Enjoy the Scenic Santa Rita Mountains: A Quick Guide to Box Canyon Road

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Box Canyon Road is a scenic drive through the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona.

At around 4500 feet in elevation, it’s a great destination for anyone looking for an escape from the summer heat. This area offers endless opportunities to explore the natural beauty of southern Arizona.

40 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, the Santa Ritas are part of the Madrean Sky Islands region. These isolated ranges are “sky islands” because they rise from the desert like islands in the sea. Much like islands surrounded by water, sky islands support unique plant and animal species.

box canyon road winding through the santa rita mountains in southern arizona
Box Canyon Road making its way through the Santa Rita Mountains between Madera Canyon and Sonoita

Madera Canyon, a recreational area with camping, a gift shop, bed and breakfasts, and several hiking trails is on the west side of Box Canyon Road. With an array of unique native and migratory species of birds, it’s a hotspot for birders as well.

On the east side of Box Canyon Road sits the ranching community of Sonoita and wine country. The rolling grasslands on the east side of the Santa Ritas aren’t what most people expect to see in southern Arizona, and it’s one of our favorite places to take out-of-town visitors.

With a wide variety of activities, both ends of Box Canyon Road have something for everyone to enjoy.

The road is open to all passenger vehicles, and the drive can be done in almost any kind of car if you’re mindful of weather conditions and drive gingerly. Due to the switchbacks on the narrow road, large trucks and RVs aren’t allowed to drive through the canyon.

With steep drop-offs on either side, the road isn’t suitable for inclement weather conditions.

During summer, monsoon thunderstorms flood the canyon and make the road rougher. In winter, snow and ice are sometimes present and can make the narrow road hazardous.

Always check the weather forecast before heading into the mountains.

Getting to Box Canyon Road in Southern Arizona

highway 83 in southern Arizona winding through green mountains and low clouds
Highway 83 between Vail and Sonoita: a scenic drive in its own right!

The road runs from west to east and can be accessed just off I-19 in Green Valley or by highway 83 off I-10.

If you access Box Canyon Road from highway 83, the road surface will begin with pavement and give way to gravel and dirt soon after you drive by the sign for Coronado National Forest. Follow the signs for Madera Canyon and ignore all side roads.

Taking the road from east to west is our favorite, as the drive south from I-10 is its own scenic drive. The access from I-19 goes through the community of Green Valley and the surrounding pecan farms.

There’s little cell phone signal once you get back into the canyon, so make sure you download an offline map. The closest gas stations and places to get food are in Vail, Green Valley, and Sonoita. Gas up before you go and make sure to pack snacks and water.

Due to the proximity of the international border, the area is sometimes used as a travel corridor for illegal immigration and smuggling. While it’s something to be aware of when exploring the backcountry of southern Arizona, in our experience the borderlands aren’t the terrifying “war zone” the media makes them out to be.

Enjoy the Santa Rita Mountains While We Still Have Them

The area has been mined for copper, gold, silver, and other metals since the 1800s. Copper mines are part of the history of the Santa Ritas, and continue to impact the land, wildlife, and water today.

Hudbay, a mining company based in Canada, owns several large properties in the area and is in an ongoing legal battle with several parties.

People for the mining of the Santa Ritas believe it will create jobs and help the United States rely less on foreign sources of copper.

Those against Hudbay worry mining will destroy habitat for endangered species, threaten the aquifer, and harm tourism. In addition, the mountains are sacred to many indigenous groups, and house historic Hohokam artifacts.

green sign along box canyon road in southern Arizona that reads travel caution smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area
Heading west on Box Canyon Road from Highway 83 just before a Border Patrol checkpoint

Animals such as deer, javelina, black bear, coati, foxes, bobcats, wild turkey, squirrels, mountain lions, and coyotes call the area home. Native plants within the Santa Rita Mountains include many species that don’t exist elsewhere in Arizona.

Hudbay has been accused of careless waste disposal and the destruction of watersheds. The company responded that the project will be low-cost, long-lived, and will “offer many benefits to the community and local economy in Arizona.”

Final Thoughts

Mexican jay spotted in madera canyon southern arizona
Mexican Jay spotted in Madera Canyon

The Santa Rita Mountains are a unique treasure worth protecting. For this natural landscape to flourish for future generations to enjoy, it needs active conservation efforts now.

If mining in the Santa Ritas concerns you, consider donating to or volunteering for Save The Scenic Santa Ritas. It’s a group started in 1996 to protect “the scenic, aesthetic, recreational and wildlife values of the Santa Rita Mountains through education and outreach.”

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the fun things and beautiful experiences southern Arizona has to offer. Now, it’s your turn. Add Box Canyon Road to your travel list and visit as soon as you can!

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Nicole

Artist & writer. Desert dweller. Web development nerd. Animal fawner-over. Always clowning, meme-ing, and using sarcasm. Probably camping.
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