Under an hour south of Tuscon, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area is something of an oasis in the desert. Located as it is between the Chihuahua desert and the Sonoran Desert, it maintains a surprising lush greenness thanks to the year-round running of Cienega Creek. This makes it one of the southern part of Arizona's most important river areas. A cienega is a marsh, and the marshy areas that give the creek its name run alongside the river. These marshes provide critical habitat for many species of both plants and animals – habitat that is getting more and more rare in Arizona. It was the creek's ecological importance, along with its natural beauty, that led to it being set aside as a conservation area in the first place. At a little under 50,000 acres, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area isn't the biggest Bureau of Land Management property in the country, even if it's a long way from being small. But although it is known mostly for the delicate ecosystem it preserves, the area has also become a hub for recreation. Activities include hiking, biking, hunting, and wildlife viewing. And the lush green marshes in the midst of the desert surroundings make for a fascinating place to explore. Visitors to this exceptional area may find that they have the place more or less to themselves. However, it's worth remembering that the Conservation Area includes a cattle ranch. So make sure you leave any gates in the same position you found them.
The unspoiled beauty of this conservation area can make it hard to believe it's so close to the major city of Tucson. But Las Cienegas sits in the middle of a wealth of parks and other natural sites. Coronado National Forest lies just to the east, while the wilderness areas around Madera Canyon are to the West. Due south, the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area, the San Rafael State Natural Area, and the Coronado National Memorial lie between the BLM lands and the Mexican border. To the north, just on the other side of Tucson, the Saguaro National Park and its stunning cactus formations is less than 50 miles away.
Most of Las Cienegas’ visitors come from Tucson. Highway 10 leads south out of town on a well-maintained paved road. Turning south on AZ 83 will bring you to the recreation area. AZ 83 is a single lane in each direction, so pull over wherever possible to let traffic get by. In this arid countryside, tall trees don’t grow, so you won’t need to worry about poor visibility or low clearance. However, while the roads are paved, the desert sun can be hard on asphalt, and in some sections, you may be in for a bumpy ride.
As the road gets closer to the recreation area, you’ll notice the change in your surroundings. The desert begins to turn green, and the formerly arrow-straight road begins to wind. Watch for the turnoff onto E. Empire Ranch Road, and go slowly over the cattle grid. This paved road will bring you into the heart of the conservation area.
Open year-round, the Cineguita Primitive Campground and Picnic Area is a BLM campground within the boundaries of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The open, grassy field offers six RV sites and six tent sites that will have no trouble accommodating rigs up to 50 feet length. Campers will not be able to rely on amenities here - there are no toilets or showers and no hookups.
Although there are no services, you can enjoy free camping at this BLM property that's pet-friendly. All water and firewood must be brought with you into the campground. Campfires are permitted except when the fire danger level is high. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and guests can stay up to a maximum of 14 days.
The entirety of the conservation area is open for hiking. With its variety of ecological zones, Las Cienegas can provide hikes to suit all ages and skill levels.
You could take a multi-day trip across the rolling hills and feel as though you have the vast lands all to yourself. Or, you could explore the historic buildings at Empire Ranch on the half-mile heritage Discovery Trail. Close to the ranch, you’ll also find Oak Tree Canyon, which offers a challenging hike through some stunning scenery.
In this true southwestern landscape, riding horses is an enduringly popular activity. But squeezing a horse into an RV can be a challenge. It’s a lot easier to strap a bike to the back of your vehicle and explore the conservation area that way.
And Las Cienegas offers bikers lots to explore. A 13-mile mountain bike trail winds along the western edge of the conservation area, joining to other trails throughout the region. This relatively new singletrack trail is part of the much larger Arizona Trail and descends from North to South along the ridges and valleys of the conservation area.
A landscape like this seems made for equestrian exploration. Bring a horse with you, and you can explore the hills and plains of this area like the cowboys of the old West. Horseback riding is permitted throughout the conservation area, and you can cross Cienegas Creek at a concrete horse crossing that gives you access to the entire landscape.
Since fresh water is more abundant here than in the surrounding desert areas, it’s possible to explore on horseback even in the hot summer months. But make sure to wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen, and give your mount plenty of rest.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department handles hunting permits and regulations in the conservation area. A license will be required, and all safety rules must be followed. Remember, the conservation area is home to a working ranch, and livestock may be encountered throughout the area.
Deer and javelina are some of the animals most commonly hunted here. The year-round creek attracts game from all over the region. The wide-open plains can make for a challenging but rewarding hunt.
Given its year-round creek compared with the dryness of the surrounding landscape, it’s perhaps not surprising that Las Cienegas is home to an abnormally wide range of animal species. Over 200 types of birds have been identified in the park, along with approximately 60 species of mammal and 40 different kinds of reptiles.
In the skies, keep an eye out for Western yellow-billed cuckoos, grasshopper sparrows, and white-tailed kites. Pronghorn antelope make an atmospheric sight on the open ranges. The Mexican garter snake and the Giant Spotted Whiptail lizard are some of the more interesting reptile species found in this oasis.
Traveling to this part of the country can make you feel like you’re in a Western. So maybe it’s not too surprising to find that a trip to Las Cienegas will have you walking in the footsteps of John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, and other stars of the Golden age of Western movies. The Empire Ranch, in particular, was the backdrop for movies such as “The Big Country,” “Red River,” and “Duel In The Sun.”
Nowadays, the Empire Ranch is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of its historic buildings and Western heritage in general. Visiting the ranch will make you feel as though you're taking a trip back in time, and if you’re lucky, you may even catch one of the regular cowboy festivals held there.