Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Winter

Favorite lesser-known destinations from around America to consider for your winter adventure

For RVers, the colder months provide opportunities to make the most of having a hotel on wheels. Make tracks in the snow to spots blanketed in white, follow fellow snowbirds to warmer shores, or simply enjoy the peace and quiet in places that are usually packed all summer long. Here are the best small towns to visit in your trailer, camper van, or motorhome during the winter.

Borrego Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Springs, California

Borrego Springs is completely surrounded by nature, set in the midst of 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails, the park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas of mountains and desert. Anza-Borrego is an International Dark Sky Park, and the town of Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky Community, offering opportunities for exploring the star-filled night sky.

Aransas Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas Pass, Texas

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat. Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Shangri-La may be a fantasy but you can find a real-life utopia on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The village was created by a group of hardy souls seeking adventure and being practical, who also wanted a “fair hope of success”. This experimental community has come a long way from those “old days”. It’s still entirely unique and keeps a small-town ambiance with a large and active arts community. If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic with antebellum homes, streets lined with live oaks, and a charming, walkable downtown. With a population of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo, Texas

Alamo’s claim to fame as the “Refuge to the Valley” illustrates its symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally renowned birding destination. The subtropical thorn forest along with the resacas draws birds such as tropical green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadee, and chachalacas. After exploring the refuge, check out the Mercadome Flea Market and Alamo Dance Hall which draws thousands of weekend visitors to shop, eat, and move their feet to the sound of accordion-driven conjunto and norteño music.

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo, Arizona

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places. Home to 4,000 people and only one stoplight, Ajo is a place to slow down and enjoy life. You could say it’s a small town with a huge backyard.

Related Article: American Small Towns Can’t-Wait To Visit Again

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seaside, Florida

A small resort community in the Florida Panhandle, Seaside is the epitome of cute. Featuring pastel-colored homes and pedestrian-friendly streets, the beach community is tranquil and picturesque. Just how adorable is this place? The fictional town from the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was set here. West of the town visit the Grayton Beach State Park for some coastal trails.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek, Arizona

Located in Maricopa County, Cave Creek is conveniently located 27 miles northeast of Phoenix so you’ll never be too far away from a big city even if you’d never know it by the relaxed pace of life here. Not to be confused with the Cave Creek town that is tucked away in the Chiricahua Mountains, this one is said to have been the original town of Cave Creek and therefore has a true claim to the charm of the name. Be sure to bring your walking shoes so you can hike at Cave Creek Regional Park or head out to Bartlett Lake. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and fishing gear for Bartlett. Enjoy getting back to nature without feeling like you’ve spent forever in travel.

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Summer

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port O’Connor, Texas 

Port O’Connor is a small fishing village on the Texas Coast. It is often known as the “Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast” for its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere, and numerous fishing and boating venues. The most common activity in Port O’Connor is fishing followed by recreational boating and coastal sightseeing. The Port O’Connor area is an excellent place for birding. Some places to view birds in town are at the Nature Park at Boggy Bayou, King Fisher Beach, the Little Jetties as well as walking the residential areas.

Crystal River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River is centered around its pristine waterway, Kings Bay, and is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Manatee”. The small town of approximately 3,200 residents welcomes hundreds of manatees each winter to its many warm springs including the famous Three Sisters Springs. Together with neighboring Homosassa, the Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Located along Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the waters of Crystal River have the only legal “swim-with” Manatee program in the Country meaning visitors can passively observe the mammals in their natural habitat. The springs flow at a constant 72 degrees, making the water attractive to all sorts of swimmers.  

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Best known as a mecca for Texas artists, Rockport is also home to the Maritime Museum, prime saltwater fishing, and tons of outdoor activities. The area is popular for being a great place for bird-watching due to its small crowds and vibrant natural landscape, and visitors often come from all over the Texas coast to see the flocks of coastal birds that call the region home.  

Related Article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Fall

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

The unspoiled Sonoran Desert vegetation of Cave Creek Regional Park invites visitors to become enveloped in a tranquil, largely undisturbed natural world

Solitude and sweeping views in all directions reward those willing to make a relatively short hike in this 2,922-acre park. Cave Creek Regional Park has more than 11-miles of joint-use trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. In additional campsites with excellent facilities along with individual picnic sites beckon the whole family.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek which is located north of Phoenix became part of Maricopa County’s regional park system in 1963.The park sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. This desert oasis offers hikers, bikers, and equestrian majestic views. The Go John Trail loops around a mountain to provide the illusion of being miles away from civilization. In the 1870s, fever stricken gold seekers staked their dreams on the jasper-studded hills. Guided trails to these sites give visitors an opportunity to travel back in time.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek was named for the small stream that rises in the hills to the northeast and flows southwesterly for 25 miles before reaching Paradise Valley. The stream, in turn, was named from a high, overhanging bluff along its west bank that forms a wide, open cavern about two miles north of the present day Cave Creek.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek History

The Cave Creek area has a rich archeological foundation. Ancient Hohokam Indians stayed in the area from around 800 A.D. until 1400 A.D. Many reminders of their living in the area still remain. Stone huts, pit houses, terraced field, and irrigation ditches were left behind. There are also many petroglyphs that were carved by the Hohokam and others.

During the 1400s, bands of Apache Indians began drifting into the area. They brought with them a different lifestyle than the Hohokams. Instead of farming, the Apaches lived by hunting, gathering, and raiding. The 1500s saw the arrival of Spanish explorers. The Spanish found the desert to be very inhospitable. On their maps, central Arizona was labeled as “deplobado” meaning, “desolate wilderness.”

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mining began to become a focal point in central Arizona history in 1863. The call “Gold in the Bradshaws” rang out. Fabulous rich gold outcroppings were found in high peaks such as Antelope Hill. In 1864, Henry Wickenburg uncovered the richest strike, the Vulture Mine. Miners were sure that the Aqua Fria River, New River, Cave Creek, and the stream of the Tonto were also rich with gold.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few miners tried to find the treasures but the Apaches ran them out of the area. Ranchers and farmers followed lured by reports of mild climate, plentiful water, tall timbers, and lush grass. All of the reports failed to mention that hostile Indians surrounded the area. Of all the tribes in the area, the Apaches were the most feared. They were highly mobile, unpredictable, and difficult to capture.

Newcomers to the State appealed to the Federal Government for assistance. The Civil War was demanding the need for every soldier. Washington leaders decided they did not want to lose the potential gold production capabilities of Arizona. In 1863, Arizona was declared a new and separate territory, splitting off from the territory of New Mexico.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Governor was sent to Arizona along with a small force of troops to Fort Whipple in Prescott. In 1865, the army sent a small force of 300 volunteers from California to establish Fort McDowell. Fort McDowell was located 18 miles east of Cave Creek. One year after the Californians arrived, a regular army infantry unit settled into Fort McDowell. For 15 more years, skirmishes, ambushes, and bloody confrontations raged between the soldiers and the Apaches.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just North of Cave Creek, the area of Bloody Basin was the site of a bitter skirmish on March 27, 1873. Army scouts trailed a group of Apaches to the top of Turret Peak. The scouts crept up the peak during the night. At dawn they captured or killed nearly all of the Apaches. The pressure on the Apaches began to have its effects. With the army destroying any discovered food storage areas, the Apaches were beginning to suffer. Hunger drove the Apaches to surrender. By 1877 about 5,000 Indians from various tribes shared the San Carlos Reservation. The time of the Apaches along Cave Creek was over and a new era of mining was coming to Cave Creek.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Hiking Trails

Cave Creek Regional Park offers over 11-miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. The trails within the Cave Creek Regional Park are very popular with dramatic elevations and spectacular views of the surrounding plains. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Picnic Areas

Cave Creek Regional Park offers a Day-Use Picnic Area and a Group Picnic Area. The day use picnic area has 51 individual picnic sites, each providing a table and barbecue grill. Drinking water and restrooms are available in the Day-Use Area and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For large groups wanting to picnic together, weddings, or office parties, consider renting a ramada. Cave Creek Regional Park has four large ramada areas with picnic tables, barbecue grills, drinking water, electrical outlets, campfire pits, and a nearby playground.

These ramadas can be reserved for a fee in four-hour increments. If not marked as reserved, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Cave Creek

The campground consists of 55 campsites for RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. Cave Creek Regional Park provides restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Regional Park

Location: From central Phoenix, take I-17 north to Carefree Hwy (SR 74). Exit Carefree Hwy. and travel east to 32nd St. (7 miles). Turn north on 32nd St. to the Cave Creek Regional Park entrance.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Try these outdoors camping getaways in the Valley of the Sun. Here’s how!

There is no winter like a Sonoran Desert winter. It’s a great time for a little adventure in the outdoors. People travel from all over the world to experience the desert’s 70-degree sun-filled winter days. And you can enjoy them, too? So why not pack up the RV and hit the road?

For a Valley getaway, look no farther than a Maricopa County Regional Park. Don’t just go for a day hike or a bike ride. Spend a week instead. Or two weeks! Revel in the mild days and roast marshmallows over a campfire on a cool star-laden night.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now that’s a getaway worth heading to Phoenix for.

Camping in Maricopa County Regional Parks

Six Maricopa County Regional Parks have campgrounds suitable for RVs:

  • Cave Creek Regional Park
  • Estrella Mountain Regional Park
  • Lake Pleasant Regional Park
  • McDowell Mountain Regional Park
  • Usery Mountain Regional Park
  • White Tank Mountain Regional Park
McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maricopa County Parks Camping Reservations and Fees

Developed campsites in each park include such amenities as water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a fire ring. Restrooms offer flush toilets and hot showers.

You can reserve a site up to six months in advance starting on the first day of each month. To do that online, go to maricopacountyparks.org.

Phone reservations can be made by calling 602-506-2930 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Payment in full is required and there’s an $8 reservation fee.

Developed sites are $32 per night; semi-developed sites are $22. Primitive camping (only at Lake Pleasant) is $15. There are also some shaded RV sites for $40. 

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Do When You Get There

Once you’ve got your camp set up, get out and explore your home away from home. Put aside tablets and phones and reconnect to wide-open spaces. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. Keep an eye open for wildlife, especially during the prime hours around dawn and dusk when critters are most active.

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

The parks lifted their annual fire ban on December 1, allowing visitors to build campfires in designated rings and receptacles. For many, the friendly warmth and flickering light of a fire is the highlight of camping. But if you’re there to be amazed by a galaxy of stars away from city lights, it’s better to forgo the fire and enjoy the clear night sky.

Just don’t forget your hiking shoes. Each park offers plenty of opportunities to spend quiet time walking around outside.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Regional Park

This 2,922-acre park which is located north of Phoenix sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. This desert oasis provides any hiker and equestrian majestic views. Cave Creek Regional Park offers over 11-miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. 

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

The campground consists of 55 campsites for tent or RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estrella Mountain Regional Park

Located near the meeting of the Gila and Agua Fria Rivers in the southwest Valley, the park includes seasonal wetland or riparian area. The majority of the park remains pristine desert. Estrella Park offers over 33 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park Trails range in length from 2.3 miles to 8.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. If you are looking for an easy hike, the 2.4 mile Baseline Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a long, all day hike, the Pederson Trail encompasses 8.7 miles.

Camping space is at a premium at Estrella Mountain which offers only seven sites. Each site is developed and can accommodate a 45-foot RV.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

At Lake Pleasant anglers will be eager to drop a line. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Or rent a kayak at Scorpion Bay Marina. Pontoons and fishing boats are also available for rent. Landlubbers have a variety of hiking trails to choose from. At 4.1 miles, Beardsley is the longest as it rambles through open desert before it junctions with the epic Maricopa Trail. Yavapai Point (1.5 miles) makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers impressive views. Snaking along the shoreline, Wild Burro Trail (2 miles) is so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents.

Lake Pleasant has 148 developed and semi-developed (no hookups) sites with nearby restrooms and showers. There’s even boat-in camping for those who would like to spend the night on the water.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, the 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 40-miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Park Trails range in length from 0.5-miles to 15.3-miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Those looking for an easy hike should try the North Trail at 3.1 miles. Those looking for a good workout should try the Pemberton at 15.3-miles. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated.

Camping at McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table and a barbecue fire ring.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park derives its name from King Usery, a rancher turned rustler and stagecoach robber. Whatever you think of his moral choices, spend some time hiking in this park in the East Valley and you’ll admit the man knew a good hideout. Most people visit Usery to hike up the flank of Pass Mountain to the Wind Cave, a scooped-out alcove where seeping water irrigates a hanging garden of plant life. Views are exquisite from the high perch. If you prefer to stay on more level ground, the Blevins Trail makes a 3-mile loop through picturesque desert.

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

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring.

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

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Anchoring the far western edge of the Valley is White Tank Mountain Regional Park. At nearly 30,000 acres, the largest Maricopa County regional park is spread across the desert lowlands and sharp-rising peaks of the White Tank Mountains. With 40 miles of hiking trails rambling across the landscape, visitors will find a perfect blend of scenery and solitude. The most popular hike is the nearly mile-long Waterfall Canyon Trail that leads to a pool in a narrow box canyon. There are other short easy pathways but a true White Tank specialty is the series of long lanky trails that twist into the backcountry away from the crowds. Put together a moderate loop by combining Mesquite Canyon and Willow Canyon trails.

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

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

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

There Is No Winter like a Desert Winter in the Valley of the Sun

There is no winter like a desert winter. It’s a great time for an adventure in the outdoors.

Snowbirds travel south to experience the Valley’s 70-degree sun-filled January and February days. And locals enjoy them, too!

Look no farther than a Maricopa County Regional Park. Go for a day hike or a bike ride or a week of camping and revel in the mild days of a Sonoran Desert winter.

Maricopa County Parks

Maricopa County is home to one of the largest regional parks systems in the US with over 120,000 acres of open space parks that include hundreds of miles of trails, campgrounds, and nature centers. Currently, there are 12 regional parks in the system visited by over 2.5 million people annually. Whether you’re planning on hiking, enjoying the scenic Sonoran Desert views on horseback, or peddling up a trail on a mountain bike, the parks offer a variety of opportunities for all types of users, ages, and comfort levels. This pristine Sonoran Desert park system includes the following parks.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adobe Dam Regional Park

Sitting at the base of the Hedgepeth Hills in north Phoenix, this park offers recreationists the opportunity to participate in activities that require ample space. Adobe Dam Regional Park consists of approximately 1,514 acres of park land—761 acres which have been developed. Unlike the rest of the County’s regional park system, Adobe Dam is known as a place where families can congregate to enjoy a multitude of concessionaire recreational activities.

From central Phoenix, take I -17 north to the Pinnacle Peak exit. Go west on Pinnacle Peak to 43rd Avenue.

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

Buckeye Hills Regional Park

Consisting of 4,474 acres of natural desert, the park is located in the southwest Valley. Enjoy the rolling hills of pristine Sonoran Desert with beautiful views of the Gila River riparian area. Buckeye Hills Regional Park has restrooms but there is no running water or electricity available in the park. Facilities at the regional park include 50 picnic tables, cooking grills, two large armadas, and a small shooting range at the southern end of the area.

From central Phoenix, take I-10 west to US 85 south. Buckeye Hills Regional Park will be on the west side of US 85, just south of the Town of Buckeye and the Gila River.​​

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Regional Park

This 2,922-acre park which is located north of Phoenix sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. Cave Creek Regional Park offers over 11-miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. The family campground consists of 55 campsites. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring.

From central Phoenix, take I-17 north to Carefree Hwy (SR 74). Exit Carefree Hwy. and travel east to 32nd St. (7 miles). Turn north on 32nd St. to the Cave Creek Regional Park entrance.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estrella Mountain Regional Park

Located near the meeting of the Gila and Agua Fria Rivers in the southwest Valley, the park includes seasonal wetland or riparian area. Amenities include a 65-acre grass picnic area. Estrella Mountain Park offers over 33 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park Trails range in length from 2.3 miles to 8.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. The park offers seven RV sites. Each site will accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. 

From central Phoenix, take I-10 west to Estrella Parkway exit. Travel south to Vineyard Ave. Turn east on Vineyard Ave. to the Estrella Mountain Regional Park entrance on the south side.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hassayampa River Preserve

At Hassayampa River Preserve you may see any one of the 280 species of birds along the riparian corridor. Perched atop the massive trees are some of Arizona’s rarest raptors including Harris hawk. On your walk, a brilliant vermilion flycatcher might catch your eye. The Preserve consists of approximately 770 acres along the Hassayampa River south of Wickenburg. In 2017, The Nature Conservancy entered into an agreement with Maricopa County to manage the Hassayampa River Preserve.

Head west on Carefree Hwy (AZ-74) to US-60. Turn right onto US-60 W. Travel approximately 6.2 miles.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

A scenic water recreation area, this northwest Valley park is a recreationist’s dream. The 23,362 acre park offers camping, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing. Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers two boat launching ramps. Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers 148 camping sites.

Directions: ​From central Phoenix, take I-17 north to Carefree Highway (SR 74). Exit Carefree Hwy. and travel west 15 miles to Castle Hot Spring Road. Travel north to entrance.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, the 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 40-miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Park Trails range in length from 0.5-miles to 15.3-miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. The park offers two picnic areas totaling 88 picnic sites. McDowell Mountain offers a campground with 76 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers with water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table and a barbecue fire ring.

From central Phoenix, take Loop 202 east to Beeline Highway (SR 87). Continue northeast on SR 87 to Shea Blvd. Travel west on Shea Blvd. to Saguaro Blvd.; turn north. Continue through Town of Fountain Hills to Fountain Hills Blvd; turn right and travel four miles to the McDowell Mountain Regional Park entrance.

San Tan Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

This southeast Valley park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. Goldmine Mountain is located in the northern area with a spectacular San Tan Mountain escarpment in the southern portion of the park. The vegetation changes from creosote flats to dense saguaro forest. San Tan Mountain Regional Park offers over eight miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 1.1 miles to over 5 miles, and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous.

From central Phoenix, take I-10 east to US 60 east. Exit Ellsworth Road south to Hunt Highway. Travel east on Hunt Highway to Thompson Road south. Turn west on Phillips Road to entrance. 

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area

The newest addition to Maricopa County’s Parks System, the conservation area encompasses 2,154 acres of diverse, rugged upper Sonoran Desert. The north Valley location contains archaeology sites and lush riparian areas along Cave Creek. Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers over seven miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is located approximately 35 miles north of central Phoenix. Interstate 17, State Route 51, and Loop 101 can all be used to reach the park.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park is set at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Usery Mountain Regional Park offers over 29 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. 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 offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring.

From central Phoenix, take I-10 east to US 60 east. Exit Ellsworth Road north to the Usery Mountain Regional Park entrance.

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

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Nearly 30,000 acres makes 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 Valleys west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons, rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet. White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 mile to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. In addition, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails. The park offers a campground with 40 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located at the very west end of Olive Ave about 15 miles west of the 101 (Agua Fria Highway).

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