Distance: 6.2 miles (10.0 km) roundtrip
Elevation: 5400 - 7080 feet (1646 - 2160 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Season: Year Round (watch for snow in winter)
The Santa Rita mountains, located near the border with Mexico in SE Arizona, are one of the famous Madrean Sky Islands, whose dense conifer forests float above a sea of hot, lowland desert. Madera Canyon, which cuts right into the heart of the range is world famous for its birding, as several Mexican species of birds make their only homes in the United States in these and a handful of other mountain canyons along the border. Birds such as the elegant trogon, painted redstart, Mexican junco, and many others are found here.
Perhaps not as charasmatic and sexy as a bird, the Santa Rita mountains also contains some tree species that just barely make an appearance in the U.S. including the Arizona madrona, Apache pine, Chihuahuan pine, and Arizona yellow pine. Several other species are near their southernmost extremes in these mountains including quaking aspens and Douglas firs.
There is a wonderful loop hike that allows visitors to climb through the Sonoran life zones into the high conifer forests, a chance to see some of these rare birds in the sycamore-lined canyon, and just enjoy the cooler climate that this mountain sky island has to offer.
The loop hike begins at the Madera Canyon parking area at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. There are two trail options, but I would start at the "Old Baldy Trail" because it makes a steeper (and more shade covered) ascent to Josephine Saddle, while the return on the "Super Trail" is more gradual on weakened knees.
We did the hike in late February the day after a snow storm. Temperatures were in the 50's at the parking area and 30's at the saddle. But, what a winter wonderland to enjoy. However, this is an El Nino year. In a dry winter, it is quite likely you would encounter no snow on this hike. But, April is probably the best month to do this hike, since that is when the trogons return, the wildflowers start blooming, and the temperatures are more moderate!