postheadericon Riding SoAZ Part X (I-10 to Route 82 & Everything in Between)

Adobe ruin, Hwy 62 east of Greaterville

Abandoned Mine Building, Greaterville Rd

One of the things I love about southeast Arizona is the number of ghost towns located here. I have only been to a couple, but I remain fascinated by them and hope to go out and see more. Santa Cruz and Cochise counties have some of  the highest density of ghost towns in the state. If you are interested in ghost towns as well, I strongly recommend browsing It has descriptions and directions to every ghost town and camp in the state.

In this segment, I will finding the various ways to travel to Sonoita, AZ from the I-19 corridor, starting from Tucson and working our way south.  These are ways to get around, or cross, the Santa Rita Mountains.

The most obvious route east is Interstate 10. If you’ve read through the other segments of this series, you know how I feel about interstate travel. We’re all about “the road less traveled” here. If you insist, however, take I-10 east to Exit #281 and take Route 83 south. For those seeking to avoid the interstate, there is a frontage road on the north side of I-10 from Wentworth Road, in Vail, to Route 83. On the access road you’ll drive right by the Vail Steakhouse.

Route 83 is a designated “scenic” route. It is also known as Sonoita Highway and Sonoita Mountain View Highway. It is 25 miles of gentle twists and turns from I-10 to Sonoita. One quick and pleasant detour that I recommend is the 6 mile long, “Old Sonoita Highway” aka Charolais Road. You’ll see it on the left approx ¼ mile south of I-10. It meanders into the foothills of the Empire Mountains and returns you to Route 83 about 4 miles south of Sahuarita Rd. It is paved, but not very well maintained, but there are no huge potholes, either. As mentioned in other segments, watch for sand and debris in this section of road.

Route 83, true to it’s name, is scenic. Looking to your right as you’re heading south, are some beautiful views of the Santa Rita Mountains. In January and February, you can frequently see snow on the peaks. The Empire Mountains to your left give way to rolling hills, then to prairie as you get closer to Sonoita. Parts of it are very Kansas-esque.

And they said there's no green in AZ. North of Sonoita

Near Sonoita, looking west

If you enjoy “roughing it” try camping in Gardner Canyon. Gardner Canyon Rd is about 20 miles south of I-10 on the east side of the road. There are only primitive sites here, no water, no bathrooms, but, from what I can tell, it is free to camp here.

If you are interested in Arizona History or are old enough to remember the TV show “High Chaparral”, a stop at the Empire Ranch might be something you would like.  Empire Ranch is located less than 5 miles north of Sonoita. It is still a 50,000 acre, working cattle ranch with it’s land currently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. It is designated the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. At one time, in the late 1800’s, the Vail family controlled approximately 1 million acres! This area is also known as the “Mountain Empire.”

Looking west from the courtyard of the Four Corners Cafe

Sonoita is located in Arizona wine country. Many people aren’t aware that the climate in this region, from Sonoita over to Fort Bowie, has a climate idea for growing certain varieties of grapes. There are several vineyards located in this small community well off the beaten path. There are also a number of fine bed and breakfasts in and around the area. Sonoita even has a nice rodeo grounds here with several rodeos and horse races held annually.

There is also food and fuel available in Sonoita. The “sit-down” restaurants vary from quaint to sophisticated. I have eaten at the Sonoita Crossroads Cafe, located on the northwest corner of Highways 82 and 83. The food was good and the price reasonable. If you’re in a hurry, there is hot food available in the gas stations as well.

Moving south, the next road is Sahuarita Road. We covered it in Part IV of this series. It run’s east-west from I-19 to Route 83. I don’t know that anymore needs to be said here.

Moving south from Sahuarita Road, the next route that will take you to route 83 from the I-19 corridor would probably be South Santa Rita Rd to Helvetia Rd. Santa Rita starts on Sahuarita, 3 blocks east of Old Nogales Highway. It is paved for about the first 6 miles then turns to gravel and dirt. It is wide and well maintained (although the washboards are terrible) until Santa Rita ends at Helvetia Rd. Road quality deteriorates significantly from this point.

On Helvetia Rd looking north. Rough country, Be prepared.

The author checking out headstones at the Helvetia Cemetery

There is still a nice cemetery at Helvetia, but little else remains of the town. The road winds around the northern end of the Santa Rita Mountains. The road is sometimes little more than a single track jeep trail. It is not well marked all the time either, so be prepared to wander around a bit. If you chose to explore this route, please have plenty of water and a cell phone. Helvetia Road ends at Route 83 about 8 miles south of Sahuarita Rd.

Looking west toward Green Valley, down Box Canyon Rd

The next route across the Santa Ritas actually starts at Madera Canyon Rd. We covered Madera Canyon in a previous episode. About ¼ of mile after the Madera Canyon Rd turn on White House Canyon Rd you will see the Highway 62 fork going off to the left. Highway 62 is well maintained dirt and is also known as Box Canyon Rd.

A sobering reminder that this is still the "wild west."

Hwy 62 joins Greaterville Road about 20 miles after the fork and intersects with Route 83 about 8 miles north of Sonoita. I rode this route a few months ago and noticed quite a few people camping just off the main road. I think most were out there with dirt bikes and/or quads and were just riding around the mountains. Illegal activity is also prevalent out here, apparently, so don’t be surprised if you have frequent contact with the Border Patrol.

The last west to east route I want to cover in this segment is, of course, Route 82, which starts on the east side of Nogales, AZ. It is 30 miles from Nogales to Sonoita. About 15 miles from Nogales is Lake Patagonia State Park. This is a tiny lake, but it is a popular camping area for people from Tucson and Nogales. They have paddle boats and there is a small area where you can water ski. There is fishing as well. I never thought there was anything other than some pan fish here until I make a guy a while back who showed me pictures of 30-40 pound catfish he caught there! Who knew?

About 5 miles east of the lake is the little community of Patagonia, which is also considered part of the Mountains Empire. Patagonia is located along a little canyon and is surrounded by tall cottonwood trees. There are several places to eat here, making it an excellent day trip destination. Some friends of mine recommend the Velvet Elvis Pizza Company. If you like it and want to spend more time here, there are several bed and breakfasts in Patagonia as well.

Old mines are serious business.

It is only 10 more miles to Sonoita from Patagonia. That concludes a discussion of various ways to cross the Santa Rita Mountains. If you enjoy exploring and have the right vehicle, there are numerous dirt roads and tracks around here. CAUTION: Be careful when off the roads and trails. There are still numerous abandoned mines scattered around the area. They can be extremely dangerous.

The pic just doesn't show how steep and rocky this section was.

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3 Responses to “Riding SoAZ Part X (I-10 to Route 82 & Everything in Between)”

  • Mark Fink:

    Hello Howard,

    Very interesting. Might take a trip to that area and take a look myself.

  • Thanks, Karl. I do a bit of riding on dirt, but know that it’s not for everyone. Also, as this series has progressed, I am trying to make it appropriate, not just for scooters, but for anyone who is riding, driving or biking around our area.

    I thought that with so many visitors to the Tucson area, some of them might want more ideas on places to go.

    Thanks for following along,


  • karl utrecht:

    Hi, Howard
    The dirt roads just do not appeal to me AT ALL, however. But, the general tone of the place is really interesting and picturesque. Thanks much.

    karl u

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