One of my road trip resolutions when I was travelling around the southwest USA this spring was to ditch the GPS every now and then. To take the slow route with the better scenery or where there was something beautiful, weird or interesting en route instead. To enjoy the journey rather than just trying to reach the next destination as fast as possible. And it was an easy resolution to keep in the southwest, especially when it came to scenic driving routes as you’re spoilt for choice. So here are five of my favourite southwest USA scenic drives, through snow-capped mountains, National Parks, red rocks and sandy deserts.
Read more: A 14-day Southwest USA road trip itinerary
1. The Kayenta–Monument Valley Scenic Road
You can’t get a more classic southwest landscape than Monument Valley, and this routes takes you right to the heart of it. Heading north from the town of Kayenta, first you drive through a flat sandy plain and then you begin to see these huge shapes emerging in the distance. As the road gets closer you get a better idea of the huge scale of these sandstone buttes and can see the strange shapes they’ve made. Even from the main highway you can get some great views, but for a closer look head into the Tribal Park where there’s a viewing platform and a 17-mile bumpy scenic drive which runs right around the rock formations.
The route: follow Highway 163 north of Kayenta in Arizona for 22 miles to the entrance to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Park entrance costs $20 per car and the scenic drive takes about two hours.
2. The High Road to Taos
Technically we drove the High Road from Taos down to Santa Fe, but the views are as good in either direction. This 85-mile drive takes you up to over 9000 feet high up through thick forests among the Sagre de Cristo mountains. It was high enough to still have deep snow still lying on the ground when we were there in April. This area is full of artists and there are studios and galleries dotted among the mountain hamlets along the route. There are also Indian pueblos, Spanish-American villages and a church known as the ‘Lourdes of America’ at Chimayo, where pilgrims come to be cured by the spring water.
The route: from Santa Fe, go 25 miles north on 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.
3. The Zion–Mount Carmel Highway
This 25-mile long road is the most scenic way to get to Zion National Park. It was built back in the 1920s to connect Zion to Bryce Canyon, and was a major piece of engineering. Switchback roads had to be built into the hillside on one side and a mile-long tunnel blasted out of the rock on the other. From Mount Carmel Junction the route runs first through the strange rock formations of Checkerboard Mesa, where a chess-board pattern of stripes have been formed in the rock. 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 – and down through steep, tight 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.
4. Sedona’s Red Rocks
The town of Sedona in Arizona has not one but two scenic routes. Both have great views over the deep red sandstone rocks that surround it, which are said to be the source of vortexes of spiritual energy from deep in the Earth. The first is the Red Rock Loop, a 7-mile-long scenic road up into the hills around the town where you can see some of the most famous vortexes, like Cathedral Rock, and catch the sunset. The other is the slightly longer Red Rock Scenic Byway which approaches Sedona from the north, through the Coconino National Forest and down into Oak Creek Canyon. It starts up high with panoramic views then zig-zags down into the canyon where you follow the creek towards Sedona, surrounded by pine trees.
The route: for the Red Rock Loop, follow Highway 89A about four miles west of central Sedona and take Red Rock Loop Road, which is all paved apart from one short section. The Scenic Byway runs from junction 289 of Interstate 17 south of Flagstaff, along State Route 179 to Sedona.
5. Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway
At 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. From Moab it takes you through hairpin turns up onto the high plateau known as the Island in the Sky (part of Canyonlands National Park). Once you get to the top the landscape levels out and there are views for miles. It’s hard to get an idea of the scale of what you’re looking at, but you can sometimes see an ant-sized car way below you. 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. The story goes that horses were once left corralled and died of thirst within view of the river way below them.
The route: head north from Moab on Highway 191 then after around 9 miles take the left turn onto State Route 131 and follow it for 15 miles through hairpin turns on the way up to Dead Horse State Park.
Have you driven any of my favourite southwest USA scenic drives?