Last year the U.S. version of the TV show, "Top Gear" filmed a special off-road episode here in Arizona. One of the hosts, Rutledge Wood commented that, “We’ve been on sand, we’ve done rock crawling, we’ve been on snow, and now what looks like volcanic ash, and we haven’t left the state.” This isn't something you'll find in most other states and it's one of the reasons why Arizona is such a great place to take an off-the-beaten-path adventure.
Off-roading, the activity or sport of driving a motor vehicle through rough terrain, is something that I believe people should experience at least once in their lifetime. After the first experience, as in my case, you might just end up hooked. Traveling this way allows you to steer clear of the more popular, well-known routes, and camp, hike and explore with your friends or family that might be riding along with you.
Whether you go for an easy Sunday drive or spend an entire week out on the road, it’s all about the journey. Take out the ATVs, side-by-sides or an SUV and hit the trails. Below are five of my favorites; these offer varying levels of difficulty and vehicle requirements, but provide something for first-timers and experienced drivers alike.
Duquesne to Lochiel to Harshaw
This is an easy day trip that starts just east of Nogales in southern Arizona. The dirt road quickly climbs into the Patagonia Mountains and passes two ghost towns, Washington Camp and Duquesne, before it ends at a monument on the U.S.-Mexico border. The trail then tracks back north, turning into Harshaw Road, and passing Harshaw ghost town, before ending in Patagonia. Overall, the trip is just less than 50 miles and is something that can be completed in almost any vehicle, any time. This is a great trail to experience some history, and see wide grasslands and forested mountains.
The trail begins at: 31°23'15.71"N 110°52'15.22"W
Harquahala Mountain Byway
This is another great scenic trip for those who have a day to kill. However, this one requires a more capable vehicle, preferably a 4-wheel drive or at the very least, one with plenty of ground clearance. The trail begins about 80 miles west of Phoenix along Eagle Eye Road. About 10 miles in, the trail climbs more than 3,000 feet to get you to the summit of the Harquahala Mountains. At the top you’ll be surprised to find signs of life – an old Smithsonian Observatory was at this site in the 1920s. It has since been shut down but many of the buildings still stand. Hiking and other areas to explore are available on the way up, and the summit makes a good place to enjoy the 360-degree view from more than 5,600 feet up.
The trail entrance is here: 33°43'44.43"N 113°17'48.51"W
Backway to Crown King
If you haven’t heard of this trail, you are missing out on a true adrenaline-pumping experience. This is one of the most legendary trails in Arizona. You’ll leave from north of Lake Pleasant and climb 26 miles into the Bradshaw Mountains to the small town of Crown King. There is an easier road (Crown King Road from I-17) that takes you to the same place, but if you want a real challenge and have a capable vehicle (ATVs, trail-ready SUV, etc.) opt for this route. As this is one of the more challenging trails, I’d recommend traveling in a group and researching ahead of time because conditions can change and quickly make this trail significantly more difficult. Regardless, you’ll pass through ghost towns and take in some great views. Once you’re in Crown King, there’s a cool oasis to escape the intense summer heat, and food, gas, and lodging are all available here.
Start here: 33°56'12.04"N 112°19'27.23"W
Broken Arrow Trail
Another legendary trail is found in Sedona. Sedona is to the off-roading community what Gettysburg is to a history buff. This trail is a measly four miles, but due to its difficulty, and the sometimes heavy traffic, it can take several hours to complete. You’ll be driving on and over the beautiful red rocks the entire time, so it makes for some pretty fantastic photo and gives the driver a chance to test their skills. Even better, there are plenty of options; you can sit back and relax while completing the trail on a guided Jeep trip, rent a Jeep to do it on your own, or take your own vehicle. No matter how you do it, it’s a trip you shouldn’t miss if you’re in the area. This trail is on my bucket list and I’ll be completing it for the first time this summer.
You’ll start the journey at: 34°50'43.69"N 111°45'26.48"W
Cinder Hills OHV Area
Finally, consider Cinder Hills OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) area northeast of Flagstaff. This is basically a big, open playground where you take your vehicle and go play in the unique volcanic cinder cones in the area. There is a park boundary, but you’re allowed to go wherever you want as long as you abide by a few rules. Whether that’s right up a volcano or just an easy cruise around the designated trails, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours or even a few days. The different terrain here is almost like being in the sand dunes because of the very fine pebbles that make up the area.
Begin here: 35°19'43.41"N 111°31'24.51"W
These are just five of the hundreds of trails you can explore in Arizona. Try one of these with friends, go in a capable vehicle and you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience. For more trail ideas, pick up a guidebook (they exist), do some online research and check out my personal site: azoffroad.net. See you on the trails!