A new book called ‘Arizona’s Scenic Roads & Hikes’ shows the best things to do along the 27 most scenic drives in the state.
As someone who has spent decades rambling around this remarkable state, I know that Arizona is road trip nirvana. That’s why I wrote my latest book, “Arizona’s Scenic Roads & Hikes.”
In this guide I feature all 27 of Arizona’s state-designated scenic and historic roads, including five National Scenic Byways. The stunning drives are arranged by region and include starting and ending points, mileage, photos, full descriptions and suggestions on locally owned places to eat and sleep. Each road trip is paired with attractions and activities including nearby hiking trails.
Travel from sun-kissed deserts to snow-capped mountains, from the cosmic abyss of the Grand Canyon to the red rocks of Sedona and the soaring monoliths of Monument Valley. Visit ancient Native American villages, chase Old West legends, and get your kicks on Route 66. Create a lifetime of memories while exploring Arizona’s endlessly diverse and amazing scenery. And welcome to my world!
“Arizona’s Scenic Roads & Hikes” covers all 27 of Arizona’s state-designated scenic and historic roads, along with nearby hiking trails, attractions, activities and suggestions on where to eat and stay. (Photo: Courtesy of Mike Koopsen)
What follows is an excerpt from one chapter of “Arizona’s Scenic Roads and Hikes.” If you set out on a road trip, remember to observe mask mandates and other COVID-19 safety practices. And as of October, Monument Valley and other tourism sites on the Navajo Reservation are still closed and curfews may be in effect. Check https://www.navajo-nsn.gov for the latest information.
San Francisco Peaks Scenic Road
Overview: Passing through thick forests, mountain meadows and sagebrush flats, this road travels along the edge of Arizona’s tallest mountains and provides a major route to Grand Canyon.
Route number: U.S. Highway 180.
Mileage: The scenic road is 31 miles (Milepost 224 to Milepost 255). It’s 74 miles from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park.
We all cherish the memory of our first love.
For me, it was Flagstaff. That’s where I first set foot in Arizona. I flew across the country from Ohio to attend Northern Arizona University. On a late summer evening I stepped off a tiny plane (pretty sure we dusted crops on the final leg from Denver) and smelled the pine-scented air of Flagstaff. The next morning I saw the outline of the San Francisco Peaks. It was love at first sight.
I was utterly smitten with the mountains. I couldn’t get enough of them and knew I was destined to be some kind of flannel-shirted mountain man romping at high elevation where the air is clean and pure.
Aspen leaves carpet a trail high up on the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. (Photo: Courtesy of Mike Koopsen)
So imagine my shock when I eventually fell under the spell of harsh sun-blasted lands filled with cactus and rattlesnakes. I’m not sure what utter collapse of judgment, what failure of common sense led me down the reckless path to become a desert rat but such is my fate. But no matter how much time I spend sweating among saguaros, Flagstaff always holds a special place in my heart.
You can expect an impressive display of diversity on a road that travels from Arizona’s highest mountains to its deepest canyon. And don’t let the tall pine trees and meadows streaked with wildflowers fool you. Lurking beneath the soft facade is an explosive lava-spewing geological hotspot.
The San Francisco volcanic field spreads for 1,800 square miles across the southern quadrant of the Colorado Plateau with the first eruptions occurring six million years ago. Even the mountains the road skirts around, the San Francisco Peaks, are the ragged remnants of a hulking stratovolcano. Geologists believe it once reached a height of 16,000 feet but continued to blast itself apart.
The four major summits of the San Francisco Peaks are Fremont, Doyle, Agassiz and Humphreys. At 12,633 feet, Humphreys Peak is the highest point in Arizona and also where you’ll find the only alpine tundra in the state. Traveling between these high lonely slopes across the plateau and into the arid depths of the nearby Grand Canyon was where biologist C. Hart Merriam developed his “life zones” concept — that altitude and temperature determine what type of plants grow in a particular place. While widely accepted today, it was a controversial notion when he published his findings in 1890.
The San Francisco Peaks have considerable religious significance for several American Indian tribes. The Hopis believe their kachina gods dwell within the mountains, and they are one of four sacred mountains to the Navajos forming the boundaries of their homeland.
Downtown Flagstaff is filled with historic buildings and is known for its shops, restaurants, bars and microbreweries. (Photo: Roger Naylor/Special for the Republic)
U.S. 180 leaves from downtown Flagstaff and angles northwest along the western slope of the Peaks. On the outskirts of town, you’ll pass a couple of excellent museums. Housed in a building of volcanic rock, the Pioneer Museum covers a wide range of the region’s past. Exhibits highlight a history of logging, ranching and transportation. The Museum of Northern Arizona tells the history of the Colorado Plateau, from its geologic creation to the peoples who have populated it.
Watch for the turnoff to the Arizona Snowbowl, 7 miles northwest of Flagstaff. Snowbowl Road makes a winding climb up the slopes to a major ski area, offering multiple runs during winter and a scenic chair lift ride in warmer months. Several hiking trails branch off from this road as well, including the trek to the top of Humphreys Peak. The steep, challenging hike is just under 10 miles round trip, ending with a lung-squeezing slog across treeless tundra.
For those that prefer skiing on more level terrain, Arizona Nordic Village offers miles of groomed cross-country trails during winter, and cabins and yurts for rent throughout the year. Look for it on the right side of 180, a couple of miles past the Snowbowl Road.
As the road continues, evidence of past fires are visible as well as the regeneration process. As you enter the wide grasslands of Kendrick Park, glance up the slopes of the peaks and you’ll see the shimmering green of fast-growing aspen saplings filling the place where ponderosa pines once stood. Meadows spread wide through here, a good area to spot wildlife. To the west, Kendrick Mountain, a large lava dome, rises above the forest.
The San Francisco Peaks are the remnants of a stratovolcano that once rose to a height of 16,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy of Mike Koopsen)
The road begins to descend and the stately ponderosas give way to a scrubby mix of junipers and pinion pines. Red Mountain looms to the left, a volcanic cinder cone. Basically just assume every hill and mountain you see along this road were volcanoes or mixed up in volcanic treachery. And they may not be finished. Many geologists expect eruptions again in the future. I’m not sure how you would prepare for such an event if it happens during your road trip other than to exercise caution. Do not try to cross a wash flowing with lava. And if hot magma is raining down from the sky, put the top up on the convertible and turn around at the first opportunity.
Red Mountain still wears visible scars of its violent past. It appears to have its side ripped out, exposing a fancifully eroded internal structure that you can enter (see Hiking).
For the last stretch of highway, you’re clear of the forest and rolling across sagebrush prairie. After 50 miles you’ll junction with Arizona 64 in the crossroads town of Valle.
Since you likely didn’t come all this way to hang out in Valle, turn north on Arizona 64 to continue to Grand Canyon National Park. It’s only 25 miles to the park entrance. Open country continues until the road climbs back into the forest before it reaches the town of Tusayan, just outside the park.
Kendrick Park Watchable Wildlife Trail: This gentle loop moves from pine forest through open grassland. Between the two habitats, you may encounter a variety of bird and animal life. There are two options, a 0.25-mile paved loop suitable for wheelchairs or the longer 1.5-mile loop that pushes deeper into the woods, past an aspen grove and returns along the edge of a lanky meadow. Move quietly and stay alert for mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyote, badger and porcupine. Look for the signed parking area on the west side of 180, 7 miles past the turnoff for Snowbowl.
The Red Mountain Trail north of Flagstaff skirts past colorful hoodoos, twisted pillars and gnawed spires. (Photo: Roger Naylor/Special for the Republic)
Lava River Cave: Explore one of the most unusual volcanic scars of the area when hiking a nearly mile-long lava tube hidden beneath the ponderosa pines. The cave was formed 700,000 years ago by a river of molten lava blasted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie. The entrance requires scrambling over boulders but then the chamber widens. There are some tight spots but the ceiling often soars dozens of feet overhead. At the Y, bear left. Dress warm and carry at least two sources of light. Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180 and turn left on Forest Road 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles and turn left on FR 171. Drive for 1 mile and turn left on FR 171B to the parking lot.
Red Mountain Trail #159: With Grand Canyon beckoning just up the highway, most folks breeze past Red Mountain with barely a glance. Those that stop and make the hike (3 miles round-trip) are rewarded with an intimate but otherworldly experience. The trail starts along an old road that winds through junipers and pinion pines, then dips into the bed of a wash. After a mile the sandy streambed squeezes between towers of black cinders. A ladder climbs over a stone wall and you’re engulfed in a wonderland of gnawed spires, twisted pillars and contorted walls bubbled with trapped gasses. The amphitheater calls to mind a miniaturized Bryce Canyon bristling with colorful hoodoos. Trail begins at milepost 247 off U.S. 180, 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff.
Information for all hiking trails: 928-526-0866, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.
Books by Roger Naylor
Roger Naylor is a long-time Arizona Republic contributor and the author of seven books, including “Arizona State Parks,” which won a 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award in the Travel category. (Photo: Courtesy of Mike Koopsen)
“Arizona’s Scenic Roads and Hikes” is available in stores, on Amazon and at https://www.rogernaylor.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZRogerNaylor and keep up with him at https://www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ. Here are more books by Naylor:
“Arizona State Parks: A Guide to Amazing Places in the Grand Canyon State.” It won a 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award in the Travel category.“Boots and Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers.”“Arizona Kicks on Route 66.”“The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon.”“Crazy for the Heat: Arizona Tales of Ghosts, Gumshoes and Bigfoot” (fiction)“Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.”
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