Luis Murrieta, left, and his sister, Elizabeth, play around in the water at the Patagonia Lake State Park. The 2.5-mile-long, 250-acre lake is a popular destination for camping, boating, picnicking, hiking, fishing, swimming and birding.

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One perfect day could be driving down to Parker Canyon Lake with a picnic and a fishing rod, stopping in Benson on the way back for a ham steak at the real-deal, country-western Horseshoe Cafe.

Another perfect day could be a vineyard tour across wine country, grabbing pizza with your partner at Dos Cabezas WineWorks and ending the night at a cottage onsite among the grapes.

I’ve had perfect days as simple as a drive to Patagonia and getting coffee at Gathering Grounds with my aunt, who spent her son’s earliest years hanging out there with older hippies.

The Sonoita Valley connects the wine country of Sonoita with the rugged canyons and hills around Patagonia. It contains some of the most iconically western landscapes in the state, prairie home to antelope, cattle and wide open spaces. At a higher elevation, the region is crucially cooler than Tucson in the blazing summer. Here’s a guide to the locavore food, wine and natural attractions of the Mountain Empire.

En route from Interstate 10

Horseshoe Cafe & Bakery

154 E. Fourth St., Benson

Benson’s Horseshoe Cafe is a time capsule of Old West charm. A few minutes out of the way from Sonoita, the detour is worth it for its charm and stellar food. Their ham steak is the best I’ve ever had, and their happy hour drink specials had my uncle’s eyes popping out of his head. The vintage cowboy murals are only matched in atmosphere by the enormous neon horseshoe on the restaurant’s ceiling.

Amerind Museum

2100 N. Amerind Road, Dragoon

A little farther down I-10 is the Amerind Museum, a huge repository of historical and contemporary Indigenous art, research and archaeology near the scenic Texas Canyon.

Kartchner Caverns

2980 AZ-90, Benson

The Kartchner Caverns cave system features the largest column in Arizona, one of the world’s largest soda straw stalactites and the world’s most extensive collection of brushite moonmilk. At this state park, you can tour the Throne and Rotunda Rooms (the huge column, Kubla Khan, is in the Throne Room) or the Big Room. They also offer specialty trips on select days: one where you are guided only by the light of a headlamp, another where you’re permitted to take photos (which aren’t allowed in any other tour).

En route from Interstate 19

Los Agaves

1451 S. La Cañada Dr., Green Valley

This homestyle, sit-down Mexican restaurant has some of the best soups in Southern Arizona (my favorite is their Xochitl). The vibe is like if you took El Minuto, Mi Nidito or Rosa’s Mexican Food and slapped it in the middle of Green Valley — there might be more retirees than you’re used to, but the beans and rice will fill you with that same warm nostalgia.

Wisdom’s Cafe

1931 I-19 Frontage Road, Tumacacori

On the side of the Tumacacori frontage road, a stone’s throw from the historical park, you’ll come across a statue of an enormous chicken. It’s the sign that you’ve made it to Wisdom’s, the Mexican restaurant that many readers told me had the best margarita in the Tucson area. (I suspect they also meant to say strongest.) If you don’t get the chile relleno, you’re going to be envious of whoever takes my advice, so you should just get it. The enormous Tampiqueña plate, with a chile relleno, a steak and a cheese enchilada, is the thing to get.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

1868 I-19 Frontage RoadTumacacori

When I interviewed Tito and Pep’s James Beard-nominated chef John Martinez, he called a perfect day off a drive down to the Patagonia Mountains to watch the monsoon, stopping at Santa Cruz Chili to pick up spices on the way down and grabbing some pizza from Pronghorn on the way back through Sonoita. I ship my homesick family Santa Cruz’s picante sauce for every holiday, but you’ll save a lot of money on shipping if you pick up gifts in bulk at their factory in Tumacacori.

When you get to Sonoita

The Konrath pizza at Pronghorn Pizzeria, set in Dos Cabezas Wineworks, is topped with tomato, Rain Valley Ranch sausage, cheese, poblano and roasted onion.

Pronghorn Pizza/Dos Cabezas WineWorks

3248 AZ-82

This destination date night has one of the coziest set-ups around. Their pizzas are incredible, made with seasonal, local ingredients, but you can come just for a wine tasting, too.

The Meading Room

3470 AZ-82

This is where to find drinks like mead, cider and fruit wine in Sonoita. This local distillery offers both sparkling and flat meads as well as fun events like a space cowboy dance party and a chile fest.

The Steak Out Restaurant & Saloon

3235 AZ-82

The oldest restaurant in Sonoita, this rustic cowboy chophouse is where you can find a display case showing off different cuts of steak and a trove of local ephemera. There are mounted bull heads on the walls.

Gary Spalding, left, and Melissa Elliott sample their way through a flight in one of the outdoor areas at AZ Hops and Vines in Sonoita on July 29, 2022.

AZ Hops and Vines

3450 AZ-82

At #ThisIsTucson, it’s kind of our thing to keep track of cool events. Whenever we’re putting together a list, AZ Hops and Vines always catches my eye, but we don’t always include them because of the long drive to an event that centers alcoholic beverages — the logistics are simply too tricky. But not if you’re making a weekend trip!

When you get to Patagonia

Queen of Cups

320 Smelter Ave.

This restaurant was recommended to me by the logistics manager of Vera Earl Ranch. Queen of Cups makes their own wine in-house and are known for their charcuterie boards (but their full dinner menu is special, too, drawing inspiration from Spain and Turkey as well as seasonal, local ingredients).

Gathering Grounds

319 McKeown Ave.

When my aunt lived in Rio Rico, she’d bring my cousin and me here as kids. It’s simply the coziest coffee shop around. If Central Perk was in the middle of a remote canyon town?

MorQ BBQ Bakery

277 McKeown Ave.

Find everything you need for a picnic at this barbecue spot and bakery — including fudge and a milkshake for the road. Sandwiches, chocolate cake, a slew of pies and brisket are their wheelhouse.

Things to do in the area

Arizona Winery Tours

The Sonoita Valley is home to dozens of wineries. Arizona Winery Tours will take you on a 7-hour tour of three of them, with several tastings at each location. Each $140 ticket pays for the on-site tastings with a complimentary glass, a locally catered lunch and roundtrip van transport.

Patagonia Lumber Co

295 McKeown Ave., Patagonia

This hip venue is a local hub across many interests, from local food to mountain biking. Their low-key summer events feature live music and food pop-ups like Tucson's Muncheez, and we suspect things will ramp up again in the fall. The cafe offers Presta Coffee in the mornings and beer and wine at night.

Nikki Pochily sits in the water to cool off at the Patagonia Lake State Park. The 2.5-mile-long, 250-acre lake is a popular destination for camping, boating, picnicking, hiking, fishing, swimming and birding.

Patagonia Lake State Park

400 Patagonia Lake Road, Patagonia

Home to one of the closest beaches to Tucson, this state park offers all kinds of recreation: cabin camping, hiking, swimming, boating and fishing. It’s dog-friendly!

Mountain biking

The Patagonia mountains offer great terrain for mountain biking. The city offers a menu of trails, from self-guided loops to the Spirit World series hosted by Patagonia Lumber Co. to a wine country tour.

Audubon’s Paton Hummingbird Center

477 Pennsylvania Ave., Patagonia

Arizona is one of the only places in the world where hummingbirds can exist year-round, because something is always in bloom. The Paton Center celebrates these birds in a former homesite alongside Sonoita Creek, where rare violet-crowned hummingbirds can be spotted as they migrate to and from Mexico.

The dock at Parker Canyon Lake in 2006.

Parker Canyon Lake

Nearly 1,500 feet higher in elevation than Patagonia Lake, the tree-lined Parker Canyon Lake, set in the mountains, is cooler (literally) than any other you can find in Southern Arizona. The locally-run marina rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, pedal boats and motor boats with fishing kits. They also have shady hiking trails and tent camping sites with lake views.

Lodging in the area

Sonoita Inn

3243 AZ-82, Sonoita

Located across the street from Dos Cabezas WineWorks on the main stretch of Sonoita’s highway, Sonoita Inn is a boutique hotel with 18 rooms and some rustic charm. It’s a good headquarters for a wine tour to save yourself the drive home.

Stage Stop Inn

303 McKeown Ave., Patagonia

This hotel’s Old West facade looks like a set piece from Old Tucson. Located instead in downtown Patagonia, the Stage Stop Inn has both a pool, balconies and a restaurant.

Wild Oak Farm

26560 S. Old Sonoita Hwy, Sonoita

Wild Oak Farm grows lavender that you can pick yourself or purchase in their gift shop along with products made with their own lavender and goat milk. The farm also rents out a cottage as an Airbnb. Wild Oak Farm is hosting a lavender fest on June 15!

Circle Z Ranch

1476 AZ-82, Patagonia

Whenever I drive from my aunt and uncle’s house in Tubac into the Sonoita Valley, I always pass the gate to Circle Z Ranch on the most scenic part of the drive, on a stretch of the highway passing through canyons and under the canopy of mesquite trees. It’s the kind of dude ranch where you go to ride horses: along and in Sonoita Creek, in tawny grasslands ringed by mountains. In an interview with USA Today, ranch foreman Miko Lorta said visitors who come for a 7-day stay can expect to ride 70 to 80 miles.

Winery Airbnbs

The server at Dos Cabezas recommends Airbnb for lodging in and around Sonoita. They have their own Airbnb next door, but there are lots of tiny homes and cottages located onsite of other wineries across the region, like Rune Wines’ cute Adobe House (it has a hot tub!).


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