Madera Canyon, originally known as White House Canyon, is one of the largest of the deep, wooded ravines in the Santa Rita Mountains, southeast of Tucson, orientated approximately north-south, and towards its upper end splitting into several tributaries that drain the slopes of 9,453 foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the range. The canyon contains a shallow but permanent creek, fed by springs along tributary streams, and both the riparian valley floor and the thickly vegetated slopes are home to a great variety of plants, reflecting the crossroads location, on the border between the Sonoran Desert and the mountains, which are one of southeast Arizona's sky islands - isolated high elevation regions surrounded on all sides by much lower land. As a result the canyon is also a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds, with over 250 species recorded, while other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat and ring-tailed cat. The overall scenery is not so special, however.
A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon, right beside Madera Creek, ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads, for nearly 100 miles of paths which climb the valley sides, to springs, viewpoints, old mines and summits, including Mount Wrightson. Apart from the creekside path all trails are only lightly used, and instead the vast majority of visitors are here for picnics, splashing in the stream, and short walks along the canyon floor, where the most fruitful bird-watching locations are found. A day-use fee of $5 per vehicle is charged, paid via self-service machines at all parking areas.
The usual approach to Madera Canyon is from the northwest, starting in Green Valley along I-19 (Continental Road), but it can also be accessed from the northeast via Hwy 62, Box Canyon Road, a party unpaved route through the northern section of the mountains. The canyon road first passes an information station beside the Proctor parking area (elevation 4,440 feet) - start of a 0.7 mile accessible loop trail south along the creek, then continues, past many notices advising of the various regulations, to the Whitehouse picnic area, at the far end of the loop, and then the most popular location, the Madera trailhead/picnic area, this just after the side road to Bog Springs Campground, a secluded, 13 site facility. The road ends in another mile at the Mount Wrightson picnic area/trailhead (5,440 feet), after winding through a dispersed residential district with several dozen houses and three guest lodges. A path follows the creek for most of the way, veering westwards up the hillside at one point to avoid the lower portion of a steep-sided tributary ravine. The southernmost 1.8 miles of this route is the Nature Trail, between the far end of the road and the Amphitheater parking area, a short distance south of the turn-off to the campground. Hiking back along the road makes a loop of 2.7 miles.
Other trails are summarized below; perhaps the best, for a half-day hike, is the 5.8 mile loop to Bog Springs, Kent Spring and Sylvester Spring
- Bog Springs, 1.8 miles, 1,000 feet - small springs in a shadowy ravine, accessed by a trail starting at the Madera parking area, climbing over steep slopes with some views of the main canyon, then entering more shady terrain
- Carrie Nation Trail, 1.5 miles, 900 feet - lesser-used path up an upper tributary of Madera Creek to an abandoned mine
- Crest Trail, 2.5 miles - fairly level, high elevation route along a ridgetop on the east side of Madera Canyon, between Baldy Saddle and Florida Saddle, from where other paths continue
- Dutch John Spring, 1.5 miles, 1,100 - two springs in a steep, thickly wooded ravine are visited by this non-intersecting trail that starts at the Madera parking area. The path is also accessible from Bog Springs Campground
- Kent Spring, 3.1 miles, 1,750 feet - testing trail up a steep canyon containing pools, springs and small waterfalls, starting at the Madera parking area. From the upper spring (Kent), one path heads northwest to Bog Springs then back to the start for a 5.8 mile round trip partial loop, while another (the Four Springs Trail) climbs 1,150 feet further over 3 miles, to Armour Spring and then Florida Saddle
- Old Baldy Trail, 4.5 miles, 3,320 feet - consistently steep route up Josephine Canyon to a ridge (Baldy Saddle) on the north side of Mount Wrightson, the summit of which may be reached by a 1.6 mile spur, gaining another 800 feet
- Super Trail, 3.7 miles, 1,640 feet, to Josephine Saddle - the Super Trail climbs the eastern slopes of Josephine Canyon to a major, six-way intersection on a saddle between Mount Wrightson and Jack Mountain
- Vault Mine Trail, 1.3 miles, 1,850 feet - another steep climb up a sometimes rocky hillside, this leads to an intersection with the long distance Agua Caliente Trail which eastwards meets the Old Baldy and Super trails at Josephine Saddle, allowing for various loop hikes, the shortest 6.5 miles