Experience nature’s prime time in Arizona
Listening to one of my friends rave about the birds she saw on her trip to the “spectacular Nogales sewage ponds,” I realized that I’m different from many serious bird-watchers.
Arizona is legendary among birders worldwide, thanks to a diverse habitat, mild climate, and a prime location on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route. But to me there’s more to birding than simply compiling a bulging life list―the stage is just as important as the play. Arizona is renowned for its landscape and for its avian visitors, so why not combine them?
Following are 10 of the most scenic birding areas in the state―most include a stop for caffeine (essential fuel) or a meal nearby. The migration starts this month in the low desert, peaks in April, and lasts well into May. And these spots are worth a visit even if you can’t tell an eagle from an egret.
1. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Restricted access to the refuge’s lovely riparian Brown Canyon southwest of Tucson ensures that the wildlife remains undisturbed. On a moderate, naturalist-led, 5-mile hike, you might see a painted redstart or sulphur-bellied flycatcher―or just possibly catch a glimpse of a jaguar. One was videotaped near here in 1996. There’s an impressive natural stone arch at the turnaround point.
Info: From Tucson take State 86 west 20 miles; turn south on State 286 and go 23 miles to the turnoff just past milepost 21. Guided hikes are scheduled the second and fourth Sat of the month Nov–Apr; $5 per person, reservations required. or 520/823-4251 ext. 116.
Refuel: Drive the long way back to Tucson via Arivaca Rd. and grab a sandwich and latte at the Gadsden Coffee Company. 16600 W. Arivaca Rd., Arivaca; 520/398-3251.
2. Catalina State Park
Just north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park is a pristine refuge of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, including more than 150 species of birds. Watch for dark brown-and-copper Harris’s hawks hunting for rabbits from perches on saguaros. The easy, 0.75-mile Birding Trail provides an introduction; the longer Romero Canyon Trail (up to 6.2 miles round-trip, moderate to difficult) climbs to cool mountain pools. Listen for the beautiful, descending call of a canyon wren.
Info: From Ina Rd. in Tucson, take Oracle Rd. (State 77) north 6 miles to the park entrance. From $6 per vehicle. or 520/628-5798.
Refuel: There’s a Starbucks five minutes south of the park entrance. 10785 N. Oracle Rd., Oro Valley; 520/229-1979.
3. Chiricahua Mountains
Birders know Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains because of its most spectacular migrant visitor, the elegant trogon. All visitors are thrilled by the towering peach-colored rhyolite formations guarding the entrance to the canyon. The South Fork Trail (6 easy miles round-trip to and from Maple Camp) makes a good first exploration.
Info: From I-10 just east of the state border with New Mexico, take State 80 south 27 miles to Portal Rd. and go 8 miles west to Cave Creek Canyon. $5 per vehicle. or 520/364-3468.
Refuel: The tiny Rodeo Grocery & Cafe makes the best cinnamon rolls in either state. $. 1 Main St., Rodeo, NM; 505/557-2295.
4. Dead Horse Ranch
Okay, Dead Horse Ranch State Park doesn’t have the most prepossessing name, but you won’t see any decomposing equines here (as the original owners did). You will find the Verde River Greenway, a protected 6-mile stretch of the Verde River, and a 1.5-mile easy loop trail. Watch for bald eagles soaring overhead and tuxedoed black phoebes perched just above the water. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse a river otter sporting in the slow current.
Info: From Cottonwood, drive west on Main St., then north 1?2 mile on 10th St. $6 per vehicle. or 928/634-5283.
Refuel: Patio decks at the Jerome Palace Haunted Hamburger, 10 miles west, overlook the Verde Valley; go for the ribs. $. 410 N. Clark St., Jerome; 928/634-0554.
5. Hassayampa River Preserve
The Yavapai Indians called the Hassayampa “the river that flows upside down,” because for most of its course the water remains underground. But it burbles topside and runs year-round through this Nature Conservancy property, beneath towering Gooding willows, Fremont cottonwoods, and California fan palms. On the easy, 0.5-mile Palm Lake Trail loop, watch for two magnificent and rare raptors found here: the zone-tailed hawk and the black hawk.
Info: Take U.S. 60 about 3 miles southeast of Wickenburg. $5, ages 11 and under free. or 928/684-2772.
Refuel: The Pony Espresso serves a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of hot espresso on top. 233 W. Wickenburg Way, Wickenburg; 928/684-0208.
6. Imperial National Wildlife Refuge
Pintail ducks and great blue herons eye the coyotes and desert bighorn sheep that wander down to drink at this astonishing juxtaposition of desert and the Colorado River. You can hike among cactus in the morning, then canoe among cattails in the afternoon. Red Cloud Mine Road provides vehicle access to several river overlooks as well as the moderate 1.3-mile Painted Desert Trail loop, which winds through a dramatic volcanic landscape.
Info: From Yuma take U.S. 95 north 25 miles; turn west on Martinez Lake Rd. and go 10 miles, then continue north on Red Cloud Mine Rd. for 3 miles to the Bob Jantzen Visitor Center. or 928/783-3371.
Refuel: The huge Pilots Special breakfast at the aviation-themed Yuma Landing Restaurant will keep you going all day. $. 195 S. Fourth Ave., Yuma; 928/782-7427.
7. Mormon Lake
Mormon Lake is the largest natural lake in Arizona―usually. Its size varies with rainfall, and it occasionally disappears altogether, when the area is known as “Mormon Meadow.” But it’s always one of the best spots in the Southwest to see overwintering bald eagles, as well as a half-dozen other raptors, including golden eagles and peregrine falcons. Take the Mormon Mountain Trail 3 miles and 1,500 feet up to the summit of 8,449-foot Mormon Mountain to be at eye level with the falcons.
Info: Call ahead to check road conditions. From I-17 just south of Flagstaff, take Lake Mary Rd. (Forest Hwy. 3) about 23 miles southeast to the lake. or 928/527-3600.
Refuel: Try the big T-bone at the historic Mormon Lake Lodge Steakhouse. $$$; call for hours. Main St., Mormon Lake; 928/354-2227.
8. Ramsey Canyon
Could anyone fail to be charmed by hummingbirds? The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, south of Sierra Vista, is one of the best spots in the United States for watching the little feathered helicopters as they battle over flowers and feeders. Fourteen species have been spotted here, including the rare berylline hummingbird. A stroll along the creekside nature trail might also reveal amusing, raccoonlike coatis.
Info: From Sierra Vista, take State 92 south 5 miles to Ramsey Canyon Rd.; head west 31?2 miles to the preserve. $5 per person, ages 15 and under free. or 520/378-2785.
Refuel: Build a burrito at the Palominas Trading Post and Country Diner, 10 miles south. $. 10448 State 92, Palominas; 520/366-5529.
9. San Pedro River
The huge cottonwood trees shading the waters of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area provide a haven for wildlife. In fact, half of all the bird species known in the United States have been recorded here―more than 365. Along the easy river trail, where you can wander 1 mile or 20, look for the electric scarlet of a vermilion flycatcher snatching insects on the wing.
Info: From Sierra Vista, go 7 miles east on State 90 to the San Pedro House visitor center. or 520/439-6400.
Refuel: Caffe Olê serves breakfast all day. $. 400 E. Fry Blvd., Sierra Vista; 520/458-6261.
10. Wenima Wildlife
You could drive within a mile of this 357-acre jewel and miss it. Tucked in a valley off a high grass plateau, Wenima Wildlife Area straddles the Little Colorado River―stream-size here and corralled by numerous beaver dams. Look for kestrels hovering over the fields bordering the riverside trail (2 easy miles round-trip) and mountain bluebirds in the junipers along the bluffs.
Info: Call ahead for road conditions. From Springerville take U.S. 60 northwest 3 miles; turn north on U.S. 180/U.S. 191 and look for the sign. or 928/367-4281.
Refuel: Java Blues makes a killer cappuccino. 341 E. Main St., Springerville; 928/ 333-5282.