12 of the best southwest USA scenic drives

12 of the best southwest USA scenic drives

5 of the best southwest USA scenic drives across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, driving routes through snow-capped mountains, red rocks and sandy deserts.

With National Parks, snow-capped mountains, red rocks and sandy deserts, the landscapes of the southwest USA make it one of the best places in the world for a road trip – where the journey is just as important as the destination. And you’re spoilt for choice for scenic driving routes in the southwest. So here are 12 of the best southwest USA scenic drives, with my favourites and those chosen by other road trip-loving bloggers. The routes run from eight to 256 miles across a range of landscapes in the states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, California and Colorado, but what they all have in common is the stunning views along the way.

Utah sign on a Southwest USA road trip

On the road at the Utah-Arizona border

12 of the best southwest USA scenic drives

1. Kayenta–Monument Valley Scenic Road, Arizona

You can’t find many more classic southwest USA scenic drives than a road trip through Monument Valley – the American West of countless Hollywood films, from John Ford’s Westerns to Forrest Gump. The Kayenta–Monument Valley Scenic Road takes you right to the heart of it, stretching over 26 miles from the town of Kayenta in Navajo County, Arizona.

As you head north of Kayenta, you first drive through a flat sandy plain, with the road stretching off into the distance. But before long you start to see shapes emerging on the horizon. As the road gets closer to Monument Valley, you get a better idea of the huge scale of these sandstone buttes, their layers of golden red rock contrasting against the blue skies.

The buttes range from 400–1000 feet tall, and erosion has sculpted them into an array of quirky shapes, giving them nicknames like the Mittens, the Totem Pole, Elephant Butte and the Three Sisters. Even from the main highway you can get some great views, but for a closer look head into the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where there’s a viewing platform as well as a 17-mile (bumpy) scenic drive which runs right around base of the rock formations.

The route: follow Highway 163 north of Kayenta for 22 miles until you reach the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Welcome Centre, where you turn right. Entrance to the park costs $20 for a car and up to four passengers, and the scenic drive takes about two hours.

Monument Valley scenic drive

Looking out over Monument Valley

2. Sedona to Grand Canyon, Arizona

The magnificent Grand Canyon is 117 miles north of Sedona. The route is popular with day-trippers to the Grand Canyon and there are many stunning vistas along the way. Upon leaving Sedona you pass the red rock buttes and powerful vortex sites for which Sedona is renowned. Heading north towards Flagstaff, the route follows State Route 89A to Oak Creek Canyon Vista, a viewpoint overlooking the canyon’s deep red rock and lush green vegetation.

Descending into Flagstaff, the route passes through Coconino National Forest where towering Ponderosa Pine trees line the roadside. After passing Flagstaff, take Highway 89 towards Cameron. Make a short detour to visit the historic Cameron Trading Post and enjoy the views of the Painted Desert and the Little Colorado River Gorge nearby.

Finally, head west onto Desert View Drive – which is the most beautiful section of the route. This scenic drive is lined with incredible panoramic viewpoints on the Grand Canyon South Rim.

The route: follow route 89A from Sedona to Flagstaff, and then take Highway 89 towards Cameron. After a detour to Cameron take Highway 64 – Desert View Drive – towards Grand Canyon Village.

The Grand Canyon South Rim from the Desert View Drive

The Grand Canyon South Rim

3. Sedona’s Red Rock Loop, Arizona

At only eight miles long, the Red Rock Loop in Sedona is the shortest of our southwest USA scenic drives, but it packs plenty of beauty into a short distance. Sedona is surrounded by deep red sandstone rocks, which are said to be the source of vortexes of spiritual energy from deep in the Earth. Sedona’s vortexes have been attracting visitors to the area for centuries.

The Red Rock Loop scenic drive takes you up into the hills around the town, looking out over its red rock scenery, including two of the most famous vortexes – Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock. If you want to stop off along the way you can picnic or take a dip in Oak Creek from the Crescent Moon Picnic Area, or join one of the hiking routes from Red Rock State Park.

The route: follow Highway 89A about four miles west of central Sedona then take Red Rock Loop Road on the left, just after the Courtyard Hotel. Follow the road, which is paved apart from one short unpaved section, around in a loop until you rejoin Highway 89A.

Sedona’s Red Rock Loop, a southwest USA scenic drive

The Red Rock Loop

4. Coachella Valley to Phoenix, California/Arizona

To experience a vast range of desert landscapes, start in Southern California and make your way 256 miles to Phoenix, Arizona. Coachella Valley is the perfect jumping-off point for your adventure. While Coachella Valley is best-known in pop culture for hosting the Coachella Music Festival every year, there are also numerous other art festivals and celebrations such as Desert X, which exhibits massive art installations all throughout the entire valley.

You will also pass the Salton Sea – an evaporating toxic lake in the middle of the desert. The lake is dotted with ghost resort towns along its perimeter and at the very tip is Slab City, coined the ‘Last Free City in America’. On your way out of California, make sure to pop into Joshua Tree National Park. When you reach the state border, you’ll hit Quartzsite, a snowbird town, home to the World’s Largest Belt Buckle as well as the Gum Gallery Museum.

The drive east through Arizona is dry, but in the distance approaching Buckeye, a 25-feet statue of a man with little financial obligations will greet you – Hobo Joe. And after, there are even more quirky statues at the Yard of Statues and Stuff, right outside of Phoenix.

The route: from Palm Springs, go 38 miles north on Highway 62 for Joshua Tree National Park. Then head southeast via Highway 10/111 past the Salton Sea, then take Highway 78 north to Blythe. From Blythe, you’ll be on Highway 10 again for 151 miles into Phoenix.

Recommended by Kay from The Awkward Traveller.

Art in the Coachella Valley, California

The Coachella Valley – photo credit The Awkward Traveller

5. Death Valley Scenic Byway, California

Despite its scary-sounding name, Death Valley has an intriguing beauty in a landscape comprising of rock formations and badlands in this dry desert. Death Valley California is the lowest, driest and hottest place in the US – as well as being the world’s hottest place. But driving through the national park and experiencing this side of Mother Nature is a different experience. The best time to visit is during winter or spring to avoid the scorching hot and dry weather.

It is a good idea to begin the drive at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center by getting to know about the area and grabbing a map of the park. Zabriskie Point is a must-visit, especially at sunrise and sunset when viewing the colorful rock formations makes it magical. For the best view of the badlands, drive to the Dante’s View Peak. And the nine-mile-long Artist’s Drive gives you an insight into the color palette of nature spread across the rocky soil.

The route: From Las Vegas, follow US-95N for 117 miles, then take left onto NV-374 S/Main St. Drive for 8.9 miles on NV-374S to reach Death Valley, then follow the C190 through the park.

Recommended by Neha from Travelmelodies.

Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley – photo credit Travelmelodies

6. Page to Kanab via Route 89, Utah/Arizona

Route 89 from Page to Kanab runs along the southern end of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument with views of the desert landscape as well as ample opportunities for interesting stops along the way. Leaving Page, you cross Glen Canyon Dam, the US’ second-highest concrete arch dam, with views of Lake Powell on one side and the Colorado River on the other.

Midway though the trip, the Toadstool Hoodoos are just visible from the road with a short out and back trail that will lead you to the middle of dozens of these mushroom-shaped balancing rocks. Just a few miles past the hoodoos, the rainbow mountains at Paria come into view with their colorful layered stone. To the south of Paria, a short detour down House Rock Road will take you to the trailhead for Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch slot canyons and The Wave.

The route: from Page, head northeast on Route 89 (not to be confused with Route 89A, south of Page) for 75 miles leading right into the small town of Kanab.

Recommended by Kristin from That Traveling Family.

Toadstool hoodoos in Utah

Toadstool hoodoos – photo credit That Traveling Family

7. Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, Utah

With its sweeping views of dramatic rock formations and cascading waterfalls, the 10-mile-long Zion–Mount Carmel Highway is the most scenic way to reach Zion National Park. The road was built in the 1920s to connect Zion to Bryce Canyon and was a major feat of engineering at the time. Switchback roads had to be carved into steep hillside on one side and a mile-long tunnel which took three years to build had to be blasted out of the rock on the other.

Travelling from the north past Mount Carmel Junction, the route runs first through the strange rock formations of Checkerboard Mesa. A chess-board pattern of stripes has been formed in the sandstone rock, with cracks caused by centuries of freeze-thaw erosion.

You then go on through the Mount Carmel Tunnel – this is still the original 1920s tunnel which is only wide enough for vehicles to go through in single file (if your vehicle is over 7ft 10″ wide or 11ft 4″ tall you need to arrange an escort in advance). Then finally the road runs down a series of steep, tight switchback turns towards Pine Creek Canyon and the entrance to Zion.

The route: from the north, follow Highway 89 to Mount Carmel Junction, then take State Route 9 for 12 miles to the east park entrance, just north of Springdale. You need to pay the Zion National Park entrance fee to drive the road, which costs $35 per vehicle and is valid for seven days.

The Zion–Mount Carmel Highway scenic drive in the southwest USA

The Zion–Mount Carmel Highway

8. Scenic Byway 12, Utah

If you’re looking for expansive views filled with colorful red rock canyons, Navajo sandstone cliffs and dense forests all within just 122 miles, look no further than Southern Utah’s Scenic Byway 12. While this drive only takes a few hours from one end to the other, you’ll want to spend plenty of time stopping along the route to check out jaw-dropping overlooks filled with famous hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, explore narrow slot canyons near Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, or hike to the gorgeous Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Most people use this route as a way to get from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park, but there are plenty of things to explore in the smaller towns like Escalante, UT. Some words of warning before you head off on this drive – be prepared for steep drop-offs and extremely winding roads. Anyone who gets carsick or has a fear of heights may not be ready for what Scenic Byway 12 has to offer, no matter how beautiful the scenery.

Route: Scenic Byway 12 starts off of Route 89 south of Panguich and runs through to Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante and up to Torrey, Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park.

Recommended by Danielle from Wanderlust While Working.

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

Bryce Canyon views

9. Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway, Utah

Set 2000 feet above the Colorado River, Dead Horse Point is one of Utah’s most spectacular state parks – and the road to get there is pretty impressive too. North of Moab you turn off the main highway onto State Road 313 which takes you through hairpin turns as you travel onto a high plateau known as the Island in the Sky, which forms part of Canyonlands National Park.

On the way to the top you can see a pictograph panel known as Intestine Man, as well as viewpoints over the Monitor and Merrimac Buttes – named after two American Civil War steamships the same shape. Once you get to the top the landscape levels out and there are views for miles. Head to the Dead Horse Point Overlook Trail for some of the best, where a short paved path from the parking lots leads to panoramic views of the Colorado River.

It’s hard to get an idea of the scale of what you’re looking at from above, but you can sometimes see tiny cars way below to give it scale. And if you’re wondering about the name, legend has it that cowboys used to use a narrow neck of land 26 metres wide as a natural corral. But once horses were once left corralled and died of thirst within view of the river below them.

The route: head north from Moab on Highway 191 then after around 9 miles take the left turn onto UT-313 and follow it for 15 miles of twists and turns as you ascend to Dead Horse State Park.

Dead Horse State Park, Utah

Dead Horse State Park

10. Geronimo Trail, Arizona/New Mexico

My truest joy when exploring the southwest USA is finding secluded dirt roads. My favourite – the Geronimo Trail between Douglas, Arizona and the New Mexico border – is lonelier than those covered in published ‘loneliest road’ articles. In an hour and a half, I only saw a handful of vehicles, and in New Mexico, I saw ZERO cars or signs of human existence for an hour.

Along the Geronimo Trail there are wonderful scenic views (especially at the AZ/NM state line), ranches (including historic Slaughter Ranch), San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, old cemeteries and a Mormon migration memorial marker. Side roads from Geronimo Trail are very treacherous. I had a 4WD vehicle and challenged it for a few miles more than once. Make sure you have a vehicle equipped for unpaved roads with a full fuel tank and emergency water.

The route: from Douglas, drive east on 15th Street which turns into East Geronimo Trail at the Airport Road intersection. The paved road turns to dirt after about four miles. Stay on Geronimo Trail for 43 miles, crossing into New Mexico onto County Road C002. 1.5 miles later, C004 veers to the left and connects with C001. C002 continues south five miles to the ghost town of Cloverdale where you’re within two miles of Mexico. Pick up C001 here and drive 40 miles north to Animas.

Recommended by Charles from McCool Travel.

The Geronimo Trail southwest USA scenic drive in Arizona

Geronimo Trail – photo credit McCool Travel

11. High Road to Taos, New Mexico

Whether you’re travelling to or from Taos to Santa Fe, the high-altitude views from the High Road to Taos are just as good, passing forest, deserts, farms and traditional adobe villages. This 76-mile southwest USA scenic drive takes you to 9000 feet high through thick forests among the Sagre de Cristo mountains – high enough to still have deep snow on the ground in April.

You can easily spend a day making the drive, with plenty of places to visit along the way in a string of Pueblo Indian and Spanish-American village. This region is full of artists and there are studios and galleries dotted among the mountain hamlets – look out for beautiful woodcarvings in Córdova, pottery in Picuris Pueblo and traditional weaving in Chimayo.

Stop off at Truchas to admire the panorama of the Espanola Valley. Find the bench with a view over the Carson National Forest, nine miles from Peñasco. Or visit Chimayo, home to some of New Mexico’s tastiest red chillies as well as a church known as the ‘Lourdes of America’ where pilgrims come to rub themselves in the holy dirt that’s said to have healing properties.

The route: from Santa Fe, drive 16 miles north along Highway 84/285, then head east on Highway 76. Follow this road (which briefly turns into Highway 75 after Chamisal) then turn left onto Highway 518 and follow that all the way into Taos.

The High Road to Taos scenic drive, New Mexico

The High Road to Taos

12. Durango to Silverton, Colorado

Only an hour’s drive (or 50 miles), the journey to Durango to Silverton takes you along Highway 550 on what is known as the Million Dollar Highway and offers stunning views of the San Juan Mountains. If you are an avid hiker, a great place to stop for a trek is the Purgatory Trailhead a little more than halfway between the two towns. This out and back hike provides fabulous views of the Cascade Canyon and Animas River – depending on how far you go.

Another great stop is a little further north of Silverton, but well worth the extra miles. Animas Forks is a well-known ghost town that sits at 11,200 feet elevation and still hosts original buildings from the late 19th century. No matter where you decide to stop (or if you even want to), the Million Dollar Highway is a destination in and of itself, and you won’t find yourself lacking for views on this incredible drive.

Beware the Million Dollar Highway is a tricky road with many switchbacks, hairpin turns and mountain passes right on the edge of mountainsides. Careful driving and a flexible schedule are recommended since weather can easily make this a treacherous journey. But when you catch it on the right day, there are plenty of excellent views to enjoy and pullovers for photo ops.

The route: from downtown Durango, take Main Street (or Highway 550) north. Follow this road for 48 miles until you reach Silverton where signs will point you towards the downtown area.

Recommended by Ashley from Impact Winder.

The Purgatory Trail in Colorado, USA

The Purgatory Trail – photo credit Impact Winder


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