Cave Creek Canyon Offers Exceptional Birding and Exciting Outdoor Adventures
The view from one of the lodgings in Cave Creek Canyon where birders are welcome to visit.

If you think Arizona is all desert and saguaro cactus, we have an exciting surprise that’s just three hours from Las Cruces, barely over the New Mexico border. Cave Creek Canyon is a paradise tucked away in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona that offers world-class birding, astounding night skies, camping, hiking, and a wealth of other outdoor activities. While Cave Creek Canyon is not quite a day trip, it makes for a great weekend getaway from Las Cruces.

I first heard whispers about Cave Creek Canyon from birding friends who excitedly shared their observations, but I never quite grasped what I was missing until friend and fellow writer Julia Osgood offered to show us around. Julia has visited many times and helped my husband, Brian, and I plan a May camping trip to introduce us to why Cave Creek Canyon is often called the Yosemite of Arizona. 

What makes the area unique is that this sky island is at the convergence of four ecosystems: the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Occidental, a mountain range in Mexico. As you travel to Cave Creek Canyon through desert flatlands, you’ll never guess that you will soon enter a rugged habitat that supports 7,000 species of plants and animals, including more than half the bird species in North America. In fact, some animals seen here are found nowhere else in the U.S. Birds like the Elegant Trogon usually nest in Mexico, but don’t know or care that they’ve crossed an international border!

Some of the buildings that make up the Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon.
The Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon draws scientists and students worldwide.

The fact that the Southwestern Research Station, a nonprofit organization under the direction of the Science Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is located in the heart of Cave Creek Canyon speaks volumes about the importance of this area. Scientists and natural history students from around the world come to take coursework and conduct research. You can even rent a room there, get free lodging by volunteering, or sign up for bird tours and science coursework for specialists. We enjoyed sitting in the hummingbird garden and letting nature come to us. That and visiting the small gift shop!

As Julia says, “One of the fun things about visiting Cave Creek Canyon, aside from all the activities, is meeting kindred spirits from various parts of the world who travel to the area seeking this one-of-a-kind experience.” 

Where is Cave Creek Canyon?

A bright red Northern Cardinal looking toward the camera.
Northern Cardinals can be found in Cave Creek Canyon.

Cave Creek Canyon is in southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, part of the Coronado National Forest. The two communities found in the area are Portal and, about five miles up a dirt and gravel road, Paradise. From Las Cruces, drive west on Interstate 10 past Lordsburg and take exit 5 at Road Fork onto NM-80 south. After about 28 miles, you’ll turn right onto Portal Road. From there, it’s about seven miles to the stretch of forest service campgrounds and the visitor center. During those seven miles, the environment quickly transitions to forest with tall, jagged mountains surrounding you. We were amazed that this dramatic scenery is so close to the desert. That’s part of what makes sky islands so special.

What is a Sky Island?

A sky island is an isolated mountain range that juts up dramatically from the lowlands, a mountainous, landlocked “island” with distinctly different ecosystems than the surrounding land. There are 27 Madrean Sky Islands in the Southwest and 15 in Mexico, which host an ecosystem of Madrean pine–oak woodlands

According to the Sky Island Alliance website, “The majority of the sky island mountain ranges found in the U.S. are part of the Coronado National Forest, the most ecologically diverse national forest in the country. The Coronado National Forest also hosts more threatened and endangered species than any other National Forest in the U.S.”

What to See and Do in Cave Creek Canyon

If you love spending time outdoors, you’ll be ecstatic to visit Cave Creek Canyon! In fact, as soon as we entered the canyon, we extended our visit by a day and then wished we could stay even longer. But we’ll be back soon! Here are some of the activities you can enjoy there.

Birding & Wildlife Watching

An Elegant Trogon, the "grail" bird and "mascot" for Cave Creek Canyon. This large bird is green, red, and white and has a distinctive "barking" call.
An Elegant Trogon, the grail bird and mascot for Cave Creek Canyon. This large bird is green, red, and white and has a distinctive “barking” call.

Cave Creek Canyon is famed for birding and rightly so. More than half of the bird species found in North America spend at least part of the year here. The “grail” bird for many is the Elegant Trogon, a large bird that is practically the area’s mascot. Trogons are known to nest beyond the end of South Fork Road. Park at the end of the road and follow the trail, listening for the trogon’s distinctive “barking” call.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find this large green, white, and red bird who makes his nest in cavities in the tall white sycamore trees found in this forest. We did plenty of bushwhacking through the forest before we tracked down the trogon . . . within view of our parked car! At this time, one is known to nest near the parking area and another in the large open space along the trail that was once a picnic area.

While the Elegant Trogon is what many birders come to Cave Creek Canyon to find, it’s not the only one birdwatchers seek to add to their life lists in the area. A very relaxed way to bird in Cave Creek Canyon is to visit one of the many locals’ yards that are open to the public. They have set up bird feeders and water features to attract everything from Mexican Jays and Black-headed Grosbeaks to several species of hummingbirds you may not see elsewhere, orioles, nuthatches, and titmice. Donations are accepted to help pay for bird food. Click here for a map of Cave Creek Canyon with feeder locations highlighted in green.

Other distinctive wildlife found in Cave Creek Canyon includes Coes White-tailed Deer, Cliff’s Chipmunks, Harris’ Antelope Squirrel, Chiricahua Fox Squirrel, coatimundis, javelinas, many species of bats, black bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. Herpetologists will enjoy seeking out the area’s many lizards and snakes, although everyone should be cautious of those like the venomous Mojave Rattlesnake. 

In spring and after summer rains you can enjoy many beautiful wildflowers, which bring a diverse group of pollinators like hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths. 


A sign for the trails in Cave Creek Canyon.
This photo of a trail sign shows some of the hiking opportunities available in Cave Creek Canyon.

There are plenty of hiking trails in Cave Creek Canyon, from the short Cathedral Vista Trail and the one-mile-plus Cave Creek Nature Trail that traverses the area between Sunny Flat Campground and the visitor information center operated by the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (stop by for information about the area, to see the interesting displays, and access to the internet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily) to the challenging 9.5-mile one-way Silver Peak Trail that begins behind the center. Brian hiked from our campsite at Sunny Flat to the visitor center and then up the Silver Peak Trail, making it for quite the excursion!

Be sure to take plenty of water with you when you hike and to let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back. Do not plan to have cell phone service if you have an emergency when you’re hiking as much of the canyon has none. Read more about this topic below.


The area around Portal and Cave Creek Canyon is famed for dramatic night skies. In fact, about 80 astronomers live in the area surrounding Cave Creek Canyon. What makes it so special? Because this is an isolated, sparsely populated, high-desert area, there is little light pollution to drown out the stars. Here you can see something that city dwellers can no longer enjoy: The Milky Way, our own galaxy, which appears somewhat like a cloud spreading from horizon to horizon. Be sure to come outdoors on a clear night, turn out the lights, and let your eyes adjust to the dark to truly experience what a night sky can be.


View of campsite at Sunny Flat with a camping trailer and screen tent.
The campsites at Sunny Flat include room to park an RV, a tent pad, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire pit, and a bear box to store food.

The Portal area of Cave Creek Canyon has some inexpensive, no-reservation options for camping at U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, such as Sunny Flat (open year-round, RVs up to 28 feet are allowed, pit toilets, water access at restrooms), Idlewilde (open and water available May 1 – Oct. 31 for tents, vans, and pick-up truck campers, no trailers), Stewart (RVs up to 16 feet allowed, water is turned off after the first freeze), Herb Martyr (pit toilets, no water, tent camping only), and the free, walk-in creekside John Hands camping area, which provides no tables, water, or toilets. 

Be aware the black bears are considered common in this area, so be sure to use the provided bear boxes at the campgrounds to store anything that may be tempting to hungry bears.

For those wanting more amenities, a full-service RV park is located on NM-80 north of Portal Road back over in New Mexico, about 15 miles away. If you’re not into camping, there are some other lodging options to explore in and near the canyon.

Services In Cave Creek Canyon

A Coues' White-tailed deer looking at the photographer.
Coues’ White-tailed Deer are commonly seen in Cave Creek Canyon.

You should plan to bring what you need with you to Cave Creek Canyon, but there are a couple of small places to shop if you find you left essential something at home. However, there are no full-service grocery stores nearby, so plan accordingly and take whatever you need for meals and snacks. Also, be sure to fill up your tank before you get into the canyon because the closest gas station is in Animas, New Mexico, about 30 miles away.

The town of Portal has a small store and restaurant and, as you head toward Rodeo, New Mexico, you’ll find another store with a restaurant. So, if you’re not in the mood to cook in the great outdoors, you can find a meal and a signal a short drive from the canyon.

While it’s great to unplug from your devices and enjoy the outdoors, you need to prepare for all that entails. There’s no cell signal in the canyon, so texting, calling, or posting photos and videos will have to wait. If you need to check in with someone regularly, tell them about the spotty service ahead of time so family, friends, or pet sitters don’t worry. The visitors center and a couple of other places have free WiFi but it’s hard to find a 24/7 connection to the internet.

If you’re hiking, follow basic safety precautions. Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back — or better yet, hike with someone else. If you do hike alone you might want to invest in a satellite communicator. 

The closest 24-hour emergency medical center is in Douglas, Arizona, about an hour away. If you have an emergency and you can drive, the best bet is to head out toward NM Highway 80 and call 9-1-1 as soon as you get a signal. The town of Portal, Arizona, has a search and rescue team.

This information is just to prepare you for an off-grid experience. If you plan ahead, you’ll have some great adventures in this magical area. 

Weather at Cave Creek Canyon

Birders walking in the dry creekbed in May.
While this creekbed was dry in May when birders were searching for an Elegant Trogon, it can reach flood levels during monsoon season.

As part of the desert Southwest, Cave Creek Canyon can get warm in summer. When we visited in late May, temperatures reached the low 90s. Locals told us that’s generally as hot as it gets, but admitted that last year there was a stretch that crept into the 100s. It cools off nicely at night and mornings can be brisk. Winds may arise, but we’re used to that in Southern New Mexico! 

Monsoon season can bring torrential rains. In fact, the parking area at the end of South Fork Road hasn’t always been the terminus. The road was washed away in a flood in September 2014 when remnants of Hurricane Odile passed through. If you’re there in July and August, usually the peak of monsoon season, keep an eye on the weather. Be aware that thunderstorms can form quickly and aren’t always in the weather forecast.

Winter can bring occasional snow to Cave Creek Canyon. The average low temperature in December is 25 degrees with highs in the mid 50s. So, bring layers and be ready for a range of temperatures to help you enjoy your time in this beautiful place!

Brief History of Cave Creek Canyon: Portal and Paradise

The first people to visit the Chiricahuas were part of the Clovis culture who hunted megafauna after the last ice age, as long as 12,000 years ago. After the extinction of the giant bison, camels, and other enormous mammals, a hunter-gatherer lifestyle developed. By around 1200 A.D., the Mogollon culture was established with the farming of corn, squash, and beans, permanent pueblos instead of a nomadic lifestyle, and the creation of distinctive pottery. During a sustained drought in the late 1300s, they moved to other areas with more resources. 

Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado came through the Chiricahuas in 1540 and not long after, the Apaches are believed to have made their homes in the region. Some Apache rock art still exists. The Apaches roamed the Chiricahuas for several centuries until finally forced to accept life on a reservation (which is a story unto itself). 

The waterfall at John Hands Campground helps make it an idyllic location.
The waterfall at John Hands Campground helps make it an idyllic location.

After the Apache were removed to the San Carlos Reservation in 1876, more Anglos came to Cave Creek Canyon to establish homesteads. The Reeds were the first Anglo settlers in Cave Creek Canyon, arriving in 1887, and their home is now the director’s house at the Southwestern Research Station. John Hands moved to Cave Creek Canyon in about 1888 and there is a seven-foot monument at his grave and a campground bearing his name. Herb Martyr dam and campground are named after a Forest Service ranger who worked in the canyon.

From the late 1880s on, farmers, ranchers, and miners attempted to eke out a living in the Chiricahuas, while it seems that for a while, those cutting down the abundant forests to provide wood for nearby Fort Bowie and the mines were making the best living. Miners sought lead, gold, and silver (although there is a mountain called Silver Peak, it seems that name was given to it to attract miners), but lead was the most abundant mineral in the Chiricahuas.

Paradise was a mining boomtown from 1902 to 1907. You wouldn’t guess it today since only a handful of people live there year-round, but at one point it was home for up to 2,500 residents, according to Winston Lewis who wrote a chapter about the community in the book Cave Creek Canyon: Revealing the Heart of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. He says, “The town boasted a German restaurant, 13 bars by one count, 14 by another, two general merchandise stores, one combination hardware store/lumber yard, one dry goods and ready-made clothes store, one variety shop, and one notions store. The red light district and a jail were located across the creek.” 

The Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp in Portal from 1933 until 1942. These young men made many contributions to the area, notably building many of the Forest Service campgrounds visitors enjoy today as well as improving roads and building and staffing fire lookout towers.

The Portal Bunkhouse in Cave Creek Canyon can be your home base for adventure.
The Portal Bunkhouse in Cave Creek Canyon can be your home base for adventure.

Enjoy Paradise and Portal

There’s plenty to experience in Cave Creek Canyon, including just relaxing and being unplugged from your busy day-to-day duties (and the internet). A great resource for those who want to learn more about the area is the book referenced above, Cave Creek Canyon: Revealing the Heart of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, and another entitled A Portal to Paradise by long-time resident Alden Hayes.

Which reminds me to share the correct pronunciation of the town’s name: it’s like a portal to another universe, not the Spanish pronunciation with the accent on the second syllable. I don’t want you to get the stink eye from a local like I did!



Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead

Top image: The view from one of the lodgings in Cave Creek Canyon where birders are welcome to visit.

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