Santa Rita Mountains, Coronado National Forest
By Kathy Montgomery | Photo by Randy Prentice
A former mining camp on the eastern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains, Kentucky Camp makes a pleasant destination for an afternoon drive from Tucson. Most of the drive to the heritage site in the Coronado National Forest winds along the high-desert grasslands of scenic State Route 83, passing a winery and a historic ranch before turning off for the last 6 miles onto a gravel road.
The handful of adobe buildings that make up Kentucky Camp served as headquarters for the Santa Rita Water and Mining Co. from 1902 to 1906. The firm was the brainchild of California mining engineer James Stetson. Mining the area’s rich placer deposits required water to separate the gold from sand and gravel, but the surrounding arroyos were dry. Stetson’s company intended to channel seasonal runoff into a reservoir large enough to support operations.
But Stetson tumbled from a Tucson hotel window in 1905 and died, and his partners couldn’t keep the operation going for long. The area was used for cattle ranching until the 1960s, and was then sold to another mining company. The Forest Service acquired Kentucky Camp in 1989 through a land exchange, and it’s restoring the camp’s buildings as an interpretive mining camp with the help of volunteers.
The headquarters building can be reserved for day use for up to 50 people. A smaller cabin can be rented overnight. With no heat or indoor plumbing, the overnight cabin offers four twin bunks in a single bedroom, an outdoor sink and vault toilet in an outbuilding. Although minimal, these amenities are welcome enough for hikers passing through on the Arizona Trail.
But the real pleasure of a day trip to Kentucky Camp is, as they say, in the journey. From Tucson, take Interstate 10 to State Route 83, a designated scenic highway that’s flanked by straw-colored grasses dotted with yuccas, prickly pears and mesquites.
Charron Vineyards lies about 7 miles south of I-10, a half-mile past Milepost 53. The tasting room, open Friday through Sunday, sits inside a sunny, screened-in porch with views of the vineyard, rolling hills and the distant Santa Ritas. Five dollars buys a sampling of four wines, a souvenir glass and $2 off tastings at Sonoita-area wineries.
Just past Milepost 40, Empire Ranch is worth a visit. The 160-acre homestead and cattle ranch was the setting for a number of Westerns, including Red River and Last Train From Gun Hill. The Bureau of Land Management acquired the headquarters and surrounding 42,000 acres through a series of land swaps. It’s now Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a black-tailed prairie dog reintroduction site. Built along cottonwood-lined Empire Gulch, Empire Ranch headquarters forms a green oasis about 3 miles from the highway, with the adobe ranch house and barn open to the public.
The turnoff to Kentucky Camp lies just 3 miles past Empire Ranch. The gravel road winds nearly 6 miles through waist-high grasses shaded by tall, graceful oaks. A small parking area lies outside the gates to Kentucky Camp, which is an easy, quarter-mile walk. The headquarters building serves as the visitors center. Perch yourself on the pleasant, shaded porch and the prospects for a pleasant afternoon feel rich, indeed.
Photo: Mesquite trees punctuate the sprawling grassland near Kentucky Camp. Settling into the background are the Empire Mountains.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 49 miles one way
Directions: From Tucson, drive east on Interstate 10 for approximately 22 miles to State Route 83, turn right (south) and continue for approximately 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Road. Turn right (west) onto Gardner Canyon Road and drive 0.75 miles to Forest Road 163. Take FR 163 approximately 5 miles to the Kentucky Camp gate. Park in the designated area, and walk approximately 0.25 miles to Kentucky Camp.
Vehicle Requirements: This route is accessible by passenger vehicles, but the last 5 miles may be muddy in wet weather.
Information: Nogales Ranger District, 520-281-2296 or www.fs.usda.gov/coronado