The summer monsoon rains turn Southeastern Arizona’s mountains and deserts a surprisingly verdant green. During this “second spring,” witness up to 14 species of hummingbirds, hear grassland sparrows singing on territory, and spot breeding birds of Mexican affinity just outside your door. Walk in cool, shaded canyons cloaked in oaks and mixed conifers. These are perfect for mid-day hikes; during the early mornings and evenings we explore desert and grassland terrain.
We base our trip out of two of our favorite lodges: Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, just down the road from our home office, and the delightful Casa de San Pedro in Hereford from which we explore cool, lush canyons of the Huachuca Mountains in search of Mexican Spotted Owl, Red-faced and other warblers, butterflies, dragonflies, and more. Both lodges set us up perfectly to explore the surrounding sky islands, grasslands, and local preserves. In the surrounding sky island foothills, we find promise of hummingbirds galore at both public and private feeding stations.
Can’t tear yourself away? On this departure we are pleased to offer a two-night extension south of Tucson at Amado, where we immerse ourselves in Florida, Box, and Madera Canyons and other local hotspots.
Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an official permittee of the Coronado National Forest, following Leave No Trace principles. We also abide by the ABA's Code of Ethics for birding.
- Spend three nights at Portal’s own Cave Creek Ranch, a perfect base to explore the Chiricahua Mountains
- Explore Cave Creek Canyon, one of the most biologically diverse places in the United States
- Look for Red-faced and Olive Warblers in high sky island peaks
- Bird the Chiricahua National Monument, where Apache leaders Cochise and Geronimo and their followers once hid from American troops
- Spend three nights at the gorgeous Casa de San Pedro—be sure to save room for their famous pie!
- Stroll along the San Pedro River and explore famous Carr and Ramsey Canyons
- Witness plentiful hummingbirds in Patagonia
- Opt for a two-night extension south of Tucson
Thurs., Aug. 19: Arrivals in Tucson | Willcox Twin Lake Ponds | Portal & Cave Creek Canyon
Arrive in Tucson today, a vibrant city surrounded by mountain ranges that rise from the Sonoran Desert floor. Please plan to arrive by 1:00 PM.
From our gathering point at Tucson International Airport (TUS), we head to one of the most beautiful areas of Southeast Arizona: colorful Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. Our route is scenic; passing through rock spires at Texas Canyon we take in views of distant sky island mountain ranges in all directions. We make a couple of birding stops, one at a local wetland at Willcox. Formerly a glacial playa lake, today twin golf course ponds attract a host of shorebirds and ducks. American Avocet, White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Western and Eared Grebes, and various phalaropes and sandpipers are often present.
Upon arrival in Portal, settle in to your picturesque cabins and cottages and enjoy a welcome dinner, as well as an overview of the week ahead.
Accommodations at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal (D)
Fri., Aug. 20: Cave Creek Canyon | South Fork | Grasslands | Portal
Enjoy dawn in a magical realm. Bird calls echo through the canyons. Dusky-capped and Brown-crested Flycatchers nest in the area, as do a host of interesting warblers such as Grace’s, Virginia’s, Lucy’s, Olive, and Red-faced. Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay quickly makes their presence known in the lower grassland reaches, while the highly-social Mexican Jay holds its own amid the oaks.
Cave Creek Canyon is one of the most biologically diverse places in the United States; here the ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madres, the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Sonoran Desert intricately combine. In the maze of volcanic rock pinnacles with crenellated walls of orange tuff, you see contrasts like yuccas standing above bracken ferns, and Douglas Fir entwined with Arizona Sycamore. Several pairs of Elegant Trogon have nested in the canyon for many years; their ecological story is closely tied to neighboring Mexico and the Sierra Madres. While walking the cool and shaded paths of the canyon, we’re also likely to see Painted Redstart, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Acorn Woodpecker, and Arizona Woodpecker—just to name a few highlights!
The village of Portal is a birder’s mecca, and this afternoon we walk the streets of this picturesque village, seeking out tanagers, orioles, and other species that use the verdant oasis. We also stop at two local feeders that can be very productive.
Tonight, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant and indulge in fabulous views of the Chiricahuas.
Accommodations at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal (B,L,D)
Sat., Aug. 21 : High Mountain Birding | Night Birds
Today we head to the top of the Chiricahuas on a dramatic mountain road from which we witness the epic drama of fires that roared through the Chiricahua and Huachuca Mountains in May and June of 2011. Between dramatic views of the peaks and surrounding desert, we find still lovely conifer forest home to a rich array of species not found at the lower elevations. Look for Red-faced and Olive Warblers, as well as Greater Pewee. Explore beautiful mountain streams, picnic in high mountain meadows, and enjoy the peaceful setting while you discover new birds, wildflowers, and mammals like Apache Fox Squirrel, Coue’s White-tailed Deer—even Black Bear is possible!
We have found August to be a superlative time to visit the Chiricahuas, as flocks of warblers spend as much as two to three weeks in the mixed conifer habitat, fattening up ahead of migration. We have had multiple species bathing in pools of water along the quiet dirt road through the campgrounds, joined at times by Mexican Chickadee, a range restricted species to this area.
We return to our lodgings, a fine birding area on its own, with feeders and a resident herd of Wild Turkey. We have dinner at the lodge, and learn more about the region’s small owls and nightbirds; afterwards we venture out to hear and see them. The smaller owls are more difficult to find at this time than in spring when they are nesting, but we may find a few calling, and we can look for Common Poorwill and Mexican Whip-poor-will.
Accommodations at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal (B,L,D)
Sun., Aug. 22 : State Line Road | Chiricahua National Monument | The San Pedro River
Early while bird activity is high, we head down the valley to bird along State Line Road where we look for grassland specialties such as Scaled Quail, several thrashers, and Greater Roadrunner, and we take a peek at what migrants abound at Willow Tank, a birding hotspot.
We return for a hearty brunch, then say farewell to Portal and retrace our route up and over the mountains to the rock wonderland of the Chiricahua National Monument. If we missed anything in the high country the day before, we have a second chance at Pinery Canyon along the way.
The Monument holds spectacular rock pillars, formed by volcanic activity and erosion, famous Apache leaders Cochise and Geronimo and their followers once hid from American troops. Today, Zone-tailed Hawk and Peregrine Falcon patrol the rugged rock landscape. Learn more about the geological processes that formed the park and walk the trails between the rock formations, looking for Rock and Canyon Wrens, Painted Redstart, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-faced Warbler, and Mexican Jay. With luck, we may spot an inquisitive Coatimundi, a relative of the raccoon. Claret-cup Cacti and Yucca should be in bloom. While here we enjoy a picnic lunch and a short loop trail with marvelous vistas.
Then we head west across extensive grasslands under the shadow of the Dos Cabezas Mountains, watching for raptors and Lark Bunting.
Tonight our lodgings are at the delightful Casa de San Pedro, on the San Pedro River south of Sierra Vista. The Casa de San Pedro is a nationally acclaimed inn; they say it is 90 miles from Tucson and inches from heaven. We agree! We find it the ideal location for our group with meeting space, incredible hospitality, active bird feeders, a pond, and the San Pedro River right outside our door. From the Casa, we can explore cottonwoods that fringe the river, as well as surrounding grasslands and the nearby Huachuca Mountains, a magnet for hummingbird enthusiasts. You soon discover why so many guests return here again and again.
Birds of interest here include Swainson’s and Gray Hawks, Black Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, Abert’s Towhee, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and several species of grassland sparrows. Rarely, a Green Kingfisher is present along the river or at a nearby pond. Lesser Nighthawk fly by the lights of the car park each evening.
After a full day of learning and exploring, we enjoy a catered dinner at the Casa.
Accommodations at the Casa de San Pedro (B,L,D)
Mon., Aug. 23 : Carr Canyon | Ramsey or Miller Canyons | Casa de San Pedro
After a delicious (some say outrageous!) breakfast at Casa de San Pedro, we head out to upper Carr Canyon, driving switchbacks up a mountain road to search for the birds of the high pine forest. Here we may find Steller’s Jay, Hairy Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher (extremely local in the U.S.), Hutton’s Vireo, Black-throated Gray, Olive, and Grace’s Warblers, Yellow-eyed Junco, and—with luck—a Northern Goshawk. Beautiful Ponderosa Pines dominate our trail, which is punctuated by exhibits about the silver mines run here over 100 years ago on a geologically dramatic cliff known as “The Reef.”
We enjoy a picnic lunch near local feeders where we hope to see Lucifer Hummingbird, as well as more regular Anna’s, Black-chinned, and possibly migrant Rufous Hummingbirds. Acorn, Ladder-backed, and Arizona Woodpeckers, Mexican Jay, White-winged Dove, and up to three species of orioles (including Scott’s Oriole) are all expected at the feeders.
Mid-afternoon, we either visit Miller Canyon, a dramatic canyon cutting far into the Huachuca Mountains, home to Mexican Spotted Owl and Red-faced Warbler among many other species. At Beatty’s Guest Ranch we enjoy extensive hummingbird feeders known to attract White-eared Hummingbird among the more common Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Magnificent Hummingbirds. Alternately, if we hear of interesting species there, we may visit The Nature Conservancy Preserve at Ramsey Canyon—one of the first well-known birding sites in Southeast Arizona. Both canyons have a flowing stream, with good monsoon flow water descends through oak woodlands, creating habitat for massive Arizona Sycamores, the favored nesting trees of Elegant Trogon. In either canyon we could see Coatimundi, Wild Turkey, Arizona Woodpecker, Golden Eagle, Black-throated Gray and other warblers, and a variety of colorful hummingbirds at close range. Butterflies occur here in abundance, as do a number of reptiles, amphibians, and dragonflies.
Return “home” to freshen up. This evening’s dinner is at a favorite local restaurant.
Accommodations at Casa de San Pedro, Hereford (B,L,D)
Tues., Aug. 24 : Patagonia
After breakfast, we head to the little hamlet of Patagonia, site of one of The Nature Conservancy’s very first preserves. We drive through extensive grasslands near Sonoita, where we look for Pronghorn and Chihuahuan Raven.
Typically we head right to Patagonia Lake, a state park where water and the outlet of Sonoita Creek attract a wonderful array of birds that can include Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and more. A visit to the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest shows off some stunning geology and can reward us with views of Thick-billed Kingbird, Black Vulture, and Yellow-breasted Chat flitting among ash, walnut, and cottonweed trees.
We return to the hamlet of Patagonia, where we stop at the municipal butterfly garden?close enough to the Mexican border to host an unusual stray. Learn more about native plants that frequent the area's butterfly gardens.
After lunch is the perfect time to sit and let the birds come to you, so we next visit hummingbird feeders at the Tucson Audubon Society’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Formerly the home of the late Wally and Marion Paton who invited visitors to their backyard feeders for decades, the property was purchased in 2015 by Tucson Audubon to protect it for posterity. In addition to their usually reliable Violet-crowned Hummingbird, 210+ other species have been recorded onsite.
We have a second pass back through lush grasslands as we return to the Casa, and with luck we may find some specialty sparrows such as Botteri’s or Cassin’s, both of which nest during the monsoon season. Dinner is catered tonight at the Inn.
Accommodations at the Casa de San Pedro (B,L,D)
Wed., Aug. 25 : San Pedro River | Departures from Tucson
We take an early morning stroll down to the river to enjoy some last sightings ahead of breakfast. Then it’s time to pack up. We plan to arrive at the Tucson Airport by 10:30 AM for flights out after NOON. (B)
Santa Cruz River/South Tucson Post-Tour Extension
Wed., Aug. 25 – Fri., Aug. 27 : Florida, Box, & Madera Canyons | Canoa Conservation Ranch | Pena Blanca Lake
Can’t tear yourself away? Consider staying on for two nights to bird and explore the Santa Cruz River corridor below Tucson. At birding hotspots, we look for Rufous-capped Warbler along with Broad-tailed, Broad-billed, and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Cactus Wren, and Black-headed Grosbeak. For the last two years Box Canyon has had Five-striped Sparrow and recently, there have been Black-capped Gnatcatchers here as well! This corridor is slightly lower in elevation with a great mix of habitat so there are always some wandering rarities, as well as the chance to see again the sky island specialties.
Our plan is to work the canyons in the morning, and then in the afternoon visit ponds and wetland areas that are magnets for birds at this time of year. Venture to some of the sights less-birded than the major canyons—highly productive and fascinating hotspots to explore. If you have the time, we highly recommend this addition! The final morning, Friday, August 27, we once again aim to be at the Tucson airport by 10:30 AM for flights out after NOON.
Accommodation at Amado Territory Inn, Amado (B,L,D)
Cost of the Journey
Cost is $2390 DBL per person / $2890 SGL from Tucson. Cost includes all accommodations, meals as specified in the itinerary, professional guide services, other park and program entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.
Tour cost does not include: round-trip transportation from your home city to Tucson, optional activities or items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone charges, house cleaners, gratuities, or beverages from the bar.
Plan to arrive in Tucson, Arizona, on August 19 no later than 1:00 PM. Please plan your departing flights for after NOON on August 25 or August 27 if you take the extension.
Photo credits: Banner: Portal, Arizona by Peg Abbott; Harris's Hawks, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Gila Monster by Tamara Winkler; Gila Woodpecker by Janice Petko; Montezuma Quail by Peg Abbott; Broad-billed Hummingbird by Evelyn Earlougher; Harris's Hawk by Peg Abbott; Butterfly by Mahlon Hale; Cactus Wren by Peg Abbott; Vermillion Flycatcher by Steve Wolfe; Black-chinned Hummingbird by Peg Abbott; Elegant Trogon by Peg Abbott; Arizona Sister by Mahlon Hale; Mexican Spotted Owl, Greg Smith; Gila Woodpecker, Janice Petko; Rattlesnake, John Rosner; Casa de San Pedro, courtesy of the Inn; Broad-billed Hummingbird, Evelyn Earlougher; Lucy’s Warbler, Peg Abbott; Calliope Hummingbird in Flowers, Karen LeMay; Zebra-tailed Lizard, Greg Smith; Bridled Titmouse, Peg Abbott; Olive Warbler, Peg Abbott; Red-faced Warbler, Peg Abbott; Arizona Woodpecker, Hugh Simmons; Breakfast at the Casa, Hugh Simmons; Barn Owl, Peg Abbott; Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Richard Becker; Curve-billed Thrasher, Peg Abbott; Elegant Trogon, Peg Abbott; Gambel's Quail, Peg Abbott.