Legend, History & Intrigue of the Superstitions

The area is known for its rugged beauty and legends of the Lost Dutchman gold mine

Strange secrets lie hidden in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. Did a lone miner really discover a fortune in lost gold in this rugged region? And what strange force caused dozens of adventurers seeking the mine to vanish without a trace never to be seen again?

For legend, history, and intrigue no area in America has the equal of the Superstition Mountains in the Tonto National Forest east of Apache Junction.

Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The early inhabitants of the area included the Salado, Hohokam, and Apache Indians. Following came the Spanish conquistadors, the first of which was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who came north from Mexico in 1540 seeking the legendary “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola”.

When the Spaniards searched the mountain for gold, they began to vanish mysteriously. The bodies that were found were mutilated with their heads cut off. Since the terrified survivors refused to return to the mountain, Coronado named the series of peaks, Monte Superstition.

Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mountain became a legendary spot to all who followed and was regarded by many as an evil place. American trappers and adventurers migrated to the area; cattlemen and farmers soon followed. Later, the U.S. Cavalry was sent west to establish forts to protect the growing population.

Decades later, miners began searching for what was touted as the richest gold mine in the world. This mine was made famous by Jacob Waltz, known as “the Dutchman”, who took the secret of “his mine” to the grave in 1891.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Treasure hunters continue to scour the mountains searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine, but now share the region with campers, hikers, backpackers, and horseback riders in what is now the Superstition Wilderness Area.

To further understand and appreciate the area, its legend, history, and intrigue we toured the 12.5-acre Superstition Mountain Museum. Located east of Lost Dutchman State Park, the museum preserves and displays the artifacts and history of the Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, and the surrounding area.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We traversed the nature trails that crisscross the area surrounding the museum buildings, all located at the base of the West Wall of the beautiful Superstition Mountain. We wandered the entire site with its reproductions of 19th Century businesses including a Wells Fargo office, stage coach stop, barber shop, assay office, and other displays of authentic relics of this era.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Museums in their own right, the Elvis Memorial Chapel and the Audie Murphy Barn were moved to the site, piece by piece, nail by nail, and reconstructed following the second fire in 2004 (first fire was in 1969) which destroyed the Apacheland Movie Ranch.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Western motion pictures and television were filmed at Apacheland Movie Ranch over a 45 year period. Movies filmed included Charro, which starred Elvis Presley, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Arizona Raiders, The Haunted, The Gambler II, and Blind Justice. Television series included Have Gun Will Travel and Wanted Dead or Alive.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A movie memorabilia museum showing movies that were filmed at Apacheland, the Elvis Memorial Chapel also serves, as it has since it was first constructed, as a wedding chapel. Contact the museum for reservations.

Twenty eight days were required for five men, all volunteers, to disassemble and move the 20 Stamp Ore Crusher from Albuquerque to the museum site. This mill was state of the art technology for recovering gold in the 1800s.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another major building spared in both fires has long been called the Rifleman’s Barn since it was located where the TV series, The Rifleman, was produced. The barn also figured prominently in dozens of western films shot at this location.

It was moved in literally hundreds of pieces to the museum’s grounds and reconstructed almost entirely of its original materials. Its loft serves as storage area while the ground level displays wagons, buggies, stage coaches, and other vehicles representing the Old West.

Rattlesnake at Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to watch your step as you traverse the trails because there are rattlesnakes (yes, we saw one) and other varmints.

Indoors, the museum has many books, documents, artifacts, and maps regarding the Lost Dutchman and his gold. 

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.

—Mark Yost

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

“National monument” is a rather confusing designation. We most likely know what we’re getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield but the monuments are rarely the statues or shrines their titles suggest. Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give national parks a run for their money. In fact, many do become national parks.

Still, several of the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate and preserve history. Some are the sites that recognize Native American history and preserve ancient pueblos. They encompass celebration, cautionary tales, and hope. These are the national monuments where we can stop to reflect on the past as we look forward into the future with hope. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Aztec Ruins National Monument provides visitors an opportunity to explore ancient ruins built by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s. Aztec Ruins features ceremonial, public, and storage structures as well as the “Great Kiva”, the oldest and largest reconstructed Kiva in North America. The Great Kiva is a 40-foot diameter semi-subterranean structure which was the central religious site of the complex. Take a self-guided tour and explore the 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Step into the mysteries of history. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.” An estimation of dating puts the origins of this structure around 1350 and the abandonment thereof about a century later in 1450. It wasn’t until 1694 that written historic accounts were journaled by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Other explorers, philanthropists, anthropologists, and politicians banded together over the years to research, restore, and preserve the Great House. It was America’s first archaeological reserve in 1892 and declared a National Monument in 1918. Today, visitors can explore the extensive and fascinating compound with the help of guided tours and an interpretive center that offers answers to questions and leaves you to ponder a few more questions yet to be solved.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Three years after founding Georgia in 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to defend the fledgling colony against Spanish attack from Florida. The site, sixty miles south of Savannah, would become the military headquarters for the new colony. Fort Frederica combined a military installation (the fort) with a settlement (the town of Frederica). Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. By 1743, nearly 1,000 people lived at Frederica. The peace treaty that Great Britain and Spain signed in 1748 sounded its death knell. No longer needed to guard against Spanish attack, the garrison was withdrawn and disbanded. Today, the archeological remnants of Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Explore a variety of structures including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. By about A.D. 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep, planting and harvesting crops along the top of the mesa. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people. Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas. The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years. Though the reason is unclear, ancestral Puebloans throughout the area migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona. Today’s Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Discover this historic five-story Native American dwelling carved out of an ancient limestone cliff with twenty rooms. Begun during the twelfth century, it took about three centuries to complete. Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. Explore the museum and wander the trails through a picturesque sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Afterwards you are able to have lunch in the picnic area along the shore of Beaver Creek.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Explore the legacy of ancient peoples in a desert hilltop pueblo. Discover endless views of varying desert habitats and learn about the Sinaguan people at the museum. Starting in A.D. 1000, the Sinagua built the 110-room Tuzigoot pueblo including second and third story structures. The tribe was largely agricultural and had trade routes that spanned hundreds of miles. These ancient peoples left the area around 1400. The museum features exhibits depicting the lifestyle of the Sinaguan Indians as well as an impressive collection of artifacts collected from the pueblo and nearby sites. A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail traces through the pueblo. The hilltop view offers expansive scenery of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.

Worth Pondering…

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parks That Snowbirds Should Explore This Winter

The best parks for snowbirds to explore this winter

While the most familiar of America’s parks are the national parks and state parks, America’s parks operate under a variety of names including county parks, regional parks, metro parks, natural areas, national forests, national grasslands, national wildlife refuges, landmarks, monuments, historic sites, geologic sites, recreation trails, memorial sites, preserves, scenic rivers, and wildlife areas.

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a park for snowbirds to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

The giant Saguaro cactus is the most distinct feature is this park that straddles the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Catalina State Park in Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park in Alabama

Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. Visits here can be as active or as relaxing as you like. Try exhilarating water sports, go fishing, learn about coastal creatures at the nature center or simply sprawl out on the sands.

Anza-Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego State Park in California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maricopa County Parks in Arizona

Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area. 

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

THOR Buys Tiffin Motorhomes: What Happens Next?

THOR Industries Buys Tiffin Motorhomes

The RV world was rocked just 18 months ago when Winnebago Industries purchased luxury RV manufacturer, Newmar. What seemed unthinkable became a reality. Now, what seemed unfathomable has happened as well. THOR Industries, one of the “Big Three” in the RV industry along with Winnebago and Forest River, has purchased Tiffin Motorhomes for $300 million.

Tiffin Phaeton Motorhome at Jackson Rancheria RV Resort near Jackson, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tiffin Motorhomes, operating in Alabama and Mississippi, manufactures a luxurious lineup of gas and diesel Class A Motorhomes including the Allegro Breeze, Allegro Red 340, Allegro Red, Open Road Allegro, Phaeton, Allegro Bus, and Zephyr models. The company also produces a premium Class C product line—The Wayfarer.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vanleigh RV, operating in Mississippi, produces a line of fifth-wheel towable products, including the Pinecrest, Vilano, and Beacon models.

Additional companies within the acquired Tiffin Group include a window manufacturer (Alabama-based Wynne Enterprises, Inc.), a furniture manufacturer (Alabama-based Roma Enterprises, Inc.), a door manufacturer (Alabama-based Tiffin Door Co., Inc.), a fiberglass supplier (Mississippi-based Water-Way, Inc.), and an RV transport company (Alabama-based Drive-A-Way of Red Bay, Inc.).

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

THOR Industries is the sole owner of operating subsidiaries that, combined, represent the world’s largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.

According to a news release, “Tiffin Group will operate as stand-alone operating company within the THOR family of companies. The Tiffin family and the Tiffin Group’s experienced management team will continue to manage their operations just as they and their family have done for the past 49 years.”

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For diehard Tiffin Motorhome fans, it’s a bit like finding out your favorite sports star has just been traded to a rival team (remembering the Gretzky trade). Tiffin, long known for quality coaches with a consistently high customer ranking, a great factory service center experience, and brand loyalty, will now fall under the vast THOR umbrella. Devoted Tiffin owners are now left to wonder what happens next.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Will Tiffin Motorhomes Stay in Red Bay, Alabama?

One would assume that Tiffin would remain outside of the Elkhart bubble, at least geographically speaking. How will this acquisition affect pricing, quality control, availability, and delivery times? Will those mecca-like pilgrimages to Red Bay, Alabama for factory service continue?

Much like Newmar customers, Tiffin owners have enjoyed a bit of an elite status. Until their recent roll out of the Wayfarer series of Class C RVs, Tiffin Motorhomes has been known as an upper-end Class A RV manufacturer. Tiffin owners are as devoted to “roughing it smoothly” as they are the brand itself. That confident swagger that comes with driving and owning 40+ feet of quality diesel motorhome carries over into conversation whether sitting around the campfire or in popular RVing forums.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Happens Next?

Will that confident swagger lose a little of its swag, now that Tiffin Motorhomes is just another THOR brand? Will a vast infusion of cash from THOR Industries take Tiffin to the next level or instead water down the overall brand? Will Tiffin Motorhomes be pressured into building more motorhomes faster, causing quality to suffer? Or will THOR allow a successful business to continue to be successful while fine-tuning sensible cost saving measures? Will Tiffin Motorhomes shine even brighter under THOR or lose its luster?

Newmar Dutch Star © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Time will tell. The jury is still out on how Winnebago’s acquisition of Newmar has affected the quality and innovation of that brand and we can expect the same with this one. The big three just got bigger and Tiffin Motorhome owners are wondering what happens next?

A personal message to Tiffin owners: As a loyal Newmar customer I feel your pain.

Worth Pondering…

Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.

—Earl Gary Stevens

The Amazing Story of Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

Palm trees give way to piñon pines and firs as the byway climbs into Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

An impossibly long trailer negotiating hairpin mountain turns does not seem to be the stuff of successful movies, yet Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a big hit with the 1953 film, “The Long, Long Trailer”. The studio was wary of the film, thinking that people could stay home and watch the couple on TV for free.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet that the movie would make more money than the highest-grossing comedy at the time, “Father of the Bride,” starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Arnaz was right. The movie grossed an astonishing $3.9 million as people were thrilled to see Lucy and Desi up to their antics in living color.

Coachella Valley from the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The very long trailer used in the film was a 36-foot Redman New Moon model which could barely be turned around the sharp mountain curves featured in the movie. Many of the scenes were filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Portal Road to Mt. Whitney but some were shot on the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, State Route 74, which climbs from Palm Desert to Mountain Center up a remarkably steep and tortuous grade.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palms to Pines Road started from the Gillette Ranch on what was then called the Palm Springs-Indio road. Construction started in September 1929 and finished August 1933. A total of 37.1 miles requiring 747,600 cubic yards of excavation and was paid for by funds from Riverside County and the U.S. Forest Service. Before the road, the Palms to Pines Trail was used by horseback riders and intrepid outdoorsmen having been originally scratched into the steep escarpment by M.S. Gordon around 1917 following ancient Cahuilla trails.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wilson S. Howell became a familiar figure not only in Coachella Valley but throughout the county in the years of crusading for the new road. He took a 10-cent school protractor and cutting the mountainside vegetation for an improvised surveyor’s stand, he sighted a feasible way up the mountain side through wild shrubbery. Today the highway is an established route of travel, one of the most enchanting in the country.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Howell believed in San Jacinto Mountain and in Coachella valley—and in their linking highway. He acquired 2,000 acres equal distance from Hemet, Indio, and Palm Springs. Howell likely owned the land first and was a booster of the road in order to make his holdings more valuable by luring patrons up the mountain to his little Ribbonwood outpost. Either way, he certainly was the “patron spirit of the Palms-to-Pines highway.”

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For almost two years before construction began on the highway in 1929, several different factions clamored for routes that would benefit them. Three routes were in contention. One was prohibitively expensive. Another was advocated by Palm Springs businessmen who wanted a route that would go directly through Palm Canyon. Others wanted a route that would go through Pinyon Flats. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce even tried to influence the decision by hinting that they would not make a proposed financial contribution if the highway did not go through Palm Canyon. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians nixed the Palm Canyon route and the road was put through Pinyon Flats from Palm Desert. 

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coachella Valley is known for its beautiful scenery and warm weather but just a few miles to the south is a scenic drive that offers high mountain wilderness—a two-hour journey (to Mountain Center) provided you don’t stop to admire the gorgeous sights along the way.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We began our trip at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains Visitor Center, located on Highway 74 in Palm Desert. Pick up a map and some visitor information but take note: the Visitor Center is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Rising abruptly from the desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Departing the Visitor Center heading south on Highway 74, we almost immediately begin winding our way up the mountain in a series of switchbacks. There are beautiful views spanning Coachella Valley and ample opportunity to take them in. Part way up the mountain is a large viewpoint with plenty of parking where we stopped to take in the sights and snap a few photos.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued up the mountain, the road began to unwind itself and we started to notice a change in vegetation. Short gangly pinyon pines began to emerge from out of the rocks and as the highway unfurled through the small towns of Pinyon Pines and Pinyon Crest, it became evident how these places got their names.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway through this region began to unfold like a roller coaster with a series of wide ripples. Again, the vegetation changed and we noticed more pine trees as the land becomes less rocky. 

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highways 74 and 371 meet in Paradise Valley. The Paradise Valley Cafe is a popular place for travelers. For backpackers the Pacific Trail passing nearby. Here’s where we departed Highway 74 driving southeast on Highway 371 to Cahuilla and Aguanga and Highway 79 south to Warner Springs and Santa Ysabel. Our destination: the mountain town of Julian for its famous apple pies.

Worth Pondering…

Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you miss the sense of where you’re going and why.

—Eddie Cantor

The Winds of Organ Pipe: Diverse Sample of the Sonoran Desert

In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the border with Mexico, the star is obviously the organ pipe cactus

To reach Organ Pipe National Monument you’ll pass through the slumbering town of Ajo, Arizona. Once fueled by copper, the state’s first copper mine was here launched in the mid-1850s. Ajo (pronounced AH-ho, either takes its name from the Spanish word for garlic, or from o’oho, the native Tohono O’odham word for paint) took a substantial hit in 1985 when Phelps Dodge closed its copper mine.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 15 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Originally called pitayas, this cactus is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each desert plant is usable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. These plants played a vital role in the lives of native people for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham people used the wood for construction and picked their fruit for food. The fruit is eaten raw or dried, fermented into wine, and made into jelly, jams, and syrup. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center offers information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe offers two scenic drives and numerous hiking trails. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument. Available at the visitor center, a self-guided-tour booklet describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience.

Puerto Blanco Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Puerto Blanco Drive is a four-hour, 41 mile loop that connects the North and South sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive and includes Quitobaquito Springs, a true oasis that is home to an endangered subspecies of desert pupfish. Many birds are attracted to the Springs including vermillion flycatchers, phainopepla, and killdeer.

Twin Peaks Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both drives offer many opportunities for scenic beauty, solitude, exploration, and photography.

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Alamo Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

This state park offers many opportunities to observe the Real Florida and its wildlife

Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish as they swim by—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Fish Bowl underwater observatory floats in the main spring and allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the manatees and an astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish swim about. A television screen with a viewing control is located on the sundeck allowing visitors in wheelchairs to appreciate a view out the underwater windows.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingoes, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. The native wildlife that reside in the park serve as ambassadors for their species providing visitors face-to-face connections between the diverse Florida habitats and the animals that call those habitats home. Each with a unique life story, all of the animal inhabitants are here for the same reason: they are unable to survive in the wild on their own. Daily programs educate visitors about the various species and what can be done to protect Florida’s valuable natural resources.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Included in your admission, weather permitting, is a boat tour that transports visitors along Pepper Creek from the visitor center to the main entrance of the wildlife park. Rangers give an introduction to the park. Native wildlife is identified along the way. The pontoon boats are accessible with a ramp for wheelchairs. There is an elevator from the visitor center level to the boat dock for wheelchairs and strollers.

Manatee Program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalk systems. Benches and rain shelters are conveniently located along the trail. Bleachers are available at the Manatee Program area and at the Wildlife Encounters pavilion. The park offers many opportunities to observe and photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.

Flamingos at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manatee programs are offered daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. From April 1 through November 15, the programs are presented alongside the main spring in the bleachers overlooking the Fish Bowl underwater observatory. From November 15 through March 31, the programs are presented alongside the in-ground manatee pool at the Manatee Care Center.

Alligator at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pets are not allowed at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park because of the captive wildlife. The park provides kennels at the main entrance of the park on U.S. 19 for those visitors traveling with pets. The kennels are self-service and free. Service animals are welcome where the public is normally allowed.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The Wildlife Walk consists of elevated boardwalks that are accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or strollers. The boardwalk allows an elevated view into the natural habitats and provides rain shelters along the way.

Flamingo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is an excellent site for birding. The Pepper Creek Birding Trail runs from the Visitor Center parking area along the tram road and loops through the parking areas at Fish Bowl Drive and returns via a boat ride along Pepper Creek. An information kiosk is located at the trailhead behind the parking area of the Visitor Center on U.S. 19.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. The tracks ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. While passengers enjoyed a view of Homosassa Spring and its myriad of fresh and saltwater fish, the train’s crew was busy loading their freight of fish, crabs, cedar, and spring water aboard the Mullet Train.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 50-acre site and surrounding 100 acres was purchased in the 1940s and was turned into a commercial attraction. At one point, a company called Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed some of its trained animals here in between their appearances in movies and TV shows (remember “Flipper” and “Sea Hunt”?). Lu the hippo was brought here through that company many years ago.

Wood duck at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located in Homosassa on the west side of U.S. 19/98. Admission is $13 for age 13 and older and $5 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under admitted free. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir on his visit to the Nature Coast in 1867

Explore More National Parks on These Fee-Free Days in 2021

Have you planned your camping trips for 2021 yet? Plan your travels around these six fee-free days at the national parks!

With over 400 National Park Service sites, there are plenty of options for your next RV weekend getaway or extended vacation. Take pictures of Zion canyon’s narrows, gaze at Arches’ massive sandstone arches, view exhibits about the desert flora and fauna at a Saguaro visitor’s center, or hike one of the many trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. America’s national parks have much to offer in the way of scenery, activities, and history.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced that all National Park Service sites will have six entrance fee-free days in 2021. The fee-free days are part of the Administration’s commitment to increase access, promote recreational opportunities, improve visitor facilities, and conserve natural and historical treasures in national parks for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.

Joshua Tree National Park , California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The six fee-free days in 2021 are:

  • January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • April 17: First day of National Park Week
  • August 4: First anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 25: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Mark your calendars and start planning your camping trip.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Each of the fee-free days celebrates or commemorates a significant event including the establishment earlier this year by President Trump of the Great American Outdoors Act. The legislation marks the single largest investment ever in national parks and will result in enhanced facilities and expanded recreational prospects for all visitors,” said Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary, exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service Director.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Throughout the country, every national park provides a variety of opportunities to get out in nature, connect with our common heritage, and experience the vast array of benefits that come from spending time outdoors. Hopefully, the fee-free days will encourage everyone to spend some time in their national parks.”

There are more than 400 National Park Service sites nationwide, with at least one in every state. Approximately 100 parks charge an entrance fee with costs ranging from $5 to $35. The other 300-plus national parks do not have entrance fees.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt signed Secretary’s Orders 3386 and 3387 granting veterans, Gold Star Families and fifth-graders free access to all national parks, wildlife refuges, and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior. Veterans and Gold Star Families will have free access forever while fifth-grade students were granted the reprieve through this academic year as some of last year’s fourth-graders may have been unable to make full use of the Every Kid Outdoors Annual Fourth Grade Pass due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Active duty military and fourth-grade students will continue to have free access with discounted passes also available for seniors. For other visitors who love visiting public lands, the annual $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great option which allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas including all national parks.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last year, 327 million people visited national parks and spent $21 billion in local communities. This supported 340,500 jobs across the country and had a $41.7 billion impact on the U.S. economy.

Keep track of your visits with a National Parks Passport. Simply stamp your book before departing and continue to add on more throughout the year. Stamps are typically located at the visitor’s center.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada

Other federal land management agencies offering their own fee-free days in 2021 include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Yuman Nature

Food tours enhance any visit to Yuma

Because Yuma is located near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers in the southwest corner of the state, it’s no surprise that Yuma County’s top industry is agriculture. In fact, the agriculture industry in Yuma County represents an annual gross economic return of $3.2 billion, or more than one-third of Arizona’s annual total of $9.2 billion.

Date grove near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several factors account for that amazing total: Plentiful sunshine, ample labor, and high-quality irrigation water. The area also has fertile soil from sediment deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years.

Date grove near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Yuma, the local visitor center, offers four specialty tours for a farm-to-table experience. A local grower leads Field to Feast Tours at the University of Arizona research farm. Participants are given a list of ingredients needed for lunch and sent out into the field to pick them. Culinary students from Arizona Western College then use these fresh veggies to make lunch.

Date grove and winter lettuce field near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other popular foodie tours include Date Night Dinners served in a date grove where every course features the “fruit of kings”, Savor Yuma a progressive dinner that stops at three local restaurants, and Farmer’s Wife Dinners which celebrates fresh produce and farming traditions. If you want to go, book early.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Yuma is one of the world’s top producers of gourmet Medjool dates, we took a tour at Martha’s Gardens. In 1990, Nels and Martha Rogers bought a parcel of previously unused desert, cleared the land, drilled wells, and installed a drip irrigation system.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original planting of 300 Medjool date palm offshoots thrived. Today the farm has around 8,000 palms. Only 250 of the trees are males since it’s the females that produce the fruit. The labor-intensive process of date farming includes hand pollination of female trees with pollen from male trees.

After the tour ended, we returned to the farm store for a delicious date milkshake, and we simply had to purchase a box of jumbo dates.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Date production in the Yuma area now totals about 10 million pounds a year, a $30 to $35 million dollar industry that employs more than 2,000 people annually.

The date is one of the oldest cultivated tree crops with records showing that in Mesopotamia it was cultivated more than 5,000 years ago. This valuable food helped sustain desert peoples and nomadic wanderers of the Middle East and North Africa.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The date was introduced to the western hemisphere by Spanish missionaries who planted date seeds around the missions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A few of the original palms or their offshoots (suckers growing from the base of the female palm) are still found in Southern California and Mexico. There were many varieties imported in the following years but the most significant was the Medjool date.

Imperial Date Gardens in Bard Valley near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Medjool originates in Morocco. Because of a disease outbreak in Morocco, eleven Medjool offshoots were imported in 1927 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To be sure they were disease-free the trees were placed in quarantine for seven years in the state of Nevada. Nine plants survived and in 1935 they were removed and planted at the USDA date section in Indio, California. After several more years, offshoots from those were removed and distributed to a few growers. Five or more years later, quality Mejools were harvested.

Imperial Date Gardens in Bard Valley near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty-four offshoots of those original trees were planted in the Bard Valley in 1944 by Stanley Dillman, date pioneer in the region.

Thanks to ideal soil and weather, the area around Yuma and Bard is now one of the world’s largest producers of premium-quality Medjools. Dates are harvested from the end of August through the first weeks of October. Each date palm must be climbed approximately 16-18 times a year to carry out hand operations necessary to ensure a good crop including pollination, thinning, separating strands of fruit with metal rings to help the air circulate and finally, bagging the date bunches.

Yuma Date Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dates are high in fiber, potassium, and anti-oxidants and contain no fat. They are an organic product as no pesticides or chemicals are used on the trees or the dates. Many date confections are made locally, along with a local favorite: Dates shakes, or milkshakes made with ice cream and dates. The indescribable joy of a good date shake!

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

A Toast to Texas History

Every drop of Shiner is brewed in Shiner

South of Flatonia and Moulton on Highway 95 lay a magical land where beer is made—Shiner. To that place two thirsty companions and a designated driver traveled.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the first grumblings of hunger appeared as we approached the little village of Moulton. It was hard to believe the locals when we were told that one of the best restaurants around was Klosel’s Steakhouse. After some hesitation, we stopped for lunch en route to the little brewery in Shiner and gave it a shot and what a pleasant surprise. The food was truly amazing and good value. Great atmosphere and friendly service! We have eaten here numerous times over the years and have always been impressed with their food and staff. Particularly love their chicken fried steak—and desert.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Brewery is on the right as you enter town—you can’t miss it. The best time to go is during the week when the Spoetzel Brewery comes to life. My fellow pilgrims that day were Winter Texans like myself.

The Spoetzel Brewery, founded in 1909, brews Shiner Beer with the pure artesian water that’s flowed beneath the ground there for centuries.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1909 the residents of Shiner, Texas, didn’t strike gold. They struck water. And shortly thereafter they learned that they could turn that water into some pretty tasty beer. Today, they still brew every drop of Shiner with the same pure artesian well water that’s wet the town’s whistle for more than a hundred years. They say some things never change, to which we say “Prosit!”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Decisions! Decisions! At the time of our previous trip the brewery gave each visitor tokens (wooden nickels) for four complimentary beers. Well, they weren’t quite full beers. They’re more like six ounces but they’re nice for trying new flavors. During our most recent visit they charged a small $5 fee. Just happened to have unused tokens in my pocket from previous visits to which we said “Prosit!”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there is something deeply satisfying about drinking Shiner from the tap knowing it was brewed less than 100 yards away. Prosit! That’s what ought to come out of your mouth before the refreshing goodness that is a free beer goes into it. It’s a toast that means “good health.”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I started out with Shiner’s new rose ale. It tasted like someone poured a Shiner in a glass that had a little red wine left in it. But it wasn’t bad. The next three were White Wing, Fresh Hop IPA, and Prickly Pear. The brewery recently introduced a new beer to the market, a Belgian white named, appropriately, White Wing. Brewed with orange peel and coriander, White Wing replaces Shiner Hefeweizen as a permanent, year-round option.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original tin brewery was founded in the center of an Austrian, German, and Czech farming community near the railroad tracks on the banks of Boggy Creek. A group of Shiner businessmen interested in appealing to new Bohemian settlers established the original stock company known as the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909. After a few years of disappointing results they hired Spoetzl who purchased the brewery in 1915. With Prohibition, Spoetzl turned to producing ice and “near beer.”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t have Shiner without Bock. Spoetzl releases three year-round brands, about eight seasonal, and four Brewer’s Pride beers every year. Bock remains a favorite. Brewed since 1913, the flagship brand began as a seasonal brewed for spring then became a year-round offering in 1973. Shiner Bock now accounts for over 80 percent of the total Shiner volume.

Friday’s Fried Chicken © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After our visit to the Spoetzl Brewery we stopped for dessert at Friday’s Fried Chicken. Don’t let the name throw you off. They have a full menu and a bakery. Friday’s named after the Patek family (Patek means “Friday” in Czech), offers some of the best fried chicken south of the Colorado River—along with those Bohemian delicacies known as rosettes, kolaches, and a variety of delicious pies including pecan. I saw several customers with full meals on their table ranging from chicken to beef to salads. Friday’s Fried Chicken is about a half mile from the brewery on the left as you head into town.

Saint Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the way out of town we stopped by Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, a towering cathedral that has anchored Shiner since 1921. Boasting a Romanesque revival style of architecture and stunning stained glass windows imported from Germany with a magnificent mural of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and an imposing square tower, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Saint Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

For a quart of ale is a meal for a king.

—William Shakespeare