Roads in Southern Arizona's Mountain
Empire boast scenic vistas that include
the Patagonia Mountains an San Rafael
© Randy Prentice
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Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic RoadThis winding road in Southern Arizona is cowboy country, plain and simple, with miles of gorgeous grasslands and big sky.
By Nikki Buchanan
The Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road meanders through a stretch of Southeastern Arizona that reaffirms many of our long-held notions about the Old West. It's cowboy country, plain and simple, offering up desolate desert stretches, knee-high grama grass and big sky, which explains why parts of Oklahoma! were filmed in this part of the state.
Called The Mountain Empire because it's surrounded by some of the country's most beautiful sky islands (the forested Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains, surrounded by "seas" of desert and grasslands), the area is rich in biodiversity.
There are a couple ways to approach this drive. You can either breeze through the 52.5-mile route in an hour or spend a couple of days meandering. There's a lot to do — particularly if you're into fishing, bird-watching or checking out the local art scene.
Heading northeast from Nogales on State Route 82, you'll quickly leave behind the tiny hilltop houses of the town as you descend to the desert floor of the Santa Cruz Valley. At Mile Marker 12, you'll see Patagonia Lake Road on your left, the turnoff that takes you 4 miles up a curving paved road through rolling hills studded with scrub oak, yucca and ocotillo to Patagonia Lake. If you want to camp, picnic, boat, fish, bird-watch or hike, you'll have to pay a fee to enter the park. But this 265-acre, man-made lake is a glittering little jewel, lush with shade trees, plunked down in the middle of the desert. Birders flock to it, as do anglers, who drop their lines for catfish, crappie, bluegill, bass and stocked trout.
Back on SR 82, you'll continue north and after about 5 miles you'll arrive in Patagonia, a quaint artists' community and international birding destination with a grassy strip of park running the length of it. It's a great place to poke around. The town offers a small, well-stocked bookstore, charming galleries featuring the fine art and hand-made crafts of local artists and artisans, and interesting shops filled with Native American jewelry, instruments and textiles.
In addition to tourists, hundreds of butterfly species migrate to the area in the warm months — Patagonia boasts a butterfly garden to attract them. Meanwhile, bird fanciers the world over flock to The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a lush riparian habitat for more than 300 species of birds, including the gray hawk, green kingfisher, thick-billed kingbird, violet-crowned hummingbird and rose-throated becard.
Continuing northeast on SR 82, you'll soon see horses and cattle grazing among the rolling hills and grasslands of Sonoita. However, cowboy country is slowly giving way to wine country. If you're interested, make a detour at the junction of SR 82 and State Route 83, head southeast (turning right onto SR 83 and left onto Elgin Road) and make a quick loop past a handful of the state's popular wineries.
Otherwise, turn left onto SR 83, flanked by the Santa Ritas and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, home to pronghorns, deer, javelinas and coatimundi. As grasslands give way to cactus-studded desert again, you return to Interstate 10, leaving behind a beautiful pocket of Southeastern Arizona.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 52.5 miles one way
Directions: From Tucson, travel south on Interstate 19 to Nogales, turn left (north) onto State Route 82 and continue for 27.5 miles to State Route 83 in Sonoita. From there, turn left (north) onto SR 83 and drive 25 miles back to Interstate 10.
Vehicle Requirements: None; accessible by all.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware 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.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.