The Best Picnic Areas In Southern Arizona

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What Makes A Great Picnic Area?

The ingredients for a reeeally good picnic are fairly simple: fresh, delicious, and easy-to-prepare food; good wine, and amiable companions.

Picnic on Mt. Graham with Riggs Flats Lake in background.

Picnic on Mt. Graham with Riggs Flats Lake in background.

But even these critical ingredients alone do not make a GREAT picnic. A great picnic requires a great picnic site. By that we mean natural beauty and the delightful sounds of nature: wind through the leaves, babbling brook, thunderous waterfall, &/or birds singing. Wildflowers in the spring, of course. If the picnic area is in or near a historic site as well, that’s a huge plus for us.
For our purposes here, we define “Picnic Area” as a public space set aside with at least picnic tables and a trash bin, and maybe a grill or fire pit.
Of course, you can hike into many of our beautiful canyons, such as Ramsey south of Sierra Vista, and pack in a picnic lunch. We like wilderness picnics too. But here we only feature the best “Designated Picnic Areas”.

Here (in no particular order) are 11 of the Best Picnic Areas in all of Southern Arizona.

A picnic among the boulders at the Amerind.

A picnic among the boulders at the Amerind.

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(1) Amerind Foundation Museum

near Willcox in the Dragoon Mountains has a wonderful picnic area that is spacious and offers big picnic tables under beautiful mature mesquite trees. This is a fine setting among the huge boulders of Texas Canyon. Give the rattlers their space, but the kids will love to climb on the rocks. The big plus-plus here is that the picnic area is only a city block from one of the finest museums of Native American artifacts anywhere.

Scene from Picnic Area at Roper Lake

Scene from Picnic Area at Roper Lake

(2) Roper Lake State Park

is just south of Safford and offers camping, RV parking, cabin rentals, and a fine picnic area. There’s a small day-use fee to picnic on the peninsula where you are surround on three sides by water with a grand view of Mt. Graham to west.

(3) Colossal Cave Mountain Park

about 25 miles east of Downtown Tucson. At the Ranch below the cave, you can ride horses, enjoy 2 small museums, and have your choice of several pleasant picnic areas in an Old West setting.

Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Visitor Center

Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Visitor Center 

(4) Muleshoe Ranch Preserve

north of Benson and west of Willcox is one of our picks for Best Birding Hotspots in Southern Arizona. There’s a picnic table by a creek next to the old building that serves as the Visitor Center. This Nature Conservancy Preserve has several lovely casitas for overnight guests. Casita guests also have access to the two large hot tubs perennially filled with water from a nearby hot spring. 

(5) Sabino Canyon

is a beautiful piece of Metropolitan Tucson. You can walk or take the tram (cash only). There are several pleasant picnic areas along the east side of Sabino Creek. Our favorite is right below tram stop #7.

Black Hills Country Byway

Black Hills Country Byway

(6) Black Hills Country Byway

between Clifton and Soloman. There are several fine picnic areas along this wonderful back road. Some are high overlooking a vast expanse. Some are down along the Gila River. On the way here, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the old town of Clifton.

Lakeside Picnic Area at the Slaughter Ranch

Lakeside Picnic Area at the Slaughter Ranch

(7) Slaughter Ranch

& Museum was once the home of Texas John Slaughter, the sheriff who cleaned up Cochise County after the Earps left Tombstone. The former home, now museum, shows how the most prominent family in Southeastern Arizona lived in the 1880’s & ’90’s. By the pond down by the barn are a couple of picnic tables. Tour the ranch house first, then have a picnic there. You will be amazed how easy it is to imagine what your life back then would have been in this remotes corner of Arizona.

rock art at Saguaro National Park West

Some of the many rock art depictions on Signal Hill.

(8) Signal Hill Picnic Area

in Saguaro National Park West is not only located in a magnificent saguaro forest, but has an easy walk up Signal Hill to some very impressive ancient petroglyphs.

Ruins of Fort Bowie, Arizona

Fort Bowie National Historic Site.

(9) Fort Bowie National Historic Site

has a simple picnic area adjacent to the National Park Service Visitor Center & Museum. If you know your Southern Arizona history, this place will delight.

Patagonia Lake State Park.

Patagonia Lake State Park.

(10) Patagonia Lake State Park

has RV hookups, campsites, & quite a few picnic areas, all of which are very near the water. You can rent a variety of watercraft at the marina. Fishing, swimming, bird watching, of course. And just up the road is the Patagonia-Sonoita Nature Preserve. Great bird watching there, but be aware of their resident mountain lion.

Riggs Flats Lake near the top of 11,000' high Mt. Graham.

Riggs Flats Lake near the top of 11,000′ high Mt. Graham.

(11) Riggs Flats Lake

near the top of Mt. Graham is particularly delightful in the hot summer months. At about 10,000′ elevation, it’s 30 degrees cooler than the scorched desert far below. There are several very fine campgrounds up here, most of which are much nicer than anything on Mt. Lemmon. Much more forest here. But beware. The road up is about as narrow & windy as any in Arizona. Great views!

Bugs, No Bugs!
Of course, the choice of a really good picnic area depends on knowing what to avoid. A couple of thoughts. Bugs can ruin an otherwise delightful picnic. I love flying bugs. They serve a valuable purpose – a feast for our bats. And ants are important to our delicate ecosystem. But bugs at a picnic are in violation of my high moral standards, and of course, my highly-evolved sense of aesthetics.

I hate bugs that try to make me their picnic lunch. Ants. Bad. Flies. Even worse. And mosquitoes. The worst. A hot day near water or after a rain and I can guarantee mosquitoes. Solution: cover your entire body in protective clothing and use bug spray with Deet liberally. Thus, avoid Cochise Stronghold campground and Stronghold B&B under these conditions.

What to do? The cooler the temperature, the fewer the bugs. The higher the elevation, the cooler the temperature. The months of October – March are the coolest months. And the fewest bugs. So plan accordingly.

For example, DO NOT attempt to picnic in Reid Park (Central Tucson) in the summer. Probably a combination of the hot temperature and the close proximity of the zoo, but the flies are awful. Similarly, avoid Stronghold B&B in the hot months. Tons of mosquitoes because it’s so close to the stream. But in the cooler months this is paradise for birders and rock climbers.
Your Suggestions
Do you have a favorite Southern Arizona Picnic area that should be on this list? Contact us!.
Here are additional picnic areas we have found.

More Picnic Ideas

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