A pyrrhuloxia rests in the crook of
tree in the mountains near Tucson.
© Tom Vezo
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Tucson to Buenos AiresState Route 286, as a name, doesn’t sound like much. But don’t judge a road by its moniker. This scenic stretch is simply beautiful.
By Kelly Kramer
"Good things come to those who wait." It's adage No. 17 in the book of mom proverbs, but in the case of the scenic drive between Tucson and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, it is, admittedly, appropriate.
The 160-mile loop begins at Exit 99 on Interstate 19 in Tucson. You'll drive west along Ajo-Tucson Highway (State Route 86) through the saguaro-speckled foothills west of Tucson proper before hitting a stretch of level, creosote-capped flatland. Directly ahead, you might notice a dome-topped ridge. The domes house the telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory. Cat Mountain looms to the right.
After 21 miles, you'll come to Robles Junction, also known as Three Points. There, you'll turn left (south) onto State Route 286. But be forewarned: Cindy Lou's II Café and the gas station there are the last services until Sasabe, some 46 miles south.
Once you turn onto SR 286, the waiting game turns quickly into a game of I-Spy, particularly if you're cruising with someone — maternal or otherwise — who has a keen eye and/or eyes in the back of their head. You'll pass an old VFW post and the Three Points Memorial Park before the buildings move out of focus, and the expanse of the surrounding Altar Valley moves in.
Peppered with mesquite and sitting in the shadow of the Quinlan Mountains, Altar Valley is cut with a patchwork of washes that flow after a heavy rainfall. Baboquivari Peak, sacred in Tohono O'odham teachings as the home of I'itoi, the Creator, is visible to the right. And don't be surprised to spot predatory birds along the route. You might even have to slow down to avoid a gaggle of turkey vultures that have stopped in the road for a midday meal.
The highway enters the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge approximately 20 miles south of Three Points. However, the turnoff for the visitors center is another 15 miles down the paved, easily navigable road. That is where your patience pays off and you can silently thank your mother for a lesson learned.
Established for the protection of the masked bobwhite quail in 1985, the refuge provides a safe haven for more than 200 bird species, as well as wolves, foxes, coyotes, cottontails, javelinas and countless Coues deer and mule deer. A glimpse of a doe and her fawn might inspire another quiet thank you — this time to Mother Nature.
After visiting the refuge, return to SR 286 and backtrack approximately 5 miles to the turnoff for Arivaca Road. The winding, potholed route meanders for 12 miles through wildflower-lined ranch land to the tiny town of Arivaca. Former home to Pima and Tohono O'odham Indians and later settled by the Spanish, the area was known in its early days as L'Aribac, but was abandoned after an Indian uprising in 1751. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed Arivaca's township deed. Today, a few small restaurants, a post office and roadside fruit stands lend Arivaca some serious old-school charm.
You'll complete the loop by continuing northeast on Arivaca Road for approximately 23 miles to its junction with Interstate 19 for the return trip to Tucson.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 160-mile loop
Directions: In Tucson, from Interstate 19, take Exit 99 (Ajo Way) and drive west on State Route 86, also known as the Ajo-Tucson Highway. After 21 miles, turn left (south) onto State Route 286 at Robles Junction. Continue for 35 miles to the turnoff for the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Drive for approximately 2 miles to the visitors center. Leaving the refuge, turn right (north) onto SR 286 and drive 5 miles to Arivaca Road and turn right (east). Continue for 12 miles to Arivaca, then for an additional 23 miles to Arivaca Junction and Amado and I-19.
Vehicle requirements: Accessible to all vehicles; however, roads may not be navigable following a heavy rain. Heed all flash-flood warnings.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so beware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 520-823-4251 or www.southwest.fws.gov/refuges/arizona/buenosaires.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.