Traveling To a National Park this Summer? Prepare For High Temperatures!

Searing heat that has settled over the Southwest has National Park Service officials urging visitors to prepare for the high heat and know their limitations

Summer inspires us all to go outside and explore the great outdoors. High temperatures and the risk of heat illness can happen in any national park environment whether it’s an urban, historical, mountainous, or desert park. Be prepared for high temperatures and the increased risk of heat-related illnesses while recreating.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s one thing that many Americans (and Canadians) can affirm right now: It’s freaking hot. In case you still had any doubts, the hottest place on Earth is as hot as it’s ever been—at least in terms of recorded temperatures in modern times. Death Valley National Park recorded a high temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius) on Friday (July 9, 2021) and 129.4 degrees on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. When dawn broke Sunday, the low temperature was a sweltering 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). By the late afternoon, the mercury has swelled to a blazing 128.6 degrees. The combination of the two produced the highest daily average temperature ever recorded on the Planet: 118 degrees.

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

Those temperatures come as Death Valley and other areas in the Western United States continue to be blanketed by scorching heat. The Friday temperature matches 130 degrees recorded in August 2020. While some weather watchers point to a 134-degree measurement in Death Valley on July 10, 1913, that record has been widely disputed—with many in the meteorological community are suspicious of that mark because of temperatures recorded that day in nearby areas. But, that is still hot, brutally hot, especially for the unprepared in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Expect high temperatures of 110 degrees to 120 degrees. Drink plenty of water and carry extra,” reads a warning on the park’s website. “Avoid hiking (after 10 a.m.). Travel prepared to survive. In the case of a heat related illness, get to a cool place and seek help as soon as possible.”

At Grand Canyon National Park, “an excessive heat warning” was in effect last weekend for the lower portions of the Grand Canyon with temperatures reaching 115 degrees. Elsewhere, an excessive heat warning was also posted for Zion National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to recreate responsibly if they came to the park during this summer’s “record high temperatures.”

“During this time of unprecedented high temperature visitors are asked to consider rescheduling visits to when weather conditions improve. Many visitors and staff have experienced heat illness as temperatures exceed 110 degrees during the day,” park staff reported. “You can recreate responsibly by packing plenty of water and salty snacks, visiting early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are less extreme, and by keeping your outdoor activities short in duration.”

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

Lake Mead has been under a severe heat wave since late June. High temperatures in the park are anticipated to be over 110 degrees for the next few days and over 105 degrees for the next several weeks, a park release said. Current forecasts show that lows are not expected to be below 80 degrees for the foreseeable future, it added.

Rangers have been very busy responding to multiple medical emergencies caused by the excessive heat. The call volume is extreme and unfortunately not every request for assistance can be granted, the park said, adding that, “visitors are cautioned to prepare for their visit assuming no ranger response.”

Heat related deaths and illnesses are preventable. Despite this, around 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat-related illnesses happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself. While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. In these cases, a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down. Heat illness can lead to serious complications and cause damage to the brain and other vital organs and can lead to death if not treated quickly. Heat strokes, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburns, and heat rash are all examples of heat-related illnesses.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most heat illnesses happen from staying outdoors in the heat for too long. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of heat illness. Older adults, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at highest risk. However, even young and healthy people can be affected if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.

Check the weather before you head out. Sometimes the weather can make your activity unsafe. Remember that the mountain, trail, lake, or canyon that you are planning to hike, climb, or boat on will still be there another day when the conditions are better.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For practical tips on staying safe in the outdoors this summer, click here.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Sydney Smith

Lake Pleasant, an Oasis in the Sonoran Desert

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

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

­­Lake Pleasant History

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

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Fishing

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

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boat Ramps and Marinas

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

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

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Hiking Trails

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

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picnic Areas

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discovery Center and Playground

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

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Lake Pleasant

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

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

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

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

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

Park Elevation: 1,700 feet

Surface Water: 10,000 acres

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle.

Campsite Rates: $22-$32

Lake Pleasant © 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

The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

And this winter, you can have it mostly to yourself

It’s almost cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But hiking through forests of towering saguaro feels nothing short of cartoonish. These green giants with arms pointed in all directions look like they’re about to break into a musical number at any second.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. The saguaro (pronounced sah-WHAH-ro) is rare, found only in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro is the largest cactus in North America. They may look like loving characters from a child’s storybook but these are some serious tree-like cacti. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. They can weigh up to nearly 5,000 pounds and live up to 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for “the perfect specimen” and determined that there is a saguaro for everyone. Maybe you like the perfect-looking two-armed saguaro or the saguaro with many wrangled arms reaching out in all directions. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25 although some never grow arms. Their differences make them fun to photograph, characterize, and admire. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by Arizona’s marquee national park, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro is a 92,000-acre desert wonderland. And if you go anytime other than summer you’ll find it hits that perfect national park threesome of ideal weather, unusual landscape, and minimal crowds. 

Prime time in southern Arizona is spring or fall when daytime highs rarely get over a dry 90 degrees and the mornings are pleasantly cool. Winter is also fantastic if you want to hike during the day—morning and night can be chilly but nothing a light jacket can’t fix.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find few parks as accessible from major cities as Saguaro which sits less than half an hour from Tucson. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by interstate is pretty straightforward.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the two sides of the park bare the same name and share likeness in desert landscape, there are subtle differences. The Tucson Mountain District is home to dense saguaro forests that rise from the hillside. Here you will find low-desert grasslands, shrubs, and densely populated saguaro forests. The Rincon Mountain District is the area of parkland originally preserved by Herbert Hoover when he dedicated it as a monument in 1933. It is the jumping off point to the backcountry. Here you will find high-elevation conifer forests in addition to saguaros and desert mainstays such as Teddybear cholla cactus and desert wildflowers.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mountainous desert topography might look intimidating, Saguaro National Park is one of the easier national parks to hike. The crown jewel for hikers is the trek to Wasson Peak (4,687-feet) in the more-mountainous western section. There are several options for reaching the top of Wasson Peak. High Norris Trailhead is favored by many experienced hikers. The entire hike is about eight miles long. For something easier on the west side, take the 0.8-mile Valley View Trail which as the name suggests also boasts phenomenal views of the valley on a much shorter walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular hike on the east side is the 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail. Wander down this path to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a cool desert wash. Great horned owls can often be seen in the cliff above this wash. A more strenuous hike is the combined Garwood, Carrillo, and Wildhorse trails accessed from the Douglas Spring trail head. You’ll enter the kind of cactus forest that inspired the creation of this park in 1933. Little Wildhorse Tank is one of the only perennial areas of water in the park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you prefer to see national parks from the air-conditioned comfort of your car, Saguaro makes that easy too. The most popular scenic drive is the Cactus Forest Loop in the east. The paved, one-way, 8-mile paved road with pull offs that overlook the valley offers the best scenery of any route in the park. On the west side, take the Bajada Loop Road which is 6 miles and partially unpaved.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backcountry camping is available by permit. There are about 20 campsites TOTAL, all of which are only accessible through backcountry hiking. There are no accommodations for RV camping in Saguaro. So unless you’re looking to rough it in the desert you’ll need a RV park for overnight camping and they are numerous in this snowbird hotspot.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is puzzling that Saguaro doesn’t get more love. But its relative obscurity is also a great strength—it’s a national park where you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the backcountry. Its unusual landscape and ideal weather combine to create the experience many look for during a winter getaway. And as a bonus, you just might feel like you’re walking around the cartoon set of a childhood memory.

This is a go-back park. I can’t wait to go back!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 91,445 acres

Established: October 14, 1994

Location: Southeast Arizona on both the west—and east side of Tucson

How the park got its name: Saguaro National Park is named after the Saguaro cactus that rises from the desert floor.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The Saguaro cactus is the undisputed champion of the American southwest so it is only fitting that it should stand as the most iconic site in the park. They grow slowly, spouting their arms at around 75 years of age. They live long for a cactus, up to 200 years. They stand large—as high as 80 feet tall and weighing up to nearly 5,000 pounds. There are 1.6 million Saguaro cactus decorating the desert flat, ridges, and skyline—1.6 million reasons to visit this beautiful park near Tucson. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know? 

The state flower of Arizona is the saguaro cactus bloom.

The saguaro cactus bares fibrous fruit that looks like small red flowers. It is said to be crunchy and taste sweet. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tohono O’odham Nation of American Indians lived in the region for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham translates to “Desert People.”

More than 1,162 species of plants can be found in the park.

Worth Pondering…

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

Snowbirding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

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

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

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

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Along Bush Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

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

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

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Every destination has a story, no matter how small

When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

Good for What Ages You: Palm Springs

Whether its golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, shopping, or hiking, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise

Palm Springs is one of those places that looks awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year. And the weather is not its only calling card. 

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley, you can camp for the winter in luxurious RV resorts that offer all sorts of amenities. Known for Olympic sized pools, tennis courts, and over one hundred world-class golf courses within 40 miles, this is truly upscale RV camping.

El Paseo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two weekly markets that are more than just shopping trips, they are events. On Thursday evenings, Palm Canyon Drive turns into Villagefest, a street fair with fragrant food stands, local and imported crafts, and tantalizing fresh produce. Live music accompanies you as you stroll past the many stalls.

Starting at 7:00 am, Saturday and Sunday mornings, the College of the Desert in Palm Desert hosts another street fair.

El Paseo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mile-long strip, El Paseo features locally owned boutiques; top international retailers such as St. John, Gucci, and Burberry; brilliant fun and fine jewelry; eclectic artworks; sleek and sophisticated home décor; and professional services including day spas, and interior design know-how. With so much to do and see, it’s easy to pass an entire day on El Paseo.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cactus, and other plants. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.

Nine campgrounds and three visitor centers are available for park visitors, as well as a number of well-marked short walks with informative signage.

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in the scenic hills of Desert Hot Springs, a Hopi-inspired pueblo sits against a hillside. Not just any pueblo, but one built with natural materials collected throughout the desert. When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day. Cabot’s pueblo spreads an impressive 5,000 square feet, divided into 35 rooms and adorned with 150 windows and 65 doors. What a sight it is to see!

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the structure’s architecture is a unique sight to behold, there’s more to see here than Cabot’s Hopi-style pueblo. Inside, the house has been turned into a museum with rooms filled with Indian artifacts, artwork, and memorabilia. One not to be missed artifact is Waokiye, a 43-foot sculpture of a Native American head.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled at the feet of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is the Old West just minutes from the desert cities. One of the area’s most beautiful attractions especially if you like to hike, the Preserve is a natural refuge where visitors can discover rare and wonderful wildlife species. Enjoy some of the 20,000+ acres of desert wilderness and over 25 miles of hiking trails, most of which are well marked.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By a quirk of nature there’s water here, too, but it doesn’t usually come in the form of rain. The Preserve is bisected by the San Andreas fault, and this natural phenomenon results in a series of springs and seeps which support plants and animals which couldn’t otherwise live in this harsh environment.

Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete your journey by letting the Palm Springs Aerial Tram do the climbing, 6,000 feet of it. Along the way a wondrous panorama of the desert lands stretches below and beyond. From Mountain Station at the top, there are short nature hikes or longer trails of varying lengths. Be sure to bring a warm jacket as the temperature difference is dramatic at this elevation and snow is not uncommon.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dennis Franz

Most Breathtaking Deserts to Explore in Winter

These deserts are even more stunning in winter

Desert regions might conjure up images of soaring temperatures, rolling sand dunes, and prickly cacti. And while these areas can be excruciatingly hot during the summer, they transform in the winter with falling temperatures, serene landscapes, and even, on occasion, powdery snow.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One benefit of winter travel is you’ll usually experience fewer crowds. Winter light can be harsh for photography but it can also create incredible shadows and sunrises and sunsets you just don’t find during the summer months. Depending on the rainfall and temperatures, the latter part of winter may signal impressive spring wildflowers.

From California to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, these eight desert areas are beautiful to explore in winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter brings cooler days, around 60 degrees and freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations. With the right timing, it doesn’t get more magical than seeing freshly fallen flakes gracing the smoothly rounded boulders that seem straight out of The Flintstones and the Joshua trees that look like something from an alien planet. Don’t miss other highlights of Joshua Tree including the fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). These trees are some of the tallest palms native to North America and can live around 80 or 90 years.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Organ Pipe is where “summer spends the winter” with warm days (60s) and chilly nights (40s) common from late fall to early spring. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico is one of our favorite winter road trip destinations and Santa Fe is one reason why. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax. As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise. Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, once an inland sea and now a desert area with abundant artesian wells. An escape from winter’s chill and snow, it is also a destination filled with numerous places to visit and things to do.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Indian Canyons are one of the most beautiful attractions for any Palm Springs visitor, especially if you love to hike. There are so many great trails to choose from—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours. Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs.

Rio Grande River and Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm along the Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size and geographic diversity this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week or more with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend receives very little precipitation as storm systems are blocked by the mountain ranges that surround it. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should prepare for a variety of conditions. Air temperature changes by five degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation change; temperatures in the high Chisos Mountains can be 20+ degrees cooler than temperatures along the Rio Grande. Be prepared for this kind of variation during your trip. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

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

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California with just over 640,000 acres. There are over 10,000 years of human history recorded here including Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. Winter is a popular time to visit Borrego Valley as it’s sunny and warm. When you have sufficient winter rain, spring wildflowers begin to show as early as February. Hiking and mountain biking are popular in the canyon washes and over the ridges of red desert rock.

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

Winter also sees the visitor center open daily. The visitor center is an experience in itself as it was built with the environment in mind. It was built underground and has a landscaped roof topped with plants, native soil, and rocks. You can reserve camping sites in the park which has 175 developed sites, eight primitive campgrounds, and plenty of options for dispersed camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

The red rock expanse of Southern Utah is stunning in all seasons, but winter is unique. Arches is one of the most beautiful national parks to visit in winter (seriously!). The quietness of the park is perfect for those hoping to photograph the beauty of Arches in winter. Yes, it does snow in Arches National Park although not often. When it does snow, it tends to be a light covering that melts fairly quickly. If you’re timing is right, you will be able to see the arches and fins covered in snow creating a unique landscape where the orangey-brown rock contrasts beautifully with the white snow. And wherever you roam, you find few other travelers and plenty of peace and solitude.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Located in Arizona’s high desert under the towering southwestern rim of the vast Colorado Plateau, Sedona is blessed with four mild seasons marked by abundant sunshine and clean air. Almost the entire world knows that Sedona, strategically situated at the mouth of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, is a unique place. Characterized by massive red-rock formations, as well as the contrasting riparian areas of Oak Creek Canyon, the area surrounding this beloved community is at least as beautiful as many national parks.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the winter months, Sedona transforms into a dazzling wonderland with light dustings of snow and millions of twinkling stars amidst the dark night sky. Sitting at 4,500-feet elevation, the town enjoys moderate winters. Mild temperatures during the day are perfect for hiking the famed Red Rock Country. Snow occasionally dusts the upper reaches of the surrounding mesas and mountains in a most picturesque fashion.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

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

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

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

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts

Over 4,000 different types of plants from arid regions of the world are spread across the landscape at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Spring wildflowers, autumn colors, year-round birding, two miles of scenic walking trails, a picnic area shaded by Argentine mesquite trees are all available at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

At 323 acres, this park is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden, founded in 1925 by mining magnate and philanthropist Col. William Boyce Thompson.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1917 Col. Thompson served as co-leader of a Red Cross mercy mission to Russia, where he came to understand the importance of plants as the ultimate source of a large portion of mankind’s food, clothing, and shelter. It was then that he determined to use his wealth to improve the use of plant resources. The Arboretum is one of his legacies.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Col. Thompson’s goal was to bring together plants from arid lands so that scientists and researchers could study, experiment, research, and investigate uses and attributes that made the plants unique. He also wanted the arboretum to be open to the public. By the time he died in 1930, the arboretum had already gained a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Arizona.

Picket Post House at Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thompson’s home, the 8,000-square-foot Picket Post House, is immediately adjacent to the arboretum and is easily viewed from the far end of the main trail. It was in private hands for years but in 2008, the state purchased it with Heritage Funds and it is now under park management.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arboretum features plants from the world’s deserts, towering trees, captivating cacti, sheer mountain cliffs, a streamside forest, panoramic vistas, many natural habitats with varied wildlife, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, specialty gardens and more.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cooperatively managed by the University of Arizona and Arizona State Parks, the arboretum sits at the base of the Picketpost Mountains and features a collection of 3,200 different desert plants in a unique series of botanical gardens, and a 1.5-mile main loop walking trail that roughly parallels the normally dry Silver King Wash. The main trail begins at the visitor center and quickly enters the colorful Hummingbird/Butterfly Garden, with a collection of plants designed to bloom throughout the year to attract Arizona’s diverse hummingbird and butterfly species.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 2.5-acre Demonstration Garden shows various plants in functional landscapes; an area complete with patios, walls, shade structures, vine arbors, walkways, and rockwork. Several trails branch off from the first part of the Main Trail, so you don’t have to walk far to see the highlights, and much of the trail system is wheelchair-accessible.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The historic Smith Interpretive Center, a short walk down the main trail contains botanical exhibits and displays, and two display greenhouses feature cacti and other succulents that might not otherwise survive the winter cold at this 2,400-foot elevation.

Shorter trails cut through three desert environments. Find native medicinal and edible plants in the Sonoran Desert; plants from desert landscapes in western Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Chihuahua Desert; and flora from the Cuyo, Monte, and Chaco regions of Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay in the South American Desert. Look for the bizarre boojum trees from Baja California. The two specimens were brought here from Mexico in the 1920s and are the tallest ones on display in the U.S. The tall conical plants are related to the native ocotillo.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arboretum’s Australian Walkabout, Eucalyptus forest, South African collection, and herb garden offers more specific collections, colorful wildflowers, and varied cacti.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 270 species of birds have been recorded, including Gambel’s quail, Canyon wren, and black-throated sparrows, making it a prime spot for birders. A checklist of birds is available upon request. Ayer Lake and Queen Creek on the Main Trail are good places to watch for wildlife; and you may even see endangered species such as the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish.

Queen Creek cuts through the Arboretum’s bottomlands and supports the water-loving trees that take root there including Fremont cottonwood, Arizona ash, black willow, and Arizona black walnut. Take a look at the spiny branched ocotillo, the green-stemmed Palo Verde, the thorny acacias, the low-growing mesquite, and the golden-flowered agaves.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Arboretum and have your horizons expanded as to the value and use of plants and trees from arid lands for food, shelter, and livelihood, both in the past and the present.

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

Desert Solitude: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park became California’s first desert park in 1933

Anza-Borrego was named for a Spanish explorer and an animal inhabitant. It was through Borrego Valley that Juan Bautista de Anza discovered the first land route to California. This happened five years after Father Junípero Serra had founded the first mission in San Diego.

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

In 1774 Anza led a party of explorers from Arizona south into Mexico and up along the Colorado River, then finally north across a dead sea into California and the Borrego Valley. Coyote Canyon, at the north end of the valley, provided a natural staircase over the mountains.

One of the park’s year-round residents is the desert bighorn sheep. The word “borrego” is Spanish for sheep.

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

The largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego is flanked by rugged mountains on three sides and the Salton Sea to the east. Its 650,000 acres contain spectacular desert vistas, a variety of plant and animal life, and numerous archaeological, cultural, and historic sites.

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

Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Two-thirds of Anza-Borrego remain pristine wilderness.

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

Anza-Borrego’s historical roots run deep. Within the park’s boundaries are portions of the southern route to the California gold rush, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and the Southern Emigrant Trail.

Situated northeast of San Diego and south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California. Our journey took us south of Indio on State Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on S22 (Borrego Salton Seaway) which dissects the park. A few miles down the road, we encountered thick stands of ocotillo.

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

A considerable diversity of terrain and vegetation awes the visitor. Eroded badlands sprawl at near sea-level elevation and piñon-juniper woodlands cover 6,000-foot-high mountains. The park is a fascinating nature reserve with over 1,000 species of plants amid a great diversity of terrain.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, drive northeast through the tiny town of Borrego Springs. When you first approach the visitor center you may not see anything except the sign, but look closely. The center is built into the earth—be a desert ground squirrel and burrow deeply into the attractive chambers for a bounty of desert touring information. Exhibits include a film of an actual earthquake experience as it occurred in the desert here, live pupfish, desert stones to touch, and temperature gauges.

Flora, fauna, and wildlife you might see near the visitor center are ocotillo, cholla, desert bighorn sheep, roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbits, and several species of hummingbirds.

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

At first glance, the desert can seem like an inhospitable place, which makes Anza-Borrego’s wildflower bloom seem all the more miraculous. The park’s more than 200 flowering plant species put on a brilliant display each spring—if winter rains have worked their magic.

Typically the bloom occurs between late February and April, with early March being the safest bet. Once the bloom starts, it lasts only for a few weeks.

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

Borrego Palm Canyon Trail usually has good displays of spiky ocotillo, saffron-yellow brittlebrush, and desert lavender. For a longer trek, hike about 3 miles into Hellhole Canyon and reap rewards of flowering barrel cactus and sweet-smelling lupine, plus cascading water at Maidenhair Falls.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you have a 4WD, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose along what’s commonly called Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail, a dirt road at the north end of DiGiorgio Road.

There are more stories to tell about some of the other interesting places in this area. Watch this space.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Palm Canyon Campground (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park); The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs