Sycamore Canyon in the Coronada National Forest

Sycamore Canyon

It’s been a few months since I’ve had time for hiking and blogging,  but now that the holidays are over, I’m getting back to it again. On Thursday, January 5, 2012, I did a hike with the Green Valley hiking club. I chose a place called Sycamore Canyon, as I have heard other people in the area remark how beautiful it is. This year, with the above average rains in December, there is still a little running water in the creek, making it even more beautiful. This canyon is located in the Pajarita Wilderness area in the Coronada National Forest west of Nogales. Here is a little information about this Wilderness area:

Pajarita is a Spanish word meaning “little bird.” It is an appropriate name for this 7,420-acre area  for a couple of reasons. First, the international border with Mexico forms the area’s southern border.  Second, the area’s rugged canyons, which point south toward the subtropical environments of Mexico and Central America, provide a natural migration route for a surprising diversity of birds. The lush riparian habitat of Sycamore Canyon, the area’s most prominent natural feature, also supports a number of resident species. As many as 160 species of birds have been observed in and around Sycamore Canyon.

Though the area’s rolling hills are predominantly covered with desert savannas and oak woodlands, its riparian areas are home to an astonishingly diverse vegetative community. Over 600 species of plants, some of which are extremely rare, have been identified in these productive habitats. Part of the Wilderness lies within the Goodding Research Natural Area, established in this area precisely because of the amazing diversity found here.

Two major trails lead into the Pajarita Wilderness, the only Wilderness in the Coronado National Forest not located on the high slopes of a mountain range. The Sycamore Canyon Trail #40 leads downstream in that showplace of biological diversity, past riffles and pools that hold water year-round.

Sycamore Canyon Trail #40

Most of those who come to visit in this area are drawn here by the unique environment of Sycamore Canyon. Home of one of the few perennial streams in extreme southern Arizona, it supports such a diverse plant and animal community that part of it has been designated the Goodding Research Natural Area. Over 625 species of plants have been identified here, many of which are rare and/or endangered. Sycamore Canyon’s animal life is extremely diverse as well, especially its birds. Over 130 species have been identified as frequent visitors here. Among those are colorful vermilion flycatchers and various warblers, raptors and herons.

The trail starts out at the Hank and Yank Ruins. The remnants of an old adobe wall are all that’s left of a Civil War-era homestead that was pioneered in this canyon by Hank Hewitt and Yank Bartlett. The trail itself exists only in a few places along the floor of Sycamore Canyon. More generally it just follows the stream, crossing it and re-crossing it via stepping stones and gravel bars. As the canyon meanders toward Mexico, pinnacles and sheer rock cliffs that form the canyon walls occasionally crowd the stream so that a little fancy footwork is required. A number of pools in the inner reaches of the canyon usually hold water year-round and provides drinking water for a wide variety of wild life.

Atacosa Mountains

All that sounded very interesting to me, so I was looking forward to checking it  out for myself. The trail head lies west of Nogales on the Nogales-Ruby road. This road is dirt and often extremely rough but much to my surprise, it was recently graded and in better condition than I’ve ever seen it. The drive in is quite scenic on it’s own, with interesting rock outcroppings near the craggy cliffs of Atacosa Peak.  The trail head has ample parking and makes a good picnic spot under the large Arizona Oak trees.

We left the cars about 9:00 am and it was already warming into the high 50’s and low 60’s. Our destination was a place along the creek called the Narrows, where the canyon get very deep and narrow and it would be hard to traverse it without getting wet or detouring up the steep walls to avoid the difficult places.   We hiked west along a jeep trail and soon came to the remains of the adobe structure mentioned above.

What's left of an old adobe cabin.

A short distance later we crested a low hill and could look down at the creek and the canyon further to the southwest.

Looking down into the start of the canyon.

There is a trail visible in some places along the creek but more often than not you simply walk along the edge of the creek and choose the easiest route.

Wandering along the creek.

It wasn’t long before we came to some very interesting and colorful rocks along the west side of the canyon.

At this point the canyon was still pretty wide but the further south we went, the more it began to narrow.

Canyon beginning to narrow.

In this section tall stacks of rock lined the canyon and as you gaze upward you feel so small.

I wonder how tall that one is?

We began to crisscross the creek more often now and the canyon widened and narrowed several times. There was always something interesting to see and each bend in the creek brought new surprises.

Is that a cave?

We finally came to a place where there was a little waterfall.  The rocks on either side seemed impassable. We made a short detour over a small ridge then dropped steeply into a deeper and narrower section of the canyon. Now it was just rock-hopping along the wider edge of the creek and stopping frequently to take in all the wonderful scenery.

The pool below the little waterfall.

Looking off the little ridge we detoured over.

Sycamore trees along the creek.

Finally the canyon narrowed to the point that it would take some serious scrambling to traverse it further. It was time to have a bite of lunch and get ready for the return trip.

It's swim or climb to get passed this one!

After lunch we returned the same way we had come in. It was a beautiful hike, both ways!  I can see why this is such a popular place and what brings people back again and again.

I hope you have enjoyed this adventure and hope you will find the beauty in the world around you.

Dennis