Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Southern Arizona Canyon Guide

 With the onset of our monsoon summer months here in Southern Arizona, many nature lovers seek the cool comforts of our beautiful canyons.  There are so many to explore and I must admit that there are several isolated ones that I'd like to discover with others down the road.  

Each canyon is unique and has its' own personality.  My favorites are Ramsey, Huachuca, Garden and Miller Canyons of the Huachucas, and Cave Creek Canyon near Portal of the Chiricahuas.  Other canyons of birder interest are Florida and Montosa of the Santa Ritas with the main attraction being Madera.  And there are SO many more!  I haven't mentioned the Catalina Mountains but her star attraction is the internationally popular Sabino Canyon.  But if you're going to see nature quietly, the best canyons are the ones least known by the outside crowd. 

Tarantula Hawk looks for a delicious juicy grasshopper or tarantula!
So here's my rundown on some of the more popular canyons.  Again this is just a sampling of the various canyons.  There are so many more.  It's hard to believe and embarrassing to admit but I have never visited the gorgeous, mouth drooling, scenery stealing, Big Horn Sheep bucking magic of Aravaipa Canyon.  It's on my list.  Maybe for my birthday in October......

Red Mite

The Santa Rita Mountains

  1. Madera Canyon-star attraction for birders, hikers and picnickers seeking cooler temps.  Easy access with wonderfully maintained paved roads.  There are Bed and Breakfasts in the Canyon.  We've stayed at one and had a great time. It is a popular place for observing lots of wonderful hummingbirds! 
    The very special Black-capped Gnatcatcher can be found in both Montosa and Florida Canyons and sometimes along the Proctor Trail of Madera Canyon.
  2. Montosa Canyon-the secret gem of the Santa Ritas.  Lots of specialty birds can hang out in this area. It is a canyon for hunters, joggers and birders.  Access into the canyon isn't difficult but can be if there is a monsoon storm. Parts of the road are paved while others are gravel. I also recommend going with others as I have run into drug runners.  It is an area that can be remote.  
    Rufous-capped Warblers along the narrow canyon and stream bed of Florida Canyon
  3. Florida Canyon-really a lovely canyon with a good chance of spotting the rare-to-the-US Rufous-capped Warbler.  The road can be rocky and difficult at times if there have been rains. There are trails but they are geared more towards birders and hikers.  Often, there is an active stream.  There is a small waterfall area that requires climbing.  It's good to have someone there to spot you in case you fall.  And it does happen. 

The Huachuca Mountains

This is easily my favorite mountain range because of its proximity to Tucson. It's also near the border and attracts all kinds of exotics! Great birds and other critters!  Here are just a few of my favorites.

Ferruginous Hawk near the entrance to Huachuca Canyon
  1. Huachuca Canyon-one of my favorites!  There is great hiking here along with the birding.  You'll need to bring your US ID to get onto this military base but it's easy.  Be careful with your Canadian birder friends.  Personally I never had an issue, but I've heard reports of these snowbirds getting turned away.  Military threats indeed!  This canyon has been home to the infamous Sinaloa Wren and other rare Mexican Species.  The issues?  The road can be rough after a rain event.  Wildlife!  This canyon, like many others, is home to bears and other fun critters. But for some reason, we hear more reports about bear in this area than any other canyon during our summer months. 
    Arizona Woodpecker is another special bird that people hope to glance!
  2. Ramsey Canyon-my personal favorite.  Sure there are great birds here but it's more than that.  Sometimes I just want to go for a nice lovely hike and walk among deer and coati.  There is a 6 dollar entrance fee but it's worth it.  This is also a great canyon for rarities like the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. And I personally think this canyon and Montosa have some of the most interesting bugs flying around!
    Violet-crowned Hummingbird
  3. My surprise new favorite canyon this year has been Garden Canyon on the Ft. Huachuca base.  Dark and magical with streams crossing the road, this place reminded me of something I've read in a fairytale.  I even got a fairytale picture of a Spotted Owl! This shot reminds me of Winnie the Pooh.....and I don't know why.
    Garden Canyon and a beautiful Spotted Owl!
  4.  Miller Canyon-Epic trails with lots of specialty birds like the Montezuma Quail, Northern Goshawk, and White-eared Hummingbird.  Here you can visit Beatty's Orchard and enjoy lots of incredible hummingbirds around his CAS(Controlled Access Site).  There are benches and lots of feeders to keep a nature lover occupied for some time.   Sit underneath the shade of the ramada and enjoy the show!  He does ask for a donation to keep his feeders full.
    A Montezuma Quail watches me from a trail off of the gravel road of Miller Canyon
  5. Ash Canyon is another great spot for birders to hang out for a break from the trails.  There are lots of hummingbirds including the very special Lucifer Hummingbirds that hang out at her location.  They are rare to Southern Arizona but they are regulars at Mary Jo's place.  A 5 dollar donation is requested to help maintain the feeders around her bed and breakfast. 

Juvenile male Broad-billed Hummingbird

The Chiricahua Mountains

Admittedly, I have barely touched these mountains.  The trip from Tucson is a bit further than other mountain ranges so I have to carefully schedule my visits here.  This is one incredible place full of species that cannot be found anywhere else in the US.  It is home to the Mexican Chickadee and other specialty birds.  Normally if I visit the Chiricahuas, I will stay for a couple nights because the one way trek is almost 3 hours long.  

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Cave Creek Canyon is the only canyon I have visited.  It's pretty amazing as it feels like there is more wildlife than humans in this rather remote part of the world.  If you are driving from Phoenix or Tucson, you will need to pass through New Mexico and then reenter Arizona on the other side of the Chiricahuas to enter Portal. There is another road that crosses over the mountain range but it requires a sturdy car:)  Again, it's another favorite hotspot for me.

Bridled Titmouse
Everyone has their favorite birding hotspot.  Southern Arizona is rich with diversity and has lots to offer.  That's why it's such a wonderful playground for so many outdoor aficionados from around the world.  We're more than just a desert.  Happy Birding! Until next time.....

A little hummingbird fun at Madera Canyon.  For more bird fun, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!


  1. Wonderful shots of critters. Fantastic variety.

  2. I can only realize how many places we missed visiting while we lived in Arizona... :-) but an excellent reason to go back for vacation!
    You seem to have enough food for a book about "Wings in canyons."

  3. It sounds like a wonderful area to explore, even in the summer. Your Montezuma Quail makes me want to see one!

  4. Thanks for the wonderful travelogue Chris. There are indeed some special birds and insects in your canyons as your photos prove. I was especially taken with the Rufous-capped Warbler and of course the Spotted Owl. As you say - a classic pose and a photo opportunity that all birders crave.
    Now how do I get to these wonderful places.

  5. Lovely birds and beautiful deer.. Fantastic place to take pictures.. Perhaps i will go someday.. :-)))

  6. AH! Sounds like there are some great places to bird close to Tucson! How lucky you are to be based there...except for the possibility of meeting drug runners. But you can meet unsavory characters anywhere, actually.

  7. Therese, when you come back, let me know and we'll go visit some! And easy Phil....just save some money and come visit Tucson:) And the same offer stands for you as well. We'll do some exploring. Summer is the best time for these places as the exotic migrants are all in place.

  8. Neat post Chris! This is a cool way of summarize the awesome canyons in SEAZ.

  9. Thanks Tommy.....had a lot of random pics from the various canyons this summer and thought.....hey, let's tie it all together:) Hope you're having fun. I'm back to work again.

  10. Love this great post, Chris! It really helps me map out in my mind some trips I want to take! We went to Madera after three years living here (FINALLY!) but there are so many other places I want to see! Can't wait!

    By the way, after reading your comment on my post with the ravens, I wondered if they were Common Ravens not American. I really can't tell. They were big and we saw them almost everywhere we went. I have a lot to learn about ID's as you know.

  11. Hi Marie,

    Ravens can be tricky if they aren't heard....and even when they're heard:) When we went up there a couple weekends ago, we spied upon many Common Ravens so I think you're fine. They way you describe them is perfect for a Common Raven. American Crows could also be present but a third of the size of a Common Raven and not as likely:)

  12. What a great collection of photos. Such diversity. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Brilliant images Chris and fascinating to read about the canyons in your area. The biodiversity sounds so varied and what wonderful areas to explore :)

  14. Great round up. The only one I've been to is Ramsey, long ago and loved it.

  15. Those canyons sound amazing with such a rich diversity of wildlife, Chris - beautifully illustrated by yourself! I think that we Brits sometimes have difficulty in visualising how big the country is over there, but your account brings it all into perspective. I was surprised to hear of an area only accessible to US nationals. I don't know of any equivalents in UK.

    I hope your weekend is going well. Best regards - - - Richard

  16. Great looking place - two days birding in Arizona was just not enough.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  17. Hi Richard,

    It is a really strange thing. While I've entered the Ft. Lowell base with a Canadian birder, we did not have any issues......and then! several were turned away last year at the entrance because the military base wasn't allowing any non-US citizen onto the Fort. It might have to do with the high alert status in the country. All I know is that there are two really amazing canyons on their base:)

  18. Oh, the owl shot is so nice. I would love to have some different terrain like the southwest to hike and bird in for awhile. Thanks for the tips.

  19. Chris, how nice to see some of my favorite places. Of course, I never made it to Garden Canyon, but I have been up over the mountains from Portal to Willcox. What a drive!

    BTW, do people REALLY fall off the dam in Florida Canyon? ;-) I'm glad you were there to catch me!

    Oh, and when I played your hummingbird video I got an ad for prostrate screening! You Tube doesn't know squat!

  20. I've actually heard nightmare stories of people slipping on those rocks and hurting themselves on the many treks up that now very well known trail:) I think I've been there 6 times this year!!

  21. Oh that was fun Chris.. I've just been all the way back to catch up on missed posts, looks like you are still having so much fun exploring and birding, such wonderful images as always.. love the addition of the video at the end of each post.. I think Garden Canyon sounds magical and totally get the Pooh reference :)

  22. love the warbler and the quail! you can keep the red mite. :)

  23. Wonderful photos! Sound like a great area to explore.

  24. A super post Chris providing an insight into Canyon birding and wildlife.

    I have many US locations on my wish list and wouldn't be justice to miss out on your favoured area. Maybe one day our paths might just cross.

  25. Super looking place and love the Arizona Woodpecker

  26. Chris, I think I would need a month or so there.. Love the pretty deer and all your gorgeous birds! Awesome sightings!! Thanks for sharing these great spots.. I have met some birders that like to keep their favorite spots secret, kind of stingy..Have a great week and happy birding..

  27. Interesting and lovely series of photos. Great variety!

  28. Arizona is on my bucket list though not likely to be fulfilled as I cannot travel on large aircraft. You could roast one of those turkeys for your birthday dinner and camp out but seriously, unfrequented canyons are great places to explore, rejuvenate one's soul and birdwatch in solitude. Just make sure someone knows where you are going and when you should be back or better still, have a like minded companion who knows when to be together and when to go it alone for a while.
    Adored the rufous capped warbler, the owl and all the rest.

  29. Fantastic captures. Love those hummingbirds.


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