Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips

Some planning tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

To make the most of your visit to Saguaro National Park, we’ve compiled these 10 tips, in no particular order. The park is open 24 hours a day via walking or bicycling and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Tucson Mountain District (West) and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Rincon Mountain District, 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Plan Ahead: Since the park is open year-round and located in a desert it’s important to consider weather conditions. While daytime temperatures in the winter range from the low-50s to the high-70s, summertime temperatures rise to the mid-80s to low-100s. The busiest times in the park are November through March.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Two parks in One: Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District lies on the west side of Tucson, Arizona, while the Rincon Mountain District lies on the east side of town. Both districts were formed to protect and exhibit forests of their namesake plant: the saguaro cactus.

Related: Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Drink Up: The Sonoran Desert climate is dry whatever season and it’s important to stay hydrated. Be sure to bring along plenty of water when Saguaro. Park rangers suggest one quart of water per hour of hiking during hot weather. Water refilling stations are found at both visitor centers. Also, bring along some sports drinks and salty snacks with you to replenish your electrolytes.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Go for a Hike: With more than 165 miles of hiking trails in the park’s two districts, there are ample opportunities for hiking. Numerous hiking trailheads are located along the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District and throughout the Tucson Mountain District. Stop at a visitor center and map out your hike before setting off on the trails.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Go for a Drive: In the Rincon Mountain District the eight-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive features several trailheads, pullouts, and incredible views along the way. The unpaved, graded dirt/gravel Scenic Bajada Loop Drive takes you into the Tucson Mountain District’s foothills with scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and trailheads along its six-mile loop.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go for a Ride: The same loop drives that are great for driving are also terrific for biking. In addition, two trails in the Rincon Mountain District are open to bicycles—the new 2.8-mile Hope Camp Trail and the 2.5-mile Cactus Forest Trail. All trails in the Tucson Mountain District are off-limits for bicycling.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mount Up: Horseback riding is possible within Saguaro National Park and if you don’t have your own horse, there are a few local outfitters who can take you to experience the park from the saddle. A guided ride will also help make sure that you stay on the trails where horses are permitted.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Watch for Wildlife: The varied landscapes of Saguaro National Park provide ideal homes to numerous species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Watch for roadrunners (beep beep!), cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, coyotes, collared peccaries, and much more.

Related: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Ancient Artwork: Ancient petroglyphs are found throughout the American Southwest including Saguaro National Park. Take a walk along the Signal Hill Trail in the Tucson Mountain District and you’ll find a hill covered with dozens of petroglyphs that date 800 years. And of course, look but don’t touch to help preserve these ancient pieces of art.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Live the Nightlife: When the sun goes down, the park’s nightlife comes alive. The park rangers offer numerous evening programs to experience it all. Reservations advised.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Spend a Day at the Museum: Just outside the park (Tucson Mountain District), the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a terrific place to learn all about the area. A regional showcase for native plants and animals, the museum’s 98 acres includes a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium—and 85 percent of the experience is outside. The park’s hours vary seasonally.

Read Next: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

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

Three Southwest Towns You Need To Visit This Winter

Instead of driving on snowy and dangerous icy roads this winter, take your RV south for the season.

These towns in Arizona and New Mexico have some amazing attractions as well as RV nearby RV parks and campgrounds.

Quartsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite, Arizona

Travel through this dusty outpost between April and November and you might wonder why this wide spot along Interstate 10 is such a popular snowbird destination for RVers. But visit in January and you’ll quickly see why: it morphs into a non-stop social event for RVing snowbirds.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dozens of inexpensive Quartzsite RV parks have room for seasonal guests and short-term visitors alike. Tens of thousands of snowbirds boondock at one of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designed visitor areas that surround Quartzsite. A long-term permit allows snowbirds to stay at a BLM-designated Long Term Visitor Area for $180 between September 15 and April 15 (a total of 7 months), or for any length of time between those two dates.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The LTVA short-visit permit ($40) allows the use of BLM-designated LTVAs for any 14-consecutive-day period from September 15th to April 15th The only caveat? You’ll go without hookups. The only “amenities” are beautiful desert sunsets with wide-open views of the surrounding area.

Related Article: Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite RV Show is the largest gathering of RVs and RVers on Earth. 2022 dates are January 22-30. Endless flea market shopping opportunities and RV club social events galore give you plenty to do.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Not to be confused with the California city of the same name, Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico is a peaceful city along the Pecos River. This town is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park with more than 100 underground caves.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park consists of a network of cave passages filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations. The largest chamber, “The Big Room” is 8.2 acres and the largest accessible cave chamber in North America.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people like to explore at their own pace on the Self-Guided Tours, but if you prefer having a guide with more information, consider taking one of their ranger-led tours. You can enter the caves by hiking down the steep 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail, or by simply taking an elevator down into the caves.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Camping in the Southwest

The national park doesn’t allow overnight camping, but there are lots of RV parks and campgrounds in the area.

Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Las Cruces is less than an hour from the Texas border in southeastern New Mexico. The town sits in the shadow of the Organ Mountains and is a short drive from the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Las Cruces Farmers and Craft Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains are a steep, angular mountain range with rocky spires that jut majestically above the Chihuahuan Desert floor to an elevation of 9,000 feet. This picturesque area of rocky peaks, narrow canyons, and open woodlands ranges from Chihuahuan Desert habitat to ponderosa pine in the highest elevations.  Located adjacent to and on the east side of Las Cruces, this area provides opportunities for photography, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, and wildlife viewing.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dripping Springs Natural Area is also close to Las Cruces with easy hiking trails among huge rock spires. White Sands National Monument is less than an hour away with huge sand dunes that you can hike or sled down.

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

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserving the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.

Las Cruces Mainstreet Downtown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also want to stop and browse the town’s huge year-round Farmers and Crafts Market. Their famous downtown market includes over 300 local farmers, artists, bakers, and vendors selling fresh produce and handmade artisan goods.

Related Article: Stay Warm This Winter in these Unique Towns in the American Southwest

You’ll find numerous RV parks and campgrounds are in the area including a nearby state park and a BLM campground.

Worth Pondering…

May the joy of today, bring forth happiness for tomorrow—and may the cold northern air stay up north!

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

A southern Arizona State Parks road trip

Southern Arizona is not only about saguaro cacti and desert sunsets. Somewhat unexpectedly, the arid region also features several lakes and wetland areas teeming with fish and migratory birds. Add in majestic mountain ranges and fascinating historic sites and you have the makings of a wonderful southern Arizona state parks road trip.

In all, Arizona has 31 state park units. While much of the attention centers on high-profile parks including Red Rock and Slide Rock near Sedona and the Phoenix-area Lost Dutchman, the parks near the southern Arizona community of Tucson along with those in the southwestern corner of the state shine brightly as well. A number of southern park beauties seemed to be fairly unknown to the rest of the state.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park

Beaches in Arizona are admittedly few and far between and for a sandy swimming beach less than a half-hour drive northeast of the Arizona/Mexico border town of Nogales locals flock to Patagonia Lake State Park. Considered a hidden treasure of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake is a manmade body of water created by the damming of Sonoita Creek. The 265-acre lake cuts a vivid blue swath through the region’s brown and amber hills.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with swimming which is popular throughout the warm-weather months, Patagonia Lake offers boating, fishing, waterskiing, a picnic area with ramadas, tables, and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, a marina, and bird-watching. Its unique arched bridge that rises over a lake channel is a great place to spot birds in the reeds along the shoreline or just enjoy the warm breeze. Hikers can also stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a unique place to stay in the area, the park features a campground and seven camping cabins with beautiful views of the lake. The 105 developed campsites offer a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $15-$20 per vehicle; camping fee $27-$30 per night

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area

Located downstream from Patagonia Lake along the lower Sonoita Creek, the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area is its own entity within the Arizona State Parks system and has an identity of its own as a world-class birding area. The lower Sonoita Creek, a perennial tributary of the Santa Cruz River has a well-developed riparian forest that fosters a great diversity of birds and other wildlife. The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area consists of thousands of acres and includes a trail easement that connects it to Patagonia Lake State Park.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty miles of trails are available for hiking and eight miles of trails are shared with equestrians.  A 1.5-mile hike of moderate difficulty called the “Overlook Trail” is close to Patagonia Lake State Park and is a great way to see 360 degrees of spectacular scenery. Most of the trails are more remote and the shortest round trip hike to the creek is three miles on the Sonoita Creek Trail. At all times of the year, boots with good traction, sun protection, food, and water are recommended. The minimum elevation change on any route is 300 feet.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. During the spring migration from late January through early April, a guided bird walk could yield sightings of more than 60 species and the complete bird list consists of more than 300 species. One of the most sought-after birds is the elegant trogon which might be seen between November and March. Ducks, rails, raptors, and flycatchers are commonly sighted. Other animals in the area include creek squirrels, coatis, raccoons, skunks, deer, snakes, javelina, jackrabbits, and an occasional bobcat or mountain lion.

The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area’s visitor center is located within Patagonia Lake State Park and entry fees for the lake include the use of the natural area.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest. More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located within minutes of the Tucson metro area, Catalina State Park makes a convenient place to camp while exploring the city and its iconic national park, Saguaro National Park. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. The campground is located in the shadow of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers birding opportunities and spectacular dusk and dawn views.

Related: The Most (and least) Popular Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; camping fee $30 per night

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

From military conquests to ranching endeavors to mining claims, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park runs the gamut of early Arizona history. The story of New Spain’s presidios (forts) is a unique one and Tubac’s primary purpose is to preserve the ruins of the oldest Spanish presidio in Arizona—San Ignacio de Tubac established in 1752. Tubac is one of few such sites that remain and its historic significance is heightened by the rarity of presidio sites.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, a walk through the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park includes not just the history of the New Spain fort but also of the people who came afterward to live and work in the region. Along with the ruins of the fort the park preserves the 1885 Territorial Schoolhouse, the second oldest schoolhouse in Arizona.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tubac Presidio Museum houses interpretive exhibits with many original artifacts and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859. The Visitor Center contains Spanish/Mexican-influenced furnishings and an artist mural of the Presidio, a model of the Presidio, historic maps, and a seven-minute video presentation that gives a brief history of the village of Tuba.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A variety of birds can be spotted on the grounds, including roadrunners. Although large mammal sightings at the park during park hours are rare, the Anza Trail passes through the park, and visitors can catch glimpses of javelinas, deer, and coyotes.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is just one aspect of the artsy community of Tubac. The village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high-quality selection of art and artisan works that include paintings, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park preserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities and is less than five miles from Tubac. These abandoned ruins include San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas.

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park

For most, the name Tombstone conjures up images of the Wild West and the gunfights that occurred there. Certainly, Tombstone is known as the site of a bloody gunfight that occurred at the O.K. Corral Livery & Feed in 1881 that killed three and wounded three others. The legend of the shootout has lasted through the centuries and spawned numerous Hollywood movies.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But a deeper understanding of the town and the region is available at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park. The two-story courthouse designed in the Victorian style was constructed of red brick in 1882. The courthouse, a splendid example of territorial architecture, continued to serve as a county facility until 1931 when the county seat was moved to Bisbee.

Boothill, Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the old courthouse houses information on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral along with artifacts from Tombstone’s mining past including a saloon and gaming room, a period sheriff’s office, and a period lawyer’s office and courtroom. Outside in the courtyard is a reproduction gallows—the site where many convicted murderers met their fate.

Boothill, Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Schieffelin Monument is the last resting place of Ed Schieffelin, the prospector who discovered the mineral deposits that triggered the Tombstone silver boom in 1877. Located in the beautiful high desert 3 miles northwest of Tombstone, the Monument is now part of the Tombstone Courthouse State Park. It is a place where you can feel a direct connection to the Old West days of Tombstone, “the town too tough to die.”

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado River State Historic Park

Located in the far southwestern corner of the state, the Colorado River State Historic Park (formerly Yuma Crossing State Historic Park) sits on the bank of the Colorado where river captains once sailed from the Gulf of California to unload supplies then kick up their heels in the bustling port of Yuma. Ocean vessels brought supplies around the Baja Peninsula from California to Port Isabel, near the mouth of the Colorado. From there, the cargo was loaded onto smaller steamships and brought upstream to Yuma. The purpose of the depot was to store six months’ worth of supplies for the forts in the area. The depot operated from 1864 until 1883 when the arrival of the railroad made the long steamship route unnecessary.

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the original structures from that time are still standing. Made of adobe, essentially mud and plant material, they have survived well in Yuma’s dry climate. In fact, since their original construction, the buildings have been used by the Weather Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Signal Corps, the Border Survey, and the Yuma County Water Users Association as recently as the late 1980s.

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Colorado River State Historic Park preserves the history of the facility while providing additional information about Yuma as a Colorado River community and the engineering behind one of its impressive canal systems. The park’s visitor center features an exhibit on the military history of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and includes a model depicting the depot’s appearance in 1872. The park is closed Monday and Tuesday.

Related: Winter Hiking in Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $6 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park

Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, 3 miles west of the confluence of the Colorado and the historic Gila River, stand the ruins of Arizona’s famous Territorial Prison.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fans of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures know it as “Hell Hole Prison” for the dark and twisted tales which linger long after the last inmates occupied this first prison of the Arizona Territory. For many others, the 1957 and 2007 films “3:10 to Yuma” are what bring this “Hell Hole Prison” to mind.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is open, welcoming convicts of another kind —those guilty of having a curiosity for what it was like to work and live inside the prison walls. The cells, main gate, and guard tower are still standing providing visitors with a glimpse of convict life in the Southwest over a century ago. Turn yourself in for a fascinating experience, which includes a look into “The Dark Cell” and a look back at the men AND women who served hard times in Yuma.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, you don’t have to wait until 3:10; the park is open from 9 am -5 pm so stop in and take a walk through a big slice of the history of the Old West. The park is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Park Entrance Fee: $8 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

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

Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

An area full of history, the American Southwest is dotted with beautiful towns worthy of exploration

From former mining town gems to desert beauties, and mountain charmers, here are seven of the most beautiful towns in the Southwest.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac, Arizona

Colorful architecture and mountain backdrops define Tubac’s Southwest scenery. See both at Tumacácori National Historical Park, where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people once dwelled. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park offers a glimpse at 2,000 years of Arizona history. Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world-class galleries situated along meandering streets with hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panguitch, Utah

Panguitch captures the enduring pioneer spirit of Utah with its welcoming rural charm and a strong sense of heritage. Much of the town’s main drag sits on the National Register of Historic Places and offers quaint, Western-themed local shopping and dining options.

Related: American Small Towns Can’t-Wait To Visit Again

Panguitch is an important base camp for many of Southern Utah’s top natural attractions including Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, two vast expanses of national forests (Fishlake and Dixie), two national monuments (Cedar Breaks and Grand Staircase-Escalante), and several state parks.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Page, Arizona

A small town in northern Arizona, Page is located on the southern shores of magnificent Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The location is ideal for exploring many of the American Southwest’s national parks and monuments and discovering the unique culture of the Navajo Nation. Marvel at the beauty of the slot canyons as you hike with a Navajo guide in Antelope Canyon. Enjoy the majesty of the lake and surrounding red rock desert. Explore hundreds of miles of shoreline by houseboat powerboat, or kayak.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome, Arizona

A charming National Historic Landmark on Cleopatra Hill, Jerome is a former mining town. Meandering around the hilly, winding streets, visitors will discover galleries and art studios. Not forgetting its past, Jerome offers history buffs a wealth of experience through the Mine Museum, displaying artifacts representing the town’s past and present, and the Jerome State Historic Park, home to the Douglas Mansion.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman, Arizona

There is perhaps no better small-town welcoming committee than a group of friendly donkeys. Such is the case in Oatman where visitors will see the wild burros that freely roam the streets.

Related: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

The oldest continuously-inhabited mining settlement in Arizona, the town has stayed (relatively) populated thanks to its desirable location on Route 66—which it pays hearty homage to with the main street full of themed souvenir shops. It’s also notably home to the Oatman Hotel where actor Clark Gable and starlet Carole Lombard are rumored to have stayed after getting hitched in the nearby town of Kingman. 

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla, New Mexico

Although the town of Mesilla, in Southern New Mexico, is home to a mere 2,196 people, it’s a fascinating place to visit. Here you’ll find well-preserved architecture, history worth delving into, and high-quality restaurants. The plaza is the heart of Mesilla and that’s a good place to start exploring. In fact, it’s a national historic landmark. The San Albino Basilica dominates one side of the plaza. This Romanesque church was built in 1906 although its bells are older, dating back to the 1870s and 1880s.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia, Arizona

Spectacular scenery, Old West culture, mining history, and ghost towns meet art galleries and Arizona’s Wine Country vineyards. Patagonia is a renowned destination for birders attracted by the area’s spectacular array of exotic and unusual birds.

Related: Fascinating Small Towns You Should Visit on Your Next Road Trip

The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Patagonia Lake State Park are known for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways. The Paton’s house is well known for its hospitality to hummingbirds and the people who like to watch them.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted, and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.

Borrego Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Springs, California

Smack in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park lies the unpretentious town of Borrego Springs, population 3,429. It’s the only California town that is completely surrounded by a state park, and that’s just one item on its list of bragging rights. It’s also an official International Dark Sky Community—the first in California—dedicated to protecting the night sky from light pollution.

Borrego sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The downtown area has a passel of ice cream shops, restaurants, and lodgings, but the local art scene evokes the most community pride.

Here, in the middle of the desert, is a magical menagerie of free-standing sculptures that will astound you. Supersize prehistoric and fantastical beasts line area roads, the work of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone is a notorious, historic boomtown. Originally a mining hotspot, Tombstone was the largest productive silver district in Arizona. However, since that was long ago tapped dry, Tombstone mostly relies on tourism now and capitalizes on its fame for being the site of the Gunfight at the O.K Corral—a showdown between famous lawmen including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the Clanton brothers.

Related: Most Delightful Small Towns to Visit

East Allen Street is worth exploring: its boardwalks are lined with shops, saloons, and restaurants. Visit the Cochise County Courthouse and gallows yard which is now a museum.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Joyce Woodson

The Ultimate Guide to Camping in the Southwest

A road trip through the American Southwest is of the most iconic road trips in the country. Here’s what you need to know!

Picture it: craggy, towering, red-rock formations in every direction. You’re hiking through narrow slot canyons, down verdant riverbeds, and along snow-capped mountains. You’re identifying a variety of cacti—from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. Citrus-colored sunrises and sunsets define the days’ end. Inky night skies sparkling with stars are worth staying up through the night. The open road rambles on as far as the eye can see.

Driving an RV in Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is RVing in the American Southwest! It’s arguably wilder than anywhere else in the country and requires a bit more preparation and know-how than your average destination.

Feeling intimidated? Not to worry, you’re in the right place. Prepping starts right here, right now, so let’s dive in.

Apache Trail, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip

Before we begin, be sure to prep your RV for travel; inspect your RV tires, belts, hoses, check for leaks, you name it. That’s done? Great—now we’re really ready.

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

Step one: Find your route

Map out your destinations prior to hitting the road. In the Southwest, national parks and monuments, state parks, and other must-see places can sit hundreds of miles apart across arid landscapes with limited services in between.

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

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

Step two: Find a camp

Once you’ve mapped out your route and your destinations, it’s time to plan where you’ll spend your nights. Make sure you know the maximum length of your RV, towed vehicle, and tow hitch combined. The last thing you want is to drive all day to a campsite that’s too short for your setup. In national parks, the average campsite length is 27 feet but you may find some that go up to 40. Be sure to make reservations especially in high seasons. Many campgrounds and RV parks are fully booked months in advance.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step three: Take it slow

If you’re new to RVing, know that traveling in an RV takes longer. Don’t plot out your trips like you would in your car. You’ll rarely exceed 60 mph so plan to drive fewer miles in a day. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops for fuel, food, and rest breaks. Start long driving days early so you’ll arrive at the campground in time to set up and enjoy a desert sunset while toasting marshmallows around the campfire. Arriving early allows time to enjoy your surroundings and helps you avoid disturbing other campers after dark.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water, lots of water

In the Southwest, this is rule number one: water for you, your pets, and your vehicle. The heat of the Southwest is unforgiving from giving you a dehydration headache to an overheated engine.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks including Grand Canyon and Arches have free water-refilling stations at their visitor centers. Use them. In this dry climate, water is crucial.

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

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good rule of thumb for gauging water needs: One gallon of water per person per day. Fill up the fresh water tank in your RV before hitting the road. If you’re boondocking, double the water you think you’ll need.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro tip: If your engine begins to overheat turn off the A/C especially on steep grades. If necessary find a safe place to pull over and inspect coolant levels, fans, and any possible obstructions. About a half-cup of clean, air-temperature water (not cold; that can crack a hot engine block) added to the coolant tank can help get you to an auto repair shop. This is not a fix, it’s a Band-Aid. Use extreme care when removing the cap as pressure and hot steam may be released.

Date palm groove, Coachella Valley, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First aid, for you and your pets and your RV

Know that heat can mess with tire pressure, too. And any responsible RVer will want to travel with a first-aid kit, tool kit, fire extinguisher, coolant, and oil.

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

A weatherproof wardrobe

Then there’s your clothes closet. When packing for your Southwest trip, bring layers—the temperatures in the desert can vary 30 to 40 degrees in a single day.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cool, moisture-wicking clothes work well in the heat and then you can add layers at night or higher elevations. It’s not all low-lying desert in the Southwest (Arizona, for example, has an average elevation of 4,000 feet), and high-desert temperatures can plummet when the sun goes down. There can be snow flurries in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon while the temperature in the Sonoran Desert reaches 75 to 80 degrees.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see in the Southwest

You likely know the big national parks of the Southwest. Bucket-list destinations like Arches, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon attract millions of visitors a year. Although these spots shouldn’t be overlooked, lesser-known parks like Capitol Reef or Petrified Forest might get you closer to the quiet solitude you desire.

Related: Stunningly Beautiful Places in the Southwest

Canyonlands National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t forget the many state parks, national monuments, and national forests, either! Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Dead Horse Point State Park, Escalante-Petrified Forest State Park, Coconino National Forest…the list goes on. These lesser-known locations offer less-crowded trails, incredible photo ops, and easier social distancing.

Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 60 NPS sites in the Southwest and the NPS’ annual America the Beautiful Pass ($80) pays for itself after visiting just a few. But if you plan to spend an abundance of time in one state, consider purchasing that state’s parks pass. Utah, for example, has more than 40 state parks making the $150 pass a good value if they’re serving as your main playground. And, yes, Utah’s state parks have just about all the iconic Southwest landscapes you can imagine.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp in the Southwest

If your heart is set on staying at one of the crown jewels of the Southwest, book early. Reservations for most national parks can be made six months prior to your arrival date and you’ll need every day of that especially if your RV exceeds 27 feet as larger campsites are limited. Find more campgrounds in national forests or on Army Corps of Engineers land. Other camping options include private RV parks and resorts.

Tombstone, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A huge advantage to RVing the Southwest is the availability of boondocking options. There are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in this region and much of it is open for dispersed camping. Arizona alone is 38 percent federal land. Never mind Nevada, which is 85 percent. To find dispersed campsites, stop at the local BLM office ask at just about any local visitor center.

Related: 10 RV Parks in the Southwest that Snowbirds Love

Cedar Breaks National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro tip: If you’re interested in boondocking in the Southwest consider solar panels to maximize your RV’s off-grid range. Put all that desert sunshine to good use! Solar is an investment upfront but allows you to boondock off-grid at length, saving money on campsites over time.

Zion National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasonal considerations in the Southwest

The American Southwest ranges from the lowest point in the US to some of the highest peaks in the lower 48. This diversity creates a variety of weather conditions with the changing of seasons. Here’s a brief rundown on what to expect:

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer: Be prepared for temperatures well above 100 degrees in the low-lying desert regions of Southern California and Arizona. Expect temps into the 90s for most other regions of the Southwest.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter: Desert winters can be surprisingly chilly. As you reach higher elevations (Cedar Breaks National Monument, for example, sits at 10,000 feet), don’t be surprised to find snow and freezing temperatures. Be prepared with tools for snow removal and be ready to protect your RV pipes hoses from freezing.

Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall: Fall arrives late in the Southwest usually around early November. It brings with it stunning fall colors in places like Sedona, Flagstaff, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Carson National Forest.

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring: Traveling in the Southwest in the spring—think March and April—provides an opportunity to experience fields of wildflowers especially when it follows a wet winter. Check out places like Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Picacho Peak State Park for desert blooms.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah/Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To boost your luck at nabbing a quiet campsite and a quiet everything else, travel in the shoulder seasons and avoid holidays and weekends when possible. That aside, any time of year will make for a memorable RV trip in the American Southwest. But it’s proper planning for that trip that will make it comfortable, too.

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

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

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

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

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site.  Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.  

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor Center

See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours

Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in the Park

Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles. 

As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec West Self-Guided Trail

Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk

The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec

The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 318 acres

Date Established: January 24, 1923

Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 5,600 feet

Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park

Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Parking: RV and bus parking available

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Worth Pondering…

What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.

— Friedrich Schiller 

Monument Valley has Re-opened: What to Know Before You Visit

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has reopened

Monument Valley was described by the filmmaker John Ford (1895-1973) as “the most complete, beautiful, and peaceful place on earth.” Many of Ford’s films were westerns and filmed in Monument Valley, one of his favorite film settings.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, seeing the place in a movie is nothing like being there. As filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich explains, “It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend… You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.”

The Navajo Nation is reopening parks and businesses on a phased basis, welcoming visitors back to the community’s monuments, casinos, and unique attractions.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After more than a year of being closed during the pandemic, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is now open on a limited basis. The park that straddles the Arizona/Utah state line reopened last week after the Navajo Nation determined that the reservation has achieved the orange status of its COVID-19 reopening plan. According to the “Safer-at-Home” order issued August 12, 2021, the Navajo Nation is returning to “Orange Status”; thereby Navajo Parks and Recreation will continue to follow all safety protocols. It is mandatory that all visitors and tribal members continue to wear face masks at all times while visiting the Navajo Nation. According to the order, 50 percent capacity is permitted in most businesses including in restaurants, casinos, hotels and campgrounds, museums, and parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As part of the plan, several other destinations on the Navajo Nation—Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Navajo National Monument, Hubbell Trading Post, and Four Corners Monument—also are open to visitors under certain conditions. Visit your destination’s website for specific COVID-19 guidelines. 

Here is everything you need to know to plan a trip to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I drive through Monument Valley?

There are two ways to visit Monument Valley. You can enter the park and drive to the valley overlook but not beyond. Admission is $20 per vehicle for up to four people. Each additional person costs $6.

You need to book a tour to go on the full 17-mile Monument Valley loop drive. Self-driving is not allowed at this time. You’ll ride in your outfitter’s vehicle. According to Louise Tsinijinnie, media representative for Navajo Nation Parks, most vehicles are open-air and can hold 10 to 12 passengers. Tours typically cost $65-$75 per person, Tsinijinnie said. A list of tour guides is at navajonationparks.org.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Visitor Center

From the visitor center, you see the world-famous panorama of the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. You can also purchase guided tours from Navajo tour operators who take you down into the valley in Jeeps for a narrated cruise through these mythical formations. Places such as Ear of the Wind and other landmarks can only be accessed via guided tours. During the summer months, the visitor center also features Haskenneini Restaurant which specializes in both native Navajo and American cuisines, and a film/snack/souvenir shop. There are year-round restroom facilities. One mile before the center, numerous Navajo vendors sell arts, crafts, native food, and souvenirs at roadside stands.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The View Hotel and Camping at Monument Valley

For visitors wanting to stay inside Monument Valley, The View Hotel and Premium Cabins are open at 50 percent capacity as well. The campground and RV sites remain closed. Masks must be worn indoors, in any public areas, and on all guided tours. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is not a ‘valley’ in the true sense of the word but rather a vast, desert-like expanse of land punctuated by towering, huge stones that rise hundreds of feet in height. Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Area Geology

The geology of the area helps add to its grandeur. Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau which covers 130,000 square miles. More than 50 million years ago the area was a lowland basin that over eons of time and extensive layers of sedimentation, ceaseless pressures from below the surface, and eventual geological uplifts were transformed into a plateau. Then wind and water took over the task of creating the dramatic vistas and formations that we see today.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The current elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The floor is basically siltstone. Iron oxide gives the area its red color. The blue-gray rocks get their color from manganese oxide. The buttes are clearly stratified in several distinct layers: Organ Rock Shale, de Chelly Sandstone, and Shinarump Conglomerate.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is a part of the Navajo Nation. It is located on the Utah/Arizona border, east of Highway 163, midway between Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah. The park entrance is in Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternative to Monument Valley

Often described as a “Miniature Monument Valley”, the Valley of Gods is definitely worth checking out—and it’s totally free and without restrictions. The area is publicly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below Moki Dugway. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Navajo Name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks)

Elevation: 5,564 feet above sea level

Size: 91,696 acres (spans Utah and Arizona)

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne

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

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Sydney Smith

Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die

Stagecoach rides, Old West saloons, trading posts, dance hall girls, and shootouts enhance any visit to Tombstone

Tombstone invites visitors to walk in the footsteps of the West’s most famous outlaws and good guys, the Clantons and the Earps. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the “Town Too Tough to Die,” boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons. Tombstone is known for the famous street fight near the OK Corral between Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday vs. Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy and Ike Clanton.

The fierce gunfight was quick and when the bullets stopped flying, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury lay dead. Billy’s brother, Ike Clanton, kept his life that day but was eventually murdered near Springerville, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp needed weeks to recover from serious wounds but Doc Holliday was barely grazed by a bullet. Surprisingly, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The OK Corral still stands and gunfights are re-enacted as visitors are thrown back to a time when life was bold and uncompromising. Tourists can visit the many historical buildings dating back to the 1880s. Stagecoach rides, Old West saloons, museums, trading posts, dance hall girls, cowboys, and unique photo opportunities also add to the adventure.

In 1889, the New York Times referred to Tombstone as the “wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and Barbary Coast”. And while the American West had many of these old Western towns at one time, most of them have crumbled away to nothing or been torn down for the creation of modern buildings.

Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was probably the extreme violence that played up in dime-store novels that gave Tombstone its special mystique and allowed it to survive. Home of the fabled Boot Hill Graveyard, Tombstone is not a recreated town, but contains the actual buildings that existed in the 1880s when it grew up around the rich silver mines in the area. Western movies by the dozens have depicted the wild tales of Tombstone and, even though its heyday lasted only seven or eight years, this small town south of Tucson has come to epitomize the essence of the Old West.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Called “The Queen of the Boom Towns”, Tombstone is an especially popular vacation spot for vacationing families as well as snowbirds wintering in Arizona.

Cowboys and outlaws, frock coats flapping and six-guns ready, prowl the streets looking for a fight. Gunfire erupts and smoke drifts through town while marshals try to keep order. Ladies of the evening lounge on street corners in their colorful and daring outfits, while proper ladies in long gowns and parasols stroll the boardwalk.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone isn’t hard to explore by foot—being all of three blocks long and two blocks wide­—but it’s more fun to do in style by riding a stagecoach through town and listening to the colorful history unfold around the various buildings as you ride past.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other buildings worth exploring include the Tombstone Courthouse where much of Tombstone’s history is displayed, and the Bird Cage Theatre (6th and Allen, you can’t miss it), where ladies of the night entertained their male callers in small cage-like compartments suspended from the ceiling. Anyone who remembers the song, “She was only a bird in a gilded cage,” can relate to this. The song, highly popular in its day, was inspired by the Bird Cage Theatre.

Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among the many attractions of Tombstone is Boot Hill Cemetery on the northwest edge of town off Highway 80. Surviving a day in Tombstone was a victory as its famous Boot Hill Cemetery overflowed with those shot during poker games, killed in drunken-induced gunfights, and even hung for simply becoming a public nuisance. Undertaking was no doubt a lucrative profession. The cemetery takes its name from the fact that many of the people buried there died quickly and violently and were buried with their boots on.

OK Corral, Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As might be expected, the arid desert around Tombstone also boasts a number of towns that went bust—leaving in their wake skeletal remains of buildings and mines. For Old West enthusiasts, these ghost towns are well worth searching out. They include Charleston and Millville (nine miles southwest of Tombstone on Charleston Road, Fairbank (nine miles west of Tombstone on State Highway 82), Courtland (21 miles north of Douglas, off US Highway 191, Gleeson (16 miles east of Tombstone on Gleeson Road), Hilltop (36 miles southeast of Wilcox on the east side of the Chiricahuas), and Pearce (28 miles south of Wilcox on State Highway 186.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Fast is fine but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.

—Wyatt Earp

Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park is a staggeringly beautiful place. It’s as “Arizona” as it gets.

The Spanish found the desert to be very inhospitable. On their maps, central Arizona was labeled as “deplobado” meaning, “desolate wilderness.” My initial reaction was not that different!

Usery Mountain is where my love of and discovery of The Southwest began. That would be early April 1987 when we spent a week in site 48.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At that time, I wrote in my journal: “The spectacular desert mountain scenery here is breathtaking. When we first arrived in Arizona our reaction was why would anyone winter in this dreary, harsh, unforgiving desert environment, let alone live here. The Sonoran Desert grows on you with a beauty all its own. And the beauty of Usery Mountain is absolutely stunning.”

And we have enjoyed camping here numerous times since.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park became part of Maricopa County’s regional park system in 1961. The park is set 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 the most popular features of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support hanging gardens of Rock Daisy. The Wind Cave is formed at the boundary between the volcanic tuff and granite on Pass Mountain. Breathtaking views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered to all visitors.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain History

The traditional account of settlement of the Salt River Valley credits a former Confederate Officer and gold seeker, Jack Swilling, with the beginning of the modern irrigation in central Arizona. Swilling came into the Valley in 1867 and noted the presence of ancient canal systems of the early Native Americans who had irrigated the same lands.

Gambel’s quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If Swilling traveled between John Y.T. Smith’s hay camp a few miles east of downtown Phoenix and Fort McDowell, as he presumably did in the summer of 1867, he came within sight of Usery Mountain Park and even closer to the ruins of an old canal system and an ancient Native American village situated between the park and the Salt River. The first Swilling canal brought water to fields east of the present Arizona State Hospital near Phoenix and inspired the beginning of other canal building.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park became a park in 1967. Pass Mountain, also known as “Scarface” to the local folks, is the geological focal point of the park. The mountain itself was named for King Usery (sometimes spelled Ussery). “King” was his first name, rather than a title. He was a cattleman who was running stock in the area in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He had a tough struggle to survive and, apparently losing ground, moved up into the Tonto Basin country where his activities, unorthodox, provided him a kind of unwanted security…behind bars.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On January 5, 1892, the Globe-Florence stage was held up by two highwaymen and two bars of silver bullion valued at $2,000 were stolen. The driver identified the highwaymen as King Usery and Henry Blevins. Posses took the field, soon learning that Usery had been riding a black horse stolen from the Webb Ranch on Tonto Creek. At the George Middleton Ranch, the sheriff and his deputies were told that Usery had been seen burying something in swampy ground near the Salt River. One of the bars was quickly recovered. Surrounded at his ranch, Usery surrendered but a search revealed he had hidden two pistols inside his pants legs, suspending them from his belt with rawhide thongs. For this crime, Usery was sentenced to a term of seven years in the Territorial Prison in Yuma. Despite a successful plea for a new trial, the conviction stood. After two years, he was pardoned.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery wandered from the legal path a second time and was convicted of stealing cattle. He received a light sentence in Gila County and upon his release, he disappeared.

Usery Mountain Park is on the border of a mountain region. Nearby ranges are the Superstitions on the east, the Goldfields on the north and northeast, the Usery Mountains immediately northwest, and the McDowell Mountains across the Salt River to the northwest. A broad basin lies west and south of the area.

Hedgehog cactus in bloom at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Pass was also known for being a major sheep trail leading from the high country north of Mt. Baldy south to the Salt River Valley. Flocks of sheep, led by Mexican and Basque shepherds with their dogs, presented a picturesque sight in the spring and fall as they moved into or out of the Coconino plateau region.​

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

Usery Mountain Hiking Trails

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers over 29 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult. If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is barrier-free. If you are looking for a long more difficult hike, try the 7.1-mile Pass Mountain Trail. Another visitor favorite is the Wind Cave Trail that reaches high onto the mountain side and allows hikers onto the adjacent Tonto National Forest.

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

The trails within the Usery Mountain Regional Park are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

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

​Usery Mountain Picnic Areas

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a Day-Use Picnic Area and a Group Picnic Area. The Day Use Picnic Area provides a table, barbecue grill, drinking water, and restrooms for each site. These sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For large groups wanting to picnic together, weddings, or office parties, consider renting a ramada area. Usery Mountain has two group areas that offer two large ramadas with picnic tables and patio, barbecue grills, drinking water, electrical outlets, campfire pits, flood lights, and a nearby playground.

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

Camping at Usery Mountain

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 and offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring. Usery Mountain provides restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

From central Phoenix, take I-10 east to US 60 east. Exit Ellsworth Road north to the Usery Mountain Regional Park entrance.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

Usery Mountain Regional Park in spring © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes