Cave Creek Canyon

Tips for Birding

The largest of the “sky island” mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, the Chiricahuas are home to animals and plants found nowhere else in the U.S. The town of Portal is the gateway to world-famous Cave Creek Canyon. Traveling on Hwy 80 toward Portal from Douglas you will pass through rolling grasslands punctuated by the cones of extinct volcanoes; watch for Burrowing Owls and Pronghorns along the highway. As you cruise up Portal Road west from Hwy 80, grasses give way first to thorn scrub and then to a variety of evergreen oaks. Some residents in the Portal area welcome visitors to their backyard feeding stations; for information on current opportunities, inquire at the Portal Store in town or the ranger station up the road. Beyond Portal the road passes the U.S. Forest Service ranger station and winds along Cave Creek; watch for Elegant Trogons all along this stretch, particularly where Arizona Sycamores grow close to the road.

The road to the famous South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area takes off to the left near the Sunny Flat Campground. This day-use-only area is closed to collecting year round and to use of recording equipment or playback of taped calls during nesting season to protect trogons, owls, and other birds. The entrance road offers excellent birding which is all too often missed by those hurrying to the trailhead. The bridge is often a particularly productive stop. The parking area and turnaround at the end of the road moved closer to the main road following major flooding in 2014, is narrow and often crowded with cars; large RVs or vehicles with trailers may not be able to negotiate it. A mandatory fee per vehicle funds maintenance of campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; the pay station is self-serve, so be sure to have small bills. The half-mile section of trail between the new and old trailheads traverses long stretches of loose gravel and cobbles left by the flooding; sturdy boots with ankle support are recommended, and a hiking stick may be helpful. 

About 2 miles past the turn-off to South Fork is the Southwestern Research Station, a research facility of the American Museum of Natural History. Visitors are welcome to observe the station’s hummingbird feeders, which attract a good number and diversity of birds in season, but please remember that this is a scientific facility with research in progress. A small selection of books and gifts is on display in the main office near the visitor parking area. The station is open spring through early fall, and lodging with meals is offered to non-scientists as available; call (520) 558-2396 or visit the SWRS Web site.

The pavement ends a short distance beyond the research station and the road begins to climb toward the high, cool conifer forests atop the mountains. The route over the top of the Chiricahuas is a wonderful (if sometimes nerve-wracking) drive from April through November, but heavy snows force the closure of this road in winter. At Onion Saddle, one fork leads to the campground at Rustler Park and to Barfoot Park.

About Cave Creek Canyon

See all hotspots at Cave Creek Canyon

Nestled in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeastern Arizona, 150 miles east of Tucson and 50 miles north of Douglas, is Cave Creek Canyon, a hidden gem with spectacular cliffs, flowing streams, and an abundance of wildlife.

Endowed with magnificent scenery and unparalleled biodiversity, Cave Creek Canyon is truly a special place. Residents and visitors who want to help protect the area now have a chance to do so by joining, volunteering, or contributing to the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon.

As individuals and families, we work closely with Coronado National Forest to support its work and mission in Southeast Arizona. We seek to provide educational opportunities for area residents, visitors, school groups, scientific researchers, and others who cherish the special qualities of our region.

Researchers and scientists claim that Cave Creek Canyon has the richest diversity of wildlife in the U.S. Birding is fine here year-round and especially rewarding in the summer. Many interesting birds from south of the border can be found here in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Notable Trails

The best way to get in touch with the canyon is on foot.  The Chiricahua Mountains contain numerous trails of all lengths and varying degrees of difficulty. When choosing a trail, an important consideration is the temperature and season in which you will be hiking. In winter, hikes in the canyon bottom and up to ~7,000 feet are pleasant. Above 7,000 you might encounter snow and it may not be possible to drive to trailheads at high elevations. In summer, hikes in the high country are delightful and the temperatures are cooler than on the canyon floor. In all seasons, be sure to carry adequate water and clothing, as well as emergency supplies (high-energy food, first aid kit, etc).

There are several resources available to help plan your hiking adventure.

  • The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon hiking webpage has a list of 6 trails that are easy walks or easy-moderate day hikes in the lower elevations of Cave Creek Canyon. There are also 4 longer and more strenuous day hikes that are popular and offer excellent views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Easy and Moderate trail descriptions are also posted on the fence at the Visitor Information Center for visitors who arrive outside of staffed hours.
  • A local hiker has developed a webpageChiricahua Mountains Hiking Trails, with descriptions of more than 80 trails, organized by difficulty, length, and condition. Many of the descriptions on this website have been updated since the floods caused by Hurricane Odile in 2014, although some descriptions are noted as being incomplete. This website also contains a list of resources and maps that hikers may find useful.
  • The Cave Creek Visitor Information Center has copies of many of the hiking maps from the Chiricahua Mountains Hiking Trails webpage above and the volunteer on staff can discuss the hikes with you.
  • The USFS Coronado National Forest maintains a list of hikes in the Chiricahua Mountains, with maps and descriptions. Many of the descriptions were updated after the Horseshoe II Fire (2011), but they have not been updated since Hurricane Odile (2014) and the resulting floods. Nevertheless, the USFS list of hikes and their locations is a useful resource, even though in some cases the trail conditions are not accurate.
  • The Portal/Rodeo Hiking Group meets every Thursday to go on a (usually local) hike, and all are welcome to join. View their website ( for details of the upcoming hike, and meeting place & time.

Content from Friends of Cave Creek Canyon Hiking webpage, Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, and Cave Creek Canyon webpage