Experience many of Arizona’s unique attractions with a road trip in Pinal County, the heart of Southern Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson
At a sprawling 5,374 square miles, Pinal County has two distinct geographical regions. The eastern portion is mountainous with breathtaking views at elevations up to 6,000 feet while the western portion is primarily low valleys filled with gorgeous desert vegetation. You can find it all here in the heart of the desert.
You’re in Arizona, so slip into the saddle for a horseback riding adventure at Apache Junction’s Superstitions O.K. Corral Stables.
Then head up the Apache Trail (SR-88) into the Superstition Mountains to Goldfield Ghost Town, an 1890s gold mining town and Historic Goldfield Museum. Entrance is free with fees for some attractions including a zipline, narrow gauge railroad, mine tours, and gold panning with free gunfight shows.
The Superstition Mountain Museum is situated on a scenic 15-acre site just beneath the west end of Superstition Mountain. On the grounds is a restored 20-stamp ore mill, two historic buildings salvaged from Apacheland Movie Ranch, a labelled nature trail, Boot Hill, and an extensive model railroad display. The museum building itself boasts an exhibit gallery, a gift shop, and a bookstore.
Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located nearby. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.
The campground has 135 sites and three group camping areas: 68 sites with electric (50/30/20 amp service) and water and the remainder non-hookup sites on paved roads for tents or RVs. Every site has a picnic table and a fire pit with an adjustable grill gate. There are no size restrictions on RVs.
The San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a 10,000 acre rural/suburban park with picnicking and a well-equipped visitor center. The park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. The Park has over 20 miles of non-motorized trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Moonlight Trail is the perfect choice as it provides a scenic and rather mild hike for all to enjoy. The Moonlight Trail begins at the San Tan Trailhead near the Visitor Center and guides you along the base of a mountain located in the central valley of the park and connects to the San Tan Trail at the west end.
If you are looking for a longer more difficult hike try the 6.4-mile San Tan Trail. The trail starts at the San Tan Trailhead and encompasses a large portion of the park and intersects with other trails at various points. Enjoy scenic mountain views at the south end of the park near Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills or hike to the central valley of the park to explore its unique beauty.
Look for petroglyphs and Sonoran plants and animals from javelinas to Gila monsters. Special events include stargazing with provided telescopes.
Coolidge is home to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, a true Arizona treasure. The four-story building was built in about 1350 by the Hohokam Indians and named Casa Grande (Big House) by Spanish Missionary Father Eusebio Kino in 1694.
Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.
This was the first historic site to receive protected status by the United States Government in 1892.
The Museum of Casa Grande provides a detailed look at the area’s heritage. Explore the early days of Arizona with artifacts and exhibits from pre-history to modern day. Many special programs and events are scheduled throughout the year.
Don’t miss Skydive Arizona in Eloy, the world’s largest parachuting resort and frequent host of National and World Skydiving Championships! Check out the famous Bent Prop Saloon & Cookery.
The Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch in Picacho fills the need for something different and unusual on this road trip. The family-owned ostrich ranch and petting zoo has been featured on numerous television shows. There are many different critters to feed with an amusement park, outdoor recreational activities, and affordable family fun for all ages.
Discover the world in a 3.14-acre laboratory with active research systems spanning from ocean to desert environments at Biosphere 2 in Oracle now a University of Arizona Earth-Science research facility. Built to study living in an artificial environment, the 7.2 million cubic foot enclosed ecological system is the largest closed system ever built. Time-Life Books calls it “one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world.”
The Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden with 4.75 miles of trails. With over 3,900 plant species from around the world the riparian area attracts Sonoran Desert wildlife and over 270 migrating bird species.
Enjoy 4.7 miles of trails throughout the arboretum in gardens representing 11 different regions of the world. The trails provide many opportunities to stop and take beautiful landscape, fauna, and flora photos.
As an Audubon Important Bird Area, Boyce Thompson Arboretum and the adjacent Arnett and Queen Creeks are known for spectacular birding opportunities. Some 275 different species have been sighted. Guided bird walks take place between October and May.
The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.
If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in March
That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
—Henry David Thoreau
Writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection on the two years he spent living in a cottage near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. In his journals, he worried that leaving his humble life to travel would numb him to the unique pleasures of a quiet, simple existence. Thoreau was a transcendentalist, valuing nature and personal spirituality over materialism: It’s no surprise that he measured a person’s riches in terms of emotional satisfaction and not luxury. He reminds us that we alone decide what fulfills us and brings us joy and often those joys are much easier to reach than we think.
Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in January and February. Also, check out my recommendations from March 2022 and April 2022.
1. Always remember, never forget
Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo served as home to missionaries and their Indian converts for nearly seventy years. Construction began on the present site in 1724. In 1793, Spanish officials secularized San Antonio’s five missions and distributed their lands to remaining Indian residents. These men and women continued to farm the fields once the missions but now their own and participated in the growing community of San Antonio.
More than 2.5 million people a year visit the 4.2 acre complex known worldwide as The Alamo. Most come to see the old mission where a small band of Texans held out for thirteen days against the Centralist army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Although the Alamo fell in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, the death of the Alamo Defenders has come to symbolize courage and sacrifice for the cause of Liberty.
2. One of the world’s great natural wonders
Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin is one of the world’s great natural wonders—the glistening white sands of New Mexico. Here, dunes have engulfed 275 square miles of desert creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field. It’s a truly awesome place. It feels like you are in another world.
Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and thus can be walked upon safely with bare feet even in the hottest summer months. In areas accessible by car children frequently use the dunes for downhill sledding.
Fun fact: Three species of lizards, one pocket mouse, and numerous species of insects have evolved a white coloration for survival in the white sands.
3. Brand new cheese trail
The Indiana Cheese Trail is full of delicious stops and this is what to expect if you’re antsy for dairy. Anyone interested in gobbling up some award-winning Gouda, cheddar, or Monterey jack doesn’t need to look any farther than Indiana. There are 10 creameries and dairies listed on The American Dairy Association Indiana’s website. While cheese enthusiasts can find most of their cheeses at Indiana farmers’ markets and local grocery stores, several are open to the public for tastings, tours, and even cheese-making classes.
The Heritage Ridge Creamery began in the 1970s. Amish dairy farmers needed to sell their milk. Since they used traditional milk cans, they couldn’t find an outlet for their product until this creamery opened. Now, a farmers’ cooperative owns Heritage Ridge. The company continues to use milk produced by local, family-owned dairy farms to make its scrumptious cheeses.
Attractions: Watch the cheese-making process, sample their products
Location: 11275 W 250 N, Middlebury
4. A Louisiana Main Street community
Denham Springs Main Street is right outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city. Check out the Denham Springs Historic District & Antique Village where there’s a lot more than antiques—including gifts, home goods, local crafts, and more shopping opportunities like the locally-owned Cavalier House Books. And every spring and fall, the Historic District fills with hundreds of vendors, games, rides, food booths, and more at the area’s spring and fall festivals.
You won’t have to stray far to visit the Old City Hall Museum. This Art Deco-style structure was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and features several interesting exhibits and collections.
For a great bite to eat, head over to Randazzo’s Italian Market where owner Antonio shares his family recipes straight from Italy. And Le Chien Brewing is a family-and-pet-friendly microbrewery serving up quality beers and sodas. Be sure to grab some nibbles from the onsite food truck, Pie Eyed, and enjoy live music on the spacious patio.
5. Incredible historic place
If you love outer space, the Kennedy Space Center visitor center is a must-see. It’s one of the most highly-rated destinations in the country and almost everybody loves their experience. You could easily spend an entire day here learning about the history and the future of space travel.
Guests have access to a variety of activities and learning experiences. You can touch a real moon rock, speak to astronauts, and get up close and personal with a rocket.
There are tons of tours, videos, and exhibits that are suitable for all kinds of people. The only downside of this experience is the price point. It’s a bit discouraging to see that entrance fee ($78.99) especially if you have younger kids who might not get their money’s worth. Overall, this place is definitely worth a visit though.
6. International Cherry Blossom Festival
Each March, Macon becomes a pink, cotton-spun paradise as over 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees bloom in all their glory.The International Cherry Blossom Festival is a perennial favorite held March 17-26, 2023 that features art exhibitions, rides, and performances.
The Creek Indians were the first inhabitants of the area that would later become known as Macon, settled by Europeans in 1809. Celebrate the Native American tribes that called the Macon area home at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, a site dating back 17,000 years. The site has North America’s only reconstructed Earth Lodge with its original 1,000-year-old floor as well as the Great Temple Mound.
In the 1960s, Macon was ground zero for the music industry thanks to Capricorn Records and artists like the Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding. Learn about the band that called Macon home at The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, the Tudor-style home that Berry, Duane, and Gregg lived in with their family and friends. It has a large collection of guitars and band memorabilia.
7. This Arizona ghost town will transport you to the Wild West
Goldfield Ghost Town lies along the Apache Trail, a stagecoach route originally forged by the Apache tribe which passes through Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. As its name suggests, Goldfield was a gold mining town that boomed in the 1890s; intrepid opportunists found gold here as early as the 1880s but didn’t establish a town immediately due to the ongoing wars between the United States military and the local Apache tribes.
At its peak, Goldfield had three saloons, a boarding house, a general store, a blacksmith shop, its own brewery and meat market, and a schoolhouse, as well as a local jail. Many of these buildings have been preserved (with large, dramatic signage). The town offers plenty of entertainment for visitors—from gunfight reenactments to panning for gold—but a highlight is their train which is the state’s only remaining narrow-gauge train. Goldfield also offers a recently-constructed Zipline, museum, mine tours, and reptile exhibits. Entry is free, but individual exhibits cost between $7 and $12 for adults.
8. Eat and drink your way through Charleston
Charleston might be known for its old-school Southern cuisine but the richly historic South Carolina mainstay’s culinary offerings extend way beyond she-crab soup. At Charleston Wine + Food (March 1–5, 2023), you’ll learn about what makes the city a proper food destination tasting local flavors while also mingling with chefs and winemakers from around the globe. Take part in a hip-hop-inspired Cognac workshop, enjoy a Kamayan-inspired dinner, or stop by the (free) City of Charleston Wine + Food Street Fest.
If festivals aren’t your thing, take off on your own exploring the city’s diverse food scene which draws on influences from Europe, West Africa, and the West Indies. The Quinte, a newly opened oyster bar, will get you a taste of that distinctly Charleston, ultra-fresh seafood. Vern’s, headed by James Beard Award-semifinalist Daniel Dano Heinze, applies a Californian approach to local Lowcountry provisions. And if it’s a classic spot you’re after, you can’t beat Rodney Scott’s BBQ for pit-cooked whole hogs that define the region’s barbecue.
9. Lechuguilla Cave
At 30 miles long, Carlsbad Cavern was assumed to be the most extensive cave in the Guadalupes. But cavers have now mapped more than 150 miles of meandering shafts and caverns in Lechuguilla Cave. And exploration continues.
And length isn’t even the cave’s true calling card. Lechuguilla Cave is widely considered the most beautiful cave in the world. The Chandelier Ballroom with massive formations of delicate, crystalline gypsum has become iconic. But there are pellucid waters and exquisite forms throughout.
Lechuguilla Cave started its career as Misery Hole, a 90-foot pit in southeast New Mexico where miners extracted bat guano for use in fertilizers and explosives. It wasn’t until 1984 that cavers received approval from the National Park Service to pursue the source of a mysterious breeze emanating from the cave floor.
10. Peridot Mesa is a must-visit for lovers of wildflowers
The name Peridot derives from the presence of the olive green gemstones found in the basalt rock found atop the aptly named Peridot Mesa near Globe, Arizona. Some estimates suggest that the San Carlos Indian Reservation holds the world’s largest deposit of the August birthstone and consistently produces a substantial amount of the world’s commercial-grade supply of this stone.
While only members of the tribe may mine for the prized mineral, those visiting Peridot Mesa in search of wildflowers in late February through early April will find their own gems—that is, expansive blankets of Mexican gold poppies dotted by the lupin, desert-chicory, and blue dick across rolling hillsides as far as the eye can see.
Where to find the wildflowers? The mesa is located east of Globe on the San Carlos Reservation. The area can be best accessed via US-70 near Coolidge Dam Road. The mesa is one of the Grand Canyon state’s most popular hot spots for wildflower viewing. Since the Peridot Mesa is located on San Carlos Tribal Lands, visitors will need to purchase a permit to travel to the wildflower spot. Permits are $10 each.
In March the soft rains continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sunk beneath the ground.
Explore my list of fun things to see and do in the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city
Consider this your introduction to the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city—the essential, can’t miss, make-sure-you-check-out things to see and do in the towns of Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, and beyond.
Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert
Stroll 110 acres of greenery, ranging from marshland and riparian habitats to upland vegetation areas. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park with interpretive panels on wildlife and vegetation throughout. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds.
Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. A floating boardwalk crossing the northern end of the lake allows visitors a close-up view of the fish and ducks on the water. Additional educational areas include an ethnobotanical garden, a paleontology dig site, a hummingbird, and a butterfly garden.
Also at the preserve: the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory where you can see comets, meteors, planets, and the sun Just be sure to check the hours—the trails are generally open from dawn to dusk, but the observatory operates separately.
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. Visitors enjoy a full program schedule, over 50 miles of multi-use trails, and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. 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 with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring.
Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park is located at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.
Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. 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 with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.
Saguaro Lake was formed by the Stewart Mountain Dam which was completed in 1930. It was the last of the reservoirs to be built on the Salt River. The lake is named for the Saguaro Cactus which stands majestically in the surrounding desert landscape.
Saguaro Lake has more than 22 miles of shoreline creating a great environment for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and camping. Discover canyon-walled Saguaro Lake aboard The Desert Belle. Relax in air-conditioned comfort on one of her 80 minute narrated cruises and see exotic Arizona wildlife, towering canyon walls, and dramatic desert vistas. Live music cruises, wine, and live music cruises, and craft beer, and live music cruises are also available.
San Tan Mountain Regional Park
Consisting of over 10,000 acres, the southeast Valley park is a fine example of the lower Sonoran Desert. San Tan Mountain Regional Park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. The 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.
Named after the Apache Indians who once used the route, the Apache Trail (AZ 88) links Apache Junction at the eastern edge of the Greater Phoenix area with Theodore Roosevelt Lake through the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Forest. This mostly unpaved road winds past magnificent scenery of twisted igneous mountains with dense forests of saguaro and several deep blue lakes.
The road though has been mostly closed since late 2019 because of landslips and other damage associated with the Woodbury Fire. The worst affected is the steepest section just west of Fish Creek; the only part still open to vehicular traffic is the (paved) 18 miles from Apache Junction to Tortilla Flat.
Goldfield Ghost Town
Established in 1893, Goldfield was a mining town with saloons, a boarding house, general store, blacksmith shop, brewery, meat market, and a schoolhouse. The grade of ore dropped at the end of the 1890s and the town was all but deserted. The town came back to life from 1910 to 1926.
Today, visitors can tour the historic Mammoth Gold Mine, visit the Goldfield Museum, pan for gold, take a ride on Arizona’s only narrow gauge train, explore the shops and historic building, eat at the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon, and witness an old west gunfight performed by the Goldfield Gunfighters.
Some cities have a clock that chimes on the hour—Fountain Hills has a fountain (the fourth-tallest in the world) that shoots water 562 feet in the air for 15 minutes on the hour. But there’s much more than that. Jump in on a docent-led art walk around the city and see a large collection of sculptures on public display as the docent explains how each piece was created. Meander some more in the Fountain Hills Desert Botanical Garden where a half-mile trail weaves you past 29 desert plants, interesting rock formations, wildlife, and the abandoned P-Bar Ranch campsite.
Superstition Mountain Museum
Hikers, horseback riders, photographers, and tourists come to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the Superstition Mountains now preserved in the Superstition Wilderness Area. But, many are curious about the history and mystery of this intriguing area and visit the museum comprised of a central 4,900-square-foot exhibit hall and Museum Shop and numerous outdoor structures and exhibitions including the Apacheland Barn and the Elvis Chapel, the last surviving structures from Apacheland Movie Ranch, a huge 20-stamp gold mill, a mountain man camp, Western storefronts, and a labeled Nature Walk.
Lost Dutchman State Park
Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains 40 miles east of Phoenix. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest.
Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring but there are plenty of beautiful desert plants to see year-round. Enjoy a weekend of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit.
Huhugam Heritage Center, Chandler
This modern cultural center highlights the ancestral, historic, and current cultures of the Gila River Indian Community made up of two tribes—the Akimel O’otham and the Pee Posh. The Huhugam Heritage Center was built in 2003 to create a place for community, culture, land, tradition, and spirit: a place to honor and preserve their Him dak (our way of life).
Experience its unique and calming architecture. The Center stair-steps up out of the desert, the building silhouettes designed to blend in with the nearby mountain ranges and hills.
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.