Cave Creek Canyon--South Fork

Tips for Birding

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 this Location

South Fork Picnic Area is one of the most popular birdwatching areas in Cave Creek Canyon. The riparian habitat along this tributary of Cave Creek is especially well-known as an area for sighting elegant trogons –crimson-chested, green-backed birds with iridescent copper-colored tails. Trogons come this far north from their subtropical homelands to build nests and raise their young in hollow cavities of sycamore trees that grow in a few of southeastern Arizona’s desert canyons. Seeing one is considered one of the special treats of birdwatching. Though South Fork is known for its trogons, there are plenty of other interesting and rare creatures to encounter here. Over 300 species of birds have been sighted in the Chiricahua Mountains, including the magnificent hummingbird, blue-throated hummingbird, and Montezuma quail. Other interesting types of wildlife frequently sighted here include Apache fox squirrels, coatimundis, and Coues white-tailed deer. The scenery is quite impressive in this area, too. Good views of the cave-pocked cliffs that give Cave Creek its name are visible from the road leading to the picnic area and the trail that continues upstream. Picnic tables are located conveniently close to the creek under a canopy of Arizona sycamores and cypress. (No grills).

From Tucson, take I-10 east 139 miles to US-80 (you will cross the New Mexico border to get to this intersection). Turn right (south) and drive 28 miles, then turn right (west) on the road to Portal for 7 miles. From Douglas, take US 80 east approximately 50 miles to Rodeo, NM. Two miles past Rodeo, turn left (west) on Portal Road. From Portal drive west on Forest Road 42 approximately 3 miles to the South Fork turnoff, turn left (south), and continue 1.5 miles to the picnic area. All roads are paved and suitable for passenger vehicles.

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

A walk along South Fork Road (2 miles round trip) provides both scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. Start at the beginning of South Fork Road (Forest Road 42E), about 1.5 miles from the Visitor Information Center. There is room to park cars by the side of the dirt road there.  Look for Elegant Trogons after mid-April. The surface is a smooth dirt road, which was repaired and graded in 2015. The road goes up in elevation gradually as it follows the South Fork of Cave Creek. Traffic on the road is generally light but can raise clouds of dust. The road ends at a berm and wide spot where cars can turn around. Adventurous hikers can continue upstream beyond the berm, but the trail is moderate or difficult after that point.

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