Legends, stars, and close-kept secrets in Southern Arizona State Parks
Traveler, writer, editor
Southern Arizona State Parks
Start / End
308 miles (1,240 km)
If you’re driving, start wherever you like, of course. If you’re flying in, start in Phoenix and wrap up your itinerary in Tucson after you’ve explored each of these southern Arizona state parks.
LOST DUTCHMAN STATE PARK
Your first park stop is named for the Dutchman who never revealed the location of the gold he found in the Superstition Mountains. Surrounded by the lore of the hidden gold mine and nestled at the base of the dramatic mountains, Lost Dutchman State Park is also a playground for hikers, mountain bikers, and campers. Enjoy the treasure of spotting local wildlife and desert wildflowers—if not the original treasure of gold.
We recommend grabbing a campsite in the park and committing a couple days to exploring and learning about the history of the area. The park offers numerous hiking trails through the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, including an educational native plant trail. Mountain bikers can enjoy the new loop around the perimeter of Lost Dutchman, as well.
Be sure to watch the Superstition Mountains as the sun sets for an unforgettable first night on your Southwest Arizona Parks Itinerary.
ORACLE STATE PARK
1 HOUR, 40 MINUTES – 92 MILES/148 KM
After getting one last adventure in at Lost Dutchman State Park, hit the road for about an hour and a half to Oracle State Park. This is a day-use only park, but you’re going to make the most of the day so be sure to grab a good breakfast and coffee on the way.
Start at the park visitor center, then take a self-guided tour through the historic Kannally Ranch House. After familiarizing yourself with the history and flora and fauna of the area, hit the trails. There are 15 miles of trails through the high-desert habitat, which you can explore on foot, bike, or horseback. Keep a sharp eye out for wildlife such as javelina, deer, and birds, as this park is a wildlife sanctuary first and foremost.
The park closes at 5 p.m., so head into the town of Oracle for dinner and check into your hotel or set up camp at Peppersauce Campground. You’ll want to return to the parking lot just outside the park after dark to watch the night sky like you have probably never seen before. Designated an International Dark Sky Park, Oracle is a special place to see the Milky Way or find planets in the dark. If you’re camping, you can continue to enjoy these special skygazing views all night long.
KARTCHNER CAVERNS STATE PARK
1 HOUR, 45 MINUTES – 92 MILES/148 KM
You’ve searched for gold and seen stars you can’t in much of the rest of the world, so now we’re going to let you in on an old secret. The cave for which Kartchner Caverns State Park was named was kept secret for decades before it was opened to the public as you can see it now.
You’ll want to spend the night in the park, so be sure to reserve a campsite or cabin in advance. While you’re making reservations, book a cave tour (or a few!). The drive from Oracle to Kartchner Caverns is about two hours. When you arrive, start at the Discovery Center to learn all about the history of this secret cave, how Arizona’s caves form, and the local bat population. In addition to the educational video presentation and hands-on interpretive displays, the kids will have a great time checking items off the scavenger hunt around the Discovery Center!
Depending on the timing of your cave tour(s), be sure to see the park above-ground today and/or tomorrow morning. There are a number of hiking trails through the park waiting to be explored in addition to the caves.
TOMBSTONE COURTHOUSE & PATAGONIA LAKE STATE PARKS
1 HOUR, 40 MINUTES – 91 MILES/146 KM
You can take a leisurely start to the morning, because your next stop is only 30 minutes away. Put your Wild West hat on, and get ready to step back in time with the likes of Wyatt Earp, the lawman we all know for the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Tombstone Courthouse State Park is the original courthouse building for Cochise County, Arizona. It serves as a museum today, where you can learn the true story of Earp and the Wild West. The town of Tombstone is a great place to linger and grab a meal before making the 1-hour-15-minute drive to your penultimate stop in these southern Arizona state parks, Patagonia Lake State Park.
Patagonia Lake, nestled in the hills, is preserved for recreation and habitat that will have you in full vacation mode. We recommend you spend a couple days here to really relax and soak up all you’ve gotten to experience this week. Rent a cabin or set up in the campground, rub on some sunscreen, and pick your mode of fun. If you prefer to quietly birdwatch, grab the binoculars and seek the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermillion flycatcher, black vulture, and more. If you prefer fins to feathers, find a place to fish from the shore or a boat, or just paddle along without the fishing pole (fishing licenses and rental boats are available at the market on the lake). Patagonia Lake State Park has trails for hiking and horseback riding, so explore while watching out for local wildlife before enjoying a peaceful dinner near the lake, whether in your cabin or next to your tent.
TUBAC PRESIDIO STATE HISTORIC PARK
45 MINUTES – 32 MILES/52 KM
On the shores of what we call the Santa Cruz River, previously called the Rio de Tubac, once stood a presidio, or fort. Today, you can visit an archaeological dig of some of the original buildings and much more. Three historical buildings, a museum, and a visitor center await you at Arizona’s first state park, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Get a sense of life in this area for Native Americans all the way up to time when America was comprised of just 37 states. Walk through the historical, preserved buildings and cultivated gardens, then embark on a longer hike or horseback ride beyond to ponder the story of what is now southern Arizona.
Your connection and understanding of this part of America is much deeper for the time you’ve spent in these state parks, but the journey has only begun! Arizona has more than 30 state parks, and now you only have 25 left to visit!