Monsoon in Southern Arizona

A Wild Road Trip Through Southern Arizona During Monsoon

Monsoon weather has returned to Arizona. The last few days of July brought much needed rain – torrential rain, with flash-floods – to our arid desert.

We weren’t home when it rained at our house, but found the back yard flooded when we returned at night – in Phoenix. This is a good thing here. We love rain.

By morning, the water was all gone, though. Still, we enjoyed the brief respite from the heat it brought. Our plants are much happier, our columnar cacti are thick and green…

And while we didn’t experience the rain at our house, we’ve enjoyed it on our trip through Southern Arizona, at Patagonia Lake State Park, Tumacacori, and Tucson.

Road Tripping through Southern Arizona

We usually don’t go to Southern Arizona in the summer; We reserve those trips for winter, late autumn, or early spring. However, we just wanted a short trip, and when looking at the weather, realized that it’s cooler south of us than it is here.

Besides, I just read about Patagonia Lake and realized that it’s one of the few places in Arizona we haven’t been at. Which is odd, considering we’ve been calling the Grand Canyon State our home for almost 30 years… So, we set off on a Southern Arizona day-trip towards Patagonia.

We drove to Tucson following the same Southern Arizona road-trip itinerary we always do when setting off in that direction. We continued on I-10 until the junction with the scenic State Route 83.

Driving the Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road

View from the Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road, Arizona

The full Patagonia-Sonoita Scenic Road consists of the short AZ-82 E and part or AZ-83 W. When we turned off onto state route 82, I realized I’ve never been on this road before.

There is a reason for it, of course – you won’t find much along this route. However, it seems like the greenest, and one of the most scenic part of the Sonoran Desert.

We drove through rolling hills surrounded by several mountain ranges of over 9,000 feet high. The desert was green from the recent rains Southern Arizona got. Besides low desert shrubs, I noticed more ocotillos than I’ve ever seen in clusters before.

We were traveling through the Santa Cruz River Basin, featuring semi-arid valleys and narrow canyons separated by the mountain ranges rising abruptly from the desert floor.

The 52.5-miles long scenic road connects Tucson to Nogales. Along the way, it crosses the gorgeous desert environment, Arizona’s wine country, several tiny towns, and Patagonia Lake State Park.

Patagonia, A Tiny Desert Town

We stopped in Patagonia, at the historic train depot. A tiny one-street town, Patagonia was the perfect stop for a walk in the park. At about 4,000 feet in elevation, sitting in Sonoita Creek’s riparian corridor, between the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains, Patagonia has the perfect layout.

Established as a mining town along the railroad in 1900, Patagonia built a railroad station that helped make it the commercial center of the Santa Cruz mining district.

However, we didn’t linger much; after a short walk in the park near the historic Train Depot, we continued to Patagonia Lake State Park.

Why Patagonia in Arizona? Isn’t Patagonia in South America?

When we hear the word Patagonia, we usually think of a region in South America. While I haven’t been there yet, I hope to go some day.

But why do we have a Patagonia in Arizona? We have places like Montezuma Castle, named after an Aztec king who has never been in this area, so it should not be a surprise.

Patagonia’s story is only slightly different.The town and the region got its name from Patagonia Mountains, named in turn by Welsh miners who migrated into the region from Patagonia. The mountains reminded them of the mountains from the area they came from.

Of course, the Native tribes who lived in the region much longer already gave the mountains the name, Chihuahuillas. But, as usual, the new settlers needed to feel like they discovered them, and needed to name them all over again. The new name, Patagonia, stuck, and the town borrowed it from the mountains.

Monsoon at Patagonia Lake State Park

A few miles past the town of Patagonia we reached Patagonia Lake State Park. Dark stormy clouds were all around us by the time we got close. We saw the rain falling in the distance, a sight I’ve only seen in the desert. It looked like torrential rain, the kind only monsoons brings to Arizona.

By the time we got to the lake, we caught up to it – or it to us. We drove into the park under a dark cloud. And by the time we pulled up to the “beach”, it was raining.

What’s more, it seemed to have rained earlier, since the road was wet and we noticed pools of water in the grass. People were packing up their blow-up canoes, day-use tents, and generally leaving the lake. Some still stayed, though few were in the water.

We had time for a walk along the shore before the rain started off again, a torrential rain that sent us and everyone else to the cars. We stayed out in the rain for a bit, but eventually just sat in the car, watching it, enjoying it. Yes, we are deprived of water falling from the sky. We enjoy walking in it, standing it it, and watching it – from anywhere.

Fellow Arizonans were still sitting under their canopies, even as it was getting so wet, it was collapsing above them. Then they just tilted it to get the water off the top. Kids were still running around, laughing in the rain.

However, rain or no rain, we didn’t have much to do at the lake; so we eventually made out way out, not before driving through the whole park.

The Park

In such a remote area of Arizona, I didn’t expect Patagonia Lake State Park to be so busy. But, it is close to several towns, including Nogales, which makes it the perfect camping, pikniking, boating, hiking, and fishing stop for people living in this area of Southern Arizona. We don’t have many lakes around, so no wonder it is popular, especially on weekends.

Established as a State Park in 1975, the surroundings of Patagonia Lake has always been popular for water-related activities. On quieter days it is supposed to be an ideal place for wildlife watching, whitetail deer and blue herons being most often seen in the area. In fact, as busy as it was, we still spotted a blue heron in one of the coves in the water.

The two-and-a-half-mile long lake might not be extremely large, but offers the perfect place for all water-related activities included in the park. We might return to camp some day – though we’ll probably try to do it in the middle of the week at some point.

Rio Rico and Nogales

After leaving Patagonia Lake, we drove towards Nogales, for another way to return to Tucson.

Nogales, the town that stretches on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border is relatively famous in our state. In years past, this was the place to go for cheap Mexican merchandise. I’ve never been there, though. And we still had no reason to stop in town, though we considered driving to a place where we would see the infamous border wall.

However, none of us cared enough; besides, I knew it would be depressing, and at least for me, it would trigger a never-ending litany of complains about the stupidity of it, the inhumane idea of “solving the immigration problem”. Ok, I’m known to go on never-ending rants about it, so, instead we decided to enjoy our day and drive in the opposite direction, towards Rio Rico, Tumacacori, and Tucson.

Rio Rico is beautiful enough – at least its natural setting – for us to consider it a contender for our retirement home. We’ve been looking at homes in the area, but since this was just a day-trip, we enjoyed the scenery and drove on.


Monsoon weather in Southern Arizona. Tumacacori

But we couldn’t drive by Tumacacori without stopping. Though we visited the park recently, we stopped again, to enjoy a walk under the clouds. We’ve been here several times over the years, but never saw the park under the dark clouds.

The only National Historical Park in Arizona, Tumacacori preserves a historical site of a Spanish mission dating from 1820 and several Native American structures. Through these sites, Tumacacori tells the stories of the people of this area, of the clash and blending of several different cultures, bond by their struggles to survive in the harsh desert environment.

We enjoyed the walk through the site, this time focusing more on the outdoors element, specifically the orchard, where the fruit trees are. Since we’ve never seen the surroundings this green, we took our time to explore the trails, though we did visit the historic buildings and the museum, too.

And we were lucky enough to still be there when it started to rain, we sat on the porch, watching the random raindrops turn into a drizzle, then rain, and finally torrential downpour. We occasionally walked out into the open, to get wet and enjoy the water from above hitting us. I did mention, we are desert-dwellers, deprived of water falling from the sky.

Eventually, as the rain stopped, we left. We found the parking lot flooded, as we waded through water to get into our car. And we started driving.

Driving through Torrential Rain

Soon after we passed the border checkpoint (which elicited another rant from me about the nonsense of it all), we were enveloped into another monsoon cloud, as rain started hitting the car again. As the storm progressed and turned into a downpour, I was glad I wasn’t driving. I would’ve stopped at the side of the road, like many other cars I’ve seen. My husband felt it would be safer to drive, slowly, with our hazard light on.

Like many others on the road drove like snails, with our lights on, through the river-like water on the road and heavy rain hitting us from above. You’d have to be a desert-dweller to enjoy this, I know. But eventually, even we felt unsafe, and took the closest exit, getting off the highway.

As the rain seemed to slow down, we continued driving; but soon the torrential downpour caught up with us again – or we with it. It was quite an adventure driving through it. But eventually, it all stopped, and we continued on dry roads to Tucson, where we stopped for dinner.

Late in the day, we drove the remainder of the trip through different pockets of rainfall, from a drizzle to a storm, but no more torrential downpour.

Monsoon Storm in Phoenix

We caught the tale end of a heavy monsoon storm as we approached our home. It was still raining, but not a heavy downpour as we drove. The roads were wet and flooded at places.

And our back yard was flooded! I know it doesn’t sound like it, but for us, it’s a good thing. It’s the sign of a healthy monsoon season – or at least a storm. Our whole backyard, our whole street was built with the monsoon flooding in mind. Tilting slightly towards the road, we even had trenches to drive the water towards the street.

Our whole street, like many others in the city, tilts towards a retention basin that used to flood every year during monsoon season. At least while our kids were little. We haven’t seen these types of storms here in at least a decade. So, yes, it was a happy occasion to see our back yard flooded. We also knew that by morning all the water would be gone. We were right. It was. Though at least it stayed muddy for another day.

Scroll to Top