It’s hard to imagine a place more perfectly designed for road trips than Arizona.
This is a big old state, the sixth largest in the union, covering nearly 114,000 square miles. Since most of Arizona’s population centers are found in clustered bunches, that leaves vast tracts of scenic backcountry. It’s sprinkled with just the right number of small towns to add character and to keep travelers gassed up and well-fed.
So here are three great road trips for 2022. They combine great scenery, delicious food and lots of recreational activities. Hit the road and discover Arizona with these old-fashioned scenic drives.
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Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road
Pastoral grasslands, 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 journey such a delight.
The road starts in sure-enough desert, leaving Interstate 10 at Exit 281 about 20 miles east of Tucson. Head south on State Route 83 amid cactus and mesquite scrubland. After climbing through a rugged canyon, the road bends southeast to cross a virtual sea of grass.
Sprinkled with oak trees and carved by stream channels, this is part of the vast Sonoita Plain. It’s a delicious horizon-stretching expanse of rolling hills that seems to go on forever.
Grasses sway at the touch of every breeze. Mountains are shoved aside by this unexpected savanna. This is a land built for bison herds. These are wide-open spaces where the Old West still lives and breathes. If God has a lawn, this is it.
For a glimpse into the past, stop by Empire Ranch, dating back to the 1870s. Take a tour of ranch headquarters or stroll through the cottonwood trees shading the wash and try to guess how many movies have been filmed here. Hint: It’s a lot. https://www.empireranchfoundation.org.
Sonoita straddles the junction of state routes 83 and 82, the cradle of Arizona’s wine industry. Several vineyards and wine tasting rooms dot the hills, most in Elgin, 9 miles to the east.
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Turn on to SR 82, continuing southwest to the picturesque town of Patagonia, a beloved destination for birders and art lovers. Shops, galleries and eateries surround the community park that anchors downtown.
Grab a bite at Velvet Elvis Pizza Company, where designer pizzas are built using a savory whole-wheat crust as a platform, sturdy but light and perfectly charred. 292 Naugle Ave. 520-394-0069, https://velvetelvispizzapatagonia.com.
A few miles south of town is the turnoff for Patagonia Lake State Park. Tucked away in desert hills, the 250-acre lake offers boating, fishing, camping and a sandy swimming beach. 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, the largest border city in Arizona. If you’re hungry, step into Cocina La Ley and you’ll feel like you wandered a few blocks south and are dining 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 because there’s plenty to see all over again. The other option is to travel north to Tucson via Interstate 19 from Nogales.
Jerome-Clarkdale-Cottonwood Historic Road
This short scenic road hides in plain sight, a curving twisting stretch of State Route 89A rising from the floor of the Verde Valley to Jerome, with plenty of fun swoopy driving.
From the intersection of state routes 260 and 89A in Cottonwood, do NOT follow the signs to Jerome. That leads you out of town via the bypass. Surely bypass is the cruelest word in the lexicon of small towns. Their only purpose seems to be to steer 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 rides, before proceeding through Old Town Cottonwood. Here you’ll find galleries, restaurants and wine tasting rooms housed in Prohibition-era buildings.
Outside of town Tuzigoot National Monument, an ancient Pueblo ruin, perches atop a limestone ridge overlooking the Verde River. 928-634-5564, https://www.nps.gov/tuzi.
Then you drive through quaint Clarkdale, Arizona’s first company town. Built by the owner of Jerome’s largest mine, Clarkdale was designed with precision planning and technological advancements far from the norm in the early 1900s.
Don’t miss the Copper Art Museum, featuring 5,000 objects, copper art and collections dating to the 16th century. Each room displays a different theme, from art and architecture to drinkware to religious artifacts. 849 Main St. 928-649-1858, https://www.copperartmuseum.com.
Leaving Clarkdale behind, the road merges with the bypass (see all you would have missed?) and begins a short ascent into the foothills of the Black Mountains. Languid curves wind into soft hills, dotted with cactus and fat stalks of century plants.
Soon you’re climbing the shoulder of a hogback ridge with houses above you hanging off the edge. You sweep around the old high school, now a collection of art galleries, and follow the final twists and turns into Jerome.
Take time to savor the sweeping views of the Verde Valley. Hit the shops and the fine collection of restaurants. Bobby D’s BBQ proves hard to resist with the aroma of tender meats being slow smoked over pecan wood wafting down the street. 119 Jerome Ave., 928-634-6235, http://www.bobbydsbbqjerome.com.
If you’re itching for more driving excitement, continue south on 89A up and over the broad back of Mingus Mountain toward Prescott. Curves come fast and furious, one after another after another.
Pinetop to Eagar
Here’s a road trip to save for summer. This high country drive, combined with a couple of short side trips, shows off the best of the White Mountains that dominate eastern Arizona.
Start your journey with a hearty breakfast at Darbi’s Café. This Pinetop favorite is known for down-home cooking and huge portions in a woodsy cabin. 235 E. White Mountain Blvd. 928-367-6556, https://darbiscafe.com.
From Pinetop, State Route 260 heads east across the Fort Apache Reservation, home of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. In just a few miles, lush meadows sweep back portions of the forest. That’s what makes this the quintessential White Mountains drive — the combination of meadow and forest all 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’ll soon reach the turnoff to Horseshoe Cienega Lake. It’s just a mile down a dirt road to the beautiful curved lake of 121 acres. This is a good fishing spot for those with limited mobility. Some anglers back their cars up to the water’s edge and set up lawn chairs. Permits are required from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Find out more at https://wmatoutdoor.org.
Back on 260, the road continues to climb through dense groves of aspen and pine. Intimate A-1 Lake sits just off the highway at 8,900 feet. It’s named for the Apache leader Alchesay, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. U.S. Army officials found it difficult to pronounce his name so they referred to him as A-1.
The road pushes on through big aspen stands (it’s a beautiful fall drive as well), finally topping out in vast meadows surrounding the turnoff for Sunrise Park Resort (State Route 273).
During summer, Sunrise is a fun playground full of high-flying and fast-moving thrills. You can ride the scenic chair lift to the 10,700-foot summit of Sunrise Mountain, take a zip line tour or zoom downhill on ski runs clinging to the handlebars of a mountain bike. 855-735-7669, https://www.sunrise.ski.
Another worthwhile detour is a quick jog on SR 373. The 3-mile drive leads past small lakes and reservoirs before ending at the village of Greer. Nestled in a high mountain valley, Greer offers an ideal summer escape. There are cabins, a lodge and a couple of restaurants. Spend a few days here above 8,000 feet and you’ll forget that Arizona is a desert state.
Back on 260, broad meadows are the norm for the rest of the drive into Eagar and Springerville, with forest crowning distant hills. Keep an eye peeled for bighorn sheep as the road makes a steep drop into the picturesque Round Valley bisected by the glistening 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 features 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, vivid photos, full descriptions, nearby hiking trails and suggestions on locally owned places to eat and sleep.
The event is free and books will be for sale afterward. Sedona Heritage Museum is at 735 Jordan Road. 928-282-7038, https://sedonamuseum.org.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona road trips: 3 of the state’s most scenic drives