Cienega Creek flows past and through reeds under massive Cottonwood trees in the Cienega Creek Nature Preserve.

Each day, thousands of vehicles thunder along Interstate 10 east of Tucson, just south of Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, an exquisite riparian area.

Minutes after sunrise on a recent refreshingly cool, bright morning the experience began. Following a well-worn trail, hikers quickly descend into Davidson Canyon Wash. A short distance north in this drainage leads to a lush, deep-green environment, where the perpetually flowing Cienega Creek provides life-giving water to well-established cottonwood trees, as well as numerous other trees and plants. The heavy canopy of branches will be welcome as temperatures rise with the sun.

Trails in this lightly visited area are not well established. Hiking up the shallow creek is the best way to proceed. Pausing often to enjoy the melody of songbirds provides a peaceful early morning gift. Far in the distance, the haunting whistle of an approaching freight train breaks the silence. Though irritating at road crossings during rush hour, the sights and sounds of trains in the open country are not unpleasant. This one quickly rumbles by and the stillness returns.

At slightly more than a mile upstream, the wash widens, the creek disappears underground and the vegetation is much more desolate. Continuing another mile upstream, the bedrock has forced the flowing water to the surface, leading to another point of healthy, verdant plant growth. On this early spring day the cottonwoods are in bloom, covering the ground like snow.

Nearing 3 miles and the creek once again underground, the lure of the downstream portion of this preserve beckons. Turning downstream, a cool breeze comes and will remain a welcome companion the rest of the day. With just the flow of the creek defining a change in elevation, this hike must be rated as a moderate one. However, it is tiring with the amount of time spent in the creek, hiking through soft sand and searching for clear passage.

As mining, agriculture and development increase, these beautiful riparian areas diminish as the underground water table is lowered. Only 1 percent of Arizona qualifies as riparian. However, 75 percent of native wildlife depends on them. Cienega Creek is noted as a world-class birding area with dozens of species calling it home. Hummingbirds, hawks and a gorgeous summer tanager are highlights of this recent day. The creek supports native fish like the Gila topminnow, and dozens are seen darting through its clear waters.

The lower section of the wash narrows and the water flow increases slightly. With two train bridges and one highway bridge spanning overhead, it’s no secret why this location is known as Three Bridges. Train whistles cannot be heard in the narrow canyon, and a fast-moving train passing high overhead startles us, briefly interrupting a relaxing snack break.

Another mile downstream and the flow has again vanished and the hot, dry desert lies ahead. It’s time to turn around and enjoy a few more minutes in the shade and to hear the delightful sound of flowing water. Though only a few miles long, this gorgeous riparian area provides a unique environment and cool escape for those living in the desert.

To get there, take Interstate 10 east to the Sonoita Exit 289, then turn onto Marsh State Road. A 10-car lot stands at the trailhead about 3 miles north. User permits are required to hike the area and can be obtained free of charge from the Pima County Parks and Recreation Department, 877-6158.

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