Find Open Space on a Post-pandemic Arizona Road Trip

Miles away from ordinary

It’s arguably the most iconic highway in the United States. But motoring down historic Route 66 isn’t the only sightseeing road trip you can enjoy in Arizona. Every corner of this state has things to see and do and ways to recreate. And most importantly in this era of COVID, you can experience it all without another soul around for miles.

Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the things that make Arizona a great destination is that they have the benefit of major metropolitan areas in Phoenix and Tucson while most of the state offers large areas of public lands to explore. You can find yourself alone in some of the most amazing landscapes with a little planning and knowing what you’re looking for.

The pandemic has severely impacted Arizona’s tourism. Airport traffic is down 55 per cent year to date while state park visitation is down 16 per cent. This is a state that before COVID in 2019 marked 6.1 million international visitors who spent $4.6 billion.

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona presents many opportunities for socially distanced travel in the great outdoors. For example, Aravaipa Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona and only 50 people are allowed in each day so it’s possible you won’t come across anyone else. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge attracts people for the same reason. It’s very rugged with little in the way of infrastructure and few visitors.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To really get away from it all get off the main highways onto the back roads of the state. There are many secondary routes with breathtaking scenery and quirky history such as centuries-old cliff dwellings, mining ghost towns, and still thriving cowboy bars. There are also three distinct wine-growing regions beckoning off the beaten path. Just be aware that some of these routes pass through tribal lands which at the time of writing were closed to travel due to the pandemic.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hard part will be deciding where to go. There are 30 state parks, six national forests, 11 U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, dozens of national parks, national monuments, wildlife areas, and numerous certified Dark Sky Places.

Narrow down the experience you want whether it’s a road trip to see iconic landmarks or a more active trip away from the crowds. First, decide what you want your road trip to include. To minimize the number of people around you take the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and other iconic destinations off your list and focus on off-the-beaten-path places—and Arizona has plenty of these. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Hiking

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t have to go far from civilization to immerse yourself in a stunning landscape. The Superstition Mountains lie just east of Phoenix but are a world away. The Siphon Draw trail gains 2,500 feet over 3 miles before it reaches the top of Flat Iron (gulp). But wait, don’t let that stop you! Of all the Superstition Mountains hiking trails, Flat Iron may be the most demanding in the shortest distance but also the most rewarding.

A much more doable hike for the average joe is in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge off U.S. Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma. Two mountain ranges dominate the 665,400-acre refuge of which more than 80 percent is designated as wilderness. The Palm Canyon Trail is a mile-long stroll through the desert. You’re pretty much on your own out here and may spot more bighorn sheep and mule deer than fellow humans. This area does attract serious climbers though to Signal Peak, Ten Ewe Mountain, and Castle Dome Peak.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness area 85 miles north of Wilcox is another good bet for isolated hiking and backpacking. The area is a great mix of all of what makes Arizona so unique: canyons, cliffs, caves, deserts, and rivers. The entire canyon hike which can be accessed at either end takes 10 hours but take your time for side forays.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two well-known areas that still have plenty of open space to explore are Monument Valley and Chiricahua National Monument. Monument Valley on the northeast Arizona-Utah border is one of the most photographed places on earth and the site of many a western film shoot due to its towering sandstone buttes. Chiricahua is in the extreme southeast near the border of New Mexico. Hiking here will take you from massive rock formations through pine forests to the Sonoran desert.

Biking

With so many national forests, there are dozens of options for both on and off-road cycling. For mountain bikers, the pinnacle might just be the Rainbow Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon. Located on the north rim in Kaibab National Forest, it’s the only single-track in the canyon and runs for about 20 miles through meadows and forests. Arizona Outback Adventures recommends bikers acclimatize first however as the route traverses between 7,500 and 9,000 feet elevation.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the other end of the spectrum is the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument way south in the Sonoran desert bordering Mexico. This is a UNESCO biosphere reserve that attracts few visitors. So you’ll have the roads to yourself. Just be aware that bikes are not allowed on hiking trails or after dark.

Mount Lemmon scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road riders will want to head for Mount Lemmon, an hour north of Tucson. At 9,000-feet-high, it’s the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and attracts both cyclists and longboarders (a type of skateboard popular with downhill racers). But it’s a hard climb of almost 7,000 feet of twists and turns although the incredibly fast downhill makes it worthwhile for many. Just be aware that you’ll be sharing the road with motoring sightseers.

Lynx Lake near Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddling

Depending on whether you want a lazy float trip, a thrilling whitewater adventure, or something in between, there are options in Arizona.

On the California border, Lake Havasu is adventure central with all manner of watersports, offroading, cycling, hiking, and golfing. It’s one of the more popular areas of Arizona but with 400 miles of coastline and 40 miles of navigable waterways, you can still find space of your own.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another popular lake lies along the border with Utah. Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir attracts upwards of two million people a year. But follow the Colorado River south to Lees Ferry and you’ll find exception kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Various outfitters run trips here for those too inexperienced to navigate on their own.

The global pandemic has changed the way people view travel. For many, it’s now about really experiencing a place and finding space for themselves. There is no better way to do that than exploring the outdoors. Arizona stacks up well with options in every corner of the state.

Lower Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers