The San Pedro River, though only a trickle at times, nourishes willows, cottonwoods, and other streamside vegetation. It's one of the last undammed rivers in the Southwest. Residents of this choice wildlife habitat—one of the richest in the United States—include more than 400 bird species, 82 mammal species, and 45 reptile and amphibian species. From its beginning in the grasslands of Sonora, Mexico, the river flows north 140 miles to join the Gila River near Winkelman.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, run by the Bureau of Land Management, is 1-3 miles wide and stretches for 36 miles from the Mexican border to near St. David. Visitors enjoy birdwatching, nature walks, and historic sites. Hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers may use the backcountry trails, but motorized vehicles are prohibited. Special firearms restrictions apply.
You can usually find volunteers daily at Fairbank (520/457-3395) and San Pedro House (520/508-4445), though the people here may know only their immediate area. For more information, contact the BLM's San Pedro Project Office (1763 Paseo San Luis, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635, 520/439-6400, www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/ncarea/sprnca.html, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri.).
This ghost town beside the San Pedro River began life in 1881 with construction of a railroad. Nearby mines, mills, and booming Tombstone generated a lot of freight and passenger traffic for the depot. An adobe commercial building (1883), house (1885), schoolhouse (1920), and other structures still stand, and interpretive panels give their histories. Volunteers and the BLM look after the site; there's usually someone here to answer your questions. Fairbank is on the north side of AZ 82, just east of the San Pedro River bridge.
Birders find good opportunities near the river. Hikers and mountain bikers can set off on abandoned roads to the north and south. The site of Grand Central Mill lies an easy 1.5 miles north, where foundations display fine stonework. Contention Mill site and townsite are four miles north of Fairbank, but you'll need a map as the way isn't marked. One could also detour across the river to Terranate.
Presidio Santa Cruz de Terranate
Visitors can experience some of the isolation of this unsuccessful outpost of Spain. In 1775, the Irish mercenary Col. Hugo O'Conor led construction of the fort to extend and protect the northern reaches of New Spain. Apache raids, however, prevented the raising of crops, robbed supply parties, and killed two captains and over 80 soldiers. By 1780, after less than five years of use, the Spanish abandoned the site. A few weathered adobe walls of the chapel and commandant's quarters still stand, along with stone foundations of the walls and other structures. An interpretive trail within the presidio tells of the fortifications and what life may have been like here.
You must hike in, following an easy well-marked trail that winds 1.2 miles across the desert to the site overlooking the San Pedro River. To reach the trailhead, take AZ 82 to Milepost 60, 1.2 miles west of Fairbank, then turn north 1.8 miles on gravel Ironhorse (Kellar) Road. Hikers could extend their trip by continuing north along and across the river to Contention; it's also possible to reach this area from Fairbank via Grand Central Mill. A map, available free from the BLM, will be needed for explorations beyond Terranate.
San Pedro House and Trails
Birdwatchers come here to take advantage of the excellent sighting possibilities. Friends of the San Pedro River runs a bookstore/gift shop in San Pedro House (520/508-4445, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily) with a large selection of regional and natural-history books; you can also obtain BLM handouts on the San Pedro National Conservation Area. Pick up a brochure for an easy interpretive loop of about one mile from the San Pedro House to the forested riverbanks and a pond. Other trails branch off to give you a longer hike. San Pedro Trail is planned to be 30 miles long; currently you can follow it south 8 miles to Hereford Road and north 3.6 miles to Escapule Road.
Murray Springs Clovis Site
Scientists have unearthed bones of extinct mammoths, bison, horses, camels, and dire wolf here along with stone weapons and tools used by the Clovis Culture to kill and butcher the animals 8,000-11,000 years ago. A one-third-mile interpretive trail loops through the site; interpretive panels have photos of bones and tools found and illustrations of how the Clovis people may have hunted. Signs identify desert plants along the trail and describe their medicinal uses. From Sierra Vista head east 3.8 miles on AZ 90, turn left 1.2 miles on Moson Road, then right 0.4 mile at the sign; or you can take Charleston Road from Sierra Vista or Tombstone and turn south 1.8 miles on Moson Road, then left to the site. Lehner Mammoth Kill Site, farther south in the National Conservation Area, has also yielded bone and Clovis projectile points, but there is little to see and access is difficult.
Primitive walk-in camping (no facilities) is permitted one mile or more from trailheads with a $2/person/night fee; note that parking at some trailheads closes in the evening. No car camping is allowed in the National Conservation Area.
On to Tombstone