Southern Arizona Road Trip

Southern Arizona is full of exciting outdoor recreation amid a classically gorgeous Sonoran Desert backdrop, perfect for an autumn adventure. If you're planning a road-trip this fall to enjoy the colors or hike in the cooler weather, you can explore lots of parks on a southern Arizona Road Trip! Come along as we map out two distinct options for travelers looking to step up their Arizona adventure this fall. Each road trip option includes more than one park and is a perfectly scenic and inspirational getaway. See these eight southern Arizona parks for the ultimate road trip experience, and leave armed with memories that are sure to last a lifetime!

Road Trip #1

Sonoran Desert Experience

Picacho Peak State Park  |  McFarland State Historic Park  |  Oracle State Park  |  Catalina State Park

The Sonoran Desert must be experienced to be truly appreciated. The Sonoran Desert Experience is designed to show travelers the unique beauty and rich history of Southern Arizona, in a way that inspires thought and demands reflection. In fact, this road trip will take you through some of the most beautiful sections of the Sonoran Desert southern Arizona has to offer, and those images of beauty will be stored alongside fond memories you can build upon during your next adventure. Saguaros, sunsets, and a sense of being can all be found in southern Arizona – are you up for the adventure?

A four image collage with examples of Southern Arizona Road Trip scenery like saguaros, mountains, and sunsets.

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho Peak State Park routinely provides some of the most exquisite sunsets the Sonoran Desert has to offer, some truly amazing eye candy and good for the soul. The prominent topography of the peak itself is often silhouetted against a backdrop of vibrant purple and pink sky as the sun calls it quits for the day. Classic Sonoran Desert views all around amplify the experience while leaving your mind to wander (along with your footsteps) in appreciation of surrounding desert. One look shows it’s no secret that Picacho is loaded with beauty. Did you know that this area contains rich and interesting history as well? Picacho Peak’s most noted historic event occurred on April 15, 1862, when Confederate and Union scouting parties met in the Battle of Picacho Pass during the Civil War. This was the largest Civil War clash to take place in Arizona and likely the only one in the Sonoran Desert. There's much more to Picacho than amazing scenery and history...Pitch a tent or pull up in your RV and stay for a while! Hike the trails, experience the local flora and fauna, and revel in the rich area history…You’re not going to forget this one! 

McFarland State Historic Park

Didn’t get enough history at Picacho Peak? McFarland State Historic Park is just up the road and offers a well-curated experience that focuses on the life and times of Ernest McFarland. The oldest standing courthouse in Arizona now provides a glimpse into memories of simpler, yet often violent times experienced right on what is now park property. This adobe brick building, now McFarland State Historic Park, served many roles during the late 1800s and early 1900s, most notably as a jail house and a hospital. Indeed, it was even the first Pinal County Courthouse. Built in 1877-78, it held the sheriff's office, the courtroom, the judge's chambers, and the jail on the first floor. The second story was used as a jury room and quarters for visiting lawmen. Now, exhibits and memories take the place of prisoners and lawmen, but thanks to park staff and volunteers, McFarland State Park continues to enrich society through the art of remembrance.

Oracle State Park

Set your sights to the high desert of Oracle State Park for your next stop to experience 4,000 acres of southern Arizona wildlife sanctuary. A robust population of both birds and animals call this park home, and for good reason! The lush high desert vegetation offers concealment and cover, and the park “waterhole” gives local birds and animals an easy spot to grab a drink before slinking back into the desert canopy. While at Oracle, visitors are encouraged to experience the numerous trails and to interact (at a distance) with the wildlife that calls the park home. A great respite after a hike around the park is to become engulfed in the area history as it pertains to the Kannally family. Their old homestead now showcases their varied and interesting lives as ranchers in the early 1920s. The period specific artwork and architecture gives visitors a glimpse into the interesting and sometimes brutal reality of ranch life at the turn of the 20th century. 

Catalina State Park

You're almost back to where it all began, yet there's still so much to see – welcome to the Catalinas! The expansive trail network and local wildlife make this destination a great place to cap off your southern Arizona road trip, especially with full campground amenities. Take a shower, catch some sleep, and hit the trail full force, refreshed and ready for adventure. If you're lucky, you may encounter one of the increasingly prevalent coatimundi, some javelina, or even desert bighorn sheep high in the cut-up topography of the upper Catalina range. Lookout vistas and plenty of photo opportunities will be encountered along the way, so you’re encouraged to take plenty of pics! This park, in all its beauty, is not without a historical aspect. The historic structures at the Romero Ruin are the remains of a ranch built by Francisco Romero in the mid- to late-1800s. Although it is reported that Romero built the wall enclosing his living structures as protection against Apache raiders, it is likely that he just improved upon the existing Hohokam compound wall. In addition, Romero probably robbed cobbles from the Hohokam structures to build his house!

            Click on this interactive map to learn more about the destinations on your Southern Arizona Road Trip!


Road Trip #2

Sky Island Adventure

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park  |  Kartchner Caverns State Park   |  Patagonia State Park  |  Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

The Sky Island Adventure will take you on a journey through Arizona’s southern region via a scenic course. The “Sky Island” region of southern Arizona is aptly named thanks to the towering mountain ranges that seemingly appear straight from the desert floor to above 8000 feet in elevation. The southern Arizona State Parks in this region give you access to recreational opportunities within this amazing corner of Arizona and offer protected areas in which to admire the area’s beauty.

A four image collage that shows what might be experienced on a Southern AZ Road Trip. Cowboy gunfight, Whetstone Mountains, Patagonia Lake Marina, and Spanish Conquistadors on horses.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park

In a state with such varied and interesting history, a destination must offer something relatively profound to attract visitors time after time. The story of Tombstone, the Earps, Doc Holliday, and the rough, tension-filled times often portrayed by Hollywood have been preserved for visitors of the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park. The dramatic power struggle of this frontier town, the “good vs. evil,” and the lives and passions of past inhabitants have been expertly curated and live on in infamy thanks to the well-preserved exhibits within this park. As a bonus, Tombstone is located in an absolutely gorgeous slice of classic Arizona desert! This historic destination must truly be experienced to fully appreciate the rich nature of the intricately woven area history. In addition, the curation process is always in full swing, so the displays are sure to grow more expansive over time to help share the story of Tombstone while securing its legacy.   

Kartchner Caverns State Park

Do you know all the awesome outdoor recreation Kartchner Caverns has to offer? Aside from the world-famous caverns, this southern Arizona destination offers hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts something extraordinary with each visit. The views simply can’t be beat, and forays through the Butterfly Garden and Discovery Center lead into adventures not soon to be forgotten. Stay at one of the full-service campsites or bunk up in a cozy cabin to experience all that this park has to offer. Breathtaking views both above and below ground help this park stand out above the rest. You can gaze in awe at huge formations of stalagmites and stalactites in the morning, then marvel at the high-desert views during an afternoon hike.

Patagonia Lake State Park 

Patagonia Lake State Park is the crown jewel of southern Arizona beauty and adventure! The diverse wildlife, beautiful scenery, and overall feel of this gorgeous state park will inspire return trips based on the unforgettable experiences the park provides. The hiking trails that meander through the Southern Arizona countryside are designed to give visitors the greatest opportunity to see birds, wildlife, and the absolutely amazing southern Arizona views in the park. The waters of the lake sway peacefully, the campgrounds are clean and spacious, and the rental cabins are ready to take on the responsibility of adventurers and memory makers.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park 

After perhaps staying the night at Patagonia, there’s one more worthwhile stop before heading back home from your road trip adventure. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is a museum home to incredible exhibits from the 1800s and Spanish Colonial times, including the printing press that printed Arizona’s very first newspaper! See artifacts that were excavated at the Presidio in 1974 to experience the originality of this historic building. All this rich history is rooted within classic Arizona desert countryside and offers the views and feel of yesteryear to those lucky enough to have felt the charm of Tubac.

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