Sometimes you can find a place that reaffirms the full timing lifestyle. Las Cienegas/Empire Ranch which is southeast of Tucson, AZ is one of those places. At Las Cienegas National Conservation Area there are many areas where you can boondock in this wonderfully peaceful part of the country. The campsites have expansive mountain and grassland views and we loved it.
The desert here is so different from others that we have seen. This area of the Sonoran Desert is at a high elevation with tall-grass fields and numerous Mesquite trees but few cacti. It is amazing how diverse the southwest desert communities are. For example, the Joshua Tree NP, Saguaro NP, Organ Pipe NM, or Anza-Borrego SP are all very different.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area consists of six unique types of ecosystems within the 42,000 acre protected land. A large percentage of this land is covered with sacaton grasslands and the surrounding mountain ranges are tall enough to sometimes be covered with snow. The Spanish word “cienegas” is translated “marshland” or “many waters” which describes another ecosystem found in this area.
The conservation area is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but the land has a long history as a cattle ranch. The headquarters of the Empire Ranch has been preserved with the help of the Empire Ranch Foundation. The first ranch buildings were erected in 1871 by homesteader, William Wakefield, on his 160-acre tract. Over the years the ranch buildings and amount of land has been significantly expanded by various owners reaching a peak of one million acres!
The Empire Ranch headquarters now consists of 28 rooms, a windmill, a tack room, a stone corral, and multiple barns. The foundation has produced an extensive brochure that provides information about each room on the ranch. The buildings are always open for self-guided tours, but the Visitor Center has not reopened because of Covid. There is a host that resides in his RV next to the Visitor Center but the “season” was winding down and he was preparing to leave.
An interesting footnote on the Visitor Center. It was originally constructed as officer housing at Fort Huachuca and later was moved in 1950 to Empire Ranch. The building was used to house the Boice family who had newly acquired the ranch.
Another separate structure is the “Hired Man’s House” that was built in the early 20th century.
The BLM acquired the ranch in 1988 and it is now part of the conservation area. Some of the land is still leased for grazing purposes. We were not able to determine how many cattle are still on the ranch but they are always visible in the distance or sometimes right by your camper!
The conservation area is also the location for the reintroduction of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Considered harmful to farms and crops, thousands of the prairie dogs were poisoned and eliminated from a one million-acre region in the 1930s.
One of the animals that we were hoping to see was the local pronghorn antelope. They like the tall grass to protect their young when first born. Though they are some of the fastest animals on the planet, it takes about a month for the newborns to be fleet of foot. We were fortunate to be able to spot them in the grassland.
If you come, this BLM managed area, like many in Arizona, allows boondocking for two weeks and then away for two weeks before returning. There are water spigots at the Visitor Center but no dump or trash receptacles. There are several areas where you can camp including the Cieneguita Camp Area (where we stayed), the Oak Tree Canyon Camp Area, and the Airstrip Group Area which has the most space. We were told that as long as there are no groups there, the Airstrip sites are available to individuals. These are best accessed from Highway 83 near milepost 40, which is also the road to the ranch headquarters. There are also several spots near Highway 82 and the 6900 BLM route which would be convenient to the small town of Sonoita, AZ. We also saw several folks who were visiting the ranch site as part of a day trip.
This was a place that we didn’t want to leave. You can boondock for free for 14 days and our time there went quickly. We had some friends come and stay for a few days and that was so much fun as well.