Highway of Wonders: The Story of State Road 89A

Trying to choose the most scenic drive in Arizona is an impossible task. The state bristles with road-friendly panoramas. You can barely drive to the corner without encountering scenery that bites your heart in half.

Yet if someone were to declare State Route 89A as the most scenic drive in Arizona, such a claim would generate very few arguments. The fact that a portion of SR 89A received the first scenic road designation in Arizona only strengthens the case. The 80 mile highway runs from Prescott to Flagstaff. Along the way it passes through the Verde Valley and Oak Creek Canyon. It was this latter section that snagged the scenic road designation.

The road began life in 1927 as State Route 79. At the time only the portion from Prescott to Clarkdale was built, although the route to Flagstaff was in the planning stages. By 1938, all sections were finished and paved. The road was added to the US Highway system in 1940 as US 89A. In 1992, as if realizing the drive through pine forests, sun-spanked desert basins and red rock formations are a uniquely Arizona experience, it reverted to a state highway.

After leaving Prescott, SR 89A rolls through dense pine forests while crossing the Black Hills, the mountain range that separates Prescott form the Verde Valley. Hairpin curves and sprawling views across the lowlands only enhance the adventure. Yet it is the stretch of road that climbs through high-walled Oak Creek Canyon that sears itself into the memory of everyone who travels it.

The towering sandstone formations that guard Sedona close in around you as you ascend the canyon. The road traces silver-tongued Oak Creek through this deep chasm swaddled in some of the most lush, most staggeringly picturesque woodlands in the Southwest.

Yet for all the vast scenery SR 89A exposes, it serves a more significant purpose. It is the key artery of the Verde Valley, the link that connects the different communities. It is “Main Street” for Sedona, Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Jerome. The road—which follows the same general route the early settlers used—provides an accessible commercial corridor, with all manner of businesses huddled along the highway.

All of the state parks from Slide Rock and Red Rock to Dead Horse Ranch are accessed from SR 89A. Same with the museums, such as Clarkdale Heritage Center, Jerome’s Mine Museum, Clemenceau Heritage Museum in Cottonwood and Sedona Art’s Center. If you want to take a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad or explore the lonely expanse of Sycamore Canyon, you travel SR 89A.

Driving the road offers an in-depth history lesson of the region. You curve through the narrow streets of Jerome, once a booming mining camp and down the steep hillside through the idyllic neighborhoods of Clarkdale, designed to house the miners. As you cruise through Old Town Cottonwood you’ll see Prohibition-era buildings constructed by those who didn’t want to live in a company town. SR 89A brushes past some of the earliest homesteads of Sedona and gives you a glimpse of the rich farmland and plentiful water source that prompted such settlers. For those seeking a more ancient perspective, pre-historic Indian ruins such as Tuzigoot National Monument or Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites can be found just off SR 89A.

Hiking trails and world-class swimming holes line SR 89A as well as fine dining establishments and resplendent resorts. Part of the magic of visiting the Verde Valley is the immediate overlap of scenery and comfort, of luxury and wilderness. It’s all right here, available to everybody, just off the highway. SR 89A is the asphalt key that unlocks a myriad of wonders.

Now who’s ready for a road trip?

By Roger Naylor