Get on the road again with five handcrafted sojourns perfect for your Arizona autumn.
Southern Arizona Drive
Highway 83 from Tucson to Bisbee by way of Sonoita and Sierra Vista.
The southern half of the state can’t compete with Flagstaff’s autumnal glow. And yet. This south-of-Tucson trip is freighted with scenic vistas – a meandering route amid honey-hued grasslands, vineyard-threaded hills and lush riparian corridors.
From Tucson, you’re on I-10 for only a short stretch before you get to ease off the accelerator and enjoy the leisure of Highway 83. The road weaves and bobs through the Santa Rita Foothills, where desert flora fades into one of the finest grassland valleys of the Southwest – 45,000 acres of them, to be exact. Las Cienegas National Conservation Area preserves this landscape of cottonwood trees, mesquite bosques and the rare marshes of a perennial creek. Since visitors are welcome, stop and stretch your legs before the quick drive to Sonoita.
Sonoita and nearby Elgin boast the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in Arizona, and the Santa Rita, Whetstone and Huachuca mountain ranges that envelop the grasslands and vine-braided hills set the perfect backdrop for a glass of dry white. Take Highway 82 east to explore the tasting rooms; this will also link to SR-90, your path to Sierra Vista.
The Huachuca Mountains punctuate the expansive views in Sierra Vista. Pine trees crowd the peaks, and thick-leafed oaks in crimson and ochre blanket the lower elevations. And all around, the sycamore and maple trees of Ramsey Canyon and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area bloom in full fall color.
Finally, arrive in Bisbee in style. By style, we mean Mule Pass Tunnel, a dramatic entrée through the Mule Mountains that deposits motorists into the roof-clad, stair-clung slopes of Bisbee.
109 miles from the starting point in Tucson
Follow I-10 east to SR-83. Drive south on SR-83 to SR-82. Take this east to SR-90. Head south on SR-90 to Sierra Vista and continue southeast on SR-90 to SR-80. Follow this east to Bisbee.
Where to Stay
Overnight at Canyon Rose Suites ($155-$350/night) in Bisbee. The 1900s furniture factory turned boarding house turned present-day hotel offers five spacious guest rooms that feel like city dwellings with character – hardwood floors, sunny windows with downtown views and walkability to everything. 520-432-5098, canyonrose.com
Grand Canyon North Rim Drive
Highway 89 from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Lodge.
There’s nothing like tracing the Grand Canyon’s edge with the Colorado River raging below, the sun sinking on your left, the moon rising in cool luminescence on your right. If that isn’t enough to inspire a drive on Highway 89, might we also tempt you with Marble Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs and the aspen golds of the North Rim?
Plan this trip for early fall, since the Grand Canyon’s North Rim closes for the season on October 15. Launching from Flagstaff, you emerge from the pine forest to a desolate expanse of land with sightlines for miles. The road undulates over rounded slopes while red-chunked sandstone cliffs tower on either side. At Bitter Springs, veer left on Highway 89A to Marble Canyon, which offers a good stopping point for breathtaking photo-ops and sustenance. First up, pics: Stand on the Navajo Bridge, a historic span over the Colorado River, to memorialize this swath of untamed backcountry. Then, food: Marble Canyon Lodge serves a hearty lunch and dinner, with outdoor seating to boot.
Marble Canyon marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon, and nearby Lees Ferry is a popular put-in for river runners and Horseshoe Bend paddlers. Push on southwest, nestling close to the bewildering spectrum of reds, yellows and oranges of Vermilion Cliffs rising from Paria Plateau.
You’ll spot junipers and pines the closer you inch to Kaibab National Forest, but once you reach the North Rim, in true grand finale fashion, the scenery explodes in leafy canopies of firs, spruces, tall pines and slender aspens.
208 miles from Flagstaff
Head north from Flagstaff on US-89 to Bitter Springs. Here, turn left onto US-89A. Follow this north to SR-67. Turn left and drive south on SR-67 to the lodge.
Where to Stay
At the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim ($168-$310/night), book a front-porch-adorned cabin for a ringside seat to the canyon’s autumnal splendor. If you fill your day with hiking and mule-ride tours, make it a point to be back at the lodge for sunset to see the spruce and pine awash in color. 877-386-4383, grandcanyonforever.com
Apache Trail Bypass
Highways 60 and 188 from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake.
As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) alights on the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that sidles past three lakes, carves through canyons and trundles over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam.
Despite earning a National Scenic Byway designation, the Apache Trail tends to slip under the radar for road-tripping Phoenicians. But when you’re hunting for a last-minute drive rife with views, this close-to-home route hits the sweet spot.
Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction, passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed.
For a still-scenic alternative, leave Apache Junction via Highway 60. The craggy wilderness of the Superstition Mountains, with its jagged edges and woolly legends, erupts to the north. Take in the sight of thousands of saguaros set against colorful rock striations – especially lovely in the morning – as you near Miami.
Here, you have two options: Continue on Highway 188 or hang in town to peruse the shops on Main Street, grab a bite to eat (crispy fried chicken at Dick’s) or visit the impressive Bullion Plaza Cultural Center & Museum.
Then it’s north on 188. Unlike the original alignment of the Apache Trail, here the bends are gentle, the curves wide. No white-knuckling the steering wheel – instead, dangle your arm out the window and let Roosevelt Lake’s serene blue sparkle lighthouse your path down.
In 2019, the Woodbury Fire burned several areas on the Apache Trail, and a 7-mile section of the road from Fish Creek Hill Overlook (milepost 222) to Apache Lake Marina (Milepost 229) remains closed.
80 miles from Apache Junction
From Apache Junction, drive east on US-60 to SR-188. Turn left and follow SR-188 north to Roosevelt Lake.
Where to Stay
The gleaming cabins at Lost Dutchman State Park ($89-$129/night) tuck into the north end of the park, allowing for unadulterated views of the Superstitions and an ideal base for an Apache Trail day trip. While the cabins offer beds, you’ll need to bring pillows and sleeping linens. 877-697-2757, azstateparks.com/lost-dutchman
Old Pueblo Back Way
Highway 177 from Phoenix to Tucson through Winkelman and Oracle.
As the “backroad” to Tucson, this trip satisfies the choose-your-own-adventure crowd, with plenty of possible detours and add-ons. Get an early start from Phoenix to allow time to indulge your whims.
You’re confronted with your first choice of the day at the junction of Highways 60 and 177. Traveling south on 177 winds through old mining country before delivering you to the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon in Winkelman.
Should you continue east on 60, Globe greets you. Visit Besh-Ba-Gowah Museum, unearth a rare find at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post or munch on quiche at the Copper Hen. Follow Highway 77 past the Pinal Mountain-shrouded ghost town of Christmas to join back up with 177.
No matter which you choose, you’ll want to spend time in Winkelman delighting in the fall glory of Aravaipa Canyon. Under the butterscotch tops of cottonwood trees, bighorn sheep graze and creeks bubble by.
Continue south to see the Galiuro Mountains rise from a bed of golden grasslands. Thickets of oak, Ponderosa pines, maple trees and Douglas fir cloak the slopes, the tallest of which caps at 7,671 feet. Stop for a quick visit to the mining camps of Mammoth and Copper Creek.
Next up: Oracle, where the hardwood forests of the Santa Catalina Mountains meet the desert. Oracle is your overnight destination, too; good news because after sundown, you’re rewarded with the celestial sights of the city’s International Dark Sky.
In the morning, venture up the 25-mile, epic-view-strewn National Scenic Byway to the fir-filled summit of Mt. Lemmon, then get breakfast in Tucson.
163 miles from Downtown Phoenix
Drive east on US-60 out of Phoenix. Turn right and head south on SR-177. In Winkelman, pick up SR-77 and follow it south to Tucson.
Where to Stay
Century-old oak trees form an arbor of yellow-golds at El Rancho Robles ($97-$150/night) in Oracle. Opened in 1923, the ranch’s “rustic” accommodations – simple furnishings, no televisions – keep the focus on its majestic location at the base of the Santa Catalinas. 520-896-7651, elranchorobles.com
Palm Springs & Mad Max Cities
I-10 to Palm Springs and home through Joshua Tree National Park.
“Let’s plan a fall colors drives on Interstate 10!” Said nobody, ever.
But hear us out.
This trip features all the hallmarks of an autumn getaway: quieting the noise, slowing the pace, discovering new places. On this drive, desert horizons usher in meditation. A hotel pool inspires a lingering afternoon. And an apocalyptic wasteland introduces you to a world you never knew existed.
Heading west on I-10, saguaro sightings become fewer, and sand gathers in windswept piles. Just after you cross the California border, drive south on Highway 78. But first, gas up and get snacks. This is the way to the Salton Sea, through the hottest, driest corner of the Sonoran Desert.
The Salton Sea sounds like a magical place ruled by a Greek god. In reality, it’s more mythological than magical. Accidentally created thanks to an irrigation “oops” in the 1900s, the Salton Sea once reigned as a 1950s retreat. Today, over-salinity has nearly dried it up. What’s left: brackish, murky water, a shore lined with decomposing bird and fish bones and an abandoned beach town. Well, almost abandoned.
Bohemians and wanderers have made their way here to set up desert communes of makeshift homes and life-size art. One striking example is Salvation Mountain, an art installation of discarded tires, old windows, rusted auto parts and bright paint spelling out spiritual messages. The work is so strangely beautiful that it boasts a stamp of approval from the Folk Art Society of America and has been covered in National Geographic.
From Salvation Mountain, drive north on Highway 111 to join I-10 to Palm Springs. Here, immerse yourself in the fall foliage of the San Jacinto Mountains, which loom over the valley at nearly 9,000 feet. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ferries you from the foothills to the peaks, and hiking trails let you wander among the vibrant leafy color.
For the trip home, opt for the circuitous drive through Joshua Tree National Park. Start at the West Entrance, then follow a paved, two-lane road scattered with scenic pullouts and dotted not with maples and oaks, but with yucca and ocotillo.
653 miles round trip from Downtown Phoenix
From the I-10, go south on CA-78 to CA-115. Turn right. Drive north on CA-115 to Wiest Road. Turn right and head north on Wiest. At Noffsinger Road, turn right, then make a quick left on Highland Canal Road. When you reach Beal Road, turn right and follow it to Salvation Mountain.
Where to Stay
Located in the heart of the Palm Springs party district on Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Mountain Resort & Spa boasts walkable access to an impressive lineup of restaurants, bars and boutiques. But it’s the playground behind the fashionably low-key resort ($88-$136/night) that really gets our heart rate going: Mt. San Jacinto and its many trails and trams. Bust out a vigorous, scenic hike on the Cactus to Clouds Trail, located just steps from PMR’s back entrance. palmmountainresort.com