Kino School discovers Cienega Creek

On December 4th, 2019, 12 students from Kino School explored the incredible Cienega Creek Natural Preserve. This expedition would walk students through a variety of biomes, displaying desert watershed at its finest. The paths winds though time petrified in stone and rock, while observing key pathways and habitats of Southern Arizona’s rarest and most wonderful animals. These students had been here once before to install a steel sign using 120lb of concrete. Now the students have returned, but this time their goal was to explore, learn, and experience the wonderful wild of Cienega Creek.

The southbound trail from Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead rides the crest of a hill, offering incredible views of the surrounding landscapes. Here students were able to see many sky islands far off in the distance. The Santa Catalinas, the Santa Rita’s, and the Whetstones. These ranges pierced the sky with their magnificent purple colors, and offered a clue we would later need to properly understand our location. More than views, this trail offered the students a chance to learn about the Sonoran Desert’s thorn-scrub biome as it transitions into a high desert grassland. Nursery trees shading Saguaros, desert centipedes hunting sleeping moths, ocotillo standing tall and wide, sotol, creosote, and pincushion cacti grow far and wide. This section shows students the diversity within ecotones, and how they affect the Sonoran Desert ecology.

We slid down high arroyo walls into its belly. Here the students were surrounded by a whole different variety of plants and animals. We took our shoes off, and spent some time tracking animals as we moved barefoot. We were able to see how an area with a little more water can be transformed. We discussed watersheds, and how to observe them. Kino students picked up on this quickly, and recognized that the Sky Islands shed water to the valleys, which brings water into arroyos, providing seasonal moisture. Because of these differences, we were able to see coyote gourd growing, seep willow, desert broom, many green grasses, and much more flourishing in this seemingly dry area. “Let’s dig and see what we find.” Together we dug, and sure enough, we found treasure. Cold and wet dirt, the result of water under our feet, surprised the students. They now understood how an area can be so green, without “visible” water. We hiked to a section that showed thick layers of limestone. After describing the formation of limestone, the students were a bit puzzled as to its origin. “Ancient seas once extended from Baja California far north, resting over where we now stand.” Watershed, described in months, years, and millennia. 

We hiked across flat pans of seemingly dry ground. I had hinted that we would find more than wet dirt, and the students were starting to lose faith in me. Then, the sound of 10,000 leaves smashing together in a breeze hit the student’s ears. They rushed forward. We all did. Cienega Creek is a blessing. A perennial water source, this creek is full of native fish, home to many native insects, local and migratory animals, and some of the biggest trees in Arizona, the eastern cottonwood. Students frolicked. We spent our time listening and observing our surroundings, eating small grubs we discovered, and mapping the watershed as the flow would sometimes disappear and reappear. We learned about the importance of these riparian gallery forests and their role for people, plants, animals, and our precious water. The students were in shock. Unable to believe that in the desert, there could be so much water. This day was a massive day for learning, exploration, and Kino School.