Barrier Islands Hopping

These islands are like the Florida Keys…but with more hee-haw

When most folks think of Texas in the summertime, visions of barbecue, Lone Star-shaped swimming pools, and the Alamo—but how about dolphins, rocket launches, and sandcastles the size of actual castles? The state’s barrier islands might surprise you.

What the keys are to Florida, the barrier islands are to Texas: a 234-mile string of islands that hug the Gulf of Mexico coast made primarily of sand built up over thousands of years from tidal movements. They range in size from four miles in length to the largest barrier island on Earth. There are seven main islands in total and each one has a distinct personality from the touristy trappings of Galveston to the utter solitude of San Jose.

Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter your summer fun, Texas’ barrier islands deliver. Want some R&R on a remote beach populated almost exclusively by seagulls? You got it. Want to go kayaking in a national park? That’s a distinct possibility. Want to eat foot-long corn dogs and “mermaid soup”? You can and you should—and rest assured no dogs or mermaids were harmed in the making of either of those delicacies. Here’s your guide to the Texas barrier islands.

Aston Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


The northernmost barrier island and by far the most popular with more than 7 million annual visitors, Galveston’s reputation as a summertime beach destination for Houstonians can largely be chalked up to its proximity. Although it has somewhat of a hokey reputation thanks to its Pleasure Pier boardwalk, eccentric mini golf courses, 50 colorful Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle statues around the island, and pyramid-shaped aquarium (Moody Gardens) giving it sort of an Atlantic City of the south look, Galveston has a lot going for it. As evidenced by those previously stated attractions, the 27-mile island is far and away Texas’ quirkiest barrier island teeming with historic architecture, and larger-than-life nautical lore. After all, a city with lofty nicknames like Playground of the South and Ellis Island of the West is bound to at least be intriguing.

Seawolf Park, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hard-to-miss attraction, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a mammoth boardwalk lined with carnival games and enough rides to fill a theme park including the Iron Shark Rollercoaster and the Pirate’s Plunge flume ride.

Related article: Texas Road Trips Sampler

For something a bit more subdued, The Grand 1894 Opera House is an ornate institution, home to popular productions like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The theater harkens to the island’s earliest days when Galveston first emerged as a primary shipping and immigration port in the 1800s.

The Strand, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is The Strand, Galveston’s historic, bayside district filled with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. You’ll also find the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 vessel that now serves as a floating museum of maritime history.

Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a quieter reprieve from the touristy clamor for those looking to soak up the sun.

Jamaica Beach RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follet’s Island

Driving south from Jamaica Beach—and the antithesis of Galveston in terms of hustle and bustle—Follet’s Island is a smaller, 13-mile island that’s largely untouched and undeveloped except for some remote beach houses.

The entire island is one big beach, most of which is quiet and wide-open, providing ample opportunity for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and kayaking. Seeing as the beach is largely undeveloped and open, it’s entirely free to visit and horseback riding is also allowed on the beach.

Birding on the island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Matagorda Island

If you thought Follet’s Island was quiet, just wait until you see what’s next. Further south, Matagorda Island is the most remote barrier island, a 38-mile stretch of solitude only accessible by boat. A far cry from the thrill rides of Galveston, Matagorda is largely comprised of the Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Natural Area.

Private boat, a means of transportation between the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who have a private boat or can charter one the car-free island is a beachy escape for campers willing to forgo the niceties of electricity and running water. This is an undeveloped place preserved for bird watching, saltwater fishing, and hunting. The 20,000 acres of land are open to deer and waterfowl just as long as you keep in mind that the whooping cranes which occasionally flock to the area are endangered and protected.

Related article: Visit SIX Iconic Texas Landmarks on One Road Trip

At night, thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution, stargazing is a popular pastime too.

A ferry connects the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jose Island

Equally, as undeveloped as Matagorda yet easier to access, San Jose Island is the next barrier island down the line. It’s immediately north of populated Port Aransas on Mustang Island where a ferry takes visitors back and forth offering 21 miles of undeveloped beachfront, excellent fishing, and endless beach combing for seashells. Cars are also prohibited in San Jose which is entirely protected as a wildlife sanctuary. Due to the island’s history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam the island and it’s not uncommon to see their offspring on the beach.

Peace and solitude on the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As quiet and untouched as the island seems today, it’s rich with Texas history. This was the first site to fly the American flag on Texas soil when a lieutenant swam ashore from the USS Alabama and planted it in the sand in 1845. A short-lived town on the island called Aransas was razed by Union forces in the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established a miles-long ranch and estate where he once wined and dined with the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The estate is long gone but riches may or may not remain—legend has it the island contains actual buried treasure from pirate Jean Lafitte.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mustang Island

While San Jose offers remote solitude and potential pirate riches, the island on the other side of Aransas Pass is a haven of seafood restaurants, margaritas, beachside festivals, and Easter egg-colored cottages. Mustang Island is a mecca for families, wintering snowbirds, and spring breakers alike, especially in the city of Port Aransas which comprises much of the 18-mile island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pirate Jean Lafitte used to frequent the island, arguably making him the original snowbird or spring breaker (take your choice). And while you likely won’t find buried treasure here, you’re sure to find treasures of other kinds including award-winning sand sculptures, adrenaline-pumping jet ski jaunts, and all the shrimp and redfish you can eat.

Related article: Texas Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way across Texas

For a town with a year-round population of about 3,000, Port Aransas is surprisingly happening and delightfully quirky. For instance, Texas SandFest is an annual springtime attraction (April 15-16, 2023) that features carnival-style snacks, live music, and epic sand sculptures right on the beach. It’s an ideal place to scarf foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at giant sand castles.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Just about every place on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, perhaps best exemplified by Isabella’s. The beachy-chic restaurant sits in a classy community called Cinnamon Shore (named for the fact that Port Aransas’ beaches look like they’re swirled with cinnamon). There you can pair espresso martinis with cheesy baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and something called Mermaid Soup: a curried medley of lobster-coconut broth and shrimp—and mercifully, no mermaids.

To fully immerse yourself in the action-packed island, though, you need to get out on the water, and by that we mean go on a guided jet ski romp. Gettin’ Salty Watersports takes visitors out into the bay and to a couple seashell-strewn islands with lots of thrilling dolphin sightings along the way.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island

The next island is not only the largest in Texas but also the largest barrier island in the world. Clocking in at 113 miles, Padre Island is bookended by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore on the north and beach bars and theme park ride on the south. Naturally, an island larger than the state of Delaware is bound to have a wide array of attractions and Padre Island is the kind of something-for-everyone that runs the gamut from urban outings to all-natural tranquility and nature preserves.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Divvied into North Padre Island and South Padre Island, separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, the top half starts with Corpus Christi, the most populated area in the region. From the Selena Museum and the Texas State Aquarium to beachside breweries and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington, there’s no shortage of sights to enjoy.

North Padre is also home to a national park site, Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world and proof that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan isn’t always a cliche. The 66-mile park protects sea turtles and hundreds of bird species and it’s an ideal haven for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and RV camping on the sand.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the southern side of the channel, South Padre is known equally as a family-friendly getaway and a spring break staple. It’s swarming with beach bars (including Clayton’s, the largest beach bar in Texas, live music, carnival rides, an enormous water park (Beach Park at Isla Blanca), and Gravity Park, an adventure and amusement park with some seriously intense attractions including the Tallest Reverse-Bungee in the World (The Rocket).

Padre Island World Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.

Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats along with thickets of native shrubs and trees are irresistible to migrating birds.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

Of course, with this much mileage of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too, like Isla Blanca Park and South Padre Bayside Beach.

Black skimmer along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brazos Island

The last barrier island is also the teeniest. Brazos Island is a diminutive four-mile island, home to 217 undeveloped acres of seaside wilderness. Located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, it’s a peaceful retreat for swimming, fishing, bird watching, hopeful dolphin-spotting, and camping.

Aside from that, the main draw here nowadays is Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch facility which set up shop on the Boca Chita peninsula.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

When Does the RV Season Begin (and End)

Is there a beginning and an ending to the camping season?

The short answer: It depends. While many resume their RV adventures after the winter months pass, there are plenty of resorts open during all seasons. From Ontario and New York to Florida; British Columbia and Washington state to Arizona.

Utah Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There really isn’t a month that can’t be considered part of the “RV season.” Any of the 365 days can be appropriate for an RV adventure. However, in many parts of the continent, in-season RV camping typically takes place between April and October while off-season makes up the remaining months.

While some RV sites close for the winter, many are open year-round. This article will provide some variations related to the RV season, but first, here are some pros and cons of traveling during the on-season versus off-season.

Gloucester, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Good and Bad for In-Season RV Camping

Choosing to take a trip between the spring and fall is popular mostly for the pleasant weather. Sunny skies always provide a reason to be out and about. There are warmer and longer days and clearer road conditions.

Another reason in-season camping is popular for many is that more tourist attractions are up and running. County fairs, music festivals, amusement parks, and swimming pools are all open during this time of year and seem to be major draws for travelers.

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

On the flip side, in-season traveling also sees crowded conditions within RV parks and tourist spots. Sunny skies don’t just invite a few to come out and play. Many RVers favor this season. Crowded amusement parks and swimming destinations and more people than you might prefer are likely during the in-season.

Riviera Beach, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pros and Cons for Off-Season RV Camping

The biggest positive for RV travel during the late fall and winter months may be the reduced price of RV parks. Like most things, rent at RV resorts may be cheaper during the off-season. To attract more travelers, parks hope the lower rates will help increase business. This goes right along with another positive side of off-season camping: fewer crowds. Whether at a national park, state park, museum, theme park, or RV resort, fewer folks will be there. This is good if you like a bit more peace and personal space.

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

Some cons during this time frame could range from bad weather and poor driving conditions.

This calendar period will not be as good for overly social people. If you love to make lots of new friends with every resort stay, the odds will not be in your favor. 

So, now you have the very long answer: there isn’t an end to the RV Season. When RV season starts is all up to you. Cold versus warm temps; snow-covered ground versus bright sunny skies.

Sonoran Desert RV Park, Gila Bend, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snowbird Destinations

Snowbird locations can contradict all the pros and cons of in-season and off-season camping. Florida is the most popular destination for non-winter fans but Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and other southern border-states and parts of California also qualify.

Shuffleboard, pickleball, swimming, golf, and water aerobics can be found nearly year-round at many southern RV parks. Other favorite indoor activities like bingo, karaoke, and dances are often staples, too.

Hiking trails can be found at virtually any resort or within a few miles providing birdwatching opportunities and hiking and biking outings.

Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some popular destinations for snowbirds include the Rio Grande Valley, South Padre Island, and Rockport-Fulton in Texas; Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and the Keys in Florida; Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma, and Quartzsite in Arizona; and Palm Springs and San Diego in California.

Main Street Downtown Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t limit the trip to large metro areas or well-known snowbird roosts, though. Consider some lesser-known destinations for a more unique adventure or a quieter RV park. Places that come to mind include Temecula and El Centro in California; Las Cruces and Deming in New Mexico; Mobile and Ocean Shores in Alabama; San Antonio and Galveston in Texas; and Biloxi in Mississippi.

State parks and county/regional parks are great for nature lovers.

Boondocking at Quartzsite, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter Destinations

For those who don’t mind a bit of cold and snow, there are some beautiful opportunities to camp up north. Outdoor adventurers have plenty of opportunities for winter activities such as snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and sledding/tubing. Spending evenings in the clubhouse by a roaring fire reading a good book also sounds appealing. While traveling to and from might be a bit more difficult, upon arriving you just might find yourself in a real-life winter wonderland. Don’t exclude the winter destinations completely; they might surprise you.

St. Marys, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasonal Camping Opportunities

As RV sales continue to grow, seasonal camping is becoming more popular with each passing month. Seasonal camping is the act of renting a long-term lot at an RV resort and leaving the RV there even when you aren’t camping.

Seasonal camping reduces the need to pack/unpack, travel, and set up/tear down as often. Arrive. Stay. Enjoy. Less work and more fun are always win-win, right?

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buying a seasonal permit can save you money depending on how often you travel to the RV. Before committing, have an idea of many times throughout the season you will reside there and make sure the cost will be justified.

Obvious, but worth the mention, be sure to visit the resort before purchasing a season pass. If ordering via the internet, remind yourself that online photos might not show all the details of a place. Six months is a long time if you aren’t happy with your surroundings.

Buccaneer State Park, Waveland, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buying and Selling Times

Thinking of upgrading your rig to a newer model? Primarily, we think of spring as the best time but with more RVs being used as a primary residence as well as weekend and holiday travels, the same answer shared about RV season applies here, too. There is no wrong time to sell or to buy. Every day there are plenty of RV sales lots, online ads, and individual buyers ready to take a rig off your hands, and/or place a new set of keys in your hands.

Worth Pondering…

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know that place for the first time.

— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Discover Awe and Adventure in Arizona

Arizona is a wonderland of awe-inspiring sights, bucket-list adventures, and soulful journeys. Start planning your trip with this guide.

Timeless beauty. Mind-boggling geology. Pristine pine forests. Dramatic sun-drenched desertscapes. Old West haunts. Puebloan cliff dwellings. And star-filled dark skies.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona is a wonderland of awe-inspiring sights, bucket-list adventures, culinary delights, and soulful journeys. Now that 2022 has been coined the Year of Arizona Discovery, it’s a perfect time to pack up the car or RV and take a scenic road trip. Arizona has so much to offer with its incredible landscapes, diverse culture, and endless natural playgrounds. Here are a few of my favorite scenic road trips and quaint towns to check out. 

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix to the Sister Cities of Miami and Globe

Heading east from Phoenix on US Route 60 toward Miami, be sure to stop at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden which has desert species from around the world, gentle hiking trails, and rich bird life.

Besh-Ba-Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the classic western town of Miami, visit the Bullion Plaza Museum to explore the ranching and cultural history of this copper mining boomtown. In Globe, you can belly up to the bar for a burger and bloody Mary at the historic Drift Inn Saloon. Cruising the switchbacks through the Salt River Canyon Wilderness Area reveals mountain panoramas and Arizona’s “other Grand Canyon.”

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While in Globe visit Besh-Ba-Gowah, the heartland of the Salado people. The term was originally given by the Apaches to the early settlement of Globe. Roughly translated, the term means “place of metal.” Here visitors will see the partially restored ancient ruin of the Salado people who occupied the site between A.D. 1225 and A.D. 1400. Enjoy the self guided tour of the village which allows visitors to experience the mysteries of those who came before.

Related: Spotlight on Arizona: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Page to Canyon de Chelly

Traveling up US Route 89 from Flagstaff leads to the marvels surrounding Page, gateway to Lake Powell. Drink in dramatic views of the famed Horseshoe Bend stretch of the Colorado River or take a tour of Antelope Canyon and witness the wonders of wind and water erosion in the narrow slots.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, road trip it to the Navajo Nation to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument where towering rock spires, stunning sandstone cliffs, and Ancestral Puebloan art and villages await. 

White House Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Charm of Cottonwood

Located in the heart of Arizona and the heart of wine country, Cottonwood is ideally situated above the heat of the desert and below the cooler temperatures of Arizona’s high country. Surrounded by the red rocks of Sedona to the northeast and Mingus Mountain to the southwest, its lower elevation makes it a perfect spot for your next Arizona adventure.

Related: Best Things to Do in Charming Cottonwood, Arizona

Wine tasting in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Town Cottonwood is known for its Main Street with over 60 businesses including charming boutique hotels, wonderful restaurants, shops, antique stores, and wine tasting rooms. The Verde Valley Wine Trail runs right through town and has more stops here than anywhere else on the trail. Sit back and sip, savor, and enjoy the fruit of the vine in Old Town.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood is also home to Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Less than two miles from Old Town, this landmark has earned a reputation as a favorite fishing hole, bird lover’s paradise, and hiker’s dream. Its trails meander through sycamore and cottonwood trees along the banks of the Verde River making it a jewel in the center of Cottonwood all year round. Visit Cottonwood, the heart of Arizona wine country, where everyone is welcome!

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Verde Valley

A hundred miles north of Phoenix, the Verde Valley region is home to red rocks, green mountains, and scenic journeys. Head to Montezuma Castle National Monument, a 900-year-old, 20-room dwelling built into a limestone cliff—or, hop on the Verde Canyon Railroad luxury train and cruise through the canyons in an open-air viewing car. The Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale features galleries of amazing copper art and artifacts. Oenophiles will appreciate the Verde Valley Wine Trail whose 26 winery stops lead through charming towns like Jerome, Clarkdale, and Cottonwood. 

Related: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Sedona and the Verde Valley

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native American Culture

The territory we’ve come to know as Arizona has only been a state for a relatively short time, the last of the lower 48 to be admitted to the Union. Indigenous people have lived here for millennia.

Navajo Land © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 22 sovereign nations here including the Hopi tribe, the Apache tribe, the Navajo (known as Dineh, “the people,” in the four corners), and the Hualapai, the tribe that manages the famous Grand Canyon West.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The seven Navajo tribal parks and three national monuments in Najavoland are treasured by outdoor enthusiasts. There you will find fascinating rock formations, sandstone canyons, historical sites, and ancient ruins; and visitors have the opportunity to learn about Navajo history, traditions, and culture.

Goulding’s Trading Post, Navajo Land © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While in Tuba City, located on the western Navajo Indian Reservation, check out the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum which features a traditional hogan, handmade rugs, and baskets. Next door is the Navajo Code Talkers Museum dedicated to Navajo veterans who served in the US Marines and used the Navajo language to send encrypted messages during World War II.

Driving through Navajo Land © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, don’t skip the opportunity to visit Tuba City Trading Post, which offers a variety of handmade items like extraordinary Indigenous art, handmade jewelry, and beautiful textiles.

Related: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of Tuba City, Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Worth Pondering…

It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend…You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.

—Peter Bogdanovich, filmmaker

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: The Old West

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon, Sedona and the Verde Valley, and Phoenix and Tucson. Today is a short drive to our final destination in the state’s southeastern part.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring Arizona’s Old West

This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Settlers were first attracted to Arizona’s deserts in the 1800s by the lure of mining and pioneers on the wagon trail soon followed as settlers sought a new life as cattle ranchers, treasure hunters and more. In more recent history, Arizona’s authentic Old West is the backdrop for many Western movies.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Railroad heritage

Your Old West adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Southeastern Arizona. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Related Article: Your Cochise Adventure

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Town Too Tough To Die

Tombstone, the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, is justifiably the most famous of Arizona’s Old Western towns. Starring in dozens of films, Tombstone is very well preserved and visitor-friendly, and most of the attractions here are authentic. Daily reenactments of the shootout are staged at the O.K. Corral. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop in at the Bird Cage Theater, chock-full of Western artifacts and home to the longest-running poker game in Arizona history. The Crystal Palace Saloon (which has been around since 1879) offers an authentic saloon and dance hall experience plus a tasty lunch menu.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone is also the home of Arizona’s oldest continuously published newspaper, the delightfully named Tombstone Epitaph with a small museum behind the Crystal Palace Saloon. Read the original 1881 reports of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and learn how the Epitaph’s editor, John Clum, captured the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Related Article: Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled with Cowboys, Wine, and Mysticism

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finish your visit to Tombstone at Boothill Graveyard. Tombstone’s first city cemetery, Boothill was established in 1879 as the final resting place of law-abiding citizens as well as thieves, murderers, and rustlers alike.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Queen of the Copper Camps

From Tombstone drive south 25 minutes to the delightful and beautifully preserved mining boomtown of Bisbee. Temperatures are cooler in the scenic Mule Mountains where it even snows in the winter.

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in the Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and the Bisbee Restoration Museum chronicle the city’s copper-mining past as the “Queen of the Copper Camps.” During almost a century of mining, 8 billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver, and 2.8 million ounces of gold—along with millions of pounds of zinc, lead, and manganese—were pulled out of the ground here.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not claustrophobic, take the underground tour of the vast Queen Mine. Here you’ll learn how generations of miners bored tunnels, laid dynamite, blew open veins of ore, and trundled it back out.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First International Airport of the Americas

Next take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Related Article: Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast.

We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Butterfield RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

  • Quail Ridge RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Tombstone Territories RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory, Benson
  • Cochise Terrace RV Resort, Benson
  • Tombstone RV Park and Campground, Tombstone
Cochise Terrace RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

One of Arizona’s advantages is a nearly year-round panorama staged with excellent weather. Visitors can see Arizona by car pretty much any time of the year, so the most difficult thing about planning a family road trip is determining the best path to match everyone’s interests. Regardless of which itinerary is chosen, a family road trip through this fascinating state will take in some of our country’s most interesting history and impressive natural wonders.

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

Bartlett Lake: A Sonoran Desert Oasis

There’s an oasis in the desert and it’s called Bartlett Lake

Bartlett Lake is a Verde Valley River Reservoir Lake located 30 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When exploring Arizona, it is always an amazing experience to come upon a lake. With the desert landscape surrounding the water, the lake jumps out as the sapphire hues of the water sparkle against the rugged desert terrain.

There’s an oasis in the desert and it’s called Bartlett Lake. Located in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, Bartlett Lake is one of those Arizona lakes. A man-made reservoir, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for “green”) River.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pristine waters of the Verde River was spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water “sweet waters”. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery, with gentle sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

Located in the Tonto National Forest, Bartlett Lake is less than an hour from downtown Phoenix.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary inflow of Bartlett Lake is the Verde River. A 7,500 square mile watershed, fed by melted snow and runoff. The Verde River flows into Horseshoe Lake and then into Bartlett Lake. When full, Bartlett Lake covers 2,815 acres—more than Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake, combined.

Related: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Bartlett Lake is a water recreation wonderland that includes water skiing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking, swimming, and shoreline camping.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake has been a favorite with fishermen since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Anglers can catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, flathead catfish, crappie, carp, sunfish, and bluegill. Several state-record fish have been caught there. The 1977 smallmouth bass state record tipped the scales at seven pounds. Flathead catfish weighing up to 60 pounds lurk in the depths.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Service camping is available at Bartlett Lake. However, there are no designated campsites or hookups.

Bartlett Lake is open all year. It is most crowded during the hot summer months as visitors swarm to the cool refreshing waters and tranquil nights under the brilliant stars.

Related: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only approach by road is from the west, starting from the dispersed communities of Cave Creek and Carefree. The newly engineered, fully paved, scenic Bartlett Lake Road combined with the expanding Phoenix freeway system offers easy access from the entire Valley of the Sun. Bartlett Lake is 20 miles east of Carefree. From Carefree, take the Cave Creek Road/FR 24 to the Bartlett Road/FR 19 junction. Turn right on this paved highway; it is 13 miles to the lake.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cacti, desert shrubs, and rocky terrain gradually give way to grassy plains as the road climbs to a plateau at 3,300 feet, where a side road forks off north, leading to the more remote Horseshoe Lake. From the junction it is nine more miles downhill to Bartlett Lake, where the grasslands are replaced once more by cacti as the road descends.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic drive through the Sonoran Desert is worth the trip by itself. It was particularly gorgeous on our recent drive to Bartlett in late March when wildflowers and agave blooms colored the landscape. As we approached Bartlett Lake, the hills were a mass of yellow brittlebush along with globemellow, chuparosa, desert primrose, fairy duster, and ocotillo. What a sight!

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And when we arrived at the lake we were rewarded with even more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approaching the lake the road forks and the two branches follow the shoreline north and south, passing various sites for picnics, boat launching, and camping. For day use, the best area is Rattlesnake Cove with shaded tables, fire rings, and showers above a wide, clean, sandy beach. A short walk in either direction along the water’s edge leads to quiet, private coves with interesting rock formations and saguaro near the water. Further north is the main camping area of Bartlett Flats—here the road splits into a number of sandy tracks that end at sites on beaches close to the water.

Related: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Bartlett Lake find a blend of warm desert landscapes with a cool lake oasis, providing visitors the best of both land and water activities.  To the first time visitor who thinks of Arizona as a barren wasteland of sand, think again! There’s just something about the water and the desert and the bright blue sky that makes Bartlett Lake so beautiful.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember, there’s no cost to go to Bartlett Lake so take the drive, marvel at the view and enjoy lunch on the water.

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Phoenix from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

Related Article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Exploring the desert and cacti is so awesome and surreal that you’ll feel like you’re on another planet

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long-term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

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

The saguaros are everywhere—thousands of 30-foot-tall green pillars with nubby arms. No matter where I looked, my brain couldn’t help but turn the centuries-old saguaros into a veritable freak show of desert cartoons. There was a sassy lady with her prickly arms at her hips, an emerald strongman showing off his biceps, and a towering mint skyscraper full of carefully carved bird apartments.

Saguaro in Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (pronounced “sah-wah-roh”) is the universal symbol of the American West. A trip to the Sonoran Desert is not complete without examining one of these famous desert plants. These huge green columnar cacti have fascinated nearly every person who has seen one. To the local Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro cacti are even more important. These giant cacti are not plants to the Tohono O’Odham but a different type of humanity and are viewed as respected members of the Tohono O’Odham Tribe.

Related Article: Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think the Southwest Deserts!

Saguaro in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States and will normally reach heights of 40 feet tall. The tallest saguaro cactus ever measured towered over 78 feet into the air. The saguaro cactus grows like a column at a very slow rate with all growth occurring at the tip, or top of the cactus. It can take 10 years for a saguaro cactus to reach 1 inch in height.

Saguaro in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 70 years of age, a saguaro cactus can reach 6½ feet tall and will finally start to produce its first flowers. By 95-100 years in age, a saguaro cactus can reach a height of 15-16 feet and could start to produce its first arm. By 200 years old, the saguaro cactus has reached its full height reaching upwards of 45 feet tall. Some saguaros have been seen with dozens of arms while others produce none.

Saguaros at Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in Saguaro’s eastern Rincon Mountain District is an eight-mile paved roadway full of breathtaking views and easy pullouts to nab that perfect sunset shot. Be sure to stop at the .25-mile accessible, interpretive Desert Ecology Trail on the northern rim of the drive.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Saguaro at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near the park’s west entrance is a great side trip for families and animal lovers looking to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region. The Museum’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, and a mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants).

Saguaro at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the museum’s trails, visitors get acquainted with desert life.  Enjoy live animal presentations that showcase a variety of desert animals and be sure not to miss Raptor Free Flight where native birds of prey fly so close you can feel the brush of feathers!

Saguaro at Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon. Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Saguaro at White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. One of the special features of Catalina State Park is the amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Related Article: Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

Saguaros at North Mountain Park near Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Saguaros at Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes our journeys begin and end in the same way or with the same emotion. I felt that in the vast Sonoran Desert craning my neck skyward to marvel at the enormous cacti. They are bizarre and cartoonish, yes, but they are also beautiful. Timeless. Centuries-old totems of desert wisdom.

Read Next: Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Discover the Wild Side of Florida at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Be surrounded by wildlife at this state park on Florida’s Gulf Coast

When you think of Florida, your mind probably jumps to the crowds of Disney World or the jam-packed beaches of the coast. But the Sunshine State offers so much more. One of the best—and most underrated—destinations to visit is Homosassa Springs State Park.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many communities are built around their most distinctive feature. The town of Homosassa Springs is not only built around but also named after its most impressive natural wonder. For thousands of years, the Homosassa main spring has lured humans and wildlife alike.

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

Florida’s earliest people camped near the spring’s banks while thousands of fish swirled through the steady flow of freshwater. Today, visitors from around the world come to those very spring banks to take in the same dazzling sight of water and wildlife found in this massive spring.

Related: Myakka River State Park: Place of Abundance Offering Varied Experiences

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Homosassa main spring is the largest in the Homosassa Springs Group which is comprised of nearly thirty springs. Collectively, this group discharges around 65 million gallons of water daily, qualifying this group as a first-magnitude spring and one of the largest springs in Florida.

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

The water boiling out of the 40-foot basin arrives here from the Homosassa springshed that covers about 270 square miles across Citrus and Hernando counties. The above-ground activities by people in the springshed directly impact, either positively or negatively, the quality and quantity of water exiting the springs. These springs form the head of the Homosassa River, which calmly flows west for about eight miles before reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the unique features of the Homosassa headspring is that the main vent flows from three points underground with each vent having different salt content and water quality. The three sources blend together in the basin before exiting down the spring run and into the Homosassa River. Given this, the Homosassa Spring is filled with a variety of saltwater and freshwater fish species but is perhaps best known for its historic value as a warm water haven for wintering West Indian manatees.

Roseate spoonbill at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When Homosassa Springs was a popular train stop in the early 1900s, passengers could picnic and take a dip in the spring while train cars were being loaded up with cedar, crabs, fish, and spring water. On a 1924 visit, Bruce Hoover of Chicago called it “The most beautiful river and springs in the world.” In this regard, Homosassa Springs hasn’t changed much.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as a year-round home for West Indian manatees, the park is also an animal education center with mammals such as panthers, bobcats, foxes, deer, wolves, black bears, and otters; birds such as eagles, hawks, flamingos, vultures, and owls; and, of course, plenty of alligators. Plus, assuming he’s still around and breaking records as the oldest of his kind in captivity, you, too, can meet Lu the hippopotamus, now age 60.

Related: This Week in NASA History: Apollo 11 Launches―July 16, 1969

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

Visitors enter the preserve by taking a tram or a boat ride. You also can walk to the main entrance via the ¾-mile Pepper Creek Trail. The tram is the fastest way to go and it may be your only option if the weather is not cooperating. If the weather cooperates you can opt for the boat. You may see alligators, raccoons, and deer; birds small and large, such as nesting ospreys; and turtles, including the alligator snapping turtles, painted turtles, and red-eared sliders.

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalks. 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 photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.

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

Outside of the park, you can enjoy a shaded walk along Pepper Creek Trail, a ¾-mile multi-use paved trail that connects the Visitor Center on US 19 to the West Entrance of the park. This Great Florida Birding Trail meanders through natural communities, from hydric hammocks to flatwoods. 

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © 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.

Manatee program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 12:30 p.m., get near the bridge between the alligator lagoon and the hippo pool. Lu the hippo is so accustomed to being fed regularly that he entertains with his quirky antics, all the while earning a daily supply of fruits and veggies. Presentations with small live animals take place daily at the Wildlife Encounters Pavilion, too.

Related: The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park has an old-time shine to it, even in 2020. It was originally a 1900s train stop. Passengers walked a short trail to the spring, and the train ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. In the 1940s this spot was turned into a commercial attraction and was expanded in the 1960s. At one point, a commercial 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.

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

The park lies approximately one hour north of Tampa along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s also only 90 minutes from Orlando. Its location makes it a convenient day-trip destination or a stop along the way for RVers headed elsewhere.

Bald eagle at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related: The Top 10 Things to See and Do on Amelia Island

Underwater viewing at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking is free and ample space is available for RVs. No overnight parking, however. Dogs are not permitted to tour the park, but owners can let them stay in their RV or use the complimentary outdoor pet kennel located near the visitor center.

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

World-Class Birding in Arizona

Arizona excels in natural areas and bird-watching locations

No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place.

Lesser goldfinch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items, snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, and a birding field guide. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.

The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Botanical Garden 

Located near Papago Park and Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden offers an excellent opportunity to view desert birdlife up close. These gardens provide excellent habitats for a variety of desert species. The birds may be observed throughout the five informative trails that exhibit different desert habitats and settings. Since each trail has a theme, the birdlife may vary on each trail. 

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds commonly seen include Gambel’s quail, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, white-winged and Inca doves, greater roadrunner, Western screech-owl, Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, gilded flicker, Ash-throated flycatcher, verdin, cactus and rock wrens, black-tailed gnatcatcher, Northern mockingbird, curve-billed thrasher, Abert’s towhee, and Northern cardinal. 

Related Article: Birding in Arizona

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Ramsey Canyon is renowned for its beauty and serenity. It is also an ecological crossroads where plants and wildlife from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts mingle with those from the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor amazing habitat diversity.

Mexican jay at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The diverse wildlife and habitats of Ramsey Canyon may be viewed from the Hamburg Trail. This open-ended route parallels Ramsey Creek through the preserve before climbing 500 feet in a half-mile series of steep switchbacks.

Other wildlife can be seen at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon has been famous among birders and other nature enthusiasts for over a century. Though best known for its diversity of hummingbirds—as many as fifteen species of hummingbirds migrate through Ramsey Canyon—the canyon offers much more. Residents of the canyon include Arizona woodpecker, Mexican jay, canyon wren, bridled titmouse, elegant Trojan, Montezuma quail, and spotted towhee.

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To the north and east of the Tuzigoot Pueblo in the Monument is the Tavasci Marsh, an oasis for birds and other wildlife. The Marsh is a spring-fed freshwater wetland that occupies an abandoned oxbow of the Verde River. Named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, the Marsh feeds into the Verde River, and over 245 species of birds have been documented within the Monument, many of them found in the riparian corridor of the Verde River and the Marsh.

Say’s phoebe at Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird species common to the Monument include Abert’s towhee, ruby-crowned kinglet, curve-billed thrasher, Western kingbird, cactus wren, sora, Gila, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern flicker, Say’s phoebe (pictured above), and lesser goldfinch.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley. The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat.

Related Article: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Pied-billed Grebe at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes, and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The number of waterbirds wintering here has also increased in recent years, and thousands of ducks, grebes, cinnamon teals, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, and other waterbirds are usually present all winter. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.

Great Horned owl at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The small stand of riparian woodland attracts many migratory birds including warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings. You may see mourning dove, white-winged dove, Gambel’s quail, and scaled quail. Several species of sparrows can be found, including lark, vesper, white-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Cassin’s. Members of the flycatcher family including vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe, and black phoebe are common here.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


It’s not just snowbirds that flock to Yuma—nearly 400 species of birds make this a seasonal stop or year-round home because of the area’s diverse habitat.

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s great birding right in the middle of town, thanks to West Wetlands and Gateway parks and the East Wetlands park and trail system. Birds commonly seen include cinnamon teal, common moorhen, white-faced ibis, least bittern, clapper rail, black-necked stilt, ladder-backed, and Gila woodpeckers, verdin, blue grosbeak, lesser goldfinch, greater roadrunner, and numerous flycatchers and warblers.

Related Article: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Farther afield, Imperial, Kofa, and Cibola national wildlife refuges and Betty’s Kitchen Interpretive Area at Mittry Lake provide thousands of acres of diverse desert, mountain, and riparian habitat.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Palm Springs: Like No Place Else

This desert escape never goes out of style

Located in the Coachella Valley with the snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains as a backdrop, Palm Springs has long been an upscale escape for area visitors and famous figures. Movie stars and mob bosses ditched L.A. to vacation here during the town’s first boom in the 1920s, popularizing a Spanish-Mediterranean architectural style.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town received another tourist boost during the ’50s when this became a hip Rat-Pack hangout. They brought with them significant Mid-Century Modern architects who crafted uber-cool homes, many of which were restored in the 1990s, and some of them (like the Kaufmann Desert House and Palm Springs City Hall) is now open to the public.

Coachella Valley near Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the village has grown and attractions consist of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Related Article: Desert Star: Palm Springs

A useful place to start on any road trip is always the local visitor center but in Palm Springs this stop is more essential because of its iconic building. Housed in the Tramway Gas Station building, this landmark structure is considered a prime example of modernist architecture. 

Palm Springs from Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Featuring a distinctive soaring roofline, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places making it the perfect destination to begin a tour of Palm Springs’ famous mid-century architecture. Gather information on areas of interest including a guidebook of notable retro style homes to admire while in town.

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main draw for snowbirds is the year-round sunshine but modern art and architecture buffs are attracted to the works of the architects who put their mark on the town including Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and William Krisel. Given its residents’ penchant for art and design, the area is also home to some of the state’s best vintage shops.

Shopping Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Palm Springs Art Museum is the largest cultural institution in the Coachella Valley offering a collection of contemporary California art, classic Western and Native American art, glass studio art, mid-century architecture, and photography. Marvel at fascinating statues both inside and outside the architecturally-significant building. The area surrounding the museum is filled with public art installations including a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe statue that’s sure to catch everyone’s eye.

Related Article: Good for What Ages You: Palm Springs

The Agua Caliente Cahuilla peoples were among the first to settle here and their descendants have established the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Shopping Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Indian Canyons are one of the most beautiful attractions for any Palm Springs visitor, especially if you love to hike. You can hike Palm Canyon, Andreas Canyon, and Murray Canyon. Unlike other area trails, most of the trails in the Indian Canyons follow running streams. Washingtonia filifera (California Fan Palm), and indigenous flora and fauna are abundant.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a more challenging hike, consider the trailhead tucked fashionably behind the Palm Springs Art Museum. While you’re there, visit one of the many fascinating design and architecture attractions that make the city famous.

Your hike continues from manmade wonders to natural spectacles. The waterfalls of Tahquitz Canyon are truly astounding, flanked by lush greenery and picturesque wildlife. The crisp water rushing past you tumbles 60 feet from apex to completion.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a self-guided hike (ranger-led tours also available several times daily) of this secluded canyon, you can also view rock art, ancient irrigation systems, and native wildlife and plants. Participants must be able to navigate 100 steep rock steps along the 1.8-mile trail. Located at the entrance to the canyon, the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center offers educational and cultural exhibits. The Center offers a display of artifacts, an observation deck, and a theater room for viewing The Legend of Tahquitz Canyon.

Related Article: California’s Timeless Getaway: Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve rinsed off, it’s time for some serious retail therapy at some of the area’s famed vintage and antique dealers. There are tons to choose from but some favorites include the Fine Art of Design, Angel View Thrift Mart, and the Palm Springs Vintage Market, the latter of which is an open-air vintage flea market that takes place the first Sunday of each month.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful San Jacinto Mountains are the backdrop to Palm Springs. You can visit the top of the San Jacinto Mountain via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It’s the world’s largest rotating tramcar. It travels up over 2.5 miles along the breathtaking cliffs of Chino Canyon.

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disembark at the Mountain Station located at an elevation of 8,516 feet where you’ll find two restaurants, scenic observation decks, a natural history museum, documentary theaters, a gift shop, and more than 50 miles of hiking trails. The weather is 30-40 degrees cooler so you can go from warm to cool weather in a 10-minute tram ride. It’s known to have snow as early as November. You can go from a t-shirt to a coat, back to a swimsuit in a fall afternoon. Only in Palm Springs!

Shopping Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Will you be in town Thursday night? If not, rearrange those plans! VillageFest rocks Palm Canyon Drive every week with a dazzling array of delightful fare. Fall hours are 6–10 pm. 

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown Palm Springs transforms into a diverse array of artists, artisans, entertainers, and purveyors of fresh fruits and veggies, flowers, jewelry, snacks, and sweets. Add all that to the great shops, restaurants, clubs, and entertainment venues located along World Famous Palm Canyon Drive—and the result is one of Southern California’s most popular weekly events: VillageFest!

Related Article: Out and About In Southern California

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nosh on finger foods from area restaurants, gaze at visionary pieces by local artists, and shop to the max at a bevy of business stands. The only thing missing is you!

Worth Pondering…

We have 51 golf courses in Palm Springs. He (President Ford) never decides which course he will play until after the first tee shot.

—Bob Hope