There’s a very special piece of land in southern Arizona. It’s a place that people have roamed for ten-thousand years. It’s also a place where movie stars lounged at a historic ranch while filming classic westerns. Today, this area is a forty-five thousand acre Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation area called Las Cienegas. If you like the wild west, wide-open grasslands, and quiet solitude, this is definitely worth a day-trip. Let’s check it out.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acquired this land in 1988 and turned it into a conservation area to save it from commercial and residential development. Most of the roads can be easily driven, but they are unpaved. There are no facilities here other than those at Empire Ranch. The land is open to the public. The Empire, Cienega, Rose Tree and Vera Earl ranches that stretch across the conservation area are still working ranches.
This ranch is by far the most famous. It has been an active ranch for one-hundred forty years. Edward Nye Fish was the first owner. In 1876 Walter L. Vail purchased the ranch in a partnership. The original twenty-two room ranch house is undergoing renovations and will re-open to the public in 2019. From 1928 – 1969, the ranch was home of the Chiricahua Ranches Company (CRC), operated by the Boice Brothers. The ranch and surrounding land almost became a housing development, but those plans never materialized. Furthermore, the ranch is on the National Register of HIstoric places and protected by the Empire Ranch Foundation.
Movies Filmed at Empire Ranch and Las Cienegas
- 3:10 to Yuma, Glenn Ford, Van Heflin (1957)
- A Star Is Born, Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson (1976)
- Another Man, Another Chance, James Caan, Geneviève Bujold (1977)
- Bonanza, Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker (1959-73)
- Broken Lance, Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark (1954)
- Desperado, Alex McArthur, Yaphet Kotto (1987)
- Duel In the Sun, Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten (1946)
- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, (1957)
- Gunman’s Walk, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, James Darren (1958)
- Gunsight Ridge, Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens (1957)
- Gunsmoke, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake, (1955-75)
- Hombre, Paul Newman (1967)
- Hour of the Gun, James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan (1967)
- Last Train From Gun Hill, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn (1959)
- Monte Walsh, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance (1970, William Fraker)
- Night of The Lepus, Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun (1972)
- Oklahoma!, Gordon McRae, Shirley Jones (1955)
- Pocket Money, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin (1972)
- Posse, Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern (1975)
- Posse, Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin (1993)
- Red River, James Arness, Bruce Boxleitner (1988)
- Red River, John Wayne, Montgomery Clift (1948)
- Return of the Gunfighter, Robert Taylor, Chad Everett (1967)
- Ruby Jean and Joe, Tom Selleck, Ben Johnson (1996)
- The Big Country, Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston (1958)
- The Cowboys, John Wayne (1972)
- The Furies, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston (1950)
- The Last Hard Men, Charlton Heston, James Coburn (1976)
- The Outlaw Josie Wales, Clint Eastwood (1976)
- The Wild Rovers, William Holden, Ryan O’Neal (1971)
- The Young Pioneers, Linda Purl, Roger Kern (1978)
- The Young Riders, Stephen Baldwin (1989-92)
- Tom Horn, Steve McQueen (1980)
- War Arrow, Jeff Chandler, Maureen O’Hara, Jay Silverheels (1953)
- Winchester ‘73, James Stewart, Shelley Winters (1950)
(Source: Empire Ranch Foundation)
Empire Gulch: Fires and Cottonwoods
The threat wildfire constantly hangs over the ranch and conservation area. Sadly, since August 2016 there have been three major fires in this area. The most recent fire was one of the worst. In 2017, an off-duty border patrol agent set the place on fire in a gender-reveal party gone terribly wrong. The Sawmill fire, burned forty-five thousand acres in total, and more than twelve-thousand of the of the conservation area. His carelessness killed off the ancient grove of cottonwoods, tons of wildlife, and almost destroyed the historic ranch. The saddest loss at the Las Cienegas was the destruction of a beautiful old grove of cottonwoods in Empire Gulch. The fire damaged the trees beyond recovery and nothing could be done to save them. Mourning the remaining stumps was all I could do.
On a more positive note, Empire gulch is still a great place to visit and watch the wildlife. Although the trees are gone, the grass is taller than ever. Additionally, it’s a great place to watch for the red Vermilion Flycatchers or many other exotic, colorful birds. Raptors such as the red-tailed hawk also frequent the gulch.
Things to Do at Las Cienegas
- Drive around and check out ranch ruins and scenery.
- Picnic at Empire Gulch.
- Check the old barn graffiti at the ranch.
- Watch for birds.
- Enjoy the silence and solitude because you won’t get cell service here.
Things to Bring to Las Cienegas
- The sun and wind are intense, a hat and layers are necessary. I wear long-sleeves even in the summer to avoid sunburn.
- Lots of water. Empire Ranch has water. However, they may not always be open.
- Sunscreen & Insect repellent
- Lunch and snacks (no food is available)
- Full-tank of gas.
- Hiking boots
Las Cienegas is forty-five miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. From Tucson, drive southeast on Interstate 10 to Exit 281. Head south on State Highway 83. Near milepost 40, turn east into the Empire Ranch entrance.