Five Reasons to Visit Southern Arizona
For A Change, Try A Little 'Southern Comfort'
August 1, 2016
In summer, we always seem to think of going to the high country - Flagstaff, Payson, the White Mountains - but Southern Arizona has some absolutely gorgeous places to visit, and the weather is great. We head south often because there are plenty of things to do and places to see. Here are five of our favorites.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
This summer was the first time we've visited this amazing place, but it definitely won't be the last time we come here. We took our teenaged granddaughters with us, and they loved it. It's home to one of the few permanently flowing streams in Arizona and it has amazingly beautiful shady trails, many that follow the creek.
We walked along the trail that follows the creek, then crossed a meadow and returned along a path that was almost completely shaded by trees. We saw lots of birds (summer is actually the best time for birding here), as well as squirrels, turkeys, and even a cute little snail.
Bring water and wear your hiking shoes - and don't forget your camera. There are benches sprinkled around the trails and those are wonderful spots for a little bird watching or just to sit and listen to the peaceful sound of water and nature.
A Nature Conservancy Site
This is a Nature Conservancy site, so there is a fee to enter, but it's only $6 per person - $3 if you're a Nature Conservancy member. It's well worth the tiny fee. You can get a two-fer that will admit you to this preserve and Ramsey Canyon which is nearby, for just $10. Ages 16 and under are free. Pets are not allowed.
They are open from 6:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from April through September. When you pay your entry, check out the shirts and hats and other souvenirs in the little information room.
To get there: from I-10, take Highway 83 south. At Sonoita, turn west on Highway 82. In Patagonia, turn right on 4th Avenue, then left onto Pennsylvania, which turns into Blue Heaven Road. Cross the creek and go about one mile to the entrance. My phone had no trouble guiding me there. Address: 150 Blue Heaven Rd., Patagonia, AZ 85624.
After your hike, check out some of the great shopping in town of Patagonia, and stop by the Ovens of Patagonia for some homemade pastries and freshly-brewed coffee or tea. Delicious!
Another Nature Conservancy site, Ramsey Canyon is a birding destination known all over the world. Even if you're not into birding, you will love this place. John and I have been here before, but it was the girls' first time. We knew they'd love it, and they did.
The trail here follows Ramsey Creek and it's a very easy and gently uphill stroll, then of course downhill on the way back. There are bridges to cross, abandoned houses and ruins to investigate, and the sound of the creek serenading you the whole time. In the summer it's a bit low, but it was still running when we went at the end of June. It rained on us (gently) the entire time, but we enjoyed it.
We saw at least ten Coues deer, which are little Arizona whitetail deer, as well as squirrels, lots of birds, and butterflies. The teenagers loved this trail because of all the cool stuff to look at - remains of where people lived before it was a preserve.
On days with better weather, you can climb the hill on the Hamburg Trail, which takes off where the Ramsey Canyon trail ends. This day we didn't do that because of the rain. But honestly, the creek is the main attraction here, and it waters the gigantic trees that provide shade for hikers and shelter for the many birds.
There is a welcome center here as well, with lots of great shirts, hats, etc. They also have hummingbird feeders which give you an opportunity to see some really pretty little hummers. Pets are not allowed.
The fees are the same as Sonoita - $6 for non-members, $3 for members. There are guided walks on a regular basis. Parking is limited, so your best bet is to be there early. They open at 8 a.m. March through October. They are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
If you want to be up in the forest and you're okay for hikes with a lot of elevation changes, head to Ramsey Vista Campground and/or Reef Townsite Campground. Take Carr Canyon road and you'll get to an elevation of about 7,200 feet. The first mile of the road is paved, but after that it's gravel and a lot of twists, turns, and precipitous drops.
But the scenery! There are a number of places where you can pull off to the side and enjoy spectacular views. And it isn't a bad road as far as graveled roads go - we even saw regular passenger cars on the first half. Once you get up to the campgrounds (pit toilets and picnic tables are the only amenities), you can picnic, camp, or just hit the trail.
There are several trailheads at the campgrounds, and as you can imagine, all the trails are hilly. Reef Townsite campground got its name because it actually was a town at one time - a mining town. Hard to imagine making that drive day after day, especially loaded down with ore!
There is a fee for day use as well as camping -- $10 per night and the same for day use. You fill out an envelope and put it in the post, so bring cash. Camping is 12 feet and under because of the road. There is no way you're getting a big trailer up that mountain with those switchbacks. There is no drinking water available so bring plenty.
Heading south on 92 from Sierra Vista, watch for Carr Canyon Road on your right. There will be a small brown sign with binoculars on it.
Coronado National Memorial
I had our week in Sierra Vista all planned out, but as it turned out, we had time for a few side adventures that were unplanned but ended up being favorites with the teenagers.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
One was the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, and the other was the Coronado National Memorial. This huge nature preserve marks the route of Coronado's quest for the fabled cities of gold. There is a Forest Ranger station on the road, and inside you can try on Spanish armor or buy a souvenir or some maps. Across the road is a really pretty picnic and day-use area with some short trails.
Further down the highway you can park at the trailhead and take a short (but completely uphill) hike to Coronado Cave. If you opt for the cave, be sure to wear very sturdy shoes, bring flashlights, and a bit of rope wouldn't hurt either. The entrance is a clamber down over rocks - you don't just walk in.
What surprised me was how much my granddaughters loved the next stop on the road here - Montezuma Pass. The road turns to gravel before you get here, and it's a bit of a climb on a good gravel road. Once you get up there, you'll find a parking lot with nice bathrooms and informational signs, plus a couple of trails. The views from both sides of this parking lot are amazing, and it's always windy up there.
The day we were there it was cloudy and windy, and we took a little hike up the trail to Coronado Peak. It's a short trail but uphill, and there are benches here and there. We had a hard time getting the girls to leave this place. They absolutely loved the views, the wind, the gorgeous grasslands, the boulders to scramble over - everything. It's absolutely free, too. Go figure.
To get there, take 92 south from Sierra Vista, turn south on Coronado Memorial Road, then go west on Montezuma Canyon Road.
I know it's kitschy, but we all loved Tombstone. I had a Groupon for tickets to a gunfight and a trolley ride for all four of us, and before we did that, we wandered up and down the streets and shopped for souvenirs. There are lots of great places to eat and drink, and even more stores.
Rides And Gunfights
There are rides in horse-drawn stages and the streets in the touristy part of town preserve that Old West image. The gunfight we saw was at the Helldorado Gunfight Theater and Restaurant, and the area around the gunfight set has a jail you can take photos of yourself in, a shooting gallery, a cantina, and even a mini golf course. Lots and lots of photo opps. The gunfight show was great, and the actors had us all laughing and hollering. Even our teenaged granddaughters ignored their phones and enjoyed the show.
A Trolley Ride
The trolley ride was another of their favorite things on the trip. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about Tombstone, and he took us all over the town and showed us things we never would have found or seen on our own. It was well worth the money. The girls loved the tour, too – mostly because the guy who was our guide was witty and fun. Tombstone is a definite "go" in our book!
And, So Much More
Trying to pare down to five places was hard. We loved so many other places we saw - Karchner Caverns, The San Pedro House, Bisbee and the Queen Mine. I'll have to save those for another issue. Next time you're thinking about a vacation, don't neglect southern Arizona. There are so many things to do down there, including sightseeing, birding, fishing, wine country tours, ghost towns, hiking, camping - you name it!
So don't get into a rut of always heading to the north country. Next time, try a little southern comfort.