Where, other than on a drive to Patagonia, can you find a large lake, ghost towns and rolling hills covered with green grass and sprinkled with ocotillos and windmills, all within a couple of hours of Tucson?
Take a short day trip to Patagonia, and you can experience a relaxed and friendly community surrounded by world-renowned bird-watching areas, towns from the 1800s and the kind of greenery that comes with ample year-round water and, this time of year, monsoon rain, as well.
To start the journey to the quiet town with a population of less than 1,000, take Interstate 10 east to exit 281, which will put you on Highway 83 heading south toward Sonoita.
After a long stretch of nearly straight road, the pavement starts to bend and curve around hillsides. Little by little, the flat desert landscape of bushes and saguaros gives way to bright, tall, green, grass-covered hills with sunflowers sprouting up along the road during this time of the year.
Side roads take you through spread-out ranching lands or down endless dirt paths. Just a mile or two away from the highway are wonderful places to pull over and enjoy the cool breeze and the serenity of the isolated outdoors.
The cooler air and change of scenery, combined with curvy roads, spark interest in motorcycle enthusiasts. The highway eventually leads to Sonoita, where riders and drivers, alike, can rest, fuel up and continue southward.
Heading west on Highway 82 from Sonoita will take travelers to Patagonia — about 14 more miles down the road.
Patagonia’s town hall was once a railroad station out of which cattle and mined ore were shipped. After the mines dried up and business left, the last bit of original railroad was removed in 1962.
These days, the town is home to many businesses, such as the Mariposa Books & More bookstore that resides within the visitor’s center, just off the highway on McKeown Avenue, and is run and operated by Ann Caston. A map of the area can be found just outside of the store.
In the same strip of stores sit eateries such as Home Plate Restaurant and Gathering Grounds, where you can get a small bite to eat with your coffee and sit in the shade of a covered sidewalk.
The town of Patagonia is a product of the mining days in the mid- to late-1800s. Towns southeast of Patagonia, such as Mowry, Harshaw, and Duquesne, are all but ghost towns these days, but they give visitors a look into the past.
To visit these towns, travel toward Sonoita on Mckeown Avenue, which will curve southward and turn into Harsaw Road outside of Patagonia. This path will soon put your vehicle’s tires on a winding dirt road that leads visitors through the mountains past creeks, cliffs and dense hillsides covered with trees.
The land in this area, including the land ghost towns reside on, is mostly privately owned by ranchers. Since this is Coronado National Forest land, people are free to travel on the roads, despite the numerous “No Trespassing” signs. The signs are there to keep people from trekking off the road.
Town visitors can venture past the town to Patagonia Lake — a 250-acre, two-and-a-half-mile-long desert oasis that is known worldwide for its 300 bird species that migrate through and nest around the lake.
Seven dollars will get visitors into the park, where they can then swim at the beaches, fish or boat in the lake, or take a walk on one of the trails bordering the lake.
Camping is allowed in designated areas, and the lake also offers RV hook-ups for vehicles less than 35 feet in length.
Farther south on Highway 82, travelers will find Arizona Vineyards. A colorfully decorated building sits along the highway, where wine connoisseurs can taste any of 17 wines made onsite with apt names such as Rattlesnake Red, a semidry red wine, and Road Runner, a pinot noir. Each bottle is $9.
The winery, family owned and operated, is open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It has been in business for 30 years. But don’t expect to see its labels on the shelf of any store. The winery doesn’t distribute, so you have to go there to try this Southern Arizona delight.
Children, groups and pets are welcome in the establishment, and twice a year, visitors are offered a glimpse of the winemaking process in February and October.
Also in October, Patagonia will celebrate music and art during its 20th annual fall festival.
Starting Friday, Oct. 10, and continuing through the 12th, the festival will feature more than 100 crafts, plus food, music booths and a carnival for children.
For more information about the town, visit www.patagoniaaz.com.