Arizona Sky Islands: Santa Rita Mountains

Last Updated on January 24, 2020 by Janet Frost

“Sky Islands” refers to isolated mountain peaks that are not part of a larger range like the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. These forested mountains rise up out of the Sonoran desert floor, thus the island reference. Floating peaks hopscotch across the US Southwest. They fill in the blanks between the northern Rocky Mountain Range and the Sierra Madre Occidental Range in the south.  The isolation of these mountain peaks creates unique natural habitats. Sky Islands consist of many ecosystems and biodiversity that transition rapidly as you climb the steep elevations. The first installment of this series was Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Mountains of Tucson. Today we are going to take a look at the Santa Rita Mountains an hour south of Tucson.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about Sky Islands in the Santa Rita Mountains…

Coronado National Forest

There are a total of 57 Sky Islands in what is known as the Madrean Archipelago. The vast majority are found in Sonora Mexico. But let’s take a look at the layout of the Sky Islands in southern Arizona. The map below shows the 17 mountain ranges referred to as Sky Islands. These 17 are managed by the Coronado National Forest.

Sky Islands of Coronado National Forest

In our National Parks series we discussed the various Park units. A National Forest is technically under the auspices of the U.S.D.A Forest Service. National Forest lands are typically much larger areas and designated for multiple uses, such as lumbering, hunting/fishing, and recreation.

The Coronado National Forest covers 1.78 million acres and is managed by 5 different ranger districts. Habitats vary from deserts to subalpine forests with the highest point being Mount Graham in the Pinaleno Mountains at 10,724 feet.

Santa Rita Mountains

The Santa Rita Mountains are the fourth highest of the Sky Islands in the Coronado National Forest. This range rises nearly 6,000 feet up from the desert floor. The highest peak is Mt. Wrightson at 9,456 feet. This is an extremely rugged range, with steep slopes, sharp peaks, and narrow ridges. Deep canyons are blanketed with pine and oak forests. Rare perennial streams nourish teeming riparian communities.

Located just an hour south or Tucson, the Santa Rita Mountains are a popular destination for hikers, climbers, campers, stargazers and birderwatchers. Mt. Hopkins, at 8,585 feet is home to the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. But the most visited spot in the Santa Rita Mountains is Madera Canyon.

Madera Canyon

Nature Trail in Madera Canyon of the Santa Rita Mountains
Nature Trail in Madera Canyon
Doug Kreutz/Arizona Daily Star

Madera Canyon starts just outside of Green Valley, AZ, 50 miles southeast of Tucson. A three-mile scenic road winds up the start of the canyon. It meaders along the life-giving Madera Creek, passing three picnic areas, a campground, and five trailheads.

Because of its higher elevation, refreshing streams and cool forests it is an oasis from the desert heat for man and wildlife. Madera means wood in Spanish, and historically this was the prime lumber source for a young and growing Tucson.

Birdwatching in Madera Canyon

Birding in the Santa Rita Mountains
Madera Canyon is a primary migration stop for birds of all species.

My introduction to the Santa Rita Mountains was through a dear bird photographer friend. We had heard people mention Madera Canyon for hummingbird photography but appreciated the guiding of our friend for the first visit. Because of the mostly year-round water supply of Madera Creek, this region is a migratory resting spot. Madera Canyon hosts 250 species of birds, including 15 hummingbird species. One of the big promises, is what seems to be a “holy grail” for birders, the Elegant Trogon.

Santa Rita Lodge

There are just a couple of lodging options along this very isolated drive. The most well-known is the Santa Rita Lodge. This quaint facility is heaven for birders. They keep a plethora of bird feeders stocked and the banquet draws in a myriad of wildlife. Santa Rita Lodge offers several dated but adequate motel rooms and cabins for overnight guests. They host birding workshops and tours from around the world. Day trippers are also welcomed.

Hiking the Santa Rita Mountains

Because I am a better bird photographer than hiker, I think the Santa Rita Mountains are all about birds. However, for my avid hiking friends, Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains are their heaven. Branching off from Madera Canyon there are nearly 100 miles of trails. These scale the valley sides, to springs, viewpoints, old mines and summits, including Mount Wrightson. In addition, on the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains is Segment #5 of the Arizona Trail. When it comes to hiking, there is something for every level in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Learn More…Sky Island Scenic Byway and National Scenic Trails

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Arizona Sky Islands: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains in Coronado National Forest
Explore the Arizona Sky Islands: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains in Coronado National Forest

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