Southern Arizona State Park Road Trip
Adventure & Storyteller
Arizona’s Southern State Parks
Start / End
291 miles / 468 km
Three to five
While most of the country anxiously awaits Puxatony Phil’s prediction on when winter will finally end each year, southern Arizona is already in shorts and sunglasses. There’s a reason why so-called “snowbirds,” retirees who winter in warmer climes, flock here annually–it truly is the warm burst of fresh air and sunshine we could all use after months of winter. This is also the season when the desert comes alive; cacti and wildflowers burst into color, attracting wildlife and migratory birds (of the feathered kind). This itinerary is designed to take four days, but could be done in as little as three or extended as long as you wish. The parks’ proximity to Tucson makes stocking up easy, or if you need a break from the outdoors, you can find everything you need there (including some of the best Mexican food anywhere north of the border).
If you’re flying, getting here is easy. There are three airports that will get you within about an hour of the first stop, if you choose to go in the order presented here: Phoenix Sky Harbor International, Mesa Gateway, and Tucson International.
PICACHO PEAK STATE PARK
1 HOUR, 10 MINUTES (76 MI/122 KM)
Whether you’re starting from Phoenix or Tucson, Picacho Peak State Park is a convenient jumping-off point. Rising 1,500 feet from the valley floor, the namesake peak has been used as a landmark since prehistoric peoples traveled across Sonoran Desert. This place also holds a unique distinction in American history as being the site of the westernmost battle in the U.S. Civil War. Reaching the summit isn’t for the faint of heart– the 2-mile Hunter Trail climbs steeply, ending with a series of steel ladders and cables mounted into the rocks for the final push to the summit (gloves are recommended for this part). But the effort is well worth the reward: sweeping panoramic views and a true sense of accomplishment. If heights aren’t your cup of tea, easy and moderate trails wind around the lower flanks of the peak. During the spring, this is where you’ll find some of the best wildflower displays in the state. Remember to enjoy with your eyes and your camera as you Appreciate AZ from the wildflowers and beyond.
At the end of the day, you can rest your legs at the campground. If you need to stock up, you can find supplies in nearby Eloy or the park store.
CATALINA & ORACLE STATE PARKS
42 MINUTES (36 MI/58 KM)
From Picacho Peak, break camp and make the short drive to Catalina State Park. With over 1,000 saguaro cacti per acre, this is the postcard-perfect picture of the Sonoran Desert. Hiking opportunities range from easy strolls to prehistoric Hohokam ruins (the .75 mile Romero Ruins trail) to a handful of moderate and strenuous trails leading into the Santa Catalina Mountains. If your limbs are still sore from the previous day’s hike, you can opt for exploring the park on horseback. At the end of the day, 120 campsites with water and RV hookups are yours for the taking. Set up camp here to put you close to Oracle State Park for an after-dark excursion.
42 MINUTES (36 MI/58 KM)
After a day of hiking or horseback riding at Catalina State Park, make the short drive here for some of the best stargazing in the state. Designated an official International Dark Sky Park, on a clear and moonless night you’ll be treated to unobstructed views of the Milky Way. The park is officially day use only, but you can make a reservation to enter the park for some nighttime viewing, or attend a Star Party held by the park and local astronomers’ clubs. You can see plenty from just outside the gates, but after-hours visitors can request access by contacting the park office.
PATAGONIA LAKE STATE PARK
HOUR, 45 MINUTES (89 MI / 143 KM)
After a few days of hiking and a late night under the stars, make your way to Patagonia Lake State Park for some rest and relaxation. This 250-acre lake is a haven for boating, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding, or just relaxing on the shore. Sun-baked outdoorists aren’t the only ones who find respite here–it’s also frequented by the local fauna. Some of the Sonoran Desert’s more unusual critters can be found here, such as javelina, coatimundi, bobcats, and whitetail deer. Bird-watching opportunities are also excellent, especially along the half-mile trail to Sonoita Creek. If you’re looking to stretch your legs further, the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area offers miles of hiking along the creek and into the foothills.
Tent and RV camping are available here, but if you’re ready for a real bed and air conditioning, fully furnished lakeside cabins are also available to rent.
KARTCHNER CAVERNS STATE PARK
1 HOUR (53 MI/85 KM)
Discovered by a pair of spelunkers in 1974, this cave system found its way into public hands through decades of hard work and stewardship on behalf of the original landowners (the Kartchner family) and Arizona State Parks. Visitors can now delve deep underground on guided tours, where you’ll find grand caverns and stunning rock formations, all thousands of years in the making. And with an ambient temperature of 70 degrees and humidity around 99 percent, this subterranean tour offers a nice break from the arid desert above. Reservations are strongly recommended for cave tours, so be sure to plan ahead. After a day exploring the depths below, rest up at the campground or rent a cabin before heading back to the airport or exploring the state further.