Winter Isn’t For These Birds

Are you dreaming of a snowless destination for the winter?

Winter is for the birds. Do you find yourself repeating this throughout the snow-filled colder months? Or perhaps, some other version of this sentiment that isn’t exactly appropriate for publication?

Winter is a wonderful and beautiful time of year in Canada and the northern states but this season’s charms aren’t for everybody. Freezing temperatures, an abundance of snow, and icy conditions soon have many people dreaming of warmer climes. Many northerners like to temporarily trade in their winter gear for shorts and sandals with a winter getaway to a sunny destination. But this plan only provides some temporary relief until one needs to come back home to frigid reality.

Jekyll Island, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One popular solution is to skip winter altogether by RVing to a warmer location until spring. People who follow this plan are often referred to as snowbirds. Many snowbirds migrate from the northern United States but numerous Canadian snowbirds also make the move. The word has been used in its popular context since the 1980s to mark the trend of retirees flocking south for the winter.

While this lifestyle has long been most suited to seniors, the increasing popularity of remote work options has opened up opportunities for people from all demographics to become snowbirds. They can be found all across the southern states but their most popular destinations are Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Southern California.

Amelia Island, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond these popular destinations, more and more snowbirds have been choosing other states such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. Generally, these states offer much milder winters than a snowbird’s home state allowing migrating active adults to avoid frigid temperatures and precipitation.

There are many reasons that people choose to travel to warmer locations for the winter. Personal preference is often a big factor but choosing to be snowbirds can significantly improve the quality of life for those with health conditions or mobility issues.

Corpus Christi sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many of us, things like shovelling snow, dealing with icy conditions, and freezing temperatures are simply some of the less enjoyable aspects of winter. These facets of winter living can keep a person housebound and isolated for those dealing with certain health conditions and/or mobility issues.

We know what snowbirds do best: RV south. There are tons of incredible destinations all over the U.S. that are sunny, beautiful, and certainly not frozen over in the winter. Here are some great destinations for northern snowbirds and why they’re so appealing.

Phoenix as seen from the Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix, Arizona

Some reasons you’ll love Pheonix in the winter include the incredible hiking and biking, shopping and live music, time spent in the mountains, excellent opportunities to golf on beautiful courses, the gorgeous desert with blooming wildflowers, warm weather all year, and tons of fantastic RV parks. Phoenix has more than 300 days of sunshine each year and you will instantly forget that winter is ever a thing.

>> Get more tips for visiting Phoenix

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Visiting the desert in winter means idyllic weather. You can expect temperatures over 70 degrees so pack your warm-weather clothing. With its abundance of golf courses, spas, shopping, and upscale dining, Palm Springs is a fantastic option to wait out the colder months. The warm, desert heat is perfect for those looking to escape the snow and there are many luxury RV resorts full of amenities. If you’re looking for the perfect place to park your RV this winter, Palm Springs might be it.

>> Get more tips for visiting Palm Springs

Near Fort Myers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Myers, Florida

A snowbird’s destination list wouldn’t be complete without the Sunshine State. Just about anywhere in Florida could be considered a good destination for snowbirds, but some areas are more popular than others.

Fort Myers has various activities and experiences for all different interests. You can take a fishing charter out before sunrise and make it back in time to soak up the last of the afternoon rays on Estero Island. Spend your days traversing the shops and avenues or stay beachside with clear water views and seaside restaurants. There are plenty of museums for history buffs and national baseball tournaments for athletes and fans.

Texas State Aquarium at Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gulf Coast of Texas

If you have yet to consider the Texas Gulf Coast the ideal snowbird destination, you need to add it to your list. There is a 350-mile-long stretch of sandy beaches and unique places to visit along the whole thing. Kick your feet up and relax on South Padre Island, stroll along Galveston‘s seawall to its one-of-a-kind Pleasure Pier, or explore Corpus Christi‘s fascinating museums.

>> Get more tips for visiting the Texas Gulf Coast

Lesser know snowbird destinations

Increasingly, more and more RV travelers are seeking alternative snowbird destinations in their quest to escape the winter cold. If you’d love to spend some time in a milder climate or are just dreaming of new experiences and the usual hot spots don’t entice you, you might be intrigued by one of these six unexpected snowbird destinations.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah, Georgia

Full of history, architecture, gardens, and art, Savannah, Georgia, is a fantastic place to spend the winter. Wander the historic squares and see the preserved buildings and cultivated gardens or explore the local restaurants and shops. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Savannah

Signage near Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Vegas, Nevada

For those who love dining and nightlife, Las Vegas can’t be beaten. The temperature stays warm throughout winter and with endless restaurants, shows, and shopping options, there’s always plenty to do. Nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Lake Mead National Recreation Area provide hiking for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Golfing at Hurricane near St. George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. George, Utah

Think Utah winters are all about cold weather and snow-capped mountain peaks? Think again. The desert city of St. George in the southwestern corner of the state (aka Utah Dixie), is closer in climate (and distance) to Las Vegas than to the ski resorts in northern Utah. St. George has been a snowbird destination for decades but it’s becoming more popular as the city grows. And it’s not hard to see why: Sunny over 300 days a year on average with winter temperatures in the 50s and 60s and relatively little precipitation. Plus it’s close proximity to Zion National Park!

Main Street Downtown La Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces, New Mexico

While New Mexico might not immediately come to mind when you’re deciding where to spend the winter months, the southern part of the state has a lot to offer. With sweeping views of both the desert and rugged mountains and mild temperatures in the 50s and 60s, Las Cruces is an up-and-coming destination for snowbirds. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Las Cruces

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Florida isn’t the only state where snowbirds can relax on the beach. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, gives visitors easy access to the ocean with fewer crowds. There are plenty of options for shopping, fishing, golf, and, of course, a sandy beach. Myrtle Beach is a fantastic place to spend the winter months on the East Coast. 

Jekyll Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Jekyll Island lies in southern Georgia on the Atlantic. With its mild weather, you can golf year-round here. It’s also a sought-after location for snowbirds who like to explore nature, birdwatch, and beachcomb. In addition, there’s a sea turtle rehabilitation center on the island.

>> Get more tips for visiting Jekyll Island

Worth Pondering…

One of the things I had a hard time getting used to when I came to California in ’78 was Santa Claus in shorts.

—Dennis Franz

Ditch the Air Travel Chaos! Road Trip this Holiday Season

This year, many people are choosing to avoid flying and hit the road for the holidays instead

What do Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and over 15 million Americans have in common? They are all planning to spend the holidays in their RV. With the projected number of RVers on the road during winter breaks, it’s clear the trend is on the rise.

According to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), 29 percent of Millennials and 20 percent of Gen Z will spend some time from Thanksgiving through New Year in the comfort of an RV. If you’re one of the 15 million Americans planning to avoid travel chaos during this time of year by hitting the open road in a motorhome, travel of fifth wheel trailer, van, camper, or converted bus you’re making a great choice.

The holiday season sees airports notoriously packed with stressed-out travelers. Meanwhile, RV parks and campgrounds remain relatively quiet. So, why not leave behind the airlines and travel in style in an RV? There are many reasons to ditch traditional holiday travel and enjoy a road trip.

Christmas in an RV © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flexible travel plans

Traveling in an RV provides more leeway for planning a trip. Drivers don’t have to be committed to being in specific places at specific times like you do when flying.

Spend time with family and friends

For people working around the holidays taking a few days off for a local road trip is less stressful than planning an elaborate vacation far away from home. It may not be what your family has always done but it might be a fun opportunity to start a new tradition and make special memories.

“Spending time with friends and family is an integral part of the holidays and we know that whether RVing together for a holiday vacation or traveling in your RV for a holiday visit, spending time with friends and family is a primary reason people are going RVing this holiday season,” said RVIA Executive Vice President James Ashurst.

RVing with Fido © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring what you want

Are you worried about leaving the dog at home? Bring Fido along. Have food allergies? Make food in the RV. Spending Christmas break in a recreational vehicle gives people space to enjoy their environment and have creature comforts while surrounded by the magic of this special time of year.

Camping at Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less expensive

Camping at a state park, national park, or RV park is less expensive than a traditional trip where you’d pay for airfare, hotels, and rental cars. On average, an RV vacation costs 50 percent less than a trip requiring airfare and hotel rooms.

According to a study commissioned by Go RVing and RVIA, there are cost savings of 21-64 percent for a four-person travel party while a two-person travel party saves 8-53 percent depending on factors such as the type of RV and type of vacation.

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the great outdoors

Who says the holidays are just for staying indoors and being all cozy? Whether you’re hitting the slopes or taking a hike in nature, getting some exercise while enjoying the company of friends and family is a great way to spend your free time.

Shopping La Petite Gourmet Shoppe in La Grande, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Support the economy

RV travel and the outdoor recreation industry have exploded contributing $862 billion to the U.S. economy along with 4.5 million jobs, according to the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA).

“These two studies demonstrate that the RV industry and its customers are vital contributors to America’s economy and all indications are that they will continue to be so,” said RVIA Executive Vice President James Ashurst. “Growth in the industry is being increasingly driven by younger and more diverse RV buyers whose purchases are largely motivated by the desire to experience the great outdoors.”

When surrounded by nature, it’s hard not to relax and appreciate the simple things in life. It is easy to see why millions of people are choosing to road trip during this magical time of year.

Golfing Sky Mountain Golf Course in Hurricane, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make new traditions

All in all, the pros of RV travel and road-tripping far outweigh the cons. In today’s hurried world, more and more people realize that taking the time to slow down and enjoy the ride is priceless. So, this holiday season, ditch the frantic airport lines and opt for a leisurely road trip— skiing, hiking, or visiting friends and family instead.

Best winter road trips for the holidays

If you are in the mood for a road trip to end the year, continue reading for some of the best spots to travel to for your holiday road trip.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, Arizona

While desert landscapes may not provide a winter wonderland experience, Phoenix knows how to do the holidays right with its famous Tumbleweed Tree tradition, a lighting ceremony, and Christmas parade. Before or after enjoying it, take a road trip to the Grand Canyon where there’s a good chance you’ll see at least a dusting of snow with the South Rim sitting at about 6,800 feet in elevation bringing lots of picture-perfect photo-ops without the crowds. And, during the holidays you can ride the Polar Express Train from Williams to the South Rim.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin to Big Bend National Park, Texas

This is one of those drives where the journey is as interesting as your destination. Driving from Austin to Big Bend National Park is 435 miles, a leisurely two-to-three day adventure with time for stops along the way.

You can have two totally different road trips from Austin to Big Bend National Park. If you move west on I-10, you can directly drive from Austin to Big Bend without many stops in between whereas the alternative route which cuts through Highway 90 is a lot more interesting thanks to the number of stops you have in between. If you take the second route, you could choose to stop at Del Rio for food and fuel and make a pit stop at Langtry to visit the Judge Roy Bean Museum.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Camp near Asheville and take a road trip north or south on the Blue Ridge Parkway to soak up spectacular mountain scenery that can be even more beautiful during the winter. It’s all about the journey so go slow and stop frequently. Before or after heading out you’ll be able to enjoy Asheville’s sparkling holiday light displays and decor and a visit to the Châteauesque-style mansion known as Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest privately-owned home. It’s worth touring any time of year but at Christmas the evening candlelight tour features over 50 Christmas trees.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Augustine, Florida to Savannah, Georgia

Winter transforms beautiful St. Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest city, into a stunning spectacle of lights. Its magnificent Spanish architecture is lit up with over three million individual bulbs and there will be horse-drawn carriage rides to view them all. Afterward, take off for Savannah to enjoy the Boats on Parade with more than 40 lighted vessels parading both sides of the waterfront accompanied by live music, a tree lighting ceremony, and fireworks. Or enjoy an old-fashioned celebration with Christmas on the River with local entertainment, music, and seasonal treats.

Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, New Hampshite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Burlington, Vermont to Jackson, New Hampshire

The drive from Burlington, Vermont to Jackson, New Hampshire is gorgeous, traveling through the White Mountains with its red covered bridges surrounded by a dazzling winter wonderland. Stop in Bretton Woods to take advantage of Mount Washington Resort’s downhill runs, sleigh rides, ice skating, or tubing before continuing to one of the country’s most picturesque Christmas towns, Jackson. Here you can enjoy all sorts of snow sports and the Annual Journey to the North Pole train ride, complete with Santa and his elves.

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

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

Explore Phoenix Naturally

Desert, mountains, lakes, diverse wildlife, and a variety of attractions await exploration within and outside the limits of this bustling Arizona city

Getting out of busy, congested cities to soak in the natural beauty of our planet has long been my favorite thing to do and I wanted to see the natural side of Phoenix.

Phoenix often becomes overshadowed by Tucson or Sedona and it frequently is viewed by visitors as a refueling stop on a journey to the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. What many don’t realize is that there is much to see and do in and around Phoenix.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown architecture displays a mix of silver skyscrapers, adobe missions, and vintage Spanish Colonial homes. Phoenix boasts numerous galleries and museums including the Heard Museum with its extraordinary collection of Southwest American Indian art. Another interesting place to visit is the famous Taliesin West home built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in nearby Scottsdale.

I wondered what area campgrounds were like and soon headed out to explore. Starting at the small town of Apache Junction, I took the Apache Trail Scenic Drive (State Route 88) to Lost Dutchman State Park located 40 miles east of Phoenix.

Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1870s, a Prussian immigrant named Jacob Waltz reportedly found gold in the Superstition Mountains. He kept the whereabouts of the mine secret, only revealing the location to his caregiver on his deathbed in 1891. She and countless others since have tried to find the Lost Dutchman Mine without success.

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

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state park campground has 138 sites; 68 of them with 50/30/20-amp electric service and water and a paved road network to all sites. The campground has no RV size restrictions. Several hiking trails lead visitors from the park deep into the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. In March, a carpet of wildflowers takes over the park. Lost Dutchman is in the middle of an area with diverse wildlife habitat, so don’t be surprised to see a desert mule deer, a jackrabbit, a greater roadrunner, or a Gila monster stroll through your campsite.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An internet search for Tonto National Forest yields a five-star-rated description of the desert, mountains, rivers, and camping. What more could one ask for?

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaving Lost Dutchman State Park on Apache Trail Scenic Drive, I headed north straight into Tonto National Forest. This is one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. However, a warning: Drivers encounter narrow shoulders and steep grades along parts of this route and some of it is unpaved. Large RVs are not recommended on certain sections of the 120-mile loop. And it’s advisable to check road conditions before heading out.

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, this scenic route is well worth the endeavor although nervous drivers or passengers may want to take a pass. Twisting and turning around buttes of alternating layers of rose-, cream-, and rust-colored sandstone canyons sprinkled with stubby pine bushes suggests a scene right out of an old John Wayne movie. It’s best to avoid this road on weekends.

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I made it as far as Canyon Lake that day. Known for its shorelines with easy access for boaters seeking seclusion, Canyon Lake resembles a turquoise gem trapped between rocky cliffs. Many picnic areas, private campgrounds, and RV resorts surround the lake. Most places are set in a typical desert atmosphere with campsites surrounded by conifer, oak, and aspen trees, depending on their location on the lake. The Canyon Lake Marina and Campground offers marina services, a restaurant, and a beach, as well as 28 RV sites with electric and water hookups.

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto, the largest national forest in Arizona consists of almost 3 million acres of cactus-studded desert among pine-covered mountains. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, the forest is considered one of the most “urban” forests in the United States with more than 3 million people visiting every year.

Some people claim that the forest was not named after the famous sidekick of the Lone Ranger but the Tonto Basin at its core was found on historic maps created when the land fell under Spanish rule. Why the Spanish named the basin Tonto is a mystery. A few historians claim the term tontos which is Spanish for fools or crazy people was often heard in early pioneer days about the Apache Indians. Most speculate the name resulted from the early settlers’ impression of a people who dressed and talked very differently from themselves. Hmm; maybe that ghost was not Roy.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established around the construction of Roosevelt Dam, the forest was created in 1905 to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers. These has two scenic rivers are known for their fast-moving clear water, fossil rock formations, and guided raft or kayak excursions. Another terrific place is Tonto National Monument which showcases cliff dwellings occupied by the Salado Indians starting in the 13th century. The museum there hosts a fine collection of pottery and textiles.

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

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest is large with many camping options. Elevations range from 1,300 to 7,900 feet and some areas are difficult to reach with large RVs so it is important to research the many private and public campgrounds in the area. The main question to ask yourself is what Arizona habitat you wish to embrace for your stay—the desert flats or the forested mountains.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I spent a day enjoying nature within the city at Papago Park. The 1,200-acre park is home to “Hole in the Rock” a red rock that is distinctive to its landscape. Its massive, otherworldly sandstone buttes set Papago Park apart, even in a city and state filled with numerous world-class natural attractions. While visitors to Papago can enjoy its extensive trail network through the Sonoran Desert habitat, they can also enjoy the park’s two major residents, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, world-class attractions that draw millions of visits each year.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautifully designed with more than 21,000 cacti and desert flora, Desert Botanical Garden is made for a calming stroll along prickly cacti. Desert plants of many colors were showing off spring blooms of red, lavender, and yellow. Many sizes were represented as well with one cactus as tall as a two-story building. The garden boasts of nurturing 4,400 different species in its Living Collection and 485 plants that are rare and endangered species.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water features are scattered throughout inviting visitors to stop and rest their feet. I highly recommend the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail and the enclosed Butterfly Pavilion is a must-see.

Related article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Programs for children, families, teachers and gardeners are held routinely at the Desert Landscape School with online or in-person activities.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Few Fun Facts

  • At Tonto National Forest starting in early November, a special permit can be purchased to cut down your own Christmas tree.
  • The Salado Indians settled along the Salt River near where the original city of Phoenix was built. Salado in Spanish means salty.
  • The Desert Botanical Garden is a popular venue for weddings and nature photographers. During the winter holiday season, 8,000 flickering luminaria candles light up the garden in the evening at the Las Noches de Las Luminarias throughout December.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

Is Staying Cool the Hot New Thing?

As summer heats up a small but growing number of cities are getting serious about heat mitigation

Scientific studies have documented a dramatic rise in both heat-related and cold-related deaths and there’s general agreement that cities need to adopt comprehensive strategies to maintain public health. One of the studies found the number of deaths caused by high temperatures increased by 74 percent globally between 1980 and 2016. Deaths related to extreme cold increased 31 percent since 1990, another report, the first of its kind, found.

Heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and yet more than 600 people in the US alone are killed by extreme heat every year. Last year’s extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest resulted in an estimated 1,400-plus deaths. In neighboring British Columbia, 619 deaths reported June 25-July 1, 2021 were deemed heat related.

North Mountain Park near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But most cities are only at the planning stages or conducting small-scale pilots—if they’re addressing the issue at all. There’s broad acknowledgment that rising temperatures are making urban centers less livable but many cities lack the budget or political support to meaningfully tackle the problem.

A survey by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Global Cool Cities Alliance (GCCA) reviewed the urban heat mitigation activities of 26 cities in the U.S. and Canada—representing all of the major climate zones, geographies, and city sizes across North America. They found that heat waves along with other natural disasters and extreme weather have motivated nearly two-thirds of the cities surveyed to initiate urban heat island mitigation strategies.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The report included case studies on how several cities have responded to urban heat demonstrating the variety of strategies employed. In response to a study that found that Houston’s roofs and pavements can reach 160 degrees F, the city now requires most flat roofs in the city to be reflective. After an extreme heat wave in 2008, Cincinnati lost much of its urban canopy and instituted an aggressive forestry plan. Washington D.C. has instituted a wide suite of programs such as Green Alleys which helps residents manage excess stormwater by replacing pavement with grass and trees and requiring reflective roofs on all new buildings.

More on severe weather: Excessive Heat Warnings: Safety Tips for RVers

Three major U.S. metro areas—Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami/Dade County—have established “Chief Heat Officers.”

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cities have been gearing up for this summer’s heat trying in particular to use cooling methods other than air conditioning. They’re installing cooling and misting centers and hydration stations and planting trees for extra shade.

They’re experimenting with high-tech solutions like sealants and reflective coatings for sidewalks, streets, and rooftops.

A growing number of startups are crowding into the market for products to counter “urban heat islands” with experimental (and proven) technologies aimed at absorbing or reflecting surface heat on roads, sidewalks, buildings, and other structures.

Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Desert, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big picture: Cities have been warming at twice the global average because of the “urban heat island” effect whereby buildings and pavement trap heat that might have otherwise been diffused by foliage.

Low-income people tend to suffer the most since they’re more likely to lack A/C, work outdoors, and live near industrial facilities.

Peralta Trailhead southeast of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix—one of the hottest U.S. cities—has been proactive in tackling the problem. The temperature climbs above the 100-degree mark daily from the end of May through the middle of September. These blistering hot days are followed up by warm nights with the low temperature sometimes failing to drop below 90.

More on severe weather: Heat Alert: The Hidden Symptoms of Extreme Heat

Its “Cool Pavement Program” which involved painting a gray coating on streets reduced roadway temperatures by 10.5 to 12 degrees, reports Scientific American. Cool pavement is a water-based asphalt treatment that is applied on top of the existing asphalt pavement. It’s made with asphalt, water, an emulsifying agent (soap), mineral fillers, polymers, and recycled materials. It contains no harmful chemicals and is compatible with traditional asphalt.

The city aims to build 100 “cool corridors” by 2030 “in shade-starved zones with high pedestrian traffic,” the Arizona Republic reports.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cool corridors are approximately one-mile-long walkways, pathways, or trails, adjacent and parallel to city streets that are designed to serve residents who walk, bike, and use transit. Collector or local streets and various pathways also could serve as cool corridors that provide important linkages with cool corridor arterials

Without more trees and other urban cooling features, the Phoenix area stands to lose hundreds more lives and billions of dollars in lost economic production each year by mid-century if the region doesn’t adopt widespread tree planting and cool roof installation, a Nature Conservancy study concluded last year.

Lost Dutchman State Park east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Heat is a really significant issue,” said Anna Bettis who directs TNC’s Healthy Cities Program in Arizona. “It’s the leading weather-related cause of death and the highest rates are in Arizona.”

But, Bettis said, “We do know that bringing nature into the city can help.” That means lots of desert-adapted trees.

More on severe weather: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

In 2020, according to Maricopa County, 323 people died of heat-related causes. The county has confirmed 252 heat deaths this year and is investigating another 86.

Desert Hot Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among smaller cities, Chelsea, Massachusetts, a low-income neighbor of Boston has a noteworthy pilot involving a single city block. The Cool Block project is loading the area with pretty much every heat-fighting tool in use around the country,” according to WBUR. There are 47 new elm, crabapple, cherry, and hawthorn trees. Sidewalks are being ripped up to add planters, porous pavers, or white concrete. Dark asphalt will be replaced with gray.

As cities race to amp up their heat mitigation efforts, some are replacing bare-bones cooling centers with full-service “climate resilience hubs”—offering everything from comfy air conditioning and phone charging to social services and emergency training.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While “resilience hubs” are meant for everyone and all kinds of climate disasters, they’re particularly aimed at low-income residents who tend to suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise.

Miami-Dade County is at the forefront with its mobile “resilience pod” made from a 40-foot shipping container. It debuted two years ago and offers people a chilled, solar-powered place to gather with Wi-Fi, phone charging, and other solutions including fruit trees for people to plant.

Southern Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tempe, Arizona, has budgeted $2.3 million for EnVision Tempe, a one-stop resource center that’ll have a big walk-in freezer and free ice—plus staffers who can help visitors find a job, GED classes, housing assistance, parenting programs, etc.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

10 of the Hottest Cities in America

It’s summer. It’s hot. That’s what summers do.

Some of the most populated cities across the United States are also some of the hottest places to be during the summer with temperatures regularly climbing above 100 degrees F.

Many cities don’t come close to the extreme heat experienced in Death Valley, California; however, the population in Death Valley is just a small fraction of that of many towns across the country.

Cities are warming at twice the global average because buildings and pavement absorb and trap so much heat. Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami have named chief heat officers to find ways to prevent the often deadly impacts of extreme heat. 

From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the deserts of the Southwest, here are 10 of the hottest cities across the United States with a population of over 250,000.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix is home to over 1.6 million people and regularly experiences some of the highest temperatures of any city across the country. The temperature climbs above the 100-degree mark daily from the end of May through the middle of September. These blistering hot days are followed up by warm nights with the low temperature sometimes failing to drop below 90.

Phoenix recorded its hottest summer ever in 2020 with 50 days at or above 110 degrees and a record 28 nights when the temperature never dropped below 90 degrees. 

Papago Park, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat is killing about 300 people per year in Phoenix. 

Phoenix is trying to beat the heat by turning its black asphalt streets gray. A special sealant reflects rather than absorbs the hot desert sun.  

Related: Excessive Heat Warnings: Safety Tips for RVers

America’s hottest city is working to avoid getting even hotter—starting with its streets. As heat waves across the country continue, Phoenix is covering black asphalt roads with a gray sealant that reflects the sun rather than absorbing heat. Mayor Kate Gallego says the sealant which has so far been used on 73 miles of city streets reduces the temperature of asphalt by 10 to 12 degrees.

Phoenix as seen from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park, Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to cool pavement the city is creating 100 cool corridors and planting hundreds of trees whose shade can drop the ambient air temperature by about 30 to 40 degrees compared to full sun. Phoenix is also experimenting with reflective roofs and cooling sidewalks. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas is a popular tourist destination in the southwestern United States but visitors may want to plan to visit areas with air conditioning during the summer months. The city averages over 70 days a year with temperatures in the triple digits and has reached its all-time record high of 117 on several occasions.

People traveling to popular tourist destinations nearby such as Lake Mead National Recreation, Red Rock Canyon, or the Hoover Dam should also expect to encounter extreme heat and should take the proper precautions to stay safe.

Sabino Canyon, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Tucson, Arizona

Tucson sits on the edge of the Sonoran Desert and is nearly as hot as Phoenix located 100 miles to the northwest. One of Tucson’s hottest summers in recent years occurred in 2013 when the city climbed into the 100s for 39 consecutive days including all of June.

Monsoonal thunderstorms can provide temporary breaks in the extreme summer heat but they can also kick up dust storms called haboobs that can greatly reduce visibility and cause dangerous travel conditions.

Olive grove in the Central Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Riverside, California

While the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean help to limit temperatures along coastal areas of Southern California areas father inland can experience much hotter conditions. Riverside, approximately 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles has recorded triple-digit heat every month from April through October with an all-time high of 118. This is higher than the record in Las Vegas and just a few degrees shy of the record high in Phoenix.

Related: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

The Alamo, San Antonio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio is home to more than 1.5 million people and experiences long stretch with temperatures in the 90s during the height of summer. On average, the city reaches the 90-degree mark more than 110 days out of the year as well as several days in the low 100s. August is the hottest month of the year in San Antonio with an average high temperature near 97, one of the highest averages across the entire country among major cities.

Lake Okeechobee west of Miami © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Miami, Florida

Although the mercury in southern Florida doesn’t climb as high as it does in the southwestern United States during the summer, Miami’s proximity to the tropics can make it feel oppressively hot, especially for those not accustomed to the high humidity levels. Miami has never recorded a temperature of 100 but the strong summer sun paired with the humidity can send the AccuWeather RealFeel temperature over 110 on the hottest afternoons of the year.

Miami is also one of the warmest cities in the country during the winter with afternoon temperatures often climbing near 80.

Gulf Coast south of Houston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Houston, Texas

Tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico has a strong influence on the weather pattern along the coast of Texas including in Houston, the state’s most populated city with over 2 million people. The humidity helps to boost the AccuWeather RealFeel temperature above 100 daily. Moisture from the Gulf also helps to fuel rain and thunderstorms making Houston the wettest among the county’s hottest cities averaging over 100 days a year with rain.

Lake Kaweah east of Fresno © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Fresno, California

Outside of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, the Central Valley is California’s hottest region with temperatures often reaching the triple digits. This includes Fresno, home to over half a million people. In 2018, the city experienced 30 consecutive days with a temperature at or above the 100-degree mark, the longest stretch in the city’s history.

Related: Heat Alert: The Hidden Symptoms of Extreme Heat

Texas Ranger Museum in Waco, southwest of Dallas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Dallas, Texas

Located farther inland from the Gulf of Mexico than Houston or San Antonio, Dallas can experience some of the hottest weather of all of Texas’ major cities. Being farther away from the source of tropical moisture allows temperatures to be slightly higher than near the coast with daily highs in the mid- to upper 90s from the end of June into early September.

Although the summer heat can be more intense in Dallas than Houston or San Antonio, the city experiences cooler winters with temperatures frequently dipping below freezing.

Disney World © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Orlando, Florida

One of Florida’s hottest cities is also one of its most popular tourist spots with a record-setting 72 million people visiting in 2017. Unlike Miami, temperatures in Orlando can occasionally reach the 100-degree mark with an all-time record high of 103. Overnight temperatures also remain warm as they rarely dip below 60 from June through September.

Orlando also remains warm throughout the winter with afternoon highs in the 70s and overnight lows that rarely drop below 30.

Worth Pondering…

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

—Yogi Berra

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Phoenix from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

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

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

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

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

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

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

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

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

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Explore my list of fun things to see and do in the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city

Consider this your introduction to the East Valley of Arizona’s largest city—the essential, can’t miss, make-sure-you-check-out things to see and do in the towns of Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, and beyond.

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

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert

Stroll 110 acres of greenery, ranging from marshland and riparian habitats to upland vegetation areas. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park with interpretive panels on wildlife and vegetation throughout. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds.

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

Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. A floating boardwalk crossing the northern end of the lake allows visitors a close-up view of the fish and ducks on the water. Additional educational areas include an ethnobotanical garden, a paleontology dig site, a hummingbird, and a butterfly garden. 

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

Also at the preserve: the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory where you can see comets, meteors, planets, and the sun Just be sure to check the hours—the trails are generally open from dawn to dusk, but the observatory operates separately.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © 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. Visitors enjoy a full program schedule, over 50 miles of multi-use trails, and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring.

Related Article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

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 located at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.

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

Along the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake

Saguaro Lake was formed by the Stewart Mountain Dam which was completed in 1930. It was the last of the reservoirs to be built on the Salt River. The lake is named for the Saguaro Cactus which stands majestically in the surrounding desert landscape.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake has more than 22 miles of shoreline creating a great environment for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and camping. Discover canyon-walled Saguaro Lake aboard The Desert Belle. Relax in air-conditioned comfort on one of her 80 minute narrated cruises and see exotic Arizona wildlife, towering canyon walls, and dramatic desert vistas. Live music cruises, wine, and live music cruises, and craft beer, and live music cruises are also available.

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

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

Consisting of over 10,000 acres, the southeast Valley park is a fine example of the lower Sonoran Desert. San Tan Mountain Regional Park ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet. The park offers over eight miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 1.1 miles to over 5 miles, and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail

Named after the Apache Indians who once used the route, the Apache Trail (AZ 88) links Apache Junction at the eastern edge of the Greater Phoenix area with Theodore Roosevelt Lake through the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Forest. This mostly unpaved road winds past magnificent scenery of twisted igneous mountains with dense forests of saguaro and several deep blue lakes.

Related Article: What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road though has been mostly closed since late 2019 because of landslips and other damage associated with the Woodbury Fire. The worst affected is the steepest section just west of Fish Creek; the only part still open to vehicular traffic is the (paved) 18 miles from Apache Junction to Tortilla Flat.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goldfield Ghost Town

Established in 1893, Goldfield was a mining town with saloons, a boarding house, general store, blacksmith shop, brewery, meat market, and a schoolhouse. The grade of ore dropped at the end of the 1890s and the town was all but deserted. The town came back to life from 1910 to 1926.

Goldfield Ghost Town © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, visitors can tour the historic Mammoth Gold Mine, visit the Goldfield Museum, pan for gold, take a ride on Arizona’s only narrow gauge train, explore the shops and historic building, eat at the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon, and witness an old west gunfight performed by the Goldfield Gunfighters.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fountain Hills

Some cities have a clock that chimes on the hour—Fountain Hills has a fountain (the fourth-tallest in the world) that shoots water 562 feet in the air for 15 minutes on the hour. But there’s much more than that. Jump in on a docent-led art walk around the city and see a large collection of sculptures on public display as the docent explains how each piece was created. Meander some more in the Fountain Hills Desert Botanical Garden where a half-mile trail weaves you past 29 desert plants, interesting rock formations, wildlife, and the abandoned P-Bar Ranch campsite.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstition Mountain Museum

Hikers, horseback riders, photographers, and tourists come to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the Superstition Mountains now preserved in the Superstition Wilderness Area. But, many are curious about the history and mystery of this intriguing area and visit the museum comprised of a central 4,900-square-foot exhibit hall and Museum Shop and numerous outdoor structures and exhibitions including the Apacheland Barn and the Elvis Chapel, the last surviving structures from Apacheland Movie Ranch, a huge 20-stamp gold mill, a mountain man camp, Western storefronts, and a labeled Nature Walk.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park

Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains 40 miles east of Phoenix. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring but there are plenty of beautiful desert plants to see year-round. Enjoy a weekend of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit.

Huhugam Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Huhugam Heritage Center, Chandler

This modern cultural center highlights the ancestral, historic, and current cultures of the Gila River Indian Community made up of two tribes—the Akimel O’otham and the Pee Posh. The Huhugam Heritage Center was built in 2003 to create a place for community, culture, land, tradition, and spirit: a place to honor and preserve their Him dak (our way of life).

Huhugam Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience its unique and calming architecture. The Center stair-steps up out of the desert, the building silhouettes designed to blend in with the nearby mountain ranges and hills.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

From hiking and mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and rafting trips, here are the most-thrilling ways to get outdoors in the Phoenix area

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert—and surrounded on all sides by mountains—Phoenix is a paradise for outdoorsy types. Here, you can hike past towering saguaro cacti, take guided horseback rides on tribal land, and kayak on scenic lakes, all just minutes from the city.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, the area promises ideal weather. Fall and winter offer pleasant temperatures while spring brings a burst of colorful wildflowers. And in the summer months, travelers can cool off with water activities at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you want to explore by land, air, or water, there’s an adventure waiting for you in this stunning Sonoran Desert landscape. Read on for the most thrilling ways to experience the Phoenix area and spend some quality time in the great outdoors.

Related Article: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take an (Awe-inspiring) Hike

There’s a scenic trail for every skill level just a short drive in any direction from downtown Phoenix. If you’re looking for something easy follow one of the meandering walking paths through the Desert Botanical Garden, home to 140 acres of local flora, or explore a saguaro forest on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park. There’s also the Blevins Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park where you can see quintessential Sonoran Desert scenery or the half-mile hike in Papago Park to the popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a slightly more strenuous hike, try the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve which starts with a series of challenging switchbacks and passes upland boulder fields and desert flora on the way to the top. You could also opt for the two-mile Waterfall Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, home to ancient petroglyphs, massive saguaros, and that namesake waterfall (though only after it rains), or the 3.5-mile Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail loop in the South Mountain Park and Preserve which requires squeezing through a crevice called Fat Man’s Pass and some hand-over-hand clambering toward the top.

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

One of the most challenging hikes near Phoenix is the Siphon Draw Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park which starts in an open desert, travels through a basin of smooth, polished rock, and ends in a flat clearing with breathtaking views to the west. Hikers here must be prepared for some hand-over-hand rock faces and rugged, unmarked areas. There’s also the Summit Trail up Piestewa Peak (the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve) and the steep, rocky Echo Canyon Trail up the famous Camelback Mountain.

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

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore by Mountain Bike

Setting out on two wheels is another great way to discover the Sonoran Desert. 360 Adventures offers mountain-biking tours through the desert on trails selected for your skill level while the REI Co-Op Adventure Center boasts half-and full-day excursions on everything from smooth, groomed flows to big rock drops. If you prefer dirt bikes, opt for Extreme Arizona which features guided trips into the Table Mesa area as well as self-led outings in Tonto National Forest.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Trails on Horseback

Playing cowboy with a horseback ride through the desert stimulates the senses with an authentic experience of history. Horseback rides offer a memorable way to enjoy the scenery. Ponderosa Stables has guided tours in South Mountain Park and Preserve where trails wind past magnificent saguaros while the Koli Equestrian Center located in the Gila River Indian Community features excursions led by American Indian wranglers who take you through their tribal lands while teaching you about their history, culture, and surroundings.

Huhugan Heritage Center at Gila River Indian Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Off-road with an ATV Tour

For an adrenaline-pumping experience, try a guided ATV tour with Arizona Outdoor Fun during which you’ll navigate twisting mountain trails to explore Hohokam Indian ruins, visit a former turquoise mine, and learn about Arizona’s history and wildlife. If driving an authentic, military-grade TomCar UTV is more your speed, go with Desert Wolf Tours which covers thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness to teach cowboy history while soaking up the scenery. Whichever you choose, you’ll get to cover more ground than on a hike or bike ride—all without breaking a sweat.

Related Article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take to the Sky with a Hot Air Balloon Ride

See the desert from a whole new perspective by soaring above the coyotes and jackrabbits in a hot air balloon. Begin on the ground to view the inflation process then take to the sky for an hour during which you’ll float at different elevations to spot local wildlife, plants, and landmarks. Flights with Hot Air Expeditions and Rainbow Ryders take place at sunrise year-round and sunset rides are available in the winter months.

Along the Salt River east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Waterways

On Phoenix’s eastern edge you’ll find the Lower Salt River where you can indulge in stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and rafting tours to spot wild horses and eagles along the shore. On the upper part of the river, Arizona Rafting leads whitewater rafting experiences from March through May which include a hot fajita lunch, complimentary wet suit rentals, and some of the best rapids between California and Colorado.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For something less intense, consider a tour with Salt River Tubing in Tonto National Forest during which you’ll mosey down mountain-stream waters at a pace that makes enjoying a floating picnic possible.

Along the Bush Highway east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 45 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix, you’ll even find Lake Pleasant Regional Park one of the area’s most scenic water recreation areas. The 1,000-acre lake has rentals available on-site, as well as opportunities for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, and more.

Read Next: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

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

Discover a Desert Oasis at San Tan Mountain Regional Park

Neighboring Queen Creek to the South, San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a 10,000+ acres of Sonoran Desert beauty ranging in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet

Consisting of over 10,000 acres, the southeast Valley park is a fine example of the lower Sonoran Desert. The 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 forests. Various types of wildlife may be observed, including reptiles, birds, and mammals.

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

San Tan Mountain Regional Park also has a Visitor’s Center. Don’t forget to stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up educational tidbits, purchase souvenir items, visit with park staff, and see the wildlife exhibits or tortoise habitat. Restroom facilities are available and additional amenities are slated for future development. ​

The San Tan Mountain Regional Park is placed at the crossroads of diverse communities, regions, and cultures. The park is in demand to meet the needs of a regional area extending south from central Maricopa County and the East Valley of metropolitan Phoenix, into northern Pinal County.

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

Located just south of the Maricopa/Pinal County line near the Town of Queen Creek, the San Tan Mountain Regional Park has been used for decades for various recreation activities such as hiking, equestrian riding, and wildlife photography. The park is rich with unique historical, cultural, and biological resources. This master plan seeks to provide programmed recreation activities that meet the needs of the existing users, future park visitors, and the growing East Valley population while protecting the park’s natural, Sonoran Desert mountain environment.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Currently, the park consists of 10, 200 acres south of Hunt Highway in Pinal County. Restroom facilities and water are available at the San Tan visitor center. 

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

San Tan Mountain Park Hiking Trails

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.

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

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Moonlight Trail is the perfect choice as it provides a scenic and a rather mild hike for all to enjoy. If you are looking for a longer more difficult hike, try the 5.1-mile San Tan Trail. This trail winds you through the Broken Lands and Central Valley portions of the park to the top of the Goldmine Mountains. In addition to its length, some may consider certain areas of the San Tan Trail difficult due to washes, soft soil, and slick or rocky mountain slopes. Use extreme caution in these areas. Another visitor favorite is the Malpais Hills Trail as it displays a unique perspective of Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills.

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

The trails within the San Tan Mountain Regional Park are popular because they offer a unique perspective of the lower Sonoran Desert with wildlife, plant life, and scenic mountain views.

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

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).

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

​San Tan Mountain Park Picnic Areas

Enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert while taking in a picnic at one of several picnic tables located near the San Tan visitor center, Nathan Martens Memorial, or San Tan trail-heads. Restroom facilities are accessible at the San Tan visitor center. Picnic tables are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Additional picnic areas are slated for future development.​ 

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

​San Tan Mountain Park Programs

To register for a Park program, please call the San Tan office at 602-506-2930 x7.

Mountain Bike Ride, Saturday, February 12, 2022, 9:00 am-11:00 am

This is a 2-hour group ride on moderate terrain.

Roll up to the main trailhead 10-minutes prior to start time and meet with the San Tan Shredders. All abilities are welcome to join in the fun. The trail ride is about 2 hours. Quote of the day: “No matter how slow you go, you’re still faster than a couch potato!” Bring your helmet (required), plenty of water, and an extra inner tube in case of a flat. Limit 10 riders per group.

Related Article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

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

Get Ready for Wildflowers, Thursday, February 17, 2022, 10:30 am-11:30 am

Learn about common desert wildflowers that can be found at San Tan during an easy, ranger-led stroll.

Join the ranger on an easy stroll to look for indications that wildflowers are on the way. Learn about some of our desert’s common blooms such as filaree, lupine, bladderpod, Mexican poppy, and more and tips on how to identify what you see. Also learn about the Maricopa County Eco-Blitz species of the month, the Black-Throated Sparrow. These birds might be seen hopping around on the ground near sprouting flowers as they forage for seeds and insects.

Limit 10 participants. Meet at the Main Entrance Trailhead map kiosk/picnic table.

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

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

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 the San Tan Mountain Regional Park entrance. 

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Read Next: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

San Tan 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