Lake Pleasant, an Oasis in the Sonoran Desert

With more than 23,000 acres of water and beautiful desert landscape, Lake Pleasant is one of the most scenic recreation areas in the Valley

The desert is parched and grows little but cactus. Except for roadrunners outwitting coyotes, the desert supports no wildlife. Arizona residents and seasoned snowbirds have heard it all before from first-time visitors. Sometimes they just smile and head for Lake Pleasant.

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Tucked away amid rolling hills just 30 miles north of Phoenix, Lake Pleasant Regional Park is a sudden and dramatic escape. This expansive playground combines all the things we love about the desert—endless sunshine, rising mountains, saguaro-clad slopes, and waves of spring wildflowers—with the addition of unexpected water. For outdoor enthusiasts, this 23,000-acre park is a dream destination.

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­­Lake Pleasant History

In the mid-1920s, the Waddell Dam confined the waters of the Agua Fria River as a private irrigation project. The dam originally was named after Carl Pleasant, the engineer who designed it. The completion of the New Waddell Dam in 1994 turned Lake Pleasant into a major storage facility for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The new dam tripled the size of the lake and submerged the old dam. Pleasant is the second-largest reservoir in central Arizona, behind only Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Water is pumped into the lake via the CAP canal during winter and is released during spring and summer to meet higher demands.

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Lake Pleasant Fishing

A dozen fish species swim in Lake Pleasant. Those fishing from shore generally goes after catfish, sunfish, and carp. From a boat, anglers can explore coves, channels, and deep holes. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Others that might end up on a line include tilapia, bluegill, bigmouth buffalo fish, and white and black crappie.

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Boat Ramps and Marinas

A 10-lane boat ramp helps keep the traffic flowing onto the water even during busy times. There also is a four-lane ramp at the north end of the lake.

Never fear if you don’t have a boat. You can rent just about anything that floats at Scorpion Bay Marina. Hourly and daily rentals include pontoons, fishing boats, ski boats, kayaks, and other water toys. The marina has a general store and the Scorpion Bay Grill with indoor and patio dining.

Located on the southeastern shore outside the regional park Pleasant Harbor Marina has two four-lane boat ramps, boat rentals, a waterside restaurant, and daily cruises. Look for the world’s largest floating water slide to reopen for the season in late spring. The RV resort has more than 300 full and partial hook-up sites as well as dry camping. There is a $6 entry fee per vehicle for everyone visiting Pleasant Harbor Marina.

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Lake Pleasant Hiking Trails

Landlubbers will have plenty to keep them busy. A network of hiking trails spreads across the park some tracing the shore while others explore surrounding desert hills. It’s always fascinating to witness this contrast—groves of saguaros standing guard over a large body of water. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​

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Here are some hiking options. All mileages are one way.

Beardsley Trail (4.1 miles): This is the longest Lake Pleasant trail as it traverses open desert parallel to South Park Road before it junctions with the epic, county-circling Maricopa Trail

Pipeline Canyon Trail (2 miles): This trail highlights the best display of spring wildflowers with the heaviest concentration stretching from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away

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Roadrunner Trail (0.8 miles): It follows the water’s edge connecting the Discovery Center with the 10-lane boat ramp

Wild Burro Trail (2 miles): It’s so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents

Yavapai Point (1.5 miles): The trail makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers some impressive views

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Picnic Areas

Picnickers will find numerous covered ramadas and tables dotting the landscape. Day-use areas include tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. The Sunset Ridge Area sits atop a hill with commanding views of the lake. It has 21 picnic sites with tables, grills, and a porta-john.

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Discovery Center and Playground

In 2016, the original dam observation/visitor center building was expanded and given a stylish update. The Discovery Center now offers visitors a good introduction to the lake with exhibits on history, wildlife, plant communities, and information on upcoming events. Spotting scopes and signs on the balcony help you identify points of interest that range from features of the dam to the distant ridge of Four Peaks. Children will love the adjacent playground filled with animal-themed slides and swings. The Discovery Center is now open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, until further notice.

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Camping at Lake Pleasant

Imagine starry nights or the light of a full moon shimmering on the water. Snag a campsite to enjoy that show. Lake Pleasant offers 148 sites for RV and tent camping spread across the Desert Tortoise and Roadrunner campgrounds. Campsites cost $15-$40 per night, depending on amenities.

Developed sites have water, electricity, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. Sites can be reserved up to six months in advance at maricopacountyparks.org or by calling 602-506-2930.

Primitive camping is allowed along much of the shoreline in such areas as Two Cow and Fireman’s coves. Locations change with fluctuating water levels. Park staff can provide more details.

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Fact Box

Location: From central Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to the Carefree Highway (SR-74) exit. Drive 15 miles west, then turn north on Castle Hot Springs Road.

Park Elevation: 1,700 feet

Surface Water: 10,000 acres

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle.

Campsite Rates: $22-$32

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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

A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

A top notch location in the greater Phoenix area for a hike in the desert with thirty miles of trails that range anywhere from as short as a mile to several of them exceeding five miles or more

Nearly 30,000 acres makes White Tank Mountain 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. Infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.

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White Tank Mountain History

Eleven archeological sites occupied during the time period A.D. 500-1100 were located within the boundaries of White Tank Mountain Regional Park. All of these sites can be attributed to the Hohokam Indians. The White Tanks were apparently abandoned by the Hohokam about A.D. 1100. There is no further indication of human occupation until the historic period when the Western Yavapai controlled the area.

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Ruggedness of terrain and scarcity of water restricted the sites to large canyons leading out of the mountains. In these canyons, the sites include seven villages varying from 1 to 75 acres in area, a rock shelter in the face of a steep cliff overlooking the white tanks, and several shard areas. Several of the villages appear to have been occupied for long periods by sizeable populations while the shard areas may represent temporary camps of hunters and gatherers.

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Most of the sites in the area are concentrated around the White Tanks themselves. The Tanks probably held water the year-round and thereby drew people to the region. Petroglyphs on rocks indicate the Indians were more than transients. Pottery shards along the Agua Fria and Hassayampa signify the presence of villages and the likelihood that an Indian trail connected the streams with the White Tank long before Europeans came into the area. The discovery of possible agricultural terraces or check dams indicates that farming may have been carried on in the various canyons of the White Tank Mountains by utilizing seasonal runoff and rain water.

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About the Petroglyphs

Ancient Arizonans pecked hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces of the White Tank Mountains. Some may approach 10,000 years old. All have withstood sun, rain, and vandals for 700 or 800 years or more.

The Black Rock Trail circles through a Hohokam village site though the pit houses and trash mounds are hidden to all but the trained eye of an archeologist. The largest group of rock-art panels is along the Waterfall Canyon Trail at “Petroglyph Plaza”. Another big group is near the entrance to the box canyon that gives the trail its name.

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A rock drawing was serious business to its maker. While no one can say precisely what most of them “mean”, we know they had important functions in the lives of their makers. They were not simply stone-age graffiti. The symbols recorded events and marked locations. They were a magical way to control nature so rain would fall or mountain sheep would let themselves be caught. Some served as trail markers and maps. Others represented religious concepts.

Do not try to make “tombstone rubbings” of the petroglyphs. It does not work and you will erode the dark areas making the petroglyph dimmer. Look at and photograph these figures and symbols of history but do not touch the petroglyphs as skin oils can also damage them. 

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White Tank Mountain Hiking Trails

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of excellent shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 mile to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. Overnight backpacking with a permit is allowed in established backcountry campsites. Day hikes can provide some breathtaking views of the mountains and panoramas of the Valley below. Horseback and mountain bike riders are welcome although caution is stressed as some of the trails may be extremely difficult.

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In addition, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails. These include two short trails that are hard-surfaced and barrier free. Waterfall Trail is barrier-free for 5/10 of a mile. The handicap accessible portion now ends about 1/10 of a mile past Petroglyph Plaza. The short loop of Black Rock Trail which is about ½ mile long begins at Ramada 4.

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).

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

White Tank Mountain Picnic Areas

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 240 picnic tables with grills, 80 of which have a small cover. Eleven Group Picnic Sites are available for large groups. 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.

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White Tank Mountain Camping

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offer 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. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

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White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Directions: 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).

NORTH: Take Highway 303 south and exit at PEORIA AVE. Turn right from the off-ramp and travel west for 1 mile on Peoria Ave to Cotton Lane. Turn left (south) onto Cotton Lane until you get to Olive Ave. Turn right (west) on Olive Ave and continue 4 miles to the park gate.

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

SOUTH: Take Highway 303 north and exit at NORTHERN AVE. Turn left (west) at the light and off-ramp onto Northern Ave, traveling west for 1 mile to Cotton Lane. Turn right (north) onto Cotton lane and travel 1 mile to Olive Ave. Turn left (west) onto Olive Ave and continue for 4 miles to the park gate.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

White Tank Mountain 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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Connect with Nature at McDowell Mountain Regional Park

There’s a whole world of outdoor adventure awaiting you right outside the city of Phoenix

Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, this 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 over 50 miles of multi-use trails and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. A stroll through the park will allow visitors to likely see deer, javelina, birds, and coyotes.

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McDowell Mountain History

Arizona… a place of legends still conveyed through movies, T.V., the written word, and many storytellers. Maricopa County through its Regional Park system encompasses areas where many stories originated. McDowell Mountain Regional Park is one such place where history is not only a form of speculation with its Indian petroglyphs and archaeological sites but considerable amount of it actually transpired and has been documented.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 2,000 years ago nomadic big game hunters spread into southwest North America. Next, the Hohokam Indians who evolved from the earlier Cochise culture plus immigrants from Mexico occupied much of Southern Arizona from about 2,000 years ago to 1450 A.D. The Spanish arrived between 1540 and 1542 under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez de Coronodo. At that time, the areas near the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers was home to between 4,000 and 10,000 Hohokam Indians. Native activities ranged from intensive agriculture with river irrigation to nomadic hunting and gathering. McDowell Park contains the remains of several such hunting and gathering sites within its boundaries.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1865, Camp McDowell was founded on the west bank of the Verde River. Remaining a permanent military post until 1890, it was the only fort inside present boundaries of Maricopa County. Remains of the fort still exist in the present day village of Fort McDowell, a few miles southeast of McDowell Mountain Park. Due to the presence of Camp McDowell and the protection it offered, settlement in the Salt River Valley was permanent. On February 12, 1871, Maricopa County was created to serve the growing population.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Hiking Trails

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 for themselves or their horses should try the Pemberton at 15.3-miles. 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).

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On January 10th 1998 McDowell Park opened the 1st of 3 loops of a new competitive track. Today, the track offers three loops totaling 15 miles: one for the experts, one for intermediate riders, and one for the average rider. Each loop offers a variety of obstacles to test the riders’ skills. The track consists of steep inclines, swooping turns, technical descents, and rugged terrain. This competitive track is geared for mountain bikers who want to test their skills. Joggers and equestrian riders are welcome to give the track a try too. The Long Loop of the track was designed for the average rider but is used by all. The Sport Loop is for intermediate riders and experts. The Technical Loop is for the expert rider. This portion of the track offers swooping turns, very technical descents, and steep inclines.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​McDowell Mountain Picnic Areas

McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers two picnic areas totaling 88 picnic sites. Each site has a picnic table, restroom, playground, and barbecue grill. Picnic sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at McDowell Mountain

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 is a developed site with water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, and barbecue fire ring. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. The south loop of the campground also offers handicapped-accessible restrooms. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Large groups can reserve one of three campgrounds within McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The Group Campgrounds can be reserved for a fee and requires a commitment of six units to utilize the facility for dry camping. Group Campgrounds provide a 3-acre parking area to accommodate up to 30 RV units and offer restroom with flush toilets and hot water showers, a covered ramada with 6 picnic tables, a large barbecue grill, and a large fire ring for campfires.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Location: 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.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

McDowell Mountain 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

Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park is a staggeringly beautiful place. It’s as “Arizona” as it gets.

The Spanish found the desert to be very inhospitable. On their maps, central Arizona was labeled as “deplobado” meaning, “desolate wilderness.” My initial reaction was not that different!

Usery Mountain is where my love of and discovery of The Southwest began. That would be early April 1987 when we spent a week in site 48.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At that time, I wrote in my journal: “The spectacular desert mountain scenery here is breathtaking. When we first arrived in Arizona our reaction was why would anyone winter in this dreary, harsh, unforgiving desert environment, let alone live here. The Sonoran Desert grows on you with a beauty all its own. And the beauty of Usery Mountain is absolutely stunning.”

And we have enjoyed camping here numerous times since.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park became part of Maricopa County’s regional park system in 1961. The park is set 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 features of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to all visitors.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain History

The traditional account of settlement of the Salt River Valley credits a former Confederate Officer and gold seeker, Jack Swilling, with the beginning of the modern irrigation in central Arizona. Swilling came into the Valley in 1867 and noted the presence of ancient canal systems of the early Native Americans who had irrigated the same lands.

Gambel’s quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If Swilling traveled between John Y.T. Smith’s hay camp a few miles east of downtown Phoenix and Fort McDowell, as he presumably did in the summer of 1867, he came within sight of Usery Mountain Park and even closer to the ruins of an old canal system and an ancient Native American village situated between the park and the Salt River. The first Swilling canal brought water to fields east of the present Arizona State Hospital near Phoenix and inspired the beginning of other canal building.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park became a park in 1967. Pass Mountain, also known as “Scarface” to the local folks, is the geological focal point of the park. The mountain itself was named for King Usery (sometimes spelled Ussery). “King” was his first name, rather than a title. He was a cattleman who was running stock in the area in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He had a tough struggle to survive and, apparently losing ground, moved up into the Tonto Basin country where his activities, unorthodox, provided him a kind of unwanted security…behind bars.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On January 5, 1892, the Globe-Florence stage was held up by two highwaymen and two bars of silver bullion valued at $2,000 were stolen. The driver identified the highwaymen as King Usery and Henry Blevins. Posses took the field, soon learning that Usery had been riding a black horse stolen from the Webb Ranch on Tonto Creek. At the George Middleton Ranch, the sheriff and his deputies were told that Usery had been seen burying something in swampy ground near the Salt River. One of the bars was quickly recovered. Surrounded at his ranch, Usery surrendered but a search revealed he had hidden two pistols inside his pants legs, suspending them from his belt with rawhide thongs. For this crime, Usery was sentenced to a term of seven years in the Territorial Prison in Yuma. Despite a successful plea for a new trial, the conviction stood. After two years, he was pardoned.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery wandered from the legal path a second time and was convicted of stealing cattle. He received a light sentence in Gila County and upon his release, he disappeared.

Usery Mountain Park is on the border of a mountain region. Nearby ranges are the Superstitions on the east, the Goldfields on the north and northeast, the Usery Mountains immediately northwest, and the McDowell Mountains across the Salt River to the northwest. A broad basin lies west and south of the area.

Hedgehog cactus in bloom at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Pass was also known for being a major sheep trail leading from the high country north of Mt. Baldy south to the Salt River Valley. Flocks of sheep, led by Mexican and Basque shepherds with their dogs, presented a picturesque sight in the spring and fall as they moved into or out of the Coconino plateau region.​

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

Usery Mountain Hiking Trails

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. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is barrier-free. If you are looking for a long more difficult hike, try the 7.1-mile Pass Mountain Trail. Another visitor favorite is the Wind Cave Trail that reaches high onto the mountain side and allows hikers onto the adjacent Tonto National Forest.

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

The trails within the Usery Mountain Regional Park are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of 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).

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

​Usery Mountain Picnic Areas

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a Day-Use Picnic Area and a Group Picnic Area. The Day Use Picnic Area provides a table, barbecue grill, drinking water, and restrooms for each site. These 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 area. Usery Mountain has two group areas that offer two large ramadas with picnic tables and patio, barbecue grills, drinking water, electrical outlets, campfire pits, flood lights, and a nearby playground.

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

Camping at Usery Mountain

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. Usery Mountain provides restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

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

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Usery Mountain Regional Park in spring © 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

Snowbirding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert offers an impressive array of colorful flora and fauna, scenic drives, and outdoor recreation—all a stone’s throw from the urban sprawl of Phoenix

The central Arizona region of the Sonoran Desert is a lush landscape full of exotic vegetation, unusual wildlife, colorful wildflowers, and even a few rivers and lakes. Best of all, this natural beauty is very accessible for RVers staying within the Valley of the Sun. It is no wonder that snowbirds flock to Arizona every winter to escape the northern blizzards and enjoy the wonders of the desert.

Phoenix is the sixth largest city in America, and it sits on a massive, flat expanse of land that is dotted with ancient volcanic mountain peaks jutting up from the desert floor. Many of these areas have been set aside as recreation areas for the public and there are extensive hiking, biking, and horseback-riding trail systems in every direction from the heart of the city.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For decades, Phoenicians have taken to the outdoors on the popular trails at South Mountain, Camelback Mountain, Papago Park, and at the Maricopa County Regional Parks. These trails are wonderful places to commune with cactus wrens, cottontail rabbits, and the many species of cactus, especially the saguaro cactus that stand tall with their arms raised skyward.

Usery Mountain, A Maricopa County Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wintering in the area these urban trails make for an ideal excursion but the real treasures of the Sonoran Desert are but a short drive and just a few miles farther east of the metro area. Many snowbirds use Mesa or Apache Junction as their home base for exploring the wild side of Arizona’s deserts and spend many a happy day discovering the gems of the Sonoran Desert that lay just beyond their RV site.

Along Bush Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A favorite day trip is a drive along the Bush Highway which winds between state routes 87 and 202 northeast of Phoenix. This stunningly scenic drive follows the scenic Salt River through some of the most eye-popping landscapes in central Arizona. Although this state isn’t known for having four real seasons when autumn arrives in late November and December, the whole area erupts in vivid fall colors and nowhere are they more vibrant than along the Salt River.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A little farther east on the Bush Highway is an entirely different habitat where the Salt River was dammed to form lovely Saguaro Lake. With a marina at one end of the lake, the boating community is very active on weekends with locals in their small power and sailboats.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tourists can enjoy the water aboard the Desert Belle, a double-decker boat that gives guided tours down the long, skinny lake into the canyons where the desert hillsides rise up from the shore. What an ideal place to take a selfie to send to friends back home who are shoveling snow!

McDowell Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers who wish to immerse themselves in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, there are four outstanding public campgrounds with paved loops, sites large enough for big rigs and electric and water hookups: McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Usery Mountain Regional Park, White Tank Mountains Regional Park, and Lost Dutchman State Park. Each has an RV dump station to empty the holding tanks at the end of your stay.

The beauty of staying in one of these parks is that there are great hiking trails and gorgeous Sonoran Desert scenery right outside your door. These are all popular spots for RVers during the winter months, and advanced reservations are highly recommended.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Apache Junction, Lost Dutchman State Park marks the beginning of the incomparable Apache Trail (State Route 88), a scenic drive that goes through some of the most pristine and awe-inspiring Sonoran Desert terrain in the state. You’ll need to leave your RV at the campground and take your toad on this route. A significant portion of Apache Trail is unimproved though the first 20 miles of the byway is paved and winds between hills and valleys filled with saguaro, prickly pear, and cholla cactus. After passing the vivid blue waters of Canyon Lake, you’ll encounter the little town of Tortilla Flat, population 6. Shortly after leaving town, the road turns to gravel for the next 20 miles and continues its weaving path through exquisite desert landscapes and passes a breathtaking viewpoint high up on a plateau.

If the word “desert” has always evoked images of camels and vast sand dunes for you, take your RV to the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona and discover the color and vitality of this unique place.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

Parks That Snowbirds Should Explore This Winter

The best parks for snowbirds to explore this winter

While the most familiar of America’s parks are the national parks and state parks, America’s parks operate under a variety of names including county parks, regional parks, metro parks, natural areas, national forests, national grasslands, national wildlife refuges, landmarks, monuments, historic sites, geologic sites, recreation trails, memorial sites, preserves, scenic rivers, and wildlife areas.

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a park for snowbirds to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

The giant Saguaro cactus is the most distinct feature is this park that straddles the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Catalina State Park in Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park in Alabama

Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. Visits here can be as active or as relaxing as you like. Try exhilarating water sports, go fishing, learn about coastal creatures at the nature center or simply sprawl out on the sands.

Anza-Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego State Park in California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maricopa County Parks in Arizona

Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area. 

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

Discover Usery Mountain Regional Park

The spectacular desert mountain scenery here is breathtaking

Usery Mountain Regional Park, one of 13 Maricopa County Regional Parks, is a 3,648 acre preserve at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Located on the Valley’s east side, Usery Mountain contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.

Usery Mountain is where my love of and discovery of The West began. That would be early April 1987 when we spent a week in site 48.

At that time, I wrote in my journal: “The spectacular desert mountain scenery here is breathtaking. When we first arrived in Arizona our reaction was why would anyone winter in this dreary, harsh, unforgiving desert environment, let alone live here. The Sonoran Desert grows on you with a beauty all its own. And the beauty of Usery Mountain is absolutely stunning.”

And we have enjoyed camping here numerous times since.

Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to all visitors.

Usery Pass is known for being a major sheep trail leading from the high country north of Mt. Baldy south to the Salt River Valley. Flocks of sheep, led by Mexican and Basque shepherds with their dogs, present a picturesque sight in the spring and fall as they move into or out of the Coconino plateau region.

The traditional account of settlement of the Salt River Valley credits a former Confederate Officer and gold seeker, Jack Swilling, with the beginning of modern irrigation in central Arizona. Swilling came into the Valley in 1867 and noted the presence of ancient canal systems of the early Native Americans who had irrigated these lands.

Swilling presumably traveled between John Y.T. Smith’s hay camp a few miles east of downtown Phoenix and Fort McDowell in the summer of 1867 and came within sight of Usery Mountain Park, and even closer to the ruins of an old canal system and an ancient Native American village situated between the park and the Salt River.

Usery Mountain Regional Park became a park in 1967. Pass Mountain, also known as “Scarface” to the local folks, is the geological focal point of the park. The mountain itself was named for King Usery (sometimes spelled Ussery). “King” was his first name, rather than a title. He was a cattleman who was running stock in the area in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He had a tough struggle to survive and, apparently losing ground, moved up into the Tonto Basin country where his activities provided him a kind of unwanted security…behind bars.

Usery Mountain 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 from easy to difficult.

These trails are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. Whether you are looking across the plain, flat land, south of the recreation area, or to the west or north, great distances and surrounding mountains can be seen and enjoyed.

Arguably the most popular hike at Usery Mountain is the 3.2-miles Wind Cave Trail up Pass Mountain. Although the elevation gain is 820 feet, it’s considered a moderate hike. Views from this 2,840-foot elevation are breathtaking.

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is barrier-free. For a long more difficult hike, try the 7.1-mile Pass Mountain Trail. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.

The park’s modern campground offers 73 individual sites. All sites are paved and have water and 50/30-amp electric service, a picnic table, barbecue grill, fire ring, and can accommodate up to a 45-foot RVs. Other facilities include modern washrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, and a dump station. All sites can be reserved online.

Nightly camping fee is currently $32. Non-refundable reservation fee is $8. For non-campers, the day use fee is $7.

Usery Mountain is best explored from late autumn to early spring as summer temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.

Worth Pondering…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding