Desert Miracle: Hiking Arizona's San Pedro River

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

Expedition Planner: San Pedro River, AZ

DRIVE TIME: The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is 1 1/2 hours (75 miles) southeast of Tucson.

THE WAY: From Tucson, take I-10 east and then AZ 90 south to Sierra Vista. From Sierra Vista, take either Charleston Road or AZ 90 east about 15 miles to trailheads on the river, or go south on AZ 92 and east on Hereford Road to the Hereford Bridge trailhead.

TRAILS: The most popular section of the River Trail is the 8-mile segment between Charleston Road and Fairbank Townsite. For a longer hike with more solitude, start at the Hereford Bridge trailhead (8 miles from the Mexican border) and hike north for up to 32 miles one way. A $2 backcountry fee is required (see Contact below).

DAYHIKE: For an easy out-and-back trip to the Narrows, where the San Pedro squeezes between two hills, hike downstream from the Charleston Road trailhead (3 miles round-trip). Continue through the Narrows to extend the route up to 8 miles one way.

ELEVATION: At the Mexican border, the elevation is 4,300 feet. It drops to 4,000 feet at Fairbank Townsite, and bottoms out at 3,600 feet at the northern edge of the NCA.

CAN'T MISS: Taking off your shoes and splashing through the creek on a warm winter day.

CROWD CONTROL: Spring weekends (the end

of April and beginning of May) draw the most crowds, as birders come from all over the country. Go in fall or winter, or midweek, to avoid the crowds. Also avoid the busy trails near the San Pedro House (a nonprofit visitor center on AZ 90).

GUIDES:The San Pedro River: A Discovery Guide, by Roseann Beggy Hanson (University of Arizona Press, 800-426-3797; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $17.95). USGS topo Fairbank Townsite.

WALK SOFTLY: There are numerous historic and prehistoric archaeological sites in the area. Look, but don't touch.

CONTACT: San Pedro Project Office, Bureau

of Land Management, (520) 458-3559; www.az.blm.gov.