This is a very pleasant day trip from Tucson to the Wine Country of Sonoita & Elgin. When touring, we try not to back track and the route I suggest here takes you back through Box Canyon to Madera Canyon for a picnic, before heading back to Tucson via I-19 south of Green Valley.
Going from Tucson to the Wine Country is straightforward. Take I-10 to Exit 281 and head south on Hwy 83 to Sonoita. You will soon find yourself driving through our desert grasslands and rolling hills dotted with oak. No more saguaros. This was Cattle Country long before it became Wine Country.
At the junction of 83 and 82 is The Mercantile General Store and Shell gas station. If you are going to visit several wineries, continue south on 83 for about 9 miles to Elgin. Check when the wineries are open before you go, usually Thursdays through Sundays. On this route, you will find several good wineries right together, including Callaghan, Flying Leap, Deep Sky, Kief Joshua, Rancho Rossa and several others hidden in this beautiful valley.
Next to The Mercantile General Store, you can get a great burger at The Steak Out in Sonoita if it’s the weekend. Try Puckle’s The Cafe just east on 82. Sadly, The Vineyard has closed permanently. Check the websites for open days and hours. Due to the pandemic, seating and service will be limited.
Alternatively, The Merchantile General Store has a deli of sorts. You can make a picnic lunch with sandwiches, fried chicken, jalapeno poppers, fries or macaroni salad, etc., and grab a bottle of local wine.
Or you may choose to get the picnic food at the general store and continue on to Elgin (turn left at << the Elgin sign), do some wine tasting, and pick up a bottle or two there for your picnic later on.
All of which leads to the issue of where to picnic. Patagonia is down 82 south and west a bit, as is Patagonia Lake State Park. You may picnic there and continue south to Rio Rico and Nogales. But for this trip, we will head back north on 83 to Box Canyon road.
The best picnic area is in Madera Canyon. And the most scenic route to Madera Canyon from Sonoita is through Box Canyon an hour’s scenic drive West on a mostly unpaved road.
After your wine tasting, I suggest you head back on Hwy 83 about 8 miles north of the general store and turn left or West onto the Road to Box Canyon. The turn-off is clearly marked. For about 3 miles, the road is paved.
Watch out for cattle and horses on or near the road. When you come to a fork in the road, follow the sign to Madera Canyon (rt). This way will take you on a fairly well-maintained unpaved road (Hwy 62) for another 12 miles or so as it winds through a pretty little canyon that usually has running water at the base. Be careful during the monsoon season as this road can get muddy.
We drove through Box Canyon on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October (2011) and encountered only one other vehicle. At that time, the road was well-traveled, however, and at that time did not require a high clearance vehicle.
Unless you scramble down the steep canyon walls to the stream, there is no place to picnic. Not a problem. Continue until you come to a paved road and turn left to go up to Madera Canyon (good signage) where they do have picnic areas. In fact, there are three. The best one is at the end of the road, which is also the trailhead for the Super and Old Baldy trails. Some 300 types of birds have been spotted in Madera Canyon, but your most likely picnic companion will be the Jay (left). The elevation here is about 5,000 feet, so dress accordingly. In the summer is it still plenty warm. In the summer you might also be fortunate enough to spot the elusive Coati or sought after Elegant Trogan.
Returning to Tucson, head back down Madera Canyon Road until you cross the railroad tracks, then turn right or North and parallel the tracks for a couple of miles. Pecan orchards on your left. When you get to Sahuarita Road you have a decision to make. If you turn right and go back across the tracks, in less than a mile you will see the Green Valley Pecan Company on your left. Stop at their little shop and treat yourself; pecan pies, pecan candy, everything pecan. (1625 E. Sahuarita Rd., Sahuarita, Arizona)
Or, if you turn left (West), Sahuarita Road will take you to I-19 Freeway. Take it North and you will be back in Tucson in about 20 minutes. Plan on 8-12 hours for this day trip. And don’t do so much wine tasting that you can’t drive safely. It’s surprisingly easy to overdo it. And you definitely don’t want to be in a car with an impaired driver whilst traveling through Box Canyon. Be sure to check the weather. Have a good tank of gas. Cell phone coverage can be spotty.