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Streams in the Desert

Where to experience Streams in the Desert.
Learn more about streams in the desert.

Where to experience Streams in the Desert
Several stretches of the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries have year-round surface flows and are accessible to the public. The Santa Cruz River emerges in the San Rafael Valley and flows with treated wastewater from Rio Rico to Tubac, and from Tucson to Marana. 

Two developed segments of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historical Trail follow the riverbank between Rio Rico and Tubac. Portions of Cienega Creek are protected in Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve. 

The Sabino Creek Recreational Area in Coronado National Forest has hiking trails, a paved road, and tram rides. The Patagonia–Sonoita Creek Preserve has trails and an interpretive center.

Check out our Heritage Experiences map to see where else you can visit streams in the desert in the Santa Cruz Valley.

  Photo courtesy of Murray Bolesta/
Photo courtesy of Murray Bolesta and

 Streams in the Desert
The Santa Cruz River is a natural treasure for three nations: United States, Tohono O’odham, and Mexico. The river is nationally unique in that it originates in the U.S., crosses into Mexico, and returns to the U.S. Rising in the San Rafael Valley of southern Arizona, it crosses south into Sonora, Mexico, then turns north to reenter the U.S. east of Nogales. It continues north to cross about a 10-mile stretch of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, through Tucson, and then north-northwest to the Gila River west of Phoenix. “Riparian areas” along the banks of the Santa Cruz River and its perennial tributaries are home to special plants and animals, and are corridors for wildlife movements and migrations. These oases are habitats and migration stopovers for many bird species.

In the Santa Cruz River watershed there are 90 miles of streams and rivers that flow year-round, supporting riparian habitats—on the banks of streams and rivers—that are both beautiful and integral to life in the desert. At lower elevations, riparian habitats are dominated by willow and cottonwood trees. At higher elevations, these are joined by hackberry, sycamore, ash, walnut, alder and other trees. Some 60 to 75 percent of all wildlife in this region depend on riparian areas at some point in their lives, and 90 percent of all bird species are found in these desert oases.

Read about the Streams in the Desert theme in the feasibility study.

Listen to a 25-minute documentary about the Santa Cruz River - The Forgotten River.

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