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Name: Apache Springs Cabin Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (moderate 4WD)
Time: 3 - 5 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 16.7 miles (loop) Elevation gain/loss/change: +1454 / -1454 ft / 0 ft (loop)
Type: Loop Avg Elevation: 4600 ft
Best time to go: fall, winter, spring Fees: State Trust Land Permit required
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: December, 2012
Short Description: A fun and easy 4WD trail to an old cabin and spring
Offroad Passport Forum: Click here to join the discussion on Offroad Passport
Geocaches: Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's just a few. The Springs of 85637; Total Wreck Mine;
References / Contact Information: Las Cienegas Conservation Area; Empire Ranch; Empire Ranch Roundup; Sonoita;
Points of interest: Apache Springs Cabin, vast landscape and grasslands near Empire Ranch, historic Empire Ranch, Las Cienegas Conservation Area
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). Lots of old mines in this area, stay away from open mine shafts and be careful of mine tailings. May require a State Trust Land permit (see update on permit page).The trail is on the Las Cienegas Conservation Area. No permit or fee is required. Please conform to their rules and regulations.
How to get there: From Tucson, take I-10 to the Sonoita exit (281). Head south on Hwy 83 for 19 miles, then turn left onto Empire Ranch Road (Waypoint 001). This is usually a well maintained dirt road that can be done by a passenger car or high-clearance vehicle. Keep on the main road, there a lots of side roads as you head to the trail head. Keep straight at Waypoint 002 (1.85 miles), a left here is the gas line road that takes you to Total Wreck (but a better way is through Las Cienegas). At 3 miles (Waypoint 003) take a left at the stop sign. Keep straight at Waypoint 004 and 005. Same for Waypoint 006 (~7.5 miles). Cross through a gate. At Waypoint 007 take the S-curve (staying on the main road). At Waypoint 008 (9 miles), you will come to another big gate. There's a corral and water tank on your right. This is what I am considering the trail head for many of the trails in this area. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

This is a fun and easy 4WD trail that takes you to an old hunting cabin at Apache Springs in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains southeast of Tucson. lt starts by Empire Ranch near Sonoita and the first section takes you through the vast range grasslands of the area via a graded dirt road. Between Empire Ranch and Cienega Ranch, the road is mostly graded and 2WD. In wet weather, this may be 4WD.

We found most of the road very easy 4WD or high-clearance 2WD truck, though the last 1/2 of the trail was rated a medium 4WD trail. There wasn't much Arizona pinstriping on this trip (compared to many Arizona trails).

Google Maps and Google Earth

GPS tracks for this adventure were recorded with My Tracks software on my Android cell phone. This is an awesome piece of free software that allows you to record GPS tracks, waypoints and historical data. It will tell you things like elevation gain, time history, average speed, etc. It will also let you take a tour (similar to playing a time accurate movie) of your track on Google Earth. You can send your tracks to friends or upload them to Google.

Google Maps
Click here to view this adventure's track on Google Maps.

Google Earth
You can also download a Google Earth movie (called a tour) of this adventure (must have Google Earth on your computer). Right click here to download the .kml file, then select "save target (or link) as..." For help on how to play the movie on Google Earth (not very intuitive), click here.

General Information and History

I don't have any information on this hunting cabin. One of the hunters we met while exploring the area stated he found a date on one of the small concrete water troughs that stated it was built in 1918 (we failed to find it). My guess is the cabin was built in the 1960s or 1970s, but that's just a guess.

Here's some information on Las Cienegas from their website:

Once facing an uncertain future that almost certainly included housing and commercial development, today more than 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodlands in Arizona’s Pima and Santa Cruz counties are protected as a National Conservation Area. The region’s rolling grasslands, oak-studded hills that connect several “sky island” mountain ranges”, and lush riparian corridors are irresistible to both people and wildlife. Cienega Creek, with its perennial flow and lush riparian corridor, forms the lifeblood of the NCA and supports a diverse plant and animal community.

Thanks to the efforts of local governments, elected officials and the public, the Empire and Cienega ranches, along with portions of the adjacent Rose Tree and Vera Earl ranches, are now under public ownership and managed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the principles of multiple-use and ecosystem management for future generations to use and enjoy. The BLM has formed a partnership with the nonprofit Empire Ranch Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the historic buildings and surrounding landscapes.


The Empire Ranch (near the trail) was a big part of history in southern Arizona. From the Empire Ranch Foundation Website:

The Empire Ranch was originally established in the 1860's as a ranch of 160 acres with a four-room adobe ranch house and adjoining corral.  Owned by Edward Nye Fish, a Tucson businessman, the ranch was acquired in 1876 by Walter L. Vail, a native of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and Herbert Hislop, an Englishman. 

Over the next 20 years, as a part of the historic expansion of ranching, railroads, mining and other growth in the West, Vail and various partners expanded the original land holdings to include over one million acres.  The ranch house became an extended complex with more than 22-rooms and many related structures, and remained a Vail family enterprise until 1928.

In 1928, the Empire Ranch was purchased by the Boice, Gates and Johnson partnership, successor to the Chiricahua Cattle Co., when their cattle had to be moved from the San Carlos Indian Reservation. The Boices were respected cattlemen known for their promotion of the Hereford breed of cattle in the Southwest. Partner Frank Boice and his family lived on and managed the Empire Ranch, and became sole owners in 1951. During their tenure they also hosted Hollywood production companies for the filming of a number of classic western movies.

In 1969 the lands were sold to Gulf American Corporation for a proposed real estate development, and later resold to Anamax Mining Company for mining and water potential.  None of these developments materialized, however, and to this day the lands and ranch headquarters have  supported only cattle operations.

In the 1980s a groundswell of public support developed to preserve the ranch and its natural resources in their pristine condition.  In 1988 a series of land exchanges put the property into public ownership under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior.  In 2000, the U.S. Congress officially designated these 42,000 acres to be Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

The Empire Ranch Foundation was established as a private non-profit organization in 1997 to work with the BLM to develop private support to preserve the ranch buildings and enhance the educational and recreational opportunities it offers to the general public.


A fun thing to do in November is to attend the annual Empire Ranch Roundup. Click here for more info.

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The Trail

Note: There are numerous roads that crisscross this trail in both directions. I have not mentioned each and every one, but only the main ones.

The start of this trail is considered at Waypoint 008 where there's a large gate, sign, corrals and water tank. Go through the gate and proceed east along the trail. The first section of the trail is easy high-clearance 2WD or 4WD up to Waypoint 013 that I would rate a 1.5 to 2 out of 5.

After a little more than 1/2 a mile, keep left at Waypoint 009 (the trail on the right is the way you will return). A few hundred yards later, take a right (a left here takes you to Sandford Ranch or Total Wreck) at Waypoint 010. 2.5 miles after the start, you will come to a large concrete tank, windmill and marsh on your right (Waypoint 012). The windmill no longer works and the pump is solar powered (you will see many of these on this trail).

4.75 miles from the start, you will come to a large open tank, windmill and solar panel (Waypoint 013). The road on the right is the one you will return on (if so desired). The road on your left is the one that leads to Apache Springs Cabin. The road that looks like it goes straight ahead just leads to the windmill a few hundred yards in front of you (that you can't see from the intersection). The road from here to the cabin is much more difficult than what you just did. I'm not saying it was difficult, but some stock vehicles will take careful tire placement, etc. This is where your 4WD comes in handy.

You will descend into a small valley. At Waypoint 014, you will cross a wash with some decent sized trees. This is where the hunter said he found the concrete trough with a construction date of 1918 inscribed. We took about 10 minutes and tried to find it, but were not able to. Let me know if you find it and send me a picture and exact location and directions!

The trail from here to Waypoint 016 has some washed out areas and may be prone to large ruts. This is probably the hardest section of the trail.

Keep straight (bear left) at Waypoint 015 (6.25 miles from the start). A right here takes you to a dead end a few miles away. The hunter we talked to said that the end of this road had a blind cliff that falls off a few hundred feet. He said that the road looks like it continues as it goes over the rise and you can't see over the hood to see that it actually drops away. He said he'd known a few people to not see the drop in time and go over. We did not have time to take a look. Be careful if you go down this route.

At Waypoint 016 (6.6 miles from the start), bear right and you will soon come to another concrete tank, marsh and what I am calling a grain storage bin (because I don't know exactly what it was). This is where Cat-dog decided to get muddy. I think the dog part of her enjoyed it, but the cat part of her said "Yuck" and she tried to lick herself clean like cats do. As cats also do, she took no responsibility for her act :-). Neither part of her enjoyed the bath she received when she got home. Keep straight as the trail heads up the small hill and Apache Springs about 1/3 of a mile away.

There's ample parking for 5 or so vehicles near the cabin and the trail has a nice place to turn around. The cabin is a three room affair with one kitchen/dining room and two bedrooms, each with twin metal bed frames. It was in really good shape when we visited with only one large hole in the main door. PLEASE respect this cabin and treat it with care.

There are a bunch of business cards people have left inside the cabin. Outside the cabin, there was a nice BBQ grill complete with metal brush. A beautiful grove of trees surrounded the spring (which had a corrugated metal pipe with cover over it). What a wonderful spot for a picnic.

When you're done enjoying the area, head back the way you came until you reach Waypoint 013 (~9.25 miles). You can take a right and go back the way you came (the fastest and easiest), but that's not how we roll so we went straight.

At about the 10.5 mile mark, you will head up through a pass with mountains on either side. I thought this area was sorta neat. At 11.5 miles (Waypoint 018) take a hard right at the corral. You will shortly begin to follow the large power lines up Mattie Canyon for the next few miles. There are some short, steep climbs and descents here that can wash out quickly, so keep an eye out.

At Waypoint 019 (~14.5 miles), you will come to a wash where you can walk to the sheer cliffs on your left. This was a really cool area and worth the little longer way home for me. It's only a short distance to the trail head. 16.2 miles from the start, you will be back at Waypoint 009. Take a left to head back to the beginning less than a mile away.

Wasn't that a great trip? Be safe and have fun!

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