Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

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

A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park 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.

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

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree, but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive, with spur roads to specific attractions.

Entering the park at the south entrance off I-10, our first stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we picked up a map and park newspaper listing a number of ranger-led activities and hiking trails.

Cottonwood Springs Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Half a mile down the road we took a short walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods, all planted in the early 1900s by miners and pioneers who used this spring as their source of water. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of an even more ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life. 

We continued north along Pinto Basin Road past Smoke Tree Wash and Porcupine Wash through Fried Liver Wash and Ocotillo Patch.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cholla Cactus Garden, a few miles beyond, glowed in shades of soft, silver green. We hiked the ¼-mile loop nature walk with caution as this cactus isn’t referred to as “jumping cholla” for no reason. Just the slightest brush and a piece will imbed itself painfully into your skin. Remove carefully with a comb.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued north, the look of the desert changed and the temperature grew cooler. A roadside exhibit describes the merging of the Sonoran Desert we were leaving with the Mojave Desert beyond. The road snakes through enormous piles of monstrous boulders. Soon we were among the Joshua trees, whimsical looking plants with arms twisted in all directions.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua, pointing westward to the “promised land”.

Here in the Mojave, winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fascinating geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert region. Smooth granite monoliths and rugged canyons testify to the tectonic and erosion forces that shaped this land. Washes, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, desert varnish, igneous and metamorphic rocks interact to form a pattern of stark desert beauty.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

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

Stunningly Beautiful Places in the Southwest

The sheer variety of the Southwest makes it a fascinating and awe-inspiring place to explore

The land in the Southwest is so utterly different and strange to the East Coast of small hills, cities, and humid summers that it can feel like an entirely separate country at times.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the stereotype of the area is that it’s all barren desert—which isn’t entirely inaccurate—there’s a lot more variation and personality in the Southwest than the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would suggest.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With special attention to the reigning favorites and a few of our own sprinkled in, here are the most beautiful places in the Southwest.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the places to visit in the Southwest, Sedona may be the most beautiful. The Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive climbs 4,500 feet from Sedona, but before you begin stop at the stunning Oak Creek Vista. Along the way, you’ll see evergreens, red rocks, and wildlife. Red Rock State Park features a range of trails, from flat walks near Oak Creek to ascending paths with impressive views.

Springdale and Rockville, Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These two towns are practically in Zion National Park, which is one of the most scenic places to visit in the Southwest. Ever hiked in a river? Now’s your chance in the Narrows, a gorge surrounded by thousand-feet-tall walls. Don’t forget your camera for the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, 57 miles of mountainous magnificence. For an unforgettable journey, put it on your list immediately!

Mexican Hat, Utah

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As synonymous with cinema Westerns as John Wayne, Monument Valley embodies the westward expansion more than any other American landscape. The noble spires, dusty red and orange, jut upward toward wide-open skies, which morph into fiery swaths of color come sunset. If you’ve ever had dreams of taking to open land on horseback, this beautiful Southwest spot is a must. Be sure to stay for sunset.

Ajo, Arizona

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the Downtown Historic District, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places.

Moab, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab is known for its natural beauty and fun escapes for adventure lovers. Moab is a quick drive from two national parks and home to the most popular state park in Utah (hint: you won’t find better views anywhere). Just five miles from Moab is Arches National Park, so named due to its natural sandstone arches and rock formations. “The Island in the Sky” is an elevated piece of Canyonlands, the largest national park in Utah. Dead Horse State Park features a famous point with amazing views.

Cortez, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The southwestern Colorado town of Cortez, one of America’s richest archaeological centers, lies between the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park and Ute Mountain Tribal Park. After you visit these sites, you’ll leave steeped in the history of the Ancestral Puebloan people, from the places they lived to the tools they used in everyday life. The expertly carved cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde—from Cliff Palace to Spruce Tree house—take you back 700 years to the Ancestral Puebloans who shaped them, and have been preserved by rock that was deposited around 78 million years ago.

Twentynine Palms, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twentynine Palms is the home of Joshua Tree National Park headquarters and north entrance and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the world’s largest Marine Corps training base. The city is known for its clear skies, brilliant star-filled nights, desert and mountain vistas, wide open spaces, murals, and gateway to Mojave National Preserve.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, I could have lived anywhere in the world, if I hadn’t seen the West.

—Joyce Woodson

Oasis in the Desert: Experiencing Nature in Sabino Canyon

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon

Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many trails from which to choose, but the ones most beloved by Tucsonians are those that run through Sabino Canyon. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, Sabino has long been an oasis in the desert. In the era before air-conditioned houses and cars, people went to the canyon to cool off in the waters of Sabino Creek, or to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year more than a million visitors hike, bike, and experience nature in the canyon. And they do it all year round, because Sabino has something to offer in every season.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the exception of U.S. Forest Service vehicles, cars are not allowed in Sabino; overnight camping is prohibited, too. A tram takes visitors along a road paved by the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. There are several stops along the way, and riders can get off where they choose. At the top of the road, you can reach such popular hikes as the Blackett’s Ridge and Telephone Line trails, as well as a swimming hole called Hutch’s Pool. A number of pleasant picnic areas are scattered throughout the canyon.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the creek is shallow and allows only for wading, there’s deeper water at Sabino Dam. Located in the lower canyon, the dam is an easy hike from the parking lot, and the swimming hole it creates is a local favorite. The creek flows almost year-round, but in May and June one runs the risk of not seeing water at all.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the desert’s large creek and unique microclimate—two rainy seasons make it moister than most others—Sabino is full of diverse plants and wildlife. For as long as humans have lived in this area, the canyon has been beloved for its rugged beauty and life-giving waters.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, Sabino Creek is the largest on the south slope of the Santa Catalinas. The nearby trees provide cover for many birds. In addition to birds, one could easily see deer, javelina or even cougars. This place abounds with rodents and has more types of reptiles than you can count. Gila monsters, the largest lizards in the U.S., live in the canyon, and I suggest not touching them. They are venomous and move much faster than you’d expect.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert flora thrives here, especially the saguaros. The white flowers of these giant plants bloom in May and June. If you get the chance to smell them, the fragrance will remind you of watermelons.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And be on the lookout for the smaller, more obscure fishhook cacti, which bloom in July and August. In general, the best time to see wildflowers is March and April, though some varieties extend their bloom to October.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit, pay close attention to the weather. Expect hot, humid conditions from July to the end of September, which is also the summer rainy season; around here they call it the monsoon. Beware of flash flooding, especially in the afternoon, when the heat is at its peak.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many miles of hiking trails in this canyon, we haven’t found most of them yet.

So come see Sabino Canyon—it never disappoints.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Favorite Stops Near Sabino Canyon

After exploring the natural beauty of Sabino Canyon, check out some of our favorite places around Tucson.

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

San Xavier del Bac: Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this beautiful baroque church was completed in 1797 by Franciscan missionaries.

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

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Learn about all the mammals, birds, and native plants of the Sonoran Desert. It’s a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium all rolled into one.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park: Divided into eastern (Rincon Mountain) and western (Tucson Mountain) districts, this park is full of beautiful flora, especially in the late spring when the saguaro cacti are in bloom.

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

Mission San Xavier del Bac: White Dove of the Desert

Fondly known as the “White Dove of the Desert”, San Xavier is a striking sight

In the vast Sonoran Desert on an Indian reservation just nine miles southwest of Tucson, one would not expect to find a beautiful church. Mission San Xavier del Bac is a place, both historical and sacred, that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss.

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

Fondly known as the “White Dove of the Desert”, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. It is truly an awesome experience. The sheer size and bright color against a blue sky and the tan colors of the desert make San Xavier Mission a striking sight.

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

A treasure of southwestern history, San Xavier del Bac is an 18th century religious beacon that calls all to experience. The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space.

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

San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures, and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are actually draped in real clothing.

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

A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and is coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.

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

Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means “Desert People”. The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino established the original mission here in 1692.

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

Father Kino named the mission in honor of his chosen patron saint, St Francis Xavier. The San Xavier surname of “del Bac” means place where water appears”. Hence, its entire name: Mission San Xavier del Bac.

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

Religious control of the mission was transferred from the Jesuits to the Franciscans in 1768. Shortly thereafter, the mission was destroyed by less friendly Indian tribes. The current San Xavier Mission was rebuilt under the direction of Franciscan Fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz in 1783 and was completed in 1797, when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain.

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

No one can say with certainty who the San Xavier architect was, who provided the construction labor, or who the artisans were, but most believe most, if not all, roles were fulfilled by the Tohono O’odham Indians. However, all agree that the architecture was the most profound of the early Spanish missions and the brilliantly colorful artistic embellishments are spectacular.

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

Following Mexican independence in 1821, San Xavier became part of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan of the 19th Century departed in 1837. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the Mission became part of the United States.

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

In 1859 San Xavier became part of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1866 Tucson became an incipient diocese and regular services were held at the Mission once again. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission in 1872. Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity now teach at the school and reside in the convent.

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

Recently, Mission San Xavier became a separate nonprofit entity. It remains a testament to the endurance of culture throughout history. The church retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious needs of its parishioners. It’s a destination of Catholic pilgrimage where locals and visitors pray to Saint Francis for intercessory prayer to God.

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

Whether your interests lie in religion, history, or art, San Xavier del Bac is an attraction you don’t want to miss when visiting Tucson and Southern Arizona.

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

Located nine miles southwest of downtown Tucson, San Xavier del Bac is on San Xavier Road, just three miles southwest of Mission View RV Resort, our home base for exploring Tucson and regions south. San Xavier is open to the public 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., except during church services.

Worth Pondering…

History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.

—Mark Yost

Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

With 350 sunny days each year, Tucson is one of the sunniest cities in America. It’s also a superb desert to take in the great outdoors.

From cactus-spotting in Saguaro National Park and biking down Mount Lemmon to mountains on all four sides and southwestern sunsets that seemingly last forever, Tucson is brimming with outdoor adventures—even skiing!

Here’s what you can expect before planning your first (or next) visit.

The cactus capital of the world

Forest of saguaros © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson is known for its “friendly green giants,” a.k.a. saguaro (pronounced “suh-wah-roe”) cacti that dominate the landscape. Whether you travel to the nearby national park or not, you will encounter them everywhere you turn, and you’ll be sure to admire both their height (up to 50 feet tall) and wondrous presence.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can drive, hike, or bike among them and when seen at sunset or sunrise, they take on a timeless presence. In fact, they can live for over 200 years in ideal conditions.

Two national parks (sort of)

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the turn of the century, National Geographic endeavored to rank every national park in America. Much to the chagrin of the Grand Canyon, Saguaro National Park took the number one ranking.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why? Navigating through towering green cacti that appear alive and guardian-like is a surreal experience. You’ll never see one move, but their stature suggests they’re about ready to step across the horizon. The park is split into two districts, each with its own unique activities and topography. For more dense cacti, head to West Unit. For paved scenic drives closer to the mountains, head to Saguaro East.

Die-hard desert museum

Hawk demonstration at Arizona-Senora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to the extreme temperatures and lack of water, it takes one tough cookie to survive the Sonora Desert. That fight for survival is on full display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a 98-acre outdoor zoo, indoor aquarium, botanical garden, and natural history museum not far from the west entrance of Saguaro National Park.

Gila monster at Arizona-Senora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With two miles of designated trails, shade cover, and ice cream on site, it’s an enlightening way to soak in both state and Tucson history.

Old West sunsets

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You know those postcard photos of silhouetted cacti and palms in the foreground of a radiant pink-orange sky? That’s everyday life in Tucson with the mountains off to the west. For ideal views, head to Sabino Canyon on the northeast edge of Tucson. Simply put, the clementine and purple sunsets here are amazing—some of the best we’ve ever seen.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tram routes provide access to Sabino and Bear Canyons. Along the Sabino route riders are free to get off at one of the nine shuttle stops, do a little birding, have a picnic, or spend time along one of the many pools and cascades that grace Sabino Creek.

Magnificent hiking

Hiking at Catalina State Park northwest of Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many trails from which to choose, but the ones most beloved by Tucsonians are those that run through Sabino Canyon. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, Sabino has long been an oasis in the desert.

A striking sight

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

In the vast Sonoran Desert on an Indian reservation just nine miles southwest of Tucson, one would not expect to find a beautiful church. Mission San Xavier del Bac is a place both historical and sacred that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss. Fondly known as the “White Dove of the Desert”, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States.

Beating the heat

Driving Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the temperatures start to rise, head to Mount Lemmon which is about an hour’s drive north of downtown. From there you can enjoy 9,000 feet hiking elevations and temperatures up to 30 degrees cooler than the valley.

Mount Lemmon Ski Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In winter, you can also enjoy budget-friendly skiing at the well-rated but small Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. With nearly 200 inches of annual snowfall and regular snowstorms, you can always find fresh powder stashes and light traffic.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Tucson had opened my eyes to the world and given me… a taste for the sensory extravagance of red hot chiles and five-alarm sunsets.

—Barbara Kingsolver

Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Oases in the Sonoran Desert

When exploring Arizona, it is always an amazing experience to come upon a lake. With the desert landscape surrounding the water, the lake jumps out as the sapphire hues of the water sparkle against the rugged desert terrain.

Bartlett Lake

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, Bartlett Lake is one of those Arizona lakes. A man-made reservoir, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for “green”) River. The pristine waters of the Verde River was spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water “sweet waters”.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery, with gentle sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

Saguaro Lake

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This reservoir on the Salt River offers plenty to do. The Saguaro del Norte recreation site is near Stewart Mountain Dam and has a restaurant, picnic tables, restrooms, boat ramps, and a marina with boat rentals. Board the Desert Belle for a sightseeing cruise. A camping site with 30 spaces is accessible only by boat and is open year-round. The Arizona Game and Fish Department keeps the lake stocked with a rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and channel catfish, to name a few.

Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most scenic of the Salt River-fed lakes, Canyon abounds with the steep walls and cliffs its name suggests. The beauty more than makes up for its comparatively small size. Tuck into a secluded cove and fish for bass, trout, and many other kinds of fish, or take a leisurely cruise and marvel at the scenery.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Idyllic year-round weather makes Canyon Lake a great destination for all watersports and camping enthusiasts. When ready for a break, pick a spot along the 28 miles of shoreline and enjoy a picnic, or stop at the Lakeside Restaurant and Cantina for a casual meal.

Watson Lake

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps you prefer your water with a view. It’s hard to beat the rocky sentinels standing guard along Watson Lake. A Prescott-area gem, the Granite Dells consist of exposed bedrock and large boulders of granite that have eroded into an unusual lumpy, rippled appearance. Worn smooth by the elements, the Dells provide a scenic backdrop as you kayak or canoe along the calm surface of the lake. And when the light is right and the surface is mirror-like, it’s a photo op like no other.

Lynx Lake

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the cool pines just outside of Prescott, Lynx Lake Recreation Area offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities that includes hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, boating, and picnicking. If you’re looking for a cool, calm, and relaxing day, this small body of water offers some of the best fishing in the area.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled amid ponderosa pines and claiming temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below those in the desert, Lynx Lake holds rainbow trout, largemouth bass, crappie, and more. Even better, its waters are limited to electronic—or people-powered watercraft, perfect for fishing or napping.

Patagonia Lake

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure. The campground overlooks a 265-acre man-made lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, trout, and catfish. At an elevation of 3,750 feet and adjacent to the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, the park becomes a year-round haven with 105 campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, water, and 20/30/50-amp electric service; select sites also have a ramada. A dump station is centrally located in the park.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A paradise for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts Patagonia Lake State Park is an ideal place to find whitetail deer roaming the hills and great blue herons walking the shoreline. Hikers can stroll along the beautiful creek trail and see a variety of birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, elegant trogon, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds.

Worth Pondering…

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

—John Muir

4 Stunning Natural Features That Define Arizona

It’s not a secret that Arizona has an abundance of diverse natural features that are bursting with beauty

Few places in America offer such startling variety of natural features as Arizona. Deep canyons give way to rugged snow-capped mountains. The world’s largest contiguous forest of Ponderosa pines merges into the arid Sonoran Desert.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s head right to the state’s crown jewel, the Grand Canyon—an iconic attraction that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. It’s hard to imagine a trip to Arizona that doesn’t involve at least a peek at the Grand Canyon. This massive gorge isn’t just a geological marvel, it’s a symbol of Western adventure and American spirit. Visible from space, the canyon is close to 300 miles long and at points over a mile deep.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For decades poets and artists have tried to capture the beauty of this place. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1,900-square-mile canyon took nearly 2 billion years to make, and it was worth the wait. For starters, it’s huge—11 miles wide and one mile deep at one point.

Sonoran Desert

Sonoran Desert southeast of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you think of desert heat, cacti, and cowboys, you’re thinking of the Sonoran Desert. Washed over by silence and muted gray-green forms, southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is mesmerizing like no other landscape. But it is anything but empty. The thousands of saguaros here have stood sentinel for centuries. They don’t even start growing their iconic arms until they are about 70, and they can live more than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no better place to get lost among the saguaros and their desert buddies—fuzzy cholla and spindly ocotillo plants, fluorescent green palo verde, and mesquite trees—than in Saguaro National Park.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the Sonoran Desert, raw and unspoiled, big and bursting with color. The southwestern Arizona monument is one of the state’s most beautiful places. The 21-mile, mostly gravel Ajo Mountain Drive is wildly scenic and suitable for cars. The Estes Canyon and Bull Pasture trails form a loop along which you can see a profusion of wildflowers in spring.

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

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features all the prickly giants and creatures surviving in the Sonoran Desert. Among them: pumas, coyotes, roadrunners, desert tortoises, and javelinas.

Spring Wildflowers

Spring wildflowers at Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona in the spring is the right place at the right time. It’s when the Mexican poppies, brittle bush, globe mellows, fairydusters, chuparosas, desert marigolds, lupines, desert pincushions, and numerous other wildflowers bloom.

Spring wildflowers along Penal Parkway south of Florence © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember to bring your camera.

Click.

Mexican poppies © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the explosion of color that takes over the desert for a few weeks, part of the allure of wildflower season is how little we know about it. It’s impossible to predict when it’ll come, and it requires a “triggering rainstorm” months in advance.

Sedona’s Vortexes

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its red-rock mountains and cold creeks alone make Sedona a special place, but there’s something else at work. Sewn into the fabric of the town is the New Age vibe that brings the health-food-eating, yoga-practicing aficionados in droves. But where does that vibe come from? It’s the vortexes, duh.

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nailing down exactly what a vortex is in this context can be pretty difficult. It’s an abstract concept you might tell yourself you ‘get’ before you do, much in the same way you might tell yourself you ‘feel’ it before you do. A vortex is simply a place where natural Earth energies are strong. Many believe Sedona’s vortexes have healing or spiritually activating powers that help with everything from health to general problem-solving abilities and clear-mindedness.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if you find this idea a little too hippy-dippy, think of Sedona as a place so inspirationally beautiful you can’t help but contemplate the scientific fact that your body is made of the exact same atoms as the dirt and mountains around you.

Worth Pondering…

A saguaro can fall for a snowman but where would they set up house?

—Jodi Picoult

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Badlands, Canyons, Mountain Peaks and More

The Anza-Borrego Desert with its incredible beauty, its mystery and legends is a major lure

The park’s name was derived from that of an early Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, who came through in 1774 in search of a land route from Sonora, Mexico, to Spanish settlements along the California coast. The explorer’s name is combined with Borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep that live in the rocky hillsides of this desert.

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

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state parks in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life.

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

Early American history holds a prominent place in the Anza-Borrego story; between the years 1848 and 1880, a steady stream of California-bound travelers crossed the Anza-Borrego Desert along the Southern Immigrant Trail or by way of the Butterfield Stage Line on their way west from Missouri. This was the only all-weather road overland route across the American continent at that time. Thousands of sheep and cattle also made the arduous journey as Arizona ranchers drove their herds across the desert to feed the hungry miners in California gold fields.

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

Situated northeast of San Diego and due south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California. Our own journey took us along Interstate 10, then south on State Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on County Highway 22, which dissects the park. A few miles down the road, we encountered thick stands of ocotillo, with their graceful wands richly tipped in deep scarlet-red blossoms.

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

Driving to the state park visitor center we were momentarily confused. Walking up the trail there were no buildings in sight. Then we realized that the visitor center had been built underground with a desert garden covering it. The 7,000 square-foot building houses exhibits, a small theater, and bookstore. Park rangers were helpful in answering our queries and directing us to interesting scenic drives and hikes.

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

Later in the day we drove our four-wheel-drive dinghy up the sandy wash to Fonts Point, where the Borrego Badlands spread out to the southeast. Deep chocolate ridges twisted and turned in convoluted patterns of crumbling sandstone where thick layers of fossilized shellfish and coral told the story of an ancient sea that covered the area millions of years ago.

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

Driving southwest of Borrego Springs to Ocotillo Wells we drove south on Split Mountain Road to Split Mountain where tremendous geological pressure had rolled a sandstone cliff into a spectacular, spiral rock face. The road wound through the middle of a sandy wash, and we held our breath a couple of time when our tires started to spin in the deep sand.

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

Farther along Split Mountain Road we parked and hiked back to see rare elephant trees with their thick, stubby trunks, free-form limbs and peeling yellowish bark. Early Native Americans used the reddish-colored sap of the tree as a dye. Near the end of the road we hiked the steep but easy trail up to the wind caves which as strange sandstone formations from an ancient seabed. From there, we had a splendid view out over the Carrizo Badlands and the unique Elephant Knees formation.

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

Yet another dinghy side trip, this time following County Highway 2 took us southeast along the Old Southern Immigrant Trail as it wound in and out of the park boundary. Reaching the Blair Valley area, we pulled off and hiked the short 0.25-mile Morteros Trail to a boulder-strewn area where a Kumeyaay village stood centuries ago, leaving their story behind in the agave cooking pits and metates that are still found there. Unique pictographs tell more of their story to those who may have any idea how to decipher them.

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

The Anza-Borrego Desert with its incredible beauty, its mystery and legends is quite a lure. And there’s so much more to discover on our next visit.

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

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

The Old Pueblo: Tucson

The Old Pueblo has attracted visitors for centuries

First occupied by ancient Paleo-Indians as far back as 12,000 years ago, Tucson, known as the Old Pueblo, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in America.

The ancients were followed by the Hohokam, then the Pima and Tohono ‘O’odham tribes. Next came the Spanish in search of gold. Missionaries followed in the early 1600s in search of natives to convert to Christianity.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tucson dates its official beginning to 1775 when an Irishman named Hugh O’Connor established the Presidio de San Agustin near present-day downtown Tucson. And then in 1854, the Gadsden Purchase brought Tucson under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Today, snowbirds flock to Tucson. In late fall, when cold weather begins to settle across most of the nation, RVs in all sizes and vintages roll into Tucson. Drawn by the warm winter sun and the beautiful Sonoran Desert, these snowbirds become an active and vital part of the Tucson culture.

Tucson from the Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tucson is diverse in its geography as well as its history. While the area is well-known for its abundant saguaro cacti, a drive to the top of nearby Mount Lemmon offers a snow-covered peak with a pine forest and the southernmost ski area in the U.S.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Arizona’s second-largest city is surrounded by five mountain ranges. The colorful landscape, rich history, and pleasant winter temperatures draw us to Tucson.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Having visited Tucson on numerous occasions, we have set up camp at a variety of area RV parks and campgrounds that include Tucson Lazydays KOA, Valley of the Sun RV Resort, Desert Trails RV Park, Catalina State Park, and Mission View RV Resort.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The giant saguaro cacti grows nowhere else. Growing very slowly, it may take 50 years or more for branching to begin. These symbols of the Southwest have lent their name to Saguaro National Park, its two units bracketing Tucson on the east and the west.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

North of Saguaro Park’s East Unit and part of Coronado National Forest, Sabino Canyon is a popular recreation area. Carved into the Santa Catalina Mountains by its namesake stream, the canyon is a desert oasis supporting riparian habitat including willow, ash, oak, and Arizona sycamore. A paved road runs 3.8 miles into the canyon, crossing nine stone bridges over Sabino Creek. It begins at an altitude of 2,800 feet and rises to 3,300 feet at its end.

Mission San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Sabino Canyon Tours offers two tram routes that provide access to Sabino and Bear Canyons. Along both routes riders are free to get off at any of the stops along the way. Sabino Canyon tram is a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8 mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trams have nine stops along the tour with several restroom facilities and picnic grounds located near Sabino Creek

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends who starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is just a few miles past Old Tucson. “Museum” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s as much zoo and botanical garden as it is natural history museum. About 85 percent of the museum is outdoors, with exhibits re-creating the natural landscape. Native plants and animals, including American black bears, mountain lions and endangered Mexican wolves, roam in enclosed desert habitats. The Earth Sciences Center houses a fascinating collection of minerals from the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona, Sonora and Baja, California. The cool air in the center’s artificial cave offers a welcome respite from the warm desert temperatures.

Mission View RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is a magnificent building that blends Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance architecture. In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Standing in the plaza, I could imagine generations of baptisms, marriages, and funerals being performed there.

Western Way RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.