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Name: Gardner Canyon Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: (based on two votes)
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (Semi-maintained dirt road to the AZ Trail), then (Easy 4WD or 2WD to the end of the trail)
Time: 1 - 3 hours (one way) Region: SE Arizona
Length: 10.0 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: +1352 / -81 ft / +1271 ft (one way)
Type: Out and back Avg Elevation: 5000 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring, winter Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: October, 2010
Short Description: A beautiful drive along a seasonal creek that takes you up into cool pine trees
Geocaches:Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's just a few. Old Lady Cache; KY in AZ; Gimli's Hangin' Tree
References / Contact Information: The Hikers Guide to the Santa Rita Mountains by Betty Leavengood and Mike Liebert
Points of interest: Gardner Canyon, access to the Arizona Trail for hiking and biking, great dispersed camping for RV's, Tunnel Springs and beautiful scenery.
Special Considerations: Trail is located in illegal immigrant and smuggler high traffic area, see page regarding warning (it's not as bad as it sounds). Although the warning above is valid, this trail is very popular and the camping sites fill up quickly on weekends.
How to get there: The trail begins 21.5 miles south of I-10 from exit 281 heading toward Sonoita on Arizona State Road 83. Follow SR 83 as it travels through the beautiful rolling hills and historical ranch grasslands of southeastern Arizona. As you get closer to the start of the trail, the scenery will change from rocky, cactus-laden hillsides to large working ranches. The trail starts upon a right turn onto Gardner Canyon road (FR 92) at waypoint 001. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

This is a very popular ATV, hiking, biking and camping area. There are some nice RV dispersed camping spots along the first few miles of the trail (though in recent years the Forest Service has closed down a bunch of these and officially numbered the rest). The road is graded and well-maintained until you reach the Arizona Tralhead (Waypoint 004).

When you reach the intersections of Fish Canyon, Cave Creek and Gardner Canyon trails (Waypoint 005), the trail becomes a little rougher (it was bulldozed a few years ago so it is fairly easy now).

This trail has a lot to offer. Access to some great RV camping (some nice tent camping too, but not as many spots for this), hiking, biking, playing in the creek when it's running, and the allure of cool pine trees on a warm day.

General Information and History

Gardner Canyon got its namesake from Thomas Gardner, who made a living there in the 1800s. The area was a hotbed of confrontations between Mexican and American settlers and the Apache and Thomas Gardner was in the mix of it.

He moved to the Santa Ritas from California after not making it big during the goldrush of 1849. He first became a cattle rancher, selling cattle to the mining camps in the Santa Ritas. During this time, he was shot by the Apache during a confrontation. He survived the gunshot by packing the wound with cloth.

Afterwards, he started a ranch near Sonoita Creek where he sold produce to nearby Camp Crittenden. The camp closed in 1879 and he bought land near Apache Spring. He and his wife raised 12 children before moving to Tucson in 1896.

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The Trail

From the intersection of Hwy 83 and Gardner Canyon Rd (Waypoint 001), head west on Gardner Canyon Rd. This is a well-graded dirt road and can be accessed by RV's. Keep straight on Gardner Canyon Rd after 3/4 of a mile (the road to the left leads to Kentucky Camp).

There are numbered camping spots along the left (south) side of the road in this area (from Waypoints 001 to 003) offer some great RV (and tent camping) under large trees and next to a rocky wash.

Continue down the road. After 4.5 miles, bear right to stay on Gardner Canyon (straight ahead leads to a large privately owned ranch). At approximately 5.6 miles from the start, you'll find a large parking area on the right to access the Arizona Trail (Waypoint 004). A lot of people park their ATV and horse trailers here. The Arizona Trail heads north from the parking area, but you have to go along the road for a few hundred yards, to find the trail to the south (Waypoint 004A).

Head down the hill to Cave Creek, then back up the other side. The creek will run (at least a little) most of the winter from snow melt and during summer monsoons. If you get lucky enough to visit after a heavy rain, this creek can be flowing nicely. It's a beautiful thing to see. The creek crossing can be a little rocky for passenger cars and some park off to the right just before going down the hill to the creek.

Continue on the road until you reach Waypoint 005. Here's a three-way intersection. To the right is Fish Canyon. If Cave Creek is running, I would suggest either heading down the first few hundred yards of the Fish Canyon trail to the creek (either by vehicle or boot). The creek is outstanding here with large trees and beautiful rocks. A super place for kids to play in the water and have a picnic.

Straight ahead goes to Cave Creek. This used to be a great 4WD trail to some awesome camping areas in the pine trees. The fire a few years ago took out most of the area and the Forest Service has closed the trail only a couple of miles ahead. I believe this is about a mile past the gate at Waypoint 009 (which was unlocked last time we visited), but haven't confirmed it yet. Even so, there are some nice camping spots next to the creek on this trail.

To the left is the continuation of Gardner Canyon. There's some nice camping spots on the left near this intersection, though this area sees heavy traffic. After only about 1/3 of a mile, the Arizona Trail crosses the road again (Waypoint 005A).

Keep straight as you pass the trail to Hog Canyon of the left (Waypoint HC001). At Waypoint 005B, the Arizona Trail merges with Gardner Canyon Road. If you want, park on the side of the road and go down the trail to the right for about 50 feet until you reach the small creek. There's a nice small series of waterfalls here. They're only about 5 feet high, but hey, it's Arizona.

Continue driving down the road until you reach Waypoint 006. This is where the Arizona Trail leaves the road again. A nice sidetrip is the short hike to the Tunnel Springs tunnel. I believe this is about 1/2 of a mile hike (roundtrip).

Here's some history on the water collection system for the Kentucky Camp area: The total length of the system was about 8.5 miles and consisted of a combination of pipes, open trench ditches, tunnels and dams. It fed the mines near Kentucky Camp, starting from Bear Spring. It began operation in about 1904. The whole system used gravity, so pipes were used to transport the water across the canyons and up to the next ridge.  Some of these pipes were up to 24 inches in diameter. and were made of rolled steel sheets that were riveted together to secure the seam.  One end of the pipe was compressed so that it would fit into the adjoining segment. The segment interiors were lined with asphalt and the exterior of the pipe was also coated with asphalt to reduce leakage.  Indications are that the pipe segments were delivered by rail to the rail siding at Sonoita and then hauled overland to the project.  The main distribution line terminated on the ridge just to the West of Boston Gulch where two large gate valves still remain. A valve to bleed air from the pipeline is also located here.  From these gate valves, water was distributed to the several placer pits by smaller pipes and hoses. It is estimated that the water pressure at the working placer pits was about 1,000 pounds.  The operation didn't last long, there wasn't enough constant supply of water to make it profitable.

Back to the trail. Keep driving on Gardner Canyon road, up the semi-steep hill before you reach Waypoint 007. This is a link trail (hiking and biking) that leads to the Cave Creek trail. Keep driving on the trail until it ends (the Forest Service closed the upper portion of this trail after the big fire). The closure may be near Waypoint 008, which is a nice place to visit with tall pines and small rock formations. When you've reached the end, turn around and head back the way you came.

Have fun and be safe.

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