Tonto National Monument AZ – Lower Cliff Dwellings

December 2015 – One of the treasures in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is the exquisite sunrises and sunsets that light up the sky in vivid shades of pink and orange.

Arizona sunset fifth wheel trailer RV

Sunset over our fifth wheel

Another treasure that lies inside the Tonto National Forest near Roosevelt Lake high up on the mountain sides is the Tonto National Monument ancient Indian cliff dwelling ruins.

Lower Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings

These ruins, built by the Salado people around 1300 A.D., are surrounded by saguaro cactus that stand so thickly on the hillside that, from a distance, they seem to transform the landscape into a pincushion! Up close, however, they are very tall.

Saguaro cactus Arizona Sonoran Desert

Saguaro cactus are very tall plants!

One of the best things about visiting the Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings is the half mile uphill hike to get to them. A narrow paved path takes numerous switchbacks up the hill, passing by dozens of beautiful saguaro cactus on the way to the ruins.

Tonto National Monument trail to Lower Cliff Dwellings

It is a half mile hike on a paved path through lush Sonoran desert to get to the ruins.

Saguaro at Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona


As the path climbs ever higher, the view of Roosevelt Lake down in the valley grows ever wider.

Tonto National Monument view of Roosevelt Lake Arizona

The hike to the lower cliff dwellings is short and steep but has some incredible views of Roosevelt Lake

Then the ancient ruins appear, built into a huge cave in a sheer rock wall cliff face.

Cliff Dwellings Ancient Indian Ruins Tonto National Monument Arizona

High rise apartments!

It is startling, after climbing up through all the natural vegetation of the Sonoran Desert, to come face to face with the remnants of a distant culture’s masonry creations. The current theory is that the 20,000 or so Anasazi people who had built and lived in the immense Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado had left there for some reason and moved south, a few of them making their way through northeastern Arizona to the Tonto Basin to live here.

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona

You can wander freely in and around the Lower Cliff Dwellings

As a point of reference, in this same time period over in Europe, Florence had become the heart of commercial and cultural activity, and the Renaissance (the rebirth of interest in classical literature, art and music) was in its earliest stages.

At Tonto National Monument, the 700 year old walls are still standing, although they have broken down over time. With a little imagination, we could visualize the structure as it once stood as we moved from room to room.

Anclient Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona

Crumbling walls that must have many a story to tell…

There were quite a few rooms, most of them quite small, just 8′ square or so. The rooms near the front of the cave have a view across the valley to the lake.

Tonto National Monument Arizona Lower Cliff Dwellings

The ruins are built into a huge cave. The outer rooms have an incredible view!

Little openings led from one room to another, and the rooms stretched to the back of the cave.

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona

The cave faces east, so after about noon, it is shaded and cool, even in the blistering heat of mid-summer.

Tonto National Monument has two sets of cliff dwellings that are open to the public, the Lower Cliff Dwellings and the Upper Cliff Dwellings.

Lower Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona


Even though the Lower Cliff Dwellings are slightly smaller, the fun thing about them is that you are free to explore them at your own pace and they lie just 1/2 mile from the visitors center.

Tonto National Monument Salado Cliff Dwelling Ceiling

A few roofs made of juniper logs and saguaro ribs are still intact.

It’s a fairly steep hike to reach these ruins, but it is short, and the views along the entire trail are just wonderful.

Roosevelt Lake view Tonto National Monument Cliff Dwellings Arizona

Even if you’re not into ancient Indian stuff, the views are well worth the hike.

The hike to the Upper Cliff Dwellings is about 3 miles long, and those ruins are open to the public only on guided tours on the weekends. We took that hike too and will share photos in an upcoming post.

Saguaro cactus Tonto National Monument view of Roosevelt Lake Arizona


Tonto National Monument makes a terrific daytrip from the Mesa and eastern Phoenix area, and it is an absolute “must see” if you are camping at one of the campgrounds at Roosevelt Lake.

Sunset on Four Peaks at Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Sunset over Roosevelt Lake

A word of caution to travelers taking a big RV to this area: The once stunningly scenic drive along US-60 from Superior to Globe is now a chaotic nightmare of construction (probably in preparation for the world’s largest copper mine that will be built between the two towns). Even though the distance is 10 miles longer, it is a much less stressful (and also very scenic) rout to take SR-87 (the “Beeline Highway”) from Fountain Hills north to Punkin Center and then go south on SR-88 to Tonto National Monument.

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Copper Mines, NOT CAMPING, in Tonto National Forest – Why?

PUBLIC LAND Goes PRIVATE and Cherished Winter RV Camping is CLOSED Forever

December 2015 – The beautiful fall colors around Roosevelt Lake Arizona are truly exquisite, and we have taken thousands of photos of the Sonoran Desert in both fall and spring along the Salt River during our RV travels in Arizona. After poking around on this website a bit and rummaging through our photos from last year, I realized I never posted some of my favorites. So here they are, just as lovely now as they were a year ago.

Autumn Leaves Salt River Bush Highway Blue Point Arizona

Autumn splendor along the Salt River in Arizona

But they are bittersweet too, because times are changing. Among these glorious photos, I found images I took last year in Globe and Ray Arizona that evoke a tragedy that’s currently unfolding. A little research into what’s going on has left me with one big question: WHY?

Fall colors in the Sonoran Desert Arizona Salt River

Arizona is filled with gold

Last year while we were camped in the Tonto National Forest, we went on several outstanding hikes that start at some of the trailheads and former camping areas that are sprinkled along the dramatic Bush Highway which runs alongside the Salt River east of Phoenix.

Autumn leaf reflections Salt River Arizona

The Salt River infuses the Sonoran Desert with color and life.

Pebble Beach was one recreation area that used to be very popular for winter camping and boondocking.

Pebble Beach on the Salt River

One of many stunning views hidden behind the “CLOSED” sign blocking car and RV drivers from
parking in the mammoth parking lots at Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach Campground is a very large recreation area. Not only is there an enormous parking lot lined with dozens of shaded picnic ramadas, but it was built to include both a huge group camping area as well as individual and family camping. There were even campsites with hookups to accommodate multiple hosts, and there were multiple toilet buildings scattered throughout the area.

At one time, Pebble Beach was a very popular winter boondocking snowbird roost.

Pebble Beach Camping Area Tonto National Forest Closed

Storm clouds over Pebble Beach – No more winter camping here!

Sadly, it has been closed to winter use for several years and Tonto National Forest plans to keep it closed and keep all that infrastructure and beauty behind locked gates indefinitely.

Pebble Beach Bush Highway Mesa Arizona Salt River

This cool area at Pebble Beach lay just steps away from winter RV campsites by the picnic ramadas

Tragically, since his arrival in 2012, the supervisor of Tonto National Forest, Neil Bosworth (bio here, contact: has systematically closed all the winter camping areas on the Bush Highway.

Some camping areas are open in the summertime, but Arizonans don’t camp in the 120 degree heat of the Sonoran Desert in the summer months! They all go north to the cool mountains and camp at 5,000′ or higher to get out of the heat.

The list of campgrounds that used to be open for winter RV camping and are now closed permanently is:

  • Pebble Beach Campground (designated campsites, group camping, large enough for 50+ RVs)
  • Goldfield Recreation Area (formerly used for camping and large enough for 50+ RVs)
  • Phon D Sutton (formerly used for camping and large enough for 50+ RVs)

In addition, there’s a day use area that is closed in the wintertime too, so you can’t even park your car and look around:

  • Sheep Crossing (day use)

Fortunately for tourists and nature lovers, there is one gorgeous spot that has remained open for day use only, so at least it is possible to park and go exploring, even if you are not allowed to camp there. It is called the Water Users area. This is a Salt Water River summertime tubing drop-off spot that has several short trails that go down to the river.

Lost in the desert oasis landscapes of Arizona

The Water Users area is available for daytime visits.

The craggy rocks and colorful trees and reflecting water are just sensational.

Salt RIver Arizona in Autumn

I love reflections in the water.

Autumn leaves on Arizona's Salt River

The Salt River (“Rio Salado”)

Across the Bush Highway from Pebble Beach is the much smaller Blue Point day use area, and it is still open. Blue Point has a wonderful hiking trail that runs along the edge of the river. What’s puzzling is that the Sheep Crossing day use area next door to Blue Point is closed.

Huh? Oh well. We had fun getting reflection shots of the riverbanks.

Salt River Phoenix Arizona

The Blue Point day use area is across from Pebble Beach (closed) and next to Sheep Crossing (closed).

Up on a rocky precipice we saw a great blue heron keeping an eye out for fast moving fish.

Great blue heron Salt River Arizona

Waterbirds love the Salt River

The great blue heron wasn’t the only one fishing. A fisherman was casting his net in the river too.

Fishing on the Salt River

Fishermen love the Salt River. Heck, so do RVers!

The play of the light on his net and the light on the water and clouds was just beautiful.

Starburst over the Salt River in Phoenix Arizona


The pretty trees and jagged rock faces along the Salt River lit up in brilliant golden hues every afternoon.

Blue Point in autumn colors on the Salt River in Arizona

Autumn Gold at Blue Point on the Bush Highway

Sadly, over the last few years, the Tonto National Forest has systematically closed all but the tiniest of winter camping areas along the Bush Highway. What’s left (at Coon Bluff) is open to camping only on weekends and is large enough for just 6-7 big rigs.

Last year and the year before, there were times when the one large remaining camping area, Phon D Sutton, had 50 RVs camping there.

With a demand like that, why would Tonto National Forest shut it down along with all the other camping areas that can accommodate hundreds and hundreds of RVs. Why would they leave just a handful of spaces open?

The parking area at Coon Bluff is so tiny that when RVs camp there, they take up most of the parking lot. What’s totally unfair to the locals is that the daytrippers, hunters and fishermen — who all deserve a decent parking spot for their outing in nature too — don’t have room to park their cars! When the Boy Scouts plan a weekend camping outing to Coon Bluff, the places is a mad house and the parking is insane.

Sunset Arizona Salt River

The Indoor Generation as well as snowbird winter RVers deserve a chance to enjoy places like this right outside their doorstep during dawn and dusk — especially when the facilities were already built by former leadership that wanted the public to be able to enjoy the unique beauty of the Salt River.

Up until October, 2015, the Forest Service allowed RVers to camp at the Phon D Sutton recreation area which can easily hold 50 big rigs in two enormous parking lots.

Last winter and the winter before it was frequently full of happy winter snowbird RVers, many of whom brought kayaks to enjoy the river, camera gear to photograph the egrets and bald eagles, and musical instruments to make music together.

What a stunning spot that was.

Arizona autumn colors Four Peaks Salt River Bush Highway_

Gorgeous Phon D Sutton offered parking lot dry camping but the views and experiences were unforgettable.

Unfortunately, as of October, 2015, Phon D Sutton is now closed to camping year round.

Phon D Sutton is still open as a day use area, but when we stopped by to check it out a few weeks ago, the whole place was eerily vacant, except for two cars, and there was gang graffiti on the bathroom doors and windows.

Fog Arizona Salt River

When large parking lots and bathrooms for throngs of people have been built so they can enjoy
a view like this, should the facilities be left to rot?

What a shame.

What a waste of good facilities and good money that went into building them.

Fog and mist saguaro cactus Arizona Sonoran Desert

A treasured view at former winter RV roost Phon D Sutton.

Last year I was lucky enough to have some wonderfully close encounters with the wild horses that live along the Salt River while we camped at Phon D Sutton.

Salt River Wild Horse Arizona

What a sight it was as this guy charged towards me.

Salt River Wild horses drinking

Down by the river the wild horses live a peaceful life.

When camping at Phon D Sutton, it was easy to rise in the dark and sneak down to the Salt River at dawn to watch the wild horses getting their morning drink.

Wild horses Salt River Phoenix Arizona

A glorious sunrise, complete with members of the wild horse herd getting a drink.

The Tonto National Forest wants to round up the wild horses and get rid of them!

Luckily, for the moment, protestations from the wild horse loving public have quashed that plan. The wild horses of the Salt River have a huge following and a support network that has fought valiantly and very publicly for them.

Part of their battle included two huge petitions that were signed by thousands. They also filed a lawsuit against Tonto National Forest.

Saguaro Cactus at sunset Arizona

A stunning sunset along the Bush Highway.

Perhaps a similarly passionate outcry from winter snowbird RVers from the north as well as local campers from Arizona would prevent our precious camping spots in this area from deteriorating into oblivion and would preserve the initial and very sizable investment that was made to build these public recreation areas years ago.

Phon D Sutton Recreation Area RV Camping Tonto National Forest

Phon D Sutton Recreation Area was beloved by all kinds of RVers and tent campers too.

But I’m not sure that the Tonto National Forest, noted by the current supervisor to be a “crown jewel” in the US Forest Service, even has public use or public recreation on its radar these days.

Right now, Tonto National Forest is mired in an earth shattering commercial use of its public land by non-Americans about 50 miles away from the Bush Highway at Oak Flat Campground. This is land that President Eisenhower specifically set aside for protection back in 1955 in an effort to avoid exactly what is happening today.

Saguaro cactus Arizona sunset

Protection of public land lasts only as long as our leaders want it to.

Foreign copper mining interests have acquired nearly four square miles of gorgeous Tonto National Forest land at Oak Flat Campground, a place that rock climbers cherish for its unique rock hoodoos and boulders.

Their new mine, Resolution Copper Mining, owned by British and Australian companies, will soon transform this unusual public land so they can get at the precious copper that lies 7,000′ down.

Copper Mine Globe Arizona 2

Here’s an open pit copper mine. This is the Ascaro Copper Mine located in Ray Arizona about 20 miles from the location of the new mine. This mine isn’t American owned either. It is owned by a Mexican company.

But how did foreigners get approval to build the world’s largest copper mine on America’s public land when little old snowbird RVers can’t even camp in places that were created specifically for public recreation and camping years ago?

The acquisition of this US Forest Service land parcel by Resolution Copper Mining was part of a land swap deal that got tacked onto the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and signed into law by President Obama, circumventing normal public notification and vetting.

Sadly, back in 1955 President Eisenhower had protected this very parcel, knowing that the copper vein below the surface was massive, and now it will be destroyed by non-Americans with almost no benefit going to either American citizens or the American government.

Foreign mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Copper formed Resolution Copper Mining, with 55% and 45% ownership respectively, and they are trading 8 small parcels of Arizona land totaling 5,344 acres that they already own for 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest.

All the land will be appraised, and then Resolution Mining will either add cash to the deal if their land is of lesser value than the National Forest land or they will call it a donation if their land is worth more.

It is unclear if to me if the mineral value of the copper under the National Forest land will be included in the appraised value of what Tonto National Forest is giving up. Obviously, it should be.
Copper Mine Globe Arizona

Copper mining. The ribbons are roads and there are tiny trucks driving on the roads

The deal was pushed through by people who believed that the mine would create lots of jobs in a state that has 6.7 million residents and that it would bring money into the state by way of tax revenue as well.

According to Resolution Mining, after the mine is built, there will be 1,400 steady mining jobs during the peak years it is in operation and they anticipate paying $20 billion in taxes to the Feds and Arizona during they years the mine is profitable (provided they don’t take advantage of income tax loopholes and claim $0 profit).

Reports say it will take about 40 years to extract all the copper. After that, the few mining jobs will end, the copper in the ground will have been sold, with profits going abroad, and Arizona will be left with whatever mess and tailing piles Resolution Copper Mining decides to leave behind.

Copper Mining Globe Arizona

The future of the American people’s Tonto National Forest?

What exactly will this mine will look like? The wording of the deal exempts Resolution Copper Mining from abiding by any environmental mandates, so the new mine could easily be a dusty open pit, because that method of mining copper is cheapest and most profitable for the mine owners.

Reports have claimed the new mine will be a gaping crater two miles across and 1,000 feet deep and that a 500′ tall mountain of waste tailings will be dumped on another parcel of Tonto National Forest land within view from beautiful Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Ummmm…. 500′ tall equates to 50 stories high!

Asarco Copper Mine Ray Arizona

The new Resolution Copper Mine will be much larger than this one — the world’s largest!

But the Resolution Copper Mining website says it will all be done underground by carving the ore out of the rock using the “panel caving” method rather than the “open pit” mining method, and that a waste tailings site hasn’t yet been selected.

Saguaro cactus next to an Arizona copper mine

Saguaro cactus are up in arms about the mining techniques in use at Ascaro copper mine.

The only groups loudly voicing concern right now are the Native Americans, some of whom claim Oak Flat is a sacred area, and rock climbers who love the rock boulders so much they hold major competitions there.

Ironically, the public was outraged a few years ago when a Boy Scout troop leader deliberately knocked over a single red rock hoodoo at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.

Somehow, that infraction doesn’t seem to compare with this.

The copper on this public land will fetch tens of billions of dollars for the mine owners, depending on copper prices during the period that the mine is in operation.

And then that copper will be sold to Americans — at a profit to the foreigners, of course!

Enjoy Your National Forest

A sign behind the locked “Road Closed” gates at the Pebble Beach camping area.

So WHY has the Tonto National Forest Service closed the winter camping areas on the Bush Highway?

Are these campgrounds closed because Tonto National Forest doesn’t have the money to maintain them?

No! The leaders of Tonto National Forest have publicly proven that Tonto National Forest is sitting on minerals that are worth billions to eager and rich commercial buyers overseas.

If the leaders were skilled at negotiation, they could have made an enormous profit from the sale of land. But they decided not to bother!

Even more dramatic, Tonto National Forest has a truly gargantuan potential for cash revenue if they arranged the terms of the land deal to include receiving a percentage of the mammoth profits the foreign companies will make from everything they extract from or produce on that land.

But they didn’t even bother to negotiate for just a 1% royalty on the profit that these foreigners will be making by mining America’s public land.

Obviously, Tonto National Forest is an exceedingly rich forest, however, its stewards don’t seem to understand the basics of economics or the rudiments of doing business and negotiating!

Are the camping areas closed because Tonto National Forest wants to protect the delicate environment?

Obviously, that isn’t true either, because they have no problem decimating parts of the “crown jewel” in the Forest Service to build a copper mine. Even if the “panel caving” method of mining is used, it is expected that the mine will one day collapse, leaving a gaping four square mile pit.

Saguaro cactus under a rainbow in Arizona

What is the Tonto National Forest’s motive for closing the
Bush Highway camping areas?

So what is the motivation of Tonto National Forest to close the camping areas that earlier leadership kept open for winter RVers?

It isn’t a lack of money. And it isn’t a desire to protect the environment.

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Fall Color in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert near Roosevelt Lake

November 2015 – The climb up lofty Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona had given us some beautiful autumn colors, and we were treated to even more as we drove our RV into central Arizona.

Autumn leaves Sonoran Desert riparian area Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Autumn splendor in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

Fall color Sonoran Desert Riparian area Arizona

Colorful trees stood alongside the rivers, streams and washes.

We scooted along Route 88 to Roosevelt Lake and did some exploring along the shores of this beautiful body of water, the largest lake in the middle of the state. We had arrived at the peak of the Sonoran Desert’s fall foliage season.

Autumn colors Roosevelt Lake Arizona

One of many gorgeous views across Roosevelt Lake

It may not seem possible that a desert would have a fall foliage season, but the Sonoran Desert’s wetland areas along streams and washes (called “riparian” habitats) are loaded with wonderful sycamores and cottonwoods that turn vivid yellow and orange come fall.

Roosevelt Lake was created in 1911 by damming up the Salt River, and the water level rises and falls. Right now it was very low — the lake was just 40% full — and yellow trees filled an area that at times has been filled with water.

Autumn color Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Golden trees fill the void while the lake is down.

We found lots of rounded, smooth rocks along one part of the lake.

Roosevelt Lake Arizona pebble beach

A rocky shore

Even where the colors were muted, little bits of autumn flame peeked through, and the colors in late afternoon were just gorgeous.

Fall leaves sycamore trees Arizona desert

Fall colors reflected in the water.

Four Peaks Arizona Roosevelt Lake

A view of Four Peaks across the lake and desert

Roosevelt Lake autumn color Arizona

Compare this to the previous pic – Lighting is everything!

In one spot, Mark discovered a lone yellow wildflower looking up and opening its petals to the sun.

Wildflower Arizona desert

A tiny wildflower looks up from the ground.

Roosevelt Lake is an enormous lake whose southern shore runs for some 50 miles. In many places the saguaros were all standing around in groups. They seemed to be conversing in the morning sun. I wonder if they were sharing memories of a time when this lake was just an unpredictable river.

Sonoran Desert saguaro cactus Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Saguaro cactus commune in the morning sun by the lake.

On the far shore of the lake there were rolling hills of red sand. What a beautiful sight!

Roosevelt Lake Arizona Saguaro Cactus

Colors of the desert.

Saguaros are the sentinels of the desert, and they seemed to be keeping an eye on things at the lake.

Saguaro cactus Roosevelt Lake Arizona


Meanwhile, down by the water’s edge, campers had set up their RVs right on the beach.

Lakeside RV boondocking Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Lakeside camping.

What a fantastic place to camp! Unfortunately, several of the boondocking areas along Roosevelt Lake were closed. We were told the closure was temporary, from mid-November to mid-February, and it was to protect the Canada geese.

Apparently the powers that be have never been to the green grassy areas in nearby Scottsdale where the Canada geese are thriving! Needless to say, there wasn’t a goose to be found.

RV boondocking Popup tent trailer Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Room with a view.

But there were two spots open, and RVers were enjoying beautiful waterfront campsites with views to die for.

RV boondocking Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Not a bad place to be!

And of course the sunsets were spectacular…

Roosevelt Lake sunset Arizona

An Arizona sunset at the lake.

For RV travelers who want to experience the Sonoran Desert in the peak of autumn glory, the season is the last two weeks of November, and the colors can be found anywhere there’s water.

RV Arizona sunset fifth wheel trailer

What a place!

Roosevelt Lake has hundreds of dry camping campsites in several different formal campgrounds as well as boondocking available along the lake. You need to get a Tonto Pass ($6 per night ($3 for seniors)), and they are sold at the convenience stores in the communities that lie at the eastern and western ends of the lake. Beginning in January, 2016, the rates will increase to $8 per night ($4 for seniors). There are flush toilets and hot showers at the Windy Hill and Choilla campgrounds.

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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: