Cave Creek Canyon Paradise

One of the most biodiverse areas in North America is in Southeast Arizona

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.

Neon green and yellow lichen drape sheer cliffs rich with stories and adventures.

Nature’s Disney World

The rock formations create mythical murals of extraordinary faces, gasping caves, and soaring structures devouring the sky.


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.

Dramatic vistas and scenic drives are hallmarks of the Coronado National Forest.

It’s like Nature’s Disney World on steroids. This region is home to 1,200 species of plants alone! The diverse cohabitation is my favorite example of how to adapt and thrive.

How long did it take for those roots to crawl over the ledges and through the forest? Sometimes seems like a blink. There is a magical, fairytale landscape perfect for an active and vivid imagination.

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 hiding out from March storms across the southwest, I opened a map daydreaming about destinations when the small Cave Creek Canyon called insistently like a Baltimore Oriole HERE! HERE! Come right here! Dear!

The call of the Baltimore Oriole sounds like “Here. Come here dear. Here.
Visit the caverns during a storm if you can.

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.

Tonto Basin National Forest east of Phoenix is home to the gorgeous Roosevelt Lake near Globe, Arizona.

Spring in the Tonto Basin

Spring is a spectacular experience at Roosevelt Lake.

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.

Coronado National Forest borders Chiricahua National Monument sky island scenic drive.
A good map showing forest and fire roads, hiking trails, as well as topography, is a must before striking out in the Chiricahua Mountains outback.

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.

Forest Road 42 is also called Piney Canyon Road and traverses four ecozones through the Chiricahua Mountains in far southeast Arizona.
My tiny home away from home is a Subaru Outback 3.6R Touring affectionately dubbed Beverly. She is pulling Hillbilly, a NuCamp T@G XL Outback Edition teardrop trailer.

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.

Spectacular FR 42 vistas illustrate the diverse ecozones in this region of Arizona.

Biodiversity Bonanza

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.

This region may have more Ph.D’s per capita than most due to the scientists of all types conducting research at the Southwest Research Center at Cave Creek Canyon.

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.

The region is filled with creeks and streams, especially in spring.

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.

Wildlife

The “holy grail” of birding, the Elegant Trogon can be sighted in southeast Arizona, including Cave Creek Canyon.

Birds Galore!

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

Coronado Morning Dance began with my partner dancing solo.

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”.

Animals

Rocky was quite cautious, respectful, and content with a small territory to monitor in this forest full of animals and birds. He pranced like a boss when we were hiking.

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.

With years of training and many insect stings, a snakebite, deer kick, and a wild boar experience, Rocky learned to freeze and watch or he might be hurt. Even worse, if he doesn’t I won’t invite him on my solo visits into nature throughout each day. Although, without his warnings to me, I’m not sure I could continue solo adventures. We make a great team!

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.

Camping

Developed Campgrounds

Sunny Flat Campground has open prairie with natural and man-made shade.

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.

Idlewild and Spencer Campgrounds parallel Cave Creek, have plenty of cool shade, and facilitate tents and smaller rigs.

Three developed national forest campgrounds offer tables and vault toilets. Some have shade shelters. There are no electric or water hookups, but community water spigots are available between April and October.

Sunny Flat Campground is the most open campground in the canyon and accepts rigs up to 16 feet.

Campgrounds are evacuated due to flooding if there is a forecast of 1.5 inches of rain or greater.

Boondocking

There are ample dispersed camping areas just outside of Cave Creek Canyon and in the surrounding Coronado National Forest.

During the week there were no other visitors in March so I had a multi-level site along Cave Creek at John Hands Campground. The trailer was an ideal hideout to observe wildlife and birds drinking at the river, unaware of our presence.

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.

John Hands primitive camping area parallels Cave Creek and has a waterfall. This larger area has multiple sites with fire rings that would work well for family reunions and larger group camping.

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.

Hiking

Beautiful and dramatic vistas await hikers of all skill levels.

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.

My Subaru Outback 3.6R and NuCamp T@G Outback handled the rough roads and steep grades once again.

My teardrop was designed for offroad with reinforced axle, higher clearance and rugged tires.

Standard vehicles can easily access the Canyon on paved highways leading to Portal.

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MiracleUpdate

Cindy Cason has been a print and broadcast journalist, magazine writer, communications director, and consultant. At home, she was a single mom to four busy and amazing kids. In a blink, they launched and she faced a quiet, empty home and another decade until retirement. She opted to sell the farm and embarked on a solo journey into the American wilderness, traveling in a tiny, offroad teardrop trailer pulled by a Subaru Outback. Today she spotlights the beauty of life in nature, hoping to inspire you to passionately live every phase of your own authentic life. Especially retirement...

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