Coronado National Forest

Coronado National Forest covers over 1,700,000 acres in the American Southwest. The forest hosts twelve mountain ranges which range from 3,000 feet to 10,720 feet. This wide range in elevation contributes to a wide variation in ecosystems within the forest. In turn, these ecosystems support one of the most biodiverse forests in the US.

A scenic drive through Coronado National Forest
A scenic drive through Coronado National Forest – Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

The massive mountains of Coronado offer spectacular views of the landscape. This landscape ranges from deserts with wildflowers and Saguaro cactus to subalpine forests speckled with evergreens. There are breathtaking underground views too—Coronado is home to Onyx Cave and the Cave of Bells.

History of Coronado National Forest

The forest was named after Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a 16th-century Spanish explorer. In 1540, he visited Zuni and Hopi villages in what is now Coronado National Forest.

Coronado National Forest is somewhat fragmented. There are five ranger districts that look like they were randomly selected. In some ways, they were. Coronado was a number of smaller forests, but over time, they were combined into one disjointed, but beautiful forest.

In 1874, miners discovered gold in the Santa Rita Mountains in present-day Corondo. This area became known as the Greatersville mining district. Kentucky Camp Cabin is a historic mining camp that is still standing in Coronado.

Ranger Districts

Santa Catalina Ranger District

Much of the land in this district was part of Santa Catalina National Forest, before it merged with Coronado. Santa Catalina Ranger District is near Tuscon, and is home to the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Mount Lemmon, the highest peak of the Santa Catalinas, is within this district. This district is also home to the Pusch Ridge and Rincon wilderness areas. One of the most special places in the forest, Sabino Canyon, is within the Santa Catalina Ranger District.

Sabino Canyon is a beautiful natural canyon desert area with many small waterways winding between imposing rocky bluffs. The Sonoran desert here is home to Gila Monsters and Bobcats. Even though it’s in a desert, the Sabino creek flows most of the year. This is mostly because of violent thunderstorms and snowmelt. For hiking enthusiasts, Sabino Canyon has over 30 miles of winding, rugged trails.

Safford Ranger District

The remote Santa Teresa and Galiuro Wilderness areas lie within the Safford Ranger District The district also includes mountain ranges surrounding the city of Safford, Arizona. These ranges are the Pinaleño, Galiuro, Santa Teresa, Winchester and Greasewood Mountains. Mount Graham, the highest peak in the the Pinaleños, is here as well.

Mount Graham was actually once it’s own forest. In 1908, Mount Graham joined Crook National Forest. Then, in 1953, Coronado National Forest absorbed part of Crook.

Nogales Ranger District

The Nogales Ranger District is home to four mountain ranges to the north and west of Nogales, Arizona—Santa Rita, Tumacacori, Pajarito and San Luis Mountains. Mount Hopkins, Mount Wrightson and Mader Canyon are all part of the Santa Ritas, and within Nogales Ranger District. There are also two wilderness areas in the district, Mount Wrightson and Pajarita. At one time, this area was two separate forests, the Santa Rita National Forest and Tumacacori National Forest. In the 1900s, they both became part of Coronado.

Douglas Ranger District

At one time, the land within Douglas Ranger District was three separate forests. Chiricahua, Dragoon and Peloncillo were each a separate national forest before being combined into Coronado. This district is home to the Chiricahua Wilderness Area as well as three mountain ranges to the north and east of Douglas, Arizona—Chiricahua, Dragoon and Peloncillo Mountains. Part of this district extends into New Mexico.

Sierra Vista District

The Sierra Vista District is just west of the town with the same name. There are three mountain ranges in the district, Huachuca, Patagonia and Whetstone Mountains. The highest peak in the Huachucas, Miller Peak is in this district as well as Canelo Hills, a region of the Huachucas. The Sierra Vista is also home to the Miller Peak Wilderness area. The land here used to be the seperate Huachuca National Forest before being absorbed into Coronado.

Recreation in Coronado National Forest

Millions of people visit Coronado every year, and there’s something for everyone. Visitors drive to the forest to camp, hike, mountain bike, fish, ski and more. It’s a popular destination for climbers too. Coronado boasts several world-class climbing routes.

Coronado has over 1,000 miles of hiking trails. Sabino Canyon is one of the most popular places to hike. The 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail crosses through the forest.

Birdwatchers will love that there are over 400 bird species in the sky islands. Some of these are found nowhere else in the US.

If you want to take in the beauty of the forest without leaving your car, there a number of scenic highways throughout the forest.

There are many campgrounds in the forest. They come in all shapes and sizes and are located from 3,000 feet to 9,000 feet. Some will accommodate RVS, although many of them won’t. Check for RV accommodations before you go.

Visit Coronado National Forest

Spend some time in the diverse southwest treasure. Look for Montezuma quail, whiskered screech owls and or mountain lions. Hike the Arizona Trail or fish at Rose Canyon Lake. When you get the chance to visit the beautiful Coronado National Forest, don’t turn it down.

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