Travel South to Small Towns, Big Worlds

by Blake Herzog

If you’re looking for a respite from Greater Prescott’s winter chill, Phoenix is far from the only option. If you’re looking for some small-town warmth without the big-city traffic and noise, Southeastern Arizona is packed with smaller towns worth a road trip on their own or combined with their neighbors. They come with enough history and charm to create a world of their own. 

With the exception of Bisbee, these towns are at a lower elevation than Prescott but higher than the low desert, affording them a more moderate climate. Still, they enjoy all four seasons. 

Sonoita (approximate population 800), Elgin (150) and Patagonia (1,000)

About four hours southeast of Prescott at the junction of state Routes 82 and 83, Sonoita and Elgin form Arizona’s original Wine Country in wide-open, breathtaking grass-covered hills. Vineyards and tasting rooms continue to proliferate around these tiny communities, drawing visitors with vintages to suit everyone’s palate and pocketbook. 

Spending an afternoon exploring some of the wineries is time well spent, and as of press time Callaghan Vineyards, Flying Leap, Sonoita Vineyards and Elgin Winery and Distillery are all open to the public. Vineyards here tend to be larger than those found in the Verde Valley, giving Northern Arizonans a peek at how bigger wine businesses operate.

Patagonia, just 15 minutes down the road, has tons of outdoorsy options in Patagonia Lake State Park and the surrounding Sonoita Creek State Park Natural Area, but it’s perhaps best known as a migratory bird haven and a birdwatcher’s dream throughout the year. It’s also got plenty of local shops, eateries and galleries to keep you entertained. 

This region is nestled between the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains at an elevation around 5,000 feet, so its cooler-than-desert temperatures offer four seasons of fun. Fall colors are great in and around the vineyards and there’s maybe a dusting or two of snow per year; nothing we can’t handle! 

Willcox (3,600)

If you haven’t gotten enough wine country in your system, drive east from Tucson on Interstate 10 for about an hour until you reach this town with a low-key scene just now gaining more recognition. Nine vineyards and wineries have formed the Willcox Wine Country consortium to promote the area, which it says grows 74% of Arizona’s wine grapes. It became the state’s second federally recognized American Viticultural Area, or wine region, in 2017, while Sonoita’s recognition was awarded in 1984. The Verde Valley may soon become the third. 

Other points of interest include the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum mostly dedicated to the legacy of the hometown hero and Western movie star it honors; he is known as the “last of the singing cowboys.” You can also find the Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame here. 

About 35 miles away, but well worth the trip, is Chiricahua National Monument, home to spectacular volcanic rock formations, cultural sites and endless hiking options for people of all fitness levels. 

Tombstone (1,300) and Bisbee (5,200)

Just 25 miles apart, these towns got their start at about the same time as mining camps but quickly took on their own identities. 

First you reach Tombstone, about 70 minutes southeast from Tucson and the older by five years, formed in 1875. The riches of the silver mines led to an intense 10-year boom during which it grew to 14,000 residents, had dozens of churches and businesses and the lawlessness that included the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. By 1890 the community was shrinking fast, after two fires consumed much of the town and the mines began to run dry.

After World War II the community decided its future was in frontier-themed tourism, and today draws some 500,000 tourists a year to the O.K. Corral, Bird Cage Saloon and the original Cochise County courthouse, now a state park. 

Bisbee’s mining trajectory was tied to copper and lasted considerably longer than Tombstone’s, peaking in the early 1900s and again around 1960. It started to decline again, but reinforcements from the counterculture of the late 1960s replaced some of the mine employees, eventually leading to restoration of many of its buildings. Today’s attractions include the Copper Queen Mine tours, the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, the stuck-in-the-‘50s shops and cars of Erie Street and Belleza Fine Art Gallery, one of several in town. 

Tubac (1,230) and Tumácacori (400)

Established in 1752 as a Spanish Presidio, Tubac is a short drive from Tucson south on Interstate 19, and offers an astonishing array of premium galleries, unique shopping, fine art and dining. Here, one can find world-renowned birding, hiking (or strolling), biking, holistic health and spa treatments, wine tastings and art classes. Tubac is also home to 27 gorgeous holes of golf at the Tubac Golf Resort. Its top two attractions, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and the K Newby Gallery and Sculpture Garden, highlight its dualistic appeal. 

Tubac is about 50 minutes south of Tucson, and in another 6 minutes you reach Tumácacori National Historic Park in the town of the same name. Here you find the remains of three missions built at an O’Odham settlement of the same name. Structures were built in 1691, 1752 and 1800, though the third, modeled on the already-famous San Xavier del Bac, was never completed. Their architectural beauty is obvious through their weathered appearance.

A 4-mile section of the Anza National Historic Trail following the Santa Cruz River connects the Tubac and Tumácacori historic parks.

Sierra Vista (45,000)

Found on state Route 90, Cochise County’s largest city and commercial hub is about the same size as Prescott Valley and lies about halfway between Bisbee and Elgin. The city limits include the Army’s Fort Huachuca, and the military installation’s diversity has drawn a variety of ethnic restaurants to the area while maintaining its small-town bona fides. 

Surrounded by mountain peaks reaching up to 10,000 feet, Sierra Vista’s location and climate also puts it at the crossroads of numerous migratory bird routes and has branded itself the “Hummingbird Capital of the U.S.” Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count regularly records one of the highest numbers of inland species here. 

Stellar attractions in and near Sierra Vista include the fort itself, the Nature Conservancy’s 280-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve, the San Pedro Riparian Area along the Southwest’s last undammed river, the panoramic views and architecture of the Our Lady of the Sierras shrine and, on the way into town, the iconic Kartchner Caverns.

You can learn much more about these and other Arizona destinations via www.visitarizona.com