Cave Creek Canyon is a birder paradise 150 miles east of Tucson. Over 300 species have been sighted in the canyon in the eastern slope of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. But there’s so much more than birds. Dubbed The Secret Yosemite of the Southwest, it is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America.
Nature’s Disney World
Personally, I find this part of the Coronado National Forest to be far more spectacular than Yosemite. In March there was almost no traffic or crowds compared to Yosemite. Birders often walk rather than drive through the canyon road to savor the silence of civilization and the symphony of nature. Drivers, including myself, are known to stop in the road, gaping at the dramatic vistas.
It’s like Nature’s Disney W
The Tug is the Drug
I was drawn to Cave Creek Canyon by the irresistible, insistent tug in my gut. At first, it feels like the bump on your fishing line before line begins ripping off the reel. I try not to ignore those delicious tummy flips.
Later while h
On my way to the Canyon, storms stopped my travel once again. I ducked into Carlsbad Cavern to ride it out and contemplate alternative destinations. I found refuge at Roosevelt Lake, Arizona.
Spring in the Tonto Basin
My heart hurt leaving the gorgeous basin and lake region bursting with spring.
The Tonto Basin satisfied even the resource management nerd in me. How could a little canyon in Southeast Arizona compare?
But there’s no denying the tug in this nomad life. When the weather cleared we headed southeast.
More Than One Way Around Those Mountains
I entered the region via Wilcox on state highway 186 at the Chiricahua National Monument. Some folks advised avoiding the route to Cave Canyon from the Monument and others said there wasn’t a road. My heart followed the tummy tug urging me to go through the forest rather than around it.
Fortunately, I had snagged a Coronado National Forest Douglas District topo map at the Tonto Basin Ranger Headquarters.
The map was the key to the gateway of Nature’s cornucopia in the Chiricahuas. The route was Forest Road 42 from Monument to Canyon.
I took four long, slow days camping through this section of the Coronado National Forest before I reached Cave Creek Canyon. It’s just too amazing to rush through.
Four ecosystems meet in this region. FOUR! I was so delighted I felt like a kid. Are ferns and cactus really living next to each other in a lush pine forest? Signs of recovery from devastating fires included plants and trees I’d never witnessed growing together! I had to hunt for field guides to verify what I was seeing!
The gift shop at the Southwest Research Center has local, regional, and national field guides as well as beautiful jewelry, pottery, photos, paintings, and poetry by local artists. There was a Folk Dancing Workshop in progress when I visited. Great prices and fun in a perfect setting of field research.
Northern slopes resemble the Rocky Mountains with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Sunnier southern slopes have Apache pine and Border pine from Mexico’s Sierra Madre range. Yuccas from the Chiricahua Desert thrive beside agaves and prickly pear cactus from the Sonoran Desert. Lush ferns are abundant in shady areas.
Almost neon-yellow and green lichen drape ancient boulders, pinnacles, and hoodoos creating a surreal landscape that glows like Broadway in the sunset.
Cave Creek Canyon
Colorful, soaring cliffs dotted with caves and pinnacles shoot up from the canyon base. Portal and Silver Peak Mountains tower over the cliffs. Nature’s majesty is reflected in the range of color and texture of the rocks, mountains, and lichens throughout each day. Even the range of color in the deciduous trees was stunning!
Two branches of the perennial Cave Creek run through the Canyon, joining near the Portal Cafe and Lodge. Other than this business there is a post office. No other services, cell, or gas are available so make sure you arrive with a full tank of gas and supplies.
Birders flock to the canyon home of the Elegant Trogon. Other birds to check off your life list include the rose-breasted becard, red-faced– and olive-faced warblers, magnificent- and blue-throated hummingbirds, Montezuma quail, and Mexican chickadee.
Our Wilderness Guide and Camp Mascot
This tiny Chiricahua Wilderness Ambassador quickly learned my morning routine. First, leave the bed, then sit at the altar, followed by the power source check, and finally prepare food by chanting and chopping with tiny bits of fruit and veggie flying through the air, much to the delight of our bird guest and Rocky.
I would pop open the trailer door in the morning to this avian greeting mimicking my routine and repeated over and over like a dance until I rolled out of bed and we continued the routine together. I called it “Coronado Morning Dance”.
Apache fox squirrel and coatimundis inhabit the forest. We observed mother javelina with a baby and Coues white-tailed deer at camp in the bottoms where we never saw another human. Rocky collected limbs from deer kills but I couldn’t determine if the predator was animal or human. We saw large hoof tracks with baby hoof prints intermingled.
Surprisingly most wildlife were more curious than scared especially when we were in the deeper parts of the forest. The ever-vigilant Sgt. Rocky was cautious and would immediately sit statuesque, tail wagging endlessly, observing Nature’s parade through the forest and camp.
Cave Creek Canyon is a paradise for tent and small rig campers. Vehicles over 41 feet aren’t even allowed in the canyon and on most of the forest roads in the region. Rigs up to 16 feet are permitted in Sunny Flat campground.
Three developed national forest campgrou
Campgrounds are evacuated due to flooding if there is a forecast of 1.5 inches of rain or greater.
There are ample dispersed camping areas just outside of Cave Creek Canyon and in the surrounding Coronado National Forest.
These prime camping spots away from any development showcase abundant wildlife and birding, especially in the bottoms of the region where springs and creeks flow with meltwater.
I camped all along FR 42 from the entrance of the Coronado National Forest by the Chiricahua National Monument to Cave Creek Canyon outside Portal.
In the Canyon area, I preferred the sites along Cave Creek close to John Hands and Herb Martyr Camps. If I was visiting in a busier season I would camp higher up past Onion Saddle on FR 42, also known as Piney Canyon Road.
In fact, when I return, and boy will I ever, I’ll stay deeper in the national forest on FR 42. The wildlife and birds were not only abundant but also social! Maybe it was spring fever. It made me feel like Snow White singing in the forest which amped up that Nature’s Disney World sensation.
Silver Peak Trail begins in desert vegetation and climbs 3,000 feet to the Douglas fir forests at the summit of Silver Peak at 7,975 feet.
South Fork Trail has five distinct segments from the trailhead to the Crest Trail covering seven miles and 3600 feet elevation gain. The first segment to Maple Creek Camp offers a gorgeous vista.
Cave Creek Road (FR 42 and FR 42B) is a paved scenic drive or walk in spectacular scenery with world-class birdwatching and listening.
There are many more trails of all skill levels throughout the national forest area. Maps are available at the Visitor’s Center if it’s open or at the Southwest Research Center.
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument includes a delightful eight-mile sky island scenic drive through landscapes of spires, hoodoos, and forest.
Sky islands are an isolated mountain range rising from vast grasslands. Arizona takes the prize for its abundant sky island vistas and scenic drives.
A Note About Vehicles
Like most of the areas I write about, this adventure on FR 42 from the Monument to the Canyon requires high clearance, offroad vehicle. The road through Cave Creek Canyon is paved, but the surrounding forest roads (FR 42 and branches) are quite rough with steep grades and tight, narrow curves. There are many water crossings in the spring and monsoon seasons.
Standard vehicles can easily access the Canyon on paved highways leading to Portal.