Scenic Drives: Flagstaff

By local contributor
Scott McGinty

This day trip is filled with surprises, so it’s best to get an early start! The route will wind you from Scottsdale’s lush Sonoran Desert, through the Tonto National Forest, and up to the Mogollon Rim for a little high-elevation adventure before leading you back down to high desert in Winslow where you’ll get a chance to cruise on “America’s Main Street,” Route 66. From there, it’s on to Flagstaff at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, where you can explore the largest town in Northern Arizona.

Leg 1: Scottsdale to Payson and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

Your Route: Loop 101 to Shea Blvd. east → AZ-87 North

Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

The Beeline Highway (a.k.a. AZ-87) takes you from the Sonoran Desert through the Tonto National Forest and into Arizona’s pine country. With plenty of mountains and valleys along this route to catch the light, the best time for this leg of the trip is sunrise. Drive just 62 miles up the Beeline and you’ll come to the mountain town of Payson, a great place to stretch your legs, top off the gas tank and grab breakfast or a slice of pie at the Beeline Café. After you’ve refueled, get back on AZ-87 going north and continue on to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park about 8.5 miles ahead on your left.
Believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world, Tonto Natural Bridge measures 150 feet at its widest point. A short trail will lead you to a viewing area where you can snap some pics above the bridge, or, if you have the time and energy, hike down below to capture the true size and beauty of this natural wonder.

Leg 2: Natural Bridge to Winslow

Your Route: AZ-87 North → Winslow

Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour 11 minutes

Once you’ve hiked, climbed and explored the natural waterfalls at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, continue north on AZ-87 to the town of Winslow, made famous in the Eagles’ song, “Take it Easy.” The town’s Standin’ on the Corner Park (yup, just like the song) is the perfect place for a commemorative selfie. Other attractions in the Winslow area include historic Route 66, the renowned La Posada Hotel (try the on-property Turquoise Room for lunch) and Homolovi State Park, which will give you insight into the cultural history of the Hopi tribe.

Leg 3: Winslow to Flagstaff

Your Route: I-40 west → Flagstaff

Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

After you’ve explored Winslow, head West on I-40, which runs adjacent to the more circuitous Route 66. You’ll cruise through American history and spots like Two Guns and Toonerville, both old stops along Route 66. When you reach Flagstaff, you’ve made it to the highest point on the famous route. Spend a little time exploring the cozy shops in downtown and take in the Ponderosa Pines around you. Other Flagstaff attractions of note include the Lowell Observatory and Museum of Northern Arizona.

When you’re done exploring Flagstaff, take the direct route back to Scottsdale – just head south on I-17 to the Loop 101 east and right into Scottsdale. It will take you a little less than three hours.