Article & photos by Maryann Gaug
During our Sierra Vista conference, activities will take us to many remarkable places around Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (RNCA), Fairbank ghost town, and Tombstone. If possible, spend two to three extra days before or after the conference exploring some of the other beautiful areas in southeastern Arizona.
I highly recommend visiting Kartchner Caverns State Park. Located about 20 miles north of Sierra Vista, the decorated upper cavern opened to the public in 1999 followed by the beautiful lower cavern in 2003. Word of caution: Photography, including cell phones, is NOT allowed in the caverns. While we are in Sierra Vista at the end of April, only the Rotunda/Throne Tour will be open. This guided tour is 0.5 mile long on paved trails and takes about 1.5 hours. Wheelchairs are available for anyone who may need one.
Cavern features include cave teeth, cave bacon, a big muddy room with the discoverers’ original trail, 45,000-year old bat guano, and Kubla Khan (the largest column in Arizona). I’ve been in many caverns and these formations are truly wonderful. A tram takes you from the visitor center to the cavern entrance. I was very impressed at how well the caverns are cared for and protected.
The pleasant campground offers electric hookups and restrooms with showers. Enjoy lunch in the picnic area and hike the loop trail through the desert landscape. The ocotillo and other desert plants should be in full bloom about the time we’re there. The Visitor Center includes a video about the discovery and development of the caverns, fossils from the area, and displays about cave geology. A little café provides food and drink. Signs in the hummingbird garden identify common area plants. Over 60 species of birds can be found in the park. (See www.azstateparks.com/kartchner/.)
For a glimpse of Mexico and more birding opportunities, head about 20 miles south of town to Coronado National Memorial, which interprets the Coronado expedition of 1540 – 1542 and the interactions with Native Americans. After stopping in the Visitor Center for a map and information, drive the narrow, twisty, and possibly washboard road up Montezuma Canyon to Montezuma Pass in the Huachuca Mountains. The scenery makes the drive worthwhile! The pass parking lot is just north of the Mexican border and offers far-reaching views. You may also find the Border Patrol there. A gentle one-mile round trip interpretive trail leads 300 feet to the top of Coronado Peak, 6,864 feet elevaation. Views include the San Rafael Valley to the west, and Sonora, Mexico and the Sierra Madre to the south. To the east the green ribbon of the San Pedro River cuts through the desert as does part of the existing border fence. (See www.nps.gov/coro.)
Two places on my list for conference include the Murray Springs Clovis Site, not far from San Pedro House which we will be visiting. Ancient peoples camped here between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago. A 1/3-mile-long interpretive trail leads you through the area where remains of several bison, a mammoth, camel-like and horse-like animals were discovered along with stone tools and artifacts. Farther south in the San Pedro RNCA is the Lehner Mammoth-Kill Site featuring more mammoth bones and Clovis culture artifacts.
For birders in particular, two places to visit include Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Patagonia Lake State Park. The Nature Conservancy Preserve is about 50 miles north and west of Sierra Vista near the quirky little town of Patagonia. More than 300 bird species migrate through and live in the Sonoita Creek riparian area. For those who aren’t into birding, a loop trail through the Preserve meanders among various types of vegetation which seem out of place in this dry country, past 130-year-old, 100-foot-tall cottonwood trees. Adjacent to the Preserve is the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Another 12 miles west is Patagonia Lake State Park, which has a nice campground, swim area, beach, picnic area, and birding trail along Sonoita Creek. The path winds along the lake then next to little Sonoita Creek with opportunities to watch birds and waterfowl. For wine lovers, a number of vineyards and wineries are located south of Patagonia in Elgin. (See www.patagoniaaz.com.)
The area surrounding Sierra Vista is beautiful and a mecca for migrating birds. Make some time to explore it!