San Rafael Valley
By Keridwen Cornelius
On screen, the Sonoita-Patagonia area has doubled as Oklahoma (Oklahoma!), Texas (Red River) and ancient Israel (David and Bathsheba).
People claim it looks like Montana, and when you catch glimpses of the vineyards and cypresses, you might reach unconsciously for your Italian phrasebook. But with its pastoral landscapes dotted with pygmy forest and crumbling ghost towns, one thing this region doesn’t resemble is the typical coffee-table images of Arizona.
This 56-mile drive begins in Sonoita, headquarters of Southern Arizona’s wine country, where you can stock up on a bottle of zinfandel or syrah before venturing south on State Route 83. The winding road is fringed with vineyards, champagne-colored grasses and wildflowers as yellow as the signs warning of cattle crossings and hairpin turns. At 14 miles, one of these turns reveals a jaw-dropping pass where cottonwoods and greenery meander through the fields, backdropped by blue mountains.
But don’t be so distracted by the scenery that you miss the turnoff less than a mile later. When you see a sign pointing left to Parker Canyon Lake, veer right instead, down Canelo Pass Road, a.k.a. Forest Road 799. The well-maintained dirt road (suitable for a regular passenger car) winds through a pygmy forest of juniper, oak and maroon-branched manzanita.
At 19 miles, the view opens to reveal the San Rafael Valley — a wide expanse where forest laps up to a savannah smeared with wildflowers. Cottonwoods stand like pins on a map marking the flow of the Santa Cruz River, which trickles from the Patagonia Mountains and Canelo Hills, crossing your path a few times.
Not to toot our own horn, but when Hollywood producer Arthur Hornblow saw a photo of the San Rafael Valley in Arizona Highways, he was inspired to set his next film, Oklahoma!, here, amid the chest-high, windblown grasses. Then, like now, only a few ranches dotted the land, whereas the Sooner State was too developed to play the role of turn-of-the-century Oklahoma.
The valley has also starred in McLintock!, with John Wayne (the scenery must inspire exclamation points); Tom Horn, with Steve McQueen; and Wild Rovers, with William Holden and Ryan O’Neal.
The road zigzags, but keep following the signs toward Lochiel, a tiny hamlet that spent previous lives as a border-crossing point and a smelter site for neighboring mines.
Just past Lochiel, a 25-foot-tall cross commemorates Franciscan friar Fray Marcos de Niza, who entered Arizona on April 12, 1539, to become, the inscription claims, the first European west of the Rockies.
Four miles later, turn left down a somewhat rough road (still suitable for most passenger vehicles) toward the ghost town of Duquesne, pronounced du-CANE. The historic mining outpost consists of five decaying buildings built in the late 1800s, one of which was the home of George Westinghouse, of the electric-company family. Shortly after, you’ll pass the blink-and-you-miss-it ex-mining town of Washington Camp.
Two miles later, turn right toward Patagonia onto Forest Road 49, which twizzles through the oaks and sycamores of Coronado National Forest to emerge at views of mauve and coral mountains.
You can side-trip to Harshaw, a shadow of a silver-mining boomtown hit hard in the 1880s by a thunderstorm, a fire and a decrease in ore quality. Tellingly, its main attraction is now a cemetery.
The drive ends in lush and charming Patagonia, where you can refuel with pizza at the Velvet Elvis or picnic at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy-owned bastion for 300 bird species, including gray hawks, green kingfishers and violet-crowned hummingbirds. As you follow the trail along the green and fluttering riverbank, you’ll feel like you’re in yet another world. Or maybe on a Hollywood movie set.
PHOTO: It’s easy to see why the sparsely populated San Rafael Valley has doubled for several other locations in movies. | George Stocking
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Distance: 56 miles one way (from Sonoita)
Directions: From Tucson, go east on Interstate 10 for 16 miles to State Route 83 (Exit 281). Turn right onto SR 83 and continue 26 miles to Sonoita. From Sonoita, continue 16 miles on SR 83 to Forest Road 799 (Canelo Pass Road). Veer right onto Canelo Pass Road and continue 8 miles to Forest Road 58 (San Rafael Road). Turn left onto FR 58 and continue 9 miles (follow the signs toward Lochiel) to Forest Road 61 (Duquesne Road). Turn right onto FR 61 and continue 4 miles to a rough dirt road that leads through Duquesne. Turn left onto the dirt road and continue 2 miles to Forest Road 49 (Harshaw Road). Turn left onto FR 49 and continue 17 miles to Harshaw and Patagonia.
Vehicle requirements: None
Information: Sonoita/Patagonia visitors center, 888-794-0060 or www.patagoniaaz.com
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.