The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

A sea of towering columnar saguaro cacti stretches out before you like a brigade of soldiers guarding the desert landscape. Formidable with their spiny armor, it’s hard to imagine America’s largest cactus is the species that needs safeguarding.

Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, this enduring symbol of the Southwest which requires just the right amount of heat and moisture to survive faces threats such as invasive species. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro (pronounced Sa-WAH-ro) cacti to thrive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These desert monarchs can grow upwards of 60 feet tall, weigh more than two tons, and live for two centuries. But while they’re certainly the park’s stars they’re far from the only reason it attracts more than a million visitors annually. For one thing, there are 24 other cactus species ranging from the fuzzy-looking teddy bear cholla to the pancake-shaped Engelmann’s prickly pear.

Despite the harsh desert environment an abundance of flora and fauna flourish here including such native species as the roadrunner, horned lizard, kangaroo rat, and the prehistoric-looking Gila monster. At the park’s higher elevations topping out at 8,666 feet, you’ll find oak woodland and pine forests that are home to black bears and the elusive coati which resembles a raccoon.

Saguaro National Park’s two distinct districts—the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District—are separated by the city of Tucson. The western district is lower in elevation, has denser patches of saguaro, and is known for its iconic Southwest landscape. The eastern section larger and more mountainous contains six biotic zones and 6,000 plant species and it’s second in biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Herbert Hoover established the area as a national monument in 1933 and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laid the groundwork for tourism by building walking paths and installing picnic benches and visitor shelters. It wasn’t until 1994 that the area earned national park status.

Today the park’s proximity to Tucson combined with recently installed handicap-friendly amenities ranging from paved walking paths to picnic tables with overhanging ends for wheelchair access makes it one of the nation’s most accessible national parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

Approximately 30 miles apart, Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western districts hug Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city with a population of 541,482. From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes. The western district gets twice as many visitors as the eastern district thanks in large part to its proximity to the bucket-list Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see below).

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

Each district has its own visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both offer accessibility features including designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved paths, and captioned orientation programs. Both also have bookstores, information centers, and water-filling stations.

The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon of water per day and during hot summer months at least one quart per hour when hiking. Be sure to have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pack with clothing layers since it can get cold at higher elevations. Neither visitor center has Wi-Fi and cellphone service is spotty throughout the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center (also called the West District Visitor Center) hosts a daily educational program on the Native American perspective on the saguaro that’s well worth the time.

The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (the East District Visitor Center) serves as the starting point for the scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8-mile, cacti-lined road that you can drive or bike. To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead with parking is about 2 miles along the drive and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to explore the western district’s foothills providing plenty of photo ops at pullouts and picnic areas plus access to trailheads. Although the 6-mile loop is unpaved you certainly don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It begins at Hohokam Road, a mile and a half west of the visitor center.

Since the park has no concessions pack a picnic lunch. Six picnic areas are accessible by vehicle—two in Saguaro East and four in Saguaro West—and each has a charcoal grill, a wheelchair-accessible pit toilet, and paved ground surfaces.

Saguaro is open daily except for Christmas Day. Annual visitation would almost certainly be higher if the summer months weren’t unbearably hot with triple-digit daytime temperatures. If you do visit in the summer, plan activities for early morning or the end of the day. This may be the desert but June 15 through September 30 is monsoon season so expect severe afternoon thunderstorms and even flash floods.

Cool temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the mid-70s make November to March prime time to visit.

And in spring—specifically the last two weeks of April through the first week of June—the park is a photographer’s paradise with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia, and canary yellow. June is a favorite time in the park. The flowers are usually at their peak. It’s an amazing sight to see but this isn’t the time of month to hike. Take in the blooms on a scenic drive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park or even camping options in the park’s western section. To experience the desert, reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night) which can be accessed only on foot and require a base level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains is a tough uphill day hike but worth the effort. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day. It’s a unique ecosystem up there.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the Douglas Spring Trail or the Arizona Trail both of which have campgrounds along the way if you prefer to break the trek up into two days. The original Manning cabin built in 1905 now hosts trail crews and researchers, and from April through September a ranger is stationed here. The six tent sites are nestled in a conifer forest at nearly 8,000 feet and temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees—a welcome relief from the valley floor’s sweltering heat. A waterfall fed from a large pond makes this one of the rare sites with a reliable water source.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night) plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

RV parks ranging from luxury resorts to the basic are less than a 30-minute drive away in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, Saguaro National Park offers treks for visitors of all abilities. No matter your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and pack plenty of water. And remember, those photogenic cacti are covered in spines so keep to the trail to avoid getting pricked.

For an easy stroll that doubles as an intro to the desert ecosystem walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the Cactus Forest Drive in the East District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West. Both paved trails include resting benches and interpretive exhibits on the park’s plants and animals.

The 0.7-mile Mica View Trail in the east which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot was recently flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and support wheelchairs. On this hike, you’ll likely glimpse Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers in their saguaro nest holes and you’ll take in views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

If you want to challenge yourself, try the eastern district’s Tanque Verde Ridge Trail by the Javelina Picnic Area off of the Cactus Loop Drive. The strenuous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet of elevation and passes through all six of the area’s biotic zones.

On the west side, access the King Canyon trailhead outside of the park off of Kinney Road and zigzag up to the summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountain Range. Approximately 7 miles round trip with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock walls carved with ancient petroglyphs and an old stone miner’s hut.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

In this, one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, take your pick of four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop next to the East District Visitor Center runs for eight miles on a paved, rolling road that you’ll share with vehicles. On the park’s west side, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off of Kinney Road, a gravel path passes a giant forest of saguaros.

Watch the sunset

The desert sunset may rival the saguaros as the park’s most Instagrammed natural wonder. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns a brilliant red that paints the sky in pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easy-to-access Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West District, catch sunset views through a forest of saguaros. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive remains open until 8 p.m. giving you plenty of time to pull off and savor sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook near the loop’s end.

Learn

Rangers typically lead four to six different daily talks and interpretive tours that explore topics including desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators such as the mountain lion. Both park visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Also, both districts co-host monthly stargazing nights with a local astronomy group. Participants must sign up in advance.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs including spirals and squiggly lines as well as drawings of animals, humans, and astrological objects have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park.

The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail which starts at the Signal Hill picnic area off of Hohokam Road in the West District. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

Tucson is flanked on either side by Saguaro’s western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson owns bragging rights to being one of America’s most bike-friendly cities as well as having America’s first and only UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

On the Loop, a network of 131 miles of paved bicycle paths you can access Saguaro National Park as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s go-to bike shops.

For a hearty breakfast before hitting the park, head to Prep & Pastry’s east side location on Grant Avenue and order the oven-roasted sweet potato hash and breakfast sandwich with avocado. After working up an appetite biking or hiking in the park reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and a braised lamb tostada at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails run by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican eatery in the heart of downtown for the best happy hour in town: two tacos for $5 and $5 sangria.

Two not-to-miss open-air shopping centers anchor downtown’s hip Mercado District on the west end of the city’s modern streetcar line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. At the latter, a collection of 10 indie businesses housed in repurposed shipping containers pick up nostalgic Saguaro National Park-inspired gear at Why I Love Where I Live and home goods crafted by local artisans at Mesa.

The burgeoning town of Marana, an alternate gateway to the West District is located about 15 miles north of the visitor center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café and stop by Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft ales brewed with local ingredients such as prickly pear fruit and mesquite flour.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

Located down the road from the West District Visitor Center, the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the state’s second-most-visited attraction behind the world-famous Grand Canyon. Part natural history museum, part desert botanical garden, and part zoo, this 98-acre, indoor-outdoor attraction showcases more than 55,000 plants from 1,200 native species along 2 miles of gravel and paved trails.

View native animals such as coyotes, raptors, hummingbirds, ocelots, and piglike javelinas in re-created habitats. Learn about the area’s geology in the Earth Sciences Center and view nature-inspired exhibits throughout the year at two on-site art galleries.

Geology fans detour to 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 15-minute drive southeast of Tucson in the community of Vail to explore its extensive underground cave network. One of North America’s largest dry caves it took more than two years to map the 2 miles of passageways open to visitors.

Guided tours, which range from 40 minutes to 3.5 hours, require a decent fitness level, as you’ll be descending 350-plus stairs, scrambling down ladders, and crossing rock bridges to view stalactites and stalagmites sculpted throughout millions of years.

Back above ground, you can mount a horse at the park’s La Posta Quemada Ranch for a guided trail ride.

If you’re a fan of art and history, visit the village of Tubac, 40 miles south of Tucson. Established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, Tubac has emerged as a destination for artists with top-notch galleries and studios. For tasteful souvenirs, this is your one-stop shop for turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo blankets, and mesquite furnishings. 

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park, less than a 10-minute drive from the village explores the region’s Spanish colonial past. The expansive grounds include a museum, the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, and the state’s second-oldest church.

Saguaro National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

Entry fee: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass including all passengers; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)

Best way to see the park: On foot or by bike along the Bajada Loop Drive or the Cactus Forest Loop

When to go: Winter and spring

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

Carefree: An Idyllic Arizona Community with Hiking, Biking, and a Thriving Arts Scene

Now a hub for wellness, shopping, and outdoor adventure, Carefree, Arizona, was once a 400-acre goat farm

North of Phoenix and Scottsdale there is a small community that feels almost too good to be true. The town of under 4,000 people was once a 400-acre goat farm that the founders bought for $44,000 in 1955. Their vision was to start a community with an easygoing, airy vibe—so they named the plot of land Carefree.

Today, Carefree has the feel of a small town but is close to northern Scottsdale and less than an hour from downtown Phoenix. Because it sits at the edge of the urban area it’s easy to head north into the Sonoran Desert which has abundant hiking and camping

And while Carefree’s location is one of its standout qualities, the town itself offers a unique feel that draws visitors year after year. Its home to the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere and has a desert garden in the downtown area. There’s plenty of shopping, great food, and an undeniable artist vibe, too.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip to Carefree including what to do, where to stay, and when to go.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Carefree

Spending time in downtown Carefree is a must. There are shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore but the area’s biggest draw is the four-acre desert botanical garden marked with a huge sundial—one of the world’s largest.

Once you’ve got the lay of the land, head to the surrounding hills for hiking, trail running, and biking. The desert landscape of the neighboring Cave Creek Regional Park is covered in hiking paths, picnic spots, and campsites. Most weekends, there’s a bird tour, fitness hike, or wildflower walk scheduled. The 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.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground consists of 55 campsites for tent or 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 clean restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost.

Four miles north of town, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers a similar cactus-covered landscape with seven miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, and people on horseback. Park trails range in length from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

One of the last remaining year-round spring-fed streams in Cave Creek flows through Spur Cross. Its banks are covered with plants and trees including mesquite, cottonwoods, and willows. Abundant water and plant life make this a home to many species of animals including javelina, mule deer, and coyotes. Over 80 species of birds have been observed in this habitat, per Audubon bird counts. Beyond the banks of the stream lies one of the region’s densest stands of saguaro cactus.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park contains nearly 90 archaeological sites used by the Hohokam Indians between 700-1200 A.D. Hohokam petroglyphs dot the area. Both the Hopi and the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian communities have identified the Spur Cross Ranch as a sacred place.​

Meanwhile, 12 miles to the southeast, Brown’s Ranch Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is known for its unique rock features including the impossible-looking Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock. This trailhead features interpretive exhibits about the human history of the Preserve and serves as the major access point to the vast network of trails in the area. It provides access to such unique destinations as Granite Mountain, Cholla Mountain, and Brown’s Mountain as well as the before-mentioned Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains 20 miles east of Carefree, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for green) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water sweet waters. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there.

If hiking and biking are not your thing, spend some time exploring the shops and galleries of Carefree. Start your day at the historic Spanish Village which is both one of Carefree’s oldest buildings and the community’s arts and culture hub. Inside the beautiful white stucco gates, you’ll find gems like the Desert Moon Market, an eclectic collection of women’s clothing, jewelry, home goods, and gifts, and the Grace Renee Gallery which showcases contemporary paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and jewelry. You also won’t want to miss a visit to the M & E Stoyanov Fine Art Gallery in downtown Carefree or The Lazy Lizard which sells a mix of new and used home furnishings.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to stay in Carefree

The above-mentioned Cave Creek Regional Park offers a clean and quiet family campground set among Saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and cholla cactus. The park includes 2,922 acres with a visitor center, several hiking trails, equestrian trails, and various programs throughout the year.

The campground has 59 campsites all with electricity and water. Campsites 1-38 are larger campsites and also have paved parking pads. Campsites 30-55 (and E, F, G, H) are smaller and have gravel parking pads. Sites 10 and 20 have horse corrals. Each campsite also has a table, fire ring, and grill. Campground amenities include flush toilets, hot showers, a picnic area, and a dump station. Cell service is good.

Like Scottsdale, Carefree has become a hub for wellness seekers looking to reset and relax in the open desert atmosphere. Civana, a wellness resort and spa to the east of Carefree has been a top destination for many. Guests get access to more than 10 daily complimentary classes—from a desert hike to aerial yoga—and a spa with a hydrotherapy thermal circuit of hot and cold pools.

Just to the south of Carefree in Scottsdale is a property that’s worth a mention. The Boulders Resort & Spa has long been recognized for its 33,000-square-foot spa, two golf courses, six dining options, four outdoor pools, and a location at the foot of an eye-catching rock formation.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to eat in Carefree

For such a small town, there’s a surprisingly large selection of cafes, restaurants, and bars in Carefree. It’s all about healthy eats with big flavor at Confluence, a well-loved restaurant with open-air patio seating and a standout tasting menu—you can choose from four, five, or seven courses.

Those looking to fill up on protein following a long day on the trails should head to Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse which has a meat-heavy menu and a rooftop deck designed for post-meal stargazing. Meanwhile, for an entirely different feel, book a table at the English Rose Tea Room which serves tea-time ready fare (think quiches, sandwiches, soups, and salads) in a beautiful, floral-laden tearoom with crystal chandeliers.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Carefree

Although Carefree tends to be cooler than Phoenix, it’s still super hot in the summer with the average temperature in June, July, and August in the triple digits. The best time to visit is easily the spring before the heat of summer sets in and in the fall when the weather cools down. Those looking for cooler weather should come during the winter when the average monthly temperature is in the mid-60s.

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

10 Amazing Places to RV in January 2024

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in January

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

—Susan Sontag

For many people, New Year’s Day is a time to set a goal or resolution for the coming year. But for writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag, a prayer was a more fitting mantra for January 1.

This poignant quote, published in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, a collection of Sontag’s journals and diaries written between 1964 and 1980, captures a sense of yearning for courage to face the unknown. It’s an honest and vulnerable feeling anyone can relate to seeking the bravery and strength to press on.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in November and December. Also, check out my recommendations from January 2023 and February 2023.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Best sea breeze

The stately branches of the Big Tree, one of the largest live oaks on the globe, have stood watch over Goose Island State Park, near Rockport, Texas for more than a thousand years. Generations of Texas kids have learned to fish from the pier here which stretches over the water for more than 1,600 feet. Whooping cranes snack on crabs and berries nearby in the winter and the sound of waves crashing on the shore will lull you to sleep in the beachside campground.

Related:

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. A desert oasis

About a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, a charming desert city enjoys warm winter temperatures and is home to golf courses, spas, casinos, and nearby hot springs. Trendy restaurants, boutique hotels, resorts, and elegant shops offer something for everyone—and there are options if you prefer outdoor pursuits, too.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway provides spectacular views en route to the snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains, while Joshua Tree National Park (located about an hour away) boasts extraordinary rock formations, cacti, and starry night skies.

Related:

Sarasota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Where the water is warm and the seafood is fresh

Thousands of snowbirds flock to Sarasota every winter and with temperatures in the 70s, white-sand beaches, and a thriving cultural scene it’s easy to see why. Travelers of any age will relish the chance to gather seashells or splash in the warm Gulf waters, while, in town, a wide array of shops and galleries offer hours of browsing. Other highlights include the city’s extensive collection of midcentury modern architecture and The Ringling complex which boasts an impressive art museum and a museum of circus history, among other attractions.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. So memorable. So Padre.

With temperatures in the 60s, winter is a pleasant season on this small barrier island off the southern Texas coast. The area is a haven for nature lovers with outdoor attractions like the Laguna Madre Nature Trail and the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary which includes a five-story viewing tower. 

The Original Dolphin Watch and Breakaway Cruises offer dolphin tours while Sea Turtle Inc. runs a turtle rescue and rehab center where visitors can get up close to the critters year-round. Boating, fishing, and kiteboarding are popular activities as well and you’ll find plenty of fresh local seafood including oysters, red snapper, and flounder.

Related: Barrier Islands Hopping

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Lost Dutchman State Park

Lost Dutchman State Park sits just east of Apache Junction within a stunning Sonoran Desert setting at the base of the Superstition Mountains. As the closest state park to the Phoenix metro area, Lost Dutchman is the perfect destination for anyone interested in a quick, relaxing escape from the bustling city. A short drive from anywhere in Phoenix will place you on the doorstep of an epic desert adventure…just outside of town!

The saguaro-studded landscape and the trails that traverse it offer limitless opportunities for hiking and exploring this park and adjacent Tonto National Forest. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a relaxing stroll through the foothills or a physically demanding trek into the Superstitions in search of a breathtaking view, you’ll find what you’re looking for amid this extensive trail network.

Need more time to explore? Visitors can enjoy an extended stay in a cozy cabin or the spacious tent and RV campgrounds—both of which include picturesque views, quick access to trails, and great potential to encounter native birds and wildlife.

A variety of educational and interpretive events are available for anyone who wants to take their love and understanding of Arizona’s outdoor spaces to the next level. Go on a guided bird walk, enjoy a musical performance, or discover the park at night on a guided Full Moon hike or Star Party.

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Bay St. Louis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Secret Coast

Boasting a population of about 11,200, Bay St.Louis sits just 51 miles from New Orleans on a stretch of beauty called Mississippi’s Secret Coast. To kickstart your day, probably with something scrumptious, Mockingbird Cafe has outdoor seating where one can enjoy full-flavored coffee amid ocean breezes and fantastic ambiance. After this energy boost, one will want to head to South Beach Boulevard, the site of the town’s dog-friendly beaches.

For avid anglers, however, Jimmy Rutherford Fishing Pier is known for excellent all-season trout fishing and is a beautiful spot to cast a line. If you want to stay in a place that overlooks the marina and where you can enjoy sunrise on the porch, Bay Town Inn might be your best bet.

Related: Bay St. Louis: A Place Apart

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Port A

Boasting a population of just about 3,400 residents, Port Aransas is a sleepy fishing village that has served as a nostalgic winter getaway for decades. Port A, as locals call this Texas charmer hosts the non-profit Amos Rehabilitation Keep—whose mission is to rescue and rehabilitate sick or injured birds, turtles, and tortoises found along the South Texas coast before returning them to their native habitat. A visit here may reward you with the sight of the Kemp’s Ridley, the rarest and most endangered sea turtle in the world.

Minutes from town, Mustang Island State Park features beautiful dunes and a large array of wildlife, including deer, sea turtles, and 400 different bird species. For staying, one may opt for Cinnamon Shore, a welcoming beach community where families plot adventures and make long-lasting memories.

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Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Wettest desert

Deserts are normally known for being extremely dry but the Sonoran Desert in Arizona holds the record for the world’s wettest desert. The Sonoran Desert reaches daytime temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit but the heat is mitigated to some degree by its 4.7 to 11.8 inches of annual rainfall.

This desert has two distinct wet seasons, one from December to March and another from July to September. The former season usually features light rainfall fueled by storms coming from the northern Pacific Ocean whereas the latter wet season is known for its more violent and localized thunderstorms. Given its lusher than normal desert terrain, the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where the saguaro cactus grows in the wild.

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Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Landscape of sacred symbols

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

Petroglyphs are rock carvings (rock paintings are called pictographs) made by pecking directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammerstone. When the desert varnish (or patina) on the surface of the rock was chipped off, the lighter rock underneath was exposed creating the petroglyph. Archaeologists have estimated there may be over 25,000 petroglyph images along the 17 miles of escarpment within the monument boundary.

Related: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Lake Martin

Located in the heart of Acadian Louisiana, Lake Martin (formerly known as Lake la Pointe) is a naturally occurring open body of water within a cypress-tupelo swamp. Historically, each fall and winter this low area would fill with rainwater and backwater from the Vermilion River and Bayou Teche. It would drain gradually through the spring and become essentially dry in summer.

In the early 1950s, private landowners and a local agency agreed to construct a five-mile levee around the lake and forested areas to hold water throughout the year. The impounded area within the levee was designated as a fish and game preserve open for public recreation.

Today Lake Martin is approximately 765 acres with about 200 acres of open water and the rest a permanently-flooded cypress-tupelo swamp.

Related: Lake Martin: An Accessible Louisiana Swamp and Rookery

Worth Pondering…

Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one.

—Brad Paisley

The Unique (and Surprisingly Wet) Biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert

In Arizona, the country’s most diverse desert teems with kaleidoscopic spring flowers, charming desert tortoises, and the famous saguaro cactus

The Sonoran Desert is something of an anomaly; it gets a surprising amount of rain each year, usually between 10 and 12 inches in its wettest areas. The Desert’s roughly 100,000 square miles stretch from the southern reaches of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the heart of Arizona where its biodiversity flourishes. The Sonoran Desert is thought to be the most biologically diverse in North America with over 2,000 species of plant and over 550 species of animal.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much of this biodiversity comes from that rain which falls more heavily in Arizona than it does in the drier southern and western regions making it the best place to experience the region’s abundance. The seasons of the Sonoran desert include two rainy seasons: wet summer (July to mid-September) and winter (December to February). December rains bring an always-changing permutation of spring flowers and summer rains bring lush fall vegetation. The expansive, verdant plant life also supports the wide array of animals that live in the desert from desert tortoises to the ever-popular roadrunner (yes, like the one in Looney Tunes).

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Notably, the Sonoran desert is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows natively. Tree-like, they grow up to 40 feet tall with arms that reach up to the sky like a friend waving to you. Imagine a clip-art cactus in three dimensions: you’re likely picturing a saguaro.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro has tremendous cultural value and it’s fascinating biologically. It’s the tallest plant in the Sonoran and can live for upwards of 200 years though it grows at a glacial pace: a one-inch-tall cactus might be ten years old one that has reached a foot tall might be hitting the ripe age of 20. It begins reproducing at 50 or 70 years old and has long been an important food plant to the Tohono O’odham people who have lived in the area for thousands of years; its bright-fuschia fruit is incredibly nutritious.

>> Related article: Snowbirding in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

Saguaro cactus in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro and its other cactus brethren like the fuzzy, coral-shaped cholla cactus and the stout Southwestern Barrel have their own seasons. They begin to bloom in late April and early May when birds begin to nest in the saguaros’ sky-high flowers. (Other birds perch on its arms year-round; woodpeckers often peck holes into its flesh.) The fruit ripens in July when their buds pop for nearby birds to graze on. The fruit not gobbled up by birds or harvested by local humans falls to the ground becoming food for those humble animals that cannot fly like tortoises, deer, foxes, and the pig-like javelina.

A landscape of saguaros is just so stunning.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Saguaro also develops important relationships with other plants. Take the Palo Verde, Mesquite, and Ironwood trees which serve as nurse trees to the saguaro while it grows. When the saguaro is still tiny, it can’t store very much water and it’s very susceptible to drought. The trees protect them from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. There’s a lot going on underground in the desert—it’s hot above ground and so a lot of the action is in the roots. When it rains, plants compete over who can soak up the limited water available to their roots.

Desert tortoise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Animals also spend a lot of time below ground often retreating to burrows or caves during the hottest part of the days and the coldest part of the nights. Just about every animal goes underground in one way or another. Desert tortoises, for example, are only active a small part of their lives—most of the time they’re tucked underground in deep burrows where humidity and temperature are more constant.

>> Related article: What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like cacti, Desert Tortoises are experts at storing water—so much so that they’ve earned the nickname of walking saguaros. When they hear the rains come, they emerge from their burrows and find flat stretches of rock where they can hoover the rain directly through their noses. Once rehydrated, they expel waste they’ve been carrying around since the last rain and the cycle begins again.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locals also anticipate the rains as well as the changing seasons of the desert and the benchmarks they promise: cactus flowers in spring, rains to break the scalding summer heat, and wildflowers coloring the landscape like a confetti bomb. Unlike the rest of the country, the Sonoran desert has five, not four, annual seasons: spring, hot summer, wet summer, fall, and winter. Each has its charms, and its natural wonders, to explore.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter (November to January)

Winter in Arizona’s desert is quiet and temperate during the days with much colder nights. Many animals make themselves scarce during this time. Even if they’re not technically hibernating, they go dormant. You’re unlikely to see lizards, snakes, and tortoises in the winter months; mammals that are more nocturnal during summer months are more day-active in the winter changing their habits to take advantage of the most pleasant times of day.

>> Related article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Winter is also a wet season though erratically so. The winter rains are less predictable as they are tied to long-term weather patterns coming off the Pacific Ocean.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring (February to Mid-April)

Warmer days arrive in spring as does the possibility of floral abundance. I continue to be surprised by the variability in the spring blooms of Arizona. In the North, spring comes and the seeds germinate—it’s pretty predictable— while in the desert germination is a combination of temperature and precipitation. Some seeds, for example, will only germinate when there’s a rain event in the fall where it’s not as cold as winter. The years when there’s explosive, beautiful flower blooms in the spring are quite often the result of fall rain. If significant rains don’t fall until winter, the spring flowers will likely be different from those that bloom after fall rains. And if the winter and spring are both wet, flowers about in March.

Sonoran Desert in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dry summer (Mid April to Mid July)

By mid April, winter visitors are leaving because it’s starting to get pretty warm. Temperatures in June and July can easily reach 100 degrees. It’s a dry heat—the region’s driest months—but it can still be incredibly overwhelming during the day with relief coming at night. Certain plants like the desert zinnia will go dormant during dry periods, the way that snakes will go dormant in the winter. It is important to avoid hiking during the day in these months.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wet summer (July to Mid September)

In the dry summer everybody looks forward to the summer rains. They often arrive very dramatically in July—the clouds will begin to build up and eventually explode into energetic thunderstorms where a lot of rain can fall in short periods of time. While it also increases the humidity during the hot months the afternoon cloud buildup keeps the days a little cooler and the rain makes the days more pleasant.

>> Related article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Animals will come out for a drink and certain plants come back from the dead. The ocotillo, for example, will grow leaves when it rains; when the rain stops, the leaves will shrivel up and fall off.

Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall (September to October)

Fall can be incredibly green or drab depending on the level of rain that falls at its beginning. This year has been quite wet and the desert is pleasantly verdant. It’s an easy season with pleasant shoulder-season temperatures that visitors and animals alike enjoy for outdoor activities.

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, When It Rains

Winter 2022-23: 10 Best Things to Do in America

While summer gets all the popular attention—sun, sand, sea, surf, and so on—it’s safe to say that winter is underrated

From fishing and camping to a taste bud tour, RVing with Rex reveals unique and unusual picks for the 10 best things to do in the US this winter. Your RV bucket list just got (a lot) longer.

The best things to do this winter include many hidden gems and unique experiences. You’ll find plenty of tried-and-trued staples too. But, as is my style at RVing with Rex, I tend to embrace under-the-radar spots as well as famous attractions. You’ll likely find things to do that you didn’t even know existed!

Believing the most authentic recommendations derive from personal experiences, the list highlights the places I’ve discovered and explored on one or more occasions. But, no matter where you plan to travel you’re bound to find something unique and fun to do this winter.

Daytona Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cruise the Atlantic Coast of Florida

Location: Jacksonville to Key West, Florida

Stretching along Florida’s Atlantic Coast from Fernandina Beach to Key West is the iconic A1A highway. The famous route passes through historic towns like St. Augustine before making its way through hotspots like Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Then, stay a few days in Miami before continuing south on the Overseas Highway, a scenic 130-mile stretch of roadway connecting Key Largo to Key West in the Florida Keys.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Discover Outer Space at Kennedy Space Center

Location: Kennedy Space Center Complex, Merritt Island, Florida

Visiting Kennedy Space Center allows you to live out the dream of being an astronaut. You can see the space shuttle Atlantis, meet an astronaut, and watch a space movie in the IMAX movie theater. For true space travel enthusiasts, consider booking one of the add-on enhancements such as the Special Interest Bus Tour or the Astronaut Training Experience. 

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Wander through Mount Dora

Location: Mount Dora, Florida

Time slows down in this quaint Florida town filled with unique shops and delicious eateries.  Located approximately 45 minutes north of Disney World, Mount Dora is like a real-life Main Street U.S.A. This small town is known for its boutique stores and the downtown area is filled with eateries, tasty coffee, and ice cream shops. Cruise on Lake Dora, sip on a signature cocktail while enjoying the spectacular sunset, and slow down and take in the relaxing atmosphere. 

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

4. Feel the warm desert air in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Location: Ajo, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake. The park lies near Ajo, 43 miles south of Gila Bend on Interstate 8. This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Fish and camp at Goose Island State Park

Location: Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Lapping water and Gulf breezes: We must be on the coast! Goose Island offers camping, fishing, and birding along St. Charles and Aransas bays. Camp, fish, hike, geocache, go boating and observe and take photos of wildlife, especially birds. Fish from shore, boat, or the 1,620-foot-long fishing pier. Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Be sure to visit the Big Tree which has been standing sentinel on the coast for centuries and has withstood several major hurricanes.

>> Get more tips for visiting Goose Island State Park

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sample the South in Savannah’s Historic District

Location: Savannah, Georgia

Few US city centers match the charm and style of Savannah’s Historic District. Every corner reveals an 18th-century home somehow more picturesque than the last. The area is perfect for strolling aimlessly and stopping for treats (and shade) along the way. Wander down River Street to sample the famous southern pralines at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen or indulge in a Bourbon Pecan Pie martini at Jen’s & Friends. If you’re somehow still hungry, choose from over 100 eclectic restaurants. Then, burn it all off by dancing the night away in Savannah’s buzzing nightlife scene. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Savannah

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Experience the magic of the Sonoran Desert at Usery Mountain Regional Park

Location: Mesa, Arizona

Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park is located at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Along with the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.

>> Get more tips for visiting Usery Mountain Regional Park

Bay St. Louis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Experience the quaint, seaside town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Location: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

It’s no secret that the farther west you travel along the Mississippi coast, the stronger you’ll hear the call of New Orleans. Once you hit the waterfront in Old Town Bay St. Louis, you might as well be in the French Quarter. Many locals here have New Orleans roots and this little burg is all about letting those bons temps rouler. Its artsy, funky, and quirky yet still peaceful and relaxing, with the unhurried, y’all-come-on-in attitude of a small Southern town: NOLA, meets Mayberry.

In 2010 Bay St. Louis was listed as one of the Top 10 Beach Communities in the U.S. by Coastal Living MagazineBudget Travel magazine named it one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America” in 2013 and Southern Living magazine named Bay St. Louis one of their 50 Best Places in the South in 2016.

>> Get more tips for visiting Bay St. Louis

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Experience Southern Coastal Charm in Fairhope, Alabama

Location: Fairhope, Alabama

Wiry trees draped with Spanish moss frame pastel-painted bungalows in this small Alabama town. Fairhope is perched atop bluffs overlooking Mobile Bay. You can bike oak-lined sidewalks, watch watercolor sunsets, and browse inspiring shops including Page & Palette bookstore and other businesses in the town’s French Quarter near the water.

Explore the piers and meander the parks and beaches—if you’re lucky, you’ll witness the summer jubilee when sea creatures wash up on the beaches by the bucketful. Once you watch a sunset from the Tiki Bar at the American Legion Post 199, you’ll understand Fairhope nostalgia and wonder why anybody would want to live anywhere else.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Discover the Crawfish Capital of the World

Location: Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

A tiny bayou town just a short hop from Lafayette, Breaux Bridge is not only the “Crawfish Capital of the World” per the Louisiana legislature but lays claim to having invented crawfish etouffee. It’s in the heart of Acadian Louisiana with all the fantastic food and music that entails. Cajun dancers have been two-stepping and waltzing around the beautiful old dance floor at La Poussiere since 1955. On Saturdays, Café des Amis serves a Zydeco breakfast with live music downtown.

Breaux Bridge is one cool little Louisiana town where locally-owned shops, Cajun eateries, French music, bayou country, and crawfish all come together. The walkable downtown hub is studded with antique shops, restaurants, and homey cafes. And if you love fishing and boating, you’ll be right at home thanks to the town’s quick access to Lake Martin. For art lovers on a budget, the Teche Center for the Arts has regularly scheduled workshops and musical programming that typically clock in under $10.

>> Get more tips for visiting Breaux Bridge

Worth Pondering…

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

—Anita Desai

San Xavier del Bac, a National Historic Landmark

Just south of Tucson, San Xavier del Bac Mission stands as an active church, an architectural wonder, and a testament to the Jesuit priest who founded it 300 years ago

Located nine miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, off Interstate 19, 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.

One of the oldest and best-preserved Spanish Colonial missions in the United States, its stark white walls and ornate baroque façade dazzle above the flat desert for many miles. Often called the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission is one of eight missions established in Arizona when the Spanish ruled the area.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising out of a sage-filled prairie that seemed to go to the end of the Earth—or at least to Mexico—I didn’t need road signs to guide my toad toward the church.

I explored the beautiful courtyard. Seven graceful arches surround a patio and a fountain once fed by natural springs that probably refreshed horses carrying church-goers.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Catholic mission was founded in 1692 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino and its remarkable building—now a National Historic Landmark—was added roughly 100 years later by Franciscan monks following the Jesuits’ expulsion from the territory. Original plans for San Xavier were for the mission to be the center of a larger system with a dual purpose of providing religious services and educational programs to the native people. This explains the comfortable historic meeting rooms neighboring the church that were built for larger groups to gather.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of the mission began in 1783 and came to an end in 1797, a remarkable endeavor considering the lack of resources in the area. Enduring wars, an earthquake, and harsh elements from the environment, the mission is in remarkable condition as a result of the loving care of the local Tohono O’odham American Indian tribe and is considered the most significant relic north of Mexico.

The Spanish Colonial architectural style is clear with white stucco walls and stunning three-story bell towers shouldering a baroque entryway enhanced with Franciscan reliefs. There is clearly a difference between the twin towers as one appears to be under renovation with parts on the top missing. The visitor quickly assumes the tower is being repaired, but that is not the case.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tower has always looked as it does today and the reason remains a mystery. Old bookkeeping records suggest that taxation laws exempted buildings under construction, and, therefore, the church remained unfinished. Another legend is that the tower has been left in this state until the “Excellent Builder” comes to complete the mission.

On this hot, sunny day, the coolness of the interior was a surprise. The air conditioning available is supplied by nature through intelligent design and expert choice of building materials.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next surprise comes when my eyes adjust to the darkness and my breath is taken away by the beauty and quality of this mission.

The entire structure is roofed with masonry vault making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U.S. borders. Little is known about the people who created the artwork that covers almost every square inch inside, including the ceiling. Some believe that artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico) were probably commissioned by the Spanish royal family.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main gold and red altar is decorated in Mexican baroque style. Its elaborate columns were built in guild workshops and carried by donkey through the Pimeria Alta valley to the mission.

Research has proven that more than 50 statues were carved in Mexico then transported hundreds of miles to be gilded by local American Indian artists before installation. Once the sculptures were in place, area craftsmen—some of them ancestors of the mission’s current restoration workers and caretakers—added clothing created from gesso.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, San Xavier del Bac became the property of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan friar departed shortly thereafter and the mission lost all funds with which to maintain the facilities. The Tohono O’odham did what they could, operating a school for many years and protecting the mission from Apache raids.

In 1854, the United States purchased the area with the Gadsden Purchase and San Xavier once again became a Catholic-held entity under the Diocese of Santa Fe.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many more transitions of ownership followed including a time when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school for Tohono O’odham children. Within my generation, the mission became a nonprofit entity, supported partially by the Catholic Church. Mass is still held every weekend and is open to the public.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout these years, only basic care was performed to prevent the daily decay of the massive ornate interior and its thousands of artifacts and art pieces. Wood was used in most of the carvings which swells and shrinks from variations of climate and humidity. In order to clean the artwork and walls, a special mixed cleaner must be used sparingly and carefully to remove grime without removing paint. Paints were made of natural materials which are almost impossible to replicate today, and fade with time.

San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the restoration and maintenance work was done inside the church, sometimes on bended knees or lying on the floor. It is excruciating and exhausting work.

Yet, one tower remains unfinished.

Still an active church, San Xavier del Bac Mission retains its original purpose of ministering to the religious and educational needs of parishioners. The church and gift shop are open daily.

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, and 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

Bartlett Lake: A Sonoran Desert Oasis

There’s an oasis in the desert and it’s called Bartlett Lake

Bartlett Lake is a Verde Valley River Reservoir Lake located 30 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

There’s an oasis in the desert and it’s called Bartlett Lake. 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.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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”. 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.

Located in the Tonto National Forest, Bartlett Lake is less than an hour from downtown Phoenix.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary inflow of Bartlett Lake is the Verde River. A 7,500 square mile watershed, fed by melted snow and runoff. The Verde River flows into Horseshoe Lake and then into Bartlett Lake. When full, Bartlett Lake covers 2,815 acres—more than Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake, combined.

Related: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Bartlett Lake is a water recreation wonderland that includes water skiing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking, swimming, and shoreline camping.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake has been a favorite with fishermen since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Anglers can catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, flathead catfish, crappie, carp, sunfish, and bluegill. Several state-record fish have been caught there. The 1977 smallmouth bass state record tipped the scales at seven pounds. Flathead catfish weighing up to 60 pounds lurk in the depths.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Service camping is available at Bartlett Lake. However, there are no designated campsites or hookups.

Bartlett Lake is open all year. It is most crowded during the hot summer months as visitors swarm to the cool refreshing waters and tranquil nights under the brilliant stars.

Related: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only approach by road is from the west, starting from the dispersed communities of Cave Creek and Carefree. The newly engineered, fully paved, scenic Bartlett Lake Road combined with the expanding Phoenix freeway system offers easy access from the entire Valley of the Sun. Bartlett Lake is 20 miles east of Carefree. From Carefree, take the Cave Creek Road/FR 24 to the Bartlett Road/FR 19 junction. Turn right on this paved highway; it is 13 miles to the lake.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cacti, desert shrubs, and rocky terrain gradually give way to grassy plains as the road climbs to a plateau at 3,300 feet, where a side road forks off north, leading to the more remote Horseshoe Lake. From the junction it is nine more miles downhill to Bartlett Lake, where the grasslands are replaced once more by cacti as the road descends.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic drive through the Sonoran Desert is worth the trip by itself. It was particularly gorgeous on our recent drive to Bartlett in late March when wildflowers and agave blooms colored the landscape. As we approached Bartlett Lake, the hills were a mass of yellow brittlebush along with globemellow, chuparosa, desert primrose, fairy duster, and ocotillo. What a sight!

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And when we arrived at the lake we were rewarded with even more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approaching the lake the road forks and the two branches follow the shoreline north and south, passing various sites for picnics, boat launching, and camping. For day use, the best area is Rattlesnake Cove with shaded tables, fire rings, and showers above a wide, clean, sandy beach. A short walk in either direction along the water’s edge leads to quiet, private coves with interesting rock formations and saguaro near the water. Further north is the main camping area of Bartlett Flats—here the road splits into a number of sandy tracks that end at sites on beaches close to the water.

Related: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Bartlett Lake find a blend of warm desert landscapes with a cool lake oasis, providing visitors the best of both land and water activities.  To the first time visitor who thinks of Arizona as a barren wasteland of sand, think again! There’s just something about the water and the desert and the bright blue sky that makes Bartlett Lake so beautiful.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember, there’s no cost to go to Bartlett Lake so take the drive, marvel at the view and enjoy lunch on the water.

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

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

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Phoenix from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

Related Article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

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

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs.

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

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

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

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Exploring the desert and cacti is so awesome and surreal that you’ll feel like you’re on another planet

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

Saguaro in Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaros are everywhere—thousands of 30-foot-tall green pillars with nubby arms. No matter where I looked, my brain couldn’t help but turn the centuries-old saguaros into a veritable freak show of desert cartoons. There was a sassy lady with her prickly arms at her hips, an emerald strongman showing off his biceps, and a towering mint skyscraper full of carefully carved bird apartments.

Saguaro in Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (pronounced “sah-wah-roh”) is the universal symbol of the American West. A trip to the Sonoran Desert is not complete without examining one of these famous desert plants. These huge green columnar cacti have fascinated nearly every person who has seen one. To the local Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro cacti are even more important. These giant cacti are not plants to the Tohono O’Odham but a different type of humanity and are viewed as respected members of the Tohono O’Odham Tribe.

Related Article: Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think the Southwest Deserts!

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

The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States and will normally reach heights of 40 feet tall. The tallest saguaro cactus ever measured towered over 78 feet into the air. The saguaro cactus grows like a column at a very slow rate with all growth occurring at the tip, or top of the cactus. It can take 10 years for a saguaro cactus to reach 1 inch in height.

Saguaro in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 70 years of age, a saguaro cactus can reach 6½ feet tall and will finally start to produce its first flowers. By 95-100 years in age, a saguaro cactus can reach a height of 15-16 feet and could start to produce its first arm. By 200 years old, the saguaro cactus has reached its full height reaching upwards of 45 feet tall. Some saguaros have been seen with dozens of arms while others produce none.

Saguaros at Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in Saguaro’s eastern Rincon Mountain District is an eight-mile paved roadway full of breathtaking views and easy pullouts to nab that perfect sunset shot. Be sure to stop at the .25-mile accessible, interpretive Desert Ecology Trail on the northern rim of the drive.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Saguaro at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near the park’s west entrance is a great side trip for families and animal lovers looking to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region. The Museum’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, and a mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants).

Saguaro at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the museum’s trails, visitors get acquainted with desert life.  Enjoy live animal presentations that showcase a variety of desert animals and be sure not to miss Raptor Free Flight where native birds of prey fly so close you can feel the brush of feathers!

Saguaro at Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Saguaro at White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. One of the special features of Catalina State Park is the amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Related Article: Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

Saguaros at North Mountain Park near Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

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

Sometimes our journeys begin and end in the same way or with the same emotion. I felt that in the vast Sonoran Desert craning my neck skyward to marvel at the enormous cacti. They are bizarre and cartoonish, yes, but they are also beautiful. Timeless. Centuries-old totems of desert wisdom.

Read Next: Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

From hiking and mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and rafting trips, here are the most-thrilling ways to get outdoors in the Phoenix area

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert—and surrounded on all sides by mountains—Phoenix is a paradise for outdoorsy types. Here, you can hike past towering saguaro cacti, take guided horseback rides on tribal land, and kayak on scenic lakes, all just minutes from the city.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, the area promises ideal weather. Fall and winter offer pleasant temperatures while spring brings a burst of colorful wildflowers. And in the summer months, travelers can cool off with water activities at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you want to explore by land, air, or water, there’s an adventure waiting for you in this stunning Sonoran Desert landscape. Read on for the most thrilling ways to experience the Phoenix area and spend some quality time in the great outdoors.

Related Article: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take an (Awe-inspiring) Hike

There’s a scenic trail for every skill level just a short drive in any direction from downtown Phoenix. If you’re looking for something easy follow one of the meandering walking paths through the Desert Botanical Garden, home to 140 acres of local flora, or explore a saguaro forest on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park. There’s also the Blevins Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park where you can see quintessential Sonoran Desert scenery or the half-mile hike in Papago Park to the popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a slightly more strenuous hike, try the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve which starts with a series of challenging switchbacks and passes upland boulder fields and desert flora on the way to the top. You could also opt for the two-mile Waterfall Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, home to ancient petroglyphs, massive saguaros, and that namesake waterfall (though only after it rains), or the 3.5-mile Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail loop in the South Mountain Park and Preserve which requires squeezing through a crevice called Fat Man’s Pass and some hand-over-hand clambering toward the top.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most challenging hikes near Phoenix is the Siphon Draw Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park which starts in an open desert, travels through a basin of smooth, polished rock, and ends in a flat clearing with breathtaking views to the west. Hikers here must be prepared for some hand-over-hand rock faces and rugged, unmarked areas. There’s also the Summit Trail up Piestewa Peak (the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve) and the steep, rocky Echo Canyon Trail up the famous Camelback Mountain.

Related Article: There Is No Winter like a Desert Winter in the Valley of the Sun

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore by Mountain Bike

Setting out on two wheels is another great way to discover the Sonoran Desert. 360 Adventures offers mountain-biking tours through the desert on trails selected for your skill level while the REI Co-Op Adventure Center boasts half-and full-day excursions on everything from smooth, groomed flows to big rock drops. If you prefer dirt bikes, opt for Extreme Arizona which features guided trips into the Table Mesa area as well as self-led outings in Tonto National Forest.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Trails on Horseback

Playing cowboy with a horseback ride through the desert stimulates the senses with an authentic experience of history. Horseback rides offer a memorable way to enjoy the scenery. Ponderosa Stables has guided tours in South Mountain Park and Preserve where trails wind past magnificent saguaros while the Koli Equestrian Center located in the Gila River Indian Community features excursions led by American Indian wranglers who take you through their tribal lands while teaching you about their history, culture, and surroundings.

Huhugan Heritage Center at Gila River Indian Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Off-road with an ATV Tour

For an adrenaline-pumping experience, try a guided ATV tour with Arizona Outdoor Fun during which you’ll navigate twisting mountain trails to explore Hohokam Indian ruins, visit a former turquoise mine, and learn about Arizona’s history and wildlife. If driving an authentic, military-grade TomCar UTV is more your speed, go with Desert Wolf Tours which covers thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness to teach cowboy history while soaking up the scenery. Whichever you choose, you’ll get to cover more ground than on a hike or bike ride—all without breaking a sweat.

Related Article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take to the Sky with a Hot Air Balloon Ride

See the desert from a whole new perspective by soaring above the coyotes and jackrabbits in a hot air balloon. Begin on the ground to view the inflation process then take to the sky for an hour during which you’ll float at different elevations to spot local wildlife, plants, and landmarks. Flights with Hot Air Expeditions and Rainbow Ryders take place at sunrise year-round and sunset rides are available in the winter months.

Along the Salt River east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Waterways

On Phoenix’s eastern edge you’ll find the Lower Salt River where you can indulge in stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and rafting tours to spot wild horses and eagles along the shore. On the upper part of the river, Arizona Rafting leads whitewater rafting experiences from March through May which include a hot fajita lunch, complimentary wet suit rentals, and some of the best rapids between California and Colorado.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For something less intense, consider a tour with Salt River Tubing in Tonto National Forest during which you’ll mosey down mountain-stream waters at a pace that makes enjoying a floating picnic possible.

Along the Bush Highway east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 45 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix, you’ll even find Lake Pleasant Regional Park one of the area’s most scenic water recreation areas. The 1,000-acre lake has rentals available on-site, as well as opportunities for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, and more.

Read Next: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

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