The drive to the park takes you through semi-desert grasslands and rolling hills studded with ocotillo, yucca, and scrub oak. 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 flows through the 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.
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.
Not only is Patagonia Lake scenic, it offers a variety of recreational activities. Visitors enjoy fishing on the two-and-a-half-mile-long lake.
Patagonia Lake holds healthy populations of largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, crappie, and sunfish. Rainbow trout are stocked seasonally from November through March and offer anglers a chance to experience fishing for these beautiful, delicious fish in a unique southern Arizona environment.
Fishing opportunities abound from both shore and boat and anglers typically do fairly well in their pursuit of whichever species they are targeting. The best time for fishing is about sunrise or around dusk. There is a handicapped-accessible fishing dock.
Patagonia Lake is ringed with trees and desert vegetation. A beautiful arched wooden bridge allows hikers to walk from one peninsula to another.
Near the lake is a ½-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek. This is a popular birding area. Additional trails can be accessed through Sonoita Creek State Natural Area. Hikers can use Patagonia Lake State Park as a basis for hiking through the nearly 10,000 acres of the combined state park and Sonoita Creek Natural Area.
Twenty miles of trails are available for hiking and eight miles of trails are shared with equestrians. The Overlook Trail, a 1.5 mile hike of moderate difficulty is close to Patagonia Lake State Park and is a great way to see 360 degrees of spectacular scenery.
At all times of the year, boots with good traction, sun protection, food, and water are recommended. The minimum elevation change on any route is 300 feet.
There is a roped-off swimming area and there are covered picnic ramadas with tables and grills. The marina store is open seven days a week for fishing licenses, bait, ice, boat rentals, and a few miscellaneous supplies.
Camping facilities include 105 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 amp and 50 amp voltage. 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.
There are two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long and are suitable for camper vans and short trailers.
Summer weekends are busy and the campgrounds are usually full by 5:00 p.m. on Fridays from May through October. The gate to the park closes at 10:00 p.m. It opens at 4:00 a.m. If you plan a summer visit try for weekdays or arrive early on Friday. Summer temperatures range from 90 to near 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 60-65 degrees at night.
Twelve boat-in campsites are also available. Sites have a picnic table and fire-ring and are accessible by boat only. Some sites have portable restrooms.
Seven two and three room cabins are available with beautiful views of the lake making an ideal getaway for a weekend—or a week. The cabins are furnished with a queen-sized bed, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, mini-fridge, microwave, ceiling fan with overhead light, and electricity. Cabins also offer heating and air-conditioning. Campers must supply their own linens.
Each cabin also has a barbecue and picnic table outside plus an individual fire ring. Family-style shower facilities are only a short walk from all of the cabins. All cabins are wheelchair friendly and accessible to people with disabilities.
North of Patagonia Lake State Park near Sonoita is The Nature’s Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. A prime riparian area the preserve protects a cottonwood-willow riparian forest that includes some of the largest (over one hundred feet tall) and oldest (one hundred and thirty years old) Fremont cottonwood trees. Rare and sensitive plant species are found here and four native fish species live in Sonoita Creek. Mammals found in the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve include bobcat, javelina, white-tail deer, mountain lion, coatimundi, and coyote.
To reach the park, follow Highway I-10 east from Tucson to Highway 83. Turn south and drive to Highway 82, eight miles past the town of Patagonia. Turn south and continue until you reach marker post 12, take Lake Patagonia Road four miles southeast to the entrance. From Nogales, follow Highway 82 twelve miles northeast to marker post 12, then follow Lake Patagonia Road four miles to the entrance.
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.
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
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.
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.
Picnic areas: Ramadas and picnic tables are scattered about the lake’s south shore with most clustered at the beach.
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.
Supplies: The Lakeside Market sells food, drink, and other common provisions and also offers boat rentals, fishing licenses, and bait.
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