Wanderlust in Coronado, Arizona

Delve into Spanish Colonial history in Arizona's southeastern wilderness.

The Huachuca Mountains in Southern Arizona.
The Huachuca Mountains in Southern Arizona.
Leigh Spigelman

Travelers who are drawn to uncommon experiences will revel in a southeastern Arizona backcountry journey through Coronado National Memorial. Though lesser-known, this memorial and the areas surrounding it are a gold mine of both natural beauty and centuries-old folklore, with landmarks that recall pioneer days and legends of gold, and rugged roads that weave for miles around extraordinary vistas of the San Pedro River Valley.

Leading Up to Coronado

The road to the Coronado experience begins with a departure from Sierra Vista. If you have time before setting out on your journey south to the Memorial, stop to savor this area. Historic Fort Huachuca and nearby San Pedro (with its abundant birding opportunities) make Sierra Vista a destination in its own right.

Heading south on SR 92 from Sierra Vista to Ramsey Canyon Road, you'll encounter another site worth a stop: Brown Canyon Ranch. Established around 1800, Brown Canyon Ranch now offers an absorbing look at pioneering ranch life through exhibits in the historic adobe. Visitors also can enjoy bird watching along a lush pond. The Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve, celebrated for the impressive diversity of plant and animal life housed within its high canyon walls, is nearby.

Those seeking sweeping views of the area also should make time to visit Our Lady of Sierras Shrine. To reach this site, drive south about 7 more miles on SR 92 and turn right after mile marker 333, following signs to the shrine. From its chapel and beautiful grounds, there are panoramic views of the San Pedro Valley you won't want to miss.

Coronado National Memorial Highlights

Two miles east of the shrine is the turnoff to Coronado National Memorial, which is the crown jewel of this backcountry adventure. At 4,750-acres, it is the largest memorial in the National Parks System and the only NPS site to commemorate Francisco Vázquez de Coronado's mid-16th century quest to find the Seven Cities of Gold.

Arrive early to take advantage of the site's extensive recreational opportunities, including a short, but strenuous, hike to explore Coronado Cave, rumored to have been an Apache hideaway. Stop at the visitor center to browse colorful displays that relive Coronado's epic search for the fabled Cities of Gold. Enjoy trying on chain mail armor or thumbing through scrapbooks of wildlife sightings.

A journey through the memorial isn't complete without exploring what is arguably the most striking natural feature of the site: Montezuma Pass. A 3-mile climb up the memorial's dirt and gravel road leads to the Montezuma Pass Overlook. The Pass stands at more than 6,575 feet, a viewpoint from which the San Pedro and San Raphael valleys loom large, with Mexico in the distance. What comes through at this vantage is the immensity of the landscape and the history hidden here.


Scenic Drives and Wine Country

If rough-roading is not your thing, check the status of the scenic Fort Huachuca bypass, and return to Sierra Vista at this point. Those who want the more challenging, yet fun route should continue west along Forest Road 61, beginning a descent from the Pass. The wiggling dirt road, which is very close to the Mexican border, is graded for most passenger cars and studded with turnouts. Soak up the stunning wilderness, and catch glimpses of wildlife that appear almost like props staged to enhance the scenery.

In about 9 miles, Forest Road 61 turns north to a junction with Forest Road 48. Follow this road less than 7 miles to Parker Canyon Lake, which offers trout fishing, trails, and camping.

Pick up AZ State Route 83 to continue an easygoing ride north through Coronado National Forest and ranchlands. The one-room 1912 Canelo School, on the National Register of Historic Places, is worth a stop around mile marker 14. Near mile marker 18, on the east side, is a somewhat hidden turnoff for Black Oak Cemetery, home to the headstones of the area's pioneers.

Wine enthusiasts can follow SR 83 farther north to refresh in Sonoita-Elgin, where there are outstanding inns, restaurants, and craft shopping. Pick up a map at the local chamber kiosk (at intersection of SR 82 and 83) to tap into a vineyard tour.

For a quaint detour, continue on SR 83, turn left at Gardner Canyon Road, and follow signs up a hill to Santa Rita Abbey. Here you'll be greeted by a self-serve gift shop (honesty cash box) next to the chapel that sells jars of honey, notecards, and icons made by the monastic sisters.

Historic Empire Ranch, which has served as a working cattle ranch for the past 140-plus years, is farther north on SR 83, after mile marker 39. Open daily from sunrise to sunset, visitors can explore the Empire Ranch House, a 22-room adobe and wood frame building that dates to 1870 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Interstate 10 also is nearby, and will direct travelers back to Sierra Vista to complete the loop for this trip.

Combined with the epic history of Coronado's search for gold, the rolling, seemingly unspoiled wilderness around each bend lends a rare sense of imagination and adventure to this journey.

This article was first published in Arizona Highroads in November/December 2016.