Arizona Offroad Adventures: Gardner Canyon

Although smoke from the terrible wildfires in California has changed the appearance of our southern Arizona skies, we still got out to enjoy nature on our Labor Day holiday weekend. Just off Highway 83 near Sonoita, AZ, Forest Road 785 OHV Trail provided a fun afternoon of offroading among grasslands, juniper trees, and mountains.

As the dirt trail makes its way across streams, green forests, and ridgetops, around 4 miles in, you’ll pass by Apache Springs Ranch. Once owned by homesteader (and the canyon’s namesake) Tom Gardner in the 1800s, it’s now a location for workshops and retreats.

Heading into the canyon you’ll get a view of the Santa Rita Mountains. They were a bit obscured by wildfire smoke during our visit, but still an awesome sight to see.

Keep driving down the trail, and you’ll pass several primitive campsites and hiking trails. Eventually, you’ll see signs for Kentucky Camp, a former mining town. 

The forest service bought the site in the late ’80s, and today, it features the original adobe buildings, a headquarters than can be used for events, and a cabin that can be rented for up to 5 people. The Arizona Trail, a national scenic trail that spans the entire length of Arizona, runs through the site and can be accessed for hiking.

Follow the signs for Cave Canyon Trail, and you’ll make your way to the end of the road. It’s a serene area with lots of trees, rocky outcrops, and a stream. The only thing we heard when we were back there was the wind through the trees and birds chirping. Perfect!

Gardner Canyon and the surrounding area are a birder’s paradise. As it’s home to hundreds of species, we weren’t surprised to see quite a few out and about during our visit. We captured this photo when a bright red Vermilion Flycatcher took a rest on a branch near us.

On the map, it looks like you can make a loop, but the road ends abruptly at a hiking trail. To get out, you’ll have to turn around in the gravel area and backtrack.

While there were a few rough and bumpy areas with some rather steep drops and some climbing involved, we never had to use 4×4 in our Jeep. A vehicle with decent clearance should be enough for the main trail. Rain or snow could affect the road, so definitely check the weather conditions before you head out.

Climbing one of the rockier trails back to the end of the canyon road

Gardner Canyon is a short drive south from Tucson, and a number of trails go back into the canyon. Each one has its own unique surprises and features, and it’s possible to see something different each time you visit. This area is great for birding, camping, hiking, offroading, and much more.

We can’t wait to go back and visit, and we hope this post encourages you to do the same!

Getting to Gardner Canyon Road

From Tucson, head east on I-10 and take the exit for Highway 83 to Sonoita. About 30 miles south you’ll see a sign on the right for Gardner Canyon road.