Everybody who’s into driving (or riding) has a favorite road, usually some less-traveled stretch of curvy blacktop through a hunk of scenic countryside.
What I consider to be the greatest drive in Arizona fits that bill and then some, a federally recognized Scenic Byway that climbs tall mountains, traverses sweeping grasslands, encounters the grandest of vistas and passes through historic towns along the way.
The drive follows Arizona 89, starting from northwest of Phoenix in the Old West town of Wickenburg, where the classic desert landscape is punctuated by tall saguaro cactuses but begins to give way to brushy terrain as elevations rise.
From Wickenburg, it’s a short hop (about six miles) on US Route 93 to the right-side turnoff to Arizona 89, through the tiny burg of Congress until a few miles later, when the real fun starts.
That would be the dramatic climb as 89 heads up the side of the Weaver Mountains in a series of curves and switchbacks in a stretch known as Yarnell Hill. This 1,700-foot climb on a split north-south roadway is a favorite for sports car drivers and sport bike riders to challenge their skills. But beware, the Arizona highway patrol is also aware of the attraction and has been known to stake it out, ticket books in hand.
Some local people travel here just to enjoy Yarnell Hill, driving to the top, then turning around and going back down again – the descent is in some ways even more entertaining than the ascent.
The sleepy mountain town of Yarnell, elevation 4,780 feet, lies at the top of the hill. Sadly, this area was in the national news seven years ago because of a terrible tragedy. This is where a team of 19 rural firefighters, known as hotshots, were killed when they were overtaken by a wind-driven range fire.
Watch your speed when driving through Yarnell, which has scattered businesses, bars and restaurants near the road.
After Yarnell, the road becomes a typical Arizona two-lane highway, enjoyably spiced with dips and curves, and at this higher altitude, a rocky landscape filled with grass and brush.
The road soon passes through bucolic Peeples Valley, with lovely horse pastures along the way. Then it starts winding through the rugged Bradshaw Mountains.
Route 89 is an old highway, built in sections starting in the early part of the 20th Century, and actually was the first federally funded construction project in Arizona. Today’s road retains the hallmarks of its early design, feeling in turns thrilling and terrifying as it hangs precariously off the edges of sheer cliffs (yes, there are guardrails) while rising and descending surprisingly steep grades.
The scenery through here is absolutely stunning, and the climb takes the road into tall pine country before its long descent into historic Prescott, once the state capital but now a traditional Western town, complete with a large town square dominated by the old Yavapai County courthouse. There are often fairs and events held on weekends.
Prescott is great place to stop, relax in the cool temps, and stop at one of the many restaurants around the town square. Oh, and there are cowboy bars along one section of the square, an area notably known as Whiskey Row.
Leaving Prescott (with hopefully a low blood-alcohol content), continue on 89 until you hit the intersection with 89A. Here is where we depart 89 and turn onto 89A in the direction of Jerome.
This piece of roadway was constructed in the 1920s as something of a shortcut over the crest of Mingus Mountain between Prescott and Jerome, which was then a thriving copper-mining town. Again, it can be challenging, but in a good way.
Arizona 89A is one of the most beautiful and satisfying drives that I’ve ever experienced. Peaking at 7,000 feet, the 34-mile trek at higher elevations passes through tall-pine forest, creating in some places a thick, dappled canopy. The road twists through canyons and over crests with impressive climbs, dazzling drop-offs and views that make you want to stop the car to get out and stare.
There actually are quite a few pullouts for parking and enjoying the ambience, with several of them in the narrow and absolutely stunning valley that you encounter while approaching Jerome. Look far ahead for a sighting of the red rocks of Sedona in the distance. You’ll want to stop to bask in the glory of the view.
The entrance to Jerome happens suddenly; one moment, you’re on this mountain road and the next, you are on a narrow stretch of village street. Small homes perch above you on the left and below you on the right, with ancient concrete walls and curbs lining the road.
Go slowly through here, as there are homes and businesses packed close to the street and usually bands of tourists wandering around aimlessly.
One final curve to the right and you’re in downtown Jerome with its reclaimed century-old buildings, shops, art galleries, cafes and bars, notably the Spirit Room, a longtime favorite for locals, out-of-town partiers and bikers of the Harley-Davidson variety.
The heavy rumble of V-twin engines provides a steady soundtrack, although the town adopted a noise ordinance a few years back to hold down the roar, and things have quieted since.
Jerome has a boom-to-bust ghost-town history that builds on its charm. From the 1890s through the 1920s, Jerome was a copper-mining boom town, fading through the Depression of the 1930s, coming back as copper demand grew during the war years, and then shriveling up in the 1950s from a peak population of about 4,400 to a low of fewer than 100.
To make things worse, soil subsidence on the town’s precarious incline on the side of Cleopatra Hill, caused by deforestation, fires and mine blasting, made major buildings collapse and some homes slide down the hill.
Yet Jerome’s rugged historic beauty cast its spell on artists and offbeat souls who repopulated the town, restoring its homes and its downtown, and turning it into a small but popular cultural mecca, as well a regular destination for a steady flow of tourists and shoppers.
Most folks take the more-direct route into Jerome, getting off Interstate 17 and coming in by way of State Route 260, a quicker and easier drive but not nearly as interesting as 89A.
As you leave Jerome, be aware that the town of Cottonwood in the broad valley below the mountain range is a nice place to stop. There’s also an incredible prehistoric pueblo ruin called Tuzigoot National Monument just to the east.
If you are still enticed, you can continue on 89A into Sedona with its towering red rock formations and popular downtown, then through lush Oak Creek Canyon, up an amazing set of switchbacks to the surface of the plateau above, through an aspen forest and on to Flagstaff, which sits at 7,000 feet altitude.
None of this lengthy trip on Arizona 89 and 89A will be in the least bit tedious for you or your passengers, especially newbies who will be enthralled by the continuous and ever-changing array of remarkable scenery. I’ve been on this route many times, and I never tire of it.