Over the broad Santa Cruz River Valley and bordered by mountain ranges to the north and west, Madera Canyon is a small, intimate chapel of textures, shapes and colors. An hour south of Tucson and east of Highway I-19, Madera Creek originates near 9,453-foot Mount Wrightson and winds through pine-oak forests and granite outcrops to the high desert far below. Part of Coronado National Forest, the canyon's main attractions are hiking and bird-watching.The canyon is home to a host of colorful and unique species including the elegant trogon, whose breeding range is located here in Arizona’s "sky islands."
A single road winds six miles to the upper trailheads past a small campground, two picnic areas, two bed-and-breakfasts and a lodge with rental cabins. Just past the entrance station is a cobbled but relatively flat mountain bike trail that follows the base of the Santa Rita Mountains past the spectacular pinnacle known as Elephant Head.
Although the desert is down the road and visible, Madera Canyon's weather is typical of the Mountain West. Pacific fronts bring occasional winter snows and bitterly cold days in the recesses of the shaded canyon. Early summer is dry, but temperatures in the lower canyon can reach 100 degrees. Late summer (July through September) brings moist air from the Gulf, which produces afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Beware of lightning at the higher elevations during this season.
Spring and fall are typically perfect seasons in which to visit—moderate temperatures with blue-sky days and starry nights. Don't forget sunscreen and a hat for the high-elevation rays and sturdy hiking boots for navigating the rocky trails and crossing the occasional stream.
The Nature Trail and the Vault Mine Trail, which follow Madera Creek from the canyon mouth to its head, offer wonderful water shots ranging from quiet reflective pools to silvery rivulets. There's also a major waterfall just below Proctor Road. Away from the water and around every bend are fractured faces of granite and furrowed juniper bark. Summer monsoons produce a profusion of wildflowers, and fall is punctuated by the reds and yellows of the changing sycamore and oak leaves. Summer sunrises suffuse Elephant Head with gold while the rest of the Santa Ritas slumbers in shadow. Winter snows add dramatic highlights to every scene.
Birds aren't the only wildlife opportunity. Ground squirrels and deer are seen regularly, as well as bear and bobcat. Bring your flash and wait for owls, raccoons and gray foxes in the picnic areas after sundown.
Avoid summer and holiday weekends as access may be restricted due to limited parking. Late spring is peak time for birdlife and late summer for wildflower color. In early summer (May through July), Madera Creek may not be flowing, but isolated pools will have concentrations of all kinds of wildlife. Fall through early spring is best for reliable water flow, but be sure to dress in layers.
Contact: Coronado National Forest, Nogales Ranger District, (520) 281-2296, www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado; Santa Rita Lodge, (520) 625-8746.
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