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.


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.

Picacho Peak State Park Is Alive With Color

Picacho Peak State Park is one of the best places to see the spring yellow, red, orange, blue, and purple desert blooms

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park.

Except for the saguaros, Picacho Peak looks like it could have been plucked from the hills of Ireland. The thrust of mountain rising from the desert floor is luxuriantly green. Sitting 30 miles south of our home base in Casa Grande, just off Interstate 10, the state park has been drenched with some unusually large storms stretching all the way back to last summer’s monsoon.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The mountain looks like it is grass all the way up the sides. There’s a lush ground cover unlike anything we’ve seen in the 20 years since we first hiked this park.

Picacho Peak is known for fields of poppies in spring, blanketing the mountain slopes. This is a banner year for Picacho Peak, a superbloom!

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

I’m crouched down.

Eye level with the poppy.

I’m feeling lucent.

Even a little lightheaded!

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Maybe it’s the poppy—that master of color, refraction, and mind-altering chemistry.

Then again, maybe I’m just not as good at contorting myself into a poppy-level crouch as I was in my younger days.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Either way, the poppies have returned—fulfilling their ancient, flashy promise.

They pretty much skipped 2018—the year with no winter.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But spring seekers and flower junkies have been waiting this spring with trembling anticipation—having noted the steady succession of wet Pacific storms in December and January and on through February.

As a result the flowers have emerged on the slopes of Picacho Peak.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

I love all the flowers—the lupine and globemellow and the yellow brittle brush. But the poppies have my heart.

Those dreamlike petals are only three cells thick. The cells on the top and bottom are loaded with pigments. The botanists—who printed their results in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A—said they could find no other reports of a greater concentration of pigment in the natural world.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

And those cells are folded and fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. This creates a whole network of little air spaces built into the flower.

As a result of this remarkable structure, the light comes in through that top layer of folded cells and then bounces around inside the cells—passing back and forth through the pigment. The rays of light refract, a sunset in a layer of cells.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All of this brilliant manipulation of color has everything to do with the insect pollinators the poppies are working to attract. Bear in mind, in a good wildflower year those pollinators have a whole hillside of clamoring flowers to choose from.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Poppies have evolved to produce different colors, depending on their pollinators. This enables them to attract a wide variety of pollinators.

Other researchers have come up with some intriguing theories on the extreme adaptability of poppies, which have adapted to different conditions all over the world. The University of York scientists were mostly focused on trying to figure out the evolution of poppy chemistry, which produces things like opium and painkillers.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The poppies have been up to this for the past 100 million years or so and likely accounts for the ability of the Golden California and Mexican poppies to cope with the extremes of the Sonoran Desert climate in Arizona and southern California.

All I know is I can’t get enough of poppies. Call it addiction.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But excuse me for now—the poppies have fully opened to the light of another day. The flowers only open on bright, sunny days. They close up every afternoon before the sun descends and on cloudy or windy days. A week of 85-degree days would wipe out the poppies. 

So I must enjoy the glorious poppies.

golden Mexican poppies

And hope—at my age—that I can still stand up when I’m done.

Worth Pondering…

Through the dancing poppies stole A breeze, most softly lulling to my soul.

—John Keats

Serenading the Sonoran Desert: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems, the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

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—you can almost hear them serenading the desert.

Organ pipes and saguaros often grow side by side © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Organ pipe and saguaro cacti © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

The organ pipe cactus bloom in May and June, opening its 3-inch white, creamy flowers at night. Flowers will close up again by mid-morning, and very rarely remain open into the afternoon. This leaves very little time for daytime pollinators to feast on the sweet flower nectar. Lesser long nosed bats do most of the night pollination, and over the centuries, have developed a unique relationship with these cactus.

The organ pipe cactus thrive in this southern Arizona park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The fruit of the organ pipe ripens just before the summer rains and splits open to reveal a bright red seed-studded pulp. These seeds, with the aid of nurse plants or rocks, have the potential to grow from small seedlings into hundred-armed giant.

The beauty that is Organ Pipe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ pipe cactus thrive in the Sonoran summer. High temperatures and the monsoon rains of July and August trigger the greatest cactus growth. Within the monument boundaries, an average organ pipe cactus stem grows about 2.5 inches a year.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Both are unpaved but well maintained.

Along the Ajo Mountain loop drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Toward the east is the Ajo Mountain loop drive, the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a beautiful 21-mile, one-way desert tour usually passable by normal passenger cars. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road. The loop offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. And in the spring, the desert floor can be filled with such wildflowers as brittle bush, Mexican poppies, globe mellow, owl clover, and lupine. If you keep a keen eye out, you also might also see desert bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, and javelina. A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy.

The skeletal ribs of a once thriving organ pipe cactus © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The beauty of the organ pipe and its name-sake national monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Interpretive programs are offered January through March. Take the opportunity to spend three hours with a ranger driving on the Ajo Mountain drive. Since space on this van tour is limited to 10 per day, interested visitors should sign up early at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center.

Along the Puerto Blanco drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Puerto Blanco drive west of the visitor center provides access to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin, and Quitobaquito Springs. The drive offers stops along the way that provide wonderful views and information on the ecology and culture of the Sonoran Desert. The entire 37 miles of the drive was completely reopened in 2014. Be advised that many travel books and websites do not reflect this change. High clearance vehicles are recommended beyond Pinkley Peak.

Twin Peaks Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Twin Peaks Campground offers 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate big rigs and are available on a first-come first-served basis.

Alamo Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Our experience in this extraordinary desert—is exotic, inviting, and utterly unforgettable.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.

A Small Town with a Big Back Yard

This is the place where the “Summer Spends the Winter”

“A Small Town With A Big Back Yard”, the tiny Arizona burg of Ajo (ahh-ho) is situated deep in the Sonoran Desert, 42 miles south of Gila Bend and 37 miles north of the Mexican border.

The Ajo Central Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A discovery worthy of Lewis and Clark, Ajo just might be the “best kept secret in Arizona.” This is the place where the “Summer spends the Winter”, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

For many snowbirds, as it was for us, Ajo is merely a stopping-off point on the way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For others, especially Spring Breakers, it’s a town to pass through on their way to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point).

The Old Train Depot northeast of the plaza dates from 1915 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The town of Ajo reflects its one time wealth to this day. Glistening white churches and a well-designed plaza are so inviting.

Ajo today is a retirement community and snowbird haven along with an increasing number of artists. Ajo’s gorgeous mountain views and charming Old World architecture are enchanting and we soon fell in love with this friendly community in southwestern Arizona.

Across the street from the Central Plaza through a high arch of the train depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ajo got its name from a poor Spanish translation of an Indian word. To make body paint, the local O’odham Indians used copper. Their word for paint was aau’auho, which sounded to the Spanish like the familiar word ajo, meaning garlic in their language. Later, the wild lily plants in the area were named ajo for the flavorful bulb at its roots.

The birthplace of copper mining in Arizona, copper has provided the sinew for this desert town for about 300 years. Ajo was the oldest-known mine site in the state, and until the 1980s Phelps Dodge ran a sizable copper mining operation out of here.

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church follows the ornate architectural style of the plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The town of Ajo is worth a good walkabout. Most of the town, and in particular the central plaza, was created by John Campbell Greenway to be a good place for his New Cornelia miners to raise their families. Visitors can pick up a walking tour map/brochure at the Visitor Center located at the old train depot.

Greenway, formerly a Rough Rider with Theodore Roosevelt, was the highly successful general manager and an owner of the Calumet & Arizona Mining Company that included the Lavender Pit Mine at Bisbee and the New Cornelia Mine at Ajo. He was the second husband of Isabella who, following John’s death in 1926, founded the Arizona Inn in Tucson and became Arizona’s first U.S. Congresswoman.

The Ajo Federated Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For Ajo’s architecture, Greenway chose Spanish Colonial Revival, a Mediterranean style with Moorish influences: high arches, white stucco surfaces, tile roofs, and considerable decoration.

Across the street from the plaza, the most prominent features are two white churches. The Federated Church, while visually interesting, has almost no ornamentation. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church follows the more ornate architectural style of the central plaza. Both are eminently photogenic.

Organ pipe cactus and saguaro along the Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A number of the buildings from the 1920s and before are still standing. Just beyond the churches,  the historic Curley School was constructed in 1919. The Train Depot directly northeast of the plaza dates from 1915. New Cornelia Hotel just east of Curley School was constructed in 1916.

A few miles further, past loads of cacti, long hills of white sediment and stretches of crushed stones in multi-colors line the highway, left by the New Cornelia Copper Mine.

Several boondockers along the Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

An easy scenic drive, the Ajo Ten-Mile Loop skirts the backside of the open pit New Cornelia Mine. Along the way you can stop at the overlook and little museum about the mine. Also, in the St. Catherine’s Indian Mission, the Ajo Historical Society has a small museum out here. To no surprise, it too is mostly about Ajo’s glory days sporting one of the world’s largest copper mines.

The New Cornelia Copper Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A large wildlife refuge, Cabeza Prieta spans Sonoran Desert wilderness. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is home to 275 species of animals, including endangered big horn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. Capable of 60 mph, pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located 35 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next. Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

Worth Pondering…

The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulating creativity.


Wildflower Season Has Arrived in Arizona! Where to See the Best Blooms?

Weather brings spring wildflowers to add desert color

Spring-like weather has arrived in the desert a little later than normal this year but it comes bearing gifts. After a rainy and snowy winter, warmer temperatures are triggering a profusion of wildflowers.

The flowers of the Sonoran Desert are a splash of color and passion. While almost entirely absent last year, they are out in force this season. This is a time to revel in satiny sun and balmy breezes and go looking for them. It’s a show you don’t want to miss. Here are some places to admire those soft, ground-level fireworks.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

First, let’s establish a few rules so everyone can enjoy this season’s bounty.

1. Don’t pick wildflowers. They won’t last long enough to see a vase. They’ll die very soon after being plucked and then all their hard work of sprouting, growing, and blooming was for naught. Leave them for others to enjoy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

2. Stay on trails and watch where you step. There could be small seedlings all around. And for goodness’ sake, do not wade out into a field and trample the flowers, thus ruining them for everyone, just so you can snag a selfie. Take all photos from the pathways.

3. Don’t dawdle. Peak colors at any one location may last from a few days to two weeks. If you hear about a wildflower bonanza, track it down. The beauty may be ephemeral but your memories will last for years.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The wildflower population appeared spotty at Usery Mountain Regional Park until moisture-laden storms in February changed the equation. Suddenly hillsides were streaked with color. Poppies, primrose, lupines, rock daisies, fairy dusters, and the flame-orange tips of ocotillo added drama to mountains that already exhibit plenty on their own.

The Userys gain enough elevation to afford stunning views back toward Phoenix and farther east to the rolling waves of mountains like the Goldfields and Superstitions. Hike the slopes to Wind Cave and Pass Mountain to admire the best panoramas while wading through bands of flowers.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There’s always a bit of magic where desert and water meet. Add flowers to the mix and that’s a great way to spend a day. At Lake Pleasant, the heaviest concentration of poppies can be found on Pipeline Canyon Trail especially from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The bridge is guarded by some extremely robust globemallows the size of landscape shrubs. A nice assortment of blooms also lines the Beardsley, Wild Burro, and Cottonwood trails.

Bartlett Lake

Near Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The road to Bartlett Lake quickly leaves suburbs behind and winds past rolling hills to the sparkling reservoir cradled by mountains. Be sure to keep an eye peeled for white poppies—this is a good spot for them.

Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Some of the best flower sightings are along the road to Rattlesnake Cove. The Palo Verde Trail parallels the shoreline, pinning hikers between flowers and the lake, a wonderful place to be on a warm March day.

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Wildflowers are on a blooming binge at Picacho Peak State Park. Carpets of dazzling golden Mexican poppies play a starring role in the colorful show—but other wildflowers add their own hues to the landscape. Among them: blue lupines, orange globemallow, white desert chicory, and bright yellow brittlebush.

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Nearly any spot along the park’s main road will include wildflower scenery. One of the best side routes for colorful views from a vehicle—and even more grand vistas from trails—is the Barrett Loop.

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

“We had poppies blooming in January and that’s unheard of in my time here,” park manager Steve Haas says. Two large washes keep the park cooler than the lower desert and generally prompt a later seasonal bloom. Traditionally, colors peak from late March into early April but things are happening a little earlier this year.

The Sutherland Trail offers the best assortment of flowers with cream cups, poppies, lupines, penstemon, and desert chicory. Best color can be found near the junction with Canyon Loop and continuing for about 2 miles on the Sutherland across the desert.

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Guided hikes and bird walks are offered several days each week.

Worth Pondering…

Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!

—Lady Bird Johnson

Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Southwest

Growing up in Alberta I always feuded with winter, a cantankerous, disagreeable season that seemingly lasted forever. As a snowbird, I take great delight in rambling around the desert in shorts and T-shirt searching for signs of wildflowers.

Many people consider Arizona to be a land of two seasons, summer and the absence of summer. But us-snowbirds know better. Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Desert Southwest, with days of glorious sunshine, azure skies, and carpets of wildflowers. Round these parts, we often start getting whiffs of spring in January and it goes full bore through much of February and on into May. Chew on that, Old Man Winter.

Bartlett Lake. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Unless you’ve actually visited the Desert Southwest, any mention of the region probably conjures up images of an arid wasteland devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth: the landscape is, in fact, full of life—and when the desert blooms you will want to be there.

This amazing transformation usually happens by mid-March, but only during the years when winter rains have been the right amount and springtime temperatures the right range of degrees. When that occurs, a dry and seemingly lifeless desert springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, white, yellow, orange, and green.

Between Casa Grande and Florence. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

More than 600 species of flowers, plants, and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse blossoms. Desert blooms typically appear in this order: bladderpods, Mexican poppies, chuparosa, globemallow, brittlebush, and then other various cacti species.

What a difference a year makes. As Arizona wildflower seasons go, 2018 was almost a complete bust. But 2019 has flower watchers trembling with anticipation. More flowers bloomed this January than all of last spring, and it wasn’t even close.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park. March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why such a discrepancy? Why do Arizona wildflower seasons vary so drastically from year to year? And what makes 2019 look so promising?

The short answer is the moisture. But it’s more complicated than just the amount. Timing is crucial. A truly spectacular spring begins two seasons before. Here’s why:

Spring-blooming annuals must germinate in the autumn. They require a “triggering rain” of an inch or more. Last October brought widespread, often record-setting, rains to the Phoenix area. That was the first indication the 2019 season might be something special. That likely roused plenty of little seeds from their desert slumber.

Peridot Mesa. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

After the triggering rain, more storms are needed. Rains should total at least an inch per month through March, and more is better. The rains should occur consistently through the winter so there are no lengthy drying spells. That’s been the case for much of the state over the past few months. There was even a bonus New Year’s Eve snow gently melting across great swaths of the desert.

Another factor is temperature. Some annuals, poppies in particular, are delicate little divas that don’t like excessive heat. When thermometers push into the mid-80s, poppies start looking for the exits. Early heat waves have curtailed some recent seasons. But this year’s long streak of mild temperatures has given them a chance to flourish.

Picacho Peak State Park. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Even with all of the right conditions in place, there’s no guarantee of an abundant wildflower season. Factors such as soil type, vegetation cover, and rodent population can affect blooming.

Usery Mountain Regional Park. March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Still, 2019 is shaping up to be a very good wildflower year. It should be above average just about everywhere, and has the potential to be spectacular in places. An event this rare should not be missed. Start making plans to venture outdoors and revel in satiny sun, balmy breezes, and a desert streaked with color.

Remember to bring your camera.


Sonoran Desert National Monument near Gila Bend. February 2019 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers.

—Lady Bird Johnson