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

Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s National Park Service sites at these lesser-known locations

Among America’s 418 National Park Service (NPS) sites, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Natchez Trace Parkway all come to mind as bucket-list sites.

And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

Here, we’ve rounded up ten of the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each one is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty and power of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Cowpens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cowpens National Battlefield

2018 visitor count: 189,410

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

El Malpais National Monument

2018 visitor count: 154,368

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

2018 visitor count: 103,218

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

Tuzigoot National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tuzigoot National Monument

2018 visitor count: 98,090

Tuzigoot is a small national monument that preserves the remains of dwellings of the 12th century Sinagua Indians. Tuzigoot comprises a cluster of buildings, on top of a small sandstone ridge close to the Verde River valley.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

2018 visitor count: 62,995

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites, including a four-story earthen structure. Interpretive walking tours and exhibits are available.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cumberland Island National Seashore

2018 visitor count: 55.650

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, full of pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. Walk in the footsteps of early natives, explorers, and wealthy industrialists.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

2018 visitor count: 260,375

With its multiple stems the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ.

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hovenweep National Monument

2018 visitor count: 40,574

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss. Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

2018 visitor count: 39,361

Founded in 1876 by John Lorenzo Hubbell, this is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation. This site in Ganado is part museum, part art gallery and still a functioning trading post, virtually unchanged since its early days.

Worth Pondering…
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Coronado National Memorial: A Journey of Conquest and Exploration

For Wealth, For God, For Empire

These were the driving motivators of a journey through the arid desert and rugged mountains of the southeastern Arizona landscape now designated as Coronado National Memorial.

This exhilarating initial expedition left the Spanish with none of the gold they’d expected to find but opened a way for later Spanish explorers and missionaries to colonize the Southwest, developing the distinctive Hispanic-American culture we know today.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Early in the 16th century, 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 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 their arrival in the “New World”.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

After Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Mexico City in 1536 with a story of mythical seven cities of Cíbola “filled with gold, streets lined with goldsmith shops, and doorways studded with emeralds and turquoise,” Viceroy Mendoza planned an official expedition and chose his good friend Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to lead it.

On February 23, 1540, Coronado’s crew of over 300 Spanish soldiers, over 1,000 Aztec/Mexica allies, a handful of Franciscan priests, and scores of servants and slaves set out to unearth the cities for themselves.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

On July 7, they reached Háwikuh, south of present-day Gallup, New Mexico, and first of the fabled Cities of Cibola. But a major disappointment awaited the Spaniards. Instead of a golden city, they saw only a rock-masonry pueblo occupied by Indians who were prepared to defend their village. After failed peace negotiations, the Spaniards attacked, then used the ravaged village as their headquarters, sending troops as far west as the Grand Canyon.

As they went east near modern-day Santa Fe, they met “The Turk,” a Plains Indian who astonished them with his tales of unbelievably great wealth further to the east in a land called Quivira.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

While they waited to launch their next expedition in the spring, a hostile situation developed. A series of battles followed, resulting in the Spaniards killing the occupants of one pueblo and forcing the abandonment of several others. However, The Turk remained friendly with the Spaniards and in 1541 led them to Quivira, near modern-day Salina, Kansas, and they were disillusioned once again.

It was here that the Spaniards’ belief in the seven cities of gold vanished. Although The Turk had indeed led them to Quivira, it was a village of primitive grass huts with no gold to be found.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Turk was eventually executed after admitting his deception. Coronado and his men soon after began their long grueling return march back home mired in bitter disappointment at having failed their mission

They finally reached Mexico City in the spring of 1542, where they were publicly scorned and discredited.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ten years after his return, at the age of 42, Coronado died in relative obscurity. He could not know, however, that his courage had set the stage for the larger-than-life saga of the great American West.

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley, which was the route believed to have been taken by Coronado’s expedition. Today, the park stands as a reminder of the geographical and cultural bonds between the two countries.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave, which may have housed inhabitants from 8,000 years ago. One of the few undeveloped caves in southern Arizona it stands 600 feet long and up to 70 feet wide, making for a moderate hike followed by as much exploring as you wish. 

For those looking to stay above ground, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico. The park also features over 8 miles of trails that run the gamut from an easy 1-mile hike down Coronado Peak Trail to a difficult 4 miles through Crest Trail toward the highest point in the range, Miller Peak.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Even though the Coronado Expedition was inspired by a grand myth, the discoveries it yielded (or lack thereof) impacted the entire region for years to come. Take a road trip to Arizona and witness the stunning, natural beauty and rich history of Coronado National Memorial for yourself.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.