Ciénega Creek

Ciénega Creek (English: "Hundred Springs Creek" or "Marsh Creek") is an intermittent stream located in the Basin and Range region of southern Arizona, and is one of the most intact riparian corridors left in the state. It originates in the Canelo Hills and continues northwest about 50 miles (80 km) to an area just outside Tucson, where it becomes known as Pantano Wash. Pantano Wash continues through Tucson and eventually connects with the Rillito River.[2][3]

Ciénega Creek
Cienega Creek Pima County Arizona 2014
A murky section of the creek.
Ciénega Creek is located in Arizona
Ciénega Creek
Location of the mouth of Ciénega Creek in Arizona
CountryUnited States
Physical characteristics
 - locationCanelo Hills
 - location
Rillito River
 - coordinates
32°02′03″N 110°40′32″W / 32.03417°N 110.67556°WCoordinates: 32°02′03″N 110°40′32″W / 32.03417°N 110.67556°W[1]
 - elevation
3212 ft


From its origin in the Canelo Hills of Santa Cruz County at 31°35′24″N 110°38′44″W / 31.59000°N 110.64556°W,[1] Ciénega Creek flows northwesterly through the upper Ciénega basin, a wide alluvial valley separating the northern Santa Rita and Empire Mountains to the west and the Whetstone Mountains to the east. A bedrock high, called "the Narrows," serves as a hydrologic barrier dividing the upper and lower basins, and is characterized by riparian vegetation and perennial flow.[2]

Ciénega Creek continues northward through the lower alluvial basin until it bends west/northwest in the vicinity of Anderson and Wakefield Canyons. After crossing Interstate 10 near the town of Vail, Ciénega Creek again crosses a bedrock high, and once more the flow becomes perennial. In these stretches, groundwater is forced upward through faults in the bedrock from aquifers near the surface. Just north of Vail, Ciénega Creek becomes known as Pantano Wash, which continues northwest through Tucson and links up with the Rillito River.[2]

Flora and fauna

Ciénega Creek is located within the transitional zone between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, and exhibits some features of each region. The creek supports "outstanding examples" of cottonwood-willow gallery forest and mesquite bosque, which are home to many bird species that have become rare due to the loss of riparian habitats. Some of the birds that live along the creek are the Southwestern willow flycatcher, Yellow-billed cuckoo, and Bell's vireo.[2]

Important lowland populations of riparian and xeroriparian amphibians and reptiles are also known to live along the creek. Included in this group are several toads, the checkered garter snake, the Madrean alligator lizard, and the giant spotted whiptail lizard. The Mexican garter snake, which has declined throughout its range in the United States, retains a strong population in Ciénega Creek.[2]

The federally endangered Chiricahua leopard frog occurs only in the upper reaches of the creek. The lowland leopard frog and the Sonoran mud turtle inhabit the stream throughout, rounding a full complement of aquatic, native vertebrate species originally inhabiting the ciénegas of southern Arizona. An unstudied molluscan fauna also lives in the stream.[2]

Ciénega Creek is one of the few remaining streams in southern Arizona that has not been invaded by non-native fish. Las Cienegas National Conservation Area supports the largest natural population of the federally endangered Gila topminnow in the United States, as well as a healthy population of endangered Gila chub and the longfin dace.[2][4]


Las Cienegas National Conservation Area was established in 2000 to protect the upper Ciénega basin. Its headquarters is the historic Empire Ranch, which is located about 45 miles (72 km) southeast of Tucson, near the town of Sonoita. Spanning 45,000 acres (18,000 ha), Las Cienegas includes large areas of grassland and woodland, in addition to Ciénega Creek and the riparian corridor. Empire Ranch, which dates back to the 1870s, is also open to the public, and has been listed on the National Historic Register since 1976.[4]

The Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve was founded in 1986 and is about 20 miles (32 km) north of Empire Ranch, in the lower Ciénega basin. With 4,000 acres (1,600 ha) in total, the Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve protects over 12 miles (19 km) of the creek, about half of which has perennial flow. There are also a few historic sites located in the preserve, including the ghost town of Pantano and the Ciénega Bridge, which was built between 1920 and 1921.[2]

In Tucson, much of the Pantano Wash is now part of the Pantano River Park, which includes a paved walkway alongside the wash, as well as restrooms, water fountains, and picnic tables. The Pantano River Park is also home to a Commemorative Tree Park, which will help restore about two miles of riverbank, control floods, erosion and stormwater runoff reduction, carbon sequestration, urban heat, and provide shade. Since 2012, over 100 desert-adapted commemorative trees have been planted along the eastern banks of Pantano Wash. Hundreds more will be added over the following years, until the goal of 570 trees is reached.[5][6]


Cienega Creek Arizona 1880

Ciénega Creek in 1880.

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve Pima County Arizona 2014

View of Ciénega Creek, at the Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve.

Las Cienegas NCA

View of Ciénega Creek, in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve Entrance Arizona 2014

The sign at the entrance to the Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve.

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve Signs Arizona 2014

Signs at the Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve, including a memorial for Jimmie Mercer, who was ambushed by a cattle rustler near Pantano in 1914.

Cienega Creek Natural Preserve Bridge Marker Arizona 2014

A historical marker for the Ciénega Bridge at the Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve, with the bridge in the background.

Prehistoric Bedrock Mortar Davidson Canyon Arizona 2014

Hohokam bedrock mortar in Davidson Canyon, near its confluence with Ciénega Creek.

Pantano River Park Sign Tucson Arizona 2014

A sign at the entrance to the Pantano River Park in Tucson.

See also


  1. ^ a b U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Ciénega Creek
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Arizona Heritage Waters: Ciénega Creek Natural Preserve". Retrieved 2014-03-30.
  3. ^ Barnes, Will Croft (1988). Arizona Place Names. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0816510741.
  4. ^ a b "Las Cienegas NCA - BLM Arizona". Retrieved 2014-03-30.
  5. ^ "Tree dedication coming up at Pantano River Park - News 4 Tucson". Retrieved 2014-03-31.
  6. ^ "Commemorative Tree Parks - Tucson Clean and Beautiful, Inc". Retrieved 2014-03-31.
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Bouse Wash

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Canyon Creek (Salt River tributary)

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Cherry Creek (Arizona)

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Chinle Wash

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Eagle Creek (Arizona)

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Granite Wash (Mohave County, Arizona)

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Kingman Wash, Lake Mead

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Kinlichee Creek

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List of rivers of Arizona

List of rivers in Arizona (U.S. state), sorted by name.

Mescal Arroyo

Mescal Arroyo is an Arroyo, a tributary to Ciénega Creek in the Santa Cruz River watershed. Its mouth is at its confluence with Cienega Creek within the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve in Pima County, Arizona. Its source is at 31°59′26″N 110°26′17″W, to the east at the head of the valley near Mescal in Cochise County, Arizona.

Negro Wash

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Pantano, Arizona

Pantano (English: "Marsh") is a populated place located in eastern Pima County, Arizona, near the town of Vail. It was originally a mail and stagecoach stop named Ciénega Station, after the nearby Ciénega Creek, and later grew into a small railroad town with the arrival of the Southern Pacific in 1880.

Workman Creek

Workman Creek is a watercourse in the Salome Wilderness in central Arizona, United States.

Apache County
Cochise County
Coconino County
Gila County
Graham County
Greenlee County
La Paz County
Maricopa County
Mohave County
Navajo County
Pima County
Pinal County
Santa Cruz County
Yavapai County
Yuma County

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