Here is an excellent little drive that will add another perspective to your appreciation of the Santa Rita Mountains. Most people who come to this popular mountain range hustle right to Madera Canyon and spend their entire visit under the sycamore trees scanning the treetops for birds and the meadows for deer. Box Canyon Road takes you into an area of the mountain range where open grasslands predominate and where broad views stretch across the immense basins and isolated mountain ranges that make up the Coronado National Forest.

This all-weather gravel road heads east off the route to Madera Canyon at a the point where the pavement branches south toward that well-known recreation site. The road continues wandering across the grassy, mesquite-dotted flats of the Santa Rita Experimental Range to the Forest boundary where it crosses Little Box Canyon Creek and begins climbing the northern shoulder of the Santa Ritas. The mountains here are lower than those that form the core of the mountain range and are covered with waving expanses of grass rather than stately forests. Off to the left of what has become a narrow, winding mountain road, Box Canyon is visible as a deep gorge highlighted with bright green cottonwoods and silver barked sycamores. At one point along the road, a rocky seep covers a sheer cliff with algae and colorful wildflowers. The road reaches the top of its climb in an area of broad pastures and wood corrals where excellent views stretch to the east of seas of grass surrounding sky island mountain ranges such as the Mustangs, the Whetstones, and the Huachucas. From this point, the road meanders down to its junction with State Highway 83, a few miles north of the ranching community of Sonoita.

If you have got some time and energy left, you might want to turn south here and visit the ruins of the historic mining outpost of Kentucky Camp with its picturesque adobe houses and scenic setting. Sonoita makes a good lunch stop, and serves as a jumping-off place for a couple of other scenic drives across the Coronado National Forest's Sierra Vista District.

ATTRACTIONS:

  • Big views
  • Canyonside route
  • Grassland setting
  • Another perspective on the Santa Ritas
  • Historic mining district/operating cattle ranches

LOCATION: North end of the Santa Rita Mountains between Tucson and Nogales.

ACCESS:

  • Take Interstate 19 south from Tucson to the Continental Road Exit 63 at Green Valley.
  • Drive east one mile to Forest Road 62 (signs here point to Madera Canyon).
  • Follow Forest Road 62 past the Madera Canyon /Forest Road 70 Cutoff, where the road turns to dirt and bears left. to AZ State Highway 83, a few miles north of Sonoita.

MILEAGE/DRIVING TIME: 22 miles to AZ 83. Figure on about an hour.

SEASON: Year-round. Occasional snow in winter.

ROAD CONDITIONS:

  • The first 8 miles on the Madera Canyon Road are paved. The remainder is dirt, rocky and narrow in places.
  • This route is suitable for passenger cars if driven carefully.