Madera Canyon, Your Sky Island Paradise
by Jane Holt
The wildlife and natural beauty of Madera Canyon attracts hikers, bird watchers, and outdoor enthusiasts from around the United States and from as far away as Asia and Europe, yet the canyon is still unknown to many local residents. Nestled in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is the perfect quick getaway or overnight retreat.
Part of the Coronado National Forest, this natural gem is conveniently situated only 11 miles outside of Green Valley, Arizona. Just head west on Continental Road (I-19, Exit 63), take your first right on Whitehouse Canyon Road after Abrego Drive, stay on the paved road and enjoy the scenery.
If you want to see birds, and there are over 230 species here during the spring and summer months, come early when they are most active feeding early in the day. Hummingbirds are anywhere there are feeders or flowering plants. Colorful males are in the canyon from March to October along with the duller females. Juveniles appear from June on and are joined by hundreds of migrants from the north in August through October. You can find 15 species there if you are lucky! In addition to the trails along the creek from the Proctor parking lot to the top of Mt. Wrightson, you can observe hummingbirds and other species from the bird viewing area above the Santa Rita Lodge gift shop.
You can also find a variety of colorful birds at the feeders next to another lodging and gift shop, the Madera Kubo Cabins, about a half mile up the road. Please park at the Amphitheater parking lot and walk up the road to the Madera Kubo. Parking there is for guests and customers only. A regular visitor to the Madera Kubo has been a male Flame-colored Tanager that can be seen from April to August if it returns for another breeding season.
The Chuparosa Inn farther up the road also allows birders to view hummingbirds, tanagers, flycatchers, warblers, and occasionally an Elegant Trogon from their patio. Visitors are asked to park at the Mt. Wrightson picnic area, and take the short walk back down to the Inn. Parking at the Chuparosa Inn is reserved for guests. The upper end of Madera Canyon Road is often referred to as “Round-up” because the road makes a circle around the picnic areas.
If you have a Golden Age Pass, or any of the other “Golden” senior citizen passes to national parks and monuments, display it on your dashboard and park free in Madera Canyon. Otherwise, you will need to pay the parking fee of $5.00 per day or $10.00 per week. You can deposit your check or cash in self-service stations at the marked trailheads. Annual passes are available at the Santa Rita Lodge gift shop for $20.00 and are valid for one year from the month of purchase. These passes are also good for Mt. Lemmon and Sabino Canyon. The forest service will ticket cars without a pass or fee payment. Failure to pay the parking fee is a federal offense carrying a fine of up to $5,000.00 or six months in jail. Even if you plan to buy an annual pass to cover parking on the day of your visit, it is still a good idea to bring $5.00 in case the Santa Rita Lodge gift shop is closed or they are temporarily out of stock. None of the businesses in the canyon are authorized to collect the parking fee and there is no ATM.
Bring water and wear comfortable walking shoes. Only the Proctor parking area, Whitehouse Canyon picnic area, and Bog Springs campground have running water. If you are planning to meet friends or family members in the canyon, agree on a location and don’t rely on your cell phone. Cell phone service is patchy in the canyon and there is no public telephone. Check all your supplies before you leave including your gas tank. There are no filling stations, grocery stores, or restaurants in the canyon. If you do have engine trouble, the Forest Service does not provide roadside assistance. Although tow trucks do drive to Madera Canyon, sometimes it can take hours for them to arrive.
Be vigilant as you drive. Share the road with hikers and bicyclists. Be cautious as deer, turkeys, snakes, and rabbits cross frequently. You will see “Open Range” signs as you drive up the mountain. Breaks in the fence occur from time to time and cattle always seem to cross the road in front of cars, sort of like quail families.
The best time to see birds is in the spring, but after the monsoons they are very active as well. By the end of October, most of the hummingbirds have migrated to warmer climates, but it is still a peaceful time to enjoy Madera Canyon Creek and the serenity of the forest. Some of the birds rare to the United States are seen in late fall into winter such as the Aztec Thrush.
Stillness in the forest has its benefits, but also it dangers. If you remain very still and quiet, you will observe many animals you would not see while walking and talking. This is fine for small animals, but not big ones. As a general rule, do not to hike alone, but if you must, tie a bell to your hiking stick or whistle as you walk. Bears are generally shy around humans and will avoid an approaching hiker if they hear you coming. Do not approach bears for a better look or photograph, and do not run away from them as that can trigger the pursuit reaction from the bear.
Don Marion, Area Manager for Madera Canyon, and I were discussing some of the strange questions we get asked by canyon visitors from time to time. He said, “A woman called and asked, ‘what time do you let the bears out?’ I thought she was kidding,” he said. “So I answered, we let them out about eight in the morning and they come back about five. She thanked me and hung up.”
A useful source of up-to-date information about Madera Canyon and its programs can be found on this Friends of Madera Canyon web site (www.friendsofmaderacanyon.org). The Friends of Madera Canyon is a non-profit, volunteer organization founded in 1987 to assist the US Forest Service in enhancing the public’s enjoyment of the Madera Canyon Recreation Area. The Friends are also active in improving canyon facilities for visitors as well as protecting the future survival and vitality of the forest against threats from real estate developers and mining interests. The Friends have a strong education program. School children in the area tour the canyon every spring and fall with docents trained by the Friends. Membership and volunteer information is available on this website (Click on “Join Us”).
Wildlife preservation and research is also important to the Friends. The bat houses situated throughout the canyon are installed to learn what species of bats will roost at different elevations in the canyon. One of the monitoring sites of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network is open to the public when scientists are banding hummingbirds every other Monday from March to October. “Bug Nights” are held in the fall when hundreds of species of insects including some endemic to the canyon come to the “party.”
Projects for the coming year include a new bridge on the Nature Trail at Amphitheater, replacement of some of the larger bat houses, continuation of the fourth grade spring and fall nature walks, and a number of adult education and entertainment programs in the canyon.
We encourage you to join with us to protect and preserve the canyon for the enjoyment of future generations.
Madera Canyon from Proctor - Phil English