Let’s face it. The road less traveled is not the interstate or major highway. Many of the Grand Canyon State’s most interesting and beautiful roadways unwind after a short detour off the busier roads. So take the exit ramp to experience some of Arizona’s scenic drives and byways.
Red Rock Scenic Byway
This byway, officially Arizona Highway 179, is only 14.5 miles long, but you could spend a whole day exploring the spectacular red rock formations, shops, galleries, restaurants and other attractions that line this link between Interstate 17 and Sedona.
Get oriented at the Red Rock Ranger District visitor center, where you can buy a Red Rock Pass to park your car at surrounding Coconino National Forest sites. The Village of Oak Creek is a good place to pick up picnic supplies on the way to photo ops at Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. These two beloved landmarks are ringed by hiking and biking trails.
Farther along, sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude’s Chapel of the Holy Cross is a meditative and powerful retreat, with windows framing buttes and rock outcroppings. At the northern end of the drive, stroll around Tlaquepaque, an architecturally authentic Spanish Colonial village on Oak Creek that houses galleries, retailers and restaurants.
Roadside eats: Get salads, pasta and views of Oak Creek at Ken’s Creekside. This Fido-friendly bistro also has a pet menu.
Apache Trail Historic Road
It’s best to designate a driver for this 41.5-mile road, just off U.S. Highway 60 near Greater Phoenix. That way the driver can keep eyeballs firmly planted on curves and hairpin turns while passengers “ooh” and “ahh” over lakes, desert mountains and sheer canyon walls as the road winds past Tonto National Forest’s wilderness areas.
Part paved and part well-graded gravel, the road – Arizona Highway 88 – was an old stagecoach route that shuttled in supplies for Roosevelt Dam’s construction in the early 1900s. It begins near Goldfield Ghost Town, a re-created Wild West town, complete with gunslingers. You’ll pass Canyon Lake, where you can cruise on the Dolly Steamboat, then Apache Lake, remote and perfect for fishing.
Nearing the end of the line, stop for views of Roosevelt Dam, built to serve the water needs of the Phoenix area. Continue past the dam to Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center, which overlooks the large lake and offers exhibits about the natural and manmade history of the area.
Roadside eats: Straddle a saddle barstool at Tortilla Flat, an old stage stop. Savor a bowl of hearty chili, then cool things down with a scoop of prickly-pear ice cream.
This 35-mile roadway, Arizona Highway 366, winds up one of Southern and North Central Arizona’s famous sky islands – Mount Graham in the Coronado National Forest’s Pinaleño Mountains. Rising from 2,900 to 10,713 feet in elevation, a trip up this mountain is the ecological equivalent of driving from Mexico to Canada. Spend the day driving the curving, mountainous grades, picking up the trail outside Safford, north of Interstate 10.
You’ll pass cacti and ocotillos, then wind up through oak, sycamores and pines. Look for Heliograph Peak, where the Army sent mirrored signals during the Apache Wars, plus plenty of spots for picnics and hiking. After about 22 miles the pavement ends, and a well-graded dirt road to the end – and a small lake – begins. This last stretch is open from about mid-April to mid-November, weather permitting.
Want someone else to drive? Join a van tour to Mount Graham International Observatory’s three telescopes, located near the end of the roadway. Tours leave from Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus in Safford starting each May.
Roadside eats: Try a chalaca – crispy masa and green chile – at Safford’s El Charro restaurant. It’s part of the Salsa Trail, the nickname given to the area’s family-run Mexican eateries.
Some 200 miles of the fabled Route 66 remain in Northern Arizona, with segments looping off Interstate 40 from Holbrook to Topock. A one-and-a-half-mile segment in downtown Williams, just west of Flagstaff, gives you a condensed overview of the Mother Road.
Stop at the Williams and Forest Service Visitor Center, housed in an old railway depot, to get the lowdown on Route 66, Williams and the surrounding Kaibab National Forest. Stroll Route 66, the town’s main street, to explore shops and restaurants, and snap photos of vintage neon signs and motels. Go even further back in time at Wild West Junction, a re-created Western town and museum.
Got time? Take a hike, hop on the Grand Canyon Railway for a chug to the national park’s South Rim or catch the Annual Route 66 Fun Run, a classic car cruise that starts April 30 in nearby Seligman.
Roadside eats: Get your kicks on Route 66 with shakes and burgers at Twisters 1950s Soda Fountain in Williams, where you can also score loads of souvenirs.