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A Southern Arizona Gem
Thousands of motorist travel on Interstate 10 and pass over a bridge with a sign labeling Cienega Creek. The Creek looks like any of the many dry washes that the interstate passes over. Little do they know that in a matter of seconds that they just whizzed by one of Southern Arizona’s largest and still undisturbed riparian areas. The preserve is complete with perennial streams, cottonwood trees, pools, springs and high dirt cliffs that are remnants from a more recent time when this was more of a flood plain creek. There is also a record of historical inhabitants starting with the Hohokam on up to the present with the Rail Road and ranching in the late 1800s. The Cienega Creek Natural Preserve was established by Pima County in 1986 and protects a 12 mile section downstream from Interstate 10. A little south of interstate 10, along upper Cienega Creek is the BLM protected area of Los Cienegas Natural Conservancy Area and encompasses the Empire Ranch area.
This section of Cienega Creek is a 6.5 mile long, starting where the Arizona Trail crosses Cienega Creek east to the Bridge at Interstate 10. This hike is not along trails but follows the Creek. Cienega Creek along this section has about 4 sections of Perennial flow and depending on how much recent rain the other sections may be running also. Flash floods are possible, especially in the monsoon season. Where the creek is running you are under a canopy of Cottonwood trees and where the creek is not running more like a typical desert wash. The riparian areas are quite lush and will keep your attention but there are also the 15 to 20 foot high dirt cliffs that that will also compete for your Ohhs and Ahhs. Along these cliffs are mesquite trees hanging on for life and at times with their long roots exposed look like they are getting ready to walk away.
This hike is in the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve and requires obtaining a permit to hike. The permit is free. Information about the preserve and obtaining permits is on line and in the permits section. Those hiking the Arizona Trail do not need the permit as long as they stay on the Arizona Trail.
From the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead along Marsh Station Road, take the Arizona Trail north down Davidson Canyon to the junction with Cienega Creek. From here just follow the creek upstream (east). This first section of the creek is normally running and depending on how much you can either walk in the creek bed or along the south side. When I hiked this section the creek was running pretty good so we took a user path on the south side of the creek. Once past the Perennial section of the creek drop back into the creek bed. For the rest of this hike the route either follows in the creek bed or to either side. This is for the most part a fly by the seat of your pants type thing. Go whichever way looks best. There are sections where the Cottonwood canopy disappears and the creek takes on a typical desert wash look, then before you know it you are back in the Cottonwoods. There are a couple areas that resemble a swamp. There are about 4 of these Riparian areas along the creek where it runs perennially. The upper approximately 1.5 miles to the Interstate Bridge is dry, at least when I went but this is the Pantano Station area and there is a lot of history here. The mile south of Interstate 10 is also dry
The cliffs along this creek are equally fascinating. Some of these cliffs are 20 feet tall and made up of soft sandy clay that erodes readily from water. As the creek cuts into them it leaves old Mesquite trees hanging on for life with their long roots grabbing onto whatever soil they can. Sometimes these roots give the impression the tree is standing on stilts, maybe getting ready to walk to a new location. There are also numerous fissures in these cliffs caused by erosion creating small canyons and caves.
Evidence of prior inhabitants can also be found along this creek. At one spot near a random rock out crop are metates probably from the Hohokam Indians. Closer to Pantano Station are the remains of an old train bridge and berm from when the train ran closer to the creek and through Pantano Station. This track was moved to its present location when a flood in 1887 washed out the track.
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This hike is listed as One-Way.
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