Now is the Time to Discover Madera Canyon, a Hiking and Birding Paradise

Madera Canyon is a retreat for birds and humans alike with cooler weather, extensive trail systems, and mountainous scenery

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains east of Green Valley and 30 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Its higher elevation offers relief to desert dwellers during the hot summer months and allows access to snow during the winter.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Madera Canyon has a long and colorful history. The Friends of Madera Canyon, a cooperating volunteer group, helps the Forest Service maintain recreation sites and provides brochures and education programs.

Mount Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, originally known as White House Canyon, is one of the largest of the deep, wooded ravines in the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s sky islands—isolated high elevation regions surrounded on all sides by much lower land. Orientated approximately north-south, towards its upper end the canyon splits into several tributaries that drain the slopes of 9,453 foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the range. The canyon contains a shallow but permanent creek fed by springs along tributary streams.

There is no gate or sign indicating you are in the Canyon, except for a sign on a right-hand turn to the Visitor Information Station. Brochures and information (but not passes) are available here.

Proctor Parking Area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is also the entrance to the Proctor parking area, handicap accessible trail, and beginning of the Bud Gode Interpretive Nature Trail.

Continuing up the paved road will bring you first to the Whitehouse parking and picnic area. The next parking area is the Madera parking area with picnic sites on both sides of the road. Next is the Santa Rita Lodge on the right where you can park to look at birds at the many feeders.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further up the road at an elevation of about 5,000 feet is the Amphitheater parking area with access to the Nature Trail. Continuing up the canyon you’ll find the Madera Kubo Cabins, another bridge, the Chuparosa Inn B & B, and the large Mount Wrightson Picnic Area and trail heads with parking, numerous picnic sites, and rest rooms.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the riparian valley floor and the thickly vegetated slopes are home to a large variety of plants, reflecting the crossroads location between the Sonoran Desert and the mountains. As a result the canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds including hummingbirds, owls, sulphur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads. Nearly 100 miles of paths climb the valley sides to springs, viewpoints, old mines, and summits including Mount Wrightson. Apart from the creekside path all trails are lightly used. Most visitors are here for picnics, splashing in the stream, and short walks along the canyon floor where the most fruitful bird-watching locations are found.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight. The vertical climb covers 4,013 feet from the Mount Wrightson Picnic/Trailhead Parking Lot. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are recommended. Always bring drinking water and stay on the trails. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trail head and the Santa Rita Lodge.

Madera Creek along a Proctor Area trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Proctor area, a paved loop trail suitable for wheelchairs and walkers offers occasional benches for resting. The trail follows Madera Creek and provides access to the beauty of the lower canyon. Another paved loop trail at Whitehouse is often used by visitors requiring wheelchairs.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach Madera Canyon from Tucson, take the I-19 south towards Nogales and use the Continental Exit 63. Then, follow the Whitehouse Canyon Road east towards the Santa Rita Mountains. The strange elephant-head-shaped mountain located to your right indicates you are on the correct road.

A Coronado National Forest or Interagency (America the Beautiful) pass must be displayed.  Day use passes can be purchased at the site for $8. 

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers