Here are some of our recommendations for Things To Do in Sonoita, Patagonia and Elgin as well as dining and lodging suggestions.
They call this the Mountain Empire. Fair enough. Driving south from Tucson on these scenic highways, you can see the Santa Rita Mountains to the west, Whetstone Mountains to the East, Huachuca Mountains to the southeast, and the Patagonia Mountains in the southwest. But in between are rolling hills, tall grass, herds of cattle, and a dozen vineyards. The scenery looks nothing like the desert environment surrounding Tucson.
The wineries in the little communities of Sonoita & Elgin are about an hour southeast of Tucson via scenic Hwy. 83. Patagonia is an easy 12 miles south of Sonoita. It makes for a fun day trip from Tucson. However, there is so much to see and do down this way, we recommend you stay longer.
More than a century before this was wine country, it was cattle country. The biggest ranch was the 100,000 acre Empire Ranch. You can visit what remains of it on your way from Tucson to Sonoita. Volunteers are working to restore the principle residence & out buildings. Inside the main house are simple exhibits with old photographs of the ranch and its ranchers. Definitely worth an hour’s detour. Don't miss the Empire Ranch Cowboy Festival every November.
The Empire Ranch is located in the heart of the 42,000-acre La Cienegas National Conservation Area. Flowing through this preserve is Cienega Creek, a natural riparian zone that shows us what much of this region was like before the White Eyes established “civilization”. Today, Arizona has lost more than 90% of its original perennially flowing rivers and adjacent riparian areas. So visiting here is definitely a look back in time about 150 years.
(From I-10 take Hwy 83 south about 18 miles and turn left onto Empire Ranch Road. Look for the small brown sign)
Sonoita & Elgin Wineries
Wineries are fairly new to this part of Southern Arizona. Each winery creates several varietals each year, most of which don’t taste at all like the excellent wines we get from California, Oregon, France, Argentina, Chile, or New Zealand. This is not to say Sonoita & Elgin wines are not as good. It is simply to say they taste different. The climate, soil, and water here are different, so the grapes grown in this region produce unique flavors.
Personally, we have tasted many good wines from this region and regularly buy a case or two.
Visitors by the thousands come here in tour buses, shuttle vans, and limos. The advantage over driving your own car is you don’t have to be the designated driver and are free to sample all the wine you want.
Most of the folks who own & operate these small wineries are hard-working farmers and creative wine makers. We don’t know anyone who has gone wine tasting down here who didn’t have a fine day trip experience. Keep an eye out for pronghorn deer!
Find out more about Sonoita / Elgin wineries, including a map, CLICK HERE.
If you have time, and are still sober, take Hwy 82 south from Sonoita for about 12 miles to Patagonia. This is a pleasant little village that time has mostly passed by. The mines and railroad are long gone, but there are other worthwhile attractions.
Within the village are several shops along west side of the main highway through town, such as Gracye's Gift & Candle Shop, and a visitors center in Metamorphosis Art Gallery with local information, including maps to the ghost towns of Harshaw & Washington Camp. (July, 2020) There is a new, albeit controversial, mine in town, yet to open, called South32.
The next street east of the main highway is McKeown Avenue where you will find the Stage Stop Hotel (you can't miss it) and many quaint shops worthy of your attention, including Ovens of Patagonia; Creative Spirits Artists Gallery; Global Arts Gallery and Lillian's Closet; and Mesquite Grove Gallery.
Coffee & Art
Just down the sidewalk from the hotel is Gathering Grounds. Think of it as a rustic Starbucks. Here you will find good, fresh coffee and pastries and friendly people.
Nearby Gathering Grounds are several splendid shops selling local arts and crafts of considerable beauty and workmanship.
And don't miss Regina Medley's Mesquite Grove Gallery. Regina has a cute vacation rental behind her gallery as well as Cross Creek Cottages less than a half mile north of the village.
Red Mountain Foods
About a block further south is Red Mountain Foods, kinda like a mini Whole Foods."This friendly grocery store has been a Patagonia institution since 1981, and supplies the community with a full line of quality produce–much of it organic–as well as organic dairy products, meat, fish, dried fruits and nuts, pantry staples, vitamins, household goods, and natural body care products. Red Mountain also carries local grass-fed beef from the San Rafael Valley."
About two blocks north of the hotel on McKeown is Ovens of Patagonia, part country store, part bakery. Here you will meet Bonnie, the proprietor. She offers fresh sandwiches, pastries, fudge and ice cream, plus gourmet foods, her unique collection of gifts for the kitchen, and a fine selection of Southern Arizona wines.
The Nature Conservancy has a conservation area just outside of Patagonia that is definitely worthwhile. When we were there in February 2013, they had an active mountain lion in the preserve. We walked along the creek for about a mile, but never saw the elusive cat that had, according to the docents, a few days earlier brought down a young deer nearby.
Audubon's Paton House. This former residence of Wally & Marion Paton was recently purchased by the Tucson Audubon Society in order to preserve this famous bird watchers' mecca. The modest home, backyard and adjacent 5 acres abuts the Patagonia - Sonoita Creek Preserve. Over 200 species of birds, including the rare violet crowned hummingbird, have been spotted here.
(To get to the Preserve from the village of Patagonia, take 4th Avenue west a few blocks to Pennsylvania Avenue and turn left. Follow the dirt road for a mile or so. You will come to the Paton House before your arrive at the Preserve. Both are worthwhile, particularly if you're a birder.)
Patagonia Lake State Park
Seven miles south of Patagonia is Patagonia Lake State Park with its recreational lake, campgrounds, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Both the Preserve and State Park are excellent for easy to moderate hiking, bird watching, and nature photography.
Dining in Sonoita
Steak Out Restaurant & Saloon at the intersection of Highways 82 & 83. We recommend the Steak Out if you're in the area and hungry for steak and looking for a little Western nostalgia. Definitely Western. Steaks, ribs, burgers. Live Western music on most weekends.
The Cafe in Sonoita on Highway 82 just east of the intersection of 83 and 82. Lunch is served daily from 11AM to 2PM. Salads, sandwiches, burgers. Dinner is served Thursday - Saturday 5 to 8. Salads, pastas, fish & chips, prime rib and chicken dinners. Plus, check out the specials written on the chalkboard. All very good.
A new restaurant is in town, just east on HWY 83, The Vineyard Cafe. Recommended. Call for hours.
Velvet Elvis: Definitely recommended! Former AZ governor Janet Napolitano called this simple establishment an “Arizona Treasure”. And it is. Owner Cecilia San Miguel serves delicious calzones, fresh salads, amazing soups, and, above all, the best pizza anywhere.
Wild Horse Restaurant is in the Stage Stop Hotel. When we were there most recently (September 2014) the hotel and restaurant were undergoing extensive renovation. So we will revisit in November and let you know.
Lodging in Patagonia
The Duquesne House Bed & Breakfast. Definitely! Comfortable. Splendid patio & gardens. Say "Hi" to Nancy, the innkeeper, for us.
Circle Z Ranch. If you're a hiker, birder, and a horseback rider, this guest ranch has it all. All activities and three excellent meals each day are included in the price of your stay. Circle Z has 7 historic, comfortable, Spanish-style adobe guest cottages. They vary from individual rooms to suites with living rooms or entirely private cottages. Circle Z offers special activities for young children and, with 80 horses raised and trained on the Ranch, a horse for every riding ability. Highly recommended!
Cross Creek Cottages. Here you will find four cottages on 26 acres surrounded by fields, and shaded by mature pine, ash, and mesquite trees. Sonoita Creek runs through the property.
Regina Medley is your hostess. And yes, those are her rescue burros in the adjacent field. Their friends, the lama and alpaca are there too. Each cottage is furnished and decorated in comfortable country style and has its own full kitchen.
Regina is a textile artist and owner of Mesquite Grove Gallery in Patagonia. She offers a quaint little house for nightly rental immediately behind her gallery.
Stage Stop Hotel. When we were last in Patagonia (September 2014) This hotel and its Wild Horse Restaurant were undergoing extensive renovation. We will bring you an update when we return in November.
For more information about what to see and do in Santa Cruz County, CLICK HERE.