Southern Arizona Road Trip Guide
A Southern Arizona road trip gives travelers a chance to take-in some spectacular Sonoran Desert scenery, while soaking up the savory culture and cuisine of the Southwest. Winding roads make their way through dramatic desert landscapes, while jagged mountains with steep-sided canyons and unique rock formations will demand your attention.
With designated scenic driving routes, you can choose to take in the beauty from the comfort of your car, or, park at one of the many stop-offs to explore national monuments and beautiful wilderness areas on bike or foot. In this Southern Arizona road trip guide we will provide everything you need to know to have a lasting and memorable experience.
Recommended home-base locations and lodging for a Southern Arizona road trip include:
- Tuscon – Omni Tuscon or Loews Ventana Canyon (Both are luxurious and venerable resorts).
- Bisbee – Bisbee Casita Chinquita (Fantastic Airbnb casita in a quiet and walkable area.) [note: Don’t stay at the Cooper Queen right in town.]
- Ajo – Sonoran Desert Inn (I have not stayed here, but have walked the property and it looks quite nice.)
- Tubac – Tubac Golf Resort (Really nice hotel/resort. There are also several nice looking B&B’s worth checking out, but I have not stayed in any of them.)
Southern Arizona Road Trip by the Numbers:
- Days: This trip was done in five days, but you could rush it in 3, or spend a couple of weeks at your leisure.
- Miles: Approximately 720 miles round trip from Phoenix.
- Budget: Based on this 5-day itinerary, I would budget $1800. A little less for budget accommodations and food, a bit more for more luxury.
- Accommodations: You’ll find high-end luxury lodging in Tuscon and Tubac and more budget/Airbnb’s in Bisbee and Ajo.
Organ Pipe National Monument is the first stop
The first stop on this Southern Arizona road trip is a bit more than two hours south of Phoenix. You can start by heading west on I-10 and then travel south on State Route 85 which will run right into Organ Pipe National Monument. As the title suggests, this is a place abundant with organ pipe cacti, the only place in the United States where it grows naturally.
Unlike many other national monuments, you can continue your drive right through the park. The Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular scenic driving route. It’s worth mentioning that the road is gravel and you may not want to take your RV on this road. Some vehicles will be moving very slowly along the 21-mile loop, which takes in many breathtaking canyons during its twisting and dipping journey. Puerto Blanco is another popular road, which provides links to hiking trailheads, picnic areas, and wonderful vistas should you want to ditch the car and head further into the wilderness.
Next stop on this Southern Arizona Road Trip is to Tubac and Tumacacori
Nestled in the high desert of the Santa Cruz Valley, in the shadow of the Santa Rita Mountains, lies one of the earliest settlements in the state of Arizona. Tubac was established way back in 1752 as a Spanish presidio. However today, artists are more prevalent than a military men. Over 100 unique shops, art galleries and restaurants inhabit the refined barrio.
Just a few minutes away is the beautifully preserved Mission de Tumacácori, a national historical monument. This historical park preserves three early Spanish colonial mission ruins. The oldest and best-preserved of the three, San Jose de Tumacacori, was built on the site of a Pima Indian village back in the 1750s. Visitors will appreciate this historic park for the opportunity to tour the mission church, cemetery, outlying structures and grounds in a peaceful and quiet atmosphere reminiscent of the period in which they were established.
Bisbee makes a great home base while exploring parts of Southern Arizona
Long ago, Bisbee, Arizona, was the town where copper and silver mines were in full swing. Today, Bisbee celebrates its rich historical heritage while also being a magnet for tourists. This quirky mining town is an enclave for artists with its eccentric charm and picturesque mountainside perch.
Located about 90 miles southeast of Tucson, not far from the Mexican border, Bisbee is a town perfectly positioned to further explore other areas of Cochise County. From wineries to legendary gun-fights in Tombstone, the region is full of cowboy tales and Wild West lore.
The Ol’ West town of Tombstone is a great stop while doing a Southern Arizona road trip
Tombstone is the famous Wild West town known for the shootout at O.K. Corral. You can walk the very same streets that Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo, Ike Clanton and a host of other Western Legends walked over 130 years ago. You can just feel the history as you stroll the streets. This is probably the most authentic Western Town that still survives in the United States! This Arizona Road Trip is just an hour and a half southeast of Tucson.
Chiricahua National Monument
No Southern Arizona road trip would be complete without a visit to the Chiricahua Mountains. This is a place where you’ll find some fascinating rock formations. These thin spires (called hoodoos) support larger rocks that appear to be balancing on top.
One of the best ways to navigate through this odd landscape is to drive the paved Bonita Canyon Scenic Drive which gradually winds its way through a pine forest to Massai Point. At this overlook you can see a 360° view of the Rhyolite Canyon. Adjacent canyons, and the surrounding mountain sides replete with hoodoos and balancing rocks. From here you can also access hiking trailheads, and stroll through an informational half-mile loop which explains the fascinating geological story of the park.
Pima Air and Space Museum
One of Tucson’s greatest attractions is the Pima Air and Space Museum. Whether you are an aeronautical fan or not, this air museum is one of the largest in the country and is really worth visiting if you find yourself on a southern Arizona road trip. Click the following link to learn more: https://mikesroadtrip.com/pima-air-and-space-museum
Old Tuscon Studios
The movie Arizona was filmed near Tuscon in 1939 where a huge studio had been constructed for the set. By 1960, Old Tuscon Studios was opened to the public for tours. It soon grew into a park where visitors could not only get a taste of the Ol’ West, but could learn about all the movies, T.V. shows and commercials that were filmed here on location.
In 1995, nearly the entire set/park went up in flames. Today, the studio/park has been completely rebuilt, inviting guests to get a glimpse of old western life. A visit to Old Tucson Studios is more like Hollywood’s version of what the Old West was like, but it’s a fun and integrating experience nonetheless.
Saguaro National Park
On your way back down State Route 86 to Tucson it’s a good idea to plan a stop at Saguaro National Park which is just half an hour’s drive West of downtown. The park is split into two separate districts: The Tucson Mountain District (TMD) and The Rincon Mountain District (RMD). The Tucson Mountain District is situated to the West and the Rincon Mountain District is situated to the East of Tucson.
Despite their relative proximity, both parks have different landscapes. The volcanic rocks of the Tucson Mountain District provide spectacular canyons, whilst the higher and wetter Rincon Mountain District contains rocky outcrops that are billions of years old. Both have scenic driving routes that take in a number awe-inspiring sites.
The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive (TMD side) covers 6 miles and includes a range of scenic pullouts, picnic spots, and hiking trailheads. It’s a dirt road, but there’s no need for a high clearance vehicle. Similarly, The Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive (RMD side) serves up a paved 8-mile loop that packs in several picturesque vistas, pullouts, picnic locations and hiking trailheads. There’s also the ability to hike, bike, and even horse ride sections of the park, should you want to venture deeper into its 92,000-acre territory.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
With a focus on the preservation of the Sonoran Desert, The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will challenge your impressions of a typical museum. The experience includes a botanical garden, fusion zoo, natural history museum, aquarium and art gallery. There are 21 acres with over two miles of walking trails to get up close to the splendor of the Sonoran Desert. Some of the highlights include: a hummingbird aviary, Warden Aquarium, live animal presentations and a Raptor flight (seasonal). Nearby is the Old Tucson Studios and Saguaro National Park, both featured in this post.
Located to the North of the Rincon Mountain District on the outskirts of Tucson itself, Sabino Canyon offers some of the most stunning scenery. Huge mountains, deep canyons, and wildlife that is unique to the Sonoran Desert are all on offer for the over one million visitors the area receives each year.
The set up for accessing the Sabino Canyon road is slightly different, as you’ll have to part with your car at the visitor center and take the shuttle bus for the rest of the way. There are nine shuttle stops which offer opportunities for bird-watching, picnics, or time spent absorbing the pools and cascades of Sabino Creek. There’s also a plethora of hiking trails if you’re keen to head out into the back country of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
As you drive north on I-10 back toward Phoenix, you simply can’t miss Picacho Peak, it towers 1,500 feet and looks down at the State Park below and beyond. There are many hiking trails that will provide wonderful views of the Valley as well as a sporadic sea of wildflowers. When I was there in the Spring of 2019 the State was in the midst of a super bloom.
If you have any questions about doing a Southern Arizona road trip, please leave a comment below, I’m happy to help. BTW, this should go without saying, but a an important point before planning your road trip is to make sure you have a driver’s license. This way you’ll avoid any issues with the authorities. To acquire one, take a DMV written test so you can stay legal.
Southern Arizona Road Trip Q&A
What is the best time to visit Southern Arizona?
Some parts of Southern Arizona are at higher altitudes, so they can be cooler in both summer and winter. That being said, the best time to do a Southern Arizona Road Trip is between October and May. The best month would be April when the desert comes alive with wildflowers and cacti blooms.
Where should I stay in Southern Arizona?
Tuscon, Bisbee and Sierra Vista are the best hubs to explore the region. For staying near Organ Pipe National Monument, Ajo at the Sonoran Desert Inn is another good option.
What should I be aware of?
Always bring water with you when you are hiking/exploring. The Sonoran Desert is full of poisonous wildlife, while it is rare to see them, be aware of rattlesnakes, Gila Monsters, tarantulas and scorpions. If bitten by any of these, seek treatment immediately. Do not touch any cacti, the thorns and spines can be very painful and irritating.
Camping in Southern Arizona?
You can tent or RV camp anywhere on public (BLM and forest service) lands. There are also many campgrounds available.
How much is Fuel?
In many parts of Southern Arizona the fuel prices are much less expensive than the rest of the state. As of November, 2019 the average price was $2.49, nearly $.50 less than Phoenix, and $.70 less than Flagstaff.
What are some famous movies filmed in Southern Arizona?
Arizona is a popular place for film-making and T.V. shows. Steven Spielberg, the most famous director and producer of all time hails from Phoenix. Famous movies specific to Southern Arizona include: (1993) Tombstone. (1999) Three Kings with George Clooney. Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Three Amigos! with Steve Martin (1986). Tin Cup with Kevin Costner (1999). Almost Famous (2000) and Easy Rider (1969) just to name a few.