It’s hard to imagine a place more perfectly designed for road trips than Arizona.
It is a grand old state, the sixth largest in the union, covering nearly 114,000 square miles. Since most of Arizona’s population centers are in clustered groups, this leaves large swaths of scenic backcountry. It’s dotted with just the right number of small towns to add character and to keep travelers well fed and fed.
So here are three great road trips for 2022. They combine great scenery, delicious food, and plenty of recreational activities. Hit the road and experience Arizona with these old-fashioned scenic drives.
Continued:The best things to do in Arizona in 2022
Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Route
Pastoral meadows, vineyards, and hidden lakes are among the last things people expect to find in southern Arizona, just miles from the Mexican border. That’s what makes this trip so enjoyable.
The road begins in the desert, leaving Interstate 10 at exit 281 about 20 miles east of Tucson. Head south on State Route 83 amid cactus and mesquite scrub. After climbing through a rugged canyon, the road bends southeast to cross a virtual sea of grass.
Dotted with oak trees and carved by stream channels, it is part of the vast Sonoita Plain. It’s a delightful expanse of hills that stretches across the horizon and seems to go on forever.
The grasses sway with the touch of every breeze. The mountains are jostled by this unexpected savannah. It is a land built for herds of bison. These are wide open spaces where the Wild West still lives and breathes. If God has a lawn, this is it.
For a glimpse into the past, stop at Empire Ranch, dating back to the 1870s. Visit the ranch headquarters or stroll through the cottonwoods that shade the wash house and try to guess how many movies have been filmed here. Hint: That’s a lot. https://www.empireranchfoundation.org.
Sonoita straddles the junction of State Routes 83 and 82, the birthplace of Arizona’s wine industry. Several vineyards and wine tasting rooms dot the hills, most in Elgin, 9 miles to the east.
Turn onto SR 82, continue southwest to quaint Patagonia Town, a popular destination for bird watchers and art lovers. Shops, galleries and restaurants surround the community park that anchors the downtown area.
Grab a bite at Velvet Elvis Pizza Company, where designer pizzas are built using a flavorful whole-wheat crust as a platform, sturdy yet light and perfectly charred. 292 Naugle Avenue 520-394-0069, https://velvetelvispizzapatagonia.com.
A few miles south of town is the exit to Patagonia Lake State Park. Nestled in the desert hills, the 250-acre lake offers boating, fishing, camping, and a sandy beach for swimming. Boat rentals are available. 520-287-6965, https://azstateparks.com/patagonia-lake.
A few more miles crossing grassy ridges, skirting small canyons with mountain views, and the road ends in Nogales, Arizona’s largest border town. If you’re hungry, walk into Cocina La Ley and you’ll feel like you’ve wandered a few blocks south and dined across the border. Soups and tacos make up the menu, an excellent variety of each. 226 W.Third St. 520-287-4555, https://cocinalaley.com.
You can return the way you came as there is still plenty to see. The other option is to travel north to Tucson via Interstate 19 from Nogales.
Continued:Patagonia Lake State Park: An Oasis for Boating, Fishing, and Birdwatching
Jerome-Clarkdale-Cottonwood Historic Route
This short scenic drive hides in plain sight a winding, winding stretch of State Route 89A rising from the bottom of the Verde Valley to Jerome, with plenty of dive-driving fun.
From the intersection of State Roads 260 and 89A in Cottonwood, do NOT follow signs to Jerome. This takes you out of town via the bypass. Bypass is probably the cruellest word in the small town lexicon. Their sole purpose seems to be to keep you away from the good stuff, from the very heart of the community.
Follow Historic 89A, which will pass Dead Horse Ranch State Park, with hiking trails, fishing lagoons and horseback riding, before heading through Old Town Cottonwood. Here you’ll find galleries, restaurants and wine tasting rooms housed in buildings dating back to the Prohibition era.
Outside of town, Tuzigoot National Monument, an ancient Pueblo ruin, is perched atop a limestone ridge overlooking the Verde River. 928-634-5564, https://www.nps.gov/tuzi.
Next, you’ll pass through scenic Clarkdale, Arizona’s first company town. Built by the owner of the largest mine in Jerome, Clarkdale was designed with precision planning and technological advancements far from the norm in the early 1900s.
Don’t miss the Copper Art Museum, which features 5,000 objects, copper art and collections dating back to the 16th century. Each room features a different theme, from art and architecture to glassware to religious artifacts. 849 Main Street 928-649-1858, https://www.copperartmuseum.com.
Leaving Clarkdale, the road merges with the bypass (see everything you might have missed?) and begins a short climb into the foothills of the Black Mountains. Languid curves meander through gentle hills, dotted with cacti and thick stems of century-old plants.
Soon you are climbing the shoulder of a humpback ridge with houses above you hanging from the edge. You sweep through the old high school, now a collection of art galleries, and follow the latest twists to Jerome.
Take the time to savor the breathtaking view of the Verde Valley. Hit the shops and the fine collection of restaurants. It’s hard to resist Bobby D’s barbecue with the aroma of tender meats slowly smoked over pecan wood floating in the street. 119 Jerome Avenue, 928-634-6235, http://www.bobbydsbbqjerome.com.
If you fancy more driving excitement, continue south on 89A and cross the wide back of Mingus Mountain toward Prescott. Curves are fast and furious, one after another.
Continued:Verde Canyon Railroad: Ride the rails through the red rocks of Arizona
Pinetop in Eagar
Here’s a road trip to save for the summer. This high country road, combined with a few short side drives, shows off the best of the White Mountains that dominate eastern Arizona.
Start your trip with a hearty breakfast at Darbi’s Café. This Pinetop favorite is known for its home cooking and huge portions in a log cabin. 235 E. White Mountain Blvd. 928-367-6556, https://darbiscafe.com.
From Pinetop, State Route 260 heads east through the Fort Apache Reservation, home to the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Within just a few miles, lush grasslands sweep across parts of the forest. This is what makes it the epitome of the White Mountains route – the combination of meadows and forests in rich shades of green.
And, of course, lakes and streams at every turn. You can’t throw a rock in the White Mountains without hearing a splash.
You will soon reach the turnoff to Horseshoe Cienega Lake. It’s just a mile down a dirt road to the beautiful 121 acre curved lake. It is a good fishing spot for people with reduced mobility. Some anglers back their cars up to the edge of the water and set up garden chairs. Permits are required from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Learn more about https://wmatoutdoor.org.
Back on the 260, the road continues to climb through dense groves of aspen and pine. The intimate A-1 lake is just off the highway at 8,900 feet. It is named after Apache Chief Alchesay, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. U.S. Army officials had trouble pronouncing its name, so they called it A-1.
The road continues through large stands of aspen (this is also a beautiful fall road), finally ending in open meadows surrounding the exit for Sunrise Park Resort (State Route 273).
During the summer, Sunrise is a fun playground full of fast-paced thrills. You can take the scenic chairlift to the 10,700-foot summit of Sunrise Mountain, take a zipline ride, or race down ski slopes on the handlebars of a mountain bike. 855-735-7669, https://www.sunrise.ski.
Another interesting detour is a brisk jog on SR 373. The 3-mile ride passes small lakes and reservoirs before ending at Greer Village. Nestled in a high mountain valley, Greer offers the perfect summer getaway. There are cabins, a lodge and a few restaurants. Spend a few days here above 8,000 feet and you’ll forget that Arizona is a desert state.
Back on 260, wide grasslands are the norm for the rest of the drive to Eagar and Springerville, with forest crowning distant hills. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep as the road dips into the scenic round valley bisected by the shimmering curves of the Little Colorado River.
Now where do you want to go?
Plan your spring and summer road trips with Roger Naylor
Arizona Republic contributor and author Roger Naylor will discuss his award-winning book, “Arizona’s Scenic Roads & Hikes,” at the Sedona Heritage Museum at 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 26. The presentation will include a slide show and Q&A.
In his comprehensive guide, Naylor outlines Arizona’s 27 State-Designated Scenic and Historic Byways, including five National Scenic Byways. The great rides are organized by region and include start and end points, mileage, vibrant photos, full descriptions, nearby hiking trails, and suggestions for local places to eat and sleep.
The event is free and books will be on sale afterwards. The Sedona Heritage Museum is located at 735 Jordan Road. 928-282-7038, https://sedonamuseum.org.
Support local journalism. To subscribe to azcentral.com today.