Mining, Ranching, Birding & More In Patagonia, Arizona

Our narrative begins about 60 miles southeast of Tucson in a small historic mining town that still holds claim to a huge treasure—the birding kind.

On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At an elevation of over 4,000 feet between the Santa Rita Mountains and the Patagonia Mountains, you arrive in the town of Patagonia. Here, the South Pacific Railroad once hummed with cattle ranchers and prospectors who worked the nearby silver mine. Ranches still dot the hills and historic ghost towns have replaced thriving mining outposts.

At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.

Although the rail tracks were abandoned by 1970, the depot is now restored and adjoins a park in the center of town. McKeown Avenue is Patagonia’s authentic but small main street, housing the local saloon and shops.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia is home to several arts and multicultural festivals throughout the year and also has numerous galleries here you can browse local pottery and paintings as well as other contemporary and traditional arts.

Chances are you’re here for Patagonia’s other side—the one that draws thousands of birders each year. Look closely, because this is the time of year when butterflies linger and more than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy since 1966. Bird enthusiasts come thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of some of them. Of particular interest are the gray hawk, vermilion flycatcher, violet-crowned hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, zone-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, white-throated sparrows (in winter), and black-bellied whistling duck.

You’re in luck: Now through September draws the greatest diversity of birds to what the Nature Conservancy dubs “the richest of the remaining riparian (or streamside) habitats in the region.”

Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights
Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights

The 850-acre sanctuary is where a cottonwood-willow canopy follows the ribbon of gentle Sonoita Creek, which runs year-long. You can opt for a guided tour of the preserve or you can head to the open-air ramada visitor center to study maps, peruse a list of the latest bird sightings, and get suggestions from the ranger to shape your own visit.

Three miles of easy walking trails take you along Sonoita Creek and through rare, 140-year old cottonwood willow forest.

A trip to Patagonia would not be complete without a visit to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build.

212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of the town of Patagonia, including violet-crowned hummingbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, gray hawks, and varied buntings. This amazing diversity results from its location in an ecologically rich and healthy corner of the state. Surrounding the Paton Center you will find: The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Patagonia Mountains (one of Arizona’s newly declared Important Bird Areas), the San Rafael Grasslands, and the Sonoita Plain.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights
Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights

Continuing south on Arizona Highway 82 is Patagonia Lake State Park, a small paradise for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. Fishermen and beachcombers enjoy a man-made lake more than two miles in length. At an elevation of 3,750 feet and adjacent to the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, the park becomes a year-round haven with 105 campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, water, and 20/30/50-amp electric service; select sites also have a ramada. A dump station is centrally located in the park.

Patagonia Lake offers a 0.5-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek, a popular birding area. Additional trails can be accessed through Sonoita Creek Natural Area.

Worth Pondering…
I only went for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
—John Muir

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What Is Birding?

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Public beaches are often crowded, noisy places. But less popular areas can be incredibly peaceful.

A total of 50 miles of hiking trails meander through maritime forests, interior wetlands, historic districts, marsh ecosystems, and the beautiful beaches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A total of 50 miles of hiking trails meander through maritime forests, interior wetlands, historic districts, marsh ecosystems, and the beautiful beaches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are you ready to hit the beach without the crowds? Where you can find a piece of the coast to call your own?

Epoch Times recently named Cumberland Island as one of the top three off the beaten path and secluded beaches in the world. That’s high praise when you’re only bested by Hawaii and Spain.

Published in 21 languages in 35 countries across five continents, Epoch Times said, “Roughly the size of Manhattan Cumberland island is Georgia’s southern-most island and a place where you can truly get away from the modern world. With no bridge to come to Cumberland island the travelers have to use ferry or private boat to get to this beautiful place which is manage by the national park service. ”

Cumberland Island also appears on lists as one of America’s Most Beautiful Beaches and Best Wilderness Beach in the Southeast.

In naming Cumberland Island one of America’s best wild beaches, the Wilderness Society stated, “Glistening white beaches with sand dunes, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes fill this 16-mile-long island, the northern portion of which is designated Wilderness. Visitors can access the beach at designated dune crossings. Wildlife include alligators, loggerhead turtles and pelicans, as well as many fish that make this a prime place for surf fishing.”

Dungeness Ruins has a very long history to tell. The name came originally from the very first property, which was a hunting lodge named Dungeness, in the area, owned by James Oglethorpe in 1736. In 1803, it was replaced by a mansion built by Nathaniel Greene, which was later on used as a headquarters by the British. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dungeness Ruins has a very long history to tell. The name came originally from the very first property, which was a hunting lodge named Dungeness, in the area, owned by James Oglethorpe in 1736. In 1803, it was replaced by a mansion built by Nathaniel Greene, which was later on used as a headquarters by the British. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket list destination.

Before the National Park Service acquired most of the island for a national seashore, 90 percent of it was the private domain of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) and their descendants. The Carnegies bought the island in the 1880s and built five mansions on it during the next two decades. The most superb house was the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness on the island’s south end.

Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors.

We stopped during our visit to the island in early December 2007 to gaze at the tall chimneys, solid brick walls, and other stark remains of the old mansion.

After pausing at an old cemetery where war hero, “Light Horse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) was interred following his death on the island in 1818, we further explored the island. Continuing the 3 ½-mile Dungeness Trail as it loops around the island’s southern tip, we walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds including the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern.

Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On several occasions we encountered many of the 250 feral horses that roam the island, descendants of steeds the Carnegies released during their heyday. Beloved by visitors, they are perhaps the most popular feature to the island.

We saw in Cumberland what the Native American inhabitants glimpsed thousands of years ago, as they roamed the densely wooded, 18-mile-long isle of land hunting and fishing.

We saw what enchanted Spanish missionaries saw in 1566. And what endeared the British, who built forts in the early 1700s to protect their fledgling Georgia colony. And what captivated industrialist Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, who purchased large swaths of the island in the 1880s and built lavish winter retreats.

And what bewitched John F. Kennedy Jr., who married Carolyn Bessette at a tiny African-American church near the island’s north end. He had personally painted and worked on the chapel himself through the years when visiting friend Gogo Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, and swore he’d wed there one day. And so he did.

After meandering lazily along the wide, sandy, shell-flecked beach, we slowly made our way to Sea Camp dock where we re-boarded the passenger ferry for a sunset cruise back to the mainland (St. Marys, Georgia).

Don’t be late for that last ferry or you’ll have to spend the night on the porch of the visitors’ center.

We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is high season, both for tourists and insects, so be sure to reserve your spot on the ferry and the tour well in advance. There are refreshments on the ferry, but nothing on the island, so be prepared!

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire

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Explore The Diversity Of New Mexico State Parks

From rugged mountaintops to grassy plains to lowland desert, New Mexico is indeed a true Land of Enchantment.

Elephant Butte State Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Elephant Butte State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing six of the world’s seven life zones, the state’s landscapes exude diversity. Offering unlimited of unique opportunities, the Land of Enchantment attracts millions of visitors who seek out its scenic beauty and countless outdoor recreation activities.

Enjoy camping, hiking, biking, fishing, boating, birdwatching, picnicking, photography, stargazing and much more. You can do all this and more for bargain prices in the state parks of the Land of Enchantment.

From June to August 2014, New Mexico State Parks hosted 1,740,799 visitors. Elephant Butte State Park had 395,522 visitors during that time. And since the water is up, state park officials expect considerably more this summer. The water level of the state’s largest and most popular lake is up over 45 feet from the 2013 low point.

For those looking for a less crowded getaway, the Land of Enchantment boasts 35 state parks and 24 of those parks have ponds, streams, rivers, or lakes. When planning a weekend getaway or summer vacation, consider coordinating visits to state museums and monuments and national parks in the area.

To get started, check out the following state parks.

Leasburg Dam State Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Leasburg Dam State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottomless Lakes State Park: Located just 14 miles southeast of Roswell, Bottomless Lakes State Park is your place for bottomless fun. Enjoy non-motorized boating in your kayak or canoe, camp, fish, picnic, swim, hike, go birding or even scuba dive! The unique lakes at this park are sinkholes, ranging from 17 to 90 feet deep. The greenish-blue color created by aquatic plants is what gives the lakes the illusion of great depth.

City of Rocks State Park: A kid pleaser that looks like a sci-fi movie set, the “city” is the result of erosion of rocks deposited after a mega volcanic eruption 34.9 million years ago. Located between Silver City and Deming, City of Rocks offers a visitor center and observatory, camp sites, hiking trails, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, birding, stargazing, picnic areas, modern restrooms with hot showers, and a desert botanical garden.

Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte State Park: New Mexico’s largest state park offers restrooms, picnic areas, playgrounds, and camping with developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs and boating facilities that can accommodate kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats.

Caballo Lake State Park: Framed against the Caballo Mountains, the lake boasts an array of water recreation, such as boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, swimming, and fishing. The park has 170 campsites, many offering utility hookups for RVs.

Leasburg Dam State Park: A short 25 minute drive north of Las Cruces, this park offers peace and relaxation, canoeing and kayaking, hiking and birding, an observatory that offers night sky programs, and small and big rig RV camping.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park: On the Rio Grande near Mesilla, this quiet park has self-guided nature trails, ranger-guided tours, and a visitor center that’s a great place for information about the area and its wildlife.

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park: Near Alamogordo, this park offers views of the Sacramento Mountains, a historic ranch house, nature trails, camping, and an oasis of pools of water under the cottonwood trees of Dog Canyon.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancho Villa State Park: Located between the border communities of Columbus and Palomas, Mexico, this unique park and campground offers a chance to explore both of now-friendly little towns and learn about their unique roles in history. The park’s exhibit hall has a vintage aircraft and displays that bring to life the days of Camp Furlong, the Pancho Villa Raid, and a fascinating chapter in military and Borderland history. The campground, particularly beautiful when cactuses are in bloom, has utility hookups for RVs and a playground for youngsters.

Rio Grande Nature Center State Park: Located in Albuquerque on the Rio Grande flyway, the park offers excellent birdwatching opportunities throughout the year. There are indoor and outdoor wildlife viewing areas overlooking ponds, and trail access to the Rio Grande.

Rockhound State Park: Campgrounds, trails, wildflowers, the scenic Little Florida Mountains and, of course, the geological specimens that attract rockhounds from around the world, are stellar attractions for this park near Deming.

Santa Rosa Lake State Park: This reservoir on the plains of eastern New Mexico offers fishing, boating, camping, and hiking, as well as abundant bird watching opportunities. Equestrians are welcome at the Los Tanos Campground.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on the Public Lands Of New Mexico

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

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Top Campgrounds, RV Parks & Resorts For Outdoor Recreation (Birding & Hiking)

These selected RV parks offer outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation including birding, hiking, and fishing.

A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A+ Motel & RV Park is centrally located in Cajun Country near Calcasieu “Big” Lake and other great fishing, hunting, and birding destinations and the Creole Nature Trail All American Road.

Enjoy the Old West in and around Angel Lake RV Park in Wells, Nevada. Some of the least known, pristine outdoor recreation areas in the West is all easily accessible. Deer, antelope, and other big game populate the surrounding back country. Anglers will find nearby lakes, reservoirs, creeks, and streams much to their liking. Angel Lake, tucked into the East Humboldt mountain range, is a particular favorite for its fish and striking 8,400 foot scenery.

World-class birding and the Texas Tropics surround you at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort in Mission. The World Birding Center Headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park welcomes Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort residents to the top birding observation center in the nation. You can bike through the Park or take advantage of the convenient tram service.

Thousands of acres of state and federally protected wildlife habitat, lakes, parks, trails, and a 40-foot high Hawk Observation Tower on the banks of the Rio Grande River are within easy walking distance of your front door at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort. Additionally, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) outdoor butterfly park is adjacent to Bentsen Palm Development.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Bentsen Palm Village RV Park, Mission, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque Bird Watcher’s RV Park is a small mom and pop operation offering basic gravel parking lot type sites with full hookups. It’s nothing fancy but is quiet and clean and handy to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

RVers, birders, photographers, and all lovers of nature and the outdoors are attracted to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese arrive for the winter each November amid a backdrop of purple mountains clothed in autumn colors and bathed in the light of New Mexico’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Catalina State Park protects a choice section of desert on the western base of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. The environment offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. An equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders and plenty of trailer parking is also available.

Miles of equestrian, birding, and hiking trails wind through the park and the adjoining Coronado National Forest, as well as an interpretive trail to a prehistoric village.

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. 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. These trails are popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains. The park’s modern campground is excellent for RVs of all sizes.

Wake up to a breathtaking sunrise; wind up the day with a spectacular sunset at the Van Horn KOA, set in a beautiful desert valley surrounded by mountains. This country setting, landscaped with native plants that attract wildlife, is filled with the sounds of birds. Visit Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks, Fort Davis and the town of Marfa, whose “Ghost Lights” have defied explanation since 1883. The full-service KOA Cafe can deliver a Texas dinner to your campsite.

Vogel Talks RVing selected the list of top campgrounds, RV parks, and resorts from parks personally visited.

A+ Motel & RV Park, Sulphur, Louisiana

Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Angel Lake RV Park, Wells, Nevada

Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort, Mission Texas

Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park, San Antonio, New Mexico

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona

Crystal Lake RV Park, Mims, Florida

McCammon RV Park, McCammon, Idaho

North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas

Quail Ridge RV Park, Huachuca City, Arizona

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona

North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
North Llano River RV Park, Junction, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Van Horn KOA, Van Horn, Texas

Wildhorse Resort & Casino RV Park, Pendleton, Oregon

Worth Pondering…

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

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My 5 Favorite State Parks

Every year, America’s nearly 8,000 state parks see more than 720 million visitors—more than two-and-a-half times the number of all visits to national parks, which include marquee names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of the park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.

Chances are you’re not too far from a state parks. Visit a state park today.

Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree. But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, debate, and sometimes agreement.

Here are My 5 Favorite State Parks.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. Witness hawk migrations and enjoy bird walks and natural history tours at this key migratory stopover.

You can spend a whole day exploring bird life along a one-mile walking trail through sugar hackberry, Rio Grande ash, and Texas ebony; and the six-mile paved inner and outer loops. Or take the tram or rent a bicycle to meander around the loops.

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

One of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas
The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling at Valley of Fire State Park. The terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here.

Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution. Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives. Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Consisting of 6,150 acres with two miles of sugar white sand beaches and three fresh water lakes, Gulf State Park has a modern full-service campground, cabins, cottages, back country trails, and the largest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

The park also features an interactive nature center, nationally recognized scenic nature trail, new tennis courts, beautiful beach pavilion, 18-hole Refuge Golf Course, and a 900-acre lake for fishing in the picnic area on Lake Shelby.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys”.

Custer State Park touts itself as one of the few remaining wild sanctuaries in the country. Elk, mountain goats and nearly 1,300 buffalo roam this 71,000-acre park, set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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RV To The Sun: Arizona Grand Tour Continues

Arizona is destination like no other.

Prescott   © Rex Vogel, all rights
Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights

Arizona has everything: Lakes and mountains, forests and rivers. Mostly, though, Arizona has desert. Acres and acres of desert. Dee-lightful.

From towering red rock spires to urban excitement, to the Grand Canyon’s stunning vistas to quiet mountain towns; Old West legends to Native American and Mexican culture, and professional sporting events to world-class golf—Arizona has it all!

Arizona is all of this, but there is so much more that awaits the RV traveler.

Prescott

Nestled in a stunning mountain bowl and surrounded by a large ponderosa pine forests, this beautiful town is steeped in history with an authentic taste of western heritage. Banners proclaim Prescott as “Everyone’s Home Town.” You won’t find high rises, but the downtown businesses clustered around the 1916 Yavapai County Courthouse and its plaza are thriving.

On one side of the Court House Plaza is Whiskey Row. It’s more sedate now than it was prior to 1900 when the whiskey flowed and the faro tables were jammed 24 hours a day in its forty or so saloons. The former territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott boasts 525 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights
Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights

Monument Valley

The red buttes protruding from the painted sand of Monument Valley look like memorials sculpted by a mythical goddess.

Sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in movies directed by John Ford.

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

Jerome

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights
Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights

Jerome is high up on the side of a mountain. When I say on the side of a mountain, I literally mean that. At an elevation of 5,248 feet, Jerome hangs precariously on the 30-degree slope of Cleopatra Hill on the edge of Prescott National Forest. In fact, through the years some of the houses have lost their grip and have slipped down the slope.

This hidden gem was once a roaring mining town of 15,000 people, with multistoried buildings and fine homes. For a time, Jerome was the state’s fourth-largest town. But like all towns in the West, founded on digging up a limited resource, it is now a mini-version of its former self.

Jerome started off as a copper mining town and became known as the wickedest town in the West, with more than its share of saloons, opium dens, and brothels.

Birding & Patagonia

Vermilion Flycatcher Vermilion Flycatcher at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rightsat the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights
Vermilion Flycatcher at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights

Home to many talented artists, artisans, and writers, Patagonia is located in a lush riparian habitat where Sonoita Creek meanders year-round between the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains. The diversity of vegetation (riparian, desert, and mountain) provides sustenance for more than 300 bird species—including Mexican and Central American species that reach the extreme northern limit of their range here.

The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, and Patagonia Lake State Park are renowned for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways.

Oatman & Route 66

The romance of Route 66 continues to captivate people around the world. Running between Chicago and Los Angeles, Route 66 earned the title “Main Street of America” because it wound through small towns across the Midwest and Southwest, lined by hundreds of cafés, motels, gas stations, and tourist attractions.

Oatman: Living Ghost Town, Gunfighters & Burros © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving a twisted portion of Route 66 to the historic town of Oatman is a favorite Arizona road trip. Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains.

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this living ghost town that provides, not only a handful of historic buildings, but costumed gunfighters and 1890s style ladies strolling the wooden sidewalks, as well as the sights of burros walking the streets.

Please Note: This article is one of an on-going series on Arizona destinations.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

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Arizona Getaways: Top 10 & More

In an earlier post, I posed the question, What is your favorite Arizona destination?

Spider Rock Lookout, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Spider Rock Lookout, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since I found it impossible to choose just one favorite Arizona destination, I decided to create a top 10 list instead. At times, a Top 10 List just doesn’t cut it, either.

Without question, Arizona is a melting pot of scenic variety. Across the state, dramatic rockscapes, ancient petroglyphs, and postcard moments abound. Continuing the best of Arizona… oh please. What are we waiting for?

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sheer sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads—the North and South Rim drives. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls and a site of special significance for the Navajo.

The campground, located in a shallow valley less than ¼-mile from the visitor center, was a wonderful surprise. The campground is large with approximately 100 spacious campsites, plus a large group camping area. We had no difficulty is finding a suitable site for our 40-foot motorhome.

Acorn Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Acorn Woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding & Ramsey Canyon

Known worldwide as a birding hotspot, Ramsey Canyon is home to more than 400 species of plants and more than 170 species of birds.

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads, where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands”.

This combination of factors gives Ramsey Canyon Preserve its notable variety of plant and animal life, including such southwestern specialties as Apache and Chihuahua pines, elegant trogon, and berylline and violet-crowned hummingbirds. The featured jewels of this pristine habitat are the 14 species of hummingbirds that congregate here from spring through autumn.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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 OK Corral still stands and gunfights are re-enacted as visitors are thrown back to a lime 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.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique rock formations and unusual landscapes can be explored at Chiricahua National Monument. Eons ago, lava flows covered the region, creating a dense layer of lava rock. Over the years the rocks cracked and withered away resulting in spectacular, startling rock formations that today make up the Chiricahua Mountains.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest Natopnal Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Petrified Forest Natopnal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park preserves one of the world’s largest and most vibrantly colored assemblies of petrified wood, historic structures, and archeological sites.

The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert along with archaeological sites and historic structures, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Please Note: This article is one of an on-going series on Arizona destinations.

Worth Pondering…

My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.
—Diane Arbus

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Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts

Spring wildflowers, autumn colors, year-round birding, two miles of scenic walking trails, a picnic area shaded by Argentine mesquite trees are all available at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 323 acres, this park is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden, founded in 1925 by mining magnate and philanthropist Col. William Boyce Thompson.

In 1917 Col. Thompson served as co-leader of a Red Cross mercy mission to Russia, where he came to understand the importance of plants as the ultimate source of a large portion of mankind’s food, clothing, and shelter. It was then, that he determined to use his wealth to improve the use of plant resources. The Arboretum is one of his legacies.

Col. Thompson’s goal was to bring together plants from arid lands so that scientists and researchers could study, experiment, research, and investigate uses and attributes that made the plants unique. He also wanted the arboretum to be open to the public. By the time he died in 1930, the arboretum had already gained a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Arizona.

Thompson’s home, the 8,000-square-foot Picket Post House, is immediately adjacent to the arboretum and is easily viewed from the far end of the main trail. It was in private hands for years, but in 2008, the state purchased it with Heritage Funds and it is now under park management.

The Arboretum features plants from the world’s deserts, towering trees, captivating cacti, sheer mountain cliffs, a streamside forest, panoramic vistas, many natural habitats with varied wildlife, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, specialty gardens and more.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cooperatively managed by the University of Arizona and Arizona State Parks, the arboretum sits at the base of the Picketpost Mountains and features a collection of 3,200 different desert plants in a unique series of botanical gardens, and a 1.5-mile main loop walking trail that roughly parallels the normally dry Silver King Wash.

The main trail begins at the visitor center and quickly enters the colorful Hummingbird/Butterfly Garden, with a collection of plants designed to bloom throughout the year to attract Arizona’s diverse hummingbird and butterfly species.

A 2.5-acre Demonstration Garden shows various plants in functional landscapes; an area complete with patios, walls, shade structures, vine arbors, walkways, and rockwork.

Several trails branch off from the first part of the Main Trail, so you don’t have to walk far to see the highlights, and much of the trail system is wheelchair-accessible.

The historic Smith Interpretive Center, a short walk down the main trail contains botanical exhibits and displays, and two display greenhouses feature cacti and other succulents that might not otherwise survive the winter cold at this 2,400-foot elevation.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shorter trails cut through three desert environments. Find native medicinal and edible plants in the Sonoran Desert; plants from desert landscapes in western Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Chihuahua Desert; and flora from the Cuyo, Monte, and Chaco regions of Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay in the South American Desert.

Look for the bizarre boojum trees from Baja California. The two specimens were brought here from Mexico in the 1920s and are the tallest ones on display in the U.S. The tall conical plants are related to the native ocotillo.

The Arboretum’s Australian Walkabout, Eucalyptus forest, South African collection, and herb garden offers more specific collections, colorful wildflowers, and varied cacti.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 270 species of birds have been recorded, including Gambel’s quail, Canyon wren, and black-throated sparrows, making it a prime spot for birders. A checklist of birds is available upon request. Ayer Lake and Queen Creek on the Main Trail are good places to watch for wildlife; and you may even see endangered species such as the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish.

Queen Creek cuts through the Arboretum’s bottomlands, and supports the water-loving trees that take root there, including Fremont cottonwood, Arizona ash, black willow, and Arizona black walnut. Take a look at the spiny branched ocotillo, the green-stemmed Palo Verde, the thorny acacias, the low-growing mesquite, and the golden-flowered agaves.

Visit the Arboretum and have your horizons expanded as to the value and use of plants and trees from arid lands for food, shelter, and livelihood, both in the past and the present.

Details

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Elevation: 2,400 feet

Location: U.S. 60 near mile marker 223

Directions: From junction Highway 79 and Highway 60, 12 miles east on Highway 60

Address: 37615 U.S. Hwy 60, Superior, AZ 85273

Phone: (520) 689-2811

Entrance Fees: $10; children ages 5-12, $5; age 4 and under, free

Websites: www.azstateparks.com and www.ag.arizona.edu

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Plants of the World’s Deserts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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Saguaro National Park: Two Districts, One Park

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms.

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (scientific name Carnegiea gigantea) is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the US, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson.

The saguaros are the highlight of this national park, of course. The scenery is spectacular and captures the beauty that is so unique to the region.

The saguaro cactus is a large, tree-sized cactus with a relatively long lifespan. It’s beautiful white, waxy flower (which blooms late May-July) is the Arizona state flower and is a favorite treat for the diverse animal populations that call Saguaro National Park home.

Saguaro National Park has two districts. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems.

The Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District are approximately 30 miles (45-60 minutes) apart. While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas worthy of a visit.

The Tucson Mountain District (West) Red Hills Visitor Center has excellent facilities for a fine interpretive program. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Tucson Mountain District (West) Red Hills Visitor Center has excellent facilities for a fine interpretive program. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. The Western Tucson Mountain District is generally lower in elevation with a denser saguaro forest.

The Rincon Mountain District  includes a one-way paved road drive, the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, that winds through the spectacular saguaros and is easily navigable by RVs under 35 feet long and less than 8 feet wide. This 8-mile loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. You may want to stop at the visitor center for a guide to the natural and cultural history that can be viewed along the drive. This forest of impressive saguaros is a must-see when visiting the Tucson area.

Speaking of Saguaros…

  • Start out as tiny black seeds no larger than a pinhead
  • Frequently spend their early years under the protection of a so-called “nurse tree,” such as a mesquite or palo verde
  • Grow very slowly—seedlings might poke up only a quarter-inch after a year of life and may be barely a foot tall by the time they’re 15 years old, often living 75 years before sprouting their first arms
  • Reproduce with the help of pollination by birds, insects, and nectar-feeding bats
  • Provide homes for Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers, which excavate nest cavities in saguaros; other birds including elf owls, finches, and sparrows often move into abandoned nest cavities
The Rincon Mountain District  drive, the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Rincon Mountain District drive, the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

The average life span of a saguaro cactus is 150 years, but some plants may live more than 200 years. A 20 foot tall saguaro weighs approximately 1 ton (2000 pounds).

Details

Saguaro National Park

Entrance Fees: $10/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Established: National Monument, March 1, 1933; National Park, October 14, 1994

Size: 91,445 acres

2013 Visitor Count: 678,261

Website: www.nps.gov/sagu

Saguaro National Park Headquarters and Rincon Mountain District (East)

Address: 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730

Directions: From I-10 exit # 275 (Houghton Road) drive 9.5 miles north to Old Spanish Trail and turn right; the park entrance is 3 miles southeast down Old Spanish Trail on your left

Phone: (520) 733-5153

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park-Tucson Mountain District (West)

Address: 2700 North Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743

Directions: From I-10 Exit # 242 (Avra Valley Road) drive 5 miles west to Sandario Road and turn left; drive 9 miles south on Sandario Road to Kinney Road and turn left; the visitor center is 2 miles down Kinney Road on your left

Alternate Directions: From I-10 Exit #248 (Ina Road) drive west 2.5 miles to Wade Road and turn left; drive 0.6 miles to a big curve; at this point Wade Road will change names to Picture Rocks Road; drive 6 miles west on Picture Rocks Road (while on Picture Rocks Road you will enter and exit Saguaro National Park) to Sandario Road and turn left; drive 3.5 miles south on Sandario Road to Kinney Road and turn left; the visitor center is 2 miles down Kinney Road on your left

Phone: (520) 733-5158

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jodi Picoult

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