May 29, 2017

Welcome to the Hassayampa River Preserve, an oasis in the desert. Nestled amongst a ribbon of green along Highway 60 is a modest yet important conservation area known as the Hassayampa River Preserve. The Preserve consists of approximately 789 acres along the Hassayampa River, just south of Wickenburg. The Hassayampa River is one of the few undammed rivers in Arizona which flows above ground, creating an oasis in the Sonoran Desert. The Hassayampa River begins at Groom Creek in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott. Groom Creek is a typical mountain stream, plunging over rocks and bordered by tall trees typical of higher elevations. Several other streams join it on its downhill journey, and when the river reaches the valley floor, it disappears under a thousand feet of sand and gravel that has been eroded, over millennia, off the mountains.

From this point to where it converges with the Gila River, the river is almost entirely underground. But for five miles at the Preserve, the granite bedrock domes up, forcing the water to the surface, where it flows year round. This geological fact led to its naming, Hassayampa, which can be translated from the Yavapai as the “upside-down river”.

An oasis in the desert. Photo by Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department

The story of the Preserve has many chapters. Over the years, the area now called the Hassayampa River Preserve has been managed by various private land owners. The area was part of a productive farm and ranch in the late 1800s, feeding the miners from the nearby Vulture Mine outside of Wickenburg.

Palm trees planted during this era provided an idyllic setting for the property to become Wickenburg’s first dude ranch in 1913, dubbed the Garden of Allah after a popular novel of the time. The ranch has changed hands and names over the years, and by the 1960s, when it became the Shady River mobile home park, had suffered significant degradation.

A fox visits the Preserve. Photo by Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department

When the property went up for sale in 1986, The Nature Conservancy, an international non-profit conservation organization, saw the ecological importance of the area and purchased the property, creating the Hassayampa River Preserve. When the Conservancy began managing the Preserve, much of the floodplain area was severely trampled and barren due to years of livestock grazing and off-road vehicle use.

Within three years after the exclusion of those impacts, nature began to heal itself, and the riparian cottonwood and willow forest understory had been substantially recolonized by new plants and trees. Today, this towering canopy of shade is one of the last remaining stretches of willow and cottonwood forest in Arizona and supports an amazing diversity of wildlife, including almost 300 different species of birds, both migratory and resident.

Vermillion Flycatcher. Photo by Karen Martin


A male Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo by Dominic Sherony

For the past 30 years, the Conservancy has provided protection to this ecologically-unique ecosystem and has served as an outdoor classroom, providing untold opportunities and experiences for visitors. But now, the Preserve begins a new chapter in its long history. In 2006, the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department was approached by the Wickenburg Conservation Foundation about developing a county park in the picturesque Vulture Mountains. Later that same year, the County began discussions with the Arizona Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding a Cooperative Management Agreement for the Vulture Mountains.

In 2009, the Department hosted the first planning meeting for the Vulture Mountains Cooperative Recreation Area with BLM. One of the attending stakeholders at that first meeting was the Conservancy since their Preserve abutted the proposed boundaries of the recreation area. During the planning process, the Department learned that the Conservancy was interested in donating the Hassayampa River Preserve to the Parks Department to incorporate into the Vulture Mountains Recreation Area.

Summer Tanger. Photo by Mitra Samadani


Lesser Goldfinch. Photo by Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department

The Conservancy was looking to shift their focus more towards protecting larger ecosystems and watersheds, and step back from managing individual properties. Following many discussions with Conservancy and County staff, an agreement was reached and the agencies worked together to ensure a smooth transition as the Preserve officially became part of the Maricopa County regional park system in April 2017.

The Conservancy has been the responsible steward for the Preserve, and the agency has done an excellent job managing the land. As the new manager, Maricopa County’s Parks and Recreation Department looks forward to building on the Conservancy’s legacy as it works to enhance visitor services and expand the stewardship role. To date, the Department has increased visiting hours and public programming, and there are several infrastructure improvements scheduled to take place before the grand opening in the fall.

The original ranch house now serves as the Visitor Center. Photo by Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department

Summer hours for the Preserve are Wednesday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., with all trails closing at 3:30 p.m. Preserve visitors may stroll the approximately three miles of self-guided trails that branch out from the 140-year-old adobe ranch house, now serving as the Visitor Center. Entry fees for the Preserve are $5/adult (age 13 and up). Maricopa County Park’s annual passes are honored. Friends of Hassayampa passes and Nature Conservancy memberships will be honored through 2017. To learn more about the Hassayampa River Preserve, please call the Preserve at (928) 684-2772, or visit www.maricopacountyparks.net.

Looking for even more places to explore in Arizona? Celebrate AZ Water with us by visiting one of these other amazing destinations.

From time to time, Water – Use It Wisely features guest bloggers who write about topics related to water and water conservation. The author of this blog is Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department, whose vision is to connect people with nature through regional parks, trails and programs, inspire an appreciation for the Sonoran Desert and natural open spaces, and create life-long positive memories.

Their mission, through responsible stewardship, is to provide the highest quality parks, trails, programs, services and experiences that energize visitors and create life-long users and advocates. Visit their website at www.maricopacountyparks.net.