Home to the world-famous Grand Canyon, one of the world’s best-known natural wonders, Arizona features some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. The much-photographed Monument Valley, volcanic fields, and beautiful rock formations highlight the different stages of Earth’s geology.
In stark contrast to the barren rocks, the Sonoran Desert, home of the giant saguaro, tells a different story: a story of survival in an area without water, defying views of the desert as a dry, sandy land.
In the center of the state there is a transition zone, with deciduous and pine forests and more lakes and reservoirs than you might expect.
Scenic drives offer the opportunity to experience some of Arizona’s varied topography and spectacular scenery. You can find these tours in every corner of the state, and they feature everything from lava flows and cactus gardens to canyon rims, table tops and pine forests. The following are just a few of the tours you can take to experience the beautiful scenery of Arizona.
1. Grand Canyon South Rim Scenic Drive
Showcasing the world-famous Grand Canyon, the 57-mile South Rim Drive begins in Cameron, just off Interstate 89 North, and runs through Grand Canyon National Park. Along the Little Colorado River Gorge, the trail offers opportunities to stop at two overlooks.
Within the national park, Desert View is your first stop, where you can walk up to the Lookout tower, enjoy the Native American art on its walls, and beautiful views of the canyon, including the Colorado River in the background. You will then have the opportunity to stop at all the overlooks 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 will find all the amenities of the park, including dining and lodging options.
The trail is open year-round, although it gets very crowded in the summer, especially on weekends. The best times to visit are the middle seasons. Winter gets cold, but offers the chance to visit without the crowds.
Note: Due to being on 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 notices to see when the rest of the stretch will open.
2. Sedona to Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Byway
This 27-mile scenic highway connects the ponderosa pine highlands of Flagstaff with the red rock country of Sedona, following the narrow and spectacular Oak Creek Canyon.
The scenic highway, Interstate 89A, begins 2 miles south of Flagstaff at exit 337 of Interstate 17 South and runs through a ponderosa pine forest. Be sure to stop at Oak Creek Vista Point for beautiful views of Oak Creek Canyon. From here the trail follows steep curves to the bottom of the canyon and continues along the creek. Here you’ll find two campgrounds and day-use areas with picnic tables, if you want to stop.
Halfway through the canyon, you’ll arrive at Slide Rock State Park, one of the most popular swimming areas in the state, where the creek running through the slippery rocks creates a natural water slide.
The scenic drive ends in Sedona, known as one of the most beautiful small towns in the United States, full of art boutiques and surrounded by beautiful red rock formations.
This scenic highway is very busy during the summer months, especially on weekends. Campgrounds at Oak Creek Canyon are on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you want to camp, be sure to get there early. If you’re trying to get to Slide Rock, avoid the weekends and go early.
3. Apache Trail Scenic Byway
Apache Trail, a National Scenic Byway, crosses the rugged northern part of the Superstition Mountains, just northeast of Phoenix, offering access to three reservoirs and beautiful desert scenery.
Named for the Apaches who once used this trail, the road winds through canyons and mountain ridges, offering many retreats where you can enjoy the surroundings. It starts at Goldfield Ghost Town, goes to Lost Dutchman State Park, and then heads north past Needle Vista, with great views of Superstition Wilderness.
You’ll drive through hills filled with giant saguaros, with several scenic stops where you’ll have the chance to take in the beautiful scenery or hike through the cactus-filled desert. Finally, the trail descends to Canyon Lake, with opportunities to stop and enjoy the narrow reservoir surrounded by towering rocks.
Further on, you’ll come to Tortilla Flat, the only “community” there (with a population of six), which is home to a coffee shop and gift shop. Tortilla Flat is the end of the road right now. A few miles further, the highway is closed due to extensive damage from the 2019 Woodbury Fire. However, even as far as Tortilla Flat, the highway remains one of the most scenic in the state.
4. Kayenta to Monument Valley Scenic Drive
The best known and most photographed scenic highway in the Southwest, featured in movies like Forrest Gump, this stretch of highway through the Navajo Nation is a visual experience you will never forget. The harsh and arid land, with its sparse vegetation, displays some of the best geological features on our planet. Sandstone in all shades of rust, orange, purple and red, eroded into surreal shapes, is amazing.
The 22-mile stretch of US 163 runs from Kayenta to the Monument Valley Bypass, passes through Utah for a few miles, and then returns to Monument Valley in Arizona.
Along the way, you’ll drive across plateaus and ridges, cross deep Laguna Creek, and drive over 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 your first glimpse of vast Monument Valley, filled with rock formations of all shapes and sizes that rise 400 to 1,000 feet from the flat surface.
Note: Since this highway is entirely within Navajo Nation territory, please refer to monument valley house page for updates
5. Sky Island Scenic Byway
This 25-mile paved National Forest Scenic Byway, one of the most beautiful byways in Arizona, climbs 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon in the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The trail travels from the saguaro-filled Sonoran Desert to the spruce-filled summit, which offers scenic views with plenty of opportunities for camping and picnicking.
One of Arizona’s “sky islands,” the mountains rise above the surrounding environment and offer a haven from the desert heat. Temperatures drop to 25 degrees from the base of the mountain to the end of the trail.
You will find many panoramic viewpoints; Windy Point is considered one of the best. Further up you will enter the pine forest, a much cooler area where you will find many hiking trails, picnic areas and campgrounds. The road ends in Summerhaven, but just 2 miles before reaching the rustic town, you can turn into the ski area, where you can take a trail to the top of Mount Lemmon.
The path is open all year, although the higher areas may be closed during the winter. It is popular during the summer, when you should avoid visiting on the weekends, if possible.
6. Willcox to Chiricahua Scenic Byway
This 42-mile trail takes you along the southern edge of the Dos Cabezas Mountains before climbing through Bonita Canyon to picturesque Massai Point in Chiricahua National Monument. The Scenic Byway, following Arizona Highways 186 and 181, traverses the scrub and cactus-filled landscape of the Upper Sonoran Desert to the fir and pine forests at higher 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 trail, is the climax of this journey, home to the area aptly dubbed “Rocky Wonderland.”
The trail is open year-round, although it is best experienced during the off seasons as summers tend to be hot and during winter parts of the trail may be closed due to snow.
Services are available in Wilcox, but none beyond. You’ll find campgrounds in the Coronado National Forest and Chiricahua National Monument.
7. Fredonia-Vermillion Cliffs Scenic Highway
The Fredonia-Vermillion Cliffs Scenic Highway takes you along US 89A from Fredonia to the junction with US 89 south of Page. As you drive along the desolate highway that crosses the Kaibab Plateau, you’ll be surrounded by beautifully colored sandstone cliffs until you reach the Kaibab National Forest, filled with spruce, aspen, ponderosa pine, and juniper.
Beyond the forested area, you’ll travel to the foot of the Vermillion Cliffs rising from the Paria Plateau, my favorite stretch of this trail. Although mostly devoid of vegetation, the cliffs provide the most picturesque backdrop for the trail; their changing shapes and colors of all shades of red offer a feast for the eyes.
You then arrive at the Navajo Bridge, which spans across beautiful Marble Canyon and the Colorado River below. This is one of our favorite places to stop on this route, enjoy the surrounding scenery and, when open, enter the interpretive center and bookstore run by the Navajo Nation.
Past the Navajo Bridge, the route turns south along the Echo Cliffs and ends at the junction with US 89 in Bitter Springs.
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