A world-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.
In the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s forested Sky Islands, the cool refuge of Madera Canyon is just 25 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles east of Green Valley. This is part of the Coronado National Forest.
Madera Canyon, with active springs and a seasonal creek, is a lush oasis supporting an amazing diversity of life zones of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon. From Green Valley to the 9,453-foot summit of Mt. Wrightson, the mountains rise nearly 7,000 feet. Moisture increases and temperature decreases 3 – 5°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, creating a succession of four life zones. Each life zone has communities of plants and animals adapted to the environmental conditions found in the zone.
Beneath the shade of the trees, Madera Creek tumbles over bedrock and boulder. Water and stream-borne sediment gradually grind rocks to gravel, gravel to pebbles, and pebbles to sand.
Over millennia, this stream and its side-canyon tributaries have carved the canyon into the form that we see today. Madera Creek is a seasonal stream. It does not flow year-round. But at certain times of the year, water from springs and seasonal run-off drain down the tributaries and feed the main creek in this large bowl-like watershed.
This stream system and the abundant plants along its banks form a riparian corridor. The corridor descends through all the canyon life zones and creates excellent wildlife habitat.
This forested microclimate is a perfect habitat for birding. You can, with time and patience, see fifteen species of hummingbirds, elegant trogon, sulfur-bellied flycatcher, black-capped gnatcatcher, flame-colored tanager, and 36 species of warblers. In all, over 256 species of bird species have been documented.
And under the green canopy roam javelinas, deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, black bears, and mountain lions. Even the occasional jaguar. Coatimundi, the raccoon relative common in the jungles of Guatemala, make Madera Canyon their home as well.
There is a campground suitable for smaller RVs and several picnic areas and the extensive Santa Rita Mountain trail system is easily accessed from here. Bring a picnic lunch and some snacks.
Madera Canyon is a lovely location for a picnic, especially when escaping the summer heat of Tucson. Picnic tables and grills are located near parking areas throughout the canyon. The White House Picnic area provides for larger groups—up to 30 or so. Advanced reservations cannot be made.
All picnic areas have nearby bear-proof trash receptacles and accessible toilets. Bring your own charcoal; there is no firewood available in the Canyon. Fires may be built ONLY in the grills and must be fully extinguished before you leave.
The picnic area at the end of the paved road seemed to be the most appealing, particularly on warmer days.
Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mt. Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are needed. Always bring drinking water hiking and stay on the trails. Do not short-cut switch-back trails, this leads to soil erosion. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trailhead and the Santa Rita Lodge. Pets must be on a leash.
Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails, and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.
The challenging and popular Old Baldy Trail, a 10-mile trek (round trip) leads to the summit and climbs more than 4,000 vertical feet topping out on one of the most spectacular summits in the state. The views from the summit are, to say the least, breathtaking.
The Super Trail is longer but has a more moderate gradient. The trails form a figure eight making it possible to put together a number of different loops using different portions of each.
Old Baldy is the most heavily traveled and also remains the coolest of the two by keeping a more northerly aspect and staying in the trees for almost its entire length. The Super Trail stays within the same drainage as its steeper cousin on the lower loop of the “8”, but it follows a more south-facing slope through a high desert environment.
Above the midpoint of the “8” at Josephine Saddle, the Super Trail loops around the south side of the mountain through even more arid country, while Old Baldy switchbacks through thickets of New Mexico locust on a west-facing slope to Baldy Saddle. The last mile to the summit of Mt. Wrightson via the Crest Trail #144 is the same no matter which trail you’ve followed to the saddle.
Madera Canyon Road climbs from the Sonoran Desert floor in Green Valley, at 2,700 feet with summer temperatures from 85 degrees to 105 degrees F to 5,500 feet with temperatures 20 degrees cooler. Monsoon rainstorms begin in early July and continue through August into September. Storms do not occur every day and usually are small and highly localized but when they are over you, prepare for hail and a brief downpour with falling temperatures. Dry washes fill with rushing water and Madera Creek can flood, so be careful.
In winter, expect snow above 5,000 feet and temperatures near freezing in the canyon. For all these climate conditions, be prepared with adequate footgear and layered clothing.
Madera Canyon is in a National Forest Recreation Area where many facilities are provided by the Forest Service, requiring a local Forest Pass or accepted Inter-agency Pass. While parked you must clearly display whichever of these passes you have purchased on your dashboard.
An $8 Day Fee to the U.S.Forest Service can be purchased at five parking area fee stations in the canyon—only with correct cash or check. You must park in a designated area or you will be ticketed, or towed.
Madera Canyon is accessed from Interstate I-19 about 30 miles south of Tucson and 30 miles north of Nogales on the US/Mexico border:
Exit I-19 at exit 63 is titled Continental Road and Madera Canyon.
Turn east on Continental Road, continue straight ahead through a traffic signal, cross the Santa Cruz River, and turn right at the next four-way stop. You are now on Whitehouse Canyon Road.
Cross the railroad tracks and continue up the hill to the southeast. Slow down for the Continental School, cross the cattle guard and you are now in the Santa Rita Experimental Range operated by the University of Arizona for research on grasses, grazing, and range fire. For birders, there are many species along this road as you drive through the grassland bajada towards the canyon.
Related: Hiking Arizona
After about six miles turn right on the paved Madera Canyon Road. If you continue straight ahead on the gravel road, you can access the headquarters of the Experimental Range or continue through Box Canyon to state route 83.
Heading south on Madera Canyon Road you will cross three one-lane bridges then climb towards Madera Canyon between Mt. Wrightson on your left and Mt. Hopkins on the right.
Following a delightful day, we returned to Mission View RV Resort, our home base of San Xavier Road in southern Tucson.
Stay close to nature, it will never fail you.
—Frank Lloyd Wright