Patagonia AZ in December

When my close friend CP suggested that I join him and his wife Marni on a gravel-biking expedition to SE Arizona, I eagerly agreed to join them. As an avid cyclist—road, gravel and mountain, I’m always looking for new venues and Patagonia was terra incognita for me and my friends.

We left Phoenix on a surprisingly chilly Monday and headed east on the 10 towards Tucson. We stopped at an REI in Chandler so that I could pick up a merino wool beanie and an under-helmet Smartwool cap for unexpectedly chilly weather.

After we passed Tucson, we exited the 10 at AZ 83 and started to climb into the Santa Rita Mountains. At Sonoita we stopped at Dos Cabezas Wine Works for a tasting and were pleasantly surprised by the high quality. The local vintners have successfully identified high desert-compatible varietals that produce lovely dry reds and whites and a dry sparkling rosé. Dos Cabezas is one of 22 wineries in the area. Most of the grapes are grown further east in Willcox, AZ. We particularly enjoyed the smoky 2017 El Norte and the 2018 Quintosol.

After the tasting we headed south on AZ 82 to the atmospheric town of Patagonia. Our Airbnb was spacious and generously appointed. Zander and Heidi Ault, the young owners of Patagonia Bikes and a few other businesses in town, are avid cooks and the cookware and gas range were great benefits. They own a lot with a main house and a casita, with ample outdoor entertaining space. Because of the heavy rain earlier and expected storms overnight, we had to put gravel biking on hold until Wednesday morning.

Once we checked in and unloaded our gear, including a huge cooler of food, we headed out for a soggy reconnaissance mission before charcuterie and a hearty beef stew, accompanied by the Dos Cabezas wines.

We devoured the charcuterie board and the beef stew and then enjoyed a pleasant post-prandial chat before retiring to our respective bedrooms. We left the gas stove on in the main room since it was expected to drop below 30 overnight. When I woke up around 3 am I snapped a picture of the snowy grounds before falling back to sleep. The snow was still there early the next morning.

The next morning, the Patagonia Bikes folks informed us that the rain had left the trails in a sorry state, so we opted for Plan B, a long hike on the Canelo Hills West Passage of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, from the Harshaw Road trailhead a few miles southeast of town. Marn had baked a fresh loaf of sourdough, so we added Boar’s Head pepper jack cheese and sliced peppered pepperoni and headed out after a generous caffeine program.

Although chilly, the sun was out and the trail wasn’t that soggy, except for a few low spots. Marn accompanied us for the first mile or so and then returned to start slow cooking a pork shoulder for carnitas. CP and I continued the ascent to the 5 mile point where we sat and enjoyed lunch before turning back. The views of the Santa Rita and Patagonia ranges were spectacular, with 9,456’ Mt Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mtns. to the north. The trail was superb and cut through several microclimates, including prairie grasslands.

We agreed that this trail ranked up in the highest tier. If so inclined, a hiker could traverse the entire 800+ mile trail from the Mexican border to Utah, which includes the rim-to-rim Grand Canyon section. We didn’t see a single soul on our ten-mile round trip.

Marn outdid herself with perfect broiler-charred carnitas with corn tortillas and a scratch pineapple salsa! We all retired before nine.

We got great news the next morning. Several of the trails had dried out sufficiently over the 36 hours, so after packing up we drove over to Patagonia Bikes to meet Zander and get measured for our gravel bikes. CP and Marn chose Pivot e-gravel bikes while I, the purist, chose a lighter weight bike from their “analog fleet”, as Zander memorably put it. Zander recommended the Temporal Viewpoint trail, which was easily accessible from town, and we set off.

It was chilly but brilliantly sunny with no wind. Really perfect biking weather. The first few miles out of town featured a steady ascent. I was wholly familiar with the Shimano DI-2 shifters, so I made good time on the climb. I enjoyed the bike so much that I decided to buy one in the spring. The downhills were still a bit slippery, but the tires found great purchase and only slight braking was required. When we got to the Temporal Gulch trailhead, Marn opted to enjoy the sunny weather while CP and I headed further up the trail. We crossed the swollen Sonoita Creek five times on our way up. I advised CP to peddle straight through by focusing on the other side rather than what lay below, which my mountain bike coach Simon Lawton had taught me a few years ago. It was great fun crossing the creek five more times on the return, this time with downhill speed. After rejoining Marn we had a major Class 4 ascent, which I loved. My e-bike companions passed me and waited at the crest. The long, curvy downhill was wonderful, followed by another climb and a three-mile descent back to town. We clocked 16 miles on Strava before returning the bikes and heading back to Scottsdale, with an anticipated stop at Rune Wines in Sonoita.

Rune Wines was another gustatory surprise, with their Syrah being the star. The hostess in the tasting room was engaging and told us that her son was a senior at Patagonia HS. She mentioned how fragile teenagers these days were, which was sobering to hear.

On the drive back we marveled at how magnificent Patagonia was and how undiscovered it still seemed. Before the trip, I’d never even heard of it. Selfishly, we’d like to keep it to ourselves. We decided to return for a longer stay in April for a few longer rides and hikes, perhaps including a hike to the summit of Mt Wrightson. Curated Carlos rating: a solid 10!

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