Call of the Wild - Quarterly News from the Arizona Wilderness Coalition
Issue 1, Winter 2003

Tumacacori and Atacosa Highlands

These mountains are known for their spectacularly eroded, lichen-drenched cliffs and undulating hills of grass and madrean oaks. The area is also an exceptional arena for the intermingling of sub-tropical and northern plant and animal species, many of which are rare and do not exist anywhere else in the United States. Indeed, these mountains host over fifty sensitive species – one of the highest concentrations of imperiled species in the state. Combined with the large tracks of roadless lands, wilderness designation will preserve this rich natural history for generations to come and allow the communities of southeast Arizona to appreciate this landscape in its truly wild character.

Tumacacori photo
Coronado National Forest

AWC Proposed Acreage: 77,200 Acres

Location: Sixteen miles northwest of Nogales.



Wilderness Qualities

The topography of the area is a mosaic of rolling hills and deep draws cut by many steep, rough canyons. Vegetation is not dense, but presents a pleasing pattern of golden grasses dotted liberally with green oaks and chaparral species. The visitor experiences a mild climate and a colorful, spacious terrain of endless rolling hills and valleys.

There is only one major hiking trail at the southern boundary near Ruby Road and Atascosa Peak. As a result, the opportunity for solitude is considerable. Because of the large size of this unit, visitors can easily escape the sights and sounds of civilization by hiking from canyon to canyon. Looking west from any of the numerous peaks, visitors take in unobstructed, natural views for hundreds of miles. There are no developed recreational sites or established camping areas in this roadless area.

Ecological Values

The fascinating species found in the Tumacacori Mountains originate in the sub-tropic ranges to the south. While yellow-billed cuckoos, elegant trogons, Mexican spotted owls, and gray hawks may be sighted on any given day, perhaps most noteworthy is the plant diversity in these mountains. The Chiltepin, the rare native variety of most chiles now produced, is known to occur in its highest densities here. The Forest Service has dedicated a special zoological and botanical area to protect this plant from over-harvesting. Wilderness designation would complement and strengthen the protection of this important plant and provide lasting protection for the multitudes of other rare and sensitive plant species occurring here.

This area offers fertile wildlife habitat, especially for white-tailed deer and javelina. Not surprisingly, mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, and the occasional jaguar also reside in these mountains. Because of the large acreage here, wilderness designation will be an important step in preserving the roaming habitat of these native mammals.

Canyons and drainages such as Peck, Ramanote, Walker, Fresno, and Cedar contain precious riparian strips of velvet ash, Bonpland’s and desert willow, Arizona black walnut, Fremont cottonwood, and netleaf hackberry among others. The endangered Chiricahua leopard frog occurs in Ramanote Canyon and a smaller tributary, Lion Canyon.

Recreational Values

The Tumacacori – Atascosa Highlands are prized for their rich diversity of birds and attract bird-watchers from all over the country. Opportunities for photography, hiking, exploring, horse-packing, and nature watching abound. Hunting is also a popular activity in the Tumacacori and Atacosa Highlands. Wilderness designation would protect and enhance these recreational values. Several boundary adjustments have been made on the northeast corner to allow continued motorized access for hunters and others.

Cedar, Peck, and Pine Canyon riparian areas and Atascosa ridge are considered to be special ecological and geological features of the area, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The scenic value of the highlands is also rated at the top of the scale by the agency.

Recreational use is limited mainly to the southern portion along Ruby Road. Many hunters, hikers, and naturalists use this area. The majority of the unit, however, is relatively unvisited.


As the Santa Cruz River Valley quickly becomes developed for vacation homes, high-density housing, and industrial uses, the Tumacacoris are threatened by overuse and fragmentation. Already along Ruby Road, new roads are being created illegally on a monthly basis. As the Tumacacori Highlands—with the rest of the Coronado Forest—become more recreationally dominated, wilderness designation will help to disperse impacts and protect the values that attract forest users. Many illegal roads are created from repeated Border Patrol use, with little regard for existing federal laws restricting all motorized vehicles to signed routes. Perhaps most notably, a proposal to install a high-voltage powerline directly through the heart of this roadless area looms in a planning stage today. With wilderness designation, we can ensure that this area will be conserved in its natural, beautiful, and vibrant state for future generations.


If you’d like to learn more about this potential wilderness area or how you can get involved in protecting it and advocating for it’s designation, contact Matt Scroch, Sky Islands Regional Coordinator, at (520) 624-7080, or