On November 18, 1988, Congress created the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Stretching nearly 40 miles from the Mexican border to St. David, Ariz., this region, controlled by the BLM, covers close to 58,000 acres. Located along north flowing San Pedro River, banks are dominated by massive Fremont cottonwood trees. Human occupation of the area dates to 13,000 years ago.

Five highway bridge crossings allow hikers, birders, picnickers and campers access to miles of well-maintained trails, following the lazily meandering stream at a leisurely pace with only slight elevation gain/loss. Both short distance out-and-back hikes as well as long distance adventures are attainable. An eight-mile path from Hereford Bridge near the Mexican border to Highway 90 would best be enjoyed using two vehicles to shuttle hikers around.

One of the shorter out-and-back trails systems is located off Highway 90 between Sierra Vista and Bisbee. West of the river and south of the highway, the San Pedro Trail System provides nearly five miles of easily negotiated, intersecting trails. An historic ranch house from the 1930s, San Pedro House, serves as a superbly stocked bookstore and gift shop. The all-volunteer staff provides a wealth of local information.

Walking east from the trailhead on a bright November day, thousands of brilliantly colored cottonwood trees line the riverbanks. Against a near cloudless sky, the yellow, gold, and reds of fall leaves are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

Heading upstream to the south along the west bank of the San Pedro, the wide and well-maintained trail, smothered in fallen leaves, ambles comfortably next to one of Southern Arizona's few remaining continually flowing streams. At several points leaves are so thick in the riverbed it becomes difficult to know where the solid ground ends and the water begins. Enjoying the unique aroma of cottonwood trees, unmatched fall color, light breezes sending waves of leaves tumbling to the ground with just a few friendly additional hikers makes for a truly remarkable day.

Reaching the wide sandy Garden Wash at slightly over a mile, the loop trail begins a return to San Pedro House. Green Kingfisher Pond can be seen through tall grasses and tree trunks, its mirroring surface reflecting the beauty along the shoreline. A lone, elegant, snow white egret plies the middle of the shallow pond, stabbing frequently at small prey. Open fields of Sacaton grasses cover the fields to the west, with the Huachuca Mountains seen far in the distance. A stunning single cottonwood stands on the north shore of the pond. Beyond grassy fields to the northwest a grove of trees stand in a crescent shape along a former river channel, detached from the current flow of San Pedro River.

Leaving Green Kingfisher Pond, trail options offer a choice of returning to San Pedro House directly across open fields or walking along the river under the sheltering canopy of tall trees. With early afternoon temperatures climbing, retracing footsteps along the river is more inviting.

Slowing the river flow, several beaver dams have been constructed since the mammal's reintroduction in 1999. Trapping and hunting had eliminated these animals in the 1800s. Beavers' relentless gnawing have felled large trees into pools, providing nourishment for them and nutrients for the river.

High on both banks of the river lie evidence of the river's might. Huge piles of debris have been mashed against still-standing tree trunks. Quietly flowing today toward an eventual confluence with the Gila River at Winkleman, nearly 100 miles north, it's obvious heavy monsoon flooding often scours the riverbed.

At San Pedro House shaded picnic tables and numerous bird feeders provide a relaxed end to the day. Home to more than 250 species of butterflies and 350 bird species as well as native mammals such as deer, javelina and coyotes, this diverse conservation area is visited by people from around the world.

Though a couple of hours along paved highways from Tucson, the beauty of the area and the extensive network of trails make the effort worthwhile.

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