Patagonia Lake State Park: A Southern Arizona Oasis for Boating, Fishing, and Camping<

Whether you are interested in birding, fishing, camping, water sports, or just enjoying one of the favorite lakes in southeastern Arizona, make a stop at Patagonia Lake State Park

When a sign suddenly popped up along a two-lane highway carving through Arizona’s wine country I wondered if it was a mistake. It pointed to a back road leading into the desert foothills promising an unlikely destination. Is there really a lake amid these gentle rolling hills covered in desert brush?

Taking that turn we traveled a road whose route is dictated by the landscape almost doubling back on itself as it follows the path of least resistance. The drive took us through semi-desert grasslands and rolling hills studded with ocotillo, yucca, and scrub oak. After four miles it ended at small lake tucked within the contours of rolling hills.

Road to Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and fishing in winter

The first glimpse of water at Patagonia Lake State Park came through the tents and RVs that crowd the campground. On a winter morning early risers walk their dogs nodding to their fellow campers taking leisurely strolls through scenery that demanded attention.

The 2½-mile lake plays hide and seek throughout its length ducking around bends and into coves. On this day, anglers are the first ones on the water, prowling for bass, catfish, crappie, and even rainbow trout which are stocked during the winter. Fishing opportunities abound from both shore and boat, and anglers typically do fairly well in their pursuit of whichever species they are targeting.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later on they will be joined by kayakers who cruise silently along the placid surface. Two-thirds of Lake Patagonia’s 265 surface acres are devoted to no-wake zones, the perfect playground for those who prefer to explore in a canoe or kayak.

Patagonia Lake also draws those who have binoculars and know how to use them. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted and the area has a national reputation among birdwatchers.

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Many head to the east where the Sonoita Creek Trail leads to a riparian area perfect for the area’s full-time avian residents as well as those stopping briefly during migration. Birders have reported seeing such common species as the broad-billed hummingbird and great horned owl as well as the harder-to-find vermilion flycatcher, elegant trogon, and spotted towhee.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita Creek

Sonoita Creek flows for two-and-one-half miles along the edge of the park providing some of the richest riparian habitat in the area.

Sonoita Creek courses its way through Coronado National Forest between the Santa Rita Mountains in the north and the Patagonia Mountains in the south and is notable for its extensive, well preserved riparian corridor which harbors many rare species of plants and animals, especially birds. The creek creates a band of greenery in the otherwise arid mountains in a transition zone between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and which stretches for 15 miles from the village of Patagonia to the low elevation foothills east of the Santa Cruz Valley where the waters evaporate or seep below ground.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A dam over the creek (constructed in 1968) formed Patagonia Lake, a small but scenic reservoir. Its blue waters are surrounded by a narrow band of trees and bushes set beneath barren, rocky hillsides bearing cacti and yucca. Below the dam, several miles of the creek and an area of hills on both sides are further protected as the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (see the above photo).

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV and tent camping

One hundred five developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30/50 amp voltage. Sites tend to fill up in the evening from May until November. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m.–8 a.m. 

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There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with a ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long and are suitable for camper vans and short trailers.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boating and swimming in summer

As the weather warms, Patagonia Lake becomes an altogether different beast. The park is no secret to the thousands who come each summer to splash along its beach or carve rooster tails on its western third where wakes are to be jumped rather than shunned.

People from all over the area come to escape the heat. Summer weekends can get pretty crazy.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most summer visitors settle in at the beach finding a seat among the dozens of picnic tables shaded by a ramada or playing in the gentle water of the protected cove as parents make sure their children don’t venture past the line of buoys protecting the area from passing boats.

About a mile away on the lake’s western portion motor boats dominate, most of them towing skiers in an orderly counter-clockwise circle. At the end of the day some will head to the handful of camping sites available only by boat enjoying sunset from their secluded nooks.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A history of recreation

The lake’s popularity nearly killed it when local citizens first dammed Sonoita Creek 50 years ago to attract recreational enthusiasts. Members of the Patagonia Lake Recreation Association built facilities to make the area popular with those who wanted to fish, water ski, or simply have a picnic. Visitors flocked to the lake in the late 1960s and early ’70s so much so that owners couldn’t safely keep up with the demand.

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Eventually the area was acquired by the state and on April 1, 1975 it was opened as Patagonia Lake State Park.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park Fact Box

Size: 2,658 acres

Elevation: 3,804-4,200 feet

Established: April 1, 1975

Location: Southeastern Arizona, 15 miles northeast of Nogales

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to Vail (Exit 281); south on SR 83 to Sonoita; west on SR 82 past Patagonia to the Patagonia Lake State Park turnoff (distance is 177 miles one way)

Nearest services: In Patagonia, 10 miles away.

Park entrance fee: $15/vehicle Mondays-Fridays; $20/vehicle Saturdays-Sundays.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to go: Summer, if you want to cool off; Winter, if you want to kayak or fish when crowds are gone and the lake is calm.

Trails: There are more than 25 miles of hiking trails. All but a half-mile of them are within the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Natural Area

Visitor center: This should be your first stop for maps and a list of boating and swimming rules. Wakes are prohibited along two-thirds of the lake and rangers keep a close eye to make sure everyone is enjoying responsibly.

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Picnic areas: Ramadas and picnic tables are scattered about the lake’s south shore with most clustered at the beach.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground: There are 105 sites with electricity and room for two vehicles. Sites with electricity are $25-$30 per night; non-electric sites are $20-$25. The 12 boat-in campsites ($20-$25 per night) have no power or bathrooms. Cabins have a queen-size bed, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, mini-fridge, microwave, ceiling fan, heating and air conditioning. Bring your own bedding and supplies. Cabins cost $119 per night, $129 on holidays with a three-night minimum. Campsites and cabins can be reserved at azstateparks.com.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supplies: The Lakeside Market sells food, drink, and other common provisions and also offers boat rentals, fishing licenses, and bait.

Worth Pondering…
Patagonia is a tiny hamlet located in the Sonoita Valley in southeastern Arizona. A few blocks from the main street through town, on the edge of The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, lies a non-descript ranch house that is no less than one of the most famous bird watching sites in the world.

―Mathew Tekulsky, National Geographic News, 2004