Apache Trail Loop
Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun seem to vanish instantly when you turn into the rugged canyons of the Salt River. The drive is possible in a day but best over two or more days. Avoid summer if you can, as the weather then will be very hot. Begin at the town of Apache Junction on the east edge of the Phoenix area. Globe, a bit over halfway on the loop, is the best place to stop for the night. The Apache Trail, also signed as AZ 88, has a long unpaved section and a steep grade, not suitable for large RVs or trailers.
To get started, follow the Superstition Freeway/US 60 east to Apache Junction, then turn north on Idaho Road to the Apache Trail. When you start down the Apache Trail, once used as a raiding route, you'll see the towering peaks of the Superstition Mountains on the right and Four Peaks, a southern extension of the Mazatzals, on the left across the Salt River Canyon. About 3.5 miles from the start, you can stop at Superstition Mountain Museum on the right and at Goldfield Ghost Town, another mile on the left, to learn about the mysterious lost gold mines rumored to lie within the Superstitions. A mile farther on the right, you can detour to Lost Dutchman State Park with a fine network of hiking trails and an excellent campground. The Apache Trail then twists and turns through an incredibly rugged landscape with many viewpoints until you reach Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Turn south here on AZ 188 past several recreation areas on the lake. Two prehistoric cliff dwellings, high on the hillside in Tonto National Monument, overlook the lake.
Globe also has an ancient pueblo built by the Salado culture, along with an old-fashioned downtown; you'll find a good range of accommodations and dining too. Old copper mines surround Globe and the nearby town of Miami. Highway US 60 ascends west over rugged mountains and drops into Devils Canyon and Superior, another old copper mining town. An amazing variety of plants and wildlife dwells in Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park just beyond Superior. A short and fast drive on US 60 returns you all too quickly to the hectic pace of greater Phoenix.
Cochise Trail Loop
History and natural beauty intertwine in the southeastern corner of Arizona. The spirit of Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache chief in the 1800s, still seems to pervade the landscapes. Any time of year can be good for a visit. Tucson is the logical starting point for this drive, which takes about a week. All of the towns mentioned here have accommodations and dining.
Attractions along the drive south on I-19 to Nogales include an authentic underground missile silo complex at Green Valley, birding and hiking in Madera Canyon to the east, and experiencing early Spanish history at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and Tumacacori National Historic Park. Nogales draws many shoppers who cross the border into Mexico. Turn northeast on AZ 82 through picturesque hill country to Patagonia, a good place to see birds and other wildlife in a Nature Conservancy preserve. At Sonoita, a bit farther northeast on AZ 82, you can turn southeast on AZ 83 toward Coronado National Memorial, a scenic area at the south end of the Huachuca Mountains; the first 30 miles are mostly paved, followed by 18 miles of gravel road. From Coronado National Memorial, turn left on AZ 92 to Sierra Vista. Along the way you can detour into the Huachuca Mountains at Carr Canyon on a scenic drive high up the slopes or turn up to Ramsey Canyon, famous for hummingbirds and other wildlife at a Nature Conservancy preserve.
Fort Huachuca, just west of downtown Sierra Vista, dates back to 1877 and is Arizona's only fort to remain in use since the Indian wars; a good museum here illustrate the life of the soldiers, their families, and the Indian scouts. Head east via Charleston Road or AZ 82 across the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which has nature trails and several historic sites, to Tombstone, an authentic town from the Wild West. Exhibits in Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park provide a fine introduction to the colorful events that took place here. A short drive south on AZ 80 across the Mule Mountains leads to Bisbee, a copper mining town with many appealing old buildings tucked in the bottom of canyons; you can ride deep underground on a tour of the Copper Queen Mine.
The old smelter town of Douglas to the east via AZ 80 also has notable architecture, including the Gadsden Hotel, whose soaring columns and a Tiffany stained-glass mural decorate the spacious lobby. Turn north on US 191, then east on AZ 181 for Chiricahua National Monument, a geologic wonderland of pinnacles and curious rock features. If you'd like the adventure of driving an unpaved mountain road, take AZ 80 northeast from Douglas, continue a few miles into New Mexico, turn left to Portal and Cave Creek Canyon, where the pavement ends, then continue over Onion Saddle and down Pinery Canyon to the monument entrance.
From Chiricahua National Monument, take AZ 181 and AZ 186 northwest to Willcox and I-10, perhaps with a detour to ruins of an old army fort at Fort Bowie National Historic Site. At Willcox, you might enjoy a stop at the Rex Allen Cowboy Museum in the historic old downtown. On the way back west to Tucson via I-10, between Willcox and Benson, you could seek out the outstanding Amerind Foundation Museum of Native American cultures. And finally, one of the top sights of the region, Kartchner Caverns State Park offers two tours in an exceptionally pretty living cave a short drive west and south from Benson.
Mogollon Rim and Red Rocks Loop
Sheer cliffs of the Mogollon Rim drop into an expanse of forested hills southeast of Flagstaff. The rim's streams, lakes, and cool ponderosa forests attract the most visitors in summer, but you can enjoy the beautiful views and the canyon scenery any time of year. Without major detours, the loop can be done in a long day. From Flagstaff, head southeast on Lake Mary Road/County 3 past the grassy shores of Lower and Upper Lake Mary. Mormon Lake, a bit farther, would be the state's largest natural lake if it weren't totally dry so often! After a pleasant forest drive of 55 miles from Flagstaff—watch for elk and deer—turn right 12 miles on AZ 87, then turn right 31 miles on AZ 260 to Camp Verde.
In town, you can experience 19th-century army life at Fort Verde State Historic Park. Montezuma Castle National Monument, just north of Camp Verde, contains a five-story prehistoric cliff dwelling that so impressed early visitors that they assumed the great Aztec ruler must have built it. Continue north 11 miles via I-17 to see Montezuma Well, a spring-fed lake with traces of ancient pueblos. Another short drive up I-17 brings you to the gateway of Sedona's famous Red Rock Country. Follow AZ 179 for 15 miles into town past wondrous rock formations, then continue north on AZ 89A beneath the beautifully sculptured walls of Oak Creek Canyon. After the climb out of the canyon you'll be back on the Mogollon Rim to continue through the ponderosa pines on to Flagstaff, 27 miles from Sedona.
With an extra day, you can explore more of the Mogollon Rim by turning east from AZ 87 on unpaved Forest Road 300 along the rim; cars can often negotiate this road in dry weather. You'll pass viewpoints, campgrounds, and fishing lakes on the way to AZ 260, where you could retrace your route or take AZ 260 west to Payson and AZ 87, then continue on to Camp Verde.
For an adventurous back-road adventure, best done with a high-clearance vehicle, take AZ 87 to the village of Strawberry, northwest of Payson, and turn west on Fossil Creek Road. The pavement soon gives out and the road drops steeply to Fossil Creek with great panoramas of the rim country. Towering trees, flowers, and swimming holes surround Fossil Springs, a popular hiking destination up the canyon. After crossing the bridge over Fossil Creek, the road winds through rugged and remote hill country before emerging on AZ 260 just east of Camp Verde.
Grand Canyon Loop
This grand tour goes completely around the Canyon via both rims and has lots of side trip possibilities; allow about a week. You can drive it any time of year, though expect high temperatures at Lees Ferry and Lake Mead National Recreation Area in summer and closure of the North Rim's Bright Angel Point area in winter and spring. Starting points could be Flagstaff, Page, St. George, Las Vegas, or Kingman. Highlights include Desert View Drive and Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and Bright Angel Point and Cape Royal Scenic Drive on the North Rim.
Toroweap Overlook, also on the North Rim, has a stunning view and remains open all year, but it requires a long drive on unpaved roads. Flagstaff features great hiking and some good museums; also consider visits to the nearby Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano, and Wupatki National Monuments. Lees Ferry, where you cross the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon, has two historic districts to explore. North of the Grand Canyon, drop by Pipe Spring National Monument to learn about pioneer ranchers and the local Paiute tribe.
West of the Grand Canyon, you can drive near the shore of Lake Mead and tour Hoover Dam's visitor center. South of the Grand Canyon, take a journey into America's motoring past on the longest remaining section of Route 66. If you're feeling adventurous and willing to drive some dirt roads, detour off Route 66 on the Hualapai Indian Reservation to the western Grand Canyon viewpoints at Grand Canyon West or drive all the way down into the Canyon on Diamond Creek Road. Or hike into the "Shangri La" of Havasu Canyon with its waterfalls and travertine pools on the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
Navajo and Hopi Lands Loop
A drive of about one week will take you around the scenic and cultural highlights of Arizona's northeast corner. The region is accessible year-round, but in winter you may wish to avoid mountain roads such as Indian 12 near the New Mexico border. Flagstaff makes a good starting point, or you could follow your map west from Page or the Grand Canyon National Park's South or North Rims.
Navajo National Monument's scenery and large prehistoric cliff dwellings provide a fine introduction to the northern Navajo lands; it's 136 miles northeast of Flagstaff via US 89, US 160, and AZ 564. Hikers can arrange to descend to nearby Betatakin Ruin or the more distant but better preserved Keet Seel Ruin. A 59-mile drive farther northeast on US 160 and US 163 takes you to the dramatic buttes and spires of Monument Valley. On your own, you can take a self-guided driving tour in the heart of the valley or go on a self-guided hike around West Mitten. Guides at the visitor center offer more extensive tours by 4WD, horseback, or hiking.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a highlight for many visitors, lies in the eastern Navajo Nation; it's a 112-mile journey southeast from Monument Valley via US 163, US 160, Indian 59, US 191, and Indian 7. Two canyons, both with many Navajo farms and ancient cliff dwellings, can be enjoyed from viewpoints, on hikes, and on a variety of 4WD and horseback tours. From Canyon de Chelly National Monument, you could turn northeast 20 miles to Tsaile on Indian 64 and stop at Dine College's tribal museum. From Tsaile, Indian Route 12 winds 53 miles south through ponderosa pine forests to the Navajo Nation's capital of Window Rock, which also has a fine museum. Turn west 28 miles on AZ 264 to Ganado and the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, a 19th-century trading post that's still in business; you'll see both old and new Native American work in the trading post and on tours of Hubbell's house.
Continuing west 54 miles on AZ 264, you'll enter Hopi country and arrive at Polacca below First Mesa; follow the sign for First Mesa Village to the top of the mesa and the well-preserved traditional village of Walpi. Guided walking tours take you through Walpi and explain the history and culture of the Hopi; you'll have a chance to purchase crafts from the villagers. Over on Second Mesa, 13 miles farther west on AZ 264, stop at the Hopi Cultural Center for the museum, restaurant, and the reservation's only motel. Finally, nine miles farther west on AZ 264, you come to Third Mesa, site of Old Oraibi, which may be the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. From Third Mesa, you can continue west 50 miles on AZ 264 to Tuba City and another 75 miles to Flagstaff via US 160 and US 89; alternatively, there's the shortcut from Third Mesa back to Flagstaff on the Leupp Road, which is just 88 miles.
Coronado Trail and Salt River Canyon Loop
This drive in the mountainous heart of eastern Arizona takes several days. In winter, snows may close the middle of the Coronado Trail, so you'll need to follow weather forecasts then. You could start from Globe, which lies just a few hours east of the Phoenix area.
Highway US 70 crosses the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where you can stop at the Apache Cultural Center, then enters the broad valley and cotton fields of the Gila River near Safford. Continuing east to Clifton, you can take US 191 or the more scenic but unpaved Black Hills Back Country Byway, best driven with a high-clearance vehicle. In the old mining town of Clifton, set deep in a canyon of the San Francisco River, turn up Chase Creek Street to admire the old buildings and see the Greenlee County Historical Society Museum. The Coronado Trail (US 191) begins the first of its countless climbs and twists just north of Clifton, and it winds north past the modern town of Morenci and then by the huge open-pit copper mine. Soon you'll be in the forested mountains with many back road drives, hiking trails, and campgrounds. Near the halfway point, you ascend the Mogollon Rim; Blue Vista Overlook here has a wonderful panorama.
The Coronado Trail, which roughly follows the path of the Spanish explorer on his search for gold and fame, ends at the twin towns of Springerville and Eagar. Tours from downtown Springerville go out to Casa Malpais, an unusual prehistoric pueblo. Turn west on AZ 260 through more beautiful alpine country to Hon-Dah on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation; along the way you'll past turnoffs for the resort village of Greer and the ski area at Sunrise. A store at Hon-Dah provides recreation information and permits if you'd like to camp or explore the area. Turn south on AZ 73 past the town of Whiteriver to Fort Apache, which has an excellent tribal museum and some well-preserved 19th century buildings; ask here about visiting Kinishba, a large prehistoric pueblo nearby. Continue on AZ 73 to its end at US 60, then turn south for the immense Salt River Canyon and fine mountain scenery on the way back to Globe.
On to The Land
On to Phoenix and South-Central Arizona