Cave Creek Ranch in Southern Arizona: Not Just for Bird-Watching

In honor of spring break, my fiancée and I decided to forego the beach-combing, beer-drinking escapades of our college days and instead rent a cabin in southeastern Arizona (this is what graduate students do for fun on holidays). After some deliberating, we chose Cave Creek Ranch in the Coronado National Forest, which, while internationally known for its spectacular bird-watching, has much more to offer than binoculars—on seven striking acres, it’s also a surprisingly gorgeous canyon (with, yes, a cave and a creek, too) with red-rock and alpine views that rival southern Arizona’s more popular getaways like Sedona. And, yes, it’s got a lot less tourists.

Reed Peter, Cave Creek’s owner since the late 1990s, won’t be afraid to tell you that his ranch—40 miles north of the Mexican border—sits on the most biodiverse land area in the entire continental United States. With hundreds of bird and animal sightings chronicled each year (coupled with my personal experience of having a javelina nearly bite off my toe, a chipmunk literally knock at our back door, and a doe wander out of her herd to sniff my leg), I’m not inclined to disagree with him. Really, though, if you’re at all interested in conservation, bird-watching, or mammal-sighting, the ranch has a hand-written map of all 280 miles of trails in the area—and it’ll show you exactly where to catch which species. The common room’s library, as well, boasts a generous bookshelf filled with a fantastic collection of bird and animal-watching books. To my delight, for novices like me, Reed has stocked up for all visitors, from Birding for Dummies to National Geographic titles for experts.

As I’m much more hiker than bird-watcher, we decided it’d be best to do our sight-seeing from the canyon itself, so with my home-made energy bars and a few liters of water, we spent our two days hiking two of the most exciting-looking dotted lines on the map: Silver Peak and Snowshed. Nine miles round-trip, Silver Peak Trail—the most rigorous hike in the canyon, Reed would later tell us, impressed we’d made it back by sunset without getting eaten by a mountain lion—is labeled as “Most Difficult,” so only attempt it if you’re ready to haul yourself up and out of the canyon on a pretty vertical trail that’s mostly in direct sunlight. Showshed Trail, which is ten miles round-trip, is labeled “More Difficult” and is a little less steep, but beware: it’s nearly impossible to find (we drove by the trailhead three times before we finally found it). My advice? Take some patience and some good shoes.

Cave Creek, as quaint as it is, offers three adorable cottages, six lodge-style apartments, a large ranch house (all between $95-$145 a night), an outdoor seating area next to the many busy bird feeders, and a comfortable living room-style common area with a library, board games, magazines, and rocking chairs. All of their units sleep between 2 to 6 people, and all come with fully-equipped kitchens. This is very helpful if, like me, you’re always forgetting to bring such necessities as a fork or a skillet. The rooms themselves, too, are immaculate: they are clean, comfortable, well-kept, perfectly southwestern-themed (down to the pillows!), and they have spectacular views of both the canyon and the creek.

The best part? There’s no television, no phone, no internet, and no radio (though there is free wi-fi on the front porch of the main office if you aren’t able to completely disconnect). If you’re interested in any kind of solitude, I can promise this: you’ll find something like it at Cave Creek Canyon. And remember, if you go, leave a little note in the speckled composition book with the yellowed pages on the dresser—flipping through the last 10 years of visitors’ words was my favorite late-night activity of the whole trip!


Cave Creek Ranch is located in Cave Creek Canyon, about a mile west of Portal, Arizona, in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. As they’re a little bit off the beaten path, try calling the main office for more specific directions: (520) 558-2334. Also check out their website:

Review and photographs by Kristin Winet.

About The Author