Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Big, Diverse & Extreme

With striking landscapes and brilliant blue waters, this year-round playground spreads across 1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys, and two vast lakes

With COVID-19 (Coronavirus) everyone’s lives—yours and ours—were thrown into a scrambled state of flux. Someday, we’ll all be ready to pack the RV again and head out on our next adventure. In the meantime, here’s some inspiration for the future.

The Colorado River is dammed on both sides of the Grand Canyon, forming two huge artificial lakes: Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is big, it’s diverse, and it’s extreme. Temperatures can be harsh, from 120 degrees in the summer to well below freezing in winter on the high plateaus.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the mouth of the Grand Canyon, the park follows the Arizona-Nevada border along what was formerly 140 miles of the Colorado River. The main attraction here are the two large lakes: Mead and Mohave.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sixty-seven-mile-long Lake Mohave, formed by Davis Dam near Bullhead City, still retains in its upper reaches some of the character of the old Colorado River. Literally millions of people use Lake Mead National Recreation Area each year with many of these visitors returning again and again to find that special cove, or campground, or just to sit on the shore and enjoy solitude of a quality that only nature can supply.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although much of Lake Mead can only be experienced by boat, a variety of campgrounds, marinas, lodges, and picnic areas around the lake make it possible for non-boaters to also enjoy the recreation area. Most activities are concentrated along the 20 miles of the southwest shore, close to Las Vegas.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named after Dr. Elwood Mead, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner from 1924 to 1936, Lake Mead began filling in 1935 following the completion of Boulder Dam, later designated the Hoover Dam after the 31st president, across the river at Black Canyon, 25 miles from Las Vegas.

Indeed, it was the construction of the dam and the arrival of thousands of workers which prompted the legalization of gambling in Nevada and the consequent growth of the city.

The scenery is impressive enough—clear blue water beneath gaunt rocky cliffs, but much can only be appreciated using a boat as the majority of the innumerable sheltered coves and flooded canyons, often with clean, empty beaches for camping, are quite inaccessible by road.

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are very few maintained trails though hiking opportunities are numerous. Most are cross-country, off-trail routes—destinations include narrow canyons, rock art sites, springs, and rock formations.

There are numerous access points to the shoreline especially the section northwest of Hoover Dam in Nevada which has numerous beaches, camping areas, and marinas.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Northshore Road (NV-16) parallels the water for 40 miles passing through a colorful and  empty desert environment with numerous side roads leading towards the water of which three are to developed marinas: Callville Bay, Echo Bay, and Overton Beach, though this latter is currently closed due to low water levels.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding desert is characterized by barren mountain ranges with occasional bright red or orange sandstone outcrops; nearby Valley of Fire State Park is spectacular. Aptly named, Valley of Fire features vivid sandstone cliffs and eroded rock formations in fiery hues.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the most visited section of Lake Mead is that closest to Las Vegas. Facilities include two large marinas at Boulder Beach and Las Vegas Bay, plus campgrounds, beaches, picnic areas, and the main National Recreation Area visitor center.

Lake Mead RV Village at Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead RV Village at Boulder Beach is a full-service campground that provides cable TV. Daily rates range from $34 to $50 plus 12 percent Clark County tax. Back-in, pull-through, and lakeview sites are available.

Lake Mead RV Village at Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west side of Lake Mead has a number of free primitive campsites along tracks forking off Northshore Road, for example at Stewarts Point, near Overton Beach at the north end of the lake. Here, camping is allowed on a large area of the shoreline, which is flat, sandy, and sheltered.

Lake Mead RV Village at Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A variety of camping experiences are also available around Lake Mohave including Cottonwood Cove, Katherine Landing, and Willow Beach.

Worth Pondering…

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which, the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Absolutely Best Road Trips from Las Vegas

If you’re tired of hanging out at the Strip, within a few hours, you can be at some of the most amazing landscapes the US has to offer

With COVID-19 (Coronavirus) everyone’s lives—yours and ours—were thrown into a scrambled state of flux. Someday, we’ll all be ready to pack the RV again and head out on our next adventure. In the meantime, here’s some inspiration for the future.

Las Vegas RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you think Las Vegas is just this one lonely spot in the middle of the desert—well, you’re probably right. But here’s the good news. It’s the perfect starting point for taking more than a few good road trips. So if you’re getting bored of the casinos and glitz of Sin City pack up your toad and hit the road for some interesting and fun filled getaways within a few hours’ drive.

Best Quick Escape: Lake Mead, Nevada

Distance from Las Vegas: One hour

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is a national park just minutes from Las Vegas that has Joshua trees, slot canyons, and night skies illuminated by the Milky Way. Lake Mead is the closest body of water of any significance to Las Vegas making it the first choice for swimming, boating, and jet skiing. With striking landscapes and brilliant blue waters, this year-round playground spreads across 1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys and two vast lakes.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entry to the Lake Mead National Recreation is $25 per person (or $15 per person walking or bicycling) and good for seven days. A day pass for the Lake Mead Resort & Marina is $10 per vehicle but if you plan on coming back, the yearly pass is a far better deal at $30.

Best Cultural Getaway: Sedona, Arizona 

Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours and 30 minutes

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona and Red Rock Country has more than 300 miles of trails for hiking and biking, surrounded by green pine trees that contrast sharply with the deep red hues of buttes and canyon walls.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some consider Sedona to be in a vortex with the energy of nature especially strong in four locations: Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon. So get in touch with your spirituality or, at the very least, bring a yoga mat and absorb the scenery in a way that works for you. Sedona is also home to more than 80 art shops and galleries, showcasing the best local talent.

Best Riverside Getaway: Laughlin, Nevada

Distance from Las Vegas: One hour and 30 minutes

Laughlan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Colorado River, Laughlin has been transformed from a small mining town into an attractive tourist destination. While its neon lights are no match for Vegas, it does have numerous things to offer such as a scenic river walk, tons of outdoor activities, and the Laughlin River Run, a massive annual motorcycle event. You’ll be in hog heaven.

Laughlan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a river cruise or find a moment of zen at the mystical Laughlin Labyrinths, nine stone mazes that are both intriguing and energizing.

Vista del Sol RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a place to stay? Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort offers 740 spaces with full hook-ups, laundry facilities, showers, and free shuttles to the casino. Or cross the river and go for a spectacular view at the new Vista del Sol RV Resort in Bullhead City, Arizona.

Best Getaway for Hiking: Zion National Park, Utah

Distance from Las Vegas: Two hours and 30 minutes

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the road and travel through Nevada, Arizona, and finally Utah to Zion National Park as the desert suddenly gets a lot more colorful. You’ll find yourself walking among trees, waterfalls, rocks, and a towering canyon. Don’t overlook the winter months—peak solitude season with fewer crowds to go along with the sunsets and stargazing. Just bundle up at night. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not all hiking trails are created equal. The infamous Angels Landing is a 2.5-mile hike with steep and narrow pathways. It even comes with a warning sign with the number of people who have died on the trail.

Best Modern Marvel Getaway: Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona

Distance from Las Vegas: 45 minutes

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hoover Dam may be the most intriguing slab of concrete in the world. Highway travelers used to drive right over it but traffic is now diverted to the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which offers a cool view but isn’t quite the same experience. Tours run daily, ready to give a nuts-and-bolts look at how the whole thing operates, producing electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Mike O’Calhaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boulder City is the closest town to the dam and has a small tourism industry based around the engineering masterpiece, the construction of which pretty much set the stage for modern Las Vegas. It’s one of the few communities in the entire state where gambling is not legal.

Most Awe-Inspiring Getaway: Grand Canyon, Arizona

Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours (45 minutes by helicopter)

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You know the deal. The Grand Canyon is the biggest hole in the ground in the U. S. making it a prime destination. There are more than a few tours that originate from Las Vegas including some by helicopter.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is heavily visited and is run by the National Park Service. The Hualapai Tribe runs the West Rim and operates the famous skywalk. The remote North Rim is stunning but a pain to reach. No matter where you end up, please don’t fall down the canyon while trying to take a photo. It happens.

Worth Pondering…

Las Vegas is a 24-hour city. It never stops.

—Eli Roth

4 Ecosystems Meet at Coronado National Memorial

The park was established to commemorate the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and the lasting legacies of the first interaction between American Indians and Europeans in the American Southwest and northwest Mexico

Take Montezuma Canyon Road to the scenic Montezuma Pass Overlook where you can reflect of the impact of the European arrival in this region.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four major ecosystems meet in Southeastern Arizona: the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre. This is a beautiful natural area with an unlimited supply of interesting sights to visit.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Pedro River valley attracts hikers and birders because of the variety of species that live there. Bisbee is a friendly, funky place to wander and explore. Tombstone trades on a Wild West image. And there are the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that gather each winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Arizona is an incredible blend of sky mountains and grasslands and desert, hot and cold, and Coronado National Memorial is a great place to learn about it. Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the significance of Coronado’s expedition and the resulting cultural influences of 16th century Spanish colonial exploration in the Americas.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the early 1500s, Spain established a rich colonial empire in the New World. From Mexico to Peru, gold poured into her treasury and new lands were opened for settlement. The northern frontier lay only a few hundred miles north of Mexico City; and beyond that was a land unknown. Tales of unimaginable riches in this land had fired the Spanish imagination ever since Spain’s discovery of the “New World”.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On January 6, 1540, the Spanish government commissioned Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510-1554) to command an expedition to find the rumored seven “large cities, with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emeralds and turquoise!”

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We have no way of knowing Coronado’s exact route, but historians believe he followed the San Pedro River when he passed through southeastern Arizona in 1540 with about 2,000 men, an army of 336 Spanish soldiers, and hundreds of Mexican-Indian allies. The journey was fueled by more than 1,500 stock animals and blind ambition.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was a fool’s errand. Coronado died in relative obscurity, his mission a failure. But as we look back his journey seems remarkable, if only because it was so long. He traveled from Mexico City to what is now Kansas on horseback, and was one of the first Europeans to see this part of the country.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The location was chosen for the panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley, the route believed to have been taken by Coronado. The creation of the Memorial was not to protect any tangible artifacts related to the expedition, but rather to provide visitors with an opportunity to reflect upon the impact the Coronado Expedition had in shaping the history, culture, and environment of the southwestern United States and its ties to Mexico and Spain.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated in oak woodlands on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains, the 4,750-acre park offers a visitors center, Coronado Cave, hiking trails, and a scenic drive that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook (elevation 6,575 feet) with breathtaking views of the San Pedro Valley to the southeast and the San Raphael Valley to the west. Note that vehicles over 24 feet in length are prohibited due to steep grades and tight switchbacks.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short trail leads to the top of Coronado Peak (6,864 feet) with even better views, including south to distant mountains in Mexico. The panoramic view is breathtaking.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the pass the unpaved and often rough forestry road leads through Coronado National Forest to Parker Canyon Lake (18 miles) and on to Patagonia or alternately through the Arizona Wine Region near the small town of Elgin.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters,
the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park

A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches.

Keys Point, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree, but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive, with spur roads to specific attractions.

Entering the park at the south entrance off I-10, our first stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we picked up a map and park newspaper listing a number of ranger-led activities and hiking trails.

Cottonwood Springs Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Half a mile down the road we took a short walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods, all planted in the early 1900s by miners and pioneers who used this spring as their source of water. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of an even more ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life. 

We continued north along Pinto Basin Road past Smoke Tree Wash and Porcupine Wash through Fried Liver Wash and Ocotillo Patch.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cholla Cactus Garden, a few miles beyond, glowed in shades of soft, silver green. We hiked the ¼-mile loop nature walk with caution as this cactus isn’t referred to as “jumping cholla” for no reason. Just the slightest brush and a piece will imbed itself painfully into your skin. Remove carefully with a comb.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued north, the look of the desert changed and the temperature grew cooler. A roadside exhibit describes the merging of the Sonoran Desert we were leaving with the Mojave Desert beyond. The road snakes through enormous piles of monstrous boulders. Soon we were among the Joshua trees, whimsical looking plants with arms twisted in all directions.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua, pointing westward to the “promised land”.

Here in the Mojave, winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fascinating geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert region. Smooth granite monoliths and rugged canyons testify to the tectonic and erosion forces that shaped this land. Washes, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, desert varnish, igneous and metamorphic rocks interact to form a pattern of stark desert beauty.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

A sky island is an isolated mountain range that rises up out of the surrounding desert “sea”

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day to night. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast—and its importance to biodiversity—better than Sky Islands.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous  forest, and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation—sometimes exceeding 10,000—these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub and provide an oasis for an abundance of wildlife. These Sky Islands encompass some of the most rugged and remote lands in the Southwest and feature some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.

Hiking Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. The result is a habitat island, such as a forest surrounded by desert. As the mountain goes up in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations.

Catalina State Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona which are the real treasure houses of the region.

Coronado National Monument in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona’s Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains, rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina mountains offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Mount Lemmon Ski Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, Mount Lemmon is the southernmost downhill ski area in the country. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the Sky Island Scenic Byway provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the meeting point between desert and forest, Sky Islands provide a variance of climate zones, including tropical and temperate climates, that supports a vast range of wildlife. The lower temperatures of the high elevations allow snow to accumulate, which melt into summer streams that feed to other riparian areas. The diversity of the region exceeds anywhere else in the U.S., supporting well over half the bird species of North America and 104 species of mammals.

Chiricahua National Monument in the Chirachua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning at the valley floor one is surrounded by typical Sonoran desert—saguaro and cholla cactus, and ocotillo. Traveling toward the peak, one travels through eight distinct zones: desert, arid grassland, chaparral, pinyon-juniper woodland, Madrean evergreen oak woodland, Ponderosa pine forest, mixed conifer stands of Douglas fir and white pine, and eventually a true spruce-fir forest with burbling creeks and quaking aspens. 

Saguaro National Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sky Island idea was first published in 1943, in an article in Arizona Highways magazine called “Monument in the Mountain.” In the article, writer Natt N. Dodge referred to the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona as a “mountain island in a desert sea.” 

Coronado National Monument in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The term was later made popular by nature writer Weldon Heald, a resident of southeastern Arizona. In his 1967 book, Sky Island, he demonstrated the concept by describing a drive from the town of Rodeo, New Mexico, to a peak in the Chiricahua Mountains, 35 miles away and 5,600 feet higher in elevation. Ascending from the hot, arid desert, the environment transitions to grassland, then to oak-pine woodland, pine forest, and finally to spruce-fir-aspen forest.

Chiricahua National Monument in the Chirachua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around the same time, the idea of mountains as islands of habitat took hold with scientists, and the idea was included in the study of island biogeography.  Although the name may have originated in Southern Arizona, Sky Islands are not limited to mountains of the Southwest, but can be applied to any geographic location where mountains are isolated from each other by lowland habitats.

Saguaro National Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your next visit to a Sky Island, note how the vegetation changes from cactus to thornscrub to oak forest, pine forest, and mixed conifer forest as you ascend the slope.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

America’s Most Popular National Parks

The National Park Service has released data on its most visited parks in America in 2019 and the most popular parks are…

Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracted 12.5 million visitors last year topping the 2019 list of most popular national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) recently reported. Straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the most popular national park in the United States covers 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and is home to diverse flora and fauna and a large section of the Appalachian Trail.

Great Smoky National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 327 million people visited NPS sites last year, a 2.9 percent increase from 2018, and the third highest number since record keeping began in 1904.

“The numbers once again affirm that Americans and visitors from around the world love the natural, cultural, and historic experience provided by our nation’s national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a news release.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among those 419 sites covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several US territories, only 62 are national parks. The park service also released rankings on all the sites it oversees which include monuments, parkways, seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, and memorials.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 15 million visitors in 2019, Golden Gate National Recreation Area took the park service’s overall top spot for the second year in a row, beating out second place Blue Ridge Parkway. The two park sites have been swapping first and second place rankings since 1979, the park service said.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among the 62 national parks, first place Great Smoky Mountains National Park was followed by Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park, and Yosemite National Park which nudged Yellowstone National Park out of fifth place. Yellowstone dropped to sixth place, followed by Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park, and Glacier National Park. Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon have held the top two spots since 1990, the park service said.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the national park sites spent an estimated $20.2 billion in local gateway regions in 2018, according to a May 2019 report by the park service which translated into 329,000 jobs, $13.6 billion in labor income, $23.4 billion in value added, and $40.1 billion in economic output. The lodging sector saw the biggest benefits with $6.8 billion in economic output while restaurants saw $4 billion in economic output.

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

Visitation to the national park sites rebounded from the most recent shutdown, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019. In some previous shutdowns, the park service had closed many of the sites due to lack of funding for staffing. In the most recent shutdown, the gates mostly remained opened but often without sufficient staffing. In several states, a combination of funds from park user fees; state and local governments; non-profits and businesses helped keep some NPS sites open.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service which doesn’t charge an entrance fee at most of its 419 sites already faced $11 billion in deferred maintenance across the national park system.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every fourth-grader around the country can get a free one-year national parks pass for the student and their family under a program started by then-President Barack Obama in 2015.

The “Every Kid in a Park” program which attracted more than 350,000 fourth graders in its first two years of operations was reauthorized last year for seven more years, the park service said.

Most popular National Park Service Sites

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (California):15 million visits

2. Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina/Virginia): 14.9 million visits

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee): 12.5 million visits

4. Gateway National Recreation Area (New York/New Jersey): 9.4 million visits

5. Lincoln Memorial (District of Columbia): 7.8 million visits

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. George Washington Memorial Parkway: 7.5 million visits

7. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Arizona/Nevada): 7.5 million visits

8. Natchez Trace Parkway (Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee): 6.3 million visits

9. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): 5.97 million visits

10. Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida/Mississippi): 5.6 million visits

Most popular National Parks

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina/Tennessee): 12.5 million visits

2. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): 5.97 million visits

3. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado): 4.7 million visits

4. Zion National Park (Utah) 4.5 million visits

5. Yosemite National Park (California): 4.4 million

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Yellowstone National Park: (Idaho/Montana/Wyoming)

7. Acadia National Park (Maine): 3.4 million visits

8. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming): 3.4 million visits

9. Olympic National Park (Washington): 3.2 million visits

10. Glacier National Park (Montana): 3 million visits

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

Take a Break from Spring Training with these 5 great Road Trips

Your ultimate Spring Training road trip travel guide

The Phoenix area transforms into baseball-fan heaven this month with spring training underway as players prepare for the 2020 Major League Baseball season. Visitors can attend more than 200 Cactus League baseball games.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you need to take a break from the stands, consider a side trip out of town. Here are four worthwhile Arizona destinations that can be reached from the Phoenix area in less than three hours and one that’s somewhat further afield.

Apache Trail

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Apache Trail, named for Native Americans who used it, served as a stagecoach route through the rugged Superstition Mountains. Day trippers can enjoy the scenery on paved roads if they mosey five miles up Arizona 88 from Apache Junction to Goldfield Ghost Town, a restored 1890s mining town. It re-creates the era through its attractions including a mine tour, narrow-gauge railroad, and a zip-line ride.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you drive 13 miles northeast on Arizona 88, you’ll find Tortilla Flat, an old stagecoach stop that’s now a saloon that uses saddles for its bar-stool seats. Visitors can take a scenic cruise on nearby Canyon Lake aboard the Dolly Steamboat. The captain will point out bighorn sheep grazing on the hillsides and bald eagles soaring above.

Distance from Phoenix: 35 miles

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On paper, Picacho Peak isn’t very impressive. It’s hardly the highest peak in Arizona. In fact, based on a U.S. Geological Survey search, there are at least 2,500 other summits ahead of Picacho. Nevertheless, it’s a peak worth bagging, if for no other reason than to conquer the most recognizable landmark between Phoenix and Tucson.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hunter Trail is one of five routes to the top. With your first step from the trailhead, you’ll start a gradual climb up a rocky slope dotted with saguaros, creosote bushes, and paloverde trees. This time of year, you’ll see wildflowers, too, including Mexican goldpoppies, lupines, globemallows, desert chicory, and brittlebush.

Distance from Phoenix: 75 miles

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you haven’t checked out Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a 392-acre state park near Superior (it’s only about an hour’s drive east of Phoenix near Superior), you should. Featured are plants from the world’s deserts, towering trees, captivating cacti, sheer mountain cliffs, a streamside forest, panoramic vistas, many natural habitats with varied wildlife, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, specialty gardens and more.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you take a hike through Boyce Thompson, it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a desert. You can explore tree-lined paths, a man-made lake, and a mountainous desert landscape all without leaving the Main Trail. Along the side trails visitors can also get glimpses of life in the historic Southwest.

Distance from Phoenix: 55 miles

Prescott

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An hour and a half north of Phoenix, Watson Lake sparkles amid Prescott’s Granite Dells, an exotic collection of massive boulders that rise directly from the water and adorn the shoreline. Watson Lake Park is a good starting point for exploration of this North Central Arizona city. The park includes picnic tables, horseshoe pits, playground equipment, and hiking trails.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mile-high city, Prescott is nestled in the Ponderosa Pines of Prescott National Forest. Fill your lungs with that amazing pine scent as you enjoy Prescott’s natural surroundings, including more than 400 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails.

Distance from Phoenix: 100 miles

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1800s, Navajo clans sought refuge from U.S. soldiers in the distant reaches of Canyon de Chelly. The canyon, in northeastern Arizona, is deep, remote, and beautiful. Pueblo ruins still stand under red cliffs while modern-day Navajos farm the bottomlands along shallow creeks.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can drive along the canyon rims and stop at overlooks or take a hike to White House Ruin but tours into the canyon led by Navajo guides give a better understanding of its past and present. Tour options include hiking, horseback rides, and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Distance from Phoenix: 310 miles

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

The country’s largest dune field has been a national monument since 1933 and now it’s America’s 62nd national park

After half a decade of legislative holdups, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument has officially been designated a national park.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces, White Sands is the largest dune field in the world and is so expansive that it can be seen from space. It was established on January 18, 1933, by President Herbert Hoover to preserve “the white sands and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.” According to the statement, White Sands contains not only the world’s largest gypsum dunefield including gypsum hearthmounds found nowhere else but also is home to the globe’s largest collection of Ice Age fossilized footprints.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legislation to re-designate White Sands was included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. The US House of Representatives passed the act on December 11 with the Senate following on December 16. President Donald Trump signed the bill on December 20.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, more than any other national park service site in New Mexico. In 2017, White Sands logged more than 600,000 visits and spurred more than $31 million in spending for the local economy.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This is a pretty prestigious recognition of White Sands, one of New Mexico’s most remarkable natural wonders,” said U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who introduced the bill to Congress with U.S. Representative Xochitl Torres Small in March 2019. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting this spring, visitors to the 275-square-mile stretch of rolling dunes will now be able to hike and camp in its backcountry, sled down sandy hills, and stargaze—without the interruptions of missile tests. The designation was included as a provision in Congress’s defense bill because the former monument shares land with the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), a U.S. military weapons testing area and the site of the first atomic bomb detonation.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the 1970s, the U.S. Army has been trying to secure land within the national monument’s boundaries in order to more easily access its missile testing site. The new legislation gives the military 2,826 acres of land within the monument’s former boundaries to allow for this access. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In exchange, the National Parks Service has been granted 5,766 acres of formerly Army-owned land on the eastern side of the park. Not only does this mean that White Sands will expand by 2,030 acres, but visitors will no longer have to plan around the Range’s weapon testing drills. Previously, on a random day or two of the week, the monument would close to visitors as a safety protocol.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new designation will also have positive impacts on the surrounding community: a 2018 study found that turning monuments to national parks could increase visitation by 21 percent (about 100,000 more visitors) in the first five years and result in a $7.5 million increase in the local economy, mainly due to increased visibility. According to the legislation, all funding for the current monument will be directly transferred to the national park. Additional funding is dependent on an increase in the park’s visitors, which would help White Sands compete for National Park Service resources.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those who’ve visited White Sands won’t be surprised by its new status while others who are less familiar are in for a real treat. Beyond the surreal beauty of its endless dunes, the park is full of wildlife and has a long cultural history, including evidence of hunter gatherers going back 10,000 years.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names.

—Michael Ondaatje

Turn 230 Miles into a Grand Arizona Adventure

Here’s how to make the most out of a drive to the Grand Canyon with scenic tours and adventure along the route

Less than 230 miles separate Phoenix from the Grand Canyon. If you drove straight through, you could be there in an easy four hours. But, why would you want to?

There’s so much to see and do along the way. Options range from vineyard-hopping to connecting with spirits (whether one’s own in Sedona or other people’s in the ghost town of Jerome).

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day One: Phoenix to Verde Valley

Take 1-17 about 110 miles north to Jerome, your first—and funkiest—stop of the day. Perched atop Cleopatra Hill, the onetime “wickedest town in the west” has transitioned from turn-of-the-century mining outpost to an artist hub and ghost town. Ghost Town Tours offers daily Spirit Walks—hour-long intros to the local historic buildings, ruins, and paranormal activity.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About a 15-minute drive east of Jerome on Arizona Highway 89A is Cottonwood where you’ll want to park yourself for a while. You’re in the heart of the thriving Verde Valley Wine Region where tastings are most definitely in order. At a minimum, check out Pillsbury Wine Company and Burning Tree Cellars in Old Town Cottonwood.

Day Two: Cottonwood to Flagstaff

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise and shine! The first stop is a mere 19 miles up 89A where you’ll find the red rock heaven that is Sedona.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend as much time here as you see fit—emphasis on “fit” as a local hike is a must! Try Bell Rock or Airport Mesa both said to house vortices (mystical energetic sites, basically). But whether or not you believe that energy spirals into or out of the earth’s surface at various sacred spots the gorgeousness alone will awe and inspire you. And hey, if you feel a little something unexplainable amid these surreal, red rock surroundings, who are we to say it’s not a vortex at work?

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, there’s another mind-body-spirit pursuit that Sedona’s known for: pampering, nurturing, and healing treatments. And the town is teeming with legendary spas.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head north on 89 A to Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon and up the road, on your final approach to Flagstaff, you’ll find another worthy stop: the Oak Creek Overlook Vista Native American Artisan Market, where you’ll find gorgeous local jewelry and crafts (and, as the name would suggest, views). 

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a newly acquired treasure or two, roll into Flagstaff—not even 15 miles north on 89 A. Conveniently, historic Flagstaff is compact and walkable—or bike-able, for that matter. Either way, look around—and relax.

Day Three: Flagstaff to Williams

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your next stop is 33 miles west on Interstate 40 where you’ll find Williams. Cowboy shootouts. A bear and bison park. Historic Route 66. Welcome to unexpected fun in this gateway to the Grand Canyon.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s, rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. And that’s fortunate for Grand Canyon-bound visitors seeking a fun, full-service spot as a base before and after a trip to the canyon’s South Rim, 56 miles north.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams boasts the final stretch of Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40 (on October 13, 1984). The original “super-highway,” as Route 66 was known in 1926, spanned more than 2,300 miles from Chicago to Long Beach, California and opened up the West to road travel. (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 singer Bobby Troup marked the day Route 66 was bypassed, October 13, 1984, by plunking out the 1946 tune on a piano in the middle of America’s most iconic byway—called “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels, which preserve a bygone era.

Day Four: The Canyon 

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sheer size of the Grand Canyon is difficult to comprehend through photos or words.  Much of the canyon is over a mile deep, 15 miles wide, and 277 miles long, carved through geologic formations that are over 1.7 billion years old. The vast majority of the Grand Canyon National Park is extremely rugged and remote, and many places are only accessible by pack trail.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Truly a sight beyond words, the Grand Canyon should be on every RVer’s bucket list. You can’t describe in words what takes your breath away with each view.

Want more on the Grand Canyon? Right this way!

Worth Pondering…

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.

—John Wesley Powell

Tumacácori National Historic Park: More Than Just Adobe, Plaster & Wood

The past and the present meld together as one at Tumacácori National Historical Park

As English colonists were arriving at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock on the east coast of North America, the southwestern Native Americans were starting to see visitors from the south. Catholic missionaries traveled north from Mexico to establish missions in the Southwest region that is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission life became impossible because of the Mexican-American War cutting off supply routes, an increase in Apache raids, and a severe winter. The community made the difficult decision to leave Tumacácori, taking their valuables with them to Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Closed completely following the end of the war in 1848, Tumacácori became US property in 1853 when land south of the Gila River was transferred to Arizona (the Gadsden Purchase).

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After sixty years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt established Tumacácori National Monument in 1908, protecting the mission’s remains. Times were not always easy; there were revolts, devastating epidemics, an expulsion of Jesuit priests, and influxes of people from outside the region. Tubac, a Spanish soldier garrison, was established nearby and offered protection from some Apaches who had formed raiding parties.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1775, a Spanish-sponsored 1,200-mile expedition composed of 240 colonists and 1,000 head of livestock passed through the mission. Organized and led by a Tubac captain, Juan Bautista de Anza II, they were en route to settle an outpost in California that resulted in the founding of the City of San Francisco in 1776. Even though they had to traverse an unforgiving desert sparsely populated with sometimes hostile Indians, all of the colonists arrived safe, a testament to Anza’s leadership.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The expedition’s route, now the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, passes through the park, providing opportunities for walkers, bird watchers, and horseback riders. A 4.5 mile stretch of the Anza Trail, extends from Tumacácori to the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The trail follows the Santa Cruz River in the shade of mesquite, hackberry, elderberry, cottonwood, and willow trees providing shelter for more than 200 species of birds.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using Mission View RV Resort off San Xavier Road in southern Tucson as our home base, we recently visited this historic place, toured the mission church, cemetery, and grounds.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entry is through a large wooden door set into the wall, which opens directly into the visitor center. The center has a good selection of local-interest books, a museum, park store, and an auditorium for video presentations about the history of the mission.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Staffed by National Park Service employees and volunteers, the museum and park store provide orientation and a wealth of information. The museum offers dioramas, artifacts, and exhibits about the Native American and Spanish colonial cultures. Ranger-led tours, living history, craft presentations, and even full-moon tours of the church and riverside are available seasonally.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The church is a 200-foot walk away across the main quadrangle, much of which is bare soil though other parts have trees and lesser buildings such as residential quarters. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft, with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the past and the present meld together as one at Tumacácori National Historical Park. Come experience it!

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Now that I’m here, where am I?

—Janis Joplin