3 Days in Arizona’s Sky Island Region


New fun fact I learned during our brief visit to the Elgin-Patagonia-Tombstone-Bisbee area in Arizona – they are in the heart of the “sky islands” of Arizona.  Wikipedia says that “sky islands are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments. One of the key elements of a sky island is separation by physical distance from other mountain ranges, resulting in a habitat island, such as a forest surrounded by desert.” 

As we drive southeast from Tucson, the geography quickly changes from flat desert to rolling grasslands with views of mountains here and there in the distance.  During the past hour, we have climbed from 2,700′ elevation in Tucson to 4,900′ elevation in the small town of Sonoita.

And why are we in Sonoita?  For wine tasting!  Like many states, Arizona has a small but growing wine industry.  Full disclosure – we have low expectations for quality of the wines, but it sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon.

A Little Background on Arizona Wines

The state’s commercial wine industry got its start in the 1980s, thanks to a soil scientist from the University of Arizona named Dr. Gordon Dutt, who determined that soil types in the Sonoita-Elgin area are favorable for growing wine grapes, plus the enactment of the Arizona Farm Winery Act paved the way for winemakers to sell directly to consumers.  Today, the state has two designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) – Sonoita and Willcox – plus one pending application for Verde Valley.

The Sonoita AVA currently has 12 wineries, most of which are small, family-run operations.  We’re visiting on a Monday, typically a slow day for drop-in guests, so most tasting rooms are closed.  Nonetheless, we find four that are open for business (see below for a description of each).  The crowds are thin (we’re the only visitors in most cases), and we have time to chat with our wine servers.

First things first – we were wrong about the wines, they are terrific!  We don’t claim to be connoisseurs, but we’ve consumed plenty of bad wine over the years.  The Sonoita wines are not “just OK,” they are really good!  We exercise restraint and purchase only one bottle at each winery.

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Sonoita Vineyards

Our first stop is Sonoita Vineyards, the original commercial winery in the area founded by Dr. Dutt.  Today his granddaughter, Lori Reynolds, is the winemaker and our wine-tasting host.  Finding the place is a bit of a challenge – the Subaru GPS announces that we have arrived at our destination while we’re still in the middle of ranch land and grapevines as far as the eye can see.  The facility is actually another mile or so up the road.  We have a nice visit with Lori and Storm Trooper, the friendly resident dog.  Next stop – Village of Elgin Winery about five miles up the road.

Village of Elgin Winery

As we drive up to our second winery of the day, we question whether or not to stop.   The tasting room looks tired and nondescript from the outside, and the property next door appears to be the final resting place for random objects that no longer serve a useful purpose.  But in we go, and our host, Jim, is knowledgeable and entertaining.  The Village of Elgin Winery is the second oldest commercial winery in Arizona, and the wine is mighty fine.  Very glad we checked it out!

Kief-Joshua Vineyards

The first thing we notice about the Kief-Joshua Vineyards tasting room is the building’s sheer size and presence – the relatively new facility would look right at home in Napa or Sonoma.  We are served by the founder, owner and wine-maker, Kief Joshua Manning.  He started the winery 16 years ago with a philosophy of holistic farming and sustainability.  The wine is excellent, and the entire family-run operation is professional and first class.

In the course of conversation, we learn that Kief is an avid rock climber in his spare time, so we have an interesting dialogue about Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold and his ground-breaking ascent of El Capitan in 2017.  That movie represents the sum total of our knowledge about rock climbing, but Kief seems to enjoy talking about something other than wine-making, even if just for a short time.

Flying Leap Vineyards

Our final wine-tasting of the day is hosted by Janie at Flying Leap Vineyards, which is both a winery and a distillery.  The winery was founded and is owned by three former pilots who were classmates at the Air Force Academy in the late 1980s.  Like our other tasting experiences today, the wine is nice.  Unlike our other visits, however, our server is juggling multiple groups of guests, so we don’t have her undivided attention.

After buying a bottle of Petit Verdot dessert wine, we make our way to the outdoor bar area, where we mingle with a group of four KU Rock Chalk Jayhawk fans who are in the Tucson area for a family wedding.  We soak up the perfect weather for a half hour or so, then make our way to Patagonia to spend the night.  It’s been a delightful day!

Patagonia

The official website for Patagonia describes the small town (population 931) as ‘quirky and we like it that way.’  We immediately feel at home in this artsy retirement community.  Patagonia is also an international birding destination, known for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest in the riparian areas.  We make a brief visit to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds with its many viewing areas for bird enthusiasts to commune with nature and each other.  After a relaxing evening and invigorating hike in the hills the next morning, we depart for our next attraction – Kartchner Caverns State Park.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

In 1974, two college students and amateur cave explorers, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, made the discovery of a lifetime – a huge limestone cave system that would eventually become Kartchner Caverns.  Their story of the events that transpired over the next 25 years to protect this amazing feat of nature and share it with the public is worth a read:  Discovery and History of Kartchner Caverns, Arizona. 

In a nutshell, Randy and Gary kept their discovery a secret as they returned to the cave  time after time for additional exploration and pondered how best to protect the underground treasure from vandalism.  After four years, they shared their findings with landowners James and Lois Kartchner.  All parties agreed that it needed protection but also had great potential to be a show cave open to the public.  Eventually the land was sold to the state of Arizona, and development ensued shortly thereafter.  Kartchner Caverns State Park opened its doors to the public in 1999, some 25 years after its initial discovery.

Our pre-arranged tour is scheduled for mid-afternoon, so we have time to visit all the exhibits and the gift shop in the visitor’s center while we are waiting.  Twice.

Finally we board the tram that takes our group of about 20 people underground for the 90-minute guided tour of the Big Room.  And we are not disappointed!  Each time we go through a doorway or turn another corner, we see an awe-inspiring sight.  Cell phones and cameras are not allowed on the tour, so the photos below are pics I took during the introductory video in the visitor’s center.

If you like caves, this is a must see attraction if you are in the vicinity of Benson, Arizona!

Tombstone

The small town of Tombstone is just a short drive from Kartchner Caverns, and we arrive in the late afternoon.  After a self-guided walking tour of the historic section of town and Boot Hill Cemetery, we eat an OK dinner, spend the night in an OK hotel, and spend a couple of hours the next morning learning about the 1881 shootout at the OK Corral and other local historical events.

While it’s a fact that Tombstone’s Wild West reputation for lawlessness and overall mayhem is well-deserved, today’s Old Tombstone is dominated by eye-rolling tourist traps.

There are, however, a couple of sites that are worth a visit if you find yourself in town.  You will need about two hours to peruse the excellent exhibits at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park and another 30-45 minutes to wander through Boot Hill Cemetery.

Afterwards head down the road to Bisbee like we did to enjoy lunch at one of the many fine restaurants in town.

Bisbee

Bisbee is a small mountain town that sits at 5,500 feet elevation with a comparable number of current residents.  Like Patagonia, it exudes quirkiness and has garnered attention in recent years from the likes of Expedia as the best hidden gem for free-thinkers and from Budget Travel as one of America’s coolest towns.

Bisbee’s legacy is firmly grounded in its mining history.  During a century of activity that began in the late 1870s and ended in the mid 1970s, Bisbee mines delivered nearly three million ounces of gold, over 100 million ounces of silver, and over eight billion pounds of copper.  Open pit mining was introduced in 1917 and as you might imagine, the landscape is forever changed as a result.

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After lunch, we visit the shops in the old downtown area and are intrigued by Killer Bee Honey.  We chat with the store owner and learn that he is known as Killer Bee Guy, because he’s the leading ‘go to’ person in this region for Africanized bee removal.  Over the years, he has also created a thriving retail business selling the honey retrieved from his work.  He’s an interesting person with many stories, and we walk out (after paying, of course!) with a 5-pack of sampler size products.

One final note about our visit to Bisbee.  A local at the visitor’s center mentions that some people are interested in driving to the border town of Naco to check out a section of The Wall.  So we do – it’s only 12 miles away.  To be clear, the wall (which is really two tall fences) that separates Arizona Naco from Mexico Naco dates back to the 1990s, with additional reinforcement after 9/11, so it predates current attempts to ‘build the wall.’  There’s not much happening in the dusty town of Naco, so we drive back to Bisbee to find a dinner spot.

Tomorrow we start the drive back to Fort Collins.  Three easy days on the road, and one final post to wrap up our winter vacay in Arizona.

Categories: ArizonaTags: , , , , ,

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