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Desert Miracle: Hiking Arizona’s San Pedro River

Shady hiking and cool waters make the San Pedro River an oasis for desert trekkers.

If you think that finding water in the Arizona desert is rare, you’ll think the San Pedro River is a bona fide miracle. What’s miraculous about it? For starters, the San Pedro is the Southwest’s last free-flowing river, and it serves up 40-odd miles of lush streamside hiking in the heart of a hot, sandy desert.

The San Pedro River starts in northern Mexico and flows north through Arizona, where it’s protected within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (NCA). The river is perennial, but its flow is sometimes only a trickle.

From my first steps along the River Trail on a quiet winter morning, I had the trail—indeed, it seemed, the whole NCA—to myself. In theory, the River Trail runs parallel to the stream as it winds its way along the San Pedro Valley floor, between the Huachuca Mountains to the west and the Mule Mountains to the east. But in some places, the stream covers the trail and you’re bound to get your feet wet. You can follow the trail in and along the San Pedro except at times of extremely high water following heavy rainfall. The best hiking is in winter, with steady water levels and comfortable temperatures, or spring, with the arrival of hundreds of migratory birds.

The area along the river is one of the last remnants of an environment that once existed near free-flowing streams throughout the Southwest. Goodding’s willows and Fremont cottonwoods grow here in green profusion, and more than 350 bird species—I spied green kingfishers, Mississippi kites, and gray hawks, to name a few—either visit or inhabit the conservation area. Local residents like ringtail cats, coatimundis, and javelinas also make regular appearances.

This hike is best undertaken without concern for speed or distance. My plan was to hike 30 miles, through the Narrows, all the way to the northern end of the conservation area. But after a stop-and-go day watching for wildlife and petroglyphs (the river region contains more than 250 recorded prehistoric and historic sites), I realized it takes more than a weekend to see this desert miracle.

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