Kartchner Caverns State Park

Kartchner Caverns is over 200,000 years old and is considered to be one of the ten most mineralogically interesting caves in the world. It is located nine miles south of Benson. The cave is a living cave which means that the formations are still growing. It was discovered in 1974 by Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen and kept secret until 1988. It opened for tours in 1999. The full history is worth reading.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

Kartchner Caverns State Park

If you don’t purchase advance tickets online,  the Discovery Center is where to go first. The Discovery Center is full of information about the cave and surrounding area. You can watch a theater presentation, check out the museum exhibits, browse the gift shop, eat at the Bat Cave Cafe, use the restroom or just relax. The food at the Bat Cave Cafe is actually quite good!

Kartchner Caverns

Looking at animal tracks.

Shasta Ground Sloth

Looking at a Shasta Ground Sloth and its bones.

J really enjoyed this area of the exhibits.

Kartchner Caverns

Bugs and bats!

Kartchner Caverns

Checking out minerals through a magnifying glass.

The climb through cave wall was also a hit.

Kartchner Caverns

Climbing into the cave.

Kartchner Caverns

And out!

Older children can explore the exhibits and find the answers to the Discovery Center Scavenger Hunt. Children ages 6-12 can also become Junior Rangers.

After spending some time exploring the exhibits we went outside to wait for the tram. The view is fantastic and there are plenty of benches if you need to relax while you wait.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

Walking on the big rocks while waiting for the tram.

The tram takes you up to the cave. No photos are allowed at the cave but it is definitely impressive! You can see photos on the Kartchner Caverns State Park website. We took the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour because children under age seven are not allowed on the Big Room Tour and the Big Room Tour is currently closed for the season because of the bats.

Kartchner Caverns

The tram takes you up to the cave entrance.

The cave has a diverse amount of speleothems (cave formations) including stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, columns, shields, draperies, popcorn, flowstone, helictites and boxwork.

Kartchner Caverns is also home to:

  • one of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites (21 feet, 3 inches)
  • the most massive and tallest column in Arizona, Kubla Khan (58 feet tall)
  • the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk
  • the first reported occurrence of turnip shields and birdsnest needle quartz formations
  • unusual formations such as rimstone dams, totems, shields and helictites

After our tour, we had lunch at the Bat Cave Cafe and then wandered around the Hummingbird Garden Walk which is located on the southwest side of the Discovery Center. The walk is lined with native vegetation that attracts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other critters. The proximity to the riparian area of the San Pedro River, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert and the canyons and arroyos of the Whetstone Mountains creates a unique opportunity to see species that are present in each of these habitats. A bird list is available.

There are plenty of shady spots and plenty of benches in this area. There are quiet, isolated corners and picnic tables as well.

Hummingbird Garden Walk

Hummingbird Garden Walk

We saw quite a few varieties of butterflies. I think the one J was fascinated with was an Elada Checkerspot.

Hummingbird Garden Walk

Watching a small butterfly.

Elada Checkerspot

A slightly tattered Elada Checkerspot.

We also saw some different insects, much to J’s delight. She’d take them all home if she could.

Hummingbird Garden Walk

Come here, little Robber Fly!

Hummingbird Garden Walk

Following a Carpenter Bee around.

Leaf-Footed Bug

She really liked this Leaf-Footed Bug.

There are some hiking trails at the park as well. They are moderate to difficult trails so if you plan on hiking be prepared. The views are magnificent so if you can get some hiking in I definitely recommend it! We didn’t do any hiking today because it was drizzling and the sky was darkening. Campsites are also available.

If you are heading out with little ones you will definitely want to read the Park Rules. Here are some that are good to know if you are taking the kiddos into the cave:

  • purses, handbags, backpacks, fanny packs, baby backpacks and other bags/items are not allowed
  • cameras, phones, camcorders and other electronic recording devices are not allowed
  • strollers and backpack carriers are not allowed (soft slings or carriers worn on the front are allowed for babies age birth to one year)
  • food and drinks (including water) are not allowed
  • the only things you are allowed to touch in the cave are the handrails

The website also states that it is not uncommon for young children (six and under) to become frightened or uncomfortable in the cave. J sure didn’t fit into that category!

Happy spelunking!

Sweetwater Wetlands

Sweetwater Wetlands is a water treatment facility that recreates a water-rich, streamside riparian zone that supports a wide variety of wildlife while naturally treating and filtering water that is backwashed from the filters at Tucson Water’s Reclaimed Water Treatment Plant. It is located along the banks of the Santa Cruz River which once flowed year-round.

Construction of the wetlands has replicated some of the native habitat and wildlife that occurred along the Santa Cruz River before the 1900′s. Sweetwater Wetlands includes areas of deep open water, shallow water, shorelines and uplands. Each area serves a specific purpose and replicates the habitat of a natural wetland system.

Sweetwater Wetlands

Sweetwater Wetlands

A wetland is a place with soggy ground, pungent moist smells and lush green plants. There are wetlands that occur naturally in the desert, although rare: a seasonal pond or spring, a marshy cienega or a small backwater beside a desert stream. Although this is not a natural wetland you will still enjoy the lush landscape, shady pathways and wildlife. This is also a bird watcher’s paradise!

There are about 2.5 miles of pathways, all of which are easy to walk. Some are paved and the others are gravel and dirt. They are all flat and easy to maneuver on. You can easily do a half mile loop if you need to go at toddler pace. It is easy to backtrack or cut through the middle as well so a trip here doesn’t have to involve a ton of walking if you prefer.

Sweetwater Wetlands

There are some paved walkways.

Sweetwater Wetlands

There are also some gravel and dirt pathways.

The main ramada off of the paved pathway is covered. J had a great time watching the ducks and looking for turtles from this ramada. There are benches here and plenty of shade.

Sweetwater Wetlands

The main ramada offers plenty of space to relax and plenty of shade.

Sweetwater Wetlands

Looking for ducks.

Sweetwater Wetlands

The main ramada from the other side of the pond.

There are also a few other observation decks that overlook the water.

Sweetwater Wetlands

An observation deck overlooking one of the deep water areas.

Sweetwater Wetlands

This is the view from another observation deck.

There are plenty of shady spots with benches and a lot of the pathways are shaded by trees, too. There are a lot of Fremont Cottonwood trees, Gooding Willow trees and Velvet Mesquite trees.

Sweetwater Wetlands

Plenty of shade!

There is plenty of other vegetation as well and we enjoyed hearing the rustling of leaves as we puttered around.

Sweetwater Wetlands

There were Cattails everywhere.

Sweetwater Wetlands

There’s lush, green vegetation surrounding all the ponds.

Oh, the birds! So many different types, so many different sounds! We went in the morning and it was fantastic. What a beautiful way to enjoy the morning! There were bird watchers everywhere with their binoculars and expensive cameras. The Red-Winged Blackbirds were very active and fun to watch. They have a very distinctive call. You will spot the males easily but look for the females lower to the ground. They are more likely to be skulking through the vegetation and their brown feathers help them to blend in. J was more interested in the ducks though.

Male Red-Winged Blackbird

Male Red-Winged Blackbird

We also saw turtles, lizards, dragonflies and all kinds of other insects. There were bat houses in a few of the trees so I think it would be fun to go see the bats leave in the evening.

Red-Eared Slider Turtles

Red-Eared Slider Turtles and an American Coot duck (I think).

The recharge basins are off-limits to visitors but they are full of ducks. However, you will need binoculars or they will just look like little specks from most of the viewpoints.

Sweetwater Wetlands

One of the recharge basins.

J definitely had plenty to explore. She had fun crossing over a small stream-like area near the parking lot.

Sweetwater Wetlands

J had fun going back and forth on this little bridge.

Sweetwater Wetlands

The view from the bridge.

J also had fun climbing on the big rocks that are near the parking area. She collected a bunch of leaves as we walked around and filled up her little snack container. Green leaves! Green leaves! Yes, it is that exciting to find green leaves in Tucson!

Sweetwater Wetlands

Climbing on the huge rocks with her leaf collection.

Sweetwater Wetlands is open daily from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. The address is 2551 West Sweetwater Drive. The parking lot is small but you can park on the road if it is full. It isn’t a busy street so crossing to the wetlands is no big deal. There are bathrooms and garbage cans. You might be wondering if the water smells. We didn’t notice any funky water smells – just regular earthy pond smell. However, it is reclaimed water so don’t touch it!

There is an excellent Sweetwater Wetlands Activity Book and Field Guide that you can download. It explains our water cycle, wetlands in general and Sweetwater Wetlands specifically. It has a map and lists with photos of the wildlife and plants that you might see on your trip. It also has activities for older children or for you to do with the young ones. I definitely recommend checking it out before you go.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park Discovery Tour Game

Colossal Cave Mountain Park has a Discovery Tour game that you can play. You can pick up a Discovery Tour game map at the toll booth, any of the gift shops or at the trail rides office for free. There are 18 icons on the map and 18 matching Discovery Tour stations around the park. At each station you will find a paper punch. All you have to do is punch the icon on the map that matches the location you are at. Once you have punched all 18 icons you will have seen just about all of the park. Then take your map to one of the gift shops for a treasure! You don’t have to tour the cave to complete the Discovery Tour map. We are saving the cave tour for another day!

We started our tour at the La Posta Quemada (Burned Stage Station) Ranch, a working ranch since 1878. There are 5,714 grazing acres that are leased around Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The ranch is currently a cow/calf operation with approximately 65 head of female cows grazing year round. There are two resident cowboys that handle the ranching operation.

Discovery Tour

These are the paper punch stations that you will be looking for throughout the park.

There are quite a few things to see and do at La Posta Quemada and you will punch most of your map’s icons in this area. Our first stop was an analemmatic sundial, which is a horizontal sundial and consists of a central calendar grid and an elipse showing the hours. A gnomon (vertical rod) is used to tell the time. You can also use your body to tell the time instead of the gnomon.

Analemmatic Sundial

It was too cloudy so we didn’t see much of a shadow to tell us the time.

There is a butterfly garden that has been designed to provide for the full life cycle of butterflies. There are larval food plants for caterpillars and nectar providing plants for the adult butterflies. There is also shade and camouflage for protection from predators. For the humans there are benches for relaxing and enjoying the butterflies and flowers. The park has a list of butterflies that you can look for but I didn’t find it very helpful since there aren’t any photos to reference.

Butterfly Garden

Looking for butterflies.

There are two Desert Tortoises but they must have been hiding because we couldn’t find them. They are of the Sonoran sub-species, going back nearly 230 million years…before dinosaurs existed!

Desert Tortoises

Desert Tortoise Exhibit

There is a mining sluice where you can pan for gemstones, fossils or arrowheads.

Sluice

Hey, there’s water in this sluice!

There are a few random exhibits, like this funhouse mirror from the 1934 World’s Fair. J thought her reflection was interesting! You will also find a windmill, caboose, water tower and some other old pieces of history here.

Funhouse Mirror

Looking slightly strange!

There are a few small museums here at the park. The CCC Museum (Civilian Conservation Corps) is in a restored adobe that used to be used as the CCC office for the Colossal Cave Project. The museum is dedicated to the men of camp SP-10-A. The museum is set up like a Camp Commandant’s office of the 1930′s complete with furniture built by the CCC. The CCC began preparing for the Colossal Cave Project in 1934. They developed the tour route, made the entrance larger, built bridges, put down the flagstone pathways and installed lighting and handrails. They created the picnic areas, roads and stone ramadas as well. Many of the buildings were also built by the CCC and are still in use today. You can learn more about the CCC inside the museum. Colossal Cave Mountain Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

CCC Museum

The CCC Museum

There is also the La Posta Quemada Ranch Museum which is housed inside the Ranch Headquarters House, built in 1967. The museum focuses on the human and natural history of Colossal Cave Mountain Park and the Cienega Corridor region.

La Posta Quemada Ranch Museum

J was more interested in the cat than anything else in the museum.

The Ranch Headquarters House has a quiet courtyard that J had fun exploring.

Courtyard

Wandering around the courtyard.

Courtyard

There wasn’t any water in the fountain, much to J’s dismay.

The Colossal Cave Research Library is also located at the Ranch Headquarters House. J was happy to find a whole collection of children’s books. We had to take a reading break! The library is a source of information about the natural and cultural pre-history and history of Colossal Cave and the surrounding area for researchers and staff with over 800 books and thousands of historic photographs, journals and newspaper articles. The library is open daily. The library also schedules story times and other children’s activities.

Colossal Cave Research Library

The Children’s Collection had a nice assortment of books for all ages.

We left the Ranch Headquarters House and walked a short distance on the Bundrick Trail to see a few more things in this area.

Bundrick Trail

Finding treasures along the trail.

There is a very small petting zoo with some goats, ducks, chickens and mules. Petting is free and you can feed the animals for $1.00.

Petting Zoo

Mmmm…an apple!

If you have older children you can saddle up and take a leisurely guided trail ride along the National Mail Stagecoach route.

Trail Rides

All saddled up and ready to go, but we just said hello.

After saying hello to the horses we got in the car and drove a minute or two to get to the next stop on our Discovery Tour, a life size sculpture called “The Cowboy” by Buck McCain. The sculpture is a tribute to the working cowboy. It was donated to the park by the Pima County Parklands Foundation.

The Cowboy

The Cowboy

There is a large parking lot in this area. We were looking for the playground so we parked and got out. It turned out that the playground was under construction so we went searching for a geocache along the other end of the Bundrick Trail.

Bundrick Trail

Who needs a playground when there are cats around?

Bundrick Trail

Taking a snack break while searching for the geocache.

I know this might seem like a lot but everything is close together (J walked most of it and only rode in her stroller while she snacked) except The Cowboy and that is even easily walkable but I drove because I didn’t realize it was so close.

However, you will definitely need to take the car up to the Colossal Cave area to finish the Discovery Tour unless you are prepared for a decent hike. It will take a few minutes by car to get there. Once there the view is amazing! We didn’t tour the cave – we will save that for a super hot day as a way to escape the summer heat. Here you will find six of the 18 Discovery Tour stations. There is a bit of a descent as you go from the parking lot to the cave area but you can either use the stairs or take the ramp if you prefer to bring a stroller.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Enjoying the view!

There is a bat garden.

Bat Garden

Bummed that she didn’t see any bats.

Once we collected all of the paper punches that we needed we headed to the Bat Pot Gift Shop to claim our treasure. Our Discovery Tour map got an official stamp and we got to keep it for our scrapbook. J was excited to pick out two gemstones (one for each of us).

Discovery Tour Treasure

Deciding which two gemstones to pick.

Discovery Tour

All done!

You can start in either area and do the whole Discovery Tour in one day or do it over a period of time. You can even camp at one of the park’s campgrounds. Summer hours are from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and there is a daily use fee of $5.00 per auto. Here is the fee list. There is a gift shop at the La Posta Quemada Ranch so you can also claim your treasure at that location. There are plenty of bathrooms along the way, plenty of places to sit and relax or eat and plenty to see and do. There are also places to grab a snack or something to drink.

The Discovery Tour game is definitely a fun way to see almost all of the park!

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve

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.

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve

The canopy of Cottonwoods and Willows offers plenty of shade and beautiful fall colors.

Cienega Creek

Cienega Creek

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.

Cienega Creek

Looking for something in the water.

J had a blast exploring along the creek. She had fun watching leaves float away from her as she dropped them into the water.

Cienega Creek

Watching leaves float away.

There were branches everywhere, the bigger the better!

Cienega Creek

Carrying around the largest branch she could find.

This area is certainly a rare and amazing spot amid the desert.

Cienega Creek

Something is exciting!

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.

Cienega Creek

Exploring along the creek.

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.

Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead

Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon 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.

Cienega Creek

Checking out the giant snake.

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.

Cienega Creek

The riparian area is easy to spot.

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.

Cienega Creek

This is the hardest part of this trail. It is a small but rocky hill. Once you get down it you can walk through the wash to the riparian area.

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.

Cienega Creek

The Cienega Creek Natural Preserve sign at the entrance to the Three Bridges lot.

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.

Cienega Bridge

The Cienega Bridge, built in 1921.

Cienega Creek

The view from the top of the Cienega Bridge.

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!

Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park

The Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park is located at 12325 East Roger Road, on the northeast side of town. It is a 101 acre riparian habitat surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. The setting is very rare in our desert environment, which makes this park quite a special place to visit.

Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park

Agua Caliente Park

Agua Caliente (Hot Water) has a natural hot spring that remains at approximately 87 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year and three ponds. Originally, there were two springs, one hot and one cold. They produced a water flow of up to 500 gallons per minute. In the mid 1930′s they were blasted which created the remaining hot spring. The water flow was reduced to between 150 and 300 gallons per minute. The Myriad Corporation blasted the spring again in the early 1960′s, cutting the water flow down to about 100 gallons per minute. During the drought of 2003-2004, the water flow fell to about 14 gallons per minute. This resulted in the two smaller ponds drying up. Pima County had to dig a well and install a pump to keep the main pond full of water. A man-made stream links the three ponds together. The main pond has water in it year round, the second pond will occasionally get water in it and the third pond remains dry.

The ponds support a diverse wildlife and fish population. The main pond is stocked with non-native fish such as Tilapia, Blue Gill, Bass and Grass Carp. You can see them swimming around. I couldn’t get a photo because J attempted to go swimming if I let go of her hand to take a photo while we were close to the water.

Hot Spring

The Hot Spring

Agua Caliente

Looking out at the main pond.

The turtles are always hanging out on their log or swimming around. We must have counted at least 20 of them in one area. Most of them were Red-Eared Sliders.

Turtles

There are always turtles on this log.

Agua Caliente

Sitting in the shade, watching the turtles swim around.

There are some areas of Agua Caliente that are not accessible to visitors in order to protect the wildlife populations found within the park. You will definitely see a larger variety of wildlife during the cooler time of year than you will see during the hot summer. We did see some Mule Deer.

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

Normally we see ducks everywhere but we only saw a few here and there because it was so hot out. During the cooler months you might see Great Blue Herons, Vermilion Flycatchers, American Widgeons, Ring-Necked Ducks, Snowy Egrets and other types of birds. In fact, Agua Caliente is a birdwatcher’s paradise! Here is a printable bird list for Agua Caliente.

Agua Caliente

The few ducks we saw were hiding in the shade.

We did see a Greater Roadrunner dashing from shady spot to shady spot.

Roadrunner

A Greater Roadrunner

Step into the Ranch House Visitor Center to get out of the heat for a few minutes. It began as a one room adobe built around 1873. Now it is a visitor center and art gallery. The gallery features local artists on a rotating basis. The eastern part of the Ranch House is a caretaker residence. The Rose Cottage is used as an education room.

The Ranch House Visitor Center and Gallery

The Ranch House Visitor Center and Gallery

On the east side of the visitor center you will notice The Great Mesquite Tree, which is enclosed in a walled area. It is believed to be about 200 years old. It is officially listed as one of the “Greater Trees of the Old Pueblo.” It is pretty impressive! It is a Velvet Mesquite, so take a moment to feel the velvety softness of the leaves.

The Great Mesquite Tree

The Great Mesquite Tree is about 200 years old.

There are plenty of shady areas under trees and picnic tables in the shade where you can enjoy (as much is possible anyway) a hot summer day. There are also paved and dirt trails to walk along, some offering plenty of shade.

Agua Caliente

A Sunny Trail

Agua Caliente

This shady trail will lead you back to the two dry ponds. You can follow the trail around them, but it was too hot to go all the way back with J.

Agua Caliente

This is the shady trail that you can watch the turtles from.

There aren’t any play structures at this park, but there is plenty of nature to explore. Bring a blanket and a picnic lunch and enjoy a morning or afternoon here.

Agua Caliente

Pulling dried berries off of a stem.

This is a natural resources park, so there are more rules than there are for regular parks. Be sure to check out the user guide before you go.

If you would like a quick history timeline of the park, keep reading!

  • 5,500 years ago – The park was used by hunters and gatherers.
  • Circa A.D. 1150 – The Whiptail Site, a Hohokam village, was established that extended into a portion of Agua Caliente.
  • 1853-1870′s – The spring was used as an Army encampment following the Gadsden Purchase.
  • 1873 – A claim to 160 acres surrounding the spring was claimed by Peter B. Bain.
  • 1875 – James P. Fuller purchased “Agua Caliente Rancho” and started a cattle ranch and orchard.
  • 1881 – Fuller’s Hot Springs Resort was advertised as a recreational and medicinal resort.
  • 1880′s-1920′s – The ranch and resort was operated by various owners.
  • Early 1920′s – Willard W. White purchased Agua Caliente property with plans to build a resort on the site, but never did.
  • 1935 – The property was purchased by Gibson DeKalb Hazard and was used as a working ranch, orchard and alfalfa field.
  • 1951 – The Filiatrault family took over ownership of the land. They added five ponds to the property which brought the total to seven.
  • Post 1959 – Myriad had plans to build a 300 home, $15 million development beside the ponds. Instead they sold the property to Geodecke in 1979 but the property was eventually returned to Myriad.
  • 1984 – Roy P. Drachman, a local businessman, donated over $200,000 toward the purchase of Agua Caliente. The donation was the incentive for Pima County to proceed with the purchase of Agua Caliente.
  • 1985 – The park opened on January 19, 1985.
  • 1997 – Improvements were made such as a paved entry drive and parking lot, interpretive signs, accessible trails, access to the lower ponds and the renovation of the bunkhouse.
  • 2004 – Renovations were made to the Ranch House and Rose Cottage with 1997 bond funds.
  • 2009 – The Agua Caliente Ranch Rural Historic Landscape was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

If you do go visit Agua Caliente, please respect the off-limits areas. Signs are posted. They are off-limits to protect the delicate nature of the water source, the wildlife and the beauty of the park. Have fun and enjoy this rare desert oasis!

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

We took a short walk along the San Pedro River earlier this week, which is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the southwest. The San Pedro River is one of the richest wildlife habitats in the southwest. There are 82 species of mammals, approximately 350 species of birds and dozens of different reptiles and amphibians. The river also supports one of the largest cottonwood-willow forest canopies remaining in Arizona. The desert riparian forest is one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States. A riparian ecosystem is one that is located on the banks of a body of water, so you can see why a desert riparian ecosystem is rare and special indeed!

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

It’s easy to spot where the river is because the green cottonwood grove stands out against the desert landscape.

Playing in the Grass

There were plenty of sticks and rocks to be found.

Along the San Pedro River

Desert? What desert? It feels like you have been transported elsewhere.

The San Pedro River Riparian National Conservation Area consists of about 58,000 acres of public land. Forty miles of that land is riparian habitat, running from the Mexican border to St. David. The river flows north from Mexico. It is a migratory pathway for birds and so important that the American Bird Conservancy designated the area as a “Globally Important Bird Area” in 1996.

Walking Along the San Pedro River

Exploring the river banks of the San Pedro with Grammy.

Four eco-regions overlap in the area:

  • the southern edge of the Rockies
  • the northern edge of the Sierra Madre
  • the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert
  • the western edge of the Chihuahuan Desert

You can find plants and animals from all four regions in this area.

Animal Tracks

There were animal tracks in the mud. Not sure what they were, but they certainly belonged to a wild animal.

Caterpillars Everywhere

There were caterpillars everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them. J was a little freaked out and took great care to inch her way around them while pointing and squealing.

You can visit the San Pedro House, which was built in the 1930s as the home of the ranch manager of the Boquillas Land and Cattle Co. There is a small gift shop, bathrooms, picnic tables, a native plant garden and a xeriscape demonstration plot. There is a huge cottonwood tree that is about 80 years old and over 36 feet around. J had a great time climbing all over it.

Huge Cottonwood Tree

This cottonwood tree is about 80 years old, over 36 feet around and was given the name Bailey by the ranch manager that planted it.

Playing on the Roots of the Huge Cottonwood

J is having a great time climbing all over the tree and sitting on its roots.

We had a great time exploring the area. J had a great time playing with sticks, rocks, dirt, leaves and just about anything else she found. There were beautiful birds everywhere to watch. There were bugs aplenty. The sounds of the babbling water, birdsong, leaves rustling in the wind and the munching of the caterpillars (yes, I swear you could hear them devouring leaves) were music to the ears. The paths are well maintained. There was plenty to stimulate the senses. I definitely think this is a great place to take your little ones!