Scenic Drive: Spectacular Roads, Southern Arizona

Spectacular Roads – Southern Arizona

This page describes spectacular roads that are located in the southern part of Arizona. Click on the map of Arizona to make it larger.

AZ 366-The Swift Trail to Riggs Lake

The trip up the Swift Trail (AZ 366) to Riggs Lake begins at U.S. 666 seven miles south of Safford, or  twenty-eight miles north of Exit 2 off I 10. The 35 mile road twists and turns up the  flanks of Mt. Graham. On the way to Riggs you will pass through five of North America’s seven life zones. Life zones that support a variety of animals and plants including cacti, creosote, ocotillo, aspen, spruce and fur. The drive ends at a small reservoir that provides excellent trout fishing. With an elevation of 10,717 feet, Mount Graham is the highest mountain in the Pinaleno Mountains, the highest mountain range in southern Arizona. From the Swift Trail you can follow a rutted road to Heliograph Peak where in 1886 the U.S. Army built a mirrored, sun-reflecting signal tower (heliograph). The tower was used during the campaign against Geronimo and the Apaches to communicate with soldiers spread over southern Arizona. AZ 366 is closed during winter months.

Wilcox to Chiricahua National Park

This scenic drive begins in Wilcox off I 10 and runs southeast to Chiricahua National Monument traversing the southern flank of the Dos Cabezas Mountains before climbing to Massai Point in Chiricahua National Monument. The 42 mile paved road follows AZ 186 and AZ 181 and Bonita Canyon Drive. The drive provides excellent views of rugged peaks, grasslands and the very unique Chiricahuas. The drive’s attractions include diverse forms of plant and animal life, hiking, birdwatching, nature study, Dos Cabezas and Fort Bowie National Historic Site.   Fort Bowie was an important during the war with the Chiricahua Apaches led by Geronimo and Cochise.

Mt. Lemmon Highway

This 25 mile paved road winds its way up 9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. In the summer the temperature drops about 25 degrees, very refreshing in July or August. The drive starts on the Catalina Highway at the Coronado National Forest boundary.  The highway is located in northeastern Tucson off Tanque Verde Road. Attractions include camping, hiking, picnicking, rock climbing, wild flowers, cacti, vista points, Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area and Mt. Lemmon.

Nogales via I 10, AZ 83, AZ 82

The 45 mile paved drive begins at Exit 281 on I10 just east of Tucson. It ends at Nogales on the Mexican border. The drive can also be accessed from I 19 in Nogales so you have the possibility of using I 19 to create a great loop drive from Tucson or Nogales (depending on your orientation). The Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road follows AZ 83 to the old ranch town of Sonoita. AZ 82 passes Patagonia and follows the tree-lined Senoita Creek before  reaching the Santa Cruz River and Nogales, the gateway to old Mexico. This is a beautiful, peaceful drive that features the Santa Rita Mountains, Coronoda National Forest, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Patagonia Lake State Park, Museum of the Horse and Nogales.

Puerto Blanko & Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument

Actually, there are two loop drives, both gravel roads, which showcase the remote and beautiful backcountry of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Both roads begin near the visitor center on AZ 85 about 32 miles south of Ajo. The Ajo Mountain Drive is 21 miles long. The Puerto Blanco Drive covers 53 miles.  The drives’ attractions include wildflowers, wildlife, backcountry camping and backpacking, organ pipe cacti, senita cacti, hiking, Estes Canyon, Ajo Range, natural arch, Senita Basic, Quitobaquito Spring and Camino del Diablo. This is a harsh, isolated area with temperatures climbing well over 100 during the summer months. A good supply of water is absolutely essential with one exception – during the summer  when violent thunderstorms sometimes wash out the roads.

Saguaro National Park Drive – Gates Pass

This 21 mile, paved and gravel drive traverses Gates Pass and Tucson Mountain Park, passes the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and passes through the fantastic saguaro forests of Saguaro National Park. The drive features the national park, saguaro cacti, Red Hills Information center, hiking, wildlife observation, camping, picnicking, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson.  The drive is an open loop accessed at both ends from I 10. The northern end of the loop begins at Exit 248, then Ina Road to the park boundary. The southern end begins at Exit 257, then Speedway Boulevard west to the Tucson Mountain Park boundary.

AZ 79-Pinal Pioneer Parkway

The parkway follows AZ 79 S between Florence and Oracle Junction  through 42 miles of high Sonoran Desert. This is part of the old highway between Phoenix and Tucson. The parkway was established in 1961 by the Arizona Highway Department as a scenic drive through a relatively untouched expanse of desert. It seems likely that this parkway provided part of the spark that led to the creation of the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive in 1963. Residents who were involved in the creation of the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive spoke and wrote about the Pinal Pioneer Parkway.  In the case of the Pinal Pioneer Parkway the Arizona Highway Department acquired 1,000 foot wide scenic easements on the federal and state lands along the parkway to create a highway nature preserve. There are roadside rest areas along the road. One has a statue of Tom Mix and his horse. Mix was killed near the spot in 1940 when his car swerved off the highway and crashed into what is now known as Tom Mix Wash.  This drive provides a pleasant, slow-paced alternative to I10 and features saguaro forests, picnic areas, nature studies and Tom Mix Monument.

U.S. 95-Yuma to Quartzsite

This scenic road follows U.S. 95 north from Yuma and the Colorado River for 80 miles to Quartzsite. It passes through some of Arizona’s harshest but most beautiful desert landscapes featuring creosote-studded basins, and jagged mountains. The road’s attractions include Yuma, Kofa Mountains, Palm Canyon, Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, Castle Dome Mountains, primitive camping, hiking and wildlife observation. Quartzsite is a hub for snowbirds and rock and mineral buffs with as many as 20,000 RVers putting down winter roots.

U.S. 666 The Coronado Trail

The Coronado Trail is named for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who in 1540, passed through this wilderness of peaks and canyons in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola. The drive, U.S. 666,  begins in Springerville and ends in the mining town of Morenci, covering 123 miles of paved road. Elevations vary dramatically during the trip.  The drive’s attractions include camping, hiking, fishing, autumn foliage, copper mines, Blue Range Primitive Area, wildlife and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Heavy snows sometimes close the road during the winter months.