Places We Protect

Aravaipa Canyon Preserve

Arizona

Hikers viewed from behind sitting on a slope surrounded by cactuses, trees and shrubs.
Aravaipa hike Aravaipa Canyon Preserve. © Justin Bailie

Aravaipa Creek flows perennially through the full length of the preserve’s scenic canyon.

Overview

Description

We have temporarily closed public access to our facilities. Trailheads managed by the Bureau of Land Management are currently open.


 

Isolated Aravaipa Canyon is one of the true natural Arizona wonders, featuring a desert steam, majestic cliffs and bighorn sheep. Located about 50 miles northeast of Tucson, the preserve includes lands at both the east and west end of Aravaipa Canyon, as well as preserved lands intermixed with public land on the canyon’s south rim.

The 9,000 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy are managed in conjunction with about 40,000 acres of federal lands. Preserve elevation ranges from 2,800 feet at the west end of the canyon bottom to 6,150 feet on Table Mountain.

The 10-mile long central gorge, which cuts through the northern end of the Galiuro Mountains, is a federal Wilderness Area managed by BLM. Access into Aravaipa Canyon is by permit only and available only through BLM.

Fish monitoring, controlled burning, and other conservation management activities on Aravaipa Canyon Preserve are directed toward ensuring the long-term protection of the stream system and its mixed broadleaf riparian forest composed of cottonwood, willow, walnut, alder, and sycamore trees.

Access

CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC

Highlights

Hiking, walking, wildlife watching, birding

Explore our work in this region

We have temporarily closed public access to our facilities. Trailheads managed by the Bureau of Land Management are currently open.


 

Preserve Regulations
In consideration of our sensitive wildlife habitats and the number of visitors we host, all visitors are asked to remain on the road while traveling through The Nature Conservancy’s preserve land. No unauthorized off-road entry is allowed. Damage or removal of any plants, animals, wood, minerals, or artifacts and/or collecting of any kind is prohibited. Visitors are asked not to feed the wildlife. Picnicking, camping, and fires are not permitted. No dogs, horses, or other domestic animals are allowed on the preserve. Hunting, fishing and firearms are prohibited. To preserve the natural character of our lands for our wildlife and the privacy of our visitors, we restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), whether amateur or commercial, anywhere within this preserve.

Road Conditions
Roads into and through the preserve are gravel, can be rough and are subject to closure during wet weather.  At the east end the road crosses Aravaipa Creek several times through the preserve before reaching BLM Wilderness Area parking. All visitors are asked to remain on the road while traveling through The Nature Conservancy’s preserve land.  No hunting or unauthorized off-road entry is allowed on the preserve. 

Gear
Hat, binoculars, sturdy shoes, sunscreen and plenty of water.  High-clearance vehicles are recommended.

Camping
No camping is allowed within the preserve. At the West end, camping is available across from the Brandenburg Ranger Station. Brandenburg Campsite is identified by a sign along Aravaipa Road. There are restrooms and trash cans. Fires are not allowed. Space is very limited. Only one small group can occupy this site and no other public land is available outside the wilderness for camping on the West end.

At the East end two camping areas are available. Fourmile Canyon Campground, located about one mile southwest of the Klondyke Store has ten units with picnic tables, grills and a flush toilet. Fourmile Canyon has a fee of $5.00 per night. The second area is Turkey Creek, a primitive camping area with no facilities. Turkey Creek is located near the east wilderness entrance and has no fee.

Please remember that, on both entrances, campsites are limited and are on a first-come, first-served basis. Primitive camping in the Wilderness Area is for permit holders only.

Questions?
Call (928) 828-3443 or e-mail mhaberstich@tnc.org

Wildlife Viewing
Pristine Aravaipa Creek flows perennially through the full length of the preserve’s canyon property and is the heart of the preserve and canyon. The creek is a tributary of the San Pedro River and shelters the best remaining assemblage of desert fishes in Arizona, with seven native species.  Two of these species are federally listed as threatened—the spikedace and loach minnow. Among the more than 200 species of birds found at Aravaipa are black and zone-tailed hawks, peregrine falcon, yellow-billed cuckoo, Bell’s vireo, and beardless tyrannulet.

Among the larger mammals that roam the canyon rim and bottomlands are mountain lion, coatimundi, ringtailed cats, black bear, and desert bighorn sheep. In the spring, colorful native wildflowers such as lupine, four o’clock, monkey flowers, columbine and other, more rare species can be seen along Aravaipa Creek. Check out our Calendar of Nature Events for more details.

Open daily, year-round. Access into Aravaipa Canyon requires a permit from the Bureau of Land Management by calling (928) 348-4400. Pedestrian access to the Conservancy's preserve is allowed only with prior authorization from Aravaipa Canyon Preserve staff. Neither The Nature Conservancy nor its Aravaipa Canyon Preserve staff can issue BLM Wilderness permits. Permits can be obtained only by contacting the Safford, Arizona District Office by calling (928) 348-4400.

Laughing Waters and Happy Fish

In Arizona, year-round flowing creeks are a rarity. One exception: A canyon and creek in southeastern Arizona named Aravaipa, an ancient Indigenous word (some say Apache, some say Papago)  for “laughing waters.”

Aravaipa Creek runs for 20 miles, including a 10-mile stretch through a wilderness canyon. The stream nourishes a cottonwood-willow riparian oasis for such native desert wildlife as bighorn sheep, bobcats, coatis, box turtles and javelina. The stream—home to spike dace, loach minnow and other native fish—is widely considered the healthiest native fishery in the Southwest.

Healthy Land Supports Healthy Water Flows

Twenty-five years ago, when Mark Haberstich joined The Nature Conservancy as the Aravaipa preserve manager, the prognosis for the creek was not good.

At that time, an analysis of Aravaipa’s flows showed a declining trend, one that might be expected to continue given the accelerating impacts of climate change. Indeed, the last 20 years have been some of the warmest on record in this region, and 2020 was the worst monsoon season in 25 years, producing very little rain.

Yet over the last 10 years, Aravaipa Creek flows are trending upward.

The reason, explains Haberstich, is that “our preserve lands are acting as a sponge, storing water in the ground and releasing it slowly downstream.”

For the last two and half decades, Haberstich has focused on keeping this pristine watershed healthy and ensuring the longterm protection of the stream and the riverside cottonwood, willow, walnut, alder and sycamore trees.

He works in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the wilderness area cutting through the 9-mile central gorge. The preserve encompasses 53,000 acres of private and leased land, with cooperative management agreements that extend to 70,000 acres of the surrounding watershed.

Rocky cliffs run along Aravaipa Creek.
Aravaipa Canyon Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a 19,410-acre area, administered by the BLM, that forms the northwest border of the Galiuro Mountain range. © Tana Kappel/ TNC

Cobra Ranch Restoration

When the Cobra Ranch became part of the preserve in 2007, Haberstich got to work replacing the former alfalfa fields with native grasses and adding shrubs along the creek banks. The native grasses require only a quarter of the water needed by alfalfa and other more traditional crops.

The Cobra Ranch acquisition included the water rights, so the previous water irrigation was retired.

Haberstich and his staff also introduced meanders into the creek and its tributaries, stabilizing the banks and reducing runoff. These efforts promote infiltration during floods, ensuring that more floodwater goes underground and recharges the aquifer.

The health of the native grasses is something of a litmus tests for the health of the ecosystem, which is under stress. “We don’t have as much summer rain as they do farther south, so it’s an area that’s become more susceptible to climate change,” says Haberstich.

Two small silver fish with brown speckles hover above a pebbled stream bed.
Spike Dace Native fish are thriving in Aravaipa Creek. © John N. Rinne/USFS

Controlled Burns, Native Fish and More

The innovative use of fire—including burning at a large scale—is another key component in maintaining the health of the preserve, which lies within one of the largest unfragmented areas in Arizona. Fire has improved the uplands of Aravaipa which benefits the whole watershed and the habitat for bighorn sheep.

And the trickling stream. Well, if fishes had wishes, they would all wish for habitat like Aravaipa Creek. A recent fish survey found that spike dace had expanded their range and are now present in the stream’s whole length.

“We still have all the fish we had when I started this job, even though they’ve disappeared from many other Southwest streams,” says Haberstich.

The native grass field of the Cobra Ranch is abundant with the chatter of grassland birds. And the creek’s gurgling waters and its many tiny fish have something to laugh about.