Florence, AZ – Few Tourists & Lots of Soul!

February, 2015 – Florence, Arizona, is a historic small town situated about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. One of the prettiest old buildings in the center of this town is the old courthouse. Its steeple can be seen peeking above the rooftops on the streets of the historic district, and when I saw the full moon rising behind it, I feverishly ran around in front of the building to line up the perfect photo.

“Can we help you?” An old guy standing with his friend on the steps of the courthouse yelled out to me.

“Oh…no — It’s the moon — it’s gonna make a great picture — with the courthouse and the lights…” I yelled back, waving my arms and sounding like a crazy woman.

He looked at me like I was out of my mind and nodded slowly.

Florence Arizona Courthouse with full moon

By the light of the moon – the courthouse in Florence Arizona

Just then, another crazed photo junkie came running out of the nowhere, his iPhone held high. He gestured towards the sky and the courthouse and yelled, “Are you doing what I’m doing?”

“Yes!” I laughed, and for the next few minutes we had a merry old time taking pics of the stately courthouse as the moon silently made its course into the sky. When our shutter clicks finally slowed down, he began telling me all about the beautiful cactus sightings he’d had while cruising around the desert in his jeep that afternoon.

His girlfriend suddenly appeared, and started telling me how much she loved this courthouse. “It has so much character!” She said.

Saguaro cactus balancing a full moon

A saguaro cactus delicately holds the moon…

They sounded like such tourists. I just had to ask where they were from. I was sure it would be Minnesota or Alberta or some other cold place very far away up north.

“I was born and raised in Phoenix,” The fellow grinned at me. “But now I live in Florence.” He wrapped his arm around his girlfriend. “Brenda grew up here in Florence.”

Florence Historic District

And that’s what made me fall in love with this town during our weeklong stay. It’s not the history, even though almost every building in town has a historic plaque on it, and many buildings are very cool adobe with massively thick walls. And it’s not the quaint main street, because, in fact, the main street of historic Florence is frighteningly deserted and not at all quaint at the moment. Almost every storefront sports a “For Lease” sign, and only a tiny handful are actually open for business.

Florence Arizona historic main street

Main Street

Nope. It is the spirit of the folks that live there that make Florence unique. They just love their special corner of Arizona, and we had one surprise and fun encounter with the locals after another!

The old Florence Hotel building stands tall and proud on the main street of town. In one corner of the building there is a little fudge shop which looks like it would be a trendy coffee bistro in any other touristy American town. When I asked about the coffee, though, the gal behind the counter shook her head. “We don’t have fancy coffee. We just have plain coffee. It’s a dollar a cup.”

Florence Arizona Historic District and Florence Hotel

The historic district — the Florence Hotel is on the right

Well, the truth is, it is specially brewed one cup at a time, and it was one of the tastiest cups of coffee I’ve had in ages!

As we prowled around the old Florence Hotel building, we found some photos of the building as it looked in its heydey at the turn of the last century. Other than the clothes on the people and the cars parked out front, it didn’t really look all that different!

Arizona Florence Hotel 1910

The Florence hotel in 1910

Late one afternoon we were out for a walk, and we heard live music coming from one of the town buildings. We heard a saxaphone and a little band playing “Summertime…and the livin’ is easy.” We walked closer and saw a big sign that said “Event.” Just inside a gate, we saw a cluster of people milling around along with three musicians making music on a porch, and there was a table covered with a table cloth where a woman was seling beer.

Aha!! This deserved an even closer look!

We passed a sign that said “McFarland State Historic Park,” and since this was a public place, we decided to go right on in! Beers in hand, we started mingling with the group, and we quickly discovered this was a monthly gathering for the community (held the first Thursday of every month). Someone handed us tickets for a raffle, and then suddenly everyone began standing up to introduce themselve and their businesses.

Florence Hotel back porch

Historic Florence Arizona flower box

 

When our turn came, we exchanged surprised glances and then blurted out the truth — we were travelers visiting Florence for a while, and when we saw the beer and heard the music, we just had to check out the party! That got a laugh, but we were warmly welcomed, and everyone came up afterwards and wanted to make sure we knew about all the various fun things there were to do around their town.

All the town merchants were at this gathering, from the manager of the local McDonalds to the folks from the hair salon to a couple of realtors. The band member who had been playing the stand-up bass turned out to be from the local historical museum, and she invited us to come by the next day. What a lucky break that was. The museum is a bit south of town, not near the historic district, and we might have missed it otherwise!!

1860 Antiques sign

Tourists, boutiques and trendy bistros are rare in Florence
but if you see this antique shop, do at least stop and feed the cat!

The museum has a huge array of intriguing artifacts, and the first things that caught our eye was the furniture made of saguaro cactus ribs. Those towering Arizona cacti that have their arms held eternally aloft are actually a melon-like material inside with a ribbed structure that gives the cactus its shape. This furniture turned out to be a very creative use of those ribs!

Saguaro cactus furniture

This furniture is made of saguaro cactus ribs!

Florence is home to the Arizona State Prison (Yuma’s Arizona Territorial Prison — the “Hell Hole of the West” — was moved to Florence from Yuma in 1908), and there is a grisly display of the various implements used to end the lives of the worst criminals over the years. A series of rope nooses fill a wall of glass cases, and inside each noose is the mug shot of a prisoner who was hanged.

Eventually, hangings gave way to death by gas, and in front of these nooses is the double chair that a pair of murderous brothers sat in when they were gassed. I wasn’t surprised that criminals were killed by gas in the 1930’s, but I was surprised to see that that method was used into the 1960’s.

Nooses and gas chamber chair in Florence Arizona

Capital punishment: nooses and a gas chamber chair.
There are grim instructions nearby for how to turn the gas valves on and off!

On a much lighter note, Florence was also home to the artist that penned the comic strip Gordo, and lots of comic books and mementos of his are on display.

We also saw a more benevolent use of gas in the form of an antique gas heater. I was amused that it was about the same size and shape as our little vent-free propane heater in our RV!

Comic strip Gordo

The creator of the comic strip “Gordo” lived in Florence

Antique gas heater

An antique gas heater — not so different than ours!

And if seeing the predecessor to our little gas heater weren’t enough, we also got a glimpse of the original 1-gallon wash-up technique that predated the 2-gallon showers we take in our RV today. Rather than a fancy shower wand and electrically pumped hot water, however, this early method consisted of a large ceramic pitcher and a basin.

Ahhhh the good old days!!

Antique tub and shower

The original 1-gallon shower…

Florence Arizona church

A church in Florence

So, if you are roaming around central Arizona in your RV looking for a place that has some heart and soul and some interesting history, check out Florence. Just don’t be fooled by the vacancies on Main Street. Looks are only skin deep!

Thick adobe walls in Florence Arizona

Thick adobe walls…

 

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Arizona’s Stunning Apache Trail Scenic Drive

The Apache Trail is one of the most breathtaking scenic drives in central Arizona, and we recently had a chance to trace its path once again. It runs along Route 88 between Apache Junction and Roosevelt Lake, just east and south of Phoenix. Following the Salt River past Canyon Lake and Apache Lake, it twists through some truly stunning Sonoran Desert landscapes of rugged rocks and sassy saguaros. Here are a few highlights from that gorgeous daytrip:

5 406 Apache Trail on the Salt RIver in Arizona

Cactus grow amid red rocks down to the water’s edge.

Apache Lake on the Apache Trail in Arizona

Apache Lake is a rich blue in the growing afternoon light.

Scenic drive from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake Arizona

There is a dramatic overlook at Canyon Lake

Apache Trail in Arizona

Rugged rock cliffs fill the views along the way

Saguaro cactus along the Apache Trail in Arizona

Saguaro cactus stand watch over both sides of the trail.

Salt River views along the Apache Trail from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake Arizona

The Apache Trail winds along the Salt River through red rock studded Sonoran Desert

If you are in the Phoenix area in Arizona, this is a “must see” daytrip, especially as the wildflowers begin to bloom in late February and March!!

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A Majestic Scenic Drive in Arizona – The Bush Highway

January, 2015 – After three months of being in a holding pattern around Phoenix, Arizona, we are stretching our travel legs once again.  But before we leave, I wanted to give you a glimpse of one of our favorite scenic drives in all of Arizona:  the Bush Highway between the 202 Loop in Mesa and Route 87 (the Beeline Highway) in Fountain Hills. This is a jaw-dropping roller coaster ride that goes through some truly magnificent Sonoran Desert scenery.  Saguaro cacti stand tall, set against a backdrop of colorful cliffs that come alive in rich hues of brown and burnt orange at dawn and dusk.

Bush Highway Scenic Drive in Phoenix Arizona

The Bush Highway is one of central Arizona’s most inspiring scenic drives.

Yesterday afternoon, we drove it once again, catching the “golden hour” light between 3:30 and 5:00. Even though we have driven this road and ridden it on our bikes dozens of times, I found myself hanging out the truck window yet again, snapping pics and marveling at the sheer wonder of it all.

Sonoran Desert scenery near Phoenix Arizona

The rugged scenery along this drive features sweeping Sonoran Desert vistas and dramatic cliffs.

The road follows the Salt River, and at various scenic overlooks you can get a wonderful glimpse of glassy water reflecting the colorful cliffs. We ran down to the water’s edge and picked our way over the rounded river rocks. The clouds were thick and low on the horizon.  By turns, the sun came and went, making the sheer rock walls glow warm and then withdraw to cool shade.

Views along the Salt River near Phoenix Arizona

Along the water’s edge at the Salt River.

About midway on the drive, we passed Saguaro Lake, which has a small marina filled with pleasure boats that were gleaming in the sun. We didn’t go down to the lake this time, although there is a restaurant there with an outdoor patio that is an ideal spot for lunch overlooking the exquisite view.

Saguaro Lake Marina Phoenix Arizona

The boats at the Saguaro Lake Marina glisten in the sun.

We carried on a little further instead, to a spot in the road where we had a wonderful view of the Four Peaks mountains. They were wreathed in soft, wispy clouds that hovered around them in a gossamer veil.

701 Four Peaks Mountains in Arizona wreathed  in wispy clouds

After soaking in this gorgeous view, we turned around to drive back. A lovely sunset light show began to take shape around us. Once we had gone a few miles, we stopped to look back towards Four Peaks. The wispy clouds were still floating around the mountains, and the peaks were turning pink.  A beautiful saguaro standing next to us seemed to be enjoying the sunset colors on the mountains too!

A saguaro cactus next to Four Peaks mountains at sunset in Arizona

Behind us, in the distance, we see Four Peaks turning pink!

What a majestic landscape, and how lucky we are to be able to spend time in such a beautiful place.  If you are visiting Phoenix and are looking for a pretty day trip out into the Sonoran Desert, take a drive on the Bush Highway!

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Burrowing owls in Gilbert, Arizona – They’re a Hoot!

We spent a few hours hoo-hoo-ing with the owls at Zanjero Park in Gilbert, Arizona, the other day. What a great spot for a day trip! Our friend Rick had told us about it, and he showed us some amazing photos he’d taken there. So off we went to do a little owling.

A burrowing owl in Phoenix Arizona

A burrowing owl checks us out!!

Zanjero Park is is on the southern part of the 202 loop on the southeastern edge of Phoenix, Arizona. As we drove towards it, we wondered if we’d come to the right place, because it is as nondescript as can be. It’s in farm country and takes up just a few acres, and it is pressed right up against the highway berm! There’s a dirt parking lot and a small sign identifying the park and a larger sign explaining what this unique owl habitat is all about. And that’s about it!

A burrowing owl at Zanjero Park in Gilbert AZ

You rang?

Burrowing owls like to live in tunnels, so volunteers have erected tunnels for them using large diameter pipe. Each owl house has a front door and a back door, and the owls like to hang out by their doors and watch the wold go by. There are about 15 or so owl burrows scattered along the ground next to the paved walkway though the park.

An owl looks out of his burrow

Whatcha lookin’ at ??

What’s funny is that his is not a particularly scenic park. The highway traffic zooms by right next door, and it is definitely not a place that shows off Arizona’s gorgeous Sonoran Desert landscape that we love so much. However, despite being rather bleak and barren, it sits right next to a farm field full of yummy mice, and that’s why the owls like to live here and why the volunteers decided to help them out.

Burrowing owl Zanjero Park Gilbert AZ

Maybe I’m just a softy old bird lover, but these guys are darn cute!!

We went at high noon, and much to our surprise, the owls were wide awake and out and about. We saw at least six pairs of burrowing owls lounging around on their front stoops as we strolled down the short paved walkway. In hindsight, morning or evening might be an even better time to visit if you want to take pics, because the owl burrows are lined up along the south side of the walkway, so at noontime you are staring into the sun as you spy on these cute little guys.

If you are staying near Phoenix and are looking for something fun and different to do, go visit the burrowing owls of Zanjero Park, it’s a hoot!

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“RaVeS” Cafe for RVers in Mesa AZ

Sometimes doing laundry turns up the best treasures. We were down at the Plaza “Fluff ‘n Fold” laundromat in Mesa, Arizona, the other day, looking for something to do during the drying cycle.

We’d already taken a quick spin through the amazing Superstition Ranch Market next door during the wash cycle. This is a nifty market that sells farm fresh veggies at rock bottom prices we’d discovered last year (while doing laundry!). But now we were casting about for a new diversion until it was time to start folding shirts.

Then we noticed some yellow banners flying in front of a building across the street. A small sign said, “Coffee, Bakery, Cafe.” We could swear this hadn’t been here last year, so we headed over to check it out.

RV themed RaVes Cafe in Mesa AZ

A cafe that celebrates RVs and RVing!

The place is called “RaVeS” with a very big “R” and very big “V” (and big “S”), and when we stepped inside we noticed the whole place was decorated with RV art. The walls were filled with paintings and posters of RVs, and the shelves were loaded with model motorhomes and trailers.

This little cafe just opened two weeks ago, and it’s terrific. The muffins are really yummy, and there’s a whole breakfast and lunch menu too. The place is staffed by work-campers who live in the neighboring RV parks, and the patrons are mostly RVers from the area.

Have you ever seen an RV-themed cafe before? We sure haven’t! But this little place is in the heart of RV country. Mesa, Arizona, has one of the densest populations of RV parks and RVers we’ve ever seen. A drive down Main Street is a drive through RV heaven, with RV dealerships, repair shops, RV parks and used RV lots lined up cheek-by-jowl for several miles.

RV Art at RaVeS Cafe in Mesa Arizona

One of many cute paintings of RVs on the walls at RaVeS.

RaVeS Cafe is owned by CalAm Properties, one of the largest privately held owner/operators of manufactured housing communities and RV resorts in the US. They own 12 RV parks in Arizona alone, and seven of those are in Mesa! These are huge communities with thousands of sites in each one. The new RaVeS cafe is housed next to their catering kitchen where they produce meals and snacks to support the many events that are hosted in their various communities.

It is walking distance from about 4,000 RV sites!!

We’ve been to RaVeS twice now, and each time we’ve met a different couple doing their shift of work-camping. We met Jack and Patti a few days ago, and Harold and Carol were there today.  They were putting in one of two days of work they do each week in exchange for their site at a nearby RV park. “We each do 12 hours of work here a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays,” Carol said, “And then we have the rest of the week for hiking.”  She grinned.

Not a bad gig!!

If you are taking your RV anywhere near Mesa, Arizona, this winter, check this place out, especially if you are looking for something to do while you’re waiting for the laundry to finish!

The laundromat is at 4815 E Main St. in Mesa, and the cafe is right across the street.

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McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale AZ

Yesterday, just when we were coming down with a massive case of urban cabin fever in Phoenix, Arizona, we got out on a glorious hike in the Sonoran desert. We ended up on a trail that was just recently built and that we had never heard of until that very morning when we bumped into an old friend while sipping morning brews at a favorite coffee shop at dawn!

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Start of the trail at Gateway Trailhead in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Last year I wrote about the wonderful new hiking and biking trails we discovered in the Sonoran Desert Preserve system in the northern parts of Phoenix (blog post with info links here). It turns out the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a completely different trail system in Scottsdale that has eleven unique trailheads of its own that traipse all through the McDowells.

You can hike for half a mile or fifteen miles, whatever suits your mood! The trailhead we visited yesterday, Gateway Trailhead, had a large new building with lots of trail maps, flush toilets and a scale model of the entire McDowell mountain trail system. It’s right on the edge of a city neighborhood full of strip mall stores, but after you go just a few paces onto the trail, you have no idea the city is even there.

Bell Trail at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

You’d never know you were in the city!

Who pays for all this? The McDowell Sonoran Preserve comes to the public courtesy of philanthropic donations by gazillionaires who owned portions of the mountains way back when, and by Scottsdale taxes. Here’s a little more info:

Roosevelt Lake – Lakeside Camping in AZ

Roosevelt Lake Windy Hill Campground

Brittlebush flowers light up Roosevelt Lake

April, 2014 – We had spent the winter months in Phoenix, Arizona, enjoying beautiful hikes and gorgeous waterways, and observing pretty birds and wild horses.

But the desert was heating up with the arrival of Spring, and so were we!

So we headed just a little further east to Roosevelt Lake where the temps are always just a few degrees cooler. Continue reading

Wild Horses of the Salt River in Phoenix

Horseback riders on the dusty trail

Horseback riders on the dusty trail.

April, 2014 – The phrase “wild west” evokes images of horses and cowboys and wide open spaces.

While we were visiting Phoenix Arizona these past few months, we ran into lots of different horses and riders out on the desert trails.

Some suddenly appeared in a cloud of dust, materializing on the trail as if in a mirage, or as if walking right out of a movie.

Their cowboy hats and boots and spurs completed the picture to perfection.

Others rode a fine line between the modern digital age and the wild west of yore, holding the horse’s reins in one hand while chatting away on a cell phone with the other. Continue reading

Phoenix on the Wing – Waterbirds of Arizona!

Artist easel in the Sonoran desert

An artist creates his vision in the desert

March, 2014 – The Phoenix area is full of beautiful hiking trails, and the Windy Cave Trail at Usery Mountain is just one of many lovely places to experience the Sonoran desert.

We wandered out into the desert on marked trails and unmarked roads to go hiking — or at least to go for a walk — every day during our stay on the outer eastern edges of the city.  There was always something new to see.

One morning we came across an art class that had set up easels all through the desert.

Wildflower

Spring is springing!

The group of artists was huddled around the teacher as we hiked past, and we found Continue reading