The rolling hills of grass and woodlands surrounding Patagonia make up some of the state's finest cattle and horse land. Patagonia, 19 miles northeast of Nogales, lies on the alternate route to Tucson. Many people like to make a loop from Tucson by driving through Sonoita and Patagonia in one direction (I-10, AZ Hwys. 83 and 82) and the Santa Cruz Valley (I-19) in the other.
The long, grassy park in the middle of town has some tables and the yellow, ca. 1900 Patagonia Depot of the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad; trains stopped running here in 1962, and the depot now contains city offices. Also in the park, the Patagonia Butterfly Garden attracts resident and migrant butterflies from May to early October. Nearby Richardson Park has a playground.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
The Nature Conservancy looks after more than 750 acres along Sonoita Creek in this preserve (P.O. Box 815, Patagonia, AZ 85624, 520/394-2400, http://nature.org/arizona, 7:30 a.m., except 6:30 a.m. April-Sept., to 4 p.m. Wed.-Sun., 7-day entry pass costs $5, $3 members). Year-round water and a variety of habitats attract many birds, with about 300 species identified. White-tailed deer, coatimundi, javelina, bobcat, and other animals live in the thickets and woods. Four native fish species, including the endangered Gila topminnow, swim in the creek. The splendid cottonwood-willow riparian forest contains Fremont cottonwoods that tower more than 100 feet. About 2.5 miles of trails make loops near the creek; wheelchairs can follow one loop. The 3.5-mile loop Geoffrey Platts Memorial Trail climbs into the juniper and oak uplands on the other side of the road; you'll have good views and a chance to see resident wildlife; the trailhead is 0.6 mile before the visitor center.
The public is welcome to visit, but no picnicking, camping, or pets are allowed. The visitor center isn't always staffed, but you can see the outdoor exhibits and pick up a trail map and bird list. Nature walks begin here at 9 a.m. on Saturday year-round; no reservation needed. Check with the preserve for other walks and programs. Visitors during the summer monsoon season should apply insect repellent to keep off chiggers.
To reach the preserve from AZ 82 in Patagonia, turn northwest two blocks on Fourth Avenue, then turn left 1.5 miles on Pennsylvania Avenue. The pavement ends and you'll have to drive across the creekbed—don't cross if you can't see the bottom. Continue to the visitor center for parking and trailheads. You can also take the back way by continuing on the dirt road 2 miles to AZ 82 at an unsigned junction between Mileposts 16 and 17, but the creek ford is likely to be deeper here.
Hummingbird feeders attract up to 11 species of hummers at Paton's Birder's Haven, a private residence adjacent to the preserve; it's the first house on the left just past the creekbed crossing. Park outside the gate, though handicapped drivers can park inside.
Decaying houses, piles of rubble, cemeteries, and old mine shafts mark deserted mining camps in the Patagonia Mountains to the south. You'll need the topo or Forest Service maps to find these old sites. In a 45-mile loop drive, you can visit Harshaw, Mowry, Washington Camp, and Duquesne. You can also drive east to the Huachuca Mountains, Parker Canyon Lake, or Coronado National Memorial on back roads. Most are dirt and should be avoided if it has recently rained or snowed.
Patagonia is a good place to start a drive to these sites. Turn beside the post office or head east on McKeown Avenue on the Harshaw Road. You'll pass a trailhead for the Arizona Trail in 2.7 miles. After 5.8 miles from Patagonia, turn right (pavement ends) and continue 1.8 miles to Harshaw, marked by a sign, a decaying house on the left, and the cemetery—worth seeing for its pioneer history—to the right. The road continues to the other sites. Mountain bikers also enjoy touring these scenic backroads.
Patagonia Lake State Park
Centered on a 265-acre reservoir, the park (520/287-6965, $7/vehicle day use) offers families and water sports enthusiasts an enjoyable place to picnic, camp, boat, and fish. Anglers catch largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, bluegill, catfish, and, in winter, rainbow trout. Mesquite trees and some pines provide shade. Facilities include day-use areas, two handicap-accessible fishing docks, campground loops ($15/vehicle no hookups, $22/vehicle camping w/water and electric), showers, two boat ramps, a dump station, and a fish-cleaning station. A store sells groceries and camping supplies. The marina supplies fishing gear and rents canoes, pedal boats, and fishing boats (you can row or bring your own motor).
At an elevation of 3,750 feet, the park stays open all year; March through October tends to get busy, when the campground (first-come, first-served) often fills by Friday afternoon; it's a good idea to call ahead. Picnic areas also fill up on summer weekends. Groups can reserve a ramada for day use. Boaters may camp at primitive sites around the lake and on islands. The west half of the lake is open for waterskiing and personal watercraft Mon.-Fri. from May 1 to Sept. 30 and daily the rest of the year; the east half of the lake is a no-wake area. Swim at Boulder Beach (no lifeguard).
The visitor center offers natural history exhibits, videos, a tiny library, and children's projects; you can pick up a bird list and find out about recent sightings. Birding walks and boat tours go some days; call for the schedule or drop by the visitor center to sign up. Sonoita Creek Trail begins at the east end of the hookup campground and winds to the mouth of Sonoita Creek, 1.2 miles roundtrip. Sonoita Creek State Natural Area, northwest of the state park, holds about 5,000 acres of riparian, grassland, and woodland habitats; trails here are being planned.
From Patagonia, head southwest seven miles on AZ 82, then turn right four miles on a paved road; from Nogales, go 12 miles northeast on AZ 82, then turn left four miles. The park gate is closed 10 p.m.-4 a.m.
If you're up to some music and dancing on a weekend, drop by the La Misión de San Miguel (335 McKeown Ave., 520/394-0123). The 1915 adobe building looks like an old Spanish mission from the outside. Inside, you're greeted by a fountain and two St. Michaels—one a traditional statue and the other a painting depicting him as a Native American. And yes, those carved wooden temple doors inside really did come from India! Farther in, a brightly painted tropical forest mural contrasts with a 60-foot mural of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The beautiful 30-foot bar was made here of rare parota wood from Mexico. Bands play Fri.-Sat. nights, then Sunday is usually an "open mike."
Antiques and hunting trophies adorn the interior of the 1937 Wagon Wheel Saloon (Naugle and 4th Aves.), "Patagonia's Original Cowboy Bar".
Accommodations and Campgrounds
The Stage Stop Inn (303 W. McKeown, 520/394-2211 or 800/923-2211, $50 s, $60 d, $80 d kitchenette, $99 or $129 for a suite) has a restaurant and pool in the middle of Patagonia. Several small inns offer places to stay in and near town; check with Mariposa Books visitor information desk or its website for details.
Circle Z Ranch (4 miles southwest of Patagonia, 520/394-2525 or 888/854-2525, www.circlez.com) features horseback riding, swimming, hiking, birding, and tennis during the Nov. 1-May 15 season. Inclusive rates for adults (age 16 and up) run $1,025-1,600 per week, or you can choose from weekend and weekday specials.
Patagonia RV Park (0.7 mile south on the road to Harshaw, 520/394-2491, $10 tents), $22 RV w/hookups) has showers).
The Stage Stop Inn's restaurant (303 W. McKeown, 520/394-2211, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a Sun. brunch) serves Mexican and American food with a choice of indoor or patio seating. Nearby, the Gathering Ground, (319 McKeown Ave., 520/394-2097, daily for breakfast and lunch) bakes tempting breads and pastries as well as offering up sandwiches, quiches, ice cream, and coffees.
Velvet Elvis Pizza Company (292 Naugle Ave./Hwy. 82, 520/394-2102, Thurs.-Sun. for lunch and dinner) offers gourmet pizza, plus chicken and rib dishes, soups, and organic salads. Red's Real Pit Barbecue (436 Naugle Ave., 520/394-0284, Fri.-Sun. for lunch and Fri.-Mon. for dinner) serves up Texas-style BBQ.
Information and Services
Mariposa Books (436 Naugle Ave., 520/394-9186) offers both a bookstore and a tourist information desk (520/394-0060 or 888/794-0060, www.patagoniaaz.com); closed Tuesday. Look for a quilt shop and art galleries on McKeown Avenue; another gallery is on Naugle Avenue. The post office is on the northeast side of town.
This little crossroads town is at the junction of AZ 82 and AZ 83 in gently rolling grasslands. Parker Canyon Lake lies 30 miles to the south and east on AZ 83. Near the junction, you'll find restaurants, shops, gas stations, and a post office.
Accommodations and Food
The Sonoita Inn (520/455-5935, www.sonoitainn.com) offers spacious rooms—each named for a local ranch—with views of rolling hills. The rustic yet elegant Western decor and the high-ceilinged common area with a fireplace make this an exceptionally pleasant place to stay; it's expensive, however, at $125 d downstairs and $140 d upstairs, but all rooms drop to $89 d mid-June to mid-August.
For a tiny town, Sonoita offers very good restaurants. At the highway junction, The Steak Out Restaurant & Saloon (520/455-5205, Sat.-Sun. for lunch and daily for dinner) has a great selection of steaks along with chicken, ribs, and fish.
Cafe Sonoita (half a mile east of the highway junction, 520/455-5278, Fri.-Sat. for lunch and Wed.-Sat. for dinner) typically offers beef, quail, chicken, seafood, and pasta on its chalkboard menu; its long wine list includes some local labels.
Grasslands, A Natural Foods Cafe (south on AZ 83, around the corner from the highway junction, 520/455-4770, Wed.-Sun., except Fri.-Sun. in summer, for breakfast and lunch) provides a pleasant alternative to the usual cafe scene. You can also buy baked goods, preserves, and local wines here.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
The landscape of much of Arizona changed drastically in the late 1800s, when extensive grazing by domestic cattle severely depleted native grasses. Livestock still graze in this area—as they have for 300 years—but they're now controlled. As a result, the grass has recovered and stands as high as six feet. Fifteen inches of annual rainfall support some of the best examples of native grassland in the state. Within the 45,000 acres of the conservation area you'll also find large cottonwood trees lining the banks of perennial Cienega Creek, oaks and junipers clinging to the hills, and mesquite trees scattered throughout the range.
The public lands in the conservation area, previously known as the Empire-Cienega Resource Conservation Area, are open to individual visitors and campers without permits, but group activities do require one. There are no paved roads, campgrounds, or picnic areas within the conservation area. Visitors enjoy birding, wildlife (keep an eye out for pronghorn), hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, hunting, and no-facility camping (limited to 14 days). Campfires are allowed, but only dead wood lying on the ground may be collected. For more information and road conditions, call the Bureau of Land Management office in Tucson, 520/722-4289.
You can enter the conservation area on the west from AZ 83 between Mileposts 39 and 40, 6.4 miles north of Sonoita, and follow Empire Ranch Road past Empire Ranch (on the left three miles in from the highway) to Cienega Creek and other destinations. From the south, you can enter on South Road off AZ 82 between Mileposts 36 and 37, about four miles east of Sonoita; this road ends at some corrals just east of Empire Ranch. Together, these roads make a scenic 11-mile loop that may be passable by cars in dry weather; both are signed as EC-900.
Parker Canyon Lake
This 130-acre fishing lake west of the Huachucas is a rarity in a land of little surface water. Trout are stocked in the cooler months to join the year-round population of bass, northern pike, bluegill, sunfish, and catfish. The water also attracts many birds and other wildlife, which you can see from a 4.5-mile hiking trail that goes around the lake. The Arizona Trail reaches Mile 20 from the Mexican border near the lake.
Lakeview Campground (elev. 5,400 feet) is open all year with drinking water but no showers or hookups, $10 camping or day use. Groups can reserve nearby Rock Bluff for day use or camping with the Sierra Vista Ranger District office (520/378-0311).
A marina (520/455-5847, closed Wed. March-Oct. and Tues.-Thurs. in winter) provides groceries, fishing supplies, licenses, boat ramp, and boat rentals. You can rent a rowboat or a boat with electric motor, but you need to bring your own battery or gas motor (eight hp limit).
Parker Canyon Lake lies 30 miles south of Sonoita at the end of AZ 83; four miles are gravel but eventually will be paved. You can also come on gravel roads from Coronado National Memorial or Nogales. All of these routes pass through highly scenic forest and ranch country.
On to Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca