Prior to last September, I had not heard of Madera Canyon, which is somehow less than an hour from Tucson and also the home base of Mt. Wrightson, the tallest mountain in Southern Arizona. However, I went from not knowing a thing about this place to visiting in September, December, and January, and I can tell you that it was fantastic every single time.
Now, to be fair, I did the same hike each time, so I cannot talk about Mt. Wrightson or the camping or any of that, but the main Madera Nature Trail is excellent. For a quick day-trip hike out of Tucson, this has quickly become one of my favorites, so keep reading for more information!
Part 1: About Madera Canyon and Mt. Wrightson
The American Southwest is really cool for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is the existence of “Sky Islands,” which absolutely sound like places you would find in a fantasy novel. Real-life Sky Islands though are defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) What this means in practice is that as you gain elevation whether on Mt. Wrightson or Mt. Lemmon, you will find yourself entering an entirely different world than the lowland desert. The most obvious difference will be the temperature, since you lose about 3°F for every 1000 feet in elevation gain. And now you understand why everyone in Tucson loves Mt. Lemmon in the summer!
Mountains also like to play with the weather, so while Tucson is rather consistently hot and dry, the Sky Islands are not. On a Sky Island, there are five seasons: Spring, Dry-Summer, Wet-Summer, Fall, and Winter. Springtime is cool, windy, and somewhat rainy with temperatures like you would expect on the East Coast – or anywhere that is not literally a desert (although I am really enjoying 70°+ in February). Dry-summer, as you would expect, has low-humidity and high temperatures. It’s cooler than in the rest of the desert but still hot. Wet-summer is still hot, but this time with lots of rain, as in lots of rain. Fall is again like spring with nice weather and limited wind and rain. Winter, though, is the big difference from the rest of the desert since there will be snow on the peaks, and it can get below freezing in the canyon.
So, why do the mountains get all their own weather with rain and snow? For a very short answer: As weather systems move across Arizona and hit the mountains, the cold air goes up, which makes a low-pressure system over the mountains. This means the mountains get precipitation and the desert does not. (And here is the better, longer answer under the section on Pressure; yes, I am linking to the National Park Service curriculum.)
I’ve covered the mountains and Sky Islands now, but the grassland at the base of the canyon is also fascinating. Historically, a lot of the modern desert – at least in foothills areas – was more grassland. This changed partly due to ongoing droughts through the 20th century, but it also had to do with more people living in the area. Over-grazing of animals, building cities and roads, and prevention of natural fires all allowed desert scrub to enter habitats that were formerly grassland. You might ask then: Why does Madera Canyon still have its grassland?
The answer is…(wait for it)…Dirt! With all the rain in this area, the soil here ended up with high amounts of clay that therefore makes the soil more resistant to new plants despite limited wildfire and increased grazing. This grassland area that has so benefited from the Sky Island rains is officially called the “Alluvial Fan” or “La Bajada,” and it is home to lots of beautiful flowers and long waving grasses.
Part 2: Flora and Fauna
If you read through all of that first section without just skipping to the hiking part, then I am going to assume you are a nerd like me who also wants to know how all this fancy climate stuff affects the plants and animals in and around Madera Canyon.
Since I just talked about grasslands, I’ll continue here discussing Sky Island vegetation. Visiting Madera/Mt. Wrightson actually makes a really interesting contrast in terms of vegetation. Because of the clay-rich soils at Madera, you start out with grassland with some desert plants before transitioning into the coniferous forests at higher latitudes. By contrast, the base of Mt. Lemmon is populated by a cactus forest that slowly transitions into grassland then trees. You can see elevation maps at either location that show these changes, but in general as you climb these mountains you move through the following life zones: Lower Sonoran (2000-4000 ft), Upper Sonoran(4000-7000 ft), Transition (7000-8000 ft), and Canadian (8000-10000 ft). All of these elevations are different on the north sides of the mountains though since the northern face will be cooler.
As you walk, even early on in hiking, the plants will change from Mesquite and Yucca to Alligator Juniper and Mexican Pinyon Pine. More types of pine trees will appear as you move higher until they are replaced by Ponderosa Pines and eventually dominated by Douglas Firs (AKA Christmas Trees). The canyon also has its own fascinating life since it is home to a Riparian Corridor and the surrounding Riparian Woodland. Riparian basically means “river,” and the Riparian Corridor is the river that descends through the climactic zones. Around the river, you will find a deciduous forest, which basically means that you can find fall colors here when the leaves change!
As far as wildlife, you are basically guaranteed to see deer, but if you’re especially eagle-eyed (or hiking in the evening), you can spot coatimundis as the elevation increases (though not at the peaks). Coatimundis, in case anyone is unaware, are the best animals ever. They’re found throughout Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America, but Southern Arizona is as far north as you will find them (also New Mexico and Texas at roughly the same latitudes).
Madera Canyon is most famous as a destination for bird-watching, which you will notice anytime of year from the numbers of people walking around with binoculars and birding cameras. Because of the climate of Madera Canyon and its location in southern Arizona, you will see familiar northern birds from around the US as well as birds that, like coatis do not go further north than this and are thus more commonly found in Mexico or further south. Depending on the season, you can also see birds that are resting on migrations from north-to-south. The Sky Islands are perfect stopping places for these birds, and you can pick up birding guides at the some trailheads or at the visitor’s center to help you know what to look for. (More info about the birds here!)
Part 3: Hiking Madera Nature Trail
The hike I’ve done at Madera is just the main Madera Nature Trail that starts from the Proctor parking lot. This trail can end in a few places, though my preference is to stop at either the Amphitheater Parking Area or Mt. Wrightson trailhead. Needless to say, if you were hiking Mt. Wrightson, you would start at this point. Trail Map
The first half of the nature trail (Proctor to Amphitheater, points 1-4 on map) is relatively flat and takes you through grassland and by streams (with actual water in them, which is very exciting when you’re hiking in Tucson). You’re basically guaranteed to see deer, and there will be lots of people walking dogs or bird-watching. For a short, easy hike, especially with kids, the amphitheater is a good place to get lunch and turn around. If you really want to plan ahead or have a big-ish group, you can also drive one car up to the parking lot by the amphitheater and then ride back down to the main parking with the other car. This part of the hike is approximately 2 miles one way.
The second half of the trail (Amphitheater to Wrightson, points 4-5), should you choose to continue, will take you up and around one of the mountains, though it is by no means a difficult hike. The main climbing is very early on, and at most it will be difficult for about ten minutes before you move on to flatter areas. This part of the trail offers great views looking over the canyons and grassland. You can see Mt. Wrightson – with snow on top in winter – and the desert that stretches out toward Tucson. Adding this to your hike makes it about 4 miles in one direction; however, a more direct route back if you do not want to go on the uphill mountain part again would be simply walking down the main access road. Also you can again drive one car up to wait at the parking lot.
Whatever you choose in terms of hiking, a visit to the Santa Rita Lodge is mandatory since you will see so many birds! There’s also a good possibility here of seeing coatimundis, which are actually the best animals ever, even if they’re difficult to spot. If you’re finishing at Amphitheater, the lodge is very close by on the main road, and you will also pass it if you take the paved road back from the Wrightson trailhead. Alternatively, you can hike out and back then drive up to the lodge and have your car right there to hold any souvenirs from the gift shop.
Bonus: It’s great to go here early in the morning, especially in summer (also late-spring or early-fall) when it will get hot. Then just pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the day!