Pinal County: Exploring the Heart of Southern Arizona

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.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Casa Grande Monument National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Ostrich Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Best Bird-watching Trail in Arizona

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

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

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Patagonia: Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patagonia: Paton Center for Hummingbirds

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

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

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

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

Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sierra Vista: Brown Canyon Trail

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

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

Lesser Goldfinch at San Pedro House

Sierra Vista: San Pedro River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilcox: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.

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

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

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

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

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Valley: Madera Canyon

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

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

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Related article: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

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

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

Oro Valley: Catalina State Park 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related article: Catalina State Park: Sky Island Gem

Read more: Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona: Red Rock State Park

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

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

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Related article: Color Your World at Red Rock State Park

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Sedona

Conclusion

No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place. A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items: snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, a birding field guide, binoculars, and camera. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.

The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.

Plan your trip:

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

What is the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recreational & Educational Area

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

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

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

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

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

Water Reclamation Facility

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

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

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

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

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

Wildlife Habitat

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

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

Programs

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

Related article: Explore Phoenix Naturally

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

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

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

Photo Opportunities

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

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

Hours & Parking

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jalal Ad-Din Rumi

Important Bird Areas for RV Travel

A driving tour of Important Bird Areas that offer fantastic bird-watching opportunities for RV travel

If you’re an RVer interested in bird watching, Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a great source for planning your next road trip. The IBAs form an impressive network of conservation sites for birds, including expansive lands that support important habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To date Audubon has identified 2,832 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. You may be familiar with many of these IBAs, as some are already protected as national parks and national wildlife refuges—some are small and some expansive—but all are significant. Of the 2,832 North American IBAs, 720 are considered of global importance, 113 are listed as continental importance, and 1,999 are of state importance.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following are five of our favorite IBA destinations in the US for bird watching and the enjoyment of the natural environment during our RV travels.

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The annual arrival of the sandhill cranes is celebrated by a 6-day festival each November. The Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 20-23, 2019. The cranes and snow geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with their departure the refuge remains a wonderful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year round. You will want to drive the auto Tour Loop to get up close to the wildlife and their habitat.

Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an important National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It is also a ‘gateway site’ for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge from manatee and bird watching, to fishing and hunting. The Visitor Information Center located 4 miles east of Titusville, Florida, is a great place to start your visit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The refuge’s coastal location, tropic-like climate, and wide variety of habitat types contribute to the refuge’s diverse bird population. To date, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.

Arizona: Gilbert Riparian Preserves at Water Ranch

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

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is managed as a part of the City of Gilbert water treatment facility. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch features hiking and equestrian trails. The preserve provides a great opportunity for wildlife and bird watching and is considered the premier bird watching facility in the Phoenix metro region. Approximately 250 species of birds have been sighted here.

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

The preserve also has the only valley astronomy observatory open to the public every Friday and Saturday evening from dusk until 9:30 p.m., subject to weather conditions.

Texas: Laguna Madre

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is bordered by the world’s longest barrier island system. Part of this system forms the Laguna Madre whose mosaic of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds, and native grasslands provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Madre includes privately owned cattle ranches (Kenedy and King Ranches), federally owned conservation areas (Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island National Seashore), and coastal communities.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is host or home to an incredible diversity of migrating birds that funnel through the tip of Texas in an effort to avoid flying too far east, over the Gulf Coast, or too far west, over the desert. In addition, many southern species reach their northernmost range along the Rio Grande.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.The nature center offers more than 3,300 linear feet of boardwalk, five bird blinds, and a five story tower with spectacular views of the Laguna Madre, beaches and dunes of South Padre Island, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is an epic birding destination near Lake Charles. This is due to the fact that it is at the convergence of the Mississippi and Central flyways. Numerous birds make year-round residences here while millions make their way through this region in the spring and fall during migration.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie is your chance to truly enjoy the Louisiana Outback at its finest. Wildlife is abundant and makes wildlife viewing and photography opportunities endless. The best places to spot wildlife are the Pintail Wildlife Drive, the visitor center, and all along the Creole Nature Trail.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus