DESTINATION: Empire/La Cienega
Once facing an uncertain future that almost certainly included housing and commercial development, today more than 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodlands in Arizona’s Pima and Santa Cruz counties are protected as a National Conservation Area. The region’s rolling grasslands, oak-studded hills that connect several “sky island” mountain ranges”, and lush riparian corridors are irresistible to both people and wildlife. Cienega Creek, with its perennial flow and lush riparian corridor, forms the lifeblood of the NCA and supports a diverse plant and animal community.
Thanks to the efforts of local governments, elected officials and the public, the Empire and Cienega ranches, along with portions of the adjacent Rose Tree and Vera Earl ranches, are now under public ownership and managed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the principles of multiple-use and ecosystem management for future generations to use and enjoy. The BLM has formed a partnership with the nonprofit Empire Ranch Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the historic buildings and surrounding landscapes.
Tip from Jon
If you decide to go to Empire/La Cienega, you may want to stop along the way at a good birding spot on La Cienega Creek. Before heading south off of I-10 onto State Route 83 (goes to Sonoita) watch for Marsh Station Road. It is a frontage road that runs somewhat parallel to the highway. It actually forms a loop to and from the interstate. About halfway down the road you will see a pullout where there is a train trestle that crosses over La Cienega Creek. You can park at the trestle and follow the creek south for the best birding in that area. This could be a 15-20 minute stop en route to the main resource conservation area.
Directions Las Cienegas is located 45 miles southeast of Tucson. Arizona. From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 10 to exit 281. Head south on State Highway 83. Near milepost 40, turn east into the ranch entrance.
Visitor Activities Wildlife viewing, birdwatching, primitive camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, historic site, hunting, photography and scenic drives.
Special Features Unique and rare vegetative communities including five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands. The Las Cienegas NCA could also be a Mecca to fans of classic films about the old west. John Wayne, Barbara Stanwick, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Jennifer Jones, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and others have made such classic films as “Red River,” “Duel in the Sun,” “Hombre,” “Winchester 73,” “The Big Country” and many others on or near the Empire Ranch. The historic Empire Ranch remains a working cattle ranch, complete with enchanting old headquarters, now operates under an innovative rangeland management style unique to the area.
Permits, Fee, Limitations Permits are not required to visit the national conservation area. However, commercial, competitive, and large organized group events require a special recreation permit. Vehicles must remain on designated routes. Hazards include poisonous snakes, africanized bees, and potential encounters with illegal users of public lands. Recreational activities on state trust land requires a permit from the State of Arizona.
Accessibility Some of the rooms at the historic Empire Ranch headquarters are wheel-chair accessible through the front breezeway entrance.
Camping and Lodging Primitive camping is allowed on existing sites only. Camping may not exceed 14 consecutive days. Visitors must camp at least 0.25 mile from cattle and wildlife water holes. Campers need to bring water and firewood. The nearest lodging is available in Sonoita, 5 miles south on Highway 83, and in Patagonia. Campfires are allowed, except during periods of extreme fire danger.
Food and Supplies A gas station and a variety of restaurants and services are located in the town of Sonoita, AZ.
First Aid First aid is available at the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s office in Sonoita, AZ. The nearest hospitals are located in Sierra Vista, about 40 miles southeast or Tucson, approximately 50 miles northwest.
Additional Information The national conservation area includes a working cattle ranch. Visitors are asked to leave all gates as they are found. There is no trash pick up, so visitors need to pack up all trash. A Land Use Plan completed in 2003 calls for an interpretive trail and program at the historic ranch headquarters. The area is a travel corridor for illegal immigrants traveling from Mexico. Visitors should report all suspected illegal activities to BLM or local law enforcement authorities and stay safe by avoiding contact with persons exhibiting suspicious behavior or engaged in dangerous activities.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
Manager: Mark Rekshynskyj
12661 East Broadway
Tucson, AZ 85748-7208
Phone: (520) 258-7200
Fax: (520) 258-7238
Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., M-F