San Francisco Peaks scenic loop drive, Flagstaff, AZ
As someone who has spent decades wandering this remarkable state, I know Arizona is road trip nirvana. That’s why I wrote my last book, Arizonas Scenic Roads & Hikes.
In this guide, I’ll feature all 27 state-designated Arizona scenic and historic roads, including five National Scenic Byways. The breathtaking drives are organized by region and include start and end points, mileage, photos, full descriptions, and suggestions of local restaurants and restaurants. Each road trip is linked to attractions and activities such as nearby hiking trails.
Travel from sun-drenched deserts to snow-capped mountains, from the cosmic abyss of the Grand Canyon to the red rocks of Sedona and the towering monoliths of Monument Valley. Visit ancient Native American villages, hunt down old west legends, and set off on Route 66. Create memories for a lifetime as you explore Arizona’s endlessly diverse and breathtaking landscape. And welcome to my world!
What follows is an excerpt from a chapter in “Arizona’s Scenic Roads and Walks”. As you set off, make sure to observe mask mandates and other COVID-19 security practices. As of October, Monument Valley and other tourist sites on the Navajo Reservation will still be closed and curfews may be in effect. For the latest information, see https://www.navajo-nsn.gov.
San Francisco Peaks Scenic Road
Overview: This road runs through thick forests, mountain meadows and sagebrush plains along the edge of Arizona’s highest mountains and provides an important route to the Grand Canyon.
Route number: US Highway 180.
Mileage: The scenic road is 31 miles (Milepost 224 to Milepost 255). It is 74 miles from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon National Park.
We all cherish the memory of our first love.
For me it was Flagstaff. It was there that I set foot in Arizona for the first time. I flew across the country from Ohio to attend Northern Arizona University. One late summer evening, I got off a tiny plane (pretty sure we dusted the crop on the last leg of Denver) and smelled the pine-scented air of Flagstaff. The next morning I saw the outline of the San Francisco Peaks. It was love at first sight.
I was absolutely thrilled with the mountains. I couldn’t get enough of it and knew that I was destined to be some kind of flannel shirt miner who romps at high altitudes where the air is clean and pure.
So imagine my shock when I finally fell under the spell of tough, sun-drenched lands filled with cacti and rattlesnakes. I’m not sure what total collapse of judgment, what failure of common sense led me on the reckless path of becoming a desert rat, but such is my fate. But no matter how much time I sweat under saguaros, Flagstaff always has a special place in my heart.
An impressive variety awaits you on a road that leads from the highest mountains in Arizona to the deepest canyon. And don’t be fooled by the tall pine trees and meadows with wildflowers. An explosive, lava-spewing geological hotspot lurks beneath the soft facade.
The San Francisco volcanic field extends 1,800 square miles across the southern quadrant of the Colorado Plateau. The first eruptions occurred six million years ago. Even the mountains around which the road leads, the San Francisco Peaks, are the ragged remnants of a vast stratovolcano. Geologists believe it once reached an altitude of 16,000 feet but continued to blast apart.
The four main peaks of the San Francisco Peaks are Fremont, Doyle, Agassiz, and Humphreys. At 12,633 feet, Humphreys Peak is the highest point in Arizona and also the state’s only alpine tundra. On this journey between these high, lonely slopes over the plateau and into the dry depths of the nearby Grand Canyon, the biologist C. Hart Merriam developed his concept of “living zones” – altitude and temperature determine which types of plants grow in a particular location . Although it is widely accepted today, it was a controversial term when he published its results in 1890.
The San Francisco Peaks hold considerable religious significance to several Native American tribes. The Hopis believe that their Kachina gods reside in the mountains, and they are one of four sacred mountains for the Navajos who form the borders of their homeland.
The US 180 departs from downtown Flagstaff and runs northwest along the western slope of the Peaks. On the outskirts of the city you will pass some excellent museums. The Pioneer Museum is housed in a volcanic rock building and covers a wide range of the region’s past. Exhibits show a history of logging, livestock raising, and transportation. The Museum of Northern Arizona tells the story of the Colorado Plateau, from its geological formation to the people who populated it.
Look for the turnoff to the Arizona Snowbowl, 7 miles northwest of Flagstaff. Snowbowl Road offers a winding climb up the slopes to a major ski area that offers multiple runs in winter and a scenic chairlift ride in warmer months. Several hiking trails also branch off this road, including the hike to the top of Humphreys Peak. The steep, challenging hike is almost 16 km long and ends with a lung-squeezing slog through the treeless tundra.
For those who prefer to ski on flat terrain, the Arizona Nordic Village offers miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails in winter, as well as cabins and yurts that can be rented year round. Look for it on the right hand side of 180 a few miles past Snowbowl Road.
As the road continues, indications of past fires and the regeneration process are visible. As you step into the vast grasslands of Kendrick Park, look up the slopes of the peaks and see the shimmering green of fast-growing aspen saplings that fill the spot where ponderosa pines once stood. Meadows spread out here, a good area for observing wildlife. To the west, Kendrick Mountain, a large lava dome, rises above the forest.
The road begins to descend and the stately ponderosas give way to a scruffy mix of juniper and pinion pines. The Rote Berg appears to the left, a volcanic cinder cone. Let’s just assume every hill and mountain you see along this road were volcanoes or implicated in volcanic betrayal. And they can’t be finished. Many geologists expect eruptions again in the future. I’m not sure how you would prepare for an event like this if it happened during your road trip, other than to exercise caution. Do not try to cross a wash that is flowing with lava. And when hot magma rains from the sky, put the top on the convertible and turn around at the first opportunity.
Red Mountain still bears visible scars from its violent past. The page appears to have been torn out, revealing an imaginatively eroded internal structure that you can step on (see hiking).
On the last section of the motorway you are clear of the forest and roll over the mugwort prairie. After 50 miles you will cross with Arizona 64 in the intersection town of Valle.
Since you probably didn’t come all the way to hang out in Valle, turn north on Arizona 64 to continue on to Grand Canyon National Park. It is only 40 km to the park entrance. The open land continues until the road descends back into the forest before reaching the town of Tusayan, just outside the park.
Kendrick Park Watchable Wildlife Trail: This gentle loop moves from the pine forest through open grasslands. Between the two habitats, you can encounter a variety of bird and animal species. There are two options: a wheelchair-friendly, 0.25 mile paved loop, or the longer, 1.5 mile loop that pushes deeper into the forest, past an aspen grove, and returns at the edge of a lanky meadow. Move around calmly and watch out for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, coyote, badger and porcupine. Look for the signposted parking lot on the west side 180.7 miles after the turnoff for Snowbowl.
Lava River Cave: Explore one of the region’s most unusual volcanic scars as you hike a nearly mile-long tube of lava hidden under the Ponderosa pines. The cave was formed 700,000 years ago by a flow of molten lava blasted from a volcanic vent in the nearby Hart Prairie. The entrance requires climbing over boulders, but then the chamber expands. There are some tight spots, but the ceiling often rises several meters above your head. Keep left on the Y. Dress warmly and carry at least two light sources. Travel 9 miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn left on Forest Road 245 (at Milepost 230). Continue 3 miles and turn left on FR 171. Travel 1 mile and turn left on FR 171B to the parking lot.
Red Mountain Trail # 159: As the Grand Canyon waves up the highway, most people speed past Red Mountain with barely a glance. Those who stop and do the hike (3 miles round-trip) are rewarded with an intimate but otherworldly experience. The trail begins on an old road that winds through juniper and pinion and then plunges into the bed of a linen. After a mile, the sandy creek bed squeezes between towers of black ash. A ladder climbs over a stone wall and you’re in a wonderland of gnawing towers, twisted columns, and warped walls bubbling with trapped gases. The amphitheater is reminiscent of a miniaturized Bryce Canyon full of colorful hoodoos. The trail begins at Milepost 247 on US 180, 25 miles northwest of Flagstaff.
Information for all hiking trails: 928-526-0866, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.
Books by Roger Naylor
“Arizona’s Scenic Streets and Walks” is available in stores, on Amazon, and at https://www.rogernaylor.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZRogerNaylor and stay up to date at https://www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ. Here are more books by Naylor:
- “Arizona State Parks: A Guide to Amazing Places in Grand Canyon State.” It won the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award in the Travel category in 2020.
- “Boots and Burgers: A Guide for Hungry Arizona Hikers.”
- “Arizona enters on Route 66.”
- “The Amazing Kolb Brothers of the Grand Canyon.”
- “Crazy About the Heat: Arizona Tales of Ghosts, Gumshoes and Bigfoot” (fiction)
- “Death Valley: The Hottest Place on Earth.”
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