Arizona Motorcycle Travel Destinations
From the Grand Canyon to the High Country
Offering unbelievably majestic natural features, a heritage steeped in western lore, and essentially a year-round riding season, Arizona is hard not to like. And while ideal for motorcycling, this southwestern state is in fact a draw for all kinds of people.
It is the youngest among the contiguous 48 U.S. states, and its population ranks at or near the top of the list for fastest growing. But, with 85 percent of its land and water publicly owned, and much of it preserved as federal and state resource areas, most of the wide-open spaces that add to the appeal for those relocating are promised to remain.
By far Arizona’s largest population center is found in and around its capital city, Phoenix, which has over 1.5 million inhabitants. It is also central to the Phoenix metropolitan area – alternately called The Valley of the Sun – totaling over 4.2 million inhabitants, and comprised of the two counties that are home to the cities of Glendale, Chandler, Mesa and Scottsdale.
Arizona is called one of the “four corners” states that include also Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. The square outlines of each of these states all converge at one cartographical point commemorated by a national monument of the same name.
While today’s Arizonans like to look back to all the excitement people experienced in the state’s past, the most population growth began after air conditioning made it a more livable proposition in the mid-20th century. And maybe looking back in time makes sense. For if it were not for the endurance of those Arizonans who went before, there would never have been a place for the more comfortable life that followed.
Like the rest of the west, Arizona had been first home to Native Americans, then came European explorers, missionaries, and pioneers. It did not achieve statehood until Feb. 14, 1912, just 97 years ago.
On that day, Arizona’s entry into the Union symbolically closed the curtain on the white man’s push to takeover the entire North American region today defined as the contiguous United States. New Mexico had also just become a state days prior, but Arizona’s statehood was postponed so its people could celebrate another momentous landmark – the 50th anniversary of Arizona’s southern portion being temporarily named part of the Confederate States of America.
The work of settling the territory leading up to its statehood had been quite a push. In the 1880s, the Army and Cavalry were instrumental in a policy to neutralize threats from the region’s native inhabitants.
And sometimes also, violence toward settlers came from within their own numbers. In the mid-1800s Arizona was dotted by tiny little outpost towns inhabited by lawful, hard working people, who at times were made to cower by others who acted like wolves among sheep.
As legend now has it, cowboys would ride into towns with names like “Tombstone,” after weeks of driving herds on the trail, along with various other roaming individuals. Many of them would come looking for women, drink, gambling, and often enough, trouble. Sometimes however they would find more than they were hoping for.
The lawlessness of those times made lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday famous, as they along with many other less well known kept the peace with fast reflexes, calm nerves, and accurate guns.
As the “good guys” beat back the “bad guys,” toward the end of the 19th century, Arizona continued to expand and prosper eventually relegating to history the darker realities of the civilizing effort.
Today, “the good the bad and the ugly,” aside from being the title of a western movie, has otherwise been repackaged into a repository of lore that is deeper and wider than the veins of copper, silver and gold that drew earlier miners to the region.
Now travel opportunities present a rich mother lode for the adventurous and curious, and the tourism industry has much to offer.
All that dangerous and heroic history is still preserved, and imbued into the culture, as is Arizona’s amazing western environment that includes one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World,” which draws visitors from every country.
This of course is the Grand Canyon; one of Arizona’s several national parks, dozen-and-half national monuments, plentiful national historic sites, and state parks, that all add up to so much breathtaking, and sometimes surreal beauty.
In addition to canyons, Arizona has deserts where the Cavalry once thought to get around on imported camels, as well as mountains, high plateaus, mesas, and waters including the Colorado River that the Hoover Dam stops up to create Lake Mead.
Today the interstate system ties the state together, and there are numerous alternate routes for motorcycling any time of the year.
Summer temperatures around Phoenix range from the 90s to as high as 125. Winters range from the 40s to 75, with dips above and below possible. In Flagstaff, northward and at higher elevations, summer daytime temperatures range above and below the 80s, and are not known to go above the high 90s. In the winter, Flagstaff and other upper elevations do get occasional snow.
After February, when the north and eastern states are dealing with freezing rain, or shoveling snow – and many retired “snowbirds” aren’t missing any of it – Arizona’s temperatures start to come out of its winter lows, and head toward those higher highs.
Arizona has well over 200 sunny days a year and many partly cloudy days. Annual rainfall is just around 13 inches per year, but it can be torrential in the monsoon season around Phoenix in July and August.
To get there, you can of course ride, or fly into one of six international airports – the largest being Phoenix Sky Harbor International. Arizona has many regional and municipal airports throughout the state.
Following are a couple of motorcycle-friendly routes courtesy of Joyce Lingenfelter who lives in Flagstaff and rides Arizona’s high country with her husband. You’ll see that these can be switched around or made part of multi-day journeys, as you see fit.
Riding Arizona’s High Country
From Phoenix you have a few of options to ride toward cooler and beautiful northern Arizona. If you arrive in the full heat of summer, one fast but still somewhat scenic route is up Interstate 17.
A more sedate route would be up Route 87. This will take you through some beautiful countryside toward and through the quaint towns of Payson, Strawberry and Pine.
After reaching Clint’s Well (watch carefully – it is just a small gas station and restaurant – and also a popular dining stop for bikers in the area), you turn left (north) toward Mormon Lake and Flagstaff.
At an Elevation of 7,000 feet, Flagstaff is in the heart of the high country, and at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, which rise to 12,600 feet.
With its proximity to great riding destinations such as the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Monument Valley, Flagstaff is an ideal base for several days. The city boasts 70 hotels that range from budget to deluxe and over 200 restaurants. For nostalgia buffs – or those looking to hit Route 66 – the historic east-west route runs right through the city.
Flagstaff – Sedona – Jerome and Prescott Valley
From Flagstaff head south on I-17, and exit onto Route 89A which heads toward Sedona. This will take you through the Ponderosa Pines where you can stop at the Canyon Overlook before the curves begin and you descend into spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona.
Sedona is a busy community in an unbelievably beautiful setting. There are great places to stop for coffee as well as upscale shops, galleries, restaurants and much more.
Leaving Sedona, take 89A south to the town of Cottonwood. The road is a little flatter, but the scenery makes up for it. Continuing on, it begins to wind again as you head toward the historic mining town of Jerome, which is built into the side of the mountain. From here, tight curves wind their way through the town which is now filled with great little shops. A terrific place to eat in Jerome is the Haunted Hamburger (or if you can wait and prefer Mexican, hold on until you get to Chino Valley).
From Jerome, 89A continues up through some nice curves over Mingus Mountain pass with spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks and Mogollon Rim.
Descending the other side of Mingus Mountain the road drops into Prescott Valley, where you’ll pick up Route 89 north toward Chino Valley. Just off the main road in Chino Valley, take a turn onto Butterfield Road and head west for about three blocks to experience authentic Mexican food at Casa Grande, a small local restaurant that offers dedicated motorcycle parking next to the front door. The specialty of the house is their Carne Asada (beef) dishes. Either as a plate or in a burrito it is well worth the stop.
Heading north from Chino Valley, it’s a relaxing ride to Ash Fork, then east on Interstate 40 back to Flagstaff. Yes, it is the interstate, but the afternoon light on the San Francisco Peaks in front of you will help make it enjoyable.
Note: just after the town of Williams, watch for the meadow area that extends to both sides of the freeway. On the south side of the road Elk often feed in the late afternoon.
To the Grand Canyon
From Flagstaff, head north on 89 toward Page for about 10 miles to the entrance to Sunset Crater National Monument.
The park road heads past spectacular lava fields next to Sunset Crater Volcano, which last erupted in 1064 A.D.
The curvy loop road drops down toward Wupatki National Monument, which offers a vista of the Painted Desert. It is also well worth a stop at the visitor center, and a short easy walk back through the large ancient pueblo immediately behind it.
As you proceed north on the loop road it will pass several other ancient dwellings, but astute movie buffs may recognize scenery from the classic motorcycle movie Easy Rider.
The loop road ends back at Route 89 where you continue north for about 30 minutes to the Historic Cameron Trading Post. Here’s an opportunity to pick up Navajo jewelry and gifts, or just to enjoy lunch. They are famous for their Navajo Tacos – however, be warned the tacos are huge, so unless you have a large appetite, choose the mini Navajo Taco. Before leaving the trading post, you may want to get fuel, as there are not a lot of opportunities in Grand Canyon National Park.
From the trading post, back track on Route 89 for one mile and turn right (east) onto Route 64. This offers amazing scenery and less traffic into the park. Upon entering the park is Desert View, where you can climb the Watchtower designed by renowned architect Mary Coulter. From Desert View enjoy the leisurely ride along Desert View Drive, the longest stretch of road open to the public along the Grand Canyon. There are numerous overview pullouts along the road, but be sure not to miss Lipan Point and Grand View.
The ride through the park to Grand Canyon Village is 25 miles. Expect crowds as you reach the village area. In mid summer it is often better to park in one of the lots and take the shuttle in. From there you can visit one of the lodges or take a short walk below the rim on the Bright Angel Trail. You can also take a free shuttle out to Hermit’s Rest, the area recently visited by President Obama and family. This road is closed to traffic from February to November.
When it is time to leave the canyon behind, head south out of the park on Route 64 and at the town of Valle, turn left (southeast) onto Route 180. This designated scenic route is the perfect way to end the day. The afternoon views of the San Francisco are fantastic as you wind your way to over 8,000 foot elevation on your way back down to Flagstaff. Be on the look out for wildlife along this road that includes antelope, elk, and deer.
A fun stop for a quick dinner after your return is the Galaxy Diner on west Route 66. This classic 50’s style diner features all American classic meals.
There is so much more to Arizona, but we at least wanted to give you a few viable ideas to follow up on. Be sure to also to check out Meteor Crater, and the many other geologic anomalies throughout the state. If you are looking for more long-range adventures, to the west is California, which we have previously written about, and Utah is northward.
For more information about Arizona, consult the state bureau of tourism.