Most Beautiful Towns in Arizona

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

Located in the Southwest, Arizona is steeped in history and beautifully diverse landscapes found throughout the state in the form of historical, scenic towns that truly impress. With special attention to the reigning favorites and a few of our own sprinkled in, here are the most beautiful towns in Arizona.

Tubac

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorful architecture and mountain backdrops define Tubac’s Southwest scenery. See both at Tumacácori National Historical Park, where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people once dwelled. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park offers a glimpse at 2,000 years of Arizona history. Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world class galleries situated along meandering streets with hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

Sedona

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the places to visit in the Southwest, Sedona may be the most beautiful. The Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive climbs 4,500 feet from Sedona, but before you begin stop at the stunning Oak Creek Vista. Along the way, you’ll see evergreens, red rocks, and wildlife. Red Rock State Park features a range of trails, from flat walks near Oak Creek to ascending paths with impressive views.

Williams

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small town nestled in the Ponderosa pine of northern Arizona, Williams offers outdoor adventures including fishing and hiking to horseback riding and camping. Route 66 history buffs can explore more than six blocks of historic buildings and shops. After a 59-mile drive north, the Grand Canyon will lie before your eyes. Once there, you’ll grasp why this 277 river miles long, one-mile deep, and up to 18 miles wide canyon is hailed as one of the world’s seven natural wonders. The Grand Canyon Railway offers daily trips to the Grand Canyon aboard vintage diesel powered trains and historic steam engines.

Tombstone

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spirits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Brothers live on in the authentic old west town of Tombstone, home of Boothill Graveyard, the Birdcage Theatre, and the O.K. Corral. After getting its start as a silver mining claim in the late-1870s, the settlement grew along with its Tough Nut Mine, becoming a bustling boomtown of the Wild West. From opera and theater to dance halls and brothels, Tombstone offered much-needed entertainment to the miners. The “Town Too Tough to Die” town contains many preserved buildings from the 1870s and 80s.

Globe

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the foothills of the Pinal Mountains, sits the former mining camp known as Globe. Founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1907, this lovely town is brimming with century-old buildings, cottages, and hillside houses. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park features stunning partially restored ruins of a Salado pueblo, along with an accompanying museum. The historic downtown area is perfect for leisurely strolls and shopping for antiques, while the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is a great spot to explore and experience the talent of some incredible artists.

Jerome

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A charming National Historic Landmark on Cleopatra Hill, Jerome is a former mining town. Meandering around the hilly, winding streets, visitors will discover galleries and art studios. Not forgetting its past, Jerome offers history buffs a wealth of experience through the Mine Museum, displaying artifacts representing the town’s past and present, and the Jerome State Historic Park, home to the Douglas Mansion.

Page

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small town in northern Arizona, Page is located on the southern shores of magnificent Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The location is ideal for exploring many of the American Southwest’s national parks and monuments and discovering the unique culture of the Navajo Nation. Marvel at the beauty of the slot canyons as you hike with a Navajo guide in Antelope Canyon. Enjoy the majesty of the lake and surrounding red rock desert. Explore hundreds of miles of shoreline by houseboat power boat, or kayak.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Joyce Woodson

Take the Exit Ramp to Adventure & Scenic Drives

Venture off the beaten path to take in Arizona’s diverse topography

Many of the Grand Canyon State’s most interesting and beautiful roadways unwind after a short detour off the busier roads and Interstate highways. So take the exit ramp to experience four of Arizona’s scenic drives and byways.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock Scenic Byway

Officially Arizona Highway 179, this byway is only 14.5 miles long. But you could spend a whole day exploring the spectacular red rock formations, shops, galleries, restaurants, and other attractions that line this link between Interstate 17 and Sedona.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get oriented at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center. Then head to the Village of Oak Creek (about five miles south of Sedona) to pick up picnic supplies on the way to Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. These two beloved and much-photographed landmarks are ringed by hiking and biking trails.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing to Sedona, sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude’s Chapel of the Holy Cross is a meditative and powerful retreat, with windows framing buttes and rock outcroppings. At the northern end of the drive, stroll around Tlaquepaque, an architecturally authentic Spanish Colonial village that houses galleries, retailers, and restaurants.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road tip: A Red Rock Pass ($5/day) is required for vehicles parked on National Forest land around Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. If you plan to park and explore on foot, pick up a pass and display it on the dash of your RV or toad.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail Historic Road

On this winding 41.5-mile road, just off U.S. Highway 60 near Mesa, designate a driver to keep their eyes on curves and hairpin turns while passengers “ooh” and “ahh” over the lakes, mountains, and canyons in Tonto National Forest’s wilderness areas.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Part paved and part well-graded gravel, Arizona Highway 88 was an old stagecoach route that shuttled in supplies for Roosevelt Dam’s construction in the early 1900s. It begins near Goldfield Ghost Town, a re-created Wild West town, complete with gunslingers. You’ll pass Canyon Lake, where you can cruise on the Dolly Steamboat.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road tip: Due to its narrow width and tight turns, this route is not recommended for larger vehicles including RVs.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita to Patagonia

Starting near Vail on Interstate 10, pick up this 52-mile drive south on State Route 83 through the Santa Cruz River Basin of southeastern Arizona.

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

In Sonoita, visit the nearby wineries of Arizona’s burgeoning wine country. Then connect back with State Route 82 heading south and watch the landscape morph from rolling grasslands to cottonwood stands and juniper forests.

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

In Patagonia, wander the town’s charming coffee shops and retailers. Or bring your binoculars to spot wildlife at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a popular birding spot that’s home to more than 300 species of birds. Continue on to Patagonia Lake State Park where visitors hike, swim, fish, and camp while taking in the lush landscape of the surrounding hills.

Kingman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kingman to Oatman (Route 66)

A visit to the old powerhouse which has been converted to a Route 66 Museum and visitor’s center is a must when in Kingman. The Powerhouse Building is also home to Arizona’s Route 66 Association.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Kingman, take the 28-mile scenic drive through the Black Mountains to Oatman. Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains. Rising above town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant’s Tooth.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A shadow of its former self this living ghost town offers a handful of historic buildings and photo opportunities, costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies. Burros from the surrounding hills wander into Oatman daily and mosey around town blocking traffic, greeting visitors, and chomping carrots sold by the local shop owners.

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

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Parker Canyon Lake

Stopped by to hike and take photos and found a hidden gem

We’re always on the lookout for new adventures and hidden gems, places that are interesting but few people know about, even locals.

On the road to Parker Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was somewhat by chance that we discovered Parker Canyon Lake. While touring Coronado National Memorial on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains in southeastern Arizona, we drove a winding mountain road that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook (elevation 6,575 feet) close to the western edge of the memorial. Note that vehicles over 24 feet in length are prohibited due to steep grades and tight switchbacks.

Coronado Pass looking southeast to the San Pedro Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of Arizona’s most breathtaking overlooks, the pass offers sweeping views of the San Pedro Valley to the southeast (see above) and the San Raphael Valley to the west (see below) . Interpretive signs highlight the major landscape features looking east and west. On clear days, Baboquivari Peak, at an elevation of 7,720 feet, on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, can be seen 80 miles to the west beyond the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains.

Coronado Pass looking west to the San Raphael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the pass we continued west along the unpaved and often rough forestry road that leads through Coronado National Forest to Parker Canyon Lake (18 miles).

Traveling west from Coronado National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This medium-sized 132 acre lake is nestled in the gentle Canelo Hills east of the Huachuca Mountains. Just seven miles north of Mexico, Parker Canyon Lake was created in 1966 by the Coronado National Forest and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ringed with cottonwoods, juniper, piñon pine, scrub oak, and manzanita, Parker Canyon Lake offers a number of recreational possibilities for those willing to drive the dirt roads that lead to it. Locals say the temperature in the area, which lies about 5,400 feet above sea level, generally runs about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who like to fish, Parker Canyon Lake offers both cold and warm water species, including stocked rainbow trout and resident bass, sunfish, and catfish. There is a fishing pier and a paved boat ramp at the lake, as well as a lakeside paved area and a graveled path along some of the best catfishing shoreline.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is also a concessionaire-operated country store at the lakeshore where you can pick up some last minute supplies, buy a fishing license, camping gear, tackle and worms, or rent a boat.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From just about any point along the shore, Parker Canyon Lake doesn’t look very big. Take off on the trail around the lake, though, and you’ll find it’s a heck of a lot bigger than you thought.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lake has a number of side canyons, inlets, and coves that stretch back from the main body of the lake, creating a surprising amount of shoreline.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Parker Shoreline Trail is a fairly level dirt pathway that, for the most part, stays within a few yards of the water. There are a couple of places, however, where the route climbs rather steeply over high rocky bluffs and the trail becomes a slightly exposed, narrow passage 50 or 60 feet above the lake’s surface.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Parker Lakeshore Trail offers excellent vantage points from which to enjoy the ducks and other waterfowl that are invariably bobbing on the lake’s clear waters. Some of those points even have benches and interpretive signs. Bald eagles, herons, and osprey are regularly sighted in this area, as are spring warblers and hummingbirds in season.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the terrestrial side, Coues whitetail deer can be seen browsing among the oaks and grasses that surround the lake and in the two campgrounds near its shores. Coatimundi, javelina, and roadrunners, three animals that are about as southwestern as you can get, make occasional appearances as well.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The easiest place to start this hike is from the parking area near the store and boat launch on the southeast shore of the lake; go counterclockwise. (However, if you just want to go to the dam and back, it’s shorter to go clockwise.) The first 300 yards is a paved, shoreline sidewalk that passes a couple of rest benches—fine places to sit and enjoy the serenity of the area.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the trail bends west, then north, around the Lakeview Campground area, you’re almost directly across from the dam. Allow more than 2 hours for the fairly easy 4.5-mile loop around the lake. 

Leaving Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Parker Canyon Lake the road continues on to Sonoita (30 miles) or alternately through the Arizona Wine Region near the small town of Elgin.

Worth Pondering…

Exploring the roads less traveled…America is laced with nooks and crannies, good places that go undiscovered by many mainstream travelers.

4 Ecosystems Meet at Coronado National Memorial

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

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—August Fruge

Catalina State Park: Sky Island Gem

The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. 

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of southern Arizona’s numerous Sky Islands, the Santa Catalina Mountains dominate Tucson’s northern skyline. These Sky Islands are small mountain ranges that rise steeply from the desert floor and often feature a cool and relatively moist climate at their highest reaches. Their wooded slopes offer desert dwellers a respite from the summer heat. Conversely, the adjacent desert canyons and foothills offer spectacular scenery and excellent recreation during the cooler months of the year.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park protects a choice section of desert on the western base of the Santa Catalinas. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. An equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders and ample trailer parking is also available.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Miles of equestrian, birding, and hiking trails wind through the park and the adjoining Coronado National Forest, as well as an interpretive trail to a prehistoric village. Each trail offers a showcase of the region’s varied qualities, ranging from the footsteps of a myriad of animals known to inhabit this mountainous area such as the javelina and mountain lion on the scenic Nature Trail, to the archeological wonder of the Romero Ruins — the remains of a Hohokam village — on the aptly-named Romero Ruin Interpretive Trail. Elsewhere, the Upper 50-Year Trail will offer a rockier climb while the Birding Trail provides a scenic walk with a small flight of stairs.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Where the values of each trail converge, however, is when it comes to the sheer value of appreciating nature. Expect to be bombarded by the sheer vastness of local flora and wildlife on natural display on the park’s 5,500 acres of prairies, foothills, mountainsides, and washes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The locale was first inhabited by the Hohokam people, Native American agriculturists who disappeared mysteriously around AD 1450. Remains of their village site are still evident in the park. In the late 1800s, prospectors worked claims along the banks of a wash called Canada del Oro, translated from the Spanish into “wash of gold”. Cattle ranching also became prominent around 1850 and continued until the early 1980s when the park was established.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most common plants include mesquite, palo verde, and acacia trees; crucifixion thorn, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, and saguaro cactus. Desert willow, Arizona sycamore, Arizona ash, and native walnut grow along the washes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the special features at Catalina State Park is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 300 types of flowers are cataloged at the park. A binder in the visitor center has a picture of each type of flower in the park, the common name, when it blooms, and where it can be found. They are sorted by color so if you find a flower in the park you can identify it.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 120 campsites available, 95 with water and 50/30 amp electric service. Most sites are spacious and level easily accommodating the largest of RVs. A dump station is available. Campsites have picnic tables and grills. Restrooms are handicapped accessible with showers. Reservations are recommended during the busy snowbird season.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Please note: Catalina has NO overflow area. When all sites are occupied, you will be turned away.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic park is located on Oracle Road which becomes State Route 77, just minutes from the bustling city of Tucson. Watch for the signed entrance to Catalina State Park at Milepost 81.

Worth Pondering…

The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulates creativity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mount Lemmon Ski Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

On the Road to Mount Lemmon

Approximately an hour drive from Tucson’s city center, Mount Lemmon is a favorite day trip and camping spot

Climbing more than 6,000 feet, the Sky Island Scenic Byway begins with forests of saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert and ends in a cool, coniferous forest in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

On the road to Mount leaving Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prepare yourself for breathtaking views and a climate change that would be similar to driving from Southern Arizona to Canada in a mere 27 miles. Each thousand feet up is like driving 600 miles north offering a unique opportunity to experience four seasons in one trip.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often referred to as Mount Lemmon Highway or General Hitchcock Highway, Sky Island Scenic Byway drive begins at the northeastern edge of Tucson.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the road climbs among the giant saguaro cactus and brittlebush, enjoy hairpin curves as you arrive at the Babad Do’ag Viewpoint which overlooks the desert cacti studded Tucson Valley and the Rincon Mountains. There are interpretive signs at the lookout and if you’re up for a longer hike—try the moderate 5-mile round trip Babad Do’ag Trail. Incredible desert vistas of saguaro, wildflowers, and mountains await.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing up the road, you’ll enter Molino Canyon. The road hugs the canyon’s cliff until the Molino Canyon Overlook. The overlook offers a short hike to a creek and series of waterfalls. Towards the center of the canyon is the Molino Basin, home to a campground and trailheads for a variety of hikes. Hiking here is especially fascinating due to the transition from desert to a forest dominated by cottonwood, oak, sycamore, and willow trees.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each turn of the road reveals a new perspective. Entering Bear Canyon, the forest transforms once again into a lush, cool environment with cypress, juniper, pine, sycamore, and walnut trees. Granite pinnacles soar into the sky, and with rocky outcroppings and stony hoodoos, some of Arizona’s best rock climbing is found here.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next stop, Windy Point offers the most amazing views along the entire scenic drive. Wind-sculpted rock formations, views of the Huachuca, Patagonia, and Santa Rita Mountains, and the Tucson Basin await at 6,400 feet elevation.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology Point Vista, offers another spectacular viewpoint. Sweeping panoramas and precariously perched rocks create a surreal and photogenic landscape.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From here, you climb through forests of ponderosa pine, fir, and spruce. Rose Canyon Lake is stocked with trout and surrounded by absolute beauty; this seven-acre lake is a perfect stop for fishing, picnics, and camping in the Rose Canyon Campground.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shortly afterwards, you arrive at the San Pedro Vista which overlooks the San Pedro River Valley. From this stop, enjoy the 4-mile hike around Green Mountain to the General Hitchcock Campground.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shortly after the viewpoint is the Palisade Visitor Center. Self-guided displays inform about the Coronado National Forest and it’s a great location to get more information about hikes. Two of the most popular are the Butterfly Trail and Crystal Springs Trail with trailheads one mile from the center. Both trails are long, but you need not do the entire trail to enjoy the shaded, dense forests. Butterfly Trail features such a diverse biology, it has been designated a Research Natural Area. If you are up for a challenge, the medium-to-difficult Crystal Springs Trail will bring you to Mount Lemmon’s summit.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience the sky up close at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. There are daytime and after-dark programs using their 32-inch Schulman Telescope. Reservations are required. The SkyCenter is at an elevation of 9,157 feet.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic drive officially ends in a small town mostly filled with summer chalets, appropriately named Summerhaven. A great retreat for people to escape the summer desert heat.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While here, consider a few short side trips. For spectacular views in every season, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the country, can be reached via East Ski Run Road. The ski hill offers an opportunity to ride the ski lift for breathtaking vistas at 9,100 feet. Continue a few miles further and turn onto Summit Road. At the road end is the actual summit of Mount Lemmon, an amazing way to end this scenic drive.

The Forest Service has done a great job with the road and attractions along the route including campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks.

Worth Pondering…

Stay close to nature, it will never fail you.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

Alamo Lake State Park: Fishing, Camping, Wildflowers & More

38 miles north of Wenden, Arizona off Arizona State Highway 60 one finds a rare oasis in the otherwise arid Sonora Desert

Offering a scenic, cacti-studded landscape with a mountainous backdrop, Alamo Lake is tucked away in the Bill Williams River Valley. In addition to picturesque desert scenery, Alamo Lake State Park has much to offer its visitors recreationally. The area is known for its exceptional bass fishing opportunities, as well as canoeing, kayaking, and camping.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For nature lovers, spring rains bring an abundance of wildflowers and the lake environment attracts a variety of wildlife year round, including bald and golden eagles, waterfowl, foxes, coyotes, mule deer, and wild burros. Stargazers too will be in awe when the sun sets and the desert sky becomes aglow with stars, uninhibited by nearby city lights or smog.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake, located on the Bill Williams River where the Big Sandy River and Santa Maria River come together, was created with the completion of Alamo Dam in 1968. The Army Corps of Engineers designed the earthen dam primarily for flood control. During flood events, the lake basin is capable of handling large amounts of water in a relatively short time. The lake has been recorded rising 11 vertical feet in one night! Unusually high flows during the late 1970s and through the 1980s have increased the average size of the lake, helping to create one of Arizona’s best fishing holes.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lake is enclosed to the south, west, and north by low hills and beyond by mountain wilderness areas, and is a good place for a few days relaxation, or as a base from which to explore the surrounding lands.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in the Bill Williams River Valley away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Alamo Lake State Park offers outdoor fun, premier bass fishing, rest and relaxation.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite its rather remote location, Alamo Lake State Park receives relatively large numbers of visitors in the mild seasons of spring, winter, and fall, mostly because of the good fishing it offers—bass and catfish are especially plentiful. The desert setting and low elevation (1,230 feet) result in uncomfortably hot conditions in summer.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing tournaments are common at the lake and anglers have an excellent opportunity to catch bluegill, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and black crappie.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Individual and group camping is available at Alamo Lake State Park. There are 19 full hook-up RV sites with 50 amp electric, water, and sewer located in the Main Campground. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring. There is no limit to maximum RV length at these sites. Additional sites have 30/50 amp electric and water at each site. 

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground B has 27 electric sites. The Ramada Area has 12 electric sites. Cholla Campground area has 41 electric sites with 30 amp service. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring. 

Dry camping is also available in Campgrounds D and E. Also Campground A has 21 sites while Campground B has 15 sites. Site reservations are available.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ideal for snowbirds, Long Term Camping Sites are available from October 1 through March 31 with the minimum length of stay 28 days (4 weeks) and the maximum 48 days (12 weeks).

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A great time to visit Alamo Lake State Park is during spring because of the profusion of wildflowers and cactus blooms beside the lake and in the desert along the 33 mile Alamo Lake Road. Starting at the small and rather forlorn town of Wenden on US-60, the route heads north, climbing gradually into the Harcuvar Mountains.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Passing a few mines and side tracks, the road enter the wide Butler Valley. The land along this long straight road is undeveloped with numerous wildflowers and cacti including saguaro and distant mountain scenery.

At the far side of the valley, the road curves around the edge of the Buckskin Mountains and gradually descends towards the lake.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main route leads to the dam and an overlook just before winding eastwards between distant shores and even more remote hills in the distance. The very end of the road is private but open to foot travel, and from here begins the hike down the Bill Williams River Canyon.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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, the 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

Exploring San Carlos and Peridot Mesa

For those who love wildflowers, Peridot Mesa is a must-visit destination in Arizona

In the middle of the 32,000 acres that are the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, U.S. Routes 60 and 70 are narrow ribbons buckling through the harsh terrain.

Salt River Canyon Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By starting in Apache Junction you’ll traverse the 1,200-foot-long Queen Creek Tunnel cutting through the mountain at a 6 percent upward grade. Now you’ll climb 4,000 feet via tight bends, S-curves, and the three consecutive switchbacks plunging into the canyon. The first part of this trip twists through the Tonto National Forest with views of the Superstition Mountains—the second part traverses through the high desert terrain of the Fort Apache Reservation.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Carlos Apache Reservation is located 12 miles east of Globe-Miami on Highway 70. Throughout this beautiful land you will find rich Apache culture, hunting, and fishing opportunities, as well as other recreational delights. A tribal land permit is required for activities on tribal lands.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation encompasses 1.8 million acres of pristine land spanning across three regions of mountain country, desert, and plateau landscapes. The rich cultural heritage is as abundant and as rich as the tribal land’s natural resources.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend time exploring Miami-Globe and Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park before continuing east on U.S Highway 70 onto San Carlos Reservation with stops at Apache Gold Casino and RV Park and Peridot Mesa, a broad hump of land often ablaze with poppy fields starting in late February and carrying on through March.

Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The community of Globe-Miami is rich in copper, culture, and a pleasant climate. Globe was named from the legend of a 50-pound “globe” shaped silver nugget. Numerous antique shops and art galleries are situated in historic downtown Globe. Located in the foothills of the Pinal Mountains at an elevation of 3,500 feet, Globe-Miami enjoys cooler summers than its metropolitan neighbors while still having sunny, pleasant winters.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is much to see and experience, as the area’s mining history, Old West traditions, and Native American culture offer a wide-ranging Southwestern experience. The historic downtowns, copper mining, the neighboring San Carlos Apache Reservation, and abundant outdoor recreation throughout the Tonto National Forest combine to make Globe-Miami much more than the sleepy community many expect to find. Mining still holds a significant role in the local economy, along with tourism.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peridot Mesa, about 20 minutes east of Globe, is one of Arizona’s hot spots for wildflower viewing and one of the very first places in the state to kick off the spring wildflower season.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past mile marker 268, turn left on a dirt road marked by a cattle guard framed by two white H-shaped poles. It is recommended that you drive a half-mile down this road toward the color. We just parked and walked around and saw poppies, lupines, globemellows, desert marigolds, phacelia, and numerous other flowers along the road and sweeping down hillsides. It was an amazing sight when we last visited.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You need a $10 recreation permit to explore and photograph flowers on the Apache reservation. Buy yours in Globe at the Circle K or Fast Stop convenience stores (both are near the Highway 60/70 crossroads).

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peridot Mesa is the most productive locality for peridot in the world. Peridot is the best known gem variety of olivine, a species name for a series of magnesium-iron rich silicate minerals. This bright yellow-green to green gemstone has caught the fancy of humans for thousands of years. Much of its recent popularity can be explained by its recognition as the birthstone for the month of August. Wearing the stone is supposed to bring the wearer success, peace, and good luck.

The peridot occurs as individual grains and aggregates of grains in a basalt which is about 10 to 110 feet thick that forms the top and sides of Peridot Mesa. On the Reservation, peridot can be mined only by Native Americans from the San Carlos Reservation.

Peridot Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Turn 230 Miles into a Grand Arizona Adventure

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

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

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

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day One: Phoenix to Verde Valley

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

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Day Two: Cottonwood to Flagstaff

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Day Three: Flagstaff to Williams

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Day Four: The Canyon 

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Want more on the Grand Canyon? Right this way!

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Wesley Powell