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.

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

Utah sign on a Southwest USA road trip

On the road at the Utah-Arizona border

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.

Monument Valley scenic drive

Looking out over Monument Valley

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.

The High Road to Taos scenic drive, New Mexico

The High Road to 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.

The Zion–Mount Carmel Highway scenic drive in Utah

The Zion–Mount Carmel Highway

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.

Sedona red rock views from Airport Mesa

Sedona’s red rocks

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.

Dead Horse State Park, Utah

Dead Horse State Park

Have you driven any of my favourite southwest USA scenic drives?

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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. #southwest #usa #southwestusa #roadtrip #scenicdrive #drivingroutes

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  • Reply
    July 9, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Reblogged this on One Black T-Shirt.

  • Reply
    July 10, 2013 at 3:25 am

    These all look amazing, but the Red Rock roads in Sedona look especially so!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 10, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Sedona was just gorgeous – will write up some more about it soon.

  • Reply
    July 10, 2013 at 3:49 am

    Mount Evans Road in Colorado is great, too! Even in summer, it’s snowy and has great scenery. There is some wildlife along the way and the ruins of a small castle at the end.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 10, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Thanks for the tip, sounds lovely – I only did a very small part of Colorado this trip so it’s on the list for a proper return visit!

  • Reply
    July 10, 2013 at 10:21 am

    What an amazing trip!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      Thanks, it’s a really gorgeous part of the world with so much to see.

  • Reply
    July 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Well i’ve never been to those places you’ve mentioned, so i can’t give you any advice. But they are gorgeous! 🙂 wish i can see them someday

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      It was so hard to narrow it down to just a few, we could’ve been round twice and done double the amount of routes but will just have to go back again!

      • Rachel
        June 18, 2020 at 3:29 pm

        Where is the first picture from? It doesn’t have a caption. Maybe I missed it somewhere.

      • Lucy Dodsworth
        July 2, 2020 at 2:28 pm

        Hi, that was from the 191 on the way towards Moab from the south.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I think you’ve just sold me on every single one of those! 😀

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      It’s road trip heaven round this part of the world, you’re totally spoilt for choice when it comes to scenic drives!

  • Reply
    July 20, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I’ve never had a passion for road tripping the States before, but I believe now I do. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 29, 2013 at 9:00 pm

      The US is a great place for a road trip – I usually like to travel by public transport but here the car is definitely king!

  • Reply
    July 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    These pictures are just amazing, haven’t seen anything more beautiful than this for a very long time. Simply amazing!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      Thanks, there is some really fabulous scenery in this part of the world.

  • Reply
    July 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    I have been on the first three. They are pretty awesome.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 29, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      There are some really great driving routes in the southwest.

  • Reply
    July 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Nice post and beautiful pictures; I been though the southwest a few times never seen it the way you present it.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 29, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Thanks – it’s funny to see areas that you know well through the eyes of someone who’s never been there isn’t it?

  • Reply
    July 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Absolutely gorgeous and definitely some of the best road trips in the U.S. We missed Sedona last time around but will definitely make it a priority when we visit in October.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 29, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      I loved Sedona – just finishing off editing my photos from there at the moment and plan to get a post about it up later this week. It’s one of the places I’d like to revisit and spend a bit more time in one day.

  • Reply
    Alexandra Wrigley
    April 12, 2019 at 10:03 am

    Wow. This is really on my bucket list. I’ve been to the USA before when I was a child. I want to return now for the beautiful scenery! Dead Horse State Park looks like it would be my favourite. I must do this once I learn to drive. You’ve inspired me!

    • Reply
      April 15, 2019 at 8:56 pm

      That’s great! Hope you get to see it for yourself sometime soon.

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