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Name: Wakefield Canyon Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (moderate 4WD)
Time: 7 - 10 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 26.5 miles Elevation gain/loss/change: +2662 / -2404 ft / +458 ft
Type: Through trail Avg Elevation: 4200 ft
Best time to go: fall, winter, spring, summer Fees: State Trust Land and Empirita Ranch 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 wonderful and mostly easy 4WD trip to an old cabin and spring
Offroad Passport Forum: Click here to join the discussion on Offroad Passport and the story on how I found about this and the interesting people we met during this adventure
Geocaches: Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's just a few. Haystack; LNS 4-wheel run (1-8);
References / Contact Information: Empirita Ranch Map; Empirita Ranch Permit (at bottom of page); Las Cienegas Conservation Area; Empire Ranch; Empire Ranch Roundup; Sonoita;
Points of interest: Hermit cabin, Wakefield Canyon, Nogales Spring, historic Empirita Ranch lands
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). May require a State Trust Land permit (see update on permit page).The trail takes you through Empirita Ranch, which requires a permit. This is free and easy to obtain. Click here for a permit request. Please conform to their rules and regulations. Parts of the trail can be very brushy. Route finding can be difficult at times.
How to get there: November 2015 Update: The construction on I-10 right at the trail head has been completed and you can access the trail this way.From Tucson, take I-10 east to Waypoint 001 (between mile marker 288 and 289, 7 miles east of the Sonoita Highway 83 exit). Click here for directions.

Trail Description

This is another really fun trip in the Empire/Empirita Ranch area. Most of the trail is super easy 4WD or high-clearance 2WD, but there are a few spots that require low range. Long wheel based vehicles will have some challenges at two washouts near Waypoints 004 and 026. This trail is also very brushy in some places and your vehicle will come out looking like a cat used it for a scratching pole.

But, it was well worth it. The first part of the trail takes you through a series of small canyons that are interesting and beautiful. Then, you'll come to large, open ranch lands. I want to come back here in the summer after the monsoons when the grass is green. I bet it's stunning.

The cabin is a unique treasure. An eclectic piece of construction and art that shouldn't be missed.

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 the cabin. My guess is that it was built in the 1970s, but who knows. Empirita Ranch came about in 1941 after the breakup of the Empire Ranch. In 1988 and 1990, the 358 acre property at the headquarters was purchased by Pima County (buildings not currently accessible by the public). Then in 2009, an additional 2,700 acres was purchased as a part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. This is the area in which we traveled.

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. There are multiple ways to get to the cabin and spring, this is just one. All mileage is referenced from the start of the trail.

The start of this trail is at the gate off eastbound I-10 between mile markers 288 and 289, just past the 65 mph sign (Waypoint 001). There's a big dirt parking area just off the interstate that will fit a large number of vehicles (5-10) just before the gate.

The first section of the trail is very easy (high clearance 2WD) as it heads south from I-10. You will be going up and down some small canyons that I found very interesting. One even had water flowing (out of a large dirt cattle tank that we came to beyond the water crossing). Take a left at Waypoint 002. After about 1.5 miles, you will pass a large electric substation on your right. Keep on the main road. Go straight at Waypoint 003.

The most difficult section of the trail we encountered was at Waypoint 004 crossing a large washout a little over 2 miles into the trail. Long wheelbased vehicles will have issues here. Jeeps make this easily.

Take a left off the main road at Waypoint 005 onto a two track. Take another left at Waypoint 006, then head right up the hill at Waypoint 007 shortly afterwards.

After 4.5 miles, pass through the gate (Waypoint 008) and keep going straight. Take another left at Waypoint 009 (lots of lefts on this trip). At 6.6 miles into the trip, you will come to a wash with some nice trees. There's also a working windmill and water tank. You have to drive a hundred yards or so past Waypoint 010 to visit this. At Waypoint 010, you will take a right up the hill out of the wash.

Keep straight at Waypoint 011, then take a right at Waypoint 012 shortly after and head down into the large valley below. This was a beautiful spot, with outstanding views. I would really like to see this in the summer when the grass was green. You can see another corral and water tank below.

Stop and have a look at the water tank just before Waypoint 013. There were small fish in the water when we looked. I am guessing these were for algae control, not piranha like someone suggested :-).

Take a hard left at Waypoint 013, then go through the gate. At 8 miles into the trip, take a right at Waypoint 014 and head up the hill. Waypoint 015 is about the closest Waypoint to the dam that's in the canyon on your left that I could find. There's no real parking spots here, so if you want to visit the dam, you will have to hunt and peck for them.

Walking to the dam is tricky. Not because it's steep or long, but because of the thick vegetation (most of it extremely prickly). The dam is a concave concrete structure about 15 feet tall. It is all filled in with sediment on the upper side. When we went, there was a little bit of water seeping out on the low side. We may have found portions of an old road that led down to the dam while walking on the way out (the northern route), but I'm not sure. It was still overgrown, not drivable. If this portion next to the road bothers you, I wouldn't make the trek. The vegatation gets much thicker the closer you get to the dam.

At Waypoint 016, keep left. You will shortly come down into a nice wash. This near the point that the trail starts becoming much more overgrown and brushy. Take a right into the wash and drive down it a short distance. Did you like the walls of the wash? I loved them.

The trail seems to head left out of the wash at Waypoint 017, but there doesn't seem to be much of a reason. You can't see it from that point, but there's a large (about 3 feet) rock face that you would need to climb a short distance up the wash if you stayed in it. Some modified Jeeps can do this, but it's easier taking the bypass. The bypass is very brushy (this is setting the stage for things to come). If this bothers you, you probably want to turn around.

Shortly after you get back in the wash, the trail heads up and off to the right (Waypoint 018). The next 2.5 miles is fairly brushy also as you go from ridge to ridge. At Waypoint 019, take a right to head to the spring (again very brushy here).

You can park at Waypoint 020 for the spring. The short dead end trail on the left has room for a number of rigs. I do not know how far the road on the right goes, but I think it ends not too far away. To get to the spring, head to the northeast and down into the small creek, maybe 50 feet away at most. There's a well worn trail. Once you get to the stream, head upstream (on the left side) for another 50 feet or so until you get to the spring. The spring is a circular pond with crystal clear water about 2 feet deep and a fern laden back splash. I would love to see this running after a few nice rains. It had been extremely dry for two to three months before we visited it. And it was still running. I was impressed.

Once you're done enjoying the spring (there are a few more in the area if you want to find them - listen for them) head back to Waypoint 019. Go right, and you will quickly come to Waypoint 021. A road heads down into the valley below. There's a windmill and maybe another tank or spring down there, but we were unable to visit it because people had parked their truck blocking this road. Bummer.

When you're back on the main trail, continue heading toward Waypoint 022 where you will pass a large concrete tank on your left. Keep straight at Waypoint 023. Take a sharp, hairpin turn to the right at Waypoint 024 and head down into Wakefield Canyon. You will see the cabin below and to your left. Take a left when you get down to the wash.

Success! About 18.5 miles from the start, you've reached the cabin on your right. You can park a few vehicles right in front of the cabin. There's a lot to see here. Great architecture, wonderful paintings, stonework, eclectic items, and old two seater outhouse and some stone pathways. I believe this is the cabin that I was told about that had an apple orchard next to it. The pathways led to what looked like old gardens, but we didn't have time to search for the apple trees.

Once you're done exploring the cabin and surround area, squeeze by the large rusted cylinder on your left and start driving down the wash. This was my favorite area of the trip. HUGE trees in a simply gorgeous canyon.

Soon you will come to the second toughest section of the trail. Another washout. This one was easier than the first, but will still give long wheelbased vehicles some trouble.

All too soon, the canyon ends and you're back in the desert. At Waypoint 027, head down into the wash, take a left then, after about 100 yards, head up and out to the right. Go through gate at Waypoint 028, then keep left. At this point you are on Empirita Ranch and the Empirita Ranch permit is required.

The trail gets much easier from here on out. Keep left at Waypoint 029. 22 miles into the trail, you will come to a large corral (Waypoint 030). Go through double gate on left. Please close both gates behind you.

At Waypoint 031, you will come to a locked gate (exiting out of Empirita Ranch the way we came in, entering it going the opposite direction). Use the combo supplied on your permit, go through, then sign in the sign in sheet on your left.

Go through gate (not locked) at Waypoint 032, then keep straight toward I-10. After about 26.5 miles, you reach pavement again (Waypoint 033). Air up, put it back into 2WD, shake hands with your friends, tell them you want to do this fun adventure again and go straight until you reach I-10.

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

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