Montezuma Canyon Road

Montezuma Pass at Coronado National Memorial offers a view of sunrise and the twisting road up to the pass. | A.O. Tucker
Montezuma Pass at Coronado National Memorial offers a view of sunrise and the twisting road up to the pass. | A.O. Tucker
Coronado National Memorial, Coronado National Forest
By Noah Austin

Nearly five centuries ago, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition crossed into present-day Arizona, following the San Pedro River north in search of seven legendary cities of gold. It came up empty, but the expedition became the stuff of legend. A drive through Coronado National Memorial, on the U.S.-Mexico border, offers plenty of that history, but those simply interested in unspoiled wilderness and stunning panoramas will find treasure there, too.

The drive begins on Coronado Memorial Road, which runs south, then west as it cuts around the Miller Peak Wilderness on the southeast flank of the Huachuca Mountains. Initially, you’ll pass through a verdant grassland that features excellent views of the Huachucas’ dramatic cliffs. After 3 miles, you’ll enter the memorial, where the road becomes Montezuma Canyon Road. Straight ahead is 7,641-foot Montezuma Peak, a rocky summit that looms over the memorial’s visitors center at Mile 4.8.

Continuing west for a quarter-mile, you’ll reach the parking area for Coronado Cave. From there, a half-mile trail leads to a 600-foot-long limestone cavern with 20-foot ceilings. Some scrambling is required to get in, and you’ll also need to provide your own light source, but the reward is a peek inside one of Southern Arizona’s few open and undeveloped cave systems.

From here, manzanitas and other trees, along with yuccas and agaves, close in on the roadside as you switchback up to Montezuma Pass. The pavement ends at Mile 6.1, but the resulting dirt road is in fine shape for the remaining 2 miles to the pass. From there, you’ll get an excellent view of the road you just traveled and the San Pedro River Valley farther east. To the west is the sprawling San Rafael Valley. For a panorama that incorporates both of these vistas, hike the short, steep trail up Coronado Peak, which offers a view south into Mexico. Interpretive signs at the pass tell the story of Coronado’s expedition, which made it all the way to present-day Kansas before giving up its search.

If you’re driving a high-clearance vehicle, you can continue west on Montezuma Canyon Road, which enters the Coronado National Forest and becomes Forest Road 61. The road winds through a tree-filled landscape on the slopes of the Huachucas, and you’ll soon get a good view of 7,244-foot Sutherland Peak straight ahead. Within a few miles, piñon pines and junipers join the deciduous trees along the route, and after a series of one-lane bridges, the road gets rougher and more rutted. Take it slow and keep an eye out for mule deer, roadrunners and other wildlife found in this valley.

Around Mile 17, the road (now Forest Road 48) crosses another broad grassland — one that offers a nice panorama of the Huachucas’ southwest slopes. Three miles later, you’ll come to Sunnyside Road, which leads to the ghost town of Sunnyside. Formed in the 1890s but deserted by the 1940s, the town today is owned by descendants of its original settlers, and a few buildings are still standing.

A couple of miles past Sunnyside Road, you’ll reach the end of this drive when Montezuma Canyon Road intersects State Route 83 near Parker Canyon Lake. Turn left to hit the reservoir and its numerous recreation opportunities, or turn right to head northwest to Sonoita’s burgeoning wine country. Either way, you’ll be good as gold.

Tour Guide

Note: Mileages are approximate.

Length: 22.2 miles one way (from State Route 92)
Directions: From Sierra Vista, go south, then east on State Route 92 for 13 miles to Coronado Memorial Road. Turn right (south) onto Coronado Memorial Road, which turns into Montezuma Canyon Road (Forest Road 61 and later Forest Road 48), and continue 22.2 miles to State Route 83.
Vehicle requirements: None in good weather for the drive to Montezuma Pass. Continuing west requires a high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck.
Special considerations: Coronado National Memorial is open from dawn to dusk daily, and there is no entrance fee. The visitors center is typically open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, but check the memorial’s website for changes related to COVID-19.
Warning: Back-road travel can be dangerous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Coronado National Memorial, 520-366-5515 or nps.gov/coro; Sierra Vista Ranger District, 520-378-0311 or fs.usda.gov/coronado