The late Jim Harrison called it “preposterously beautiful.” The novelist and his wife spent their winters in Patagonia among the oaks and knuckled hills in an adobe casita near Sonoita Creek. Founded in 1898, the town got its start when Rollin Rice Richardson, a Pennsylvania oil tycoon, sold lots to the squatters living on the part of his ranch where the new railroad crossed Sonoita Creek. Tres R, as Richardson was known, called the town Rollin but the townspeople had a better idea and named it after the nearby mountains. Today, Patagonia is a lively borderland community of 900 shopkeepers, wellness practitioners, artists, nature enthusiasts, farmers, vaqueros, miners, and retirees.
You’ll meet many of them at the place for coffee and breakfast. Gathering Grounds coffee house and grill (319 McKeown Ave.) is where to start your day in Patagonia. I always order a cup of rich Guatemalan and The Green Machine, a vegan burro loaded with poblanos, spinach, avocado, green chilies, tomato, onion, and potatoes, prepared by Heather and her sister, Audrey, both natives of the area. If a young man with dark curls waits on you, that’s Brandon, Audrey’s husband. He’ll tell you that one word perfectly describes Patagonia: friendliness.
Then, stroll along the sidewalk and browse the shops. The Creative Spirit Artists gallery has an eclectic mix of paintings, photography, and books that support local artists. Check out the raven photograph by Linda Hitchcock and Elizabeth Bernays’ titles about Pocket, a baby cottontail rabbit she raised.
Artist Adrienne Halpert’s Global Arts gallery has antiques, jewelry, and fair-trade clothing from around the world along with paintings, pottery, and sculpture of regional artists.
But if shopping isn’t your style, Patagonia offers other adventure. You may want to bring your binoculars.
Across the street (310 McKeown Ave.), the yellow, two-story wooden building dating from 1900 was once the old railroad depot. Now, it’s the Patagonia Town Hall. A sign outside lists several trails that start in town, including the Animals Tracks Trail, the Geoffrey Platts Trail, and the Cemetery Trail. It details how the Arizona Trail goes through town on its more than 800-mile route through the deserts, mountains, and communities of Arizona from Mexico to Utah. In 2010, Patagonia was dedicated as the first officially signed Arizona Trail Gateway Community.
For a leisurely midmorning walk, take the trail that begins here, at the black and white Train Order Semaphore. The Patagonia Train Track Trail is a 2.5-mile loop that follows the old railbed of the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad (active 1882 until 1962), heading northeast of town, crossing Sonoita Creek, and passing along the Native Seeds/SEARCH conservation farm. The trail stays in the Sonoita Creek floodplain where vermillion flycatchers and western tanagers flit among giant mesquite and Mexican elderberry trees. The bird watching—over 300 species—is some of the best anywhere.
In fact, nature lovers and birdwatchers won’t want to miss Patagonia’s world-renowned birding hotspots. It’s the reason many come here.
But before you go on this next adventure, stop in at the Ovens of Patagonia (277 W. McKeown Ave.) and see ever-cheerful Bonnie MacLean about a lunch to-go. Bonnie owns the small bakery and ice cream parlor with its gourmet sandwiches, burritos, hand-made cinnamon rolls, and fresh-baked breads. The shop also features locally made craft items, Southwestern cookbooks, and raw and unfiltered honey from Holly’s Little Farm. Peruse the selection of wine from area vineyards (Sonoita, Elgin, and Willcox), and perhaps choose a bottle of Dos Cabezas El Norte to go with your Boar’s Head turkey and provolone on rye.
Then head across Highway 82 on Third Avenue to continue your nature watching.
The Paton Center for Hummingbirds (477 Pennsylvania Ave.) was the home of Wally and Marion Paton who opened their yard to visitors after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They set up canopied benches in front of an array of feeding stations and provided bird guidebooks and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. Wally died in 2001 and Marion in 2009, but today the Tucson Audubon Society continues their legacy. People have reported seeing more than 200 bird species in the yard, including varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and the first cinnamon hummingbird ever seen north of Mexico. This is the place to find violet-crowned hummingbirds, so check the board for recent visitations.
From the Paton’s place, continue south on the dirt road along the tree-hemmed Sonoita Creek to Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve (150 Blue Heaven Road), one of the most popular birding spots in the United States. Pull into the visitor center and pick up maps and brochures for the more than two miles of trails through open fields and mesquite bosques. Picnic tables provide a pleasant lunch spot, but be sure to hike the Creek Trail with its scenic riparian corridor of giant cottonwoods and willows. Listen for the whistles of gray hawks, an uncommon local summer resident that nests here, and watch for black and zone-tailed hawks. The Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. Call 520.394.2400 for fees, hours, and more information.
You can complete your day in Patagonia with a Philly cheese steak sandwich and an IPA under the mounted trophy heads at the Wagon Wheel Saloon (400 W. Naugle Ave.). Or stop for dinner at Velvet Elvis Pizza (292 Naugle Ave.). Take a seat in the courtyard under the cascading Lady Banks’ rose and order one of Cecilia San Miguel’s old-world, hand-made, wood-fired, blessed-by-Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe chorizo, cilantro, and jalapeño pizzas. When it arrives, inhale deeply and shudder. You may want to be alone with your pizza. ✜
Ken Lamberton is the author of six books, his most recent being Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State.