Best Southern Arizona Back Roads

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Road from Portal to Cave Creek Canyon.

Road from Portal to Cave Creek Canyon.


Here you will find our recommended Southern Arizona back roads with links to more information. But first, there are a few things you might consider.
Southern Arizona back roads are generally scenic and most will also transport you back in history a hundred years or more. Many of our recommended back roads are paved. Some are not.
Our featured unpaved roads are usually passable in a standard sedan. However, they are usually washboards when dry, and muddy, flooded, or otherwise impassable during and immediately after a rain.
Arizona has a ‘Stupid Motorist’ law. If you’re stupid enough to drive into a flooded wash (that is usually a dry or shallow stream bed), the authorities will pull you out, but you will pay for this very expensive service. I have assured the authorities that this website has no stupid motorists.

Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to check on road conditions before heading out.

Precautions

  1. Start your tour with a full tank of gas and don’t let the tank get below 1/4. Sometimes it’s a long way between gas stations.
  2. Take your mobile device. Make sure the battery is charged and stays charged.
  3. In the back county, DO NOT rely on your navigation device. Take a real map, with back road details. I’ve been on unpaved roads where Google couldn’t find its hind end with two hands and a compass.
  4. Take water or juices and some snacks just in case.
  5. Tell a friend where you’re going and when you expect to return. If you’re running late, call that friend so they don’t panic and call ‘Search & Rescue’.

Other Thoughts

  1. Get out of your car occasionally. Take some photos. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to spot a few rare birds. Meet some interesting folks along the way.
  2. Find a pleasant picnic area and enjoy the good life.
  3. Watch out for bicyclists. Give them plenty of passing room.
  4. Write us and share your experiences. Send your best photos.

Best Southern Arizona Back Roads

Why do we particularly like these back roads? (A) natural beauty; (B) historical significance; (C) interesting people and things to do. Click on the links for more information about each.

Mt. Lemmon: Ski Valley above the clouds.

Mt. Lemmon: Ski Valley above the clouds.

1. Tucson to Mt. Lemmon via Catalina Highway.

About 25 miles from the east side of Tucson to Summerhaven, Ski Valley, and Sky Center. This is a scenic drive through the Coronado National Forest, one of several Sky Islands in Southern Arizona. The road has many pullouts and overlooks; plus nearby hiking, camping, birdwatching, and, in January, skiing. At 9,000 feet elevation, Mt. Lemmon is usually 30 degrees cooler than Tucson. You can dine at the new Sawmill Run Restaurant in Summerhaven or continue 2 miles up the road to Ski Valley and eat at the Iron Door Restaurant. (Drive time about an hour to the top.)

Petroglyphs: Saguaro Nat'l Park West.

Petroglyphs: Saguaro Nat’l Park West.

2. Bajada Loop Drive in Saguaro National Park West

An almost surreal drive through a splendid saguaro forest. Hiking, picnic areas, and petroglyphs. From Tucson, take Gates Pass west and turn right on Kinney Road past the Desert Museum to the Park’s visitor center where you can pick up a map. (Drive time from Tucson about an hour.)

Casa Grande Ruins near Florence.

Casa Grande Ruins near Florence.

3. Tucson To Florence and Casa Grande Ruins National Park via old Hwy 79

Historic Florence has a fine history museum, plus a pleasant and educational self-guided walking tour of many historic buildings. (Drive time about an hour from Tucson.)
Deer in the grasslands near Sonoita. Photo by Sally Reichardt.

Deer in the grasslands near Sonoita. Photo by Sally Reichardt.

4. Tucson To Empire Ranch, Las Cienegas Conservation Area, & the Sonoita Wine Country

From Tucson, take I-10 east to Vail, then south on Hwy 83 to Sonoita. Along the way, stop at the historic Empire Ranch and Las Cienegas Nat’l Conservation Area.  Continue on 83 to Sonoita and tour the ranch & wine country between Sonoita & Elgin. A dozen wineries & tasting rooms in the vicinity. (Drive time about an hour from Tucson.)
Madera Canyon Arizona: an acorn woodpecker.

Madera Canyon Arizona: an acorn woodpecker.

5. Tucson south to Madera Canyon

From Tucson, take I-19 south to Green Valley, then east on White House Canyon Road. Follow signs. This is one of the premier birding areas in the West. Camping, hiking, and several cabins for rent and a nice B&B. No restaurant or grocery store in Madera Canyon, but lots of hiking trails. (Drive time about an hour to the top.)
Ruby Arizona: Ghost Town near Arivaca.

Ruby Arizona: ghost town near Arivaca.

6. Tucson to Arivaca & Ruby (ghost town)

South on I-19 to Amado, then a 25 mile scenic Arivaca Road west to the Village of Arivaca. South of Arivaca 12 miles on Ruby Road (unpaved) is the ghost town of Ruby, Arizona. (Drive time about 1.5 hours.)

7. Tucson To Gammons Gulch & Muleshoe Ranch Preserve.

Take I-10 east just past Benson to Pomerene exit 306. Then north about 21 miles on Pomerene Road which turns into Cascabel Road to Links Road. Links Road is unpaved. Head NW for 15 miles before reaching Muleshoe Road. Take the unpaved Muleshoe Road another 15 miles North to the Preserve.

Gammons Gulch is off Cascabel Road on the way to Muleshoe Ranch Preserve. Take Jay Gammons’ tour of his Western movie set.
Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument

8. Willcox To Chiricahua National Monument.

From Willcox head south on Hwy 186 to Chiricahua National Monument. Once in the Monument there’s only one road. It follows Bonita Canyon to the top where you will discover one of nature’s amazing sights: The Wonderland of Rocks. Go for a hike. Be sure to stop at the ranger station and find out when the next tour of Faraway Ranch is. Take the tour. Before you leave Willcox, be sure you have plenty of gas & food because none is available until you get back to Willcox. (Drive time about 2 hours to the top)

9. Sonoita To Sonoita Creek Preserve & Patagonia Lake State Park 

From Sonoita take Hwy 82 south to Patagonia, Sonoita Creek Preserve, and Patagonia Lake State Park.

10. Sonoita Madera Canyon via Box Canyon

From Sonoita, head north on Hwy 83 8 miles, turn left on Greaterville Road (unpaved). At about 3 miles, connect with Box Canyon Road (HWY 62) and continue west. Once out of Box Canyon, watch for signs to Madera Canyon. (Drive time about one hour from Sonoita.)

11. Tucson To Kentucky Camp (ghost town near Sonoita)

From Tucson, go east on I-10 to Vail and turn south on Highway 83 for approximately 21 miles to the Gardner Canyon Road (unpaved). Turn right on Gardner Canyon Road and continue a quarter-mile to Forest Service Road 163. Turn right on Forest Service Road 163 and continue approximately 5 miles to the junction of 163 and the entrance to Kentucky Camp. Stay to the left and continue to the parking lot and gate that marks the entrance to Kentucky Camp. There are signs to Kentucky Camp from Highway 83. (Plan on a half hour from Hwy 83. Watch for cattle & horses on the road.)
Portal Store, Lodge & Cafe'

Portal Store, Lodge & Cafe’

12. Portal To Chiricahua National Monument

Portal & Paradise are very small settlements on the eastern slope of the Chiricahua Mountains. You can drive over the mountain from Portal west to Chiricahua Nat’l Monument via Cave Creek Canyon and Forest Service Road 42 (unpaved). This is a major birding area. (Drive time: about 1.5 hours.)
Black Hills Back Country Byway: one of many picnic areas.

Black Hills Back Country Byway: one of many picnic areas.

13. Black Hills Back Road Country Byway

This unpaved back road was the original highway from Safford to the mines at Clifton. You can access it from the little town of Solomon on Hwy 191 or Clifton at the east end.

Slaughter Ranch Museum: a fine picnic area by the lake.

Slaughter Ranch Museum: a fine picnic area by the lake.

14. Douglas To Slaughter Ranch

From Douglas, take 15th street east. As you leave Douglas you will also leave pavement. Slaughter Ranch Museum is totally worth the trip. In addition, there is a very pleasant picnic area by the lake. (Drive time about half hour.)

Pearce Arizona: General Store.

Pearce Arizona: General Store.

15. Ghost Town Trail: Gleeson To Pearce

If you take Gleeson Road (unpaved) east out of Tombstone about 17 miles you will come to the ghost town of Gleeson. A mile or 2 before you get to Gleeson you will see a sign for Rattlesnake Crafts. Do drive in and look around. One of the great Arizona oddities. At Gleeson, check out the old jail. Across the street is the old saloon and the adobe walls of the miners’ hospital. Just east of Gleeson you can pick up the Ghost Town Trail going north to what remains of Courtland and Pearce.

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