielding powerful binoculars and camera lenses.
Pro Tip: Entrance to the arboretum requires a fee, and there are restrooms and gift shops available inside.
2. Picket Post Trail
Dominating the landscape as you travel east on Highway 60 is Picket Post Mountain, a rugged butte that rises from the desert floor and is a part of the Superstition Mountains.
The 4.4-mile round-trip hike to the summit has an elevation climb of more than 2,000 feet and is rated as difficult, with rock scrambling required.
Even if you are not interested in climbing to the summit, though, a stop at the trailhead is worthwhile because of the beautiful terrain. Consider hiking a mile or so in for the chance to walk amidst towering saguaros with unobstructed views of Picket Post.
Pro Tip: There is plenty of parking at the no-fee trailhead, as well as pit toilets.
Mining history is front and center in the little town of Superior. Dating back to the 1870s, the town was once a silver-, gold-, and copper-mining boomtown, and the signs of mining can still be seen in the mountains that tower over the town.
Today, Superior is a community of about 3,100 people, and it features a nicely preserved downtown, mine tours, and an informational museum, the Bob Jones Museum. The town plays up its desert setting with the Legends of Superior Trails and the Prickly Pear Festival. Plenty of local restaurants are available for a lunch or dinner stop.
4. Queen Creek Tunnel
For a look at a landmark 1950s-era engineering feat, make a quick stop at the overlook just before the Queen Creek Tunnel along Highway 60. The 1,217-foot-long tunnel provides a route through the rugged Superstition Mountains that rise steeply east of Superior.
The large pull-out area just west of the tunnel is a good spot to view not just the massive mountain range and the entrance to the tunnel, but the steep creek gorge that runs alongside the road.
5. Historic Downtown Globe
With its fun, walkable downtown and range of quirky shops and restaurants, Globe makes a perfect stopping point for lunch, dinner, or an overnight stay.
Arizona Tourism refers to Globe’s many well-preserved historic buildings as “they-don’t-make-it-like-that-anymore architecture.” Owing to its mountainous setting and mining past, Globe features a number of buildings perched along exceptionally steep streets.
For shopping, be sure to stop by the charming Pickle Barrel Trading Post, and for lunch or dinner, check out the El Ranchito Mexican restaurant for delicious Mexican-cuisine classics, or the beautiful Bravo Americano Moderno, a newly opened restaurant offering wood fired-oven pizzas. If the weather is sunny, ask to sit on Bravo’s spacious patio.
Globe has a number of chain hotel choices, including the pretty Copper Hills Inn Best Western.
6. Old Gila County Courthouse
Dating back to 1906, the historic Gila County Courthouse dominates the downtown Globe streetscape with its imposing four stories and rock-wall façade. The building served as the Gila County Courthouse until 1976, when a modern replacement was built.
Today, the old courthouse serves as the home of the delightful Cobre Valley Center for the Arts, a space bursting with local fine arts, music, theater arts, and quilts. The center beautifully capitalizes on the building’s early-1900s design touches, such as stair rails made of burnished copper, graceful arches, and high-ceiled rooms. If the center is open when you visit, be sure to stop by. The outside is also worth a walk-by if the center is closed.
7. Tonto National Monument
A national treasure awaits at the Tonto National Monument, a half-hour detour northwest of Globe along Highway 188.
The National Monument describes the spot as “a place to explore and learn about a unique part of America’s heritage.” The monument includes two well-preserved cliff dwellings of prehistoric people of the Salado culture who lived in the Tonto Basin between the years 1250 and 1450.
The Lower Cliff Dwelling, which visitors can see without a guide, is open year-round and involves a steep, half-mile walk uphill on a paved path. The round trip takes about an hour.
The Upper Cliff Dwelling is accessible by guided tour only. The tour, which is available by reservation, takes three to four hours. It involves a 600-foot elevation gain and has several rocky, uneven steps.
8. Salt River Canyon Rest Area
The Salt River Canyon Rest Area at the floor of the canyon is located on the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache Reservations, according to information from the Arizona Department of Transportation. It sits on the banks of the Salt River and offers wonderful views of the canyon and the old and new bridges that cross the river.
Pro Tip: Although the rest area appeared to be a great place to stop for break and a walk, it was largely closed when I visited in January 2021. Portable toilets were available.
9. Salt River Canyon Overlooks
Numerous spots are available on both sides of the canyon to pull off the road to take in the views. Some of the areas are safer than others, so it pays to choose carefully.
One good spot to stop is on an established pullout area on the north side of the canyon. It has a wide, paved area for parking, and a staircase leading down to a viewing area.
Although much of the scenic route is a two-lane highway, a number of passing lanes are available in steep sections. Still, faster drivers tend to pile up behind slower drivers on this highway. To save aggravation for everyone, my advice is to get over onto a pullout area as soon as it is safe to do so to let faster traffic pass you by.
For ideas on other scenic canyons in Arizona, check out my story on 7 amazing canyons to explore in Arizona after you’ve seen the Grand Canyon. And for a look at other worthwhile drives in Arizona, see the 7 most amazing scenic drives in Arizona.