The Ghost Town Loop from Patagonia, Arizona to the international border is a rough, gravel route that winds through the scenic Patagonia Mountains.
It has been on our adventure to-do list for a while, so last weekend we got out of the (motor) house and tackled it.
The road features five ghost towns: Harshaw, Mowry, Washington Camp, Duquense, and Lochiel.
We saw bonkers-level beautiful landscapes and were treated to forests, grasslands, and riparian areas.
On your way to the first town, you’ll be ushered through a modern mining operation by bored-looking traffic controllers in hardhats. I’m conflicted because I found the mine both interesting and heartbreaking.
The giant rock trucks barreling down the road and huge drilling machines are impressive, and I understand we need minerals and other natural resources. But it boils my beans that mining companies from Canada and Australia are allowed to excavate these beautiful natural areas and change our mountain ranges irreparably.
Soon after you make your way down the Forest Service road that snakes around the active mine, you’ll arrive at the first ghost town, Harshaw. All that’s left of a once-thriving community is a cemetery tucked into a hillside next to a wash, a sign put in place by the Forest Service, and a fenced-off building.
The next town, Mowry, requires a short trip down a side road just before Washington Camp and features the remains of a few adobe and stone buildings.
Washington Camp and Duquense are so close they could be mistaken for one town and have several buildings in various states of preservation.
Unlike the first four towns, Lochiel wasn’t a mining operation but supported the mining towns in the mountains and served as a border crossing between México and the United States.
Before the Gadsden Purchase in the 1850s, this area was known as La Noria. After becoming part of the United States, a rancher from Scotland renamed the area Lochiel.
Serving as a border crossing until the 1980s, Lochiel is by far the most preserved settlement along the Ghost Town Loop.
There’s an early 20th-century schoolhouse, a church, a former customs station, and a monument to a Franciscan friar who led the first Spanish expedition into what’s now Arizona.
I’d rather see a monument to the Native Americans who lost everything thanks to these expeditions. (But unfortunately, no one put me in charge of who we erect monuments to.)
The remnants of these towns now stand as silent witnesses to a bygone era where mining towns thrived. But if you’re hoping to get a close look at the ghost towns, with the exception of Lochiel, you’ll be disappointed.
Most of the remaining structures are on private land, so you can’t go further than the Forest Service roads.
I don’t love that landowners and modern mining operations are holding our history hostage. But I don’t know these people, so I’m doing my best to withhold judgment. Maybe they want to preserve the buildings and share them but can’t. It’s probably a complex issue.
And speaking of complex issues, plenty of spicy signs on the road warn you of immigration activity. This part of Arizona isn’t scarred by a razor-wire-lined border wall.
The only delineation between México and the United States is a simple fence, which may make some wary of traveling there. But all we saw were ranchers, cattle, and one border patrol vehicle.
No one bothered us, and the only threat we encountered were monsoon thunderstorms chucking lightning bolts and dumping rain on the nearby mountains.
I won’t say there are no dangers at the border. Human beings risk everything each day trying to cross into the United States, and no shortage of nastiness goes along with it.
I’m sure you’ve figured out my stance on immigration, given I haven’t used terms like “illegal.” I’m not trying to change how you feel about border politics. But I live in southern Arizona, and I know there’s a side of the border news sources don’t tell you about.
The one where there’s beautiful countryside, amazing wildlife, fascinating history, and regular people working and living ordinary lives in the borderlands of the United States and México.
Honor your level of comfort in driving the entire loop down to Lochiel. But please know visiting southern Arizona is not a death sentence. Be smart, prepared, and aware of your surroundings, and chances are you won’t have problems.
While we’re talking about being prepared, the area south of the Patagonia Mountains is vast and remote. There are no restrooms, no service stations, and little cell signal.
Gas up before you get to Patagonia, and make sure your vehicle is up to the task. Rain or snow (yes, it snows in Arizona) could change road conditions. But in general, you can drive the loop without 4-wheel drive.
To get to the Ghost Town Loop as you head into Patagonia from the north, turn left on Taylor Avenue by the high school. Take a left on Harshaw Avenue and follow the signs for Lochiel.
Southern Arizona’s Ghost Town Loop is more than a scenic drive — it’s where history meets adventure. The entire loop is around 45 miles and takes a couple of hours to complete.
And while immigration issues and border politics may cause concern, the beautiful countryside and fascinating history of the borderlands shine through.
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