I'd never spent any time in this area and decided this would be a good weekend to check it out. I put together a bunch of proposed routes for exploring and set out on a beautiful cloudy day after getting the required permit to explore the State Natural Area from the Patagonia Lake visitor center.
There's not much on HAZ for this area, so I'm posting more details and photos than I normally would for a hike like this to help give others a better feel for this SNA.
Sonoita Creek Trail
This is a well-marked and highly traveled trail through desert terrain with tons of ocotillo that would be a real treat when they're blooming. After 1.5 miles it drops down to the mesquite bosque shelf above Sonoita Creek where it ends at the old concrete railroad bridge abutment. Cross the creek here to find the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad Trail.
Sonoita Creek Off-trail Explore
I honestly had no idea that the trail from this point didn't follow the creek, and I just headed downstream. This is open range and there are numerous cattle trails and traveling along the banks of the creek is not difficult. The entire floodplain in the valley downstream/west to the Santa Cruz River is designated as part of the Sonoita Creek SNA and is managed by Patagonia Lake State Park. Though it is State Trust Land, the free SNA permit is all you need to hike here. The north side of the creek is owned by Arizona Game and Fish but managed as SNA until reaching Fresno Canyon. West of of Fresno Canyon and all land south of the Sonoita Creek above the floodplain is held privately with the exception of some parcels of State Trust Land (but not SNA, so have a STL permit!)
San Jose de Sonoita Land Grant
Patagonia and much of Sonoita Creek was part of a land grant issued by Spain in the early 1800s. The boundaries of the land grant are marked on topographic maps and I was hiking near one of the boundary markers so I decided to check it out. What a find! Historic documents indicate that the boundaries for the grant were marked with large cairns. All I found was a scattering of rocks that seemed unnatural looking, and in the center was a firmly embedded stone with a carving in it. The #4 matches the mark on the topo map. Neat history!
Back in the creek bottom, I explored downstream another four miles encountering a variety of scenery, flora, and some interesting structures from years ago. This is supposedly a birders paradise, and while I'm not into the little ones, I did have two close encounters with separate great horned owls and one red-tailed hawk.
Before turning back, I decided to explore an interesting looking slot canyon that headed south of the creek. I thought this was one of the state trust parcels but found out later it's actually held privately. There are no signs, fences, or other markings, but I wouldn't recommend going up "Cuates Canyon" without checking out the property ownership. Unlike some of the south-side parcels, this one doesn't have any structures built on it, though it did have a very scenic cattle tank built into the rock of the canyon. Like much of the area, there was a lot of interesting geology along this 3/4mile loop. Back in the creek bottom, I headed upstream in search of my next side trip:
This canyon looked cool on satellite and I'm glad I made the side trip. It forms the boundary of the SNA, so heading west of it gets you onto private property. I saw State Park boundary posts and some fencing and gates, but no posted signs or indication of any use other than cattle grazing. The canyon is shallow with vertical walls on both sides and a variety of flora. There's an area of very white rock that I was curious to see, but it wasn't that exciting in person. There's a deep pool in a narrow section of canyon that would require a bypass or swim during deeper water. As it was for me, I as able to skirt around it on the rocks. It's interesting how quickly you go from riparian creek bottom to rocky desert canyon. I'd like to see this one flowing with water sometime!
New Mexico & Arizona Railroad Trail
Upon returning down Fresno to Sonoita creek, I quickly found the very nicely maintained and marked NM&A RR grade. This railroad was built around 1900 and connected Nogales to Benson, and subsequently, Tucson by rail. Over time, flooding took its toll on the railroad, and it was abandoned in the 1960s. The town of Patagonia exists today as a remnant railroad stop (the old depot is now the courthouse), and Patagonia Lake now covers a segment of the old railbed.
As you hike along this trail, there are numerous old culverts in various states of decay as well as the wooden pylons for old railroad bridges. Though the scenery is a bit less exciting than hiking right along the creek, it's actually quite interesting history to walk through. There are two spots where the old railroad grade has been washed away by flooding and following it requires crossing the creek. I managed to cross with dry feet, but this isn't always possible and there are dry "hikers" bypasses built on higher ground around these sections. After 12 miles of hiking, I arrived back at the bridge abutment at the end of the Sonoita Creek Trail, and chose to head back to the trailhead via the:
Blackhawk Canyon Loop Trail
This trail parallels what I assume is called Blackhawk Canyon ... which is where the flow of Sonoita Creek now goes after topping the spillway at Patagonia Lake. The actual path of Sonoita Creek is blocked by the earthen dam that created the lake. This rocky drainage is surrounded by open vistas and ocotillo-lined hillsides. One particularly scenic spot is "Jen's Vista" which looks down on a "waterfall" in the flood channel which would actually be quite interesting to see when flowing.
Upon reaching the spillway, it's a short hike up a steep road to the trailhead with scenic views of the lake along the way. An ice cold beverage awaited my arrival back at the truck!
I encountered an antiquities sign somewhere along the way, but didn't see any reason for it. Then again, that's really not my thing. But historically, this area was populated with both Apache and O'odham people and there are reports online of many cultural sites along the creek and side drainages. So that's something else that some hikers might keep an eye out for.