Best Bird-watching Trail in Arizona

Arizona offers some of the very best bird watching in the United States

Blame it on the state’s remarkable diversity. Soaring mountains, warm deserts, deep canyons, and rolling grasslands provide welcoming habitats for a wide range of birds. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Important Bird Areas, identified by the National Audubon Society, can be found throughout Arizona but there’s an especially high concentration amid the sky islands in the southeastern corner of the state. These forested mountaintop habitats are surrounded by seas of desert and grasslands creating tightly stacked ecosystems, distinct and isolated. This is the Arizona rainforest, a hotbed of life.

To enjoy an assortment of feathered friends grab your binoculars and cameras and hit some of Arizona’s best birding trails. And these are birding trails, not birding hikes. Birding is hiking interrupted. Finish the trail or don’t finish; it doesn’t matter. Birding is all about the pauses—the stopping and listening and, most importantly, the discovery.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia: Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

The Nature Conservancy protects a stretch of Sonoita Creek at the edge of Patagonia and the verdant floodplain adjacent to the stream as its first project in Arizona.

More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this rare and beautiful Fremont cottonwood-Goodding’s willow riparian forest where gray hawks like to nest. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded in the preserve along with the thick-billed kingbird and Sinaloa wren.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several gentle paths including one along the old railroad grade, another that follows the creek, and a one-mile connector to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. If you want to stretch your legs a little more, the Geoffrey Platts Trail makes a 3.2-mile loop through mesquite-covered hills with views of the mountains and valley.

Details: Hours and hiking access points vary; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 150 Blue Heaven Road, Patagonia. $8, free for age 12 and younger.

Vermillion flycatcher at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia: Paton Center for Hummingbirds

The Paton family began welcoming strangers to their backyard feeders swarming with hummingbirds in the 1970s. After Marion Paton died, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until the Tucson Audubon Society took over.

Visitors travel from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona backyard and watch clouds of hummingbirds. It’s a lovely, small town way to spend an hour.

Details: Open dawn to dusk daily. 477 Pennsylvania Avenue, Patagonia. Free; donations are appreciated.

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

Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Almost 200 species of birds have been seen in high-walled Ramsey Canyon, a lush defile in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista that’s managed by the Nature Conservancy.

A single trail starts from the back of the visitor center past several hummingbird feeders buzzing with activity. After all, Sierra Vista is known as Arizona’s Hummingbird Capital where 15 species of small winged jewels have been sighted.

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

The path moseys alongside Ramsey Creek for about a mile beneath a canopy of shade. Big sycamore trees drape the stream with oaks and pines filling the canyon. Summer avian visitors include the painted redstart, black-headed grosbeak, and black-throated gray warbler. Surprise visitors like the flame-colored tanager and Aztec thrush are occasionally seen.

Past the small ponds that provide habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, the trail turns into the woods and switchbacks up to an overlook with nice views.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to Mondays from March 1 through October 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford. Parking is limited; try to arrive early. $8 per person, free for ages 12 and younger.

Sierra Vista: Brown Canyon Trail

If the small parking area at Ramsey Canyon is full, the trail to historic Brown Canyon Ranch makes a nice alternative. Meander through rolling grasslands dotted with manzanita and oak in this shallow canyon.

Resident birds include the Mexican jay, bridled titmouse, and Montezuma quail. Look for elegant trogon and Scott’s oriole in the summer. A small pond at the old ranch site attracts many water loving species. Trailhead is on the north side of Ramsey Canyon Road, two miles from State Route 92. 

Lesser Goldfinch at San Pedro House

Sierra Vista: San Pedro River

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area protects a 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River. This slender forest of cottonwood and willow trees creates some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest.

Start at the historic San Pedro House and, as with all birding trails, go only as far as you like. Follow the path through the grassy meadow to the river.

Curved bill thrasher near San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A network of trails follows the bank of the San Pedro in both directions skirting oxbows and loops around a pond named for the elusive green kingfisher. Other sightings might include vermilion flycatchers, lesser goldfinch, summer tanagers, and yellow-breasted chats.

Details: San Pedro House, operated by The Friends of the San Pedro River, is nine miles east of Sierra Vista on SR 90. It will be open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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

Wilcox: 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. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.

Sora 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. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

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. 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.

Green teal at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overnight camping is allowed in designated areas only, for no more than three days within a seven day period. Camping is free; however, no utilities are available. There is a vault toilet on site. Open fires are allowed in designated areas only.

Details: Open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day

Related article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Valley: Madera Canyon

South of Tucson and west of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is carved from the Santa Rita Mountains. The road into the narrowing gorge climbs from desert grasslands to mixed woodlands shading a seasonal stream.

More than 250 species of bird have been documented in these varied habitats. Favorite sightings include elegant trogon, elf owl, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, and painted redstart.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Madera Creek Trail follows the stream and has multiple access points. The Carrie Nation Trail branches off from Old Baldy Trail, tracing the creek bed deeper into the canyon. It’s a good place to see elegant trogons in April and May. 

Non-hikers can enjoy the picnic areas and the free viewing area at the Santa Rita Lodge, filled with hummingbirds and other desert species.

Old Baldy Trail at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details: $8 day-use pass for Madera Canyon is sold on site.

Related article: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

Read more: Now is the Time to Discover Madera Canyon, a Hiking and Birding Paradise

Gambel’s quail at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oro Valley: Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the high diversity of bird species, the National Audubon Society has designated the park as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The species count has reached 193 and includes several much sought-after birds such as Gilded Flicker, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Varied Bunting. 

Gilded flicker at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The makeup of birds in the park varies with the seasons. Spring and summer birds include noisy Brown-crested Flycatchers, beautiful Blue Grosbeaks, and the tiny Lucy’s Warblers. In the early fall, waves of migrants pass through including Lazuli Buntings, Western Tanagers, and several kinds of warblers. Winter brings in a variety of birds that nest in the north such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, and several species of sparrows. Permanent residents include Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and many other Sonoran Desert species.

The many trails in the park provide great opportunities to see birds. In addition, there are regular bird walks from October into April led by local experts. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area.

Related article: Catalina State Park: Sky Island Gem

Read more: Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona: Red Rock State Park

Red Rock State Park is located 5 miles west of Sedona off State Highway 89A on the lower Red Rock Loop Road. A bird list is available upon request. This park makes a great introduction for novice birders. Guided bird walks take place at 8 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The park has an abundance of resident and migratory birds that can be appreciated by park visitors. A five-mile network of trails loops through this park. The Kisva Trail and Smoke Trail are easy strolls along the banks of Oak Creek beneath the shade of cottonwood, sycamore, velvet ash, and alder trees where you might spot wood ducks and common mergansers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Non-hikers can settle in on the patio beside the visitor center. It’s with hummingbird feeders.

Details: 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona. $7, $4 for ages 7-13. Pets are not allowed. 

Related article: Color Your World at Red Rock State Park

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Sedona

Conclusion

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. A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items: snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, a birding field guide, binoculars, and camera. 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.

Plan your trip:

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

The park, located north of Tucson was closed last week after rains caused a wash to flood

Some 300 campers were stranded at Catalina State Park last week after heavy rains caused the Cañada del Oro wash to overflow. The park is located next to the Town of Oro Valley, 6 miles north of Tucson.

They headed back to dry land on Wednesday (January 18, 2023) as park rangers helped campers walk across the receding wash at the park’s entrance. The only road out of the campground was filled with wet sand making it impossible to drive across.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What stops people isn’t the water. It’s the sand.

“Doesn’t matter if you have four-wheel drive, you are going to get stuck,” said Catalina State Park manager Steve Haas. “You are going to get stuck. It is not the water that is going to stop you. It is about 4 to 5 feet of sand from the bottom of the road that is stopping people.”

The park reopened Friday, January 20 as crews continued to clear flooding debris and create a safe path to drive across near the park entrance. Visitors were requested to observe all rules distributed by rangers when entering the park and to use caution as flooding is still possible. Parking is only allowed in designated parking spots.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition, Catalina State Park released the following Facility Information, available on its website:

  • Significant rain and weather events may require day-to-day decisions on remaining open. The fire caused significant runoff and debris that can be dangerous to staff and the public.
  • Many areas of the park look different than they did prior to the Bighorn Fire. The burned areas host hazards such as fallen rocks, trees, debris, and potential flash flooding, and visitors enter these areas at their own risk.
  • Roads near campsites may face flash flooding which could prohibit campers from leaving the park until flooding subsides. 
  • We encourage advance reservations for overnight camping and RV sites.
  • Please maintain awareness of your surroundings and the weather at all times while visiting the park.
Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, this was the only flooding in the park and the campground was not affected. It would be really bad if there was this obstacle plus a whole bunch of flooding where people are located. That was not the case.

Many campers had been at Catalina since the holiday weekend. Some had been making the trek across the wash by foot to get food and supplies in Oro Valley.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A lot of people’s lives were interrupted but they were in a good spot.

Crews worked on Wednesday to try and dig out the sand and waiting for the water level to go down before letting people drive through. Haas said the campers aren’t in any danger. “They are totally safe on the campgrounds. It is outside the floodplain,” said Haas.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rangers said the flooding happens regularly during the summer monsoons. But campgrounds aren’t as busy during the summer.

“This past summer, we were closed 20 nights because of this,” said Haas.

The Big Horn Fire in 2020 took out a lot of vegetation making runoff from rainwater more extreme. The Canada del Oro arroyo and its tributaries carry runoff from the Santa Catalinas during rain storms—a common occurrence that can and does often lead to flooding during monsoon but something that occurs less frequently in the winter.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We found ourselves in a similar situation in February 2010 when we were campimg at Catalina State Park. Since we were self-contained and planned to spend a week camping in the park we were basically unaffected by the flooded wash. The photos in this article were taken at that time.

Campers were eager to get home but grateful to be safe. “We have bathrooms over there, we have fresh running water. This is Arizona, it doesn’t get cold. So, we are fine, but we are ready to go,” said one camper.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona State Parks officials said there are plans and a budget to build a bridge over the wash in the coming years so flooding won’t continue to be a common occurrence. Funding has been approved and the bridge is a work in progress in collaboration with ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation).

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 170 species of birds call the park home.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

One hundred twenty campsites are available that have electricity, and water, and are either tent or RV ready. The campground is located in the shadows of the famed Catalina Mountains. Native birds and wildlife abound and help make any camping trip a memorable experience. Two RV dump stations are available in the park.

Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Details

The park is open year-round

Entrance fee: $7 per vehicle (1-4 Adults)

Camping fee: $25 per vehicle per night

Catalina State Park crews clear a path through the flooded wash © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day use hours: 5 am.-10 pm. daily

Visitor center/park store hours: 8 am.–5 pm. daily

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dorothy B. Hughes

An Unforgettable 3-Day Road Trip through Southern Arizona

See historic Spanish missions, sky islands, Arizona’s first wine region, and more on this journey from Tucson

The Southwest shines on this route through the saguaro-studded desert up into high mountains where rare birds flit and spectacular sunsets give way to dark skies spangled by stars. Tucson anchors this tour, rich in history, and resonates with the scents of great food and local wines. Consider adding a couple of days to the beginning or end of the trip to explore Saguaro National Park whose two districts are each about 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. ​​​

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 1: San Xavier del Bac, Tumacácori, and Tubac Presidio (57 miles)

Explore Southwestern history on visits to three Spanish colonial missions and enjoy the opportunity to stock up on spices. En route, you’ll encounter dramatic mountain vistas.

From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 19 for 8 miles and take exit 92 for San Xavier del Bac Mission. Fondly known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. 

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means Desert People. The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino established the original mission here in 1692.

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This dramatic, sugar-white church with a masonry vault roof was completed 105 years later. A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and are coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.

San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures, and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are draped in real clothing.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive south on I-19 another 39 miles to the serene Tumacácori National Historical Park. Indigenous peoples including the Nde, O’odham, and Yoeme frequented this lush area along the Santa Cruz River for generations.

The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit and later Franciscan priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Explore the evocative grounds where many adobe structures have melted back into the earth. Enter the striking ruins. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue on I-19, but pause just one-third of a mile down the road at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. The wonderfully fragrant store sells everything from adobo to whole sage leaves. Don’t miss the house-made hot sauces which add jalapeños, green chiles, and spices to a tomato base.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backtrack north 4 miles on I-19 to the artsy town of Tubac for dinner at Elvira’s which serves contemporary Mexican dishes in a chic dining room. Be adventurous and try the hazelnut mole.

This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is located on the site of the former fort. This is Arizona’s first state park hosting a world-class museum and bridging Tubac’s past life to its destiny as an artist colony.

Where to camp: De Anza RV Resort, Amado (8 miles north of Tubac)

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Madera Canyon, Tombstone, and Bisbee (124 miles)

Start on a sky island, an isolated mountain that steeply rises above the desert daytime heat and overall harsh and dry conditions. Fifty-five of these peaks form the Madrean Archipelago stretching from Mexico into the Southwest and featuring some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

Driving upward can mimic a trip north to the Canadian border as you pass through dry scrub, grasslands, and oak and pine forests while ascending to where alpine species flourish. These ecosystems provide a refuge for humans and animals alike and offer world-class birding such as Madera Canyon, 12 miles southeast from Green Valley on I-19. This area perched high on the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains attracts 15 hummingbird species including the rare Calliope, North America’s tiniest feathered friend.

Proctor parking area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a good stroll, try the Proctor loop: a paved, accessible, three-quarters-of-a-mile route that departs from the first Madera Canyon Recreation Area parking lot. You may see deer and songbirds along the trail and look for the Whipple Observatory shining off to the west on Mount Hopkins.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amp things up in Tombstone, 65 miles to the east mainly via state routes 83 and 82. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes. Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons.

This town leans into its Western heritage especially the 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral which pitted corrupt, power-hungry lawmen against cowboys who moonlighted as thieves and murderers.

OK Corral © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fierce gunfight was quick and when the bullets stopped flying, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury lay dead. Billy’s brother, Ike Clanton kept his life that day but was eventually murdered near Springerville, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp needed weeks to recover from serious wounds but Doc Holliday was barely grazed by a bullet. Surprisingly, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Actors re-create the gunfight three times daily (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.) and many locals and visitors wear period dress throughout the compact historic center where stagecoaches still kick up dust.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience a different slice of Gilded Age history in Bisbee, 23 miles southeast on SR 80. Mining started here in 1887, thanks to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The “Queen of the Copper Camps” grew into the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco for a spell. It faltered when the mine closed in 1975 though it found new life as a refuge for artists, bohemians, and retirees. Check out its galleries and unique shops such as downtown’s Óptimo Custom Hatworks which sells stylish toppers made from toquilla straw and beaver- and rabbit-fur felt.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking the steep streets can be quite a workout. Refuel at Table on Main Street with drunken mushrooms sautéed in a garlic cream sauce made from Old Bisbee Brewery’s European-style pilsner.

Where to stay: Tombstone RV Park, Tombstone. In Bisbee, book one of 12 vintage trailers or even a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht at the Shady Dell, 4 miles southwest of town, primarily reached via SR 80.

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

Day 3: Wine country and Tucson (158 miles)

Wineries don’t readily come to mind when I think of Arizona but the state has a thriving and growing wine industry. Wine making in Arizona dates back to the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of this area. The modern wine era began in the 1970s. Arizona winemaking has grown from a curiosity to a serious scene since then.

Arizona has three wine trails—Sonoita/Elgin, Verde Valley, and Willcox. The Sonoita/Elgin region is where the modern Arizona wine era began. There are 10 wineries on the trail. 

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 70 miles west on state routes 80, 90 and 82 to Patagonia, a wine country hub known for its quirky cafés and boutiques. For lunch, stop at downtown’s Velvet Elvis—honoring the Mexican painting style, not the King—which the governor’s office named an Arizona Treasure. Try the Pancho Villa pizza with Asiago, jalapeños, and house-made beef chorizo.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Patagonia drive 13 miles northeast on SR-82 to Sonoita. Located right off of the main road heading into Sonoita, Dos Cabezas WineWorks has been serving up its wine since 1995. The wines are made with all estate-grown grapes and are mostly blends (except for their single varietal Syrah). Their blends are made using several different varietals and cover the gamut of whites, Rosés, and reds. The La Montaña may be the most memorable because it is a 50/50 blend of the bold Syrah and Petit Verdot. 

Drive northeast another 7 miles to Rune Wines the state’s only solar-powered off-the-grid vineyard. Rune is located at the top of the hill between mile markers 39 and 40 on Highway 82 in Sonoita (that’s how directions are given around here) and overlooks the beautiful Arizona landscape.  It offers tastings outside under a shade canopy where you can soak up panoramic views of the high desert grasslands. For a well-balanced red, the 2019 Wild Syrah pleases with bold berry notes.

The Old Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 82 percent of Arizona land is owned by Native tribes and state and federal governments large roadless stretches remain on the map. Since you can’t head directly west, backtrack 55 miles northwest to Tucson for the night mainly on SR 82 and I-10. Head to Tito & Pep, a bistro known for mesquite-fired cuisine for dinner. Seasonally shifting vegetable dishes dazzle here especially the roasted carrots with labneh, pomegranate, and sunflower seeds.

Where to stay: Tucson/Lazydays KOA or Rincon West RV Resort

Plan your road trip through southern Arizona with these resources:

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

21 Arizona RV Parks You Must Visit

Explore this guide to find some of the best places to camp in Arizona

The state of Arizona is an ideal destination for anyone who loves to travel and camp with an RV. Known as the Grand Canyon State, Arizona is famous for its low amount of rainfall, stunning natural scenery, and plenty of sunshine. Temperatures stay relatively warm throughout most of the year, even in January and February making the state a prime escape from the winter weather elsewhere.

A key factor in planning an RV road trip is selecting RV campgrounds. Choices for RV parks include public campgrounds, luxurious RV resorts, activity-filled family destinations, 55+ parks, secluded natural settings, and basic parks conveniently located for an overnight stay. The quality varies from budget to high-end resorts. And prices also run the gamut.

Here are my top 21 picks for Arizona RV parks, campgrounds, and resorts.

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

Vista Del Sol RV Resort, Bullhead City

This area needed a new 5-star RV resort and in November 2015 a new Roberts resort opened with paved streets. The 88-wide concrete sites are terraced both back-ins and pull-ins in the 65-foot range with paved sites and patios.

The pull-in sites face the west-northwest with views of the hills and mountains as well as Bullhead City, Laughlin, and the Colorado River. 50/30/20-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are conveniently located. Resort services include Wi-Fi, two pools, one spa, a fitness room, a billiards/game room, daily activities, Doggie Park, gated entry, and a clubhouse with a commercial kitchen and serving area for groups. Within this gated 55+ community, one can also purchase a 400 sq. ft. model home or a manufactured home in varied sizes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

The camping area offers 120 electric and water sites with a picnic table and BBQ grill. Amenities include modern flush restrooms with hot showers and RV dump stations. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park

Eagle View RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eagle View RV Resort at Fort McDowell, Fort McDowell

Eagle View RV Resort is far enough away from the hustle of Phoenix and Scottsdale but still close to numerous attractions. The resort has 150 full hookup sites with beautiful views of Four Peaks, part of the Mazatzal mountain range. Amenities include a swimming pool, dog run, fitness center, complimentary pastries and coffee in the mornings, and a clubhouse with an HDTV, pool table, computer room, and library.

If you feel like trying your hand at blackjack or poker, Fort McDowell Casino is less than a mile up the road. The park is also a short drive from the city of Fountain Hills which is home to golf courses and one of the largest fountains in the world.

Canyon Vista RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon Vistas RV Resort, Gold Canyon

Canyon Vistas RV Resort is nestled at the base of the Superstition Mountains in the Gold Canyon area southeast of Phoenix. Here you’re beyond the noise and congestion of the city, yet minutes from shopping and entertainment. Enjoy a morning walk or bike ride amid a stately hundred-year-old Saguaro cactus or keep in shape at the state-of-the-art Fitness Center.

Meet your friends for a round of golf at the pitch and putt course followed by a cool drink on the covered veranda. Go hiking, boating, and horseback riding in the nearby mountains. Other amenities include ceramics, wood carving, lapidary, pickleball, computer lab and classes, quilting and sewing room, pools and spas, tennis courts, and a pet area.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, Williams

Set in the mountain community of Williams—Gateway to the Grand Canyon—the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park is the ideal place to unwind and relax. The park has three types of RV spaces: select from pull-through, buddy spaces, or back-in sites. All spaces are 50-amp and large enough for big rigs. Each space comes with high-definition digital TV provided by DirecTV, wireless Internet, and access to the indoor swimming pool and hot tub at the adjacent Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. The property has coin-operated laundry machines and a common picnic area with gas grills and a fire pit.

Take the historic train from Williams into Grand Canyon National Park. Adjacent to the historic train depot, Grand Canyon Railway RV Park is just two blocks away from Route 66 and downtown Williams.

Arizona Oasis RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona Oasis Resort, Ehrenburg

Located on the Colorado River in Ehrenberg, Arizona Oasis RV Resort is a perfect RV park getaway spot. Just across the state line from Blythe, California, Arizona Oasis is just 20 minutes from Quartzsite. Big-rig friendly the resort has over 150 RV sites on or near the Colorado River. The gated resort offers 50/30 amp service, water and sewer hookups, full-through and back-in sites, 1,000 feet of Colorado River beach, a boat launch, heated pools and a spa, a dog park, free Wi-Fi, and a clubhouse. 

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson/Lazydays KOA, Tucson

Tucson/Lazydays KOA Resort features citrus trees throughout the park and offers pull-through RV Sites with full 30/50-amp hookups, grassy luxury sites, and new RV sites with a patio and fireplace. Whether you want to relax by one of the two pools, soak in the hot tubs, play a round on the nine-hole putting green, or join in the activities, this park has something for everyone to enjoy.

Two solar shade structures allow guests to camp under a patented structure that produces solar energy. The structures shade more than two acres of the campground giving visitors room to park RVs on 30 covered sites. Lazydays, a full-service RV dealership with a service department is located next door. Other campground amenities include a bar and grill, meeting rooms, fitness center, three off-leash dog parks, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

Butterfield RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory, Benson

A 5-star park, Butterfield RV Resort, and Observatory is a 55+ park with pull-through and back-in sites. Our back-in site (#120) is 55 feet in length and over 30 feet in width. 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are located near the rear of the site. The park is clean and well-maintained. Interior roads are asphalt; back-in sites are gravel with pull-through sites asphalt. The park is easy-on easy-off (I-10 at Exit 304, south one-half mile on Ocotillo Avenue) and is conveniently located immediately behind Safeway and near downtown. The highest-rated park in Benson we’re pleased with Butterfield and would return.

Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort, Casa Grande

All RV sites at Palm Creek are back-ins with a minimum of 50 feet in length and 40 feet in width. All sites come equipped with patio pads and full hookups, including 50-amp electric service, cable TV, water, sewer, and Wi-Fi service. Amenities include a championship Par-3 golf course, 4 swimming pools, Jacuzzi tubs, an on-site bistro, pickleball, and tennis courts, lawn bowling, a softball field, a fitness center, a ballroom, 4 laundry facilities, and 9 dog parks.

La Quintas Oasis RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Quintas Oasis RV Resort, Yuma

Big-rig friendly, La Quintas Oasis RV Resort is a 55+ park with 460 full-service sites. Easy-on easy-off (I-8; Exit 12 on North Frontage Road) the park has wide paved streets. Pull-through sites are in the 70-foot range with ample space. Back-in sites are 60+ feet in length and 35 feet wide. La Quintas Oasis has a heated pool, hot tub, horseshoes, recreation hall, game room, planned activities, shuffleboard, exercise room, pickle ball courts, and mini golf.

Sonoran Desert RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoran Desert RV Park, Gila Bend

After a day of rolling through the dramatic and diverse Sonoran Desert, you can roll your rig right into this oasis in the desert. It’s so convenient with the easy-on/easy-off access from both I-8 and SR-85. Formerly, Gila Bend KOA, the campground was built for RVers by RVers and it shows! You’ll find roomy, 100-foot full-hookup pull-through sites throughout the park—all big rig friendly.

Relax by the heated pool or just soak up the desert views and dark evening skies from your site. Fido will love the 4,000-square-foot Canine Corral with three separate corrals (two with grassy areas). Amenities include Wi-Fi throughout the park, a laundry facility, a putting green, a heated pool, and a recreation hall Ranch House with a 2,500 sq. ft. veranda that’s perfect for savoring a brilliant sunset at day’s end. 

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park, Eloy

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and, often in the spring, overlook a sea of wildflowers. The park offers a visitor center with exhibits and a park store, a playground, historical markers, a campground, and picnic areas. Many hiking trails traverse the desert landscape and offer hikers both scenic and challenging hikes.

The campground has a total of 85 electric sites suitable for RVs and/or tents. Four sites are handicapped-accessible. No water or sewer hookups are available. Access to all sites is paved. Sites are fairly level and are located in a natural Sonoran Desert setting.

Rain Spirit RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain Spirit RV Resort, Clarkdale

Overlooking Tuzigoot National Monument and Verde River, Rain Spirit RV Resort is a new park with 63 full-service sites including 30/50-amp electric service, cable TV, and the Internet. Amenities include private restrooms/showers, a fitness room, laundry facilities, a recreation room, a library lounge, a pool and spa, and a dog run. This 5-star resort is a great home base from which to explore the historic town of Jerome, Sedona Red Rock Country, and Old Town Cottonwood, and book an excursion on the Verde Valley Railway.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa

Usery Mountain Regional Park is set at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to all visitors.

The park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and is a developed site with water and electric service, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. The park provides restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park, Apache Junction

Lost Dutchman State Park is your gateway to amazing Sonoran Desert experiences and memories. Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located at the base of the Superstition Mountains on Apache Trail (SR-88), 5 miles northeast of Apache Junction.

The campground has 138 sites: 68 sites with electric (50/30/20 amp service) and water and the remainder of non-hookup sites on paved roads for tents or RVs. Every site has a picnic table and a fire pit with an adjustable grill gate. There are no size restrictions on RVs. Well-mannered pets on leashes are welcome. Five camping cabins are situated perfectly so visitors can take advantage of both the sunrise and sunset right from the porch.

Leaf Verde RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaf Verde RV Resort, Buckeye

Leaf Verde RV Resort offers spacious back-in and pull-through RV sites with full hookups including 20/30/50-amp electric service. Enjoy gravel pads with concrete patios, complimentary Wi-Fi to keep you connected, and a picnic table for your outdoor enjoyment. Other amenities include a swimming pool, shuffleboard, game room, clubhouse, pet area, laundry facilities, restroom, and shower facilities. Located in the West Valley off Interstate 10 at Exit 114.

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

White Tank Mountains Regional Park, Waddell

Nearly 30,000 acres make this the largest regional park in Maricopa County. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains on the Valley’s west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons, rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet. Infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows, pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges, have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and all offer water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and a nearby dump station. All restrooms

Destiny RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Destiny RV Resort, Goodyear

A walled and gated community, Phoenix Destiny RV Resort offers 20/30/50-amp service on every site, a heated pool and spa, fitness center, laundry facility, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, pickleball courts, putting green, billiard room, and fenced-in pet areas and a shaded turf dog run. The RV resort is clean, well-maintained, and attractively landscaped with an abundance of citrus and other trees and shrubs. Interior roads and sites are asphalt; the picnic table is conveniently located on concrete. Destiny offers a quiet, peaceful, and friendly atmosphere with easy access to I-10 (Exit 123; Citrus Road). Our pull-through site (#263) is in the 55-foot range.

Blake Ranch RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blake Ranch RV Park and Horse Motel, Kingman

Easy-on easy-off (I-40, Exit 151), Blake Ranch RV Park is a convenient location to overnight and for a longer stay to explore the area. The RV park offers long and wide and level pull-through and back-in sites with 30/50 electric, water, sewer, cable TV, and Wi-Fi. Amenities include a park store, private showers and bathrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, a recreation room, and a horse motel. There’s plenty to do and see in the area. The park is 12 miles east of Kingman and Historic Route 66 and the ghost towns of Chloride and Oatman are easy day trips.

Twin Peaks Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twin Peaks Campground, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Stop by Twin Peaks Campground, and you’ll feast your eyes on a fantastic collection of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert as well as some stunning vistas. You’ll find a showcase of nature’s creatures who have adapted to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this region. Thirty-one species of cactus have mastered the art of living in this place including the park’s namesake and the giant saguaro. The location comes with a 360-degree view of gorgeous desert scenery including a broad valley to the south and small hills to the north and west, all packed with huge cacti. It is a perfect setting for colorful sunrises and sunsets.

The main campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Twin Peaks Campground is a sprawling outfit that boasts 208 sites. January through March is the peak season for the campground and reservations are required. Sites don’t offer hookups (but do allow generators) but with all the spectacular scenery, you won’t miss that convenience at all.

Distant Drums RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Distant Drums RV Resort, Camp Verde, Arizona

Distant Drum RV Resort is conveniently located along I-17 (Exit 289) across the Interstate from Castle Cliff Casino and a short distance from Montezuma Castle National Monument. The interior roads and sites are paved and the park is well maintained but many sites are not level.

The park features 157 spacious RV sites with concrete pads. Each site comes with full hookups, including 30/50 amp electrical service, cable TV, and Wi-Fi throughout the park. All brand new amenities include an events center, lending library, heated pool and Jacuzzi, laundry facilities, exercise room, spacious dog run, and country store.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

Tucson Is For the Birds and Birders

The Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all but here are a few favorites to get you started

Tucson, Arizona, isn’t just a haven for snowbirds. It also is known as a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.

Tucson is for the birds, or maybe better said, Tucson is for birders. With the area’s desert, mountains, forests, mild winters, and proximity to tropical Mexico, sightings of more than 500 species of birds have been recorded.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a surprising diversity of birds here, thanks to what Tucson Audubon calls a perfect storm: varied elevations; generally mild climate; Sky Island ranges linking the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre; influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts; migratory flyways; and tropical areas south of the border.

I enjoy capturing photos of everything from butterflies and dragonflies to reptiles and mammals and that includes birds. As a person who likes being out in nature and one who appreciates observing and photographing wildlife, here are five of my favorite nature spotting and birding locations in and near Tucson.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located in northeast Tucson at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. This picturesque canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, part of Coronado National Forest, is one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Although no private vehicles are permitted in the canyon, a tram service is available. Visitors can take an enjoyable and educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile narrated tram ride through the canyon. Trams stop at several trailheads, providing access to 30 miles of trails throughout the canyon.

Vermilion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the wide variety of mammals in the canyon, birders might spot vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxias, gray hawks, western tanagers, phainopeplas, and peregrine falcons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Many folks picture the saguaro cactus (the largest cactus in the United States) when they think of Tucson. One great place to see a vast collection of these majestic plants is another of my favorite spots, Saguaro National Park which actually is two parks in one. One district lies east of Tucson (Rincon Mountain District) and the other is to the west (Tucson Mountain District); approximately 30 miles separate them. Both have well-maintained roads and numerous hiking trails. Note that vehicles more than 8 feet wide and trailers longer than 35 feet are not permitted on Cactus Forest Drive (east park) or Bajada Loop Drive (west).

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of the districts has distinctive characteristics. The west park has the greatest number of saguaro cacti, as well as an ancient petroglyph site. Visitors may spot birds and other wildlife in both parks. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, American kestrel, northern goshawk, and cactus wren, among many other species.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area and Saguaro National Park West. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Mexican gray wolf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 

On my “must visit list” is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson (adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and Tucson Mountain Park). The gardens at the museum have walking paths through a vibrant Sonoran Desert ecosystem that is home to native plants, butterflies, and birds. The museum also has natural enclosures (not traditional zoo enclosures) with mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican gray wolves, gray foxes, and other mammals native to the area, plus a free-flight bird aviary and a hummingbird aviary.

Raptor free flight demonstration © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A highlight of this is the raptor free-flight demonstration which provides an up-close look at hawks, falcons, and owls native to this part of Arizona. It was such an amazing display and photo opportunity that you plan to return a second day to take more photos.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

The fifth location is widely known among birders—Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon lies south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Santa Rita Lodge (located at 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road in Madera Canyon) offers overnight accommodations, as the name would suggest, but it also has a bird feeding area that is open to the public. Free parking is available for those visiting the viewing area which has limited seating and is wheelchair accessible.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, you can view and photograph a wide variety of birds in a natural setting. A telephoto lens in the 400mm to 500mm range works well. Among the wide variety of birds attracted to the area are the yellow-eyed junco, flame-colored tanager, painted redstart, Mexican jay, crescent-chested warbler, and 15 species of hummingbirds. You might also get a glimpse of an elegant trogon, a prized sighting for birders in southern Arizona.

Coronado National Forest offers several trails in the area with limited parking at the trailheads.

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

Tucson boasts a wide array of natural and man-made attractions with something to interest everyone, including those who enjoy getting outdoors in nature. It is a renowned birding destination for visitors from far and near. It also is popular among snowbirds and other RVers, and RV campgrounds and resorts abound in the area.

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

As mentioned earlier, the Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all. In addition to the five birding locations listed above, you may wish to explore the following:

  • Tohono Chul
  • Tucson Botanical Gardens
  • Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
  • San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
  • Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
  • Ramsey Canyon

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark

Just south of Tucson, San Xavier del Bac Mission stands as an active church, an architectural wonder, and a testament to the Jesuit priest who founded it 300 years ago

Located nine miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, off Interstate 19, San Xavier del Bac is on San Xavier Road, just three miles southwest of Mission View RV Resort, our home base for exploring Tucson and regions south.

One of the oldest and best-preserved Spanish Colonial missions in the United States, its stark white walls and ornate baroque façade dazzle above the flat desert for many miles. Often called the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission is one of eight missions established in Arizona when the Spanish ruled the area.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising out of a sage-filled prairie that seemed to go to the end of the Earth—or at least to Mexico—I didn’t need road signs to guide my toad toward the church.

I explored the beautiful courtyard. Seven graceful arches surround a patio and a fountain once fed by natural springs that probably refreshed horses carrying church-goers.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Catholic mission was founded in 1692 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino and its remarkable building—now a National Historic Landmark—was added roughly 100 years later by Franciscan monks following the Jesuits’ expulsion from the territory. Original plans for San Xavier were for the mission to be the center of a larger system with a dual purpose of providing religious services and educational programs to the native people. This explains the comfortable historic meeting rooms neighboring the church that were built for larger groups to gather.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of the mission began in 1783 and came to an end in 1797, a remarkable endeavor considering the lack of resources in the area. Enduring wars, an earthquake, and harsh elements from the environment, the mission is in remarkable condition as a result of the loving care of the local Tohono O’odham American Indian tribe and is considered the most significant relic north of Mexico.

The Spanish Colonial architectural style is clear with white stucco walls and stunning three-story bell towers shouldering a baroque entryway enhanced with Franciscan reliefs. There is clearly a difference between the twin towers as one appears to be under renovation with parts on the top missing. The visitor quickly assumes the tower is being repaired, but that is not the case.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tower has always looked as it does today and the reason remains a mystery. Old bookkeeping records suggest that taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, and, therefore, the church remained unfinished. Another legend is that the tower has been left in this state until the “Excellent Builder” comes to complete the mission.

On this hot, sunny day, the coolness of the interior was a surprise. The air conditioning available is supplied by nature through intelligent design and expert choice of building materials.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next surprise comes when my eyes adjust to the darkness and my breath is taken away by the beauty and quality of this mission.

The entire structure is roofed with masonry vault making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U.S. borders. Little is known about the people who created the artwork that covers almost every square inch inside, including the ceiling. Some believe that artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico) were probably commissioned by the Spanish royal family.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main gold and red altar is decorated in Mexican baroque style. Its elaborate columns were built in guild workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta valley to the mission.

Research has proven that more than 50 statues were carved in Mexico then transported hundreds of miles to be gilded by local American Indian artists before installation. Once the sculptures were in place, area craftsmen—some of them ancestors of the mission’s current restoration workers and caretakers—added clothing created from gesso.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, San Xavier del Bac became the property of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan friar departed shortly thereafter and the mission lost all funds with which to maintain the facilities. The Tohono O’odham did what they could, operating a school for many years and protecting the mission from Apache raids.

In 1854, the United States purchased the area with the Gadsden Purchase and San Xavier once again became a Catholic-held entity under the Diocese of Santa Fe.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many more transitions of ownership followed including a time when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school for Tohono O’odham children. Within my generation, the mission became a nonprofit entity, supported partially by the Catholic Church. Mass is still held every weekend and is open to the public.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout these years, only basic care was performed to prevent the daily decay of the massive ornate interior and its thousands of artifacts and art pieces. Wood was used in most of the carvings which swells and shrinks from variations of climate and humidity. In order to clean the artwork and walls, a special mixed cleaner must be used sparingly and carefully to remove grime without removing paint. Paints were made of natural materials which are almost impossible to replicate today, and fade with time.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the restoration and maintenance work was done inside the church, sometimes on bended knees or lying on the floor. It is excruciating and exhausting work.

Yet, one tower remains unfinished.

Still an active church, San Xavier del Bac Mission retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious and educational needs of parishioners. The church and gift shop are open daily.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

Quartzsite: Here’s the 2023 QZ Show Schedule

If you can’t find it at Quartzsite, it hasn’t been thought of yet

The winter season is go time in Quartzsite. With winter temperatures hovering in the 70s, people flock to Quartzsite from colder climates to relish in the warm weather and fascinating shopping. Thousands of vendors gather during these months to showcase items ranging from rocks, gems, and minerals to jewelry, apparel, home decor, and more.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Quartzsite?

Quartzsite is located in western Arizona, just 20 miles east of the Colorado River on I-10. It’s been a rockhound’s paradise since the 1960s. These days, it’s also a mecca to well over a million visitors each year most of who converge on this small town in a wave of RVs during the months of January and February.

During the winter months, 2,000 vendors of rocks, gems, minerals, fossils, and everything else imaginable create one of the world’s largest open air flea markets in Quartzsite. The Pow Wow Rock and Mineral Show began the rockhound winter migration to town in 1965; now eight major gem and mineral shows in addition to vendors of raw and handcrafted merchandise peddle their wares to snowbirds, collectors, and enthusiasts making Quartzsite the place to be in January and February.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Quartzsite

A settler named Charles Tyson built a fort on this site in 1856 for protection against Native Americans. Because of a good water supply it soon became a stagecoach stop on the Ehrenburg-to-Prescott route. As the stage lines vanished, Fort Tyson, or Tyson’s Wells (as it became known) was abandoned. A small mining boom in 1897 revitalized the area and the settlement revived as Quartzsite.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite was established in 1867 and incorporated in 1989. A rock hunter’s paradise surrounds Quartzsite with agates, limonite cubes, gold, and quartz being just a few. Named Quartzite because quartz was occasionally found in the area, the name evolved to Quartzsite through an error in spelling.

From 1863 to the 1880s there were many places worked by individual prospectors around the valley during the Colorado River Gold Rush from the 1860s to the 1950s. Large-scale operations did not succeed but at one time 39 mines were operating in the area served by two landing stations on the Colorado River. Today, there are still mines operating and there are unique places in and around town with stories to tell.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tyson Wells Show History

Tyson Wells began with an open lot where an RV Park was developed; the Sell-A-Rama Show started in 1978. Soon Tyson Wells became known as a leading Rock & Gem Show in the United States. Later, additional land was acquired for more parking, and two more shows—Rock & Gem Show and Art & Craft Fair—were added. Tyson Wells has something for everyone with the three shows in January and February, seasonal vendors, self-storage units, and an RV Park.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock, Mineral and Gem Show

Quartzsite is a rock collector’s paradise. Everything you need to make artsy rock art and jewelry, look no further. Thousands of rock hounds flock here to get magic rocks of every size and sparkle. Now, don’t be expecting beautifully displayed juried-show wares and supplies. It’s really nothing more than a huge outdoor desert flea market venue. However, once you get past the sand and dirt, you’re sure to find the perfect gem you may be looking for.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tyson Wells Flea Market

If you’re looking for something odd or don’t want to pay top dollar in those big box stores, the Tyson Wells Flea Market may just be the place where you can find it. You’ll find tools, kitchen gadgets, flags, blanket throws, clothes bandanas, and all kinds of stupid stuff all on the cheap. There are RV supplies and camping accessories too.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show

For nine days, RVers descend on the giant exhibit tent to see the latest gadgets, get work and upgrades done on their RVs, and learn more about the RV lifestyle with workshops and seminars where attendees can learn about topics from trip planning to safety upgrades, solar and batteries, boondocking, and how to shop for an RV. Attendance at the event is free as is parking.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One can expect to see the “who’s who” of the RV industry but the stars of the show are the over 400 exhibitors (set up in and around the Big Tent—a 70,000-square-foot fully carpeted structure) selling everything from the latest and greatest RV gadgets to fashion jewelry to local honey. Some big tent vendors also have cellphone and electronic gadgets, glass fingernail files, dip mixes, and other vendors with non-RV junk.

If you’re looking for anything related to RVs, you’ll find it at the show in Quartzsite. It’s something every RVer should have on their bucket list and experience at least once in their lifetime.

Tomb of Hi Jolly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tomb Of Hi Jolly

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Who in the world is Hi Jolly and why is his tomb in Quartzsite, Arizona?” then get ready, because you’re about to find out. Hi Jolly was actually a Syrian immigrant who was hired by the federal government to introduce camels into the parched deserts of the American Southwest.

Though the plan was scrapped, Hadji Ali–also known as Hi Jolly stayed on and lived out the rest of his days in Quartzsite. He died in the early 20th century and in the ’30s a bronze camel was placed at his tomb by townspeople who loved and admired him. The tomb is in town and free, so don’t miss it.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2023 QZ Show Schedule

January 1–February 28: Desert Gardens Rock, Gem and Mineral Show
Claiming to be “the largest international rock, gem and mineral show in Quartzsite,” there’s no doubt that other venues will dispute the claim. You’ll need to decide for yourself.
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., seven days a week
Location: Desert Gardens Show Grounds, 1055 Kuehn Street

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January 6–15: Tyson Wells Rock & Gem Show
Bills itself as “An unbelievable variety displayed on 2.2 miles of aisle frontage.”
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., seven days a week
Location: 121 W. Kuehn Street

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January 18–22: QIA Pow Wow Gem & Mineral Show
This is THE original event that’s credited with launching Quartzsite as a major gathering point. The first show was in 1967 attracting maybe 1,000 buyers to visit with 100 vendors. Expect four times that many vendors now and rub elbows with 10,000 daily show-goers. If you’re into rocks and gems, don’t miss this one.
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., seven days a week
Location: 235 E. Ironwood Avenue

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January 20–29: Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama
Rocks and minerals, arts and crafts, antiques, all this plus foods to amaze you. Do they include Tums vendors? You’ll need to come and find out for yourself.
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., seven days a week
Location: 121 W. Kuehn Street

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January 21–29: Sports, Vacation & RV Show (The Big Tent)
Arguably the attraction that draws the most attention—and traffic. Acres of tented-over vendors with a specialization in RV stuff. 
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (3 p.m. closing day)
Location: 700 S. Central Blvd.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 3–12: Tyson Wells Arts and Crafts Fair
“10 days, 2.2 miles of aisle frontage”
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., seven days a week
Location: 121 W. Kuehn Street

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 10–12: Quartzsite Gold Show
There’s gold at that thar show—along with panning contests, metal detecting contests, and some great speakers and special presentations during the show each day.
Hours: Friday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.
Location: 235 E. Ironwood St.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Show attendance tips

It is always a good idea to plan your itinerary ahead of your travel. Think about what you want to buy, the shows you want to attend, and plan your days.

As the vast majority of the Quartzsite shows are outdoors, I cannot stress enough how important it is to wear comfortable shoes, a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen, carry water, and take breaks. Be prepared for cool or warm weather. That’s the desert in the winter. Be prepared to walk a lot of miles in the dusty aisles of the shows.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also remember to keep detailed notes of what you are looking at or buying—which show, what item, what price, which dealer, what booth number, what day. By the end of the day it all becomes a blur and if you want to go back and revisit a dealer those notes will be your life-saver.

Finally, have patience. If you are coming in at peak time, traffic on the Interstate exit ramps can be a gridlock as there are only stop signs on the overpasses. Lots of patience is also required when waiting about an hour in line for dinner at the few restaurants in town.

To be sure, there are plenty of other Quartzsite shows—if one counts the hundreds of vendors and shops. 

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to know more about Quartzsite? 

Let the shows begin!

See you at the Q!

Worth Pondering… 

Nowhere on earth will you find such an assortment of “stuff” as you will at Quartzsite from mid-December to mid-February. As the saying goes, “If you can’t find it in Quartzsite, you won’t find it anywhere.”

What is the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch?

Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park welcoming hikers, runners, bikers, horseback riders, wildlife watchers, and casual strollers

Gilbert, Arizona is located 17 southeast of Phoenix and offers a wide variety of activities but one of its biggest attractions is also one of its most natural: the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert was developed in 1999 to provide a combination of three functions: a recreational and educational area, a facility for water reclamation, and a wildlife habitat.

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

The Riparian Preserve is easy to access and enjoy with 4.5 miles of trails both paved and unpaved for walking, biking, hiking, or horseback riding. Plus, it’s pet-friendly so you can bring your beloved pooch along as long as it’s cool enough for them (tip: if you’re visiting Gilbert during the summer you’ll want to visit the preserve in the early morning or later at night to avoid dangerous levels of heat).

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

Recreational & Educational Area

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert offers a multitude of recreational and educational opportunities for all ages. There are over four and a half miles of trails throughout with several interpretive education panels on vegetation and wildlife along the walkways. Other educational spaces include a hilltop outdoor classroom, dinosaur dig site, a state-of-the-art observatory, and hummingbird plus butterfly gardens, to name a few. The Gilbert Trail System connects with the Preserve’s trails which allows for hikers, casual walkers, leashed and behaved dogs, also horses on specific equestrian trails.

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

There are seating and viewing areas along the Preserve’s paths. Restrooms and drinking fountains are also onsite. Several ramadas and campsites for group gatherings are available by reservation.

Another huge recreational benefit offered is the Water Ranch Lake for fishing. As a part of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Community Fishing Program, those looking to fish for rainbow trout, sunfish, largemouth bass, and farm-raised channel catfish can do so with a proper fishing license.

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

Water Reclamation Facility

Seventy acres of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch’s 110 total acres comprises seven water recharge basins for 100 percent of Gilbert’s treated effluent water each filled on a rotating basis. For those of you, like me, who feel compelled to Google the word effluent to get a better understanding of its meaning this is for you. Per Wikipedia, “Effluent is an outflowing of water or gas to a natural body of water from a structure such as a wastewater treatment plant, sewer pipe, or industrial outfall.”

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

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

In addition to the seven percolating ponds there is also a recreational urban fishing lake filled with reclaimed water. Also, one of the ponds contains a unique, desert-like distribution stream. The Water Ranch in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch combines the Town of Gilbert Drinking Water Treatment Plant, the Southeast Regional Library building, Fire Station, Nichols Park, and the Salt River Project Eastern Canal. The Water Ranch property stretches from Greenfield Road east to Higley Road containing most of the land between Guadalupe Road and the utility easement.

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

Wildlife Habitat

Arizona wildlife including birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals call Gibert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch home in its various vegetative zones of native riparian, marshlands, and upland vegetation areas. Let’s delve into the birds a little more; the Preserve is a bird watchers paradise with 298 species of birds identified. The National Audubon Society has also designated the Riparian Preserve as an Important Bird Area. Plus, there is a designated garden exclusively for hummingbirds and butterflies. For a close-up view of fish and ducks the urban recreational lake provides guests with a floating boardwalk that crosses the northern end.

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Programs

There are a variety of programs from public, school to youth and Scout offered at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Public programs such as bird walks with Desert Rivers Audubon, The Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory’s Skywatch featuring a 16-inch Meade state-of-the-art telescope managed by the East Valley Astronomy Club, Naturalist Guided Preserve Tours, and the Outdoor Learning Project answering questions like “Can I Feed the Ducks?”.

Related article: Explore Phoenix Naturally

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

The Preserve is an excellent field trip destination for surrounding schools to offer a multitude of fun engaging environmental studies of birds, insects, desert life, Arizona groundwater, pollination, fossils, solar energy, and plants. Scout and Youth Groups also enjoy the Riparian Preserve with nature hikes, overnight camping, scout badge work, dinosaur digs, astronomy viewings, and group lessons on wildlife, water, plants, ecology, and conservation.

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

Photo Opportunities

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch offers a fantastic place as a wildlife habitat, water reclamation facility, and community recreational go-to spot. Still, there are extra benefits to be enjoyed. The Preserve might be the place for you if you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for a family or special event portrait. Or perhaps you’re adding to your nature photography portfolio. It might be safe to say many are looking for ways to make their Instagram pop. Can you say fascinating wildlife, stunning sunsets, gorgeous waterways, tranquil colors, and light? Yes, yes, you can. The bottom line is that there are multiple dynamic photo opportunities for cell phone cameras as well as novice and professional photographers at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve.

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

Hours & Parking

The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department manages the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Hours are from 5:30 am to 10:00 pm with the habitat area open dawn to dusk. The Preserve is at the southeast corner of East Guadalupe Road and North Greenfield Road. The most available parking is on the north and west sides of Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library at the furthermost northwest corner of the park near the community fishing lake. Additional limited parking is located on the north side of the park off of E Guadalupe Road.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

Worth Pondering…

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.

—Jalal Ad-Din Rumi

Explore Phoenix Naturally

Desert, mountains, lakes, diverse wildlife, and a variety of attractions await exploration within and outside the limits of this bustling Arizona city

Getting out of busy, congested cities to soak in the natural beauty of our planet has long been my favorite thing to do and I wanted to see the natural side of Phoenix.

Phoenix often becomes overshadowed by Tucson or Sedona and it frequently is viewed by visitors as a refueling stop on a journey to the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. What many don’t realize is that there is much to see and do in and around Phoenix.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown architecture displays a mix of silver skyscrapers, adobe missions, and vintage Spanish Colonial homes. Phoenix boasts numerous galleries and museums including the Heard Museum with its extraordinary collection of Southwest American Indian art. Another interesting place to visit is the famous Taliesin West home built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in nearby Scottsdale.

I wondered what area campgrounds were like and soon headed out to explore. Starting at the small town of Apache Junction, I took the Apache Trail Scenic Drive (State Route 88) to Lost Dutchman State Park located 40 miles east of Phoenix.

Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1870s, a Prussian immigrant named Jacob Waltz reportedly found gold in the Superstition Mountains. He kept the whereabouts of the mine secret, only revealing the location to his caregiver on his deathbed in 1891. She and countless others since have tried to find the Lost Dutchman Mine without success.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state park campground has 138 sites; 68 of them with 50/30/20-amp electric service and water and a paved road network to all sites. The campground has no RV size restrictions. Several hiking trails lead visitors from the park deep into the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. In March, a carpet of wildflowers takes over the park. Lost Dutchman is in the middle of an area with diverse wildlife habitat, so don’t be surprised to see a desert mule deer, a jackrabbit, a greater roadrunner, or a Gila monster stroll through your campsite.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An internet search for Tonto National Forest yields a five-star-rated description of the desert, mountains, rivers, and camping. What more could one ask for?

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaving Lost Dutchman State Park on Apache Trail Scenic Drive, I headed north straight into Tonto National Forest. This is one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. However, a warning: Drivers encounter narrow shoulders and steep grades along parts of this route and some of it is unpaved. Large RVs are not recommended on certain sections of the 120-mile loop. And it’s advisable to check road conditions before heading out.

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, this scenic route is well worth the endeavor although nervous drivers or passengers may want to take a pass. Twisting and turning around buttes of alternating layers of rose-, cream-, and rust-colored sandstone canyons sprinkled with stubby pine bushes suggests a scene right out of an old John Wayne movie. It’s best to avoid this road on weekends.

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I made it as far as Canyon Lake that day. Known for its shorelines with easy access for boaters seeking seclusion, Canyon Lake resembles a turquoise gem trapped between rocky cliffs. Many picnic areas, private campgrounds, and RV resorts surround the lake. Most places are set in a typical desert atmosphere with campsites surrounded by conifer, oak, and aspen trees, depending on their location on the lake. The Canyon Lake Marina and Campground offers marina services, a restaurant, and a beach, as well as 28 RV sites with electric and water hookups.

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto, the largest national forest in Arizona consists of almost 3 million acres of cactus-studded desert among pine-covered mountains. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, the forest is considered one of the most “urban” forests in the United States with more than 3 million people visiting every year.

Some people claim that the forest was not named after the famous sidekick of the Lone Ranger but the Tonto Basin at its core was found on historic maps created when the land fell under Spanish rule. Why the Spanish named the basin Tonto is a mystery. A few historians claim the term tontos which is Spanish for fools or crazy people was often heard in early pioneer days about the Apache Indians. Most speculate the name resulted from the early settlers’ impression of a people who dressed and talked very differently from themselves. Hmm; maybe that ghost was not Roy.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established around the construction of Roosevelt Dam, the forest was created in 1905 to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers. These has two scenic rivers are known for their fast-moving clear water, fossil rock formations, and guided raft or kayak excursions. Another terrific place is Tonto National Monument which showcases cliff dwellings occupied by the Salado Indians starting in the 13th century. The museum there hosts a fine collection of pottery and textiles.

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

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest is large with many camping options. Elevations range from 1,300 to 7,900 feet and some areas are difficult to reach with large RVs so it is important to research the many private and public campgrounds in the area. The main question to ask yourself is what Arizona habitat you wish to embrace for your stay—the desert flats or the forested mountains.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I spent a day enjoying nature within the city at Papago Park. The 1,200-acre park is home to “Hole in the Rock” a red rock that is distinctive to its landscape. Its massive, otherworldly sandstone buttes set Papago Park apart, even in a city and state filled with numerous world-class natural attractions. While visitors to Papago can enjoy its extensive trail network through the Sonoran Desert habitat, they can also enjoy the park’s two major residents, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, world-class attractions that draw millions of visits each year.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautifully designed with more than 21,000 cacti and desert flora, Desert Botanical Garden is made for a calming stroll along prickly cacti. Desert plants of many colors were showing off spring blooms of red, lavender, and yellow. Many sizes were represented as well with one cactus as tall as a two-story building. The garden boasts of nurturing 4,400 different species in its Living Collection and 485 plants that are rare and endangered species.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water features are scattered throughout inviting visitors to stop and rest their feet. I highly recommend the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail and the enclosed Butterfly Pavilion is a must-see.

Related article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Programs for children, families, teachers and gardeners are held routinely at the Desert Landscape School with online or in-person activities.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Few Fun Facts

  • At Tonto National Forest starting in early November, a special permit can be purchased to cut down your own Christmas tree.
  • The Salado Indians settled along the Salt River near where the original city of Phoenix was built. Salado in Spanish means salty.
  • The Desert Botanical Garden is a popular venue for weddings and nature photographers. During the winter holiday season, 8,000 flickering luminaria candles light up the garden in the evening at the Las Noches de Las Luminarias throughout December.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

The Best Arizona Fall Road Trip: Wineries, Hikes, Train Rides, and More

Arizona hikes, rides, tours, and a local winery or two

All through the summer, Arizona has bounced between extremes—going from record-breaking heat to a deluge of monsoon storms. Since fall is not a season prone to anything quite that intense things should calm down. Autumn comforts even as it calls locals and returning snowbirds outside to play. Basking under big blue skies while reveling in mild sunshine, fall is a perfect time to go exploring.

For an incredible fall road trip, take the drive to the geographic center of Arizona, the Verde Valley. The wide valley stretches from Mingus Mountain to the Mogollon Rim, a lush transition zone separating the Sonoran Desert from the high country and slashed by the winding Verde River.

Scenic small towns full of personality are sprinkled throughout the valley just a few miles apart creating plenty of easily accessed options. Here are a few.

Out of Africa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Out of Africa Wildlife Park

Nestled in the high desert of Camp Verde, Out of Africa Wildlife Park provides a sanctuary for hundreds of exotic animals and features dozens of large predators. The preserve spreads across 100 acres of rolling terrain on the slopes of the Black Hills. The large natural habitats eliminate stress-induced behavior.

Tiger Splash is Out of Africa’s signature show. There is no training and no tricks. The daily program is spontaneous, just animals frolicking with their caretakers. Fierce tigers engage in the sort of playful activities every housecat owner will recognize. It’s just the grand scale that makes it so impressive. Visitors can also take a narrated African Bush Safari and attend the Giant Snake Show.

Outside the park is Predator Zip Line which offers a two- to three-hour zip line tour across five lines and a suspension bridge high above the animals.

Old Town Cottonwood

Wine Tasting in Cottonwood

Not long ago, Cottonwood was a sleepy little burg with much of its small downtown sitting vacant. Everything changed when vineyards and wineries sprang up on nearby hillsides with rich volcanic soil.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wine-tasting rooms opened, one after another, and soon restaurants, shops, galleries, and boutique hotels followed. The businesses filled the Prohibition-era buildings fronted by covered sidewalks along the three blocks of Old Town.

Related article: Five Fall Road Trips in Arizona

Such a picturesque and compact setting makes Old Town Cottonwood a popular destination for lovers of wine and food since so much can be sampled by walking a block or two.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk the Streets of Jerome

Most everybody knows about Jerome, the mile-high town clinging to the steep slope of Cleopatra Hill. It was once known as the Billion Dollar Mining Camp for the incredible wealth pulled from the ground.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the mines closed it became a rickety ghost town saved by enterprising hippies who turned it into a thriving artist community with fine art and crafts studios and galleries, cool boutiques, mining museums, historical buildings, eclectic inns, and B&Bs, and memorable restaurants and bars lining its narrow, winding streets.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the high perch of Jerome, views stretch across the Verde Valley to the sandstone cliffs of Sedona. Music spills from saloons and eateries as visitors prowl the shops moving from one level of town to the next, pausing to read historic plaques and admire the Victorian architecture. Jerome feels cut off from the rest of the world. It’s one of those towns where it always feels like you’re on vacation.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ride the Verde Canyon Railroad

Go off-road the old-fashioned way when you climb aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad and rumble into scenic backcountry. The train departs from the station in Clarkdale and travels into a high-walled canyon carved by the Verde River.

Cottonwood trees canopy the water and turn golden in the waning fall days. Such a rich riparian habitat lures a variety of wildlife, notably eagle, hawk, heron, mule deer, javelina, coyote, and beaver.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vintage FP7 diesel locomotives provide the power. All passenger cars have panoramic windows and allow access to open-air viewing cars, where you’ll likely spend most of your time savoring fine fall days.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in West Sedona

If you want to enjoy red rock scenery while avoiding some of the crowds and traffic issues, hike a few trails on the far edge of West Sedona.

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

The Western Gateway Trails at the end of Cultural Park Place weave together a series of interconnected pathways across juniper-clad slopes above Dry Creek. Signs with maps at every junction make for easy navigation.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gentle Roundabout Trail, a 2-mile loop, provides a quick introduction to the area as it branches off from the paved Centennial Trail and swings through shady woodlands and past a couple of small boulder fields. Curling back, it traces the edge of the mesa overlooking Dry Creek with views north of Cockscomb, Doe Mountain, and Bear Mountain.

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can create a slightly longer loop (3.3 miles) by combining the Stirrup and Saddle Up trails. After crossing an arroyo the route climbs to the top of a plateau where the views stretch to Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock at the other end of town.

If you want a little more of a workout, the Schuerman Mountain Trail can be accessed across the road from Sedona High School. It climbs at a moderate uphill slant to the top of an old volcano, now eroded into a rangy mesa.

Cathedral Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a great view of Cathedral Rock from the first overlook. It’s a 2-mile round-trip if you make this your turnaround. If you’re in a rambling mood, the trail continues across the broad back of the mountain, golden grasslands dotted with juniper and pine trees.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apartment House of the Ancients

Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top. The placement of rooms on the south-facing cliff helps regulate summer and winter temperatures. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night.

Related article: The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 16 Places to See & Things to Do

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short self-guided loop trail leads from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and catclaw mimosa trees along spring-fed Beaver Creek. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 11 miles north to see the Montezuma Well which is part of the national monument. Along with the limestone sinkhole, cliff dwellings, and irrigation channels are characteristic of the prehistoric people who lived in the area. The water in the well which is 386 feet across has high levels of arsenic and other chemicals but it still supports endemic species such as water scorpions, snails, mud turtles, and leeches.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Ancient Village on the Hill

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. An interesting fact is that Tuzigoot lacked ground level doors having roof-accessed doors instead.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site is currently comprised of 42 acres that includes the hilltop pueblo, cliffs, and ridges in the valley and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River. A paved, fully accessible trail takes you through the pueblo giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed and you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot can be found in Clarkdale, Arizona, just west of Montezuma Castle and just north of Jerome. Visiting Tuzigoot is definitely worth your while!

Related article: Most Scenic Towns in Arizona

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