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Welcome to summer in Tucson. It’s the time of the year where the snowbirds and UA students have flown the coop and only the brave and heavily SPF’ed dare venture out into the hot desert sun. Lucky for us, there’s a world-renowned travelers’ destination just 25 miles outside of town where you can explore the outdoors without frying your face off.
Madera Canyon is a great day trip for those looking for a quick change of scenery. Its sky island status transports you from the desert grasslands at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, to a lush wooded paradise filled with an array of different plants and wildlife.
The canyon is also one of the best places in the U.S. to go birding as it’s home to over 250 species of birds and a major resting place for these migratory creatures. People from all over the country travel here in hopes of spotting a rare bird or two — and it’s all happening just a jump away from Tucson. How insane is that?!
If you’re all about getting out and experiencing nature, this place is for you too. There’s an extensive trail system that takes you all over Madera Canyon and up to one of the highest peaks in Southern Arizona, Mount Wrightson. (Psstt. The Arizona Daily Star’s outdoor reporter, Doug Kreutz has written all about the splendor of Madera Canyon over the years. Check out his stuff here.)
Here’s a few suggestions and tips that we, the #ThisIsTucson road trip team, want to tell ya all about before you head out on your own Madera Canyon adventure. Don’t forget your bird field guide book and binoculars!
How to get there
Heading out of Tucson, take I-19 south toward Nogales for about 20 miles til you hit Green Valley. Take the Continental Road exit and drive west for about a mile and turn right onto Madera Canyon Road/East White House Canyon Road. Continue onto Madera Canyon Road for several miles and boom, you’re there.
Hit up Green Valley Pecan Company for picnic supplies!
One of the world’s largest pecan orchards is just off the I-19, conveniently located near the turnoff to Madera Canyon. You can see Green Valley Pecan Company’s leafy trees from the Interstate; the family farm is a sizable European exporter with more than 7,000 acres to its name.
While the orchards themselves are off limits to the public, you definitely wanna swing by the gift shop for some local pecans done up every which way, from honey roasted and toasted to covered in chocolate or tossed into a brittle. The store also carries locally-made pecan pies in various sizes. Pick up a hand pie for your picnic basket!
More info: 1625 E Sahuarita Road, 520-791-2062, Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays
Go bird watching at the Santa Rita Lodge
There are plenty of places along the canyon that offer exceptional bird watching views; our favorites are the White House picnic and camping area, and the Amphitheater multi-use space further up the road.
But you haven’t lived your true birding life unless you stop by the Santa Rita Lodge’s wildlife area. The lodge sets up several nectar feeders and bird feeders in this space in hopes of attracting some of their flying friends — and boy does it work! Hundreds of bird species have been spotted here, even some “celebrity birds” like the elegant trogon, elf owl, and 15 species of hummingbirds.
Wild turkeys are frequently seen around the lodge and they’re pretty entertaining to watch if we do say so ourselves — dat waddle though 😂.
Other wildlife is also known to make an appearance from time to time. We were delighted when an employee from the Santa Rita Lodge gift shop showed us photos of a coatimundi sneaking food from the bird feeders.
Close parking, benches, and shady trees make the lodge one of the best places in the canyon to take a beat.
Have yourself a fancy pic-a-nic!
Madera Canyon doesn’t have any cafes or restaurants, so it’s a good idea to bring some food along. (FYI: there’s a Safeway in Green Valley if you just wanna get on the road.) Before we left, we hit up Time Market near Fourth Avenue for some artisanal cheeses and salami. The staff was more than willing to help us put together the perfect spread, which included their fabulous housemade baguettes and a spicy jar of Calabrian chile paste.
Madera Canyon has several shaded picnicking spots that are right off the main road. We chose the Madera Canyon Picnic Area, located near the center of the canyon right next to the Santa Rita Lodge.
Fun note: While we were setting up for this picnic we spotted an elegant trogon — a colorful rare bird that only resides in this region of the U.S. for breeding — hanging out near our table. Talk about newbie luck! He must be a fan of Calabrian chile paste too!
Take a hike!
Madera Canyon boasts an extensive network of hiking trails fit for any skill level. It’s important to note though that even though we were at a higher elevation, the afternoon air still felt relatively hot. So you’re still going to want to take it easy and bring lots of water for those summer hikes. One of the more popular hikes is the 1.3 mile Proctor Road Nature Trail at the base of the canyon, which takes you past a secret waterfall and the historic White House Ruin, which was Madera Canyon’s first settlement in the late 1800s.
We also walked a bit of the 5.3 mile Madera Canyon Nature Trail, which took us up into the canyon for some spectacular vistas. More experienced hikers will definitely enjoy the 10.8+ mile hike up to Mount Wrightson, one of the highest peaks in Southern Arizona.
Stay in a cute country cabin
Madera Canyon has few places where you can hang your wide-brimmed hat for the night, each one more enchanting than the next.
Chuparosa Inn Bed and Breakfast, has a fun modern cabin-castle vibe to it — Think if Rapunzel was into HGTV. It has a spacious feel and every place you look, whether indoors or outdoors, you’re greeted by nature of the canyon. The best feature is the large porch that wraps around the front house, so you can go bird watching without ever having to leave the property.
If you’re feeling more cozy, try to snag a stay at the Madera Kubo B&B. They have four cabin spaces that Snow White and any of seven dwarfs would approve of. With homemade rustic furniture, working wood stoves and a small gift shop called “Wood-n-Matter,” it doesn't get more fairy tale than this.
-Chuparoa Inn Bed and Breakfast, 1300 Madera Canyon Rd, Green Valley, AZ 85614, (520) 393-7370
-Madera Kubo B&B, 1259 Madera Canyon Rd, Madera Canyon, AZ 85614, (520) 625-2908
-Santa Rita Lodge, 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road, Madera Canyon, AZ 85614, (520) 625-8746