Enjoy Birding, Caving, Hiking
Barely North Of The Border
May 15, 2015
The area around Sierra Vista Arizona is diverse: everything from pine forests to desert and riparian areas. It makes for a great little vacation, and there is plenty to do down there.
Last month I told you about a couple of things to do on the way down there from Phoenix or Tucson, plus Ramsey Canyon which is just south of Sierra Vista. After hiking Ramsey Canyon, you may be in the mood for a drive and perhaps another little uphill hike along the way.
Coronado National Memorial
The perfect place for that is the Coronado National Memorial. This is a National Park, but there are no entry fees or permits required. The southern end of the Arizona Trail starts in this park, and there is an information center that is open from 8-4 every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Across from the visitor center is a very nice picnic area that is open year round. There are 8 miles of trails in the park, and all but two are rated difficult because the terrain is mountainous. It is a very beautiful place and well worth a visit.
We stopped at the visitor center and learned a bit about the area, then we decided to take the drive up to Montezuma Pass, which is three miles west of the visitor center. The road is mostly unpaved and it is full of twists and turns, so vehicles under 24 feet are recommended. The Pass is worth going to just for the view – you can see the San Rapheal valley to the west, the San Pedro Valley to the East, and Mexico to the south, including the big fence. It's pretty cool.
The wind in the pass the day we were there was really strong, and the ranger told us it's often like that. There are information panels all around the parking lot that explain about the sky islands, animals, plants, and the geography you're seeing. This is also the trailhead for the southern bit of the Arizona Trail. There are restrooms at the pass, and a couple of picnic tables.
Parker Canyon Lake
If you're up for an adventure, you can continue on the dirt road past Montezuma Pass and in fifteen miles you'll be at beautiful Parker Canyon Lake. It's a long fifteen miles, though – it's all dirt road. We have a Rav4 but we saw regular passenger cars on the road. However, during monsoon season or the snowy part of winter I'd want a four-wheel drive on any Arizona dirt road.
Parker Canyon Lake is really lovely and there is a store there as well as boat rentals. Bring your rod and reel and try for some bass or just do a bit of sight-seeing then head back to Sierra Vista via Sonoita.
This area is wine country and there are several great wineries. If wine is your thing, go to this Web site and you can print out a map of the Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail: https://www.arizonawine.org/sonoitaWineTrail.html.
I forgot to mention that between the Memorial's Visitor Center and the Pass there is a trail to Coronado Cave, a natural limestone cave that is open to the public. We actually passed by it the first day and drove through to Parker Canyon, but we came back the next day just to go to the cave.
The trailhead is clearly marked and you can't miss it. The trail itself is rated moderate – it's not long, but boy is it all uphill. The trailhead sign says it's a little over half a mile, but it feels much longer. It's a very well constructed trail with lots of stone steps and there are plenty of trees to stop under so you can catch your breath in the shade.
The cave entrance is uneven and you'll need to scramble down about 25 feet of fairly steep rocks before you reach the floor of the cave. It's about 600 feet long and 20 feet high, and of course, pitch black. Don't go unless you have two light sources per person, and bring plenty of water because that is one thirsty trail.
We saw lots of young people and kids, and one of the guys we met on the trail going back told us that he had heard there were a couple more caves past the Coronado Cave, one of them with a pool inside.
But, we were already on our way back and there was no way I was turning around for another uphill climb that warm day, so if you decide to check it out, be sure to let us know, okay?
After we visited Parker Canyon Lake, we took highway 82 back toward Sierra Vista and made one more stop at the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. This is more than 45,000 acres of ranch land that was once in danger of being overtaken by housing and other construction, but is now set aside and protected.
It is gorgeous, and home to sky islands, riparian areas, and woodlands in addition to the rolling grasslands you see from the highway. We are definitely coming back to explore this area further.
San Pedro Conservation Area
I'm a bit of a birder, but nowhere near as good as most of the other people I see in the various birding areas we go to. Southern Arizona is full of world-class birding areas, including Ramsey Canyon, Madera Canyon, and the San Pedro Riparian Area. There are several places to access the San Pedro, and we went to every one of them. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is another area set aside to be protected, and thank goodness for that! It is an amazing place, and the Conservation Area is nearly 40 miles long.
The river actually flows north, which is unusual. When we were there, it was divided into several shallow and slow-moving channels, but there is plenty of evidence that the sleepy little river we enjoyed that day can become a raging torrent that tears trees out and moves boulders.
A Great Birding Place
I recommend going to the San Pedro on highway 90, because that's where the visitor center is, and also where we saw the most birds. At the visitor center, which is an old house, you can get birding gear, books, lists, a map of the trails, etc.
They also have a variety of feeders and plenty of places to sit in the shade so you can photograph the birds that are drawn to the feeders. This is also home to an enormous tree – the Great Tree of Arizona, 2003, commemorated with a plaque. It's amazingly huge.
The river itself is just a short hike away from the visitor center. Be sure to get a map of the trails, because it can be quite a maze, and the little trail map is free. There are trails up on the outer bank of the river, and we saw a lot of the birds there. The scrub trees were mostly bare, and the birds were easy to find.
Down in the actual bed of the river the trees are huge, leafy, and green. It's much harder to see the birds down there, but you can hear them everywhere and it's so cool and beautiful you feel as if you'd just like to stay there forever. You can actually get a pretty good hike without actually going very far from the center because the trails twist and double back all over the place.
It's really quite beautiful and there are several benches strategically placed for birders as well. We also saw a few fishermen on the banks. This is far and away the best birding spot we found on our little tour of the Sierra Vista area – even better than Ramsey Canyon.
Next time I'll tell you about some of the other places you can access the river. Plus, of course, no trip down that way would be complete without seeing Tombstone and Bisbee - all that next time!