The Most Exhilarating Drives in Arizona
Arizona isn’t just desert and sky. Arizona is chock full of brilliant roads for serious driving enjoyment. Every driver with three pedals or a direct shift gearbox wants to drive the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina or the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but here are a few Arizona roads you might consider adding to your bucket (seat) list.
The Devil’s Highway
Route: Clifton to Alpine
Length: 117 miles
Two hundred miles east of Phoenix is the tiny town of Clifton. The drive there will be largely uneventful, but brace yourself. You’re either going to test your seat bolsters -- or really wish you had them. It’s actually the road’s original number -- Highway 666 -- that earned it “The Devil’s Highway” moniker, but it’s appropriately named given the severity and danger of this vicious stretch. Now called the Coronado Trail (Route 191), the 93 miles from Clifton to Alpine has been called “the curviest road in the United States”, and a quick look at the satellite view might just prove that true. You’ll start at a 3,500-foot elevation and climb to nearly 7,000 feet. The path transitions from desert terrain to alpine views -- from Sahuaro cactus to Ponderosa Pine -- but with a 3,500-foot climb and not a straight stretch to be found, you’ll likely not be paying much attention to the scenery. This is hands down the most involved, wheel-gripping drive you’ll find in Arizona.
The Apache Trail
Route: Apache Junction to Roosevelt
Length: 45 miles
lf you like your roads unpaved, occasionally one lane, and your blind mountain turns without a guardrail, then AZ-88 (The Apache Trail) is for you. It won’t take a lot of speed to thrill on this road. While there is blacktop from Apache Junction to just past Tortilla Flat, from there the road is at its most primitive. It hugs the sides of the mountain, alternating from two lanes down to one with either no guardrail at all or the mere illusion of one crudely fashioned from narrow pine boards that wouldn't stop a coyote. This rudimentary stretch of Arizona dirt is America’s rebuttal to the worst of the Mille Miglia when Sir Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson were engaging four-wheel drifts around blind mountain turns with 1,000-foot drops just ahead. Be warned, you will come up on some overly cautious sightseers carefully observing the 10 MPH signs around these bends, but we promise you’ll enjoy this road at any speed.
The Beeline Highway
Route: Fountain Hills to Payson
Length: 65 miles
Fountain Hills, AZ is home to many a car collection, and the proximity of State Route 87 might be one very good reason. Entirely within the boundaries of the Tonto National Forest, Route 87 (known locally as the Beeline Highway) is a brilliant bit of road for enthusiastic driving. There are lengthy straights here where you can stretch your legs, but it’s mostly long, inclined curve after sweeping curve. You’ll climb about 3,000 feet from desert landscape into the pine forests of northern Arizona, trading cactus on a brown palette for shades of green and even a lake or two. Just south of Payson, the north and southbound split to navigate separate canyons east of Mazatzal Peak. You’ll revel in four lanes for the entire 65 miles, so your chances of navigating slower traffic are good. Like all mountain drives in Arizona, the return trip will dole out at least as much wheel-gripping satisfaction.
The Catalina Highway
Route: Foot of Mount Lemmon to the Peak
Length: 24 miles
Entering the Santa Catalina Mountains just 25 miles northeast of Tucson, you’ll find yourself accelerating at the foot of Mount Lemmon. Named for botanist Sarah Plummer Lemmon, you’re going to have a lot more fun than she did in 1881 when she made the first ascent by horse and on foot. Climbing to over 9,000 feet, with a near 7,000-foot elevation change in a mere 24 miles, the Catalina Highway (also called the Mount Lemmon Highway) is a brilliant ascent with countless curves, numerous vistas and three major switchbacks. The best news is since there’s only one paved road up this mountain, when you reach the top, you’ll have no choice but to turn around and let gravity assist in your descent. A little over halfway down, at the apex of the biggest switchback, do yourself a favor and pull off at Windy Point Vista. There’s a scenic overlook that gives a great view of the descending road. Take it in. Post it to Instagram. And be the envy of your driving-enthusiast friends.
U.S. 60 through the Salt River Canyon
Route: Apache Junction to Show Low
Length: 142 miles
In the middle of the 32,000 acres that are the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, State Route 60 is a narrow ribbon buckling through the harsh terrain. By starting in Apache Junction you’ll be able to exploit the 1,200-foot-long Queen Creek Tunnel cutting through the mountain at a 6% upward pitch. You know what to do. Put the hammer down and amplify that exhaust. Now drive the 140 twisting miles on to Show Low and you’ll climb 4,000 feet via tight bends, S-curves, and the three consecutive switchbacks plunging into the canyon. The first half of this trip twists through the Tonto National Forest with views of the Superstition Mountains -- the second half winds through the more brutal terrain of the Fort Apache Reservation where you’ll chase the Salt River for a while. Here, the canyon dictates what the road can do, and what it can do is thrill. There shouldn’t be a lot of traffic, so it’s good for a spirited, yet scenic drive. There are occasional pull-offs for those slowing you down and even a few run-away ramps -- in case it’s YOU that needs slowing.
Route 66 -- from Kingman to Oatman
Route: Kingman to Oatman
Length: 27 miles
While perhaps any old strip of Historic Route 66 can provide a bit of a warm fuzzy, there are some stretches where that nostalgia can also live in the now. When they built this road, they weren't blasting and bulldozing through mountains to straighten the path. The road went where they could find a place to lay it down. Starting in Kingman, head west off I-40 towards Los Angeles and you’ll find yourself without a lot of company on the stretch of Old Route 66 to Oatman. More than half of this 26-mile adventure is made up of long straight stretches occasionally interrupted by a simple curve, and ideal for “getting the carbon out.” But be ready for the twisties as you near Oatman. It’s those last nine miles from Cool Springs to Oatman that supply many (perhaps even most) of the photos you see of Arizona Route 66. Keep the revs up for those last few miles -- but keep your eyes peeled as you slow to enter town. Oatman prides itself on the wild burros that roam the streets, and you wouldn’t want to be the ass who wrecks his car swerving to miss one of the town’s furry little friends.
Route: Prescott Valley to Cottonwood
Length: 31 miles
Another brilliant bit of rapidly rising mountain two-lane is AZ 89A, from Prescott Valley to Cottonwood. You’ll climb over 2,000 feet on this 31-mile stretch of tight bends and switchbacks through the Mingus Mountain area. Those wanting to obey the multitude of 15, 20 and 25 MPH curve signs (certainly you among them, wink, nod, lie) have plenty of scenic turn-offs, so we can hope that they’ll slide to the right and let you past. Go on a weekday. Tourists own this road on weekends, as the old mining town of Jerome is quite the destination and 89A is the one road there.