Fall Colors and Wildlife on the Sonoran Desert Rivers in Arizona

December 2017 – The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is known for its cactus and warm dry climate, but one of our favorite things in the Sonoran Desert is the waterways – the rivers and lakes that flow through the arid land.

Sunset on Verde River Arizona RV camping-min

Sunset on the Verde River

While Spring is an awesome time to see wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert, the months of Fall are a beautiful time to explore the central Arizona waterways because the cottonwood trees and other riverside deciduous trees begin to change color.

RV camping on Arizona Verde River-min

The many waterways in Arizona are wonderful to explore.

Autumn comes later to the Sonoran Desert than most places, peaking sometime in November. Some of our favorite Arizona fall foliage images are in this article about Tonto National Forest here. They are from the eastern side of Phoenix just beyond the edges of the city of Mesa along the Salt River and the Verde River (“Green River”).

This year we returned to the banks of the Verde River once again to witness the colorful display.

Verde River Arizona RV camping-min

A thick bed of fallen leaves leads to the river.

The Verde River rises and falls depending on rainfall and water releases at the dam upstream. In some places the water had seeped up between the trees and made wonderful reflections surrounded by fallen leaves.

Verde River Reflections in Arizona-min


Big cottonwood trees reached out across the Verde River.

Verde River Camping in Arizona-min


Suddenly a group of wild horses appeared on the far shore.

Wild horses on the Verde River in Arizona-min

Wild horses come for a drink on the opposite shore.

Central Arizona’s wild horses live in small family groups all along both the Salt River and the Verde River. We have seen them many times over in areas east of Mesa along the beautiful Bush Highway which parallels the Salt River.

Suddenly one of the horses crossed the river and approached quite close.

Wild horse Verde River Arizona camping trip-min

The wild horses of the Salt and Verde Rivers are much loved by Phoenix residents and visitors.

His tail and his mane were filled with burrs from running around in the prickly desert. It gave him a bit of a rastafarian look!

Wild horse in Verde River Arizona burrs in its tail-min

This guy’s tail and mane were thick with burrs.

Arizona wild horse with burrs in its mane-min

Quite a hairdo!

We wandered away from the river after the horses left and found some stately saguaro cacti with their arms outstretched toward the heavens.

Saguaro cactus near Four Peaks Arizona-min

Arizona is the only state where saguaro cactus grows, and they bring a lot of personality to every landscape.

A yucca plant erupted in a spray of gold along its spikey leaves as the sun lit it from behind.

Yucca plant in Arizona-min

A sunlit yucca.

Up on a wire we noticed a regal Harris Hawk surveying the scene below him.

Harris Hawk Lake Meade Utah RV trip-min

High wire act — a Harris hawk surveys his domain.

He moved very slowly, first staring in one direction and then staring in another, surveying the ground for any signs of scurrying feet that might make a good snack.



Harris Hawk on an RV trip to Lake Meade Utah-min


We have gotten a kick out of seeing various animals in our travels, including wild burros, buffalo, prairie dogs, mountain blue birds and herds of cows in the Black Hills of South Dakota this past summer (blog posts here and here).

Arizona’s most scenic spots off the beaten path offers the opportunity for some particularly special wildlife encounters too, and I wrote an article in the December issue of Motorhome Magazine describing the wide variety of animals we’ve seen in our Arizona RV travels.

Motorhome Magazine Feature Arizona Animals by Emily Fagan December 2017-min

Motorhome Magazine December 2017 issue
Article by Emily Fagan – Photos by Emily and Mark Fagan

Motorhome Magazine has posted the article online at this link: Animal Encounters in Arizona.

Dead tree in Arizona-min


From snowy egrets to burrowing owls to peach faced lovebirds to sandhill cranes to hummingbirds and a whole host of four legged critters like big horn sheep and mountain lions (not to mention the wild horses), there are all kinds of animals to be seen all around Arizona!

Arizona is also famous for its beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and we caught a few along the Verde River.

Pink sky at sunset in Arizona-min

Sunsets in Arizona are stunning and surprisingly reliable!

Sunset on the Verde River on an Arizona RV trip-min

Twice the color!

Arizona sunset-min


Sunset on the Verde River in Arizona-min


Lots of snowbird RVers are headed to Arizona now and in the coming weeks, and we hope you all take a drive on the beautiful Bush Highway and catch a glimpse of the wild horses and perhaps a Harris hawk or two!

Happy days on an Arizona RV trip-min



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More info about the Sonoran Desert and its rivers:

Other blog posts with wildlife sightings in Arizona:

All of our blog posts from central Arizona – Places to camp, scenic drives, hikes and wildlife

A sampling of our Motorhome Magazine articles:

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    24 thoughts on “Fall Colors and Wildlife on the Sonoran Desert Rivers in Arizona

    1. Merry Christmas to you Emily and Mark! What a great gift of color and beautiful scenery for our white Christmas now unfolding in NH!

      • Thank you, Pete! Sounds like Santa will come in for a soft landing on all that wonderful snow in New England. I think he has to use different landing gear here in the desert! Have a great Christmas and thank you so much for your many fun comments all year long!

      • Thank you, Tara! And thank you for being with us on our journey all these years!! I still can’t believe you recognized our rig that day out in the boonies when you were riding your tandem on that lonely Utah road. I’m so glad you stopped by!! Merry Christmas!!

    2. Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays, Em & M, from Bette & Glen Horsmann, in Sun City, Aryzona.

      Looks like you are enjoying the wonders of our Valley of the Sun, and Arizona’s diverse terrascape for the next few months; where the Winter is outstanding – both temperature wise, and its scenic beauty is stunning.

      Yes, it’s tough to wear a wind-breaker on your bike adventures -along with long pants; but worth a little bit of extra clothing – instead of shoveling snow or walking on ice.

      Always enjoy your wonderful writing, and excellent photograpy, so keepem coming!

      By the way, if you want a day long adventure, head up through Cave Creek, and Carefree; and take a scenic journey north on the Bloody Basin Road, which circles around to I-17; a-ways up through Aqua Fria National Monument, via Camp Creek and Seven Springs. Takes a FULL day, but very enjoyable drive. And yes, just fine with a Dually – our mode of transportation! Probably don’t want to go to Sheep Bridge, over the Verde River, or the Verde Hot Springs, on this journey, as this would make for a LONG journey, but turn west (toward I-17) when the road t-bones at the intersection to Sheeps Crossing (east) to the Verde. See how it feels to take the old stage coach route to Prescott, but leave your buggy here. Unfortunately, our Contesoga’s are way’y to long to negotiate the few sharp curves you’ll encounter on the trip.

      Tis big country in Bloody Basin; worthy of exploration if you’re here for awhile.

      • We love that drive, Bette & Glen, and did it many years back in a Honda Element. Thanks for the suggestion — maybe we’ll check it out again this year!! Thank you so much for reading, and merry Christmas to you both!!

    3. Beautiful pictures! That is a pretty area and one we’d like to explore more. We’d really like to kayak the Verde River in the spring some time. Love the pictures of the hawk and the colorful trees and sky!

    4. These pictures are amazing! We have been wintering in Casa Grande, and really would love to explore the area you have highlighted. In our car…. I doubt our MH would be the right choice, having driven it from Peyson to Mesa… and that was a highway! Thanks for the pics! From a fellow desert lover (could be dessert lover, too! LOL)!

    5. Surreal, beautiful pictures!! You have been blessed with such a wonderful gift of having an eye for the lens!! Thanks for sharing!!


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