Snowbird destinations: Florida, Part 2

Think Florida, and you no doubt have thoughts of dazzling white beaches, warm ocean breezes, wind-swept palms and other subtropical plants and trees, endless citrus groves, fresh-from-the-water seafood, delicious key lime pie, space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center, NASCAR drivers circling the track at Daytona International Speedway, well-manicured golf courses, the Everglades, Key West, and varied wildlife—alligators, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, ibis, anhingas,—and of course, Disney World and other Orlando-area theme parks.

At Florida's award winning state parks you'll discover "the real Florida." © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Florida is the only state where you can pretty well winter anywhere.

Where to Winter in Florida?

The short answer is ANYWHERE in the Sunshine State.

There are so many choices—the variety is endless from the First Coast, Space Coast, Emerald Coast, Nature Coast, Sun Coast, Gold Coast, Treasure Coast, to the Keys, the Everglades, and the MOUSE.

Visitors are amazed at how much Florida changes from place to place—from the extraordinary Keys to the Florida Panhandle, and from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

It depends on your interests and budget. The cost of RV parks increases as you travel south and with proximity to the Atlantic or Gulf Coast.

Enjoy a Florida sunset. Photo above Amelia Island. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The further south you go, the warmer the winter temperature. For example, the average January high temperature in the Florida Panhandle is in the low-60s while Fort Myers and Naples is in the mid-70s.

Orlando, Land of Theme Parks

Orlando is a whirlwind of theme attractions, from alligator farms and haunted houses to the major entertainment parks, such as Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort (with Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Wet ’n Wild Waterpark), Sea World Adventure Park and neighboring Discovery Cove, Gatorland, Cypress Gardens, Fantasy of Flight, and Holy Land Experience.

In the 1900s, the Orlando area was known for its cattle farms, and later for its orange groves. But, in the late 1960s, after several devastating freezes, civic leaders looked around for other business that would not be directly affected by fluctuations in the weather.

Already operating at this time, Cypress Gardens drew over a million visitors a year with its lush gardens and lavish water skiing shows in a relatively small entertainment park.

Roy Disney toured Cypress Gardens and soon convinced Brother Walt to build a theme park in Florida—and as they say, the rest is history.

There are four theme parks to enjoy at Disney World. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Orlando is the theme park capital of the world and Disney World is its acknowledged leader with four theme parks—Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom—and two water parks—Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon.

For over four decades, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground has been a vacation haven for Disney World guests who crave natural, rustic charm amidst the “most magical place on Earth.”

Nestled on 750 wooded acres of lush pine and cypress trees, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort offers four different types of campsites, including new Premium Campsites, and can accommodate everything from tents to 45-foot and longer vehicles, with a maximum 10 guests per site. Amenities vary, but each campsite is equipped with privacy-enhancing landscaping, water, cable television and electrical hook-ups, picnic table and charcoal grill; most locations also include sewer hook-up.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…
My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.

—Jerry Steinfeld

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Snowbird destinations: Florida

Florida has long been a haven for those seeking relief from the cold days of a northern winter. Most visitors are eager to trade in their snow shovels for waving palm trees and long walks on sun-kissed beaches.

Taking a stroll along a Florida beach at Lovers Key State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arriving Easter Week, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, stepped ashore, liked what he saw and christened the place La Florida, the Land of Flowers. What a sight that would have been.

This rich and diverse history can be explored in towns such as St. Augustine, the original site of Ponce de Leon’s landing and considered the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in America. The city was established 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Florida is more than 480 miles at its longest and 360 miles at its widest point with 1,200 miles of coastline, 7,700 lakes, and 11,000 miles of rivers and streams, plus the Everglades. As the poet Loren Eiseley said, “If there’s magic to be found on this planet, it is to be found in water.”

All Snowbird destinations have their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Fishing along the Nature Coast near Crystal River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The difference between Florida and Arizona is like the difference between jungle and desert, between the quiet Everglades and the raging Colorado River, between development and the untouched frontier, between ocean surf and palm oasis, and between flat grasslands and towering mountains.

For both Arizona and Florida, of course, climate is the big draw, and the two destinations certainly have that in common.

If you asked visitors to Florida for their most vivid impression of the Sunshine State, there’s no predicting the responses you might receive:

  • Visiting with Mickey Mouse and friends
  • Endless days of glorious sunshine
  • Beautiful sunset over shimmering ocean waves
  • Pristine beaches
  • Rows and rows of orange and grapefruit trees
  • Fresh-from-the-water seafood
  • Ever-delicious key lime pie
  • Space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center
  • NASCAR drivers circling the track at Daytona International Speedway
  • Quaint fishing camps along the Nature Coast or Lake Okeechobee
  • Paddling a canoe or kayak into the unspoiled environment
  • Observing Florida’s varied wildlife—alligators, manatees, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, ibis, anhingas
  • Well-manicured golf courses that challenge the best but still please the rest
  • Strolling the cobblestone streets of historic St. Augustine
  • Visiting world-class art galleries, mansions, and museums
Another enjoyable and relaxing day along Lake Okeechobee. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it may surprise the first-time visitor to the state, this popular winter destination is very different from place to place.

Florida offers some of the world’s most diverse and stunning scenery, from the rivers and forest of the northwest to famous Lake Okeechobee in center of the state to the quiet lagoons on the Keys.

Depending upon where you travel in the Sunshine State, you will find the Historical Florida, the Original Florida, the Theme Park Florida, the Natural Florida, and the Beachy Florida.

In this series of articles we’ll hopscotch the state and offer suggestions for discovering Florida as a Snowbird destination.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…
I am going to St. Petersburg, Florida, tomorrow. Let the worthy citizens of Chicago get their liquor the best they can. I’m sick of the job—it’s a thankless one and full of grief. I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor.

—Al Capone, 1899-1947

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Snowbird destinations: Texas, Part 3

Texas Spoken Friendly

Rio Grande Valley continued

World Birding Center

The World Birding Center (WBC) is a network of nine sites along 120 miles of river road from South Padre Island west to Roma, with habitats that range from “dry chaparral brush and verdant riverside thickets to freshwater marshes and coastal wetlands.”

Altamira Oriole at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters of the World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mission of the WBC is “to protect native habitat while increasing the understanding and appreciation of the birds and wildlife.”

The nine sites include Roma Bluffs (in Roma), Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (south of Mission), which serves as headquarters for the center, Quinta Mazatlan (in McAllen), Old Hidalgo Pumphouse (in Hidalgo), Edinburg Scenic Wetlands (in Edinburg), Estero Llano Grande State Park (south of Weslaco), Harlingen Arroyo Colorado (in Harlingen), Resaca de la Palma State Park (west of Brownsville), and South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Other protected areas include the Santa Ana National Wildlife (south of Alamo), Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (east of Rio Hondo), Sable Palm Grove Audubon Sanctuary (south of Brownsville), Frontera Audubon (in Weslaco), Valley Nature Center (in Weslaco), Los Ebanos Preserve (between Harlingen and Brownsville), Anzalduas County Park (at Anzalduas Dam on the Rio Grande River south of Mission), and Padre Island National Seashore

Nuevo Progreso

Green kingfisher at Estero Llano Grande State Park/World Birding Center south of Weslaco. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shopping is an adventure in the Mexican border towns. The recommended place to shop is Progreso, officially Nuevo Progreso. Park your car for a small fee on the U.S. side and walk across the Rio Grande Bridge. This little town seems to have been built just for Winter Texans. Every block has dentists and pharmacies, where you can have your dental work completed and save money on prescription medication. Mexican produced liquors, such as tequila and Kahlua are also a bargain. There are many fine restaurants in Progreso and shops sell handmade Mexican craft items, souvenirs, linens, blankets, and toys. Haircuts are also a bargain.

Progreso recognizes the economic contribution of Winter Texans by holding a Winter Texan Appreciation Day toward the end of March, with entertainment in the streets and free margaritas.

Winter reservations on the rise

In a recent press release (October 12) Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO) indicates that preliminary reports suggest that the upcoming winter season is shaping up to be at least as busy, if not busier, than last year for campgrounds, RV parks, and resorts that cater to Winter Texans.

A Valley birder. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Our members are reporting strong advance bookings that are at least on par with last year’s figures, while some parks are projecting occupancy gains of five to 15 percent or more,” said Brian Schaeffer, TACO’s executive director and CEO. Several park operators said they were pleased with the pace of winter reservations for the 2010-2011 season.

Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns and operates several RV resorts in the Rio Grande Valley, said its initial advance reservations for the upcoming winter were running eight percent ahead of last year’s figures.

Welcome Home RGV reports that more Winter Texans are expected this year because RV park reservations are up about 14 percent compared to last year.

Converted Texans

What do you call Winter Texans who decide to make the Rio Grande Valley their year-round home? They didn’t know what to call themselves—until now!

Historic Hidalgo Pumphouse. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Welcome Home RGV, a self proclaimed Winter Texan chamber of commerce, and the city of McAllen recently invited hundreds of year-round RV park residents to participate in an event that converted them into Texans.

The term—Converted Texan—was coined by Welcome Home RGV Magazine owner and publisher Kristi Collier.

Positive features of wintering in Texas: Welcoming attitude toward snowbirds, availability of citrus and fresh vegetables, proximity to Mexico, Tex-Mex food, warm climate, social activities, birding hotspots, spring wildflowers, reasonably priced RV parks, moderate cost of living

Negative features: Breezy and sometimes unpredictable weather

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan!

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Snowbird destinations: Texas, Part 2

Texas Spoken Friendly

Rio Grande Valley

The vast majority of Winter Texans flock to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas.

A Rio Grande Valley sunset. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The Valley,” as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

Technically not part of The Valley, nearby Rio Hondo, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island are also favorite roosts for Winter Texans. The South Padre Island beaches are never crowded, except during Spring Break, when no Winter Texan in their right mind would venture there.

The Valley lies at nearly the same latitude as Miami, Florida. Winters tend to be mild and a bit breezy; however, the weather can be unpredictable. The Valley enjoys a year ’round sub-tropical climate with an average temperature of 74°F. The average rainfall is 23.2 inches.

Unlike Arizona, the evenings are warm enough to wear shorts.

The "Killer Bee" welcomes you to Hidalgo. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley is arguably the best bargain in the U.S. for wintering in a warm climate. While the area offers everything you’ll find in other places, living costs are less expensive, with the added advantage of being right next door to Mexico.

Dining comes in all shapes and sizes in The Valley, beginning with Texas slow-cooked barbecues, where the pork, chicken, and beef fall off the bone, to Tex-Mex specialties, Mexican cuisine that’s as good as you’ll find in Mexico, fast foods, and buffets. Eating out here does not break the bank, and senior specials are available daily.

Long known to Midwesterners as a great winter spot, many other U.S. and Canadian RVers have recently discovered it, too. New Winter Texans continue to arrive each year and many, like us, become repeat visitors. Over 50 percent of Winter Texans have been visiting The Valley for eight or more years.

It has been said of The Valley that there are two kinds of ground cover: Perfect rows of irrigated citrus groves and winter vegetables; and semi-organized rows of recreational vehicles.

Newspaper headlines and signs welcome Winter Texans back home to The Valley.

In trying to define what makes the Winter Texans different from their Snowbird cousins in Florida, Arizona, and Southern California, it seems to us it has to with their roots and why they spend their winters here. Winter Texans come primarily from a Mid-West, small-town or rural roots—not that much unlike those that winter in Yuma. The majority of Canadians who winter in Texas are from Manitoba and Ontario.

Quinta Mazatlan is a popular stop for birders and non-birders alike. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the larger parks have highly organized activities to make sure you don’t get bored.

The Winter Texans have created a culture of their own. And they tend to do what they do back home. They are crazy for dancing!

Most activities center around dancing, dance classes, and dance workshops (from pre-beginners to Advance II to Phase VI)—square dance, line dance, round dance, ball room dance, mainstream dance, pattern dance, tap dance, 2-step, waltz, cha-cha, Latin dance, Country Western dance, West Coast swing, clogging—and Bible study.

Birding

Bird-watchers from around the world converge on The Valley to see rare and unique birds.

The Valley is a diverse ecosystem of semi-arid brush and wetlands that provide unique habitats for unusual plant and animal communities, which are found only in subtropical environments. Mostly frost-free, the valley contains the northern-most extension of the Mexican subtropical biota ecosystem, attracting a variety of neotropical birds more commonly found in Mexico.

Plain Chachalaca is one of many species of birds found in The Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much of the valley now supports extensive urban/agricultural activities, but numerous natural areas along the Rio Grande have been protected and provide oases for more than 500 bird species that reside in or migrate through this region.

Many of the subtropical species are south Texas specialties, meaning it’s the only location in the United States where these birds can be found. Although many of the Valley’s residents can be seen year-round,

The birds we’ve seen include green jay, chachalaca, great kiskadee, ringed and green kingfisher, green parakeet, elegant trogon, crimson-collared grosbeak, golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpecker, olive sparrow, white-winged dove, black-crowned warbler, Altamira oriole, white-tipped and Inca dove, long-billed thrasher, clay-colored robin, curved-bill curlew, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, great blue heron, little blue heron, great white egret, snowy egret, reddish egret, white-faced ibis, least bittern, brown and white pelican, cormorant, moorhen, American coot, wood duck, red-winged blackbird, Couch’s and Eastern kingbird, Northern cardinal, American finch, phoebe, white tailed hawk, vermilion flycatcher, and blue bunting.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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Snowbird destinations: Texas

Texas Spoken Friendly

As the temperature dips and the colder months loom, sun-loving snowbirds are getting ready to head to warmer locales.

White pelican in for a landing along the Texas Coastal Bend. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most snowbirds congregate in one of two areas: Coastal Bend—the Rockport-Fulton-Port Aransas-Corpus Christi corridor; and from South Padre Island and neighbor Port Isabel to the Rio Grande Valley from Brownsville to Mission and the Mexico border.

In other parts of the country they are known as snowbirds, but in Texas—a state famous for adding its unique flair—migrating Snowbirds have been dubbed “Winter Texans”.

Coastal Bend

As the state’s second-most popular vacation area (San Antonio is first), the Coastal Bend attracts between 5 and 6 million visitors annually and is the winter home for many RVers.

Located halfway between Houston and Brownsville, Corpus Christi bills itself as the “Sparkling City by the Sea.”

“Corpus”, as the locals call it, is a vibrant and attractive city that’s home to a number of excellent visitor attractions, including the Texas State Aquarium and USS Lexington Museum.

Enjoying life in the slow lane at Rockport-Fulton. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Aquarium’s focus is on native marine life that calls the Gulf of Mexico home. Nearby, within walking distance, is the 910-foot-long, 16-deck aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington. Enjoy a self-guided tour aboard this floating museum.

The bayfront is bounded by a spectacular two-mile seawall with stairs leading into the water, and several marina operations that offer sailing, dolphin watching, and deep-sea fishing.

The city encompasses part of the Great Texas Birding Trail and is a neighbor to the Padre Island National Seashore, the longest barrier island in the U.S. Visitors can enjoy the outdoors almost year-round here, for Corpus averages 255 days of sunshine a year.

A causeway crosses to Padre and Mustang islands with a road leading into Padre Island National Seashore, a stretch of undeveloped coast extending about 70 miles.

Just 30 minutes northeast of Corpus, lies Rockport—a enchanting village of fishing trawlers, bait shops, art galleries, charter boats, quaint shops, seafood markets and restaurants, and birds.

Rockport-Fulton is surrounded by the sparkling waters of Copano and Aransas bays and nestled among ancient, wind-swept oaks.

Searching for the endangered whooping cranes at their wintering grounds, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 36 miles northeast of Rockport, is known for its whooping cranes. Famed as the principal wintering ground for the whooping crane, the refuge is on a broad peninsula about 12 miles across the bay northeast of Rockport.

Port Aransas, a quaint fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico, is located on the northern tip of Mustang Island, across from Corpus Christi Bay. Mustang Island, which got its name from the wild horses that once roamed the island, is an 18-mile stretch of clean, sandy beach offering visitors birding, shelling, fishing, beach combing, surf fishing, and just plain relaxation.

While visitors can get from Port Aransas (known locally as “Port A”) via Highway 361 from Padre Island, the most scenic and enjoyable way is by ferry, which operates 24-hours-a-day. The gliding and diving of the pelicans and the seagulls provide entertainment during the short ride.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…

Wasn’t Born in Texas, But Got Here as Fast as I Could

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San Tan Mountain Regional Park, AZ

This is the final article in a 5-part series on Maricopa County Regional Parks.

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, one of ten Maricopa County Regional Parks, consists of 10,200 acres in the southeast Valley.

Located in the Southeast Valley (of the Sun), San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a hikers' delight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located just south of the Maricopa/Pinal County line near the Town of Queen Creek, the San Tan Mountain Regional Park has been used for decades for various recreation activities such as hiking, equestrian riding, and wildlife photography. The park is rich with unique historical, cultural, and biological resources.

This oasis of natural beauty is characterized by dramatic cliffs and rugged hills, meandering washes, and rolling bajada; and ranges in elevation from about 1,400 feet to over 2,500 feet.

Goldmine Mountain dominates the northern section of the park, and a spectacular San Tan Mountain escarpment cuts across the southwestern corner.

The vegetation changes from creosote flats to dense saguaro forest. In places, chain-fruit cholla stands higher than your head. Elsewhere, clumps of teddy bear cholla glow in the sunlight, looking almost soft enough to pet. (But don’t try it.)

Since the park is relatively undeveloped, your chances of seeing wildlife are good. Along with a variety of birds and lizards, you may spot chipmunks, rabbits, coyotes, and a snake or two.

The newly developed San Tan Mountain Regional Park is a great place for a picnic. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park is actually in Pinal County but is under the jurisdiction of Maricopa County Parks because Pinal County has not had the population to provide a tax base for park improvements. For many years this park area has had many horse trails, jeep roads, and unimproved trail routes.

The park lies just northeast of the large Gila Indian reservation. Much of the western area of the San Tan mountains is in the reservation and permission is required to hike in that area. However the actual park area has been set aside for future development.

Due to the two county involvement and the lack of funds (not surprising), delays in the planning and park work have slowed its development.

The history of the area is really the Gila Indians area before this was designated as a city park.

San Tan Mountain Regional Park has a Visitor’s Center. Here visitors can pick up information about the park, purchase souvenir items, visit with park staff, and see the wildlife exhibits or tortoise habitat.

Restroom facilities are available.

The park is slated for future development.

For San Tan Mountain Regional Park map, chick here.

Hiking
With about 45 miles of trail throughout the park, there are plenty of options, including trails that are less than three years old. The San Tan, Goldmine, and Moonlight trails opened in mid-2007; each is about 4 miles long. Winding south, the San Tan Trail offers a gentle walk as you travel gradually higher. After winding southwest past views of the San Tan Mountains, you’ll spot Camelback Mountain to the north and may catch a silhouette of downtown Phoenix.

Ample hiking trails amid the desert flora at San Tan Mountain. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another visitor favorite is the Malpais Hills Trail as it displays a unique perspective of Rock Peak and the Malpais Hills.

For a little more of a challenge, hike the Goldmine Trail along the lowest flanks of Goldmine Mountain. The up-and-down trail connects with Moonlight and San Tan trails after about 2.5 miles. From this point Moonlight Trail which takes you east about 1.2 miles to the trailhead for a 3.7-mile loop.

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated.

Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.

For San Tan Mountain Regional Park trail map, click here.

Camping is prohibited. San Tan Mountain Regional Park is Day Use only.

Location and directions
6533 West Phillips Road, Queen Creek Arizona 85242

From Mesa travel south on Ellsworth Road, which eventually turns into the Hunt Highway going East. Take the Hunt Highway, turning right onto Thompson Road. From Thompson Road, turn left on Phillips Road and park in the designated parking area. The turn-offs to Thompson Road and Phillips Road are both signed for the San Tan Mountain Regional Park.

From Florence/Coolidge take Hunt Highway north, turning left onto Thompson Road From Thompson Road, turn left on Phillips Road and park in the designated parking area.

For map, click here.

Worth Pondering…
North America is laced with nooks and crannies, good places that go undiscovered by many mainstream travelers.

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Lake Pleasant Regional Park, AZ

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, one of ten Maricopa County Regional Parks, is a scenic water recreation area in the northwest Valley.

Spring wildflowers attract Snowbirds and local residents during March and April. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The breathtaking views offer visitors a great place to relax, whether it is from a boat or shoreline picnic or camping site.

Lake Pleasant is created by the Waddell Dam which obstructs the Agua Fria River creating a huge watershed and recreational area. The Central Arizona Project Aqueduct diverts water from the Colorado River to the lake.

The park offers numerous activities including camping, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, picnicking, photography, and wildlife viewing.

Information is available at the Lake Pleasant Visitor Center about the Central Arizona Project, Waddell Dam, Lake Pleasant Park, the history of the area, and desert wildlife.

The Center also contains as a gift shop.

Step out onto the balcony surrounding the Visitor Center to get a beautiful view of Lake Pleasant and an up-close look at Waddell Dam.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, within the area controlled by the Northeastern Yavapai during the historic period, was inhabited by Hohokam peoples during the prehistoric era. Five archeological sites were located during an archeological study of the Lake Pleasant area. Included in these five archeological sites were a stone workshop, a farmhouse, a defensive site, and two small villages. Undoubtedly many more sites were once present along the Agua Fria but have gone under the waters of Lake Pleasant. The five sites located during the study were occupied during the period A.D. 700 to 1450.

Wildflowers at Lake Pleasant Regional Park, April 2010. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lake Pleasant Regional Park area, while historically part of the mining and range industries of Central Arizona, had no significant influence upon either. Prospectors met only with frustration. The few mines that did exist in the Lake Pleasant area were short-term projects.

There was no lack of prospectors who roamed the area in hopes of finding their bonanzas. Mollie Sawyer Monroe and Jacob Snively were among the more colorful.

Mollie Monroe, an eccentric female prospector during the 1860s and early 1870s, was a co-discoverer, along with her common-law husband George Monroe and others, of Castle Hot Springs. In 1877 Mollie was sent to Stockton, California, where Arizona’s mental patients were kept, after being declared insane. She died in 1902 at the State Hospital in Phoenix.

Jacob Snively, a man of unbounded energy as a prospector in California and Arizona, was notorious for his leading part in the Texas Revolution. He prospected the area about the same time as Mollie Monroe. Snively was killed by Big Rump (Wa-poo-i-ta), an Apache chieftain, in 1871 near the White Picacho, a prominent landmark about 18 miles northwest of the Park.

Hiking
Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers three trails for hiking use only.

Let's Go RVing to Lake Pleasant Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roadrunner Trail is a scenic 0.8 mile (1.3km) trail which overlooks Lake Pleasant and links the Visitor Center with picnic areas A, B, and the 10-lane boat ramp. There are a number of smaller trails that lead to the lake from Roadrunner Trail. Access to Roadrunner Trail is from the northeast corner of the Visitor Center parking lot.

The Pipeline Canyon Trail, the main hiking trail at the park is 2 miles (3.2km) in length. A floating bridge has been installed to connect the two sections of the trail during high water levels.

The Visitor Center Trail is a 1.5 mile (2.4km) trail which connects the Roadrunner Campground to the Visitor Center. This trail has interconnecting loops and some interpretive signage which makes it an ideal hike for visitors to stroll about, while enjoying the desert. Access to the Visitor Center Trail is from the northwest corner of the Visitor Center parking lot.

Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.

Boating
Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers two boat launching ramps: 4-lane and 10-lane. Both ramps have restroom facilities, paved parking lots, and are functional to a water elevation of 1,600 feet. The 10-lane parking area allows for 480 vehicles, 355 vehicles with trailers, and 124 cars. The 4-lane ramp is located at the north end of the lake and the parking area allows for 112 vehicles with boat trailers.

Camping
Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers 148 sites for RV and tent camping.

Lake Pleasant offers 72 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups at Roadrunner Campground and another 25 at Desert Tortoise Campground; and 41 semi-developed sites at Desert Tortoise Campground

Hedgehog cactus in bloom at Lake Pleasant, a Maricopa County Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each developed site has water, electricity, covered ramada, picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring. Each semi-developed site and tent site has a covered ramada, picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring.

Other facilities include modern washrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, and a dump station. All sites are first-come, first served. In the event that the campground is full when you arrive, the park has an overflow area where you can park until a space becomes available.

For a map of Desert Tortoise Campground, click here.

For a map of Roadrunner Campground, click here.

Nightly camping fee for developed sites is currently $25.00 including tax, for semi-developed sites $17, and primitive $10.

Day use fee is $6.00.

Location and directions
41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown, AZ 85342
Located on the northern edge of Peoria and about 45 minutes from downtown Phoenix, the park has several entrances. To get to the main area, take I-17 north to Carefree Highway (SR 74). Exit Carefree Highway and travel west 15 miles to Castle Hot Spring Road, and north 2 miles to Lake Pleasant Regional Park entrance.
For map, click here.

Please note

Maricopa County parks will be unveiling a new reservation system this winter. Campers have been asking for a system that would allow them to reserve a campsite prior to arriving at the park.

Free camping
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department is offering free camping at most county park campgrounds until Wednesday, November 10, 2010. This free camping program is NOT being offered at Lake Pleasant.

Worth Pondering…
I am part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson

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Usery Mountain Regional Park, AZ

This is the third article in a 5-part series on Maricopa County Regional Parks.

Usery Mountin Regional Park, one of ten Maricopa County Regional Parks, is a 3,648 acre preserve at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Located on the Valley’s east side, Usery Mountain contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.

Saguaro and ocotillo (in bloom) at Usery Mountain Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Pass is 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, present a picturesque sight in the spring and fall as they move into or out of the Coconino plateau region.

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 these lands.

Swilling presumably traveled between John Y.T. Smith’s hay camp a few miles east of downtown Phoenix and Fort McDowell in the summer of 1867 and 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.

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 provided him a kind of unwanted security…behind bars.

Hiking
Usery Mountain 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 from easy to difficult.

A delightful end to another day in paradise. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These trails are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. Whether you are looking across the plain, flat land, south of the recreation area, or to the west or north, great distances and surrounding mountains can be seen and enjoyed.

Arguably the most popular hike at Usery Mountain is the 3.2-miles Wind Cave Trail up Pass Mountain. Although the elevation gain is 820 feet, it’s considered a moderate hike. Views from this 2,840-foot elevation are offered breathtaking.

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike, the Merkle Trail is barrier-free.

For a long more difficult hike, try the 7.1-mile Pass Mountain Trail.

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated.

Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.

Camping
The park’s modern campground is excellent for RVs of all sizes. Although our 2009-2010 snowbird travels did not take us to Usery Mountain, we have enjoyed camping here on numerous occasions over a period of 20 years. We have found that most of the 73 sites provide adequate space for our 40-foot motorhome.

All sites are paved and have water and 50/30-amp electric service. Other facilities include modern washrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, and a dump station. All sites are first-come, first served. In the event that the campground is full when you arrive, the park has an overflow area where you can park until a space becomes available.

Another beautiful day NOT shoveling snow up north...wherever your north is! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For campground map, click here.

Nightly camping fee is currently $25.00 including tax.

Day use fee is $6.00.

Location and directions
3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa, AZ 85207
From Loop 202 exit east on East McKellips Road to Usery Pass/East Ellsworth Road, north to Usery Mountain Regional Park entrance.

For map, click here.

Please note

Maricopa County parks will be unveiling a new reservation system this winter. Campers have been asking for a system that would allow them to reserve a campsite prior to arriving at the park.

Free camping
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department is offering free camping until Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Visitors who pay the camping fee for one night will receive the next night of equal value for free. Offer NOT valid for group campground reservations or unit fees. Limit of one free night per family, household, and/or group in a seven day period (Monday through Sunday). Rain checks will NOT be issued if space is not available.

For additional information visit the Maricopa County Regional Parks website or phone (602) 506-2930.

Worth Pondering…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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Cave Creek Regional Park, AZ

This is the second article in a 5-part series on Maricopa County Regional Parks

Cave Creek Regional Park, one of Maricopa County’s parks, is a 2,922 acre preserve of lush desert foothills located north of Phoenix, just off the Carefree Highway. It’s a beautiful preserve with hills to climb for valley views, a new visitor’s center, and easy flatlander trails for equestrians, hikers, and bikers alike. Ranger-led educational tours and events are also available.

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

The steep and very rocky slopes offer excellent habitat for a variety of desert plants. The sparse soil is very well drained, retaining little moisture. Yet the steep slopes provide profuse runoff when it does rain. The result is exceptionally beautiful desert scenery, including spectacular spring wildflower displays following rainy winters like this year.

The saguaro is the largest cactus of the Sonoran Desert and its best known feature. It is actually a rather finicky plant and thrives only in particular conditions such as those found at this park.

When thinking about Arizona and deserts, almost all non-desert dwelling people immediately visualize forests of multi-armed saguaros, expansive landscapes, and spectacular sunsets. All can still be experienced here.

A teddy bear cholla attack can be painful. Watch where you step. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch out for the small, shiny cactus known as the teddy-bear, or “jumping” cholla. It propagates by dropping spiny links off its arms. If you brush against one while hiking, a loose piece may “jump” into your leg! Not only is this painful, but they can be difficult to remove. Look for the green-barked palo verde, Arizona’s state tree. It blossoms a brilliant yellow in the spring. Also, you’ll recognize the ocotillo during springtime by the flaming red flowers on the tips of its branches.

Wildlife is common at the park. Birdlife is especially abundant, ranging from tiny hummingbirds to cactus wrens and hawks.

Beware of rattlesnakes while on the trail! They are not common in the winter but may be out sunning themselves on cool spring mornings. They are not aggressive if you simply give them a wide berth.

The park and surrounding area have a long history of mineral exploration. Prospectors worked the area from the 1870s, discovering minor deposits of copper, gold, silver, lead, and tungsten. Today, abandoned mines can be observed along several of the park trails.

Hiking

Enjoy the beauty of Cave Creek sunrises and sunsets. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 11 miles of multi-use trails.

You can bring your own horse as there is a horse staging area or rent a horse from Cave Creek Trail Rides located at the park.

The Go John Trail loops around a mountain to provide the illusion of being miles away from civilization.

Camping
The park’s modern campground is excellent for RVs of all sizes. Although we found over half of the 38 sites too short or unlevel for our needs, numerous sites including several pull-throughs were more than adequate for large rigs. We opted for Site 23, a mostly level back-in site with adequate space for our 40-foot motorhome. All sites are paved and have water and 50/30-amp electric service.

Other facilities include modern washrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, and a dump station. All sites are first-come, first served. In the event that the campground is full when you arrive, the park has an overflow area where you can park until a space becomes available.

For campground map, click here.

Nightly camping fee is currently $25.00 including tax.

Day use fee is $6.00.

It's another beautiful day at Cave Creek, a Maricopa County Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All services and shopping are available just outside the park entrance, heading east on the Carefree Highway in the cities of Cave Creek and Carefree.

The park is roughly fifteen minutes from two major freeways—I-17 and Loop 101.
From I-17 exit east on Carefree Highway for 7 miles to 32nd Street and north (left) to the park entrance.
From Loop 101exit north on 32nd Street to the park entrance.

For map, click here.

Please note

Maricopa County parks will be unveiling a new reservation system this winter. Campers have been asking for a system that would allow them to reserve a campsite prior to arriving at the park.

Free camping
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department is offering free camping until Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Visitors who pay the camping fee for one night will receive the next night of equal value for free. Offer NOT valid for group campground reservations or unit fees. Limit of one free night per family, household, and/or group in a seven day period (Monday through Sunday). Rain checks will NOT be issued if space is not available.

For additional information visit the Maricopa County Regional Parks website or phone (602) 506-2930.

Worth Pondering…
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
“Welcome to our home.”
—Jeanette Chico, When It Rains

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Best kept secret in camping

One of the best kept secrets in the World of RVing is campgrounds located in county parks! But where are they, and how do you find them?

Sometimes they’re located in Woodall’s and Trailer Life Campground Directory. Often times they’re not. County parks are often relatively small and off the beaten path. But if you’re looking for a quiet place to relax, do some bird watching, hike a near-by trail, or do some great sightseeing, it might be well worth seeking out some of these neat spots.

Maricopa County Regional Parks, AZ

Camping at Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A county park system worth checking out is Maricopa County Regional Parks in Arizona. The parks circle the Phoenix metropolitan area and all are within a 45-minute drive from central Phoenix. And unlike Arizona State Parks, no Maricopa County park has been closed or has suffered cutback in services.

With 10 regional parks totaling more than 120,000 acres, Maricopa County Regional Parks feature the nation’s largest county park system.

So many local attractions and the great variety of outdoor recreation are sure to keep you coming back over and over.

The park system began in 1954 to preserve the mountain areas for future generations to enjoy. A federal act in the 1970s called the Recreation and Public Purposes Act allowed Maricopa County to acquire thousands of acres of parkland from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at $2.50 an acre. A combination of leased and purchased land has allowed this department to develop a regional park system that preserves open space and provides the residents of Maricopa County with an opportunity to enjoy “Natural Arizona.”

Enjoying the Sonoran Desert at Cave Creek Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The positive surroundings and the competently maintained facilities attract people from near and far including numerous snowbirds that have discovered this central Arizona gem.

Please note

  • Not all parks have developed camping facilities.
  • Currently all camping sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • County parks will be unveiling a new reservation system this winter. Campers have been asking for several years for a system that would allow them to reserve a campsite prior to arriving at the park.
  • All trails within the Maricopa County Park System are for non-motorized use only.

Free camping
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department is offering free camping until Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Visitors who pay the camping fee for one night will receive the next night of equal value for free.

Offer NOT valid for group campground reservations or unit fees. Limit of one free night per family, household, and/or group in a seven day period (Monday through Sunday). Rain checks will NOT be issued if space is not available. Offer NOT valid at Lake Pleasant Regional Park.

An amazing display of spring wildflowers at Lake Pleasant Regional Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For additional information visit the Maricopa County Regional Parks website or phone (602) 506-2930.

Maricopa Regional Parks
Adobe Dam Regional Park
Information: (602) 506-2930
Location: 23280 N. 43rd Avenue, Glendale, AZ 85310
Camping is prohibited; day use only

Buckeye Hills Regional Park
Information: (623) 932-3811
Location: 26700 West Buckeye Hills Drive, Buckeye, AZ 85326
Camping is primitive

Cave Creek Regional Park
Information: (623) 465-0431
Location: 37019 N. Lava Lane, Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Cave Creek offers 38 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electric hook-ups
Group camping available

Estrella Mountain Regional Park
Information: (623) 932-3811
Location: 14805 West Vineyard Avenue, Goodyear, AZ 85338
Estrella Mountain offers seven developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

Lake Pleasant Regional Park
Information: (928) 501-1710 (Contact Station) or (602) 372-7460 (Operations Center)
Location: 41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown, AZ 85342
Lake Pleasant offers 72 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups at Roadrunner Campground and another 25 at Desert Tortoise Campground; and 41 semi-developed sites at Desert Tortoise Campground
Group camping available

McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Information: (480) 471-0173
Location: 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr., Fountain Hills, Arizona 85255
McDowell Mountain offers 76 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

San Tan Mountain Regional Park

San Tan Regional Park is a hikers' delight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Information: (602) 506-2930
Location: 6533 West Phillips Road, Queen Creek Arizona 85242
Camping is prohibited; day use only

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
Information: (480) 488-6601
Location: 44000 N. Spur Cross Road, Cave Creek, AZ 85331
The newest addition to Maricopa County Regional Parks System, the conservation area in the north Valley encompasses 2,154 acres of diverse, rugged upper Sonoran Desert.
Camping is prohibited; day use only
The area is slated for future development

Usery Mountain Regional Park
Information: (480) 984-0032
Location: 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa, AZ 85207
Usery Mountain offers 73 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

White Tank Mountain Regional Park
Information: (623) 935-2505
Location: 13025 N. White Tank Mountain Road, Waddell, AZ 85355
White Tank Mountain offers 40 semi-developed sites with no water/electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

To be continued…

Worth Pondering…
Every day is a good day.
—Yun-Men

Best kept secret in camping

One of the best kept secrets in the World of RVing is campgrounds located in county parks! But where are they, and how do you find them?

Sometimes they’re located in Woodall’s http://www.woodalls.com/ and Trailer Life Campground Directory http://www.trailerlifedirectory.com/ . Often times they’re not. County parks are often relatively small and off the beaten path. But if you’re looking for a quiet place to relax, do some bird watching, hike a near-by trail, or do some great sightseeing, it might be well worth seeking out some of these neat spots.

Maricopa County Regional Parks, AZ

A county park system worth checking out is Maricopa County Regional Parks http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/ in Arizona. The parks circle the Phoenix metropolitan area and all are within a 45-minute drive from central Phoenix. And unlike Arizona State Parks http://azstateparks.com/index.html , no Maricopa County park has been closed or has suffered cutback in services.

With 10 regional parks totaling more than 120,000 acres, Maricopa County Regional Parks feature the nation’s largest county park system.

So many local attractions and the great variety of outdoor recreation are sure to keep you coming back over and over.

The park system began in 1954 to preserve the mountain areas for future generations to enjoy. A federal act in the 1970s called the Recreation and Public Purposes Act allowed Maricopa County to acquire thousands of acres of parkland from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at $2.50 an acre. A combination of leased and purchased land has allowed this department to develop a regional park system that preserves open space and provides the residents of Maricopa County with an opportunity to enjoy “Natural Arizona.”

The positive surroundings and the competently maintained facilities attract people from near and far including numerous snowbirds that have discovered this central Arizona gem.

Note: Not all parks have developed camping facilities.

Currently all camping sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

County parks will be unveiling a new reservation system this winter. Our visitors have been asking us for several years for a system that would allow them to reserve a campsite prior to arriving at the park.

All trails within the Maricopa County Park System are for non-motorized use only.

Free camping
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department is offering free camping until Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Visitors who pay the camping fee for one night will receive the next night of equal value for free. Offer NOT valid for group campground reservations or unit fees. Limit of one free night per family, household, and/or group in a seven day period (Monday through Sunday). Rain checks will NOT be issued if space is not available. Offer NOT valid at Lake Pleasant Regional Park.

For additional information visit the Maricopa County Regional Parks website http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/ or phone (602) 506-2930.

Maricopa Regional Parks
Adobe Dam Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/adobe/
Information: (602) 506-2930
Location: 23280 N. 43rd Avenue, Glendale, AZ 85310
Camping is prohibited; day use only

Buckeye Hills Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/buckeye/
Information: (623) 932-3811
Location: 26700 West Buckeye Hills Drive, Buckeye, AZ 85326
Camping is primitive

Cave Creek Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/cave_creek/
Information: (623) 465-0431
Location: 37019 N. Lava Lane, Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Cave Creek offers 38 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electric hook-ups
Group camping available

Estrella Mountain Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/estrella/
Information: (623) 932-3811
Location: 14805 West Vineyard Avenue, Goodyear, AZ 85338
Estrella Mountain offers seven developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

Lake Pleasant Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant/
Information: (928) 501-1710 (Contact Station) or (602) 372-7460 (Operations Center)
Location: 41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Rd., Morristown, AZ 85342
Lake Pleasant offers 72 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups at Roadrunner Campground and another 25 at Desert Tortoise Campground; and 41 semi-developed sites at Desert Tortoise Campground
Group camping available

McDowell Mountain Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/mcdowell/
Information: (480) 471-0173
Location: 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Dr., Fountain Hills, Arizona 85255
McDowell Mountain offers 76 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

San Tan Mountain Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/santan/
Information: (602) 506-2930
Location: 6533 West Phillips Road, Queen Creek Arizona 85242
Camping is prohibited; day use only

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/spur_cross/
Information: (480) 488-6601
Location: 44000 N. Spur Cross Road, Cave Creek, AZ 85331
The newest addition to Maricopa County Regional Parks System, the conservation area in the north Valley encompasses 2,154 acres of diverse, rugged upper Sonoran Desert.
Camping is prohibited; day use only
The area is slated for future development

Usery Mountain Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/usery/
Information: (480) 984-0032
Location: 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa, AZ 85207
Usery Mountain offers 73 developed camping sites suitable for RVs of all sizes, with water and electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

White Tank Mountain Regional Park http://www.maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank/
Information: (623) 935-2505
Location: 13025 N. White Tank Mountain Road, Waddell, AZ 85355
White Tank Mountain offers 40 semi-developed sites with no water/electrical hook-ups
Group camping available

To be continued…

Worth Pondering…
Every day is a good day.
—Yun-Men

Maricopa County Regional Parks, AZ

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