The Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, located in Vail, is beautiful this time of year. If you are yearning for the colors and smells of autumn take a hike along Cienega Creek. This is one of the most intact riparian areas in southern Arizona. The preserve protects approximately 12 miles of the lower creek. Portions of the creek are perennial, the result of bedrock formations just below the ground forcing underground water to the surface. Surface flows have not been depleted and groundwater levels remain shallow.
The canopy of Cottonwoods and Willows offers plenty of shade and beautiful fall colors.
Riparian habitats occupy less than 1% of Arizona, yet 75% of Arizona’s native wildlife species depend on these areas for all or part of their life cycle. The area along Cienega Creek supports over 200 native species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and over 100 species of birds. The preserve is also home to the Lowland Leopard Frog and native fish, both of which have disappeared or declined in other areas due to the introduction of non-native bullfrogs and fish.
J had a blast exploring along the creek. She had fun watching leaves float away from her as she dropped them into the water.
There were branches everywhere, the bigger the better!
This area is certainly a rare and amazing spot amid the desert.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality designated a portion of the creek within the preserve as a “Unique Water of Arizona” which forbids the state from authorizing permits that would degrade water quality. Pima County also continues to acquire additional land near the preserve in order to protect the fragile habitat.
Permits are required to hike in this area. They are free and can be picked up at the Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Administration building at 3500 West River Road or you can fill out an online form and request a permit be sent to you via email.
There are a few different ways to access this area. We entered through the Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead (number one on the map). Once you walk through the gate take the trail to your left. You can also access the Arizona Trail from this trailhead.
There’s a ramada with a picnic table and a bike rack in this area. There are no trash cans so be prepared to pack out your trash. There aren’t any bathrooms either.
Follow the trail until you enter the riparian area. You can’t miss it! Just look for all the green trees! The distance looks longer than it actually is in this photo. It didn’t take us long to hike down to it at all.
The trail is quite an easy trail. J had no problem walking along it. There is one small section with a rocky little hill to go down but it is an easy and quick trek to the bottom.
You can also enter the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve by parking in the Three Bridges parking area (number 2 on the map) which is a bit further up the road on the left. You can’t miss it, just look for the bright sign.
From this lot you get a great view of the Cienega Bridge which was built in 1921. It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
I know that it can be a hassle to remember to get a permit but this area is so beautiful this time of year. J had such a fantastic time puttering around. It’s definitely worth the little bit of extra planning! There are so few riparian habitats around that when you stumble into one you feel like you aren’t in the desert anymore!