How to get there
The Mustang Trail hike begins in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 35 miles from Green Valley, all on paved roads. To get there, take I-19 south to exit 48 and follow the signs to Arivaca. Continue through Arivaca, turn right toward Sasabe at the junction and left into the clearly marked gravel parking area for Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 2.5 miles from the center of Arivaca.
Some of the route crosses State Trust Land, requiring a State Land Permit. An application can be obtained from www.azland.gov/programs/natural/recreation_permit.htm at an annual cost of $15 for an individual or $20 for a family.
The hike is rated moderate, 2.5 miles one way, 5 miles return, with an accumulated elevation gain of 1000 feet. Most of the hike is rated easy with good footing and gentle grades. The last few hundred yards, though, are very steep. It is this last section that increases the rating from easy to moderate. Except near the trailhead, there is little shade along the way, so on hot days be sure to have plenty of water and sun protection.
There are few signs along the trail except for the last half mile, which has been blazed with dabs of white paint on rock, and the last few hundred yards up the steepest section has been marked with small while flags. Expect to take 3 hours plus time for stops.
The Mustang Trail hike is an out-and-back hike. It starts in a westerly direction from the parking lot in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and skirts the Arivaca Creek under a high canopy of cottonwood.
In a quarter of a mile, a clear path leads up a bank to the right, through an old fence and to the ruins of the Wilbur Ranch. Dr. Rueben Augustine Wilbur, a Harvard educated physician, had come to Arizona as physician for the Cheri Colorado Mining Company in the 1860s. When that failed, he homesteaded on this ranch, his original property of 140 acres growing to 16 square miles over time. He continued to practise medicine while running the ranch, as well as investing in several mining operations. Dr. Wilbur died suddenly in 1882 and the ranch was eventually passed on through his son to his granddaughter, Eva Wilbur-Cruce, in 1933, who wrote about her life on the ranch in her 1987 book entitled A Beautiful, Cruel Country, available in the Green Valley library. Eva sold the ranch in 1989 at the age 85 and most of the ranch lands were acquired by the wildlife refuge. She died in 1998. The ranch buildings were hit by fire in 2003, but the remnants of the old adobe house and outbuildings make for an interesting stop.
The trail continues past the ranch and crosses Arivaca Creek. Shortly after, it breaks out of the trees and you come to a trail junction. A sign “Mustang” points your way southwest. The trail now begins a gradual climb, ascending a broad ridge, the ground dropping away on either side. You’ll pass through a fence and continue up. Take the opportunity to stop periodically to look back, when you can see the line of cottonwoods lining Arivaca Creek and Las Guijas Mountains beyond. Gain more elevation, and you’ll be able to see both the observatories at Kitt Peak and Mount Hopkins.
The ridge is covered with rolling grasslands, and we could well imagine wild mustangs thundering over the land in a dramatic picture of yesteryear. Indeed, wild mustangs did roam the ranch, descendants of those originally bought by Dr. Wilbur in the 1870s, which were, in turn, thought to have been descended from the Spanish mustangs from Father Kino’s time. That was not, apparently, the dramatic picture of yesteryear envisaged by the wildlife reserve, though – they sought to reintroduce a different occupant that had once been indigenous to the area, the masked bobwhite. The mustangs would have hindered such an endeavor, and so with the help of the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory, the herd over 70 strong was split up and re-located to, by all reports, good homes and not the glue factory. Good thing, that – it undoubtedly saved us from a spate of labels touting glue with no hormones, certified humane glue or free-range glue.
There will be trails or rough tracks occasionally crossing your route as you hike – stay straight. In about one and a third miles from the trailhead, the trail will contour along the northwest side of a hill in a sparse forest of mesquite, accented with its nasty cat claw-like branches, and up to a saddle, almost two miles and 500 feet elevation gain from the trailhead (Mustang Saddle, by some accounts). Shortly after crossing the saddle, you will come to a fork, with one branch going straight and one angling to the right, where it appears was once a sign. Take the right fork and soon you will see that the trail has been blazed with white paint. The small mountain to your right (west) is El Cerro (The Hill, in Spanish) and your destination. Continue to follow the path as it curves around the hill, making a 180 degree circuit around it.
El Cerro will block the Arivaca cottonwoods from sight but the broad, shallow valley and rolling hills and peaks to the south provide an equally attractive view. In about 0.6 miles from the fork, the trail turns right (due east) and up, becoming noticeably steeper. Shortly you will see a cairn on top of a white blazed rock to your right. This is a good turn-around point for those who only want a hike rated “easy.” The trail will now become much steeper. There is no need to warn people to take their time going up this last section – the steep grade and difficult footing will ensure it, although it is wise to keep this warning in mind during the descent. The white blazes will now be supplemented by small white flags all the way to the top.
The views from on top of El Cerro (4460 feet above sea level) are worth it – a panorama stretching far to the north, east and west. The view to the south is not as extensive, but still attractive, taking in the valley you just traversed and the San Luis Mountains beyond.
When you have had your fill of views, return the same way.
You should take normal hiking supplies and equipment – hiking boots, back pack or fanny pack, water (we recommend at least two liters), food and clothing (appropriate to the weather for rain or warmth), and sun protection (hat, sun screen). Within your group you should have a first aid kit, map and compass and whistle.
David Colpitts hikes with the Green Valley Hiking Club.