I’ll admit, our trip to Sierra Vista was inspired by delusions of grandeur. My friend Emily and I had recently watched a documentary on famed ornithologist and illustrator John James Audobon, and in the following weeks we both found ourselves thinking about beauty and birds. We confessed to each other, over happy hour after work, that we wanted to ditch our city lives and wander the woods with pencils and paint. That’s when we realized we could, easily, if we just made the quick drive from Tucson to Sierra Vista, an internationally renowned birder’s paradise.
The next weekend we did just that.
I’d lived in Tucson since college, and knew Sierra Vista from my backpacking days, pre-kids and when my husband was still my boyfriend. It’s the southern gateway to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, an 800-mile hiking, biking, and horseback-riding route that weaves its way through mountains, deserts, forests, canyons and small communities from Mexico to Utah. I had great memories of hiking that trail, and before our weekend getaway I unearthed the small sketchbook I’d filled with random thoughts and illustrations all those years ago.
As Emily and I drove through town toward Ramsey Canyon Road, an awesome array of fall colors dotting the landscape, our excitement built. We hadn’t been on the road for long, but we felt far away from Tucson.
When we arrived at the Ramsey Canyon Inn, we were greeted by homemade pie and fresh coffee, a daily offering that added to the bed and breakfast’s cozy country charm. We dropped our bags in the Calliope Room (all of the six guest rooms are named for a species of hummingbird) and headed down to the Great Room with our sketchbooks and waterbottles.
While April-September is prime birding season, we were glad that our imprompteu getaway fell in the fall. Not only did it allow us to book a room last minute, but the vibrant foliage created the perfect backdrop to a trip that called for artistic inspiration.
After enjoying a slice of blueberry pie and a hot cup of coffee, Emily and I walked to The Ramsey Canyon Preserve. The elevation is higher than Tucson’s, and the tall trees paired with the sound of trickling water from nearby Ramsey Creek allowed me to indulge my fantasy of faraway adventure.
We admired a Bigtooth Maple with long, skinny branches reaching to the sky. Red, gold, and pink leaves drifted and twirled to the ground, weaving nature’s carpet. Birds chirped in the distance, and leaves crunched under our feet. Yellow butterflies fluttered about and light green lichen clung to rocky outcroppings.
I heard a bird call and turned to look but only caught the twinkling of spider webs clinging to high branches. After a while, Emily settled in on one of the benches along the path to do some sketching.
I hiked a bit farther and did the same. While I was taking it all in, I noticed how alive the woods around me were. I caught sight of a Loggerhead Shrike, with its adorable little bandit mask, and began to sketch. It wasn’t until I heard Emily approaching that I noticed I’d given the bird a sword and cape, turning him into a tiny avian Zoro. My style wasn’t exactly Audobon’s, but I loved the opportunity to declutter my mind and put pencil to paper.
Emily, who knows much more about birds than I do, excitedly listed off some of the species she’d seen, which included an Eastern Meadowlark, a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a stunning American Kestrel. It might not have been prime birding season, but we never would have guessed it based on what we’d seen.
That night we went to Pizzeria Mimosa for dinner. We wanted the Audobon experience, but we weren’t opposed to a few modern luxuries, and this place, with its wood-fired pizza oven and fantastic wine list, was exactly what we needed to make our adventure feel like a vacation.
After a gourmet, family-style breakfast at Ramsey Canyon Inn, we made our way to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the area contains 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River where the desert riparian ecosystem has been preserved.
We started our visit at the San Pedro House, a volunteer-run information center, bookstore and gift shop, and then headed down a dusty trail through tall, native grasses. Right away we heard chirping and rustling. Two Abert’s Towhees chased each other from bush to bush. Emily pointed out a Red-tailed hawk soaring through the air. As we watched, it swooped down into the grass out of sight. I would not have wanted to be the mouse on the other end of those talons.
After our morning, we went back to the Inn to work on some sketches. Sitting in the Grand Room near the fireplace, enjoying the natural light from the large windows, I felt blissfully lost in a timeless moment. I found myself writing more than drawing, describing what we’d seen and reflecting on life in a way that’s only possible when you step out of the day-to-day.
While I was absorbed in my sketchbook, Emily was chatting with some of the other guests. They recommended we check out Carr Canyon for a moderate afternoon hike, complete with more bird sightings. I was ready to get my heart rate up, so we packed snacks and water and set out to climb Carr Peak.
On past trips I’d hiked Miller Canyon to Miller Peak. While rewarding and gorgeous, that climb is pretty strenuous. Carr Peak is an ambitious climb, too, but we felt up to the challenge. There were deer, butterflies, birds and scenic vistas along the way, but we didn’t stop too often, pushing ourselves to reach the summit within a couple of hours.
When we did, we were rewarded with truly spectacular views from the tip of Carr Peak, one of the highest points in southeastern Arizona. We took time to just sit and breathe, admiring the incredible views. Wildfires had damaged the area in the past, but nature had begun again with wildflowers, shrubs and trees taking hold. We saw an abundance of birds enjoying the new growth: warblers, sparrows, woodpeckers and, as we were about to begin the hike back, a swoop of White-throated Swifts soared overhead. I couldn’t count how many there were, but a few hovered long enough for us to take in their signature markings. We watched them twist and turn a path through the air toward some distant cliffs. The image stuck in my mind; I knew what I’d paint when I got back home.
We finished the hike just after sunset and then had dinner at the highly recommended Tanuki Sushi Bar & Garden. Emily filled up with the flavorful Katsu curry and gyoza, while I started with a nourishing bowl of miso soup and added fresh sushi with a splash of spicy ghost sauce. We toasted to our trip, to the spectacular birds and to the renewed inspiration they’d brought us. I didn’t want to go back to the daily grind, but I was excited to unpack my sketches at home and get painting, and I was happy to know that if I needed more fuel for my artistic ambitions, Sierra Vista was just a quick drive away.