Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered

During this Great Outdoors Month, try to imagine you inherited millions of acres of forest and grasslands teeming with wild animals, brilliant wildflowers, deep blue lakes, rushing rivers, unspoiled beaches, and majestic mountains and all within a few hours’ drive. You would suddenly feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

Lassen National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You are. With nearly 200 million acres of forest and grasslands, the USDA Forest Service lands are available for all to use. And these forest lands are open for all to recreate 365 days of the year—unless a natural disaster or maintenance issues force a closure. So, get outdoors and enjoy those natural landscapes this summer—or anytime, for that matter.

Sequoia National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting for you to discover. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve. And remember, it’s all yours to discover.

Related: Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Coronado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The available activities are as big as your imagination and the national forests. Camping, hiking, biking, birding, boating, fishing, rock climbing, and swimming are good starting points. For instance, in California, just outside of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles County, lies the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest. For the 10 million-plus people who live in the LA area, this forest is a treasure trove of fun, challenging, and exciting outdoor activities, and, yes, it’s big enough for all to share.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if you think the national forests are only for trees, think again. Just north of Tucson in the southern portion of Arizona’s ponderosa pine-dotted Coronado National Forest, you’ll find an easy-to-access recreation area called Sabino Canyon. In this vibrant desert landscape, you’ll see towering saguaro cacti—some as impressive as the great conifers of the forests. Visitors walk, jog, hike, do wildlife viewing, photography, and so much more.

The Coronado National Forest spans sixteen scattered mountain ranges or “sky islands” rising dramatically from the desert floor supporting plant communities as biologically diverse as those encountered on a trip from Mexico to Canada.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a popular destination for wildlife watchers and nature lovers who come to see the more than 240 species of birds (including more than a dozen species of hummingbirds) that live in its nurturing environment.

Related: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Fishlake National Forest, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling northeast are the great Colorado Rocky Mountains where 14,000-foot high peaks are not uncommon. Seriously, there are 53 of them! Just outside the city of Colorado Springs is Pikes Peaks. It is one of the most well-known of the great 14,000-footers. Keep in mind that the most experienced hikers consider climbing Pikes Peak a challenge so just walking around the foothills isn’t a bad idea for the less seasoned hikers among us.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you cross the Continental Divide, the mountains begin to melt away—a process that has taken millions of years—as you enter the Great Plains. Here sweeping grasslands like those on Colorado’s nearby Comanche National Grasslands and South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Badlands National Park invite visitors to hike pleasant trails and see the wildflowers and tall grasses that once stretched from Colorado to the Mississippi River.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming consist of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. The name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black.” Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie appear black.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amid the splendid scenery of the Black Hills, National Forest is 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 32 picnic areas, two scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, over 13,426 acres of wilderness, and 353 miles of trails, and much more. Every location in the Black Hills is a special place but there are hidden gems around every corner.  

Related: On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Once you cross the Mississippi River, the mountains begin to rise again but these mountains, far older than the Rockies, are literally part of the oldest lands on earth. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains were once right up there in height with Mount Everest.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now the tallest mountains in the eastern United States rarely break 6,000 feet but the views they offer are spectacular. Check out the George Washington and Jefferson Forest straddling Virginia and West Virginia overlooking the serene Shenandoah Valley, the bare granite summits of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, or the breathtaking mountain views of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of just two national forests in New England, the White Mountain National Forest is a year-round adventure destination. Crowned by the highest peaks in the region—the Presidential Range—the national forest includes the largest alpine zone in the Eastern U.S. For hikers, more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails wind through hardwood and conifer forests offering access to secluded waterfalls, glassy ponds, and granite peaks.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, Tusquitee in Murphy, and the Nantahala in Franklin. All district names come from the Cherokee language. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday.

Read Next: The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

With so much public land available from coast to coast, no matter where you are you can find opportunities to recreate in the Great Outdoors!  

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

Madera Canyon, with active springs and a seasonal creek, is a lush oasis

A world-renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species, while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s forested Sky Islands, the cool refuge of Madera Canyon is just 25 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles east of Green Valley. This is part of the Coronado National Forest.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, with active springs and a seasonal creek, is a lush oasis supporting an amazing diversity of life zones of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon. From Green Valley to the 9,453-foot summit of Mt. Wrightson, the mountains rise nearly 7,000 feet. Moisture increases and temperature decreases 3 – 5°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, creating a succession of four life zones. Each life zone has communities of plants and animals adapted to the environmental conditions found in the zone.

Madera Creek, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beneath the shade of the trees, Madera Creek tumbles over bedrock and boulder. Water and stream-borne sediment gradually grind rocks to gravel, gravel to pebbles, and pebbles to sand.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

Over millennia, this stream and its side-canyon tributaries have carved the canyon into the form that we see today. Madera Creek is a seasonal stream. It does not flow year-round. But at certain times of the year, water from springs and seasonal run-off drain down the tributaries and feed the main creek in this large bowl-like watershed.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This stream system and the abundant plants along its banks form a riparian corridor. The corridor descends through all the canyon life zones and creates excellent wildlife habitat.

This forested microclimate is a perfect habitat for birding. You can, with time and patience, see fifteen species of hummingbirds, elegant trogon, sulfur-bellied flycatcher, black-capped gnatcatcher, flame-colored tanager, and 36 species of warblers. In all, over 256 species of bird species have been documented.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And under the green canopy roam javelinas, deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, black bears, and mountain lions. Even the occasional jaguar. Coatimundi, the raccoon relative common in the jungles of Guatemala, make Madera Canyon their home as well.

There is a campground suitable for smaller RVs and several picnic areas and the extensive Santa Rita Mountain trail system is easily accessed from here. Bring a picnic lunch and some snacks.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a lovely location for a picnic, especially when escaping the summer heat of Tucson.  Picnic tables and grills are located near parking areas throughout the canyon. The White House Picnic area provides for larger groups—up to 30 or so. Advanced reservations cannot be made.

All picnic areas have nearby bear-proof trash receptacles and accessible toilets. Bring your own charcoal; there is no firewood available in the Canyon. Fires may be built ONLY in the grills and must be fully extinguished before you leave.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

The picnic area at the end of the paved road seemed to be the most appealing, particularly on warmer days.

Mt. Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mt. Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are needed. Always bring drinking water hiking and stay on the trails. Do not short-cut switch-back trails, this leads to soil erosion. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trailhead and the Santa Rita Lodge. Pets must be on a leash.

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

Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails, and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.

The challenging and popular Old Baldy Trail, a 10-mile trek (round trip) leads to the summit and climbs more than 4,000 vertical feet topping out on one of the most spectacular summits in the state. The views from the summit are, to say the least, breathtaking.

Mt. Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Super Trail is longer but has a more moderate gradient. The trails form a figure eight making it possible to put together a number of different loops using different portions of each.

Old Baldy is the most heavily traveled and also remains the coolest of the two by keeping a more northerly aspect and staying in the trees for almost its entire length. The Super Trail stays within the same drainage as its steeper cousin on the lower loop of the “8”, but it follows a more south-facing slope through a high desert environment.

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

Above the midpoint of the “8” at Josephine Saddle, the Super Trail loops around the south side of the mountain through even more arid country, while Old Baldy switchbacks through thickets of New Mexico locust on a west-facing slope to Baldy Saddle. The last mile to the summit of Mt. Wrightson via the Crest Trail #144 is the same no matter which trail you’ve followed to the saddle.

Related: A Lifetime Is Not Enough To Do It All: 6 Arizona Destinations for Winter Fun

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

Madera Canyon Road climbs from the Sonoran Desert floor in Green Valley, at 2,700 feet with summer temperatures from 85 degrees to 105 degrees F to 5,500 feet with temperatures 20 degrees cooler. Monsoon rainstorms begin in early July and continue through August into September. Storms do not occur every day and usually are small and highly localized but when they are over you, prepare for hail and a brief downpour with falling temperatures. Dry washes fill with rushing water and Madera Creek can flood, so be careful.

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

In winter, expect snow above 5,000 feet and temperatures near freezing in the canyon. For all these climate conditions, be prepared with adequate footgear and layered clothing.

Madera Canyon is in a National Forest Recreation Area where many facilities are provided by the Forest Service, requiring a local Forest Pass or accepted Inter-agency Pass. While parked you must clearly display whichever of these passes you have purchased on your dashboard.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An $8 Day Fee to the U.S.Forest Service can be purchased at five parking area fee stations in the canyon—only with correct cash or check. You must park in a designated area or you will be ticketed, or towed.

Madera Canyon is accessed from Interstate I-19 about 30 miles south of Tucson and 30 miles north of Nogales on the US/Mexico border:

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exit I-19 at exit 63 is titled Continental Road and Madera Canyon.

Turn east on Continental Road, continue straight ahead through a traffic signal, cross the Santa Cruz River, and turn right at the next four-way stop. You are now on Whitehouse Canyon Road.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cross the railroad tracks and continue up the hill to the southeast. Slow down for the Continental School, cross the cattle guard and you are now in the Santa Rita Experimental Range operated by the University of Arizona for research on grasses, grazing, and range fire. For birders, there are many species along this road as you drive through the grassland bajada towards the canyon.

Related: Hiking Arizona

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

After about six miles turn right on the paved Madera Canyon Road. If you continue straight ahead on the gravel road, you can access the headquarters of the Experimental Range or continue through Box Canyon to state route 83.

Heading south on Madera Canyon Road you will cross three one-lane bridges then climb towards Madera Canyon between Mt. Wrightson on your left and Mt. Hopkins on the right.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Following a delightful day, we returned to Mission View RV Resort, our home base of San Xavier Road in southern Tucson.

Worth Pondering…

Stay close to nature, it will never fail you.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

From secluded corners of national parks to lesser-known state parks, here’s where to explore on public lands in Arizona

Arizona is called the Grand Canyon State for good reason but that natural wonder is far from the only gem in the state’s public-lands network of hidden lakes, lush rivers, towering red-rock formations, and slot canyons. Translation: there’s a slice of Arizona public land perfect for every kind of adventurer whether you want to stargaze deep in the backcountry or strike out from the city for a day hike.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Best for: The giant redwoods of the cactus world

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro cacti exist only in North America and the Tucson area showcases this tree-like cactus species that can grow to over 40 feet tall. Head to Saguaro National Park for stunning desert mountain vistas framed by these big-armed plants. Don’t write off the summer months—saguaros start to flower in late April and they can bloom into early June. Park your RV in the campground at Catalina State Park or a full-service RV resort in Tucson.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Best for: Zipping across a desert lake on Jet Skis

Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area defies the odds. Here, minutes from the iconic twists of Horseshoe Bend, you’ll find the massive, man-made Lake Powell. Boating is popular here and it’s easy to rent paddling gear or a motorboat at a lake-side marina. You can camp in primitive sites on the beaches of Lake Powell near Page at a 5-star RV resort at Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park, the new Antelope Point Marina RV Park, or even rent a houseboat to camp right on the lake itself.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Best for: A family scavenger hunt to identify dozens of different cacti

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

Along the state’s border with Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers stunning views and, you guessed it, cacti—31 species, to be exact. Traveling with the family? See how many varieties you can spot along the monument’s trails. Got kids that can’t be trusted so close to sharp and spiny plants? Cruise the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive instead. Always be sure to stock the car with a few gallons of water in case of a breakdown—this classic desert landscape gets hot in summer. Camp in the park for unspoiled night skies or book a full-service RV site in the nearby artsy town of Ajo.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

Best for: Geology tripping 

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in the “Land of Standing Up Rocks” at the Chiricahua National Monument. Located in southeastern Arizona near the town of Willcox visitors experience this site of unique rock formations. Around 27 million years ago a volcanic eruption threw an enormous amount of ash into the air that fell back to the earth and eventually hardened into volcanic rock. Over the years that rock eroded into a wonderland of rock spires which creates a kind of rock garden you might expect to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. The spires—precarious, surreal pinnacles that can be several hundred feet in height—dominate the park’s landscape, while caves, mountains, and lava flows add variety to the setting. The park offers campsites or stay in an RV park in nearby Willcox. 

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area

Best for: Off-roading, hiking, wild sunsets

Yuma Crossing Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the state’s southwestern borders with California and Mexico, the Imperial Sand Dunes are like a massive waterless beach stretching for more than 40 miles. Some of the dunes reach 300 feet tall. Head to nearby Yuma for a permit and an ATV rental. The Colorado River flows through the heart of town. Visit the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and wander the Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Gateway Park, and West Wetlands before crossing the river on 4th Avenue.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest

Best for: Hiking and fishing on man-made lakes

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just because Phoenix doesn’t get much rain doesn’t mean you can’t cool off in nearby lakes and rivers. And the Tonto National Forest though it’s packed with saguaro has both of these. Canyon Lake, about 45 minutes from Phoenix, is one of the smaller lakes along the Salt River and is a great place to paddle beneath cliffs topped with cactus. The lake is home to walleye, catfish, and yellow bass and is stocked monthly from November to March with rainbow trout. The Boulder Recreation Site offers a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. Lost Dutchman State Park features convenient locations for exploring the region as well as a campground with paved camping sites and electric and water utilities. Several trails lead from the park into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Tribal Park

Best for: The most scenic desert landscapes you can possibly imagine

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo Nation spans the northeast corner of Arizona and the southeast corner of Utah and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever find, period! Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on Earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. When you go, make sure to stay in the campground and eat at the restaurant within the park for a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Coronado National Forest Sky Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest Sky Islands

Best for: Birding and hiking in the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coronado National Forest’s 15 Sky Island mountain ranges offer awesome scenery, diverse vegetation from deserts to conifer forests, and a wide variety of recreation settings. Popular activities include hiking, camping, and birdwatching. The Coronado also offers mountain bike trails, OHV areas, lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian facilities, and a ski area. Campsites are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year-round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones. Madera Canyon lies on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Its higher elevation grants relief to desert dwellers during the hot months and allows access to snow during the winter. The extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Prescott National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott National Forest

Best for: Where the Desert Meets the Pines  

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in mountainous central Arizona, the Prescott National Forest embraces over 1.25 million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded desert to pine-clad mountains with the elevation ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The forest contains 10 campgrounds and seven picnic areas. Most of the developed recreation sites are located in the pines with five of the campgrounds and two of the picnic areas situated near manmade lakes. Nearly 450 miles of scenic trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, or mountain biking are offered on the Prescott National Forest. Due to its proximity to downtown Prescott, Thumb Butte Trail is one of the most popular in the Prescott National Forest. Lynx Lake is a popular recreation area with mild weather, a cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, and bird watching.

Related Article: A Bakers Dozen Campgrounds for an Unforgettable Arizona Wilderness Experience

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park 

Best for: Petrified wood and Painted Desert

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils. The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

Memorial Day 2021: Best Arizona Road Trips for the Long Holiday Weekend

Here are a few places to visit in Arizona as you plan your Memorial Day getaway

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional summer travel season. This year there is even more pent-up yearning than normal. Everyone is eager to get out of town. Road trips are the hot new summer accessory.

Fortunately, Arizona is a road trip nirvana. The nation’s sixth-largest state by area, Arizona covers nearly 114,000 square miles. Most population centers are found in clustered bunches leaving vast tracts of backcountry for exploring. A number of small towns add character and keep travelers gassed up and well-fed.

Here are a few getaways to get you going on Memorial Day weekend and into the summer months.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Vibrant badlands of the Painted Desert spread across the northern portion of the park while trees turned to stone—trees that once shaded dinosaurs—lay undisturbed amid the hills and hoodoos of the southern half. Welcome to Triassic Park.

Crystal Forest Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fossils of the plants and animals unearthed here tell the story of a time when the world was young. Just as important to the casual visitor this area is set amid rolling plains and brilliantly colored badlands beneath a vast blue sky.

During the Triassic period, this was a humid forested basin. Crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs roamed among towering trees and leafy ferns. As the trees died they were washed into the swamps and buried beneath volcanic ash where the woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica eventually forming petrified wood.

Blue Mesa Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest lies a short distance east of Holbrook and can be accessed from Interstate 40 or U.S. 180. Take the 28-mile scenic drive that cuts north to south connecting park highlights from roadside vistas to historic sites to hiking trails. Don’t miss Blue Mesa, a short loop trail skirting colorful badlands. Some of the best displays of petrified logs can be seen along the short Crystal Forest Trail.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon North Rim

Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-dappled forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.

Grand Canyon, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.

Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot national monuments

Follow ancient paths when you visit the national monuments of the Verde Valley amid remnants of Sinagua culture. The Sinagua were Ancestral Puebloan people who flourished in central Arizona from about 600 to 1425. They left behind art, artifacts, and architecture.

Sycamore tree at Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built into a high limestone balcony, the 20-room Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the U.S. A paved trail meanders beneath the shade of graceful sycamore trees and leads to scenic viewpoints of the towering abode.

It was inhabited from about 1100 to 1425 with occupation peaking around 1300. The people farmed the rich floodplain nearby. Many of the original ceiling beams are still intact even though they were installed more than 800 years ago. Early settlers believed the castle was built by Aztec emperor Montezuma and the name stuck.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit Montezuma Well, a detached unit of the national monument 11 miles away. The natural limestone sinkhole pumps out 1.5 million gallons of water each day from an underground spring. Several cliff dwellings perch along the rocky rim of the well and the remnants of a prehistoric canal can still be seen.

Tuzigoot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument is a more interactive experience since you can walk around the village. Situated between Clarkdale and Cottonwood the remnants of this Sinagua pueblo crown a hilltop overlooking the Verde River. The terraced 110-room village was built between 1125 and 1400.

Walk the loop trail to savor wraparound views of the lush Verde Valley framed by rising mountains. The National Park Service has restored a two-story room at Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) so visitors can admire the building techniques and materials.

Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Islands

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day tonight. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast better than Sky Islands. Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous forest and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub.

Chirichua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. As the mountain increases in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations. Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona. These Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

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

Madera Canyon is a retreat for birds and humans alike with cooler weather, extensive trail systems, and mountainous scenery

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains east of Green Valley and 30 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Its higher elevation offers relief to desert dwellers during the hot summer months and allows access to snow during the winter.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Madera Canyon has a long and colorful history. The Friends of Madera Canyon, a cooperating volunteer group, helps the Forest Service maintain recreation sites and provides brochures and education programs.

Mount Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, originally known as White House Canyon, is one of the largest of the deep, wooded ravines in the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s sky islands—isolated high elevation regions surrounded on all sides by much lower land. Orientated approximately north-south, towards its upper end the canyon splits into several tributaries that drain the slopes of 9,453 foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the range. The canyon contains a shallow but permanent creek fed by springs along tributary streams.

There is no gate or sign indicating you are in the Canyon, except for a sign on a right-hand turn to the Visitor Information Station. Brochures and information (but not passes) are available here.

Proctor Parking Area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is also the entrance to the Proctor parking area, handicap accessible trail, and beginning of the Bud Gode Interpretive Nature Trail.

Continuing up the paved road will bring you first to the Whitehouse parking and picnic area. The next parking area is the Madera parking area with picnic sites on both sides of the road. Next is the Santa Rita Lodge on the right where you can park to look at birds at the many feeders.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further up the road at an elevation of about 5,000 feet is the Amphitheater parking area with access to the Nature Trail. Continuing up the canyon you’ll find the Madera Kubo Cabins, another bridge, the Chuparosa Inn B & B, and the large Mount Wrightson Picnic Area and trail heads with parking, numerous picnic sites, and rest rooms.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the riparian valley floor and the thickly vegetated slopes are home to a large variety of plants, reflecting the crossroads location between the Sonoran Desert and the mountains. As a result the canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds including hummingbirds, owls, sulphur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads. Nearly 100 miles of paths climb the valley sides to springs, viewpoints, old mines, and summits including Mount Wrightson. Apart from the creekside path all trails are lightly used. Most visitors are here for picnics, splashing in the stream, and short walks along the canyon floor where the most fruitful bird-watching locations are found.

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

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight. The vertical climb covers 4,013 feet from the Mount Wrightson Picnic/Trailhead Parking Lot. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are recommended. Always bring drinking water and stay on the trails. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trail head and the Santa Rita Lodge.

Madera Creek along a Proctor Area trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Proctor area, a paved loop trail suitable for wheelchairs and walkers offers occasional benches for resting. The trail follows Madera Creek and provides access to the beauty of the lower canyon. Another paved loop trail at Whitehouse is often used by visitors requiring wheelchairs.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach Madera Canyon from Tucson, take the I-19 south towards Nogales and use the Continental Exit 63. Then, follow the Whitehouse Canyon Road east towards the Santa Rita Mountains. The strange elephant-head-shaped mountain located to your right indicates you are on the correct road.

A Coronado National Forest or Interagency (America the Beautiful) pass must be displayed.  Day use passes can be purchased at the site for $8. 

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers

4 Ecosystems Meet at Coronado National Memorial

The park was established to commemorate the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and the lasting legacies of the first interaction between American Indians and Europeans in the American Southwest and northwest Mexico

Take Montezuma Canyon Road to the scenic Montezuma Pass Overlook where you can reflect of the impact of the European arrival in this region.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four major ecosystems meet in Southeastern Arizona: the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre. This is a beautiful natural area with an unlimited supply of interesting sights to visit.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Pedro River valley attracts hikers and birders because of the variety of species that live there. Bisbee is a friendly, funky place to wander and explore. Tombstone trades on a Wild West image. And there are the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that gather each winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Arizona is an incredible blend of sky mountains and grasslands and desert, hot and cold, and Coronado National Memorial is a great place to learn about it. Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the significance of Coronado’s expedition and the resulting cultural influences of 16th century Spanish colonial exploration in the Americas.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the early 1500s, Spain established a rich colonial empire in the New World. From Mexico to Peru, gold poured into her treasury and new lands were opened for settlement. The northern frontier lay only a few hundred miles north of Mexico City; and beyond that was a land unknown. Tales of unimaginable riches in this land had fired the Spanish imagination ever since Spain’s discovery of the “New World”.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On January 6, 1540, the Spanish government commissioned Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510-1554) to command an expedition to find the rumored seven “large cities, with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emeralds and turquoise!”

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We have no way of knowing Coronado’s exact route, but historians believe he followed the San Pedro River when he passed through southeastern Arizona in 1540 with about 2,000 men, an army of 336 Spanish soldiers, and hundreds of Mexican-Indian allies. The journey was fueled by more than 1,500 stock animals and blind ambition.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was a fool’s errand. Coronado died in relative obscurity, his mission a failure. But as we look back his journey seems remarkable, if only because it was so long. He traveled from Mexico City to what is now Kansas on horseback, and was one of the first Europeans to see this part of the country.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The location was chosen for the panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley, the route believed to have been taken by Coronado. The creation of the Memorial was not to protect any tangible artifacts related to the expedition, but rather to provide visitors with an opportunity to reflect upon the impact the Coronado Expedition had in shaping the history, culture, and environment of the southwestern United States and its ties to Mexico and Spain.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated in oak woodlands on the southern edge of the Huachuca Mountains, the 4,750-acre park offers a visitors center, Coronado Cave, hiking trails, and a scenic drive that culminates at Coronado Pass overlook (elevation 6,575 feet) with breathtaking views of the San Pedro Valley to the southeast and the San Raphael Valley to the west. Note that vehicles over 24 feet in length are prohibited due to steep grades and tight switchbacks.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short trail leads to the top of Coronado Peak (6,864 feet) with even better views, including south to distant mountains in Mexico. The panoramic view is breathtaking.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the pass the unpaved and often rough forestry road leads through Coronado National Forest to Parker Canyon Lake (18 miles) and on to Patagonia or alternately through the Arizona Wine Region near the small town of Elgin.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters,
the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

A sky island is an isolated mountain range that rises up out of the surrounding desert “sea”

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day to night. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast—and its importance to biodiversity—better than Sky Islands.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous  forest, and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation—sometimes exceeding 10,000—these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub and provide an oasis for an abundance of wildlife. These Sky Islands encompass some of the most rugged and remote lands in the Southwest and feature some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.

Hiking Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. The result is a habitat island, such as a forest surrounded by desert. As the mountain goes up in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations.

Catalina State Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona which are the real treasure houses of the region.

Coronado National Monument in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona’s Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains, rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina mountains offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Mount Lemmon Ski Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, Mount Lemmon is the southernmost downhill ski area in the country. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the Sky Island Scenic Byway provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the meeting point between desert and forest, Sky Islands provide a variance of climate zones, including tropical and temperate climates, that supports a vast range of wildlife. The lower temperatures of the high elevations allow snow to accumulate, which melt into summer streams that feed to other riparian areas. The diversity of the region exceeds anywhere else in the U.S., supporting well over half the bird species of North America and 104 species of mammals.

Chiricahua National Monument in the Chirachua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning at the valley floor one is surrounded by typical Sonoran desert—saguaro and cholla cactus, and ocotillo. Traveling toward the peak, one travels through eight distinct zones: desert, arid grassland, chaparral, pinyon-juniper woodland, Madrean evergreen oak woodland, Ponderosa pine forest, mixed conifer stands of Douglas fir and white pine, and eventually a true spruce-fir forest with burbling creeks and quaking aspens. 

Saguaro National Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sky Island idea was first published in 1943, in an article in Arizona Highways magazine called “Monument in the Mountain.” In the article, writer Natt N. Dodge referred to the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona as a “mountain island in a desert sea.” 

Coronado National Monument in the Huachuca Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The term was later made popular by nature writer Weldon Heald, a resident of southeastern Arizona. In his 1967 book, Sky Island, he demonstrated the concept by describing a drive from the town of Rodeo, New Mexico, to a peak in the Chiricahua Mountains, 35 miles away and 5,600 feet higher in elevation. Ascending from the hot, arid desert, the environment transitions to grassland, then to oak-pine woodland, pine forest, and finally to spruce-fir-aspen forest.

Chiricahua National Monument in the Chirachua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around the same time, the idea of mountains as islands of habitat took hold with scientists, and the idea was included in the study of island biogeography.  Although the name may have originated in Southern Arizona, Sky Islands are not limited to mountains of the Southwest, but can be applied to any geographic location where mountains are isolated from each other by lowland habitats.

Saguaro National Park in the Santa Catalina Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your next visit to a Sky Island, note how the vegetation changes from cactus to thornscrub to oak forest, pine forest, and mixed conifer forest as you ascend the slope.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937