Boondocking Site Review – Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Sonoita, AZ
A remote and rarely visited grassland area in SE Arizona. Simply spectacular!
Location: 45,000 acre natural preserve on the NE corner of Hwy83 and Hwy82 next to Sonoita, AZ
Coordinates: Road Canyon Camping Area approx. 31.740029, -110.585976, Cieneguitas Camping Area approx. 31.766641,-110.627142. Link to map location HERE
Cost: FREE (14-day limit)
How We Found It: I originally found this spot on my handy Arizona Benchmark Map and was overjoyed when Ivan&HisKitty blogged about stopping here last month. Further research on the Las Cienegas NCA website nailed down the last details.
Nearest Dump/Water: No facilities in camp. Supplemental water availible on the preserve at Empire Ranch. Nearest dump Patagonia Lake State Park ~20 miles south.
- Access – 2.5/5
This is a rarely-used grassland preserve so it takes a bit of extra effort to get here. Camping is allowed in designated primitive “camping areas” or in previously-used dispersed spots. The designated spots -> Cieneguitas (open year-round) or Road Canyon (seasonal) are both accessed off the main road that runs through the preserve. This road is dirt and very bumpy, but otherwise firm and drivable for any-size rig, especially if you stick to the access listed below…just be ready for a bumpy, slow ride!
Cieneguitas -> This is best accessed from the western side off Hwy 83. Driving north from Sonoita, just before milepost 40 you’ll see the entrance to Las Cieneguas NCA and the beginning of Empire Ranch Road (wide, washboardy dirt road) to your right. Head east on Empire Ranch Road ~3 miles until you come to a fork. Take a right here onto Yucca Road (narrow, lots of small embedded stones) and go another ~1.1 miles to Cieneguitas Camp. The area is clearly marked by a sign. Turn right here and drive down the road to chose your camping spot. There are 6 large, cleared-out “individual” spots on either side of the road going back ~1/2 mile. More info HERE.
Road Canyon -> This is best accessed from the southern side off Hwy 82. Driving east from Sonoita, just after milepost 36 you’ll see the entrance to Las Cieneguas NCA and the beginning of Yucca Road (narrow, lots of small embedded stones) on our left. Head north on Yucca Road ~2.5 miles until you hit BLM Road 6916 (marked by a very, very small sign). No obvious sign or individual sites here, but you’ll see large cleared dirt areas for camping. This camping area is closed April 1 to June 30 due to pronghorn fawning season. More info HERE.
NOTE/ I do *not* recommend driving between Cieneguitas and Road Canyon in a big rig within the preserve. This particular interior stretch of Yucca Road is pitted with some deeper washes. If you decide to take your rig from one campsite to the next, it’s better to drive back onto Hwy 83/82 and re-enter at the south access point.
Dispersed Camping -> According to the local ranger you may also camp elsewhere in the conservation area on condition that the spot has been obviously previously used and you are no closer than 1/4 quarter mile from wildlife or livestock watering area. In our drive around there were not really any “beast-size” options of this sort, but for smaller rigs you may be able to find a site.
- Nature – 5/5
Nature is simply fabulous here. Be ready for rolling hills, sweeping grassland views and distant mountains. Very light traffic and lots of little side-roads to explore the preserve by bike or 4WD. Simply spectacular!
- Isolation – 5/5
Wonderful isolation here. This is a very lightly-used preserve so you will only see a few cars going through and you may (or may not) see any other campers. I can’t guarantee complete solitude, but you’ll come very, very close. In our 4 days at Road Canyon we saw no other campers and only a few cars.
- Pet Friendliness – 5/5
Another great location for the paws. Easy grassland all around and lots of other dirt roads leading deeper into the wildlife area which can be accessed with pooch for longer walks.
Overall Rating = 4.4
BONUS ALERT = Camp with sweeping grassland views!
Summary: This 45,000 acre grassland preserve is a wonderfully remote, natural get-away in SE Arizona just next to Sonoita, AZ. It’s a rarely-visited park and very primitive. Just dirt roads, dirt sites and sweeping views. This makes accesability more difficult, but the payoff is lots of solutide and fabulous, natural camping. The main road through the park is narrow and fairly bumpy (Empire Ranch Road is washboard, while Yucca Road has lots and lots of small emdedded stones…get ready to rattle!) and camping is permitted in designated spots Cineguitas (open year-round) and Road Canyon (seasonal), or previously-used dispersed sites. If staying at the designated areas choose your spot before you come since access is different for each one (see above). The camping areas are large, dirt clearings with plenty of space for any-sized rig and easy, flat surfaces. Cieneguitas has 6 “individual” style campsites which are further from the main road, while Road Canyon has more “group-like” wide-open camp area closer to the main road, but both have great views and lots of space. Lots of nature to enjoy as well as on-site historic Empire Ranch. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here and would come back in a heartbeat.
Extra Info: Water and pit toilets availible at the Empire Ranch, but no other facilities. Decent 3G Verizon signal (2-3 bars).SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Betty Graffis says
I have enjoyed your posts. Joe and I spent a day at the Empire Ranch during their round up. It was very interesting to us. Looking forward to when we can travel again…. boondocking in that area will be on our list.
What’s cool experience that would have been! I noticed Empire Ranch holds quite a few interesting events. I love the fact that they’re keeping this place alive and preserving its history.
Is RV camping allowed only at the two areas you mentioned? Because boondocking along road 919 might be interesting to someone wanting a site considerably closer to Sonoita.
According to the Las Cienegas website you can only camp in the designated areas. It has to do with managing the preserve and keeping the grasslands as they are. There are a few designated group areas in addition to the 2 sites I mentioned, plus one other camp that we didn’t get out to see (Oak Tree Canyon). Never hurts to call and ask of course, but I’m pretty sure that’s the policy.
http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/ncarea/lascienegas/camping.html has wording regarding camping 1/4 mile from water—suggesting boondocking outside the designated campgrounds is permitted.
Like I said, it never hurts to call. I’ve posted my interpretation of the facts and the spots I know for certain that you can camp legally, but calling the ranger will get the most accurate details. If you find out more let us know.
UPDATE!! I managed to catch the ranger again during our 2nd stay in the area last week and he told me camping IS allowed outside of the designated areas, but only in previously used spots (areas that have clearly been used before), The rangers just want to make sure the grasslands are not further eroded so that’s why it’s got to be an obvious clearing. There’s not many of them around, but they do exist. For our size he said the designated camp areas are best, but for smaller rigs there’s extra spots out there.
Seems that settles it! I’ll update the review when I get a chance.
That said, I did notice that some roads go off the preserve. For example 916 goes off NCA land and onto Arizona State Trust land about a mile or so East. You can typically camp on State Trust land if you have a permit. The road is very rough and there’s no way we’d take “the beast” down there, but a smaller, more mobile camper might make it. 919 is entirely within the preserve so I suspect it’s off limits. Again all this is my interpretation, so always best to call the local ranger and ask. We met the ranger our last day out. Very nice guy!
I just have to repeat that your reviews are the best anywhere. Great pictures and detailed information including MAPS. Thanks so much.
So happy the posts are helpful! Hopefully they encourage others to use our public resources (and share them too!)
Dont forget the winery tours … many Offer sample tasting 🙂
And the local goat farm used to sponsor a local farmers’ market … cant remember if it was spring or fall.
The Patagonia Craft Fair in October brings crafters from 4 states ! They close the 82 east bound lanes down and fill the park in downtown for blocks with vendors and displays. Oh … if you want pizza .. the place on the north side of west.bound 82 often has standing room only 🙂
We still consider Sierra Vista our Arizona home. That whole area is a very special place indeed. Glad you are discovering it.
Nice tips!! Thanks so much. We may well go back and do a winery tour. We’ve been enjoying Patagonia these last few days. Lots of hidden art and nice back-country drives here.
Just in case you thought you might be missing some of the fun:
Oh my!! I’m happy to be where it’s warm and snow-free. Very cool blog post. Love the storyline!
Empire Ranch is on our list for 2014. I think we now know where we will stay for that visit… AZ is so cool, from the hills of Prescott, the red’s of Sedona, the higher hills of Flagstaff, something about a big hole in the ground West of Flagstaff, or was that a Meteor hole to the East… White Mountains, Showlow, Tombstone, Yuma – and the list goes on, and on… With all of these, we may have never considered this place….
The big hole is Meteor Crater…a very cool place that we went to our 1st year on the road:
Going Spacewise (Meteor Crater, AZ)
We totally dug it!!
We’re headed to Cottonwood area in about a week. Can’t wait!
Andrea Harper says
Nina, priceless information.
Our phone GPS signal died right in the middle of driving down 83. I had your blog already pulled up…and just told Jay, Nina says look for mile marker 40 – that’s all we need to know!
You are an inspiration to those of us wanting to enjoy nature to its fullest. Thank you!
Cool. Enjoy the area! It’s quite a special place.
Sara Schurr says
We just visited Las Cienegas this past week (Feb 3 & 4 2015). They are working on the roads. The main road in off of Hwy 83 has been regraded and is in great shape. The notice that is posted at the kiosk says they are going to chip seal part of it! They are doing major regrading all the way down to Hwy 82 with plans to close portions of the road for 3 weeks at a time. We camped at the Cieneguitas Camp area and the road was great to there. The camping area was rather full though. When we drove past the entrance on Hwy 82 it said “Road construction next 11 miles”. We suspect that getting to the Road Canyon camping area may be a challenge until construction is complete March 15th.
Good info! Thanks for reporting back on conditions in the area. The nicer road is going to be a mixed blessing for boondockers -> on the one hand it makes the sites easier to get to (= the road was one tough ride before) and on the other hand it makes the sites easier to get to (= more people in the campsites). Thanks again for the report!
Sitting here right now thanks to your info. Just wanted to say that the 3 mile road in is now paved. The last mile is still dirt, but is smooth as can be. It’s March 15th and there are three rigs out here with us, and spaces are spread out so far that you feel alone. Great spot. Thanks again for the info.
Sweet! Thanks so much for updating the info.