Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring

As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.

November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Organ Pipe National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.

Worth Pondering…

There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.

—Edith Durham

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

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

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

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

Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Every destination has a story, no matter how small

When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

Most Scenic Towns in Arizona

Use this guide for a scenic road trip that will surely leave you amazed

From former mining town gems, to desert beauties, and mountain charmers, here are eight of the most beautiful towns in Arizona.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

Established in 1880, Bisbee is a charming town with a mining history located in the Mule Mountains. Once known as “The Queen of the Copper Camps”, the town is home to artists and retired folk. Neighborhoods with Victorian and European-style homes sit on the steep hillsides, while many unique shops, art galleries, and cafés reside in redesigned former saloons. Attractions include the Queen Mine Tour and Old Bisbee Ghost Tour.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

Nestled at an elevation of 5,200 feet amongst a large stand of ponderosa pine, Prescott’s perfect weather provides an average temperature of 70 degrees, with four distinct seasons, and breathtaking landscapes with mountains, lakes, streams, and meadows. Popular activities include horseback riding, golfing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping, mountain biking, local breweries, restaurants, shopping, and a hometown feel.Once the territorial capital of the state, Prescott is rich with history embodied in its world famous Whiskey Row and abundant historical landmarks.

Old Presido, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Tucson is located in the Sonoran Desert, the only place in the world the majestic saguaro cactus grows. Saguaro National Park is situated on either side of the city. These tall and ancient cacti stand like silent sentinels in the shadows of the five mountain ranges which cradle the Tucson valley and are showered with sunshine over 300 days a year. The average winter temperature is 70.

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the Downtown Historic District, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holbrook

Several miles west of Petrified Forest National Park, Holbrook boasts pretty epic scenery. Backcountry hikes take you through the eponymous petrified logs and other archeological wonders. Park guides will show you the daylight sights, but you can also join a night adventure in the newly designated International Dark Sky Park.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

Located near the top of Cleopatra Hill is the historic copper mining town of Jerome. Once known as the wickedest town in the west, Jerome was born a copper mining camp, growing from a settlement of tents into a roaring mining community. Today Jerome is a thriving tourist and artist hub with a population of around 450 people. Jerome resides above what was once the largest copper mine in Arizona which was producing an astonishing 3 million pounds of copper per month. Once a thriving mining camp full of miners, bootleggers, gamblers, and prostitutes, now a bustling tourist destination full of artists, musicians, and gift shop proprietors.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keneta

As synonymous with cinema Westerns as John Wayne, Monument Valley embodies the westward expansion more than any other American landscape. The noble spires, dusty red and orange, jut upward toward wide-open skies, which morph into fiery swaths of color come sunset. If you’ve ever had dreams of taking to open land on horseback, this beautiful Southwest spot is a must. Be sure to stay for sunset.

On the road to Patagonia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia

Spectacular scenery, Old West culture, mining history, and ghost towns meet art galleries and Arizona’s Wine Country vineyards. Patagonia is a renowned destination for birders attracted by the area’s spectacular array of exotic and unusual birds. The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Patagonia Lake State Park are known for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways. The Paton’s house is well known for its hospitality to hummingbirds and the people who like to watch them.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, I could have lived anywhere in the world, if I hadn’t seen the West.

—Joyce Woodson

Good for What Ages You: Palm Springs

Whether its golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, shopping, or hiking, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise

Palm Springs is one of those places that looks awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year. And the weather is not its only calling card. 

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley, you can camp for the winter in luxurious RV resorts that offer all sorts of amenities. Known for Olympic sized pools, tennis courts, and over one hundred world-class golf courses within 40 miles, this is truly upscale RV camping.

El Paseo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two weekly markets that are more than just shopping trips, they are events. On Thursday evenings, Palm Canyon Drive turns into Villagefest, a street fair with fragrant food stands, local and imported crafts, and tantalizing fresh produce. Live music accompanies you as you stroll past the many stalls.

Starting at 7:00 am, Saturday and Sunday mornings, the College of the Desert in Palm Desert hosts another street fair.

El Paseo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mile-long strip, El Paseo features locally owned boutiques; top international retailers such as St. John, Gucci, and Burberry; brilliant fun and fine jewelry; eclectic artworks; sleek and sophisticated home décor; and professional services including day spas, and interior design know-how. With so much to do and see, it’s easy to pass an entire day on El Paseo.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cactus, and other plants. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.

Nine campgrounds and three visitor centers are available for park visitors, as well as a number of well-marked short walks with informative signage.

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in the scenic hills of Desert Hot Springs, a Hopi-inspired pueblo sits against a hillside. Not just any pueblo, but one built with natural materials collected throughout the desert. When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day. Cabot’s pueblo spreads an impressive 5,000 square feet, divided into 35 rooms and adorned with 150 windows and 65 doors. What a sight it is to see!

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the structure’s architecture is a unique sight to behold, there’s more to see here than Cabot’s Hopi-style pueblo. Inside, the house has been turned into a museum with rooms filled with Indian artifacts, artwork, and memorabilia. One not to be missed artifact is Waokiye, a 43-foot sculpture of a Native American head.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled at the feet of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is the Old West just minutes from the desert cities. One of the area’s most beautiful attractions especially if you like to hike, the Preserve is a natural refuge where visitors can discover rare and wonderful wildlife species. Enjoy some of the 20,000+ acres of desert wilderness and over 25 miles of hiking trails, most of which are well marked.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By a quirk of nature there’s water here, too, but it doesn’t usually come in the form of rain. The Preserve is bisected by the San Andreas fault, and this natural phenomenon results in a series of springs and seeps which support plants and animals which couldn’t otherwise live in this harsh environment.

Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete your journey by letting the Palm Springs Aerial Tram do the climbing, 6,000 feet of it. Along the way a wondrous panorama of the desert lands stretches below and beyond. From Mountain Station at the top, there are short nature hikes or longer trails of varying lengths. Be sure to bring a warm jacket as the temperature difference is dramatic at this elevation and snow is not uncommon.

Worth Pondering…

One of the things I had a hard time getting used to when I came to California in ’78 was Santa Claus in shorts.

—Dennis Franz