Fields of Poppies Adorn Picacho Peak (State Park)

The sere landscape around Picacho Peak receives a splash of vibrant colors come spring, transforming it into one of the best wildflower spots in the state

It’s no secret that Arizona is currently experiencing what may be the best wildflower bloom in possibly two decades. Mexican poppies, purple lupine, brittlebush, scorpion weed, and globe mallows (among others) are blanketing the desert as they put on a vivid and virtually unforgettable springtime display.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Central and southern state parks are in the midst of prime time, and the blooms will increase with intensity northward as summer draws closer. Right now, Picacho Peak, Alamo, and Catalina state parks are great places to stretch the legs, take some pics, and enjoy Mother Nature’s show. Oracle State Park should be coming on strong very soon as well! 

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The old saying goes “April showers bring May flowers,” but Arizona operates on its own timetable!

March is peak wildflower season, and with the rain and snow the state is alive with color. Wildflower season is upon us.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Picacho Peak is arguably one of the best spots to see blooming wildflowers in Arizona, with bushels of incredible golden blooms around the base of the mountain and campgrounds. The desert wildflowers of the park offer a unique and beautiful contrast to the green and brown hues of this Sonoran Desert destination.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Experience the trails as they wind through a carpet of yellow, meandering through the desert exposing new beautiful sights each step along the way. Plants, shrubs, and cacti are all abloom—as if for your pleasure.

Springtime weather is perfect for a desert camping experience, book a site and expose yourself to the beauty that spring-time Arizona so selflessly shares with you.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The ephemeral Mexican gold poppy is the litmus test for wildflower season: you’ll either spot sparse individuals or be blinded by a field of electric orange blooms. And this is a banner year for Picacho Peak, a superbloom! Everywhere we look, we see pops of colors. 

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located some 30 miles south of our home base in Casa Grande, just off Interstate 10, the state park has been drenched with some unusually large storms stretching all the way back to last summer’s monsoon. There’s a lush ground cover unlike anything we’ve seen in the 20 years since we first hiked this park.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Don’t think you have to climb the centerpiece spire for the best views (been there, done that in my younger years). Just the opposite, as most poppies, brittlebush, lupines, and globemallows flourish on the lower slopes. You will be able to enjoy plenty of color from the park road and adjacent picnic tables. Come early as parking spaces fill quickly.

We found amazing showings of color on the easy Nature Trail (0.5 miles) and the moderate Calloway Trail (0.7 miles).

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Annuals—like poppies and lupines—germinate in the fall with enough rain. Then, throughout the winter, they need consistent rain every two or three weeks to keep growing. Perennials like brittlebush and globemallows don’t need that initial rain and are better able to endure rising temperatures.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The poppies only open on bright, sunny days. They close up every afternoon before the sun descends and on cloudy or windy days. The presence of poppies usually indicates that there has been normal to above-normal rainfall the winter previous. A week of 85-degree days would wipe out the poppies. 

Know the cardinal rules of wildflower viewing: Stay on trails, park in designated areas, take your trash home and don’t pick flowers. Some other things to keep in mind: Be prepared with essentials such as water, food, sunscreen, extra layers of clothing, and a trail map that will work even if your cellphone doesn’t.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

But pleasures are like poppies spread: You seize the flower

—John Bunyan

Picacho Peak State Park Is Alive With Color

Picacho Peak State Park is one of the best places to see the spring yellow, red, orange, blue, and purple desert blooms

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park.

Except for the saguaros, Picacho Peak looks like it could have been plucked from the hills of Ireland. The thrust of mountain rising from the desert floor is luxuriantly green. Sitting 30 miles south of our home base in Casa Grande, just off Interstate 10, the state park has been drenched with some unusually large storms stretching all the way back to last summer’s monsoon.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The mountain looks like it is grass all the way up the sides. There’s a lush ground cover unlike anything we’ve seen in the 20 years since we first hiked this park.

Picacho Peak is known for fields of poppies in spring, blanketing the mountain slopes. This is a banner year for Picacho Peak, a superbloom!

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

I’m crouched down.

Eye level with the poppy.

I’m feeling lucent.

Even a little lightheaded!

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Maybe it’s the poppy—that master of color, refraction, and mind-altering chemistry.

Then again, maybe I’m just not as good at contorting myself into a poppy-level crouch as I was in my younger days.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Either way, the poppies have returned—fulfilling their ancient, flashy promise.

They pretty much skipped 2018—the year with no winter.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But spring seekers and flower junkies have been waiting this spring with trembling anticipation—having noted the steady succession of wet Pacific storms in December and January and on through February.

As a result the flowers have emerged on the slopes of Picacho Peak.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

I love all the flowers—the lupine and globemellow and the yellow brittle brush. But the poppies have my heart.

Those dreamlike petals are only three cells thick. The cells on the top and bottom are loaded with pigments. The botanists—who printed their results in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A—said they could find no other reports of a greater concentration of pigment in the natural world.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

And those cells are folded and fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. This creates a whole network of little air spaces built into the flower.

As a result of this remarkable structure, the light comes in through that top layer of folded cells and then bounces around inside the cells—passing back and forth through the pigment. The rays of light refract, a sunset in a layer of cells.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All of this brilliant manipulation of color has everything to do with the insect pollinators the poppies are working to attract. Bear in mind, in a good wildflower year those pollinators have a whole hillside of clamoring flowers to choose from.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Poppies have evolved to produce different colors, depending on their pollinators. This enables them to attract a wide variety of pollinators.

Other researchers have come up with some intriguing theories on the extreme adaptability of poppies, which have adapted to different conditions all over the world. The University of York scientists were mostly focused on trying to figure out the evolution of poppy chemistry, which produces things like opium and painkillers.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The poppies have been up to this for the past 100 million years or so and likely accounts for the ability of the Golden California and Mexican poppies to cope with the extremes of the Sonoran Desert climate in Arizona and southern California.

All I know is I can’t get enough of poppies. Call it addiction.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But excuse me for now—the poppies have fully opened to the light of another day. The flowers only open on bright, sunny days. They close up every afternoon before the sun descends and on cloudy or windy days. A week of 85-degree days would wipe out the poppies. 

So I must enjoy the glorious poppies.

golden Mexican poppies

And hope—at my age—that I can still stand up when I’m done.

Worth Pondering…

Through the dancing poppies stole A breeze, most softly lulling to my soul.

—John Keats

Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Hit the trail and search for your favorite birds in Arizona State Parks

Many Arizona state parks are considered world-class birding destinations, and, depending on migrations, hold literally hundreds of species to watch throughout the year.

Come along as we hit the trail and search for our favorite feathered friends in some of Arizona State Park’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona. 

Species lists are available from each park and give birders a preview of what they might encounter on a trip. Simply decide which type of habitat you would like to explore and hit the road!

Oh, yes—don’t forget your camera and telephoto lens.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

This great blue heron snags his dinner at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Long celebrated as a world-class birding destination, Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers varied opportunities for birders of all levels. The riparian zone trails flanking the Verde River give birders a chance to see nesting black hawks, numerous waterfowl species, plus the chance of seeing a majestic bald eagle in its native environment. Near the lagoons, great blue herons can often be seen snagging a fish lunch near the shore, and seasonally, the hummingbirds buzz around hurriedly in search of sweet nectar.

Picacho Peak State Park

Gambil quails are often seen in the desert parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Desert birds abound at Pichaco Peak State Park, enjoying the cooler weather among the saguaros as winter visitors. Hawks, falcons, quail, and hummingbirds are commonly seen at the park, and if you look closely, you’ll catch sight of woodpeckers, curve-billed thrashers, flycatchers, and warblers. Ask for a bird list at the park’s Visitor Center to guide you as you experience the incredible wildlife within the park.

Red Rock State Park

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Red Rock State Park trails offer a peek into the habitats of myriad bird species. The riparian area along Oak Creek offers a cool spot for wrens, swallows, hawks, and eagles. Some waterfowl species use this portion of the park seasonally. House finches and lesser Goldfinch offer a splash of color for visitors within the native vegetation.

Pair of house finches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park also features a feeding area for birds where you can sit with your binoculars or camera as birds come to eat and enjoy the park themselves. The Visitor Center roof is also a great place for spotting birds, and offers a gorgeous view of the park. 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserv

Founded in the 1920s as a botanical garden, the 323 acres of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park serve as a wildlife preserve. The main trail is 1.5 miles and begins at the Visitor Center. Allow yourself at least two hours as you will encounter numerous trails that branch off from the main trail.

The fast-running greater roadrunner is a common sight in the Southwest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Arboretum’s irrigated gardens and protected grounds are a magnet for birds. With more than 250 species the Arboretum has been designated as an important bird area. Gambel’s quail, canyon wren, curved-billed thrashers, and black throated sparrows are among the most abundant species. Bird lists are available at the Visitor Center.

A nesting hummer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and broad-billed are among the species of hummingbirds that find nectar in the diversity of flowering plants.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Patagonia Lake State Park and the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Nature Area hosts vultures, owls, and roadrunners in sight of visitors daily, and that’s not all. Occasionally, birders will experience the Gould’s turkeys, white-faced ibis, warblers, vermillion flycatcher, and the elegant trogon! Waterfowl species abound here as well and can often be seen cruising around the lake or flying around looking for a place to land.

Catalina State Park

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

Set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park consists of 5,500 acres of high Sonora Desert habitat with eight trails traversing a landscape dominated by ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cactus. This Sonoran life zone includes seasonal streams providing habitat for mesquite, desert willow, cottonwood trees, and walnut groves.

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ladder-backed woodpeckers, greater roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, Say’s phoebes, and Harris’s hawks call the park home year-round. Migrants and seasonal residents include the vermilion flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, and 10 species of migrating warblers.  

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

Wildflower Season Has Arrived in Arizona! Where to See the Best Blooms?

Weather brings spring wildflowers to add desert color

Spring-like weather has arrived in the desert a little later than normal this year but it comes bearing gifts. After a rainy and snowy winter, warmer temperatures are triggering a profusion of wildflowers.

The flowers of the Sonoran Desert are a splash of color and passion. While almost entirely absent last year, they are out in force this season. This is a time to revel in satiny sun and balmy breezes and go looking for them. It’s a show you don’t want to miss. Here are some places to admire those soft, ground-level fireworks.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

First, let’s establish a few rules so everyone can enjoy this season’s bounty.

1. Don’t pick wildflowers. They won’t last long enough to see a vase. They’ll die very soon after being plucked and then all their hard work of sprouting, growing, and blooming was for naught. Leave them for others to enjoy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

2. Stay on trails and watch where you step. There could be small seedlings all around. And for goodness’ sake, do not wade out into a field and trample the flowers, thus ruining them for everyone, just so you can snag a selfie. Take all photos from the pathways.

3. Don’t dawdle. Peak colors at any one location may last from a few days to two weeks. If you hear about a wildflower bonanza, track it down. The beauty may be ephemeral but your memories will last for years.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The wildflower population appeared spotty at Usery Mountain Regional Park until moisture-laden storms in February changed the equation. Suddenly hillsides were streaked with color. Poppies, primrose, lupines, rock daisies, fairy dusters, and the flame-orange tips of ocotillo added drama to mountains that already exhibit plenty on their own.

The Userys gain enough elevation to afford stunning views back toward Phoenix and farther east to the rolling waves of mountains like the Goldfields and Superstitions. Hike the slopes to Wind Cave and Pass Mountain to admire the best panoramas while wading through bands of flowers.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There’s always a bit of magic where desert and water meet. Add flowers to the mix and that’s a great way to spend a day. At Lake Pleasant, the heaviest concentration of poppies can be found on Pipeline Canyon Trail especially from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The bridge is guarded by some extremely robust globemallows the size of landscape shrubs. A nice assortment of blooms also lines the Beardsley, Wild Burro, and Cottonwood trails.

Bartlett Lake

Near Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The road to Bartlett Lake quickly leaves suburbs behind and winds past rolling hills to the sparkling reservoir cradled by mountains. Be sure to keep an eye peeled for white poppies—this is a good spot for them.

Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Some of the best flower sightings are along the road to Rattlesnake Cove. The Palo Verde Trail parallels the shoreline, pinning hikers between flowers and the lake, a wonderful place to be on a warm March day.

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Wildflowers are on a blooming binge at Picacho Peak State Park. Carpets of dazzling golden Mexican poppies play a starring role in the colorful show—but other wildflowers add their own hues to the landscape. Among them: blue lupines, orange globemallow, white desert chicory, and bright yellow brittlebush.

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Nearly any spot along the park’s main road will include wildflower scenery. One of the best side routes for colorful views from a vehicle—and even more grand vistas from trails—is the Barrett Loop.

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

“We had poppies blooming in January and that’s unheard of in my time here,” park manager Steve Haas says. Two large washes keep the park cooler than the lower desert and generally prompt a later seasonal bloom. Traditionally, colors peak from late March into early April but things are happening a little earlier this year.

The Sutherland Trail offers the best assortment of flowers with cream cups, poppies, lupines, penstemon, and desert chicory. Best color can be found near the junction with Canyon Loop and continuing for about 2 miles on the Sutherland across the desert.

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Guided hikes and bird walks are offered several days each week.

Worth Pondering…

Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!

—Lady Bird Johnson

A Wintry Desert Wonderland

These HOT parks evoke a sense of adventure in Arizona’s wintery desert wonderland

Arizonans and seasonal visitors know that winter temperatures don’t stand a chance of stopping outdoor pursuits. Compared to the rest of the country, the mild temps and low seasonal precipitation create the perfect formula for outdoor adventure throughout the state.

Many national, state, and regional parks are primed for winter fun. The trails are perfect throughout the day, wildlife is active this time of year, additional birds have migrated into Arizona, and you just can’t beat the sunrise and sunset at your camping site.

Come along and we’ll expose HOT parks that will evoke your sense of adventure in Arizona’s wintery desert wonderland! 

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

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 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.

Alamo Lake State Park

Nestled in the Bill Williams River Valley away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Alamo Lake State Park offers outdoor fun, premier bass fishing, rest and relaxation. The crystal clear lake is surrounded by mountainous terrain speckled with brush, wildflowers, and cacti making for a visually pleasing experience. Stargazers are sure to enjoy the amazing views of the night sky, with the nearest city lights 40 miles away.

Picacho Peak State Park

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and, often in the spring, overlook a sea of wildflowers.

The park and surrounding area are known for its unique geological significance, outstanding and varied desert growth, and historical importance. The unique shape has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times. One of the first recordings was in the 1700s by the Anza Expedition as it passed through the area.

Organ Pipe National Monument

Crazy symphonies of prickly arms—nowhere else in the United States can you find these unique living sculptures, Unlike their more familiar Saguaro cousins, Organ Pipe cacti branch out from ground-level. Organ Pipe National Monument sits on the Mexican border. From November through April, the weather’s nearly perfect for hiking, camping, or just driving along the scenic loop road. This is one of the most stunning, and least-visited, corners of the Sonoran Desert—and worth the drive!

Lost Dutchman State Park 

Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert, a few miles east of Apache Junction. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest.

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring. Enjoy a weekend of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelina, and jackrabbit. A four mile mountain bike loop trail has opened at the park.

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.

Winter Hiking in Arizona State Parks

Arizona State Parks offers an amazing variety of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult and encompass a wide array of terrain.

Arizona has incredible surroundings waiting to be explored.

Arizona State Parks offers an amazing variety of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult and encompass a wide array of terrain.

Pay attention and be observant of your surroundings. Watching your feet can prevent an unfortunate encounter with a rattlesnake or other poisonous wildlife.

Look no further than Sedona’s Red Rock country for one of the best hikes in Arizona. Eagle’s Nest Trail at Red Rock State Park (photo above) supplies panoramic views of the colorful rocks and craggy formations. After hiking through the lush vegetation surrounding Oak Creek, follow the trail up to views only previously imagined.

Eagle’s Nest trail is only one of several options available at Red Rock State Park. The park offers hikes for every skill level, whether you’re going for a relaxed stroll or looking to break a sweat. Numerous bird species call Red Rock State Park home, pick up a current bird ID list at the park store; you’ll be amazed by the number of species that use the park. Be sure to take tons of scenic photos while at this epic destination, the park lends itself very well to creative shots.

Just up the road at Slide Rock State Park, trails lead into Oak Creek Canyon (above photo) and along the creek itself. Best known for its iconic natural water slide, this scenic hiking destination is bound to leave a lasting impression while creating lifetime memories. Birds and wildlife are common along Oak Creek.

The forested mountain views are accentuated by the gentle rumble of Oak Creek and add to the overall experience of this beautifully unique destination. Look up in awe of the jagged formations created by a combination of time and weather as you amble through this small, yet extremely beautiful park in the pines.

Southeast of Sedona, in the Verde River Valley near Cottonwood, Dead Horse Ranch State Park (photo above) offers a multi-use trail system for visitors to enjoy.

Choose between the higher desert scenery of the Lime Kiln trail, which follows a historic route between Sedona and Cottonwood, or the more densely vegetated Verde River Greenway trail. The trails within the Verde River Valley and along the Verde River itself, give hikers the chance of experiencing many of the birds and wildlife that call Dead Horse Ranch home. Deer, javelina, raccoons, and otters hang out in the thick riverside vegetation year-round. 

Lost Dutchman State Park (photo above) always offers an incredible adventure, like the Full Moon Hike every month to see the starry night sky over the Superstition Mountains. Walk an easy loop around the mountain or wind through Siphon Draw to see all Lost Dutchman has to offer. There’s a path for every view, timeframe, and difficulty level, so pick a trail and take a hike.

Picacho Peak (photo above) and the classic beauty of true Sonoran Desert landscapes is available for your enjoyment. Dive in to the Hunter Trail for a strenuous two mile hike up the rocks, twisting up the iconic mountain, or take a stroll up Calloway Trail for a less strenuous hike to a scenic overlook as you appreciate the scenery of the Sonoran Desert. 

Catalina State Park (photo below) just outside of Tucson is a well-known, incredibly beautiful and diverse natural area that creates a feeling of remoteness, despite the close proximity to Tucson’s metropolitan center. Hike any of Catalina’s various trails for differing levels of difficulty, from short hikes to an all-day adventure, on foot, on a bike, or by horseback.

You never know what you’ll run into at Catalina, from gorgeous Mexican gold poppies, to desert tortoises, to various desert creepy crawlers. Catalina’s landscapes are always showing off and waiting to be explored.

Remember, when you’re enjoying Arizona’s hiking trails to bring plenty of water and snacks, and be aware of the temperature. Arizona hiking destinations offer views of the desert and experiences you won’t find anywhere else. All you need to do is pick a trail and lace up your shoes.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey