A small town of 900 people, Patagonia is 18 miles north of the border. It has a strong Hispanic influence, a long history of ranching, and an interesting mix of locals, including artists, writers, cowboys, and environmentalists.
The Cute Downtown
The setting is stunningly beautiful, tucked between the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountain ranges. Meander down the main street, and you’ll find color everywhere. The buildings are brightly painted in sunflower yellow, periwinkle, and terra cotta. Walls of intricate mosaics sparkle in the brilliant sunshine and vibrant murals adorn public buildings. There are also plenty of run-down trailer homes on side streets— right around the corner from beautiful art galleries and the lumber-company-turned-Pilates-studio.
A Birder’s Mecca
The skies are cobalt, a perfect background to the rugged gold mountains. The sunsets tend toward tangerine and magenta. And hidden in the mesquite bosque is the most colorful sight of all—the Elegant Trogon, an exotic tropical bird. Native to Mexico and Central America, a small percentage of Elegant Trogons nest in the canyons of southeastern Arizona. Most arrive in April and leave by October. There’s one renegade trogon, though, which for the past dozen years hasn’t bothered to return home and can be found hanging around Patagonia Lake in the winter.
First up, though, the easy-to-find birds:
Renowned as a mecca for birders, people flock from all over the world to bird in Patagonia, and the Elegant Trogon is the most prized sighting of all. About the size of a crow, the trogon is a stocky, potbellied bird with a leisurely manner. (I’d call it friendly; Eric tells me that I shouldn’t attribute human emotions to birds, but that bird looks sociable to me.) The scarlet belly, metallic green back and head, and fancy white scalloped tail feathers give the bird a festive appearance. One would think the Elegant Trogon would be easy to find in the tangled forest of bare mesquite branches. But it’s not that simple.
Searching For The Elegant Trogon
Birders wander the mesquite bosque, hiking the sandy trails while skirting cow pies and enormous cattle with big horns (parts of the park are open to free-range cattle). The most common greeting by birders is, “Did you see it?” referring to the trogon, of course. Most people don’t see the trogon, despite their best efforts.
Eric and I both saw it several years ago on a previous trip to Patagonia Lake. This time, the four of us searched for hours and didn’t find it. Ted and Katherine and I gave up, lured by the siren call of the coffee shop in Patagonia and an afternoon of exploring the town, while Eric headed back into the mesquite bosque. He, of course, found the bird and enjoyed a leisurely half-hour communing with it.
Kayaking On Patagonia Lake
Trogon or no trogon, Patagonia is worth a visit. If you’re not a birder, you probably won’t be enthralled with the hiking at the park—although the Sonoita Natural Area next door offers up interesting hiking. (We did a great hike there last spring with a local naturalist—you can read about it here.)
There are kayaks for rent on Patagonia Lake and it’s fun to explore the area from the water, although both Eric and Ted proclaimed the kayaks to be miserably uncomfortable (we’ll never again leave home without our kayak!).
The best thing about Patagonia Lake State Park campground is the location right on the lake, the birding trails within walking distance of the campsite, the sunsets, and the dark night skies.
(A few details: water and electric hookups are $25 a night; there is no cell coverage. It’s 12 miles to downtown Patagonia, where we restocked our food supplies at Red Mountain Foods, a wonderful natural foods store.)