On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Spending time in nature is the best way to refuel your body and your mind

The Great Outdoors became a top travel destination in 2020 for obvious reasons: endless social distance, campgrounds within driving distance, and dramatic settings for an existential crisis. Zoom ahead to summer 2022 and the world has reopened—so has camping fallen out of favor?

Turns out, instead of returning their REI equipment, many rookies are still adding camping reservations to their travel plans.

According to Campspot, a platform for reserving campsites, there are 49 percent more bookings for this summer compared to last year and a six times jump in new campers.

33 percent more people are shopping on Amazon for camping tents this year compared to 2019 and demand for other outdoor gear (lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves) has also risen by double digits, per data analytics company Pattern.

Reunion Lake RV Resort, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glamping’s also holding onto its pandemic popularity: Getaway, which rents tiny, posh cabins you may have seen on Instagram had its most guests ever in Q1 2022.

Between inflation, the stock market, supply-chain issues, and recession fears, people have a strong desire to find ways to disconnect from the stress and spend time in nature to help them reconnect with themselves and their family and friends.

Relaxing nature activities will rejuvenate your mind, from the simple to the life-changing.

The back roads of Kentucky’s Blue Grass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the scenery

Movies beaming with CGI (computer-generated imagery) dazzle our imaginations but the most mind-blowing spectacles are not found on a screen. When was the last time you watched the sunrise or ventured to the nearest hilltop to watch it set? Or plied the back roads?

A back road in South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The back, back roads of South Carolina, for example, will present you with a gift basket of surprises. Looming magnolia trees and Spanish moss! Tiny, rural communities populated with folks who more than likely will be happy to spend the afternoon beguiling you with the stories of their lives. Makeshift farm stands and BBQ pits that you can sniff out a mile away. Ramshackle houses and dilapidated plantations evoking chapters from another world!

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is a beautiful Virginia byway that goes straight through Shenandoah National Park and the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, but if you hit the road early enough to catch a misty sunrise, you might be able to beat some of the crowds. At just over 100 miles long, it makes for a great half-day drive.

Walking a trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wander the wilderness

Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Cruising urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking a local trail or feeling the sandy beach between your toes. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind, either—your goal isn’t to hike a particular number of miles but to aimlessly immerse yourself in the natural world around you. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting Central Texas. From the top of the steep Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain. For more entertainment, Fredericksburg, a charming German-Texan small town, is only a 20-minutes drive away.

Bird watching in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meditate on the music

Not the music playing in your headphones. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees, and the scurrying of animals through the canopy. It’s a lot more relaxing than the honking horns and text message alerts you’re all too used to and it offers the opportunity to practice some meditative mindfulness in your tranquil surroundings.

Pack a picnic

Load a basket with your favorite healthy goodies and have lunch among the flora and fauna. A picnic is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends and family without the distractions of the modern-day world. And nature makes socializing with others easier so it’s the perfect place to build stronger relationships with those you love.

Fishing at Lynx Lake in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fish

Fishing puts you outside, near a body of water, and it rewards patience. All of those are good things. Even if you don’t catch (and release) anything, you’ll both forge a treasured, lifelong memory. With a little luck, you reel in a perch that will grow into a marlin after multiple retellings of the story at family events.

Bird watching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look, up in the sky

Thousands of people who watch birds as a hobby are on to something: There’s a special thrill when you can recognize a bird by sight or by its sound. Odds are, a nearby Audubon location offers free birding walks that are open to the public. Or, turn to the internet for free resources to help you identify the birds in your area. Either way, bird watching gives you the perfect excuse to relax in nature with your head in the clouds. That’s a great way to fend off stress.

Camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sleep beneath the stars

Now you’re getting serious. Why not disconnect entirely for several days or more and make nature your home? Camping lets you get further away than a simple day trip allows. Or, if roughing it isn’t your style, consider glamping where you can maintain some of the creature comforts you love, but still be away from it all.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.

If you take your phone, use it for that cool star-gazing app (or emergencies, of course) but not for scrolling social media 24/7. Forget the Fear of Missing Out and try the Joy of Missing Out instead. #JOMO!

World’s Largest Roadrunner at La Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s that giant roadrunner doing there? Read about the weird world of giant roadside attractions

Listen up: This is the only summer playlist you’ll need

Looking for a memorable road trip: Choose a location and route that aligns with your passions

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More trip ideas: These are the best things to do this summer

And finally: Here’s what to expect at national parks this summer

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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

Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

The unspoiled Sonoran Desert vegetation of Cave Creek Regional Park invites visitors to become enveloped in a tranquil, largely undisturbed natural world

Solitude and sweeping views in all directions reward those willing to make a relatively short hike in this 2,922-acre park. Cave Creek Regional Park has more than 11-miles of joint-use trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. In additional campsites with excellent facilities along with individual picnic sites beckon the whole family.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek which is located north of Phoenix became part of Maricopa County’s regional park system in 1963.The park sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. This desert oasis offers hikers, bikers, and equestrian majestic views. The Go John Trail loops around a mountain to provide the illusion of being miles away from civilization. In the 1870s, fever stricken gold seekers staked their dreams on the jasper-studded hills. Guided trails to these sites give visitors an opportunity to travel back in time.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek was named for the small stream that rises in the hills to the northeast and flows southwesterly for 25 miles before reaching Paradise Valley. The stream, in turn, was named from a high, overhanging bluff along its west bank that forms a wide, open cavern about two miles north of the present day Cave Creek.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek History

The Cave Creek area has a rich archeological foundation. Ancient Hohokam Indians stayed in the area from around 800 A.D. until 1400 A.D. Many reminders of their living in the area still remain. Stone huts, pit houses, terraced field, and irrigation ditches were left behind. There are also many petroglyphs that were carved by the Hohokam and others.

During the 1400s, bands of Apache Indians began drifting into the area. They brought with them a different lifestyle than the Hohokams. Instead of farming, the Apaches lived by hunting, gathering, and raiding. The 1500s saw the arrival of Spanish explorers. The Spanish found the desert to be very inhospitable. On their maps, central Arizona was labeled as “deplobado” meaning, “desolate wilderness.”

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mining began to become a focal point in central Arizona history in 1863. The call “Gold in the Bradshaws” rang out. Fabulous rich gold outcroppings were found in high peaks such as Antelope Hill. In 1864, Henry Wickenburg uncovered the richest strike, the Vulture Mine. Miners were sure that the Aqua Fria River, New River, Cave Creek, and the stream of the Tonto were also rich with gold.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few miners tried to find the treasures but the Apaches ran them out of the area. Ranchers and farmers followed lured by reports of mild climate, plentiful water, tall timbers, and lush grass. All of the reports failed to mention that hostile Indians surrounded the area. Of all the tribes in the area, the Apaches were the most feared. They were highly mobile, unpredictable, and difficult to capture.

Newcomers to the State appealed to the Federal Government for assistance. The Civil War was demanding the need for every soldier. Washington leaders decided they did not want to lose the potential gold production capabilities of Arizona. In 1863, Arizona was declared a new and separate territory, splitting off from the territory of New Mexico.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Governor was sent to Arizona along with a small force of troops to Fort Whipple in Prescott. In 1865, the army sent a small force of 300 volunteers from California to establish Fort McDowell. Fort McDowell was located 18 miles east of Cave Creek. One year after the Californians arrived, a regular army infantry unit settled into Fort McDowell. For 15 more years, skirmishes, ambushes, and bloody confrontations raged between the soldiers and the Apaches.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just North of Cave Creek, the area of Bloody Basin was the site of a bitter skirmish on March 27, 1873. Army scouts trailed a group of Apaches to the top of Turret Peak. The scouts crept up the peak during the night. At dawn they captured or killed nearly all of the Apaches. The pressure on the Apaches began to have its effects. With the army destroying any discovered food storage areas, the Apaches were beginning to suffer. Hunger drove the Apaches to surrender. By 1877 about 5,000 Indians from various tribes shared the San Carlos Reservation. The time of the Apaches along Cave Creek was over and a new era of mining was coming to Cave Creek.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Hiking Trails

Cave Creek Regional Park offers over 11-miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. The trails within the Cave Creek Regional Park are very popular with dramatic elevations and spectacular views of the surrounding plains. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Picnic Areas

Cave Creek Regional Park offers a Day-Use Picnic Area and a Group Picnic Area. The day use picnic area has 51 individual picnic sites, each providing a table and barbecue grill. Drinking water and restrooms are available in the Day-Use Area and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For large groups wanting to picnic together, weddings, or office parties, consider renting a ramada. Cave Creek Regional Park has four large ramada areas with picnic tables, barbecue grills, drinking water, electrical outlets, campfire pits, and a nearby playground.

These ramadas can be reserved for a fee in four-hour increments. If not marked as reserved, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Cave Creek

The campground consists of 55 campsites for RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. Cave Creek Regional Park provides restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Regional Park

Location: From central Phoenix, take I-17 north to Carefree Hwy (SR 74). Exit Carefree Hwy. and travel east to 32nd St. (7 miles). Turn north on 32nd St. to the Cave Creek Regional Park entrance.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Connect with Nature at McDowell Mountain Regional Park

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

Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, this 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. Visitors enjoy over 50 miles of multi-use trails and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. A stroll through the park will allow visitors to likely see deer, javelina, birds, and coyotes.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain History

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Hiking Trails

McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 40-miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Park Trails range in length from 0.5-miles to 15.3-miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Those looking for an easy hike should try the North Trail at 3.1-miles. Those looking for a good workout for themselves or their horses should try the Pemberton at 15.3-miles. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going. Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​McDowell Mountain Picnic Areas

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at McDowell Mountain

McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and is a developed site with water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, and barbecue fire ring. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. The south loop of the campground also offers handicapped-accessible restrooms. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Location: From central Phoenix, take Loop 202 east to Beeline Highway (SR 87). Continue northeast on SR 87 to Shea Blvd. Travel west on Shea Blvd. to Saguaro Blvd.; turn north. Continue through Town of Fountain Hills to Fountain Hills Blvd; turn right and travel four miles to the McDowell Mountain Regional Park entrance.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes