Southern Arizona has some of the best birding towns in the world. People come here from all over to see many rare species found in few other places.
Following are our suggestions for where to find the best birding spots. Most of these areas have confirmed sightings of more than 200 species of birds. Some have as many as 300. Generally, they are located along streams & rivers or in forested mountain canyons.
Just to get you started, you might want to watch the short video we created featuring John Ashley’s fine bird photographs.
Note: Birding hotspots are generally located in wild places. Some will have nearby lodging, but few if any will have nearby restaurants or grocery stores. So plan accordingly. TAKE YOUR OWN FOOD & DRINKS!
Click here for a MAP of the 10 BEST BIRDING SPOTS
1. Chiracahua National Monument
Chiracahua National Monument is located southeast of Willcox on the west side of the Chiracahua Mountains, just one portion of the greater Coronado National Forest. When you go, we suggest you stop at the visitors center for a map and other information about trails, camping, & current conditions. The rangers there can point you to the best locations for bird-watching given the season. Camping in Bonita Canyon Campground is a good experience, but there is no other lodging here. Nor are there any restaurants, grocery stores or gas stations. The closest are in Willcox.
Portal is a tiny community on the eastern slope of the Chiracahuas and is a very popular birding area. In fact, there are places of lodging that cater specifically to the needs and interests of birders. Click here to go to our feature on Portal and the Forest Service Road 42 over the mountain to Chiricahua National Monument, about a two hour drive if you don’t stop to watch for birds & critters.
Cave Creek Ranch is one of those places that caters to birders. So far, we have only stayed at the Portal Lodge, which was OK, (small, sparse rooms but clean) and convenient for our road trip in April 2012. Portal Lodge has a small store and restaurant, the only ones in this area for miles. But, there is no gas station nearby, so plan accordingly. And no, the pumps at Rodeo down the hill across the New Mexico border are not always operational either.
The most important item you can purchase at the Portal Store is a Xerox copy of a local area map for $0.25. Very handy.
Five miles further up Cave Creek is the Southwestern Research Station, a working research center that offers accommodations and classes certain times of the year.
We have not stayed here overnight yet, but we’ve been by it and it looks like a great place to make our headquarters for a couple of days.
Located at 5400 feet elevation in the heart of the Chiricahua Mountains, the immediate area is famous for its nesting Elegant Trogons, many hummingbird species, and other spectacular birds that migrant from Central and South America.
The Center offers cabin accommodations, cafeteria dining, a reservoir for swimming, a hummingbird area, and gift shop. Here you will find many hiking trails within walking distance or a short drive. Individuals may make reservations from March 1st to June 15th and from September 1st to October 31st.
All rates include three full meals (vegetarian option) in their cafeteria where you have the opportunity to chat with other visitors and share birding experiences. On those days you wish to travel to more distant areas to bird watch, they will provide you with a sack lunch.
For more information visit: Southwestern Research Station.
About 5 miles NW of Portal is the ghost town of Paradise. During its short but lively heyday, Paradise had saloons, a barbershop, mercantile stores, hotels, a jail, and a red-light district. Almost everyone left when the mines failed, pulling down their homes and businesses and taking the lumber with them. The Walker house, built by George and Lula Walker at the turn of the century, is one of the few original structures still standing. The Paradise Cemetery, one mile from the house, is a walk through history.
The George Walker House is a 100-year-old two-bedroom abode in Paradise. We have not stayed here but we have a good friend who has many times and she raves about this place.
The owners live nearby and we hear they are exceedingly knowledgeable about the history and wildlife of this area. This former boom town now boasts a year-round population of twelve, who enjoy the serenity provided by the surrounding national forest.
Click HERE for more information about Camping and RV Parks near Portal.
3. Ramsey Canyon Preserve
Ramsey Canyon Preserve is located a little south of Sierra Vista. This area is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is one of the most beautiful wild places anywhere.
Among many others bird types here, including the Elegant Trogon, you can find 15 species of hummingbirds.
Not only will you find a wide range of birds, but also many critters, such as black bear and coatimundi. Liz Sackness runs the bookstore at the visitors center and has taken some great photographs of this unique area. You can see our slideshow of her pictures by clicking HERE. Learn more the Nature Conservancy here.
Just before the visitors center is Ramsey Canyon Inn B&B. It’s by far the most convenient for hiking in the Canyon. I’ve seen it from the outside and it looks ideal.
However, it gets mixed reviews and I don’t know why. We have not stayed there, but hope to do so sometime over the next 6 month. Will let you know. In the meantime, do some homework before making a reservation.
Ramsey Canyon Preserve is about 90 miles southeast of Tucson, near the city of Sierra Vista. Take I-10 east to Highway 90 exit. Go south to Sierra Vista. Take Highway 92 south from Sierra Vista for six miles and turn right on Ramsey Canyon Road. The preserve is at the end of Ramsey Canyon Road, four miles west of the highway. (520) 378-2785
4. Whitewater Draw
Whitewater Draw is a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone. This is a playa that fills with shallow water during the wet seasons and attracts many types of waterfowl, including migrating snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many kinds of ducks, herons, egrets, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Hunting in the grasslands or soaring overhead are prairie and peregrine falcons and wintering hawks. Spring and fall are good times to spot migratory birds. Surrounding grasslands nurture a wealth of quail, doves, sparrows, and songbirds throughout the year.
Whitewater Draw also has the usual Baja Arizona critters: mule deer, javelina, coyote, bobcat, rabbit, hare, and many kinds of reptiles, including snakes – venomous and otherwise.
While hardly luxurious, this area does have some useful amenities: restrooms, parking, bus and motor home access, walking trails and interpretive signs, and viewing platforms with binoculars.
In the wet season, the ground can be soft and muddy. Take precautions. If you will be exploring in a vehicle away from the parking area, a 4-wheel drive is recommended.
For more information: Whitewater Draw.
5. Muleshoe Ranch
Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (CMA) is 49,000 acres of rugged beauty, lush riparian areas, and lots of outdoor recreational opportunities. The purpose of the CMA is to conserve and enhance the fragile ecosystems found here and to protect endangered species, as well as the environment they depend upon.
The Muleshoe Ranch CMA encompasses most of the watershed area for seven year-round flowing streams, representing some of the best of what little remains of aquatic habitat in Baja Arizona. In other words, before the ranches, settlements, and cities sucked up all the ground water, this is what Southern Arizona used to look like. Coming here is to look back in time 160 years and see the land as the American Indians experienced it before the invasion of the White Eyes.
Muleshoe Ranch has five housekeeping units that are original and renovated historic buildings dating from the late 1800s. Four of these units border a garden courtyard, while the fifth stands alone near the start of the nature trail. Each unit has a private bathroom and kitchen and is fully furnished with linens and kitchenware.
Nearby, natural hot springs fill tubs for exclusive use by overnight guests. Also on the courtyard, the McMurray Commons features a multi-use room, a sitting room with fireplace and a kitchen. Guests are welcome to enjoy this facility, but the use of the kitchen is only available for rent by groups.
For photos and rate information, take a peek inside with this slideshow.
While headquarters offers the comforts of home – a visitor center and natural hot springs – visitors are surrounded by thousands of acres of scenic wild lands. Beginning at your doorstep are more than 22 miles of hiking trails and loops, canyons teeming with wildlife (over 180 bird species have been recorded here!) and dark skies for star-gazing. Several miles hiking distance from the visitor center are a couple of primitive camping sites.
Muleshoe Ranch is 30 miles northwest of Willcox. Take I-10 east to exit 340. Go south, turn right onto Bisbee Avenue, then right onto Airport Road. Go north for 15 miles to junction just past mailboxes, bear right and continue 14 miles. Turn left into the headquarters. 520-212-4295
For more on Muleshoe Ranch Preserve, click HERE to go to our more recent article.
6. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) is 57,000 acres along the San Pedro River between the International Border and St. David, AZ. This is home to “84 species of mammals, 14 species of fish, 41 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 100 species of breeding birds. It also provides invaluable habitat for 250 species of migrant and wintering birds and contains archaeological sites representing the remains of human occupation from 13,000 years ago.” Click here for a MAP of the the interesting sites in the SPRNCA.
The San Pedro House is home to Friends of the San Pedro River. Here you will find many books about this special area and photographs of dozens of bird species that have been sighted here. The Friends also offer scheduled events, such a guided hiking tours of the area. Click HERE for their website.
7. Buenas Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Buenas Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR) is 118,000 acres of protected grasslands, streams, and cienegas (marshlands or wetlands) for threatened and endangered species. And, with over 300 species sighted, it is, one of Arizona’s premier birding areas.
BANWR’s mammal population includes: deer, javelina, coati, mountain lion, badger, and, on rare occasion, jaguar. Some of this preserve’s special birds include: gray hawk, buff-collared nightjar, thick-billed kingbird, and Strickland’s woodpecker.
From Tucson take Interstate 19 south to the Amado/Arivaca exit west, turn right at the T, then left at the Cow Palace onto Arivaca Road. Then drive 23 miles to Arivaca. Arivaca Cienega Trail is ¼ mile east of Arivaca; Arivaca Creek Trail is 2 miles west of town.
The National refuge is open to public use 24 hours a day. Headquarters Visitor Center: 7:30 am to 4:00 pm seven days a week. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Headquarters business office: 7:30 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday. Visitor center is closed weekends June 1–August 15.
For more information: Join the Friends of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. or visit the Official National Website.
The nearest restaurant & saloon are in Arivaca. La Gitana Cantina on the main street is a lively place rich in history. Sweat Peas Cafe’ has very good food & service. It’s located down a side street just east of the village. Look for the sign.
The nearest inns & B&B’s are back along I-19 at Amado and Tubac. You might consider:
Amado Territory Inn
Tubac Country Inn
Poston House Inn Bed and Breakfast
Tubac Golf Resort
We have visited all of these establishments and they are all very nice accommodations.
Twelve miles south of Arivaca on a (usually) well-maintained dirt road is the ghost town of Ruby and a small lake that you can camp by. ‘Tis one of the nicer campsites in Baja Arizona, in part because of its isolation. Highly recommended. To see our two videos about Ruby, click HERE.
8. Sabino Canyon
In the heart of Tucson, nestled at the bottom of the Catalina Mountains is a rare gem. Watch the Video to learn more!
Santa Cruz County
9. Madera Canyon
Given its proximity to Tucson and Green Valley, Madera Canyon is an extremely popular outdoor recreation area and perhaps the most famous bird watching area in Arizona. For this reason, and the fact that Madera Canyon hosts hundreds of bird species, it can sometimes get a little crowded up here.
There are several Forest Service campgrounds and picnic areas here, as well as a couple of private accommodations that cater to birders: Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Kubo Cabins, and Chuparosa Bed & Breakfast. The campgrounds are not particularly nice, but the picnic areas and private accommodations are.
The tallest peaks in the Santa Rita Mountains are over 9,000 feet, but the canyon itself is around 5-6,000 feet above sea level.
From the west, Madera Canyon is accessible from Interstate 19 near Green Valley or from Sonoita in the east from Hwy 83 via Greaterville Road, a scenic route over 11 miles of winding, unpaved road. This road passes through lush grasslands of the eastern foothills of the Santa Rita Mountain before meandering through steep Box Canyon. After a heavy rain, the Box Canyon Road can be rough, thus we recommend a high clearance vehicle.
For more information: Friends of Madera Canyon.
10. Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is one of the best-known and highly regarded birding places in the Arizona. They claim more birders have seen their first gray hawk here than anywhere else. In this now-rare riparian habitat along Sonoita Creek, more than 300 bird species have been spotted. Of particular interest are the gray hawk, vermilion flycatcher, violet-crowned hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, zone-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, white-throated sparrows (in winter) and black-bellied whistling duck.
Three miles of easy walking trails follows along Sonoita Creek and through a rare cottonwood forest. During the summer months, wildflowers bloom. Guided walks are offered every Saturday morning at 9:00am starting from the visitor center.
Patagonia – Sonoita Preserve is 60 miles southeast of Tucson. Take I-10 east to Highway 83 exit south. At Sonoita, turn west on Highway 82. In Patagonia, turn west on 4th Avenue. Turn south (left) on Pennsylvania, cross the creek, and go about one mile to the parking lot and entrance.
For more information: Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.
There are several interesting inns and B&B’s in and near Patagonia. In February 2013, Nancy, the owner of the Duquesne House Bed & Breakfast, gave us a tour. Very nice! We hope to stay there later in the year.
Another place that has received favorable reviews is The Sheffield Manor Bed & Breakfast.