Empire Ranch at sunset
Published May/June 2014

Just South of Southwest

A scenic drive, from Tucson to Nogales, Ariz., reveals the region’s beauty and history

BYAnn Euston
From movie sets to eco hot spots, a road trip through the Coronado National Forest — and between the mountain ranges — follows mesquite-studded uplands as they give way to vast vistas across rolling grasslands. 
 
From Tucson, head south on Interstate 10 toward Vail, and take exit 381 for Sonoita Mountain View Highway (Arizona State Route 83) south. It’s not long before the road begins to climb into the mesquite and cactus foothills of the Empire Mountains to the east and the Santa Rita Mountains to the west. After just 11 miles on State Route 83, you’ll find yourself within the Coronado National Forest, which covers about 1.78 million acres of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.
 
A Rustic Ranch
After 18.6 miles on State Route 83, turn east on Empire Ranch Road and follow signs to the historic Empire Ranch. The ranch — originally established in the 1860s as a 160-acre working cattle ranch — grew to more than 100,000 acres, including a 22-room adobe homestead and ranch quarters by 1906. 
 
By the 1940s, the ranch took on a new role: Hollywood movie set. Its magnificent scenic landscapes appear in more than 30 movies, including Oklahoma, Red River, Duel in the Sun, and 3:10 to Yuma (just to name a few). 
 
In 1988 the ranch became part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Las Cienegas National Conservation Area — 42,000 acres of grassland, mountain ranges, and riparian vegetation that line the perennially flowing Cienega Creek — in an effort to preserve the ranch buildings and surrounding natural area. 
 
The ranch headquarters and conservation area are open daily from sunrise to sunset, and admission is free. Take the insightful walking tour of the ranch buildings and explore the Heritage Discovery Trail that meanders through the cottonwoods of Empire Gulch. You might even glimpse local ranchers running cattle.
 
Return to State Route 83 and head south for 6.5 miles to Sonoita — the heart of southern Arizona’s wine country. Here, you’ll turn onto State Route 82 (Naugle Avenue) and continue southwest for about 12.6 miles to Patagonia.
 
Activities at the Coronado National Forest include auto touring, birding, caving, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing
Activities at the Coronado National Forest include auto touring, birding, caving, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing
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