Southeastern Arizona is a confluence of environment. Here, the Sierra Madre Occidental and Mogollon Rim meet, as well as the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.
It’s the sort of place that’s difficult to capture—bright blue skies that sometimes shift to navy in desert rainstorms. Swaying grasslands and a surprising wine country. Spectacular mountain ranges that require you to crane your neck to fully take in.
My husband and I are constantly drawn back to the region. Each visit, we discover a new trail to roam. At the end of each hike, we come away with stories of spectacular views, wildlife sightings and high five-worthy hiking accomplishments.
Part of the reason each visit is different, and spectacular, is those mountain peaks surrounded by low valleys—they’re known as sky islands, and they are meccas for biodiversity.
One hike up a sky island may begin with a sighting of a ridge-nosed rattlesnake surrounded by mesquite and conclude beneath a pine-fir forest among whitetail deer. Depending on the season, you may even spot birds that otherwise belong in far-away jungles, resting during migration on that same hike. And among the flora and fauna is you, escaping the ordinary.
Sierra Vista is surrounded by sky island mountain ranges, riparian habitats and more for exploring. There are dozens of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Here are three to start with – a trail mix, if you will, that my husband and I love.
Miller Peak is one of just five ultra peaks in Arizona and the highest mountain in the Huachucas. This trek climbs to a summit of 9,466 feet, but the views, and the experience along the way, make it all worth it.
You’ll make big elevation gains in the first few miles through desert terrain. Keep going! Ahead, the hike leads you behind the mountain to cooler temperatures and a forest environment. There’s no Wi-Fi here, but you’ll find better connections.
Depending on the time of year you go (the hike is accessible year-round), you might encounter snow or wildflowers. Bring layers of clothing, some food and at least three liters of water per person.
And don’t forget to bring a camera. The views from the top are breathtaking. As you pause, reveling in your accomplishment, you’ll see the Mule, San Jose, Chiricahua National Monument, Santa Rita, Dragoon, Whetstone and the Santa Catalina mountains, as well as miles and miles of Mexico and Southern Arizona. You’re on top of the world and beneath blue skies.
This is no beginner meandering. The Arizona National Scenic Trail covers 800 miles, chopped up into more-accomplishable passages—the first of which begins at the Coronado National Memorial, near the United States/Mexico border and just outside of Sierra Vista.
You’ll hike along the Crest Trail from Montezuma Pass into the Coronado National Forest and the Miller Peak Wilderness of the Huachuca Mountains. There are quite a few options for side trails, if 20.8 miles is too few for you.
In addition to outstanding views of nearby mountain ranges and low grasslands, wildlife thrives here. Hundreds of species of birds, including more than a dozen types of hummingbirds, flit around the Arizona Trail. Pause to listen to their chirps, and watch for a flash of bright color before they’re off for more soaring.
This segment ends after a journey through a riparian habitat—another environment that’s found in Sierra Vista and makes this place even more special. If you aren’t too focused on reaching those final miles, this is another good spot to hear the songs of visiting birds along the Sunnyside Canyon Trail. Their beautiful melodies will encourage you to keep wondering and wandering.
This area is—in the simplest word—special. Protected by The Nature Conservancy, Ramsey Canyon is known worldwide as a premiere birding destination.
You’ll need to stop into The Nature Conservancy’s visitor center to buy a permit to explore it. Then, browse informative pamphlets or hop on a guided walk to learn more. Just outside the center’s backdoor, magic awaits.
Tall sycamores and maples shadow the preserve, beneath which others enjoying the area sit on benches and watch for birds. Ramsey Creek flows here, making for an environment that has you asking, “Are you sure we’re in Arizona?”
Make sure to familiarize yourself with imagery of an elegant trogon; the elusive bird has made appearances here. Other bird species include yellow-rumped warblers, red-naped sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets and more than a dozen different hummingbirds.
One of the best ways to explore Ramsey Canyon and get a bit of history along the way is to chart a path on the Hamburg Trail, which follows Ramsey Creek.
Climb up a half-mile of gentle incline to reach James Cabin, a remnant of the mining camp set up in the early 1900s by Henry Hamburg, a prospector from St. Louis and who this trail is named after.
The trail then continues up to the Coronado National Forest and the Miller Peak Wilderness, and an even more expansive view of lower Ramsey Canyon and the San Pedro River Valley awaits. It’s a journey in every sense of the word.
There’s just a bit further to go before the trail drops back down to the creek and into a riparian zone. Following along it, you’ll cross over the creek a few times, its rippling providing a gentle soundtrack to roam to.
When the Hamburg Trail intersects the Wisconsin Trail, which leads into Wisconsin Canyon, it’s time to turn around— perhaps with some reluctance.
That’s the thing about exploration here: it’s hard to stop.
If the spirit of adventure has captured you, head to Sierra Vista. It’ll have you thinking outside, no box required.