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 slower route with the better scenery or where there was something beautiful, weird or interesting en route. To enjoy the journey rather than just trying to reach the next destination as quickly 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 in this part of the world. We tried to fit in as many as we could as we travelled through Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. Here are some of my favourites but I’m sure anyone who’s travelled or lived in this region will have their own suggestions too – do let me know if you have a favourite in the comments.
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 direction, 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.
Sedona’s Red Rock roads
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 spiritual energy vortexes. 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 and then zig-zags down deep 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.
The Kayenta–Monument Valley Scenic Road
You can’t get more classic southwest than Monument Valley, and this routes takes you right to the heart of it. Heading north from the town of Kayenta, you drive through a flat sandy plain and 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 route which runs right underneath the rocks.
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.
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 – still the original 1920s tunnel, 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.
So do you agree with my choices or are there better drives in the southwest that I should come back and see?