5 great Arizona drives to take

Posted at 4:31 AM, May 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-19 07:31:54-04

Arizona is home to some of America’s most scenic roadways. 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. For travelers seeking the most impressive views, here are five drives that showcase the state’s beauty and diversity.

1. White Mountain Scenic Road
Miles: 90 round-trip loop

Hours with stops: 2.5 – 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. While much of the sacred Apache land remains wilderness just off the highway, 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, a population that began being reintroduced to the area from Yellowstone more than 100 years ago. 


2. 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. 

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.


3. Apache Trail Historic Road

Miles: 41.5 one way

Hours with stops: 3 – 5

The Apache Trail was completed in 1905 to aid construction of 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 onboard the Dolly Steamboat for a 90-minute scenic boat ride. Continue along the paved road to Tortilla Flat, home to Superstition Restaurant & Saloon and the Country Store, which serves tasty ice cream.

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. 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.  


4. Swift Trail Scenic Drive on Mount Graham

Miles: 70 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 Pinaleño 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. 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 is graded dirt, but accessible to passenger vehicles. 


5. 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. 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 at Along the drive there are plenty of scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and picnic areas. 

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