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Thu, Aug. 22

Johnson: Hiking the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River
Hiking Arizona

Juan Bautista de Anza hiked from Tubac, AZ to San Francisco, CA in 1775. That’s quite a hike, especially back then. He followed stream courses such as the Santa Cruz and Gila Rivers, when possible. He took along quite a few other “hikers,” including, guides, soldiers, servants and families in order to establish a Spanish community in Alta California to counter the Russian advance down the coast. His provisions were quite different than what we might take on a long hike today. Rather than freeze dried items, he took the real deal – livestock, including mules, cattle and horses. No doubt they foraged for native plants along the way and traded with various tribal groups for food from domestic plants such as maize and frijoles.

In order to prepare for a presentation I am making at Tubac Presidio State Park, Arizona’s original state park, on April 20th, I decided to get a feel for the area by hiking along various portions of the Anza Trail, near the Santa Cruz River. You could hike for a couple of hours or all day, as you see fit. Or, like me, you could return to hike different sections in different seasons to fully experience the wonder of the Anza Trail.

Later this year, a traveling exhibit called Water/Ways from the Smithsonian will be on display at the Presidio. Consequently, I will gear my presentation to the riparian vegetation which characterizes Arizona’s desert water ways, focusing on plants that most people are familiar with, trees and shrubs.

Woody plants constitute some of the most useful and best known plants. Many are on display throughout the Park as well as along the Santa Cruz River. Such riparian sites harbor distinct species of plants which create essential habitat for wildlife, especially birds. This has been well documented in such popular works as Dry River: Stories of Life, Death and Redemption on the Santa Cruz River by Ken Lamberton. I will review some of the online tools and other resources available to equip attendees to better understand this landscape. This will enrich their hiking experiences in these linear oases and their appreciation for the role of water in shaping the natural landscape. Their respect too will grow for the people who have called the Southwest home for many generations.

Unfortunately, riparian sites in Arizona are often the places where we dump our trash and conduct mining operations. Fortunately, the Santa Cruz River in the vicinity of Tubac, offers an opportunity to experience the terrain like Anza did. In spite of the changes brought on by modernization, you can stroll along a relatively level and well-marked trail between Tubac and Tumacacori National Historic Park beneath a canopy of stately cottonwood and willow trees to the melodious sounds of water flowing, birds chirping and leaves fluttering.

The serenity is soothing and now that spring has sprung, wildflowers are blooming. Occasional interpretive displays add historic depth and perspective to your hiking experience.

In addition to a pleasant day hiking experience, the art culture in Tubac and the International Border a short distance to the south in Nogales offer innumerable opportunities to feed your cultural appetite. Here, you can have it all or everything but a wilderness trek. Much of that left with Anza years ago. Southeast Arizona is rich in all things historic, cultural as well as natural.

Next: Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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