Expanding Your Horizons: Northern Arizona Loop Ride

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
The red rocks near Sedona hold a magnetic draw for tourists worldwide and are the perfect backdrop for the area’s great motorcycle roads. Photos by the author.

Miles of hairpins, 4,000 feet of elevation change, historic towns, monolithic red rocks and vast pine forests all in the span of a 180-mile loop. Do I have your attention? I thought so. Northern Arizona has become a kind of motorcycle mecca for all of the reasons listed above and so much more. At the risk of inspiring your jealous resentment, I must tell you that this spectacular loop ride is in my own backyard.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
Panoramic views of rock formations, evergreens and big skies define Northern Arizona.

I kick this tour off in the thin, crisp air of Flagstaff. The mountain city is a cool place not only climatically but also in relation to its vibrant arts, music and social scene. The heartbeat of Flagstaff emanates from Northern Arizona University and pumps through the city’s adjacent historic district. I start this ride rolling through the campus and its classic red stone structures and regal white-columned buildings. The old portions of the campus are truly reminiscent of its Ivy League counterparts. The university has a special place in my heart, as it is my alma mater.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

I leave Flagstaff to the south toward Sedona on State Route 89A. Some of the best riding on this loop is to be had in the stretch from the forest south of Flagstaff down into and through Oak Creek Canyon. The switchbacks leading into the canyon are tight and technical and a blast to ride. Once in the canyon, the curves are more relaxed as the road follows the picturesque Oak Creek. I have to show restraint and patience through Oak Creek Canyon, as it is a high-traffic scenic road. However, if you can plan your ride so that you are in the area on a weekday or early morning, you will have a better chance of light traffic. The few miles of 89A just before Sedona from the north are spectacular. The red rock formations are massive and multihued. Both sides of the highway offer the erosion-sculpted views that have made the area legendary.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
Slide Rock State Park in the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon draws thousands of visitors annually.

Sedona may be the most visually recognizable small town in the Southwest. It is a vibrant and eclectic place nestled in the clutch of massive crimson sandstone fingers. A walk through the admittedly touristy uptown village will provide your fill of new age shops, trinket stands, trendy diners and jeep tour barkers. However, if you tire of the commotion, just cast your eyes upward to the rose cliffs—that’s why you’re here.

On the winding westward ride out of town on State Route 89A, the red rocks slowly give way to juniper forests and ultimately grasslands. Just a few miles out of Sedona, I get my first view of the impressive Mingus Mountain. It is a foreshadowing of great things to come.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
Once abandoned homes in Jerome are now beautifully restored.

After a ride through the greenbelt of the Verde Valley, I am at the base of the mountain that will offer up some of the best twisties in the Southwest. The short climb to Jerome is a fun warm-up to a truly spectacular ride. Jerome is a historic mining town that clings resiliently to the side of Mingus Mountain. Once the home of turn-of-the-century merchants, brothels and thousands of miners, the town all but died in the 1950s when mining operations in the area came to a halt. It is now revived as a colorful arts and tourism hotbed. It’s also one of the top motorcycle destinations in Arizona.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
The historic mining town of Jerome is now an eclectic and thriving art community.

Leaving Jerome, the real fun starts. The hairpin turns begin almost immediately. The climb is a guard-railed delight of low-speed corners and forever views. A word to the wise, keep your eyes on the ride and stop to enjoy the views. This is a ride that includes virtually every kind of corner—decreasing radius, banked, off camber—you name it. To top it off, the elevation gain from the base of the mountain to the crest is nearly 4,000 feet.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
The best curves on the route carve through the towering Black Hills on the way up to Mingus Mountain.

After the 7,000-foot summit of Mingus Mountain, there are several more miles of great corners on the descent before the road straightens out in a high plateau region. I find this stretch of 89A to be a nice way to unwind from the constant attention that the mountain section requires. Turning north on State Route 89, I continue on this relatively high-speed portion of the loop through the towns of Prescott Valley and Chino Valley before the highway ends at Interstate 40.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
Motorcycles at parade rest in the historic Route 66 town of Williams.

As a rule, I avoid freeways; however, this is a relatively short stretch of the super slab and it leads to the fantastic little town of Williams. Williams sits on historic Route 66 and is another magnetic attraction for motorcyclists. Mother Road-inspired diners, hotels and shops line the street as I roll into town. There are seemingly as many motorcycles as cars. A row of nearly identical Harleys are parked in formation, and intermittent sportbikes, adventure bikes and classics are to be found elsewhere on the main drag.

Northern Arizona Motorcycle Ride
Old Main is one of the iconic buildings on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

After a walk in Williams, I ride the last stretch of I-40 back into Flagstaff. The city’s abundance of interesting restaurants, microbreweries and nightspots makes for a fine end to an invigorating ride. Because of Flagstaff’s cold and snowy winters this is a spring-through-fall ride, but the lower portions—Sedona, the Verde Valley and Jerome—can be ridden year-round.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article! This is my backyard as well — I live in Sedona, and you’ve captured the essence of the area very well.

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