The Wind Cave Hike in Phoenix AZ – The Hills are Alive!

Wind Cave Trail Arizona

An ocotillo greets us at the start of the hike.

Early March, 2014 – We had been enjoying the rivers and waterways and Saguaro Lake in Phoenix, Arizona, but the cactus filled desert was never far away.

Mark at the Wind Cave trail bottom

Ready for hiking!

Cactus looking down towards brittlebush

Usery Mountain Regional Park has a beautiful campground and some great hiking.

One hike in particular, the Wind Cave Trail, came highly recommended by our friends, Mike and Donna (FlyingTheKoop.com). They once called this area home and have hiked it many times.

Brittlebush blooming with cactus

The yellow brittlebush were in bloom all around us.

This is an uphill hike that climbs straight up for a mile and a half, making lots of switchbacks on the way.

The bright yellow brittlebush flowers had just started to bloom, and there were sprays of golden flowers everywhere.

Emily poses with brittlebush

There’s nothing like getting out on a warm, sunny, early spring day!

And the saguaros were standing around having their usual conversations too.

One cactus looked like it was whispering in the ear of another!

Two saguaros on Windy Cave hiking trail

“Psssst…can you keep a secret??”

Wind Cave is a popular hike, and we met a lot of other hikers on the trail.

A large group came up behind us, walking sticks and cameras in hand.  It was a beautiful day to be out.

Busy day on Usery Mountain Wind Cave Hiking Trail

We had lots of company on the trail.

What sets this hike apart is the lichen that covers the sides of the cliffs in a broad band along the top of the mountain.

The faces of the cliffs are shaded in the morning, though, so when we started up the switchbacks, the color on the cliff faces was muted at first.

Saguaro cactus looks down from top

Waving “hi” to his buddy down below.

Saguaro cactus looks up the mountain

The rising sun lit up one saguaro

In the shadowed lighting, it seemed like a rather ordinary, though lovely, Sonoran desert hike.

Then the sun began to peek around the edges of the mountain.

Its warm rays lit up a solitary cactus that stood away from the cliffs.

This guy seemed to be looking up at his saguaro buddy who was staning on a little higher ground above him and waving.

 

Saguaro cactus with valley below

An ancient, pock-marked cactus has enjoyed this view for over a century.

As we climbed higher and higher, the views across the valley begame bigger and bigger.

Saguaro cactus in the lichen

The sun and shadows played hide and seek with the cactus among the rocks.

 

 

Lizard on hiking path

A lizard scurried past…

At our feet, we saw lizards scampering across the trail.

We listened to the Gambel’s quails and cactus wrens calling all their friends.

The Phoenix area is known as the “Valley of the Sun,” but as you travel around town, it doesn’t feel like a traditional v-shaped valley. Instead, it is a vast, flat, desert floor that stretches to eternity in all directions, broken up here and there by little pyramid peaks.

 

Brittlebush and palo verde on hiking trail

We were hiking up a pretty tall peak, and the trail didn’t take a break anywhere — it was up, up, up. We progressed very slowly.  It was just too pretty to rush, and we ended up taking photos with every step.

People at the Wind Cave

There was a crowd waiting for us at the Wind Cave

When we finally reached the top, all the hikers who had passed us were taking a load off in the cool shade of the Wind Cave itself. It isn’t really a “cave” but is more of a sheltered spot that’s perfect for enjoying the views.

Chipmunk peeks around corner

A little chipmunk peeks over a rock at us.

The rocky cliff has an inward curving wall, providing welcome shade and inviting people to sit for a spell, eat a little something, and catch their breath.

Lots of chipmunks live up here, and they have learned that hikers carry yummy snacks like granola bars.

Chipmunk stops momentarily

The chipmunks kept us entertained as we ate a snack.

Lichen covered rocks on Windy Cave Hiking Trail

The beauty of the Wind Cave trail unfolds
as the sun rises.

These little guys were very brazen, and walked right up to all of us to see if we were had something to share.

Of course, who can resist a cute little furry face looking up at you hopefully? We all gave in and found a few crumbs to spare.

The chipmunks eagerly grabbed their snacks and ran off a few paces to nibble away, holding the treats in their little hands as they ate.

By the time we started down, the sun was hitting the lichen covered cliffs beautifully.

Lichen on cliffs Wind Cave Trail Arizona

The cliffs are clad in orange and yellow lichen.

Three saguaros and lichen on cliffs on Usery Wind Cave hiking trail

The craggy rock faces seemed to be showing off their bright yellow and orange wardrobe, and the vivid colors made a wonderful backdrop for the saguaro cactuses along the trail.

We wandered down the trail to the valley floor and noticed the clouds were moving very quickly across the sky.

Looking over valley on Wind Cave hiking trail

A hiker takes in the view of the valley, but the backdrop behind him is just as stunning.

Triplet saguaro cactuses

Fast moving clouds frame a trio of saguaros

Mark took out his neutral density filter and let the moving clouds create a kind of crown around a trio of saguaros.

While he was busy setting up the shot, he noticed a tiny hummingbird sitting on a wee little nest behind a thick veil of branches and leaves in a small tree.

He approached the hummer and she didn’t move.  She just sat tight, watching his every move.

He hurried away to find me, because I had a long lens with me, and I rushed back to see if I could catch the little bird.

 

Hummingbird on nest

A hummingbird sits on her nest deep inside a tree.

Gosh, she was buried way back deep inside those branches.  I moved closer and she flew off her nest.

Inside were two miniature little eggs.

They were so tiny, I was afraid they would get chilled really quickly while mom was off the nest. So I stepped away, and she returned and wiggled her tail end a bit as she settled back down on her eggs.

Yellow wildflower

An early sign of spring!

 

 

Purple wildflower

The wildflowers are starting!

Then more hikers came down the trail and she flew off again.

Her nest site was well protected, but lordy, she could have chosen a spot a little further from the trail!

Oh well.  I managed to fire off a few shots of her sitting on her soon-to-be family, and then left her in peace.

Spring was definitely in the air.

Not only were a few birds starting their families, but some wildflowers were beginning to show their colorful little faces too.

We were really excited by the early arrival of spring, and we were hopeful that soon the whole Sonoran desert would be alive with flowers.

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Saguaro Lake – On the Waterfront in Phoenix

Salt River Arizona bike trail

Mark pauses by the Salt River

February, 2014 – We were really enjoying the waterways in Phoenix, Arizona, and we soaked in the ebb and flow of river life and all the daily patterns that surrounded it.

The rivers in Phoenix can be reached from many different access points, and we rode our bikes parallel to the Salt River, ducking in towards the shore at various spots to get a glimpse of the river.

We hiked and scrambled along the edge of the water too, marveling at the bright reds and greens of the algae, the surprising presence of all kinds of sea shells, and the thick, jungly nature of the scrubby vegetation that grew alongside.

Colorful Salt River Arizona

Colorful shoreline of the Salt River

One morning we came across a fly fisherman, and we were mesmerized by the flowing and rippling action of his rod as he stood knee deep mid-stream.

He didn’t seem to catch anything, but the fun seemed to be more in the casting than the catching anyways, so it didn’t seem to matter too much.

Other animals and birds stood in the water up to their knees and were fishing too.

We spotted a lot of different kinds of birds, and we heard that there were even beaver here. We were really surprised when we smelled a skunk a few times too.

Shoreline of the Salt River

Peaceful banks at the river’s edge

I’d lived in Phoenix for a long time and wasn’t even aware that skunks can make a living here in the desert.  They seem like so much more of a woods animal than a desert one.

Fly fishing

A fly fisherman casts his line

The river was at a standstill in a lot of places, giving off perfect reflections of the trees above.

Birds standing in the river

Shorebirds hope for a catch too

In other places, though, it rushed along at a good clip. One morning we watched three ducks taking a fast joy-ride down the river.

Three ducks get a joy-ride

Three ducks take a joy-ride downstream

They slipped through some mini-rapids lickety split, and you could almost see the grins on their faces and hear them quack, “Wheeee!” as they effortlessly zoomed past at full speed.

Saguaro Cactus Stand

Saguaro cactus give a standing ovation

In between the waterways, the saguaro cactus stood guard in armies that seemed to have been positioned with an almost military precision.

Saguaro cactus aren’t really loners at heart; they prefer to gather in groups. However, each cactus likes to have a bit of space around it.

They’ll stake out a claim across a valley or down a hillside, and stand at attention as if waiting for someone to issue a battle cry.

Or maybe they’re just cheering together in a standing ovation for some performer that just wowed them on the stage of the opposite hillside!

Saguaro cactus by the Salt River

Trying to get the perfect cactus photo with mountains behind, I stumble across another part of the Salt River

We love these desert people and have ridden our bikes past them on these roads so many times over the years.  Yet, little did we know — as we snuck through a fence into the open desert one day — that just a quarter mile in from the highway the Salt River flows full and strong.

I was hunting down the ideal saguaro cactus to photograph, staggering through the desert, tripod over my shoulder and eyes fixed on the horizon as I tried to line a cactus up with the mountains behind it, when I just about walked into the river.

What a surprise!

There it was: water flowing, ducks paddling, and saguaros right down to the river’s edge.

Road to Saguaro Lake Arizona

The drive to Saguaro Lake is just gorgeous

It had never occurred to me that the roads here are cut at such odd angles because they run parallel to the waterways.

And I sure didn’t know as I drove and rode my bike along these roads for all those years that a river was just out of sight to one side.

Whether by bike or car, the road from Fountain Hills to Saguaro Lake is one of the most scenic drives around Phoenix.

We kept finding ourselves taking detours to include this drive in our route, even when it sent us a bit out of our way.

Wild Horses in Arizona's Salt River

Wild horses come down to the river for a drink

The road winds and curves and soars up and down, making its way between thick groves of cactus and casually stacked boulders, while a view of some rock cliffs in the distance slowly takes shape ahead.

After the road dips for a final dive down a steep descent — making you feel like you are being thrown into the open embrace of these stunning cliffs — it swings past a scenic overlook.

One day we spotted wild horses as we passed this overlook, standing in the water far below.

 

Salt River Cliffs Overlook

Cliffs along the Salt River spring to life as the sun goes down

But it is in the late afternoon when this special spot really comes alive.

As the sun falls low in the sky, the shimmering rock faces of the cliffs light up in brilliant hues of orange and red while the water at the base mirrors it all in vivid shades.

One afternoon, when the lighting at this overlook was just way to beautiful to drive past, we stopped to find a group of photographers hanging out with their tripods all around the water’s edge.

We joined right in with the group, savoring this golden hour and wondering what the sunset might bring.

The sunset didn’t materialize that night, but Saguaro Lake itself drew us back again the next day to scope out the scenic vistas there.

Saguaro Lake Marina

Saguaro Lake Marina — water toys in the desert!

Saguaro Lake with blooming Brittlebush

Brittlebush bloom on the shores of Saguaro Lake

What a spot!  We love all the Phoenix area lakes, but this has to be one of the prettiest.

The bright yellow flowers of the brittlebush had just come into full bloom, and the shores were dancing in their golden spray.

Saguaro Lake was formed by damming up the Salt River.  It is wide and lake-like at the dammed end, but it wanders on a snaky, riverlike path upstream.

There is a marina in the widest part of the lake, and the boats were shimmering in the noon-time sun.

A funny little factoid is that Arizona has the highest number of boats per capita of any state.

Saguaro Lake Marina with Saguaro

There it is – a saguaro on the lake at Saguaro Lake!

This is odd for a state that contains so much desert land, but the low number of citizens in the state — and their very parched nature after they have lived here a while — surely contributes to this unexpected statistic.

Cliffs at Saguaro Lake Marina

Saguaro Lake Marina

We wandered along the waterfront, and dined at the wonderful Lakeshore Restaurant where we got seats on the patio overlooking the action on the water.

What a great way to while away an afternoon!

We didn’t take the little excursion paddle boat ride on Desert Belle this time around, but it is a delightful outing we did once, years ago, to celebrate Mark’s birthday.

Desert Belle boat in Saguaro Lake

The paddleboat Desert Belle goes
upriver on enjoyable outings

We watched folks eagerly lining up now just as we had done way back when.

Mark and Emily at Saguaro Lake

Happy days together!

At the further end of the lake there is a small, gravelly beach where tall, very undesert-like trees grow.

This isn’t much of a beach, as beaches go, but it is an intriguing spot in the desert.  The trees are very large and it is a great spot to launch a kayak to explore the lake and the river upstream.

Saguaro Lake has a wonderfully natural feeling to it, even though it is a lake that was made by damming up a river.

Tree on Saguaro Lake beach

A lovely cottonwood tree spreads its branches over the beach

In contrast, the lake in the center of nearby Fountain Hills is totally manmade without the help of a river.

It was made by digging a hole, lining it, and filling it with water.  At its center there is a fountain that shoots water way up in the air every hour for a few minutes.

This lake is an urban lake, with a paved walking path encircling it, and pretty landscaped lawns all around.

Whereas the desert around Saguaro Lake is natural, and you have to guess what kind of cactus put all those sharp needles into your hiking boots, there is a garden by the Fountain Hills lake where all the desert plants are labeled — and de-thorned.

Shade tree at Saguaro Lake

An unusual “desert scene” on the beach Saguaro Lake

Each lake is lovely in its own way, the one a bit wild and free with towering cliffs for a backdrop and seagulls and powerboats punctuating the scenery, while the other is small and civilized and boasts one of the tallest fountains in the world.

The most intriguing thing about both lakes is that their presence makes it seem like water is plentiful and in total abundance in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Fountain Hills fountain

Not exactly “natural,” but the fountain at Fountain Hills is very cool

Water is flung about with carefree abandon, shooting into the sky and supporting a myriad of boating activities.

This seemingly endless supply of water may be an illusion, but it is an illusion that is alive and well in Phoenix.

Illusion or no, we were enjoying ourselves in this part of Arizona so much that we felt utterly content and felt absolutely no compulsion to go anywhere else.

Black and white saguaro cactus

Mark channels Ansel Adams in the Sonoran Desert

The days ran into each other pell mell, and we basked in the unusually warm weather and even warmer friendships we were forming with other travelers we were meeting everyday.

At the end of each day we looked at each other and said, “Wow, what a great day that was!”

 

Saguaro cactus in streaming clouds

The days streamed by in a happy blur

We were busy from morning til night and each day was completely different from the one before it.

Fifth wheel in sunset

The buggy says “goodnight” to the sun

The more we saw, the more we wanted to see, and do, and experience, before we moved on.

So we settled in and relaxed and made the most of this very special and unusually summery winter in Phoenix.

 

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Rivers of Phoenix – Oases in the Desert!

Saguaro in Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert is a special and unique landscape

February, 2014 – We had been living among the saguaro cactus on the outer fringes of Phoenix Arizona for a few weeks, loving life in the sweet Sonoran desert.

Saguaro cactus

One of the most elaborately shaped
saguaro cactus we’ve seen

The weather continued to be stunningly warm, with temps in the high 70’s every afternoon, and we hiked and biked all over the place, soaking in the beautiful views of the aged and stately cactus whose personal histories reached back before Arizona achieved statehood in 1912.  Heck, these guys were saplings in the 1800’s!

Red Mountain on the Salt River

Peeking through the trees at the Salt River

While visiting friends in nearby Fountain Hills, we took a bike ride through the Fort McDowell Indian reservation. Poking around the back roads, we took a turn down a lane and suddenly found ourselves standing next to a flowing river.

It’s funny, even though we’ve called Phoenix “home” for a long time, it hadn’t really sunk in for me that there are rivers here that flow year round.

You just don’t notice them as you drive around town.

 

Verde River Arizona

The Verde River joins the Salt River

These are vibrant riparian habitats where long legged birds go fishing, animals of all kinds come down for a drink of water, and tall reeds grow by the water’s edge.

Several rivers flow through Phoenix, and we spent a few weeks exploring the shores of two of them, the Verde River and the Salt River.

In the Phoenix area the Salt River runs east-west and the Verde runs north-south.

Kayaks on the river

Kayakers fly downstream

Confluence of the Salt River and Verde River

The scenic confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers

They converge in a corner of the Tonto National Forest tucked between Fountain Hills and Mesa.

This confluence is a very special spot where kayakers paddle up and downstream, fishermen stand patiently by the water’s edge waiting for a catch, and people of all ages picnic and hike along the craggy shoreline.

 

 

Salt River Phoenix Arizona

What a surprise it is to see a river that flows non-stop through the desert

After being immersed in the Sonoran desert for a few weeks — a landscape rich with flora and fauna that can thrive on just an occasional spritz of dampness — we loved watching the leaves and algae and twigs floating lazily downstream on this steadily flowing body of water.

Red mountain with driftwood

Red Mountain forms a beautiful backdrop

Fisherman at the Salt River

Fishermen wait for the catch of the day

Whether stalking that next beautiful photograph with camera and tripod, or riding our bikes on a road that paralleled the flowing water, or hiking along the rocky banks at the river’s edge, we were floored by the change of scenery from the classic Sonoran desert to this watery world, a transformation that takes place in just a few steps.

Fishing on the Salt River

A little girl in pink boots tries her luck with the fishing rod

In the late afternoons the shoreside trees and reeds come alive with the raucous clamor of birds singing and calling each other and deciding who is going to roost where (and with whom!).

Salt River Flow

The Salt River doesn’t flow fast, but it is steady.

Grassy riverbanks

A long legged egret waits for fish among the reeds

“It sounds like I’m in the Amazon,” Mark said to me one afternoon.  We had staked out a spot to catch the late afternoon light, and the shrubs were alive with exotic squeeks and squawks.

There is easy access to the south side of the river, but the north side doesn’t have any roads or trails, so I was surprised when I suddenly heard the loud crunching noises of branches breaking from across the water on the north side of the river.

It sounded like the deliberate movements of something very large that was cracking tree limbs.  I stared into the reeds wondering who the heck was over there.

I couldn’t imagine there could be a person weed-whacking their way through the dense vegetation.  It had to be an animal.

We had heard reports that wild horses had been spotted down by the river, and I studied the shore across the way, hoping for a glimpse of a wild horse.

Cow drinks at rivers edge

A cow comes down to the river’s edge for a drink

After a few minutes, the tall reeds parted and a big brown cow emerged and slowly made its way down to the water.

Well, it wasn’t as cool as a wild horse, but it was still pretty darn cool considering the concrete jungle of freeways and humanity that were the essence of greater Phoenix all around us just a few miles away.

Flipped car

A little reckless driving in the early morning

The cow took a long drink, stared at me for a while, and then dipped its head for another sip before slowly vanishing into the reeds once again.

Riverside starburst at dusk

Dusk on the riverbanks was beautiful and different every evening

This incredibly beautiful and peaceful spot can’t keep the insanity of the city at bay all the time, though, and one day while we were out on a bike ride we saw the bizarre sight of a car flipped upside down on one of the small national forest roads.

Barbecuing dinner

For us these were happy lazy days

We found out a young fellow had come blasting down the tiny, twisty roads of the area at breakneck speeds.

Luckily, he escaped breaking his neck when he lost control of his car.

Flying the Koop

Mark took this wonderful photo of our friends Mike & Donna’s rig
and they put it on their blog banner at www.flyingthekoop.com!

He was seen walking off into the desert, although police later found a loaded gun in his car.

Trouble in paradise, I guess!

 

Golden hour in the reeds

The Golden Hour on the river

For us, however, life was full of contentment, and we enjoyed a steady stream of quiet, happy days.

Mark got the barbecue going in the evenings, something we had not done in our boating lives and that we had missed sorely, and we met up with new friends of ours, Mike and Donna, whom we had met in San Diego.

They began full-timing last July and have a fun blog, www.flyingthekoop.com, with the delightful motto, “From real estate to wheel estate.”

 

Sunset with rain over Fountain Hills

Rain nearby gave us beautiful orange cloud formations

The late afternoons and evenings continued to lure us down to the water’s edge every day, and we were treated to some glorious sunsets.

There is a “golden hour” just before the sun leaves the sky when everything seems to be lit from within with a truly golden glow.

We caught this heavenly light one afternoon when the water was totally still. This created a perfect mirror for everything on shore.

Rain was falling in the distance, and the clouds were streaked and heavy with moisture, creating a mystical air in the twilight.

Golden hour along the Salt River

River reflections

The light turned from a crisp, radiant yellow to a burnt orange and finally to a soft pink blush that lit the river’s edge in a luminous warmth. There was a peace here that soothed our souls.

Mirrored sunset hues

We loved the mirrored hues of late afternoon

Sunset colors along the Salt River in Phoenix

The last blush of sunset

Fisherman in sunset reflections at the Salt River

A fisherman amid sunset reflections in the river

We didn’t realize what an unusual sunset this was until we after we had tried to recapture it every night for a week.

Every afternoon, as the sun began its final descent, we ran down to the water’s edge, tripods in hand, hoping for a repeat of that ethereal light.

However, the special light we saw that night, that warm glow that faded from gold to a pink blush to a lavender mist was never quite the same again.

Many sunsets were spectacular, but that fleeting moment where the whole river seemed to hold its breath as everything shimmered in a rose colored halo had been utterly unique and never happened again.

So it is with nature, and we are learning to savor every day that comes.

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Saguaros and Sunsets in Phoenix Arizona

Buggy boondocking in Arizona

The buggy is at home in the desert.

January, 2014 – It was so great to be back in the Arizona desert in Phoenix. Once we got set up and acclimated to life in the rig, we instantly got caught up in the beauty of our surroundings.

Camera on tripod

The cameras got a workout here!

Whether it was sunrise or sunset or sometime in between, we found ourselves running in and out of the trailer to catch this image or that and then pour over it on the computer.

Evening photo from fifth wheel roof

Some pics are best taken from the roof!

 

 

 

During the last few months we have changed all the tools we use for photography. We moved up from Nikon D5100 cameras to D610’s, and we switched our computer software from Apple’s Aperture to Adobe’s Lightroom.

Mark has loved learning post-processing, that is, working with photos on the computer, and he has become very proficient with Lightroom.

View from our RV at sunset

Fire in the sky! Mark loves creating dramatic effects with Lightroom

I, on the other hand, have spent a lot of time being totally lost!

I could never seem to find the buttons I wanted on the camera, and Lightroom was a vast maze of clickable things that generated totally unexpected results in the images on the computer.

This was the beginning of a very long learning curve — for both of us.

Sunset with our RV

We had a few truly stunning sunsets

Whereas Mark had spent the last few years getting to know the mechanics behind photography in a very intimate way, I had been focused entirely on getting the hang of composition.

And each of us was at sea in the other’s territory.

“What buttons do I push?” I would ask.

“Where do I point my camera?” He would respond.

It was very funny — and very enlightening.

We decided that we needed to teach each other all we knew and learn each others’ skills.

I complained bitterly as I fumbled with the knobs on the tripod and missed shot after shot because I couldn’t get the legs, or the head — or any of it, for that matter — to do what I wanted.

Arizona sunset near Phoenix

An Arizona sunset

I’d look over and he would have gotten set up in an instant. But sometimes he didn’t seem to line himself up to get the most exciting image.

“Try moving over this way a bit more,” I said one time, “and zoom in so you get the saguaro, barrel cactus and the mountain balancing each other.”

“Oh WOW!” He said. “Here I was trying to put that pile of dead roots in the foreground and you’ve got this great image…”

Mark with his tripod

Mark is at ease with his tripod.

Very funny! But I was still flummoxed over my own issues. “How do I get the camera on and off of this thing?” I sighed. I felt so silly asking for the umpteenth time. I vowed I’d remember this time as he showed me yet again.

Saguaro skeleton in the Phoenix desert

We came across an old saguaro skeleton

What a miracle it was to discover that we each had something really valuable to give to the other.

Sonoran desert scenery: saguaro, barrel cactus and a mountain

A big saguaro and a little barrel cactus converse

This became apparent again when Mark ran out to get some night shots one balmy evening. I had had enough trouble with the tripod during the day — and now we were going to do it in the dark? Are you kidding?

Saguaro Pair

BFF’s

Saguaro and moon at dusk in Arizona

Mark captures a saguaro with the moon at dusk

He gleefully set up the camera and promptly got a beautiful shot of a saguaro and the moon before I’d even gotten my camera secured on the tripod and turned it on. He made it look so easy.

On another night he said, “I want to do some star shots,” as he dashed out the door. I hurried behind and watched as he effortlessly got set up and hit a few buttons on the camera.

He played with 30 second exposures and 90 second exposures while I looked on trying to memorize which buttons he’d just hit and why. But the images lacked spunk.

 

Fifth wheel trailer RV under Orion

The Orion constellation rises behind our buggy

“Hey, let’s try to get Orion rising over the rig!!” I suggested.

“Ooooh! I never thought of that!” He came running around to where I was and helped me get some of the settings going: long exposure, fixed ISO, noise reduction, manual focus, self-timer. Yikes! I took a few shots and finally got a keeper.

Collaborative photography. I love it!

Hiking shoes at RV our door

How many people live here?

The next day we decided to go hiking in the desert.

How funny it is now, after living barefoot on a boat in the tropics for so long (to the point where we forgot what shoes felt like on our feet), to look down and see this pile of hiking, running and cycling shoes at our door.

Desert Road near Anthem Arizona

 

 

 

Saguaro conversation

“The trail goes thataway”

We hiked Daisy Mountain trail at the north end of Anthem, a pretty and easy trail that goes through some beautiful desert scenery.

Saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert

This is a hold up!

What I love about the Sonoran desert is the crazy saguaro cactus.

Each one has a unique personality, and some seem to be deep in conversation.

As we tromped around, I felt a little like I was eavesdropping on some of these guys, listening in on what they had to say to each other.

Arizona barrel cactus

A male barrel cactus

Of course, nature has its whimsical side too, and Mark was laughing when he came over to show off his picture of a very male cactus.

Cactus needles in hiking shoe

That’s what you get when you stomp around in the desert

It’s a prickly business, walking in the desert, and when I looked at the bottom of my hiking shoes, they were filled with cactus needles.

Saguaro on a tilt

This reminded me of an intriguing woman we had met a week earlier at a supermarket Starbucks one morning.

She was wearing a bulky, navy blue down-filled snow jacket, the northern states kind that you never see in Phoenix, and she had on grubby, mud-encrusted hiking boots. There were mud splatters on her pants, and her eyes were red-rimmed and tired.

Closeup of Arizona saguaro cactus

She approached me and asked in a strong British accent if she could borrow my cell phone.

She gestured helplessly at her phone and sniffed from the cold. “This English phone can’t get a signal…”

Mark lines up a Sonoran desert photo

Mark lines up a photo of a saguaro…

Standing Saguaro in Phoenix

…his favorite shot was from the other side!

Saguaro cactus, master of the Sonoran desert

Saguaros grow all different ways

This made me laugh, and I explained to her that although I’d be happy to lend her my phone, we were the only people on the planet who don’t have one.

She gave me a lopsided smile and sat down with her coffee, clearly savoring the heat and steam coming from the cup.

Sonoran desert cactus

Classic Sonoran desert

She piqued my curiosity. Where was she from and what was she up to? I got up the nerve to ask.

“I’m here for a week,” she said. “I just flew in yesterday afternoon, and I have been out in the desert all night.”

My jaw dropped.

“Yeah, I was walking in the desert all night long.” She said, seeming not to believe it herself. “I don’t normally look like this. I clean up really well! I had a marvelous time out there.”

She went on: “I’m on a spiritual journey, and I had a series of rituals to do during the night. I saw a lot of animals out there, some javelina and jack rabbits. I saw a cat-like animal too. I don’t know what it was. It had rings on its tail…”

I shook my head in amazement as I listened to her. You don’t hear English accents in Phoenix too often, and I’ve never met a desert night wanderer, especially one who’s been out communing with the desert spirits and running into coatimundi in her meanderings.

Curvy saguaro cactus

Probably this guy’s life history wasn’t quite what he expected!

One of my favorite things about our travels is the people we meet, and especially having the time to talk to them.

“I forgot how cold it is in the desert at night!” She was saying. Brrrr. I can only imagine!

Like the saguaros, we are all so unique.

Some of us grow straight and tall, but others of us have special curves and bends, especially as we get older, because oftentimes life doesn’t turn out quite the way we plan.

 

Sun star burst effect on a saguaro cactus

The sun peeks out from behind a saguaro

Mark set up a gorgeous photo of the sun peeking around a saguaro in a starburst. Wow!

When I saw a beautiful sunset developing I was bound and determined to get a stunning shot of some kind too.

The clouds looked like they were going to explode in color, and I chose a pretty ocotillo that would make a perfect silhouette spray across the red and orange backdrop.

I set up the tripod so the camera was hanging upside down just above the ground, got it all focused, and then stood and waited.

Ocotillo cactus at sunset in Arizona

The much awaited ocotillo sunset shot… oh well.

This is not my way. When the sun hits the “golden hour” just before sunset, I usually run around like a madwoman shooting everything in sight.

But I wanted to learn more technically, so I folded my arms and bit my lip while I saw miracle photo after miracle photo glowing gold all around me. Arghh!

Then, to my horror, I watched my beautiful cloud pattern completely dissipate. The sun went down, and the clouds vanished! Not fair!

I took a few of my upside down ocotillo shots, with one lone cloud hovering to the side. What a disappointment.

Gathering up my gear, and wondering where in the world Mark had disappeared to, I trudged away.

After a hundred yards or so, I looked up and discovered a brilliant sunset had materialized out of thin air, and off in the distance stood the most perfect saguaro!

I ran full speed down to the cactus hoping to catch it in time, my loaded fanny pack, camera, tripod and Hoodman loupe bouncing around as I ran. With the camera still attached to the tripod, I lifted the whole thing into the air to get my shots, laughing along with the chortling cactus wrens that were scurrying around me.

Classic Phoenix - Saguaro cactus at sunset

My impromptu shot taken with the tripod dangling from the camera

This tripod technique is strictly verboten, totally amateurish, and hopefully in the future I’ll learn to react fast enough to get the composition I want with the legs of the tripod still firmly planted on the ground. But, for now, it worked!

In my excitement, I had set my sunglasses down somewhere, and I searched around but never found them. Meanwhile, Mark was calling me on the radio from the trail head wondering what had happened to me.

Home sweet home - our RV at dusk

Home sweet home.

I was totally elated, totally out of breath, and I chatted away on the radio with him the whole way back down the trail as darkness stole over the desert. By the time I saw his flashlight waving at the trail head, the world was pitch dark around me.

The desert is a magical place at night… and I understand its spiritual lure… but it sure was nice to see our cozy warm buggy waiting for us after being chased down that last bit of the trail by the cold, searching fingers of the night’s icy air.

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Phoenix Sonoran Preserve – A City Escape

Sonoran Desert Preserve

Apache Wash trailhead at the Sonoran Desert Preserve

Phoenix, Arizona, is a huge sprawling city that seems to creep further out into the desert with every passing day.

Each time we return to our old stomping grounds, we are surprised anew at all the changes.

Saguaro Cactus up close

Every saguaro cactus has its own personality

Roads we used to know like the backs of our hands now leave us utterly lost because we can’t find any of the old familiar landmarks.

With that kind of growth, and with new construction gobbling up the precious Sonoran desert at a scary-fast pace, it often seems that there can’t possibly be any open space left for the leisurely enjoyment of nature.

Before we leave on our hike

We didn’t get far before we stopped to take some photos

Everything within many miles of Phoenix has become either a master-planned community or a strip mall.

So we were utterly astonished when our friends Charlie and Cathie, who spend every free moment riding their bikes around town or hiking the many nearby mountains, asked us if we’d heard about the new road called Sonoran Desert Drive.

Lush Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran desert is very lush with
rich (and prickly) vegetation

New roads go in all the time, but they seemed truly excited about this one.  “It’s eight miles long, has a great bike lane, no traffic, and is surrounded on both sides by open desert as far as you can see.”

In Phoenix?  Impossible! We had to go check it out.

Sure enough, this beautiful, brand new parkway runs between Cave Creek Road and Dynamite on its eastern end and Dove Valley Road and North Valley Parkway to the west, without a hint of housing or development or urban living of any kind except at the cluster of homes tucked into its far western end.

Jumping cholla cactus

A “jumping” or “teddy bear” cholla cactus

For about 8 miles, this parkway bisects a huge, square tract of open desert.  Whoever knew that was there?  When you are scurrying around the housing-lined city streets, zooming up this road and down that one, there’s no way of knowing what’s in back of it all.

Better yet, right smack in the center of this vast piece of land is the brand new Apache Wash trailhead that is now part of the Sonoran Desert Preserve system.

Saguaro with starburst

The sun peaks around a cactus in a starburst

The first time we drove along this parkway and hiked the trail, in December, the trail had been open for just a few weeks.

Groups of people with water bottles, hiking shoes, fanny packs and safari hats stood around in front of the brand new trail maps deciding which of the many choices of routes to try first.

Teddy bear cholla

The hummingbirds need those long beaks to drink the nectar without getting spiked!

Near the shade ramadas, a sun dial looking statue turned out to be a pointer system to the mountains in the distance.

Trail hiking to saguaro cactus

This is a very beautiful trail to hike

The McDowells, Four Peaks and other mountains that surround Phoenix at distances of ten to thirty miles could all be spotted by lining up the pointer.

What a cool park!  And what luck that we happened to visit just after a big rain.  The air was as clear and crisp as could be, and the views to the horizon were haze free.

We set out on one of the trails at random, and of course we didn’t get very far before we had to start taking pictures.

This is a lush part of the Sonoran desert, rich with saguaro cactus, ocotillo and the many scrubby low lying bushes that always blanket the desert in pastel shades of gray and green.

Mountain biker

The trail is open to mountain bikers…

Jumping cholla, or “teddy bear” cholla (pronounced “choy-ya”), are the short, cute, pale, fuzzy many-armed cactus that look so cuddly.

But if you get some skin, or clothes, or hiking shoes anywhere near their barbed needles, they will cling to you for all they’re worth. That’s how they got the reputation of jumping!

 

Girl mountain biker

…and they were all having a blast on the trail!

If you step on one of their little round balls of needles that they shed so freely all around them, you will need a pair of pliers and a lot of patience to get all the needles out of the soles of your shoes!

I looked up when I heard the sound of wheels crunching the dirt, and suddenly saw a mountain biker barreling down towards us.

The trails are open to mountain bikers, and they all seemed to be loving their ride.

Saguaro cactus

A saguaro tells a funny tale to an audience of barrel cactus

Open sonoran desert

Turning 360 degrees at the summit we saw wide open desert in every direction

Horse hoof prints in the mud

Horse shoe prints in the hardened mud.

Saguaro cactus

Vast openness…
Ahhh… you can breathe!

 

 

 

The trail snaked around the backside of a hill and made a gradual climb.

As we ascended, I was astonished to look out across the valley and see nothing but desert vegetation.

We were in the middle of pristine Sonoran desert, and there wasn’t a home to be seen except right along the edges of the mountains on the horizon.

I heard a bird singing the most beautiful song.

 

 

He was just chirping away in the warm morning sun.  I finally spotted him sitting in the branches of a Palo Verde tree on the hillside.

Horseback rider

A horseback rider comes past.

It wasn’t a song I recognized, and I switched lenses really fast hoping to get his picture.

But my rustling around frightened him and he flew off. Or maybe it wasn’t the noise I was making…maybe it was the noise of the horses coming down the path!

We had seen horse hoof footprints in the hardened mud, and we had seen horse trailers down in the parking lot, but it was still pretty exciting when they came walking down the trail and passed us.

What a classic western image it made when they walked along the trail and off into the distance!

Horses on hiking trail

How beautiful to watch the horses walk off the “movie set” scene into the distance!

Closeup of cholla flower

A cholla flower

As we took a different route back and wound our way down the mountain towards the parking lot, I kept thinking how wonderful it is that a place like this has been built.

Saguaro cactus reflected in pool

Reflections on a beautiful walk in the desert…

Later, a little online research revealed that this trailhead was funded in part by the neighborhoods that abut the land, and that the Sonoran Desert Preserve is still expanding.  Just a week prior to our first hike there, another 600+ acres had been set aside.

The Sonoran desert is a rare treasure that exists only in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and my heart breaks every time I see it being bulldozed for housing.

Bravo to the city planners that decided to create this park, and even better still, to make it open and available to everyone.

We have been enjoying getting reacquainted with the Phoenix area so much this winter — and we have been blessed with such unseasonably warm and sunny weather — that we’ll be sticking around a while and doing more desert explorations!

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To Catch a Hummingbird (on camera!)

Our fifth wheel has a hummingbird window feeder

We love watching the hummingbirds come to our window feeder.

One of my favorite things to do when we set up camp is to put out our hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird window feeder with suction cup

It’s hung with a suction cup – easy!

Hummingbirds always seem to recognize a feeder when they see one, and within a few hours of putting it out, we invariably have a tiny customer sitting on the perch drinking his fill.

There are lots of different kinds of hummingbird feeders on the market, but the one I like most for an RV mounts on the window with a suction cup.

 

Humminbird at our window feeder at dawn

A hummer visits our feeder at dawn

Humminbird hover

“Hello!”

 

We first saw one of these feeders when we spent a happy afternoon with our friends Bob and Donna Lea in their trailer during our first year of full-timing ages ago.

The hummers came by their feeder all afternoon, and the best part was that we could see them up close and at eye level while sitting comfortably on the couch.

This kind of feeder can also be a great way to get hummingbird photos, and the other day, while out in the Arizona desert, we decided to try our hand at being wildlife photographers from inside the comfort of our fifth wheel.

 

Hummingbird lands at our feeder

Swooping down for a drink

 

A simple concoction of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar (stirred up well to get the sugar to dissolve) is all it takes to lure the little guys to the feeder.

But the thing is, hummingbirds dart about erratically and move really fast.

Sometimes they hover for a while and look at you while they weave their wings back and forth in a figure eight pattern, as if they’re treading water.  But then, suddenly, they turn and disappear in a flash.

Catching one on camera is not such an easy task!

 

Flying hummingbird

He kindly hummed a little higher to give us a blue sky backdrop

Just as you get the bird in your viewfinder and have lined up the shot the way you want it and are ready to click the shutter — he’s gone.

Plus, the lighting can be tricky. Hummingbirds have irridescent feathers that light up like neon when the sun hits them in a certain way. But at other times their feathers look dull and dark.

Our feeder is often backlit by the sun, since we like to point our wall of windows to the south in the wintertime.  This makes the hummers look like silhouettes, and frequently the lighting is such that their feathers don’t glow. at all

 

Hummingbird's feathers are dark in this light

Hummingbird feathers appear dark when they aren’t lit up by the sun.

The way we have our trailer oriented right now, though, the hummer looked truly stunning at the feeder when we stood in one particular spot during the early afternoon.

The only hard part was that in this light the hummer had a pretty good view into the trailer from his perch, and our movements inside made him nervous.  So, he wouldn’t stick around, especially when we were aiming a big black thing at him through the window.

To circumvent this, we set up a tripod at that spot with a remote shutter trigger.

 

Hovering hummingbird

Hovering

Our thinking was that we’d preset the focus to the perch area and then stand away from the window and click the shutter whenever the hummer turned up. A foolproof method, for sure.

The hummer made his appearance on queue and put on a great performance.

He hovered on the other side of the window, peered in at us, decided it was safe, sipped daintily while hovering, settled on the perch to drink a little more deeply, and then took off.

We happily clicked away on the shutter.  How perfect!!  These would be awesome photos!

 

Hummingbird at our RV feeder

Getting his balance on the perch…

But when we ran through the pics on the back of the camera, it was a disaster!  Every single shot was hopelessly blurry.

Arghh! The 1/125 shutter speed was waaaay too slow.

So we set up at a faster speed, 1/2000, and waited. And waited and waited. We could see him flitting about in the trees, but he was being coy and wouldn’t come anywhere near the feeder.

Mark got bored and sat down to read a book. “That’s why I like landscape photography,” He said.

But I held out.  For a while.  I fidgeted.  I yawned.  And after a while I turned and opened the fridge, figuring I’d pass the time by munching on something.

 

The Wave

He gives us a big wave!

Just as I got my hands on a snack, I heard Mark mutter, “Your little buddy’s back!”

Oh no!  I dropped everything and dove for the camera remote.

I clicked it just in time to get a shot of the tip of the bird’s tail and his feet as he took off — and totally missed the wonderful images of him hovering just outside of the field of view of the camera.

Darn!

Well, one thing was clear.  The tripod and the remote were awkward to maneuver and were too rigidly fixed to capture this speedy, darting bird.

 

Both wings going

The wings beat so very fast…

So I put the camera on a monopod with the idea that this time I’d be able to swing the camera around more freely and focus on him wherever he was rather than pre-focusing and hoping he hung out where the camera was focused.  And then I waited,  And waited and waited.

Mark chuckled at me over his book while I stood there.  “Looks like you’ve got it all set up…” He said.

“Yeah.  All I need is a bird!”

But the hummer was playing hard to get.  My feet got tired.  My knees got tired.  I rested my chin on the camera and groaned.  Where was that bird?

 

Darting hummingbird in a blue sky

Those little wings keep them suspended and stationary in the air

Then he suddenly appeared, and I flew into action.

I’d chosen 3D focus tracking to try to keep the little guy in focus as he moved around.  It was a mode someone had recommended online for bird photography.

As I pressed the shutter button partway down, little focus dots lit up all over the hummer while he was moving about.

It drove me crazy as it focused on his head, his feet, his tail, and his wings, constantly shifting from one part of his body to another.

It was totally distracting, and the result was random body parts being in focus. Ugh! This technique might work for some people, but it definitely wasn’t working for me!

 

The hummer pauses at the feeder

The colors on his head and neck changed with every move he made.

I’d read that the best animal shots have the eyes in perfect focus.  What good was it if the feathers on the bird’s round little belly were in focus but you couldn’t see his face clearly?

My little visitor disappeared again, and I was disappointed in my photos again.

Besides having great focus on everything but his face, in this group of pictures the dimming afternoon light mixed with the dimming afternoon light had made the ISO climb sky high, so the images were coming out rather grainy.

So it was back to the waiting game with a few more adjustments.  “It will be another 10 or 15 minutes,” Mark said.  “He got a really long drink that time!”

 

The hummer gives us a wave

Another wave… I like this guy!

Man! I don’t know how wildlife photographers do it.  Here I was in the comfort of my own home, yet I was impatient and bored and uncomfortable standing around waiting.

Imagine being holed up before dawn in some blind you’d built out in the wilds of Africa!  Could any animal shot be worth that kind of effort?

Well, at least I had nothing else really pressing going on.  We could hear the little hummber out in the branches of the trees making his funny little clicking noises.

 

.

A gambel's quail runs past

While waiting for the hummer, I spotted a Gambel’s quail sauntering by.

Suddenly a Gambel’s quail caught my eye.  He strutted past the window on a mission, his little top-knot feather bouncing up and down as he walked.

I love these little birds too, and I lifted the camera to my face, monopod and all, and stood on my tiptoes to get a shot of him running by.

Just then, the hummingbird was back at the feeder.  And I was out of position!

Mark laughed out loud as I tried to get lined up and refocused while muttering something unintelligible under my breath.

Hummer wings in focus high isd

Eating on the fly!

 

I jammed the shutter button down for a rapid-fire series of shots.

This time I’d nailed it.  I knew it!  And sure enough, when I looked at the photos a few minutes later the results were terrific and I was triumphant.

I gloated quite a bit as I showed a few of the images to Mark.

Now he was intrigued.  I sat down, my own little mission accomplished, and watched him set up shop.

Hummingbird close-up shot

Picture perfect!

A hummingbird peers in our trailer window

What a handsome little guy!

Ditching the monopod, he placed a tripod on the table and switched out the long 70-200 mm lens I had been using for a fixed length 85 mm.

He was bound and determined to make that remote shutter button work.  I shook my head and said there was no way… but then, after a few attempts, he got some really spectacular shots!

Lately, our little bird friend has been hanging out with a buddy, and they seem to be taking our presence in stride.

I want to take this whole operation outside to get some images of them in the trees, and I had hoped to end this post with an awesome photo from the palo verde tree that’s just outside our trailer.

But our hummer and his friend have been keeping a low profile this afternoon.  So, we’ll just have to wait and see if we can catch them tomorrow!

 

Love birds and animals?  You might enjoy some of these other posts where we communed with animals during our travels:

Arizona, Here We Come – Space Aliens of All Kinds!

Arizona sunset with saguaro

Arizona’s beautiful scenery beckons us

December, 2013 – After saying goodbye to our sailboat Groovy in San Diego, we pointed our truck towards Phoenix, Arizona. The truck bed was piled high with all of our stuff, and a new life waited for us down the road in our trailer.

We decided to take it slow on our way there.

We were both quiet and lost in thought as we began to climb through the hilly area that separates the moist and green San Diego coast from the flat, brown, dry deserts to the east.

Spaceships and aliens outside San Diego

Strange alien spaceships and motorhomes on I-8

It’s a region of towering hills made of huge boulders that look like a giant bulldozer just dropped its load of rocks.

Alien in a space craft

Yup, that’s an alien in there!

We had driven through this area many times, and every time we noticed a very strange collection of aliens, spacecraft and RVs parked off the side of the road.

This time, rather than keep going as usual, Mark decided to pull off the highway.

“I’ve always wondered about this place.”  He said as he parked and reached in the back seat for his camera.  We both hopped out and began to roam around.

 

Aliens in a motorhome

Aliens in a motorhome too…

This funny place is a classic little piece of roadside Americana.

Someone has put alien figures inside of spaceships, motorhomes and assorted chairs and cars all along a frontage road.

They’re the kind of aliens that have the slanted, almond eyes and small mouths set in lightbulb shaped heads.  So strange!

We wandered among these weird creatures, mystified.  Who put this here?  And why?  It’s crazy, but it’s fun!

 

Aliens sitting in chairs near San Diego

And there are some aliens sitting around in chairs!

There’s a tower at the top of the hill that appears to be a museum, but there was a sign saying “Sorry, we’re closed today.”  Oh well, next time!

When we got to Phoenix, we went straight to the storage facility where our fifth wheel had been patiently waiting for us for over a year.

I think it was very excited to see us, but when it saw the load in the back of the truck, its knees appeared to buckle a little.

 

RV in storage

Our buggy has waited patiently in storage

It was already a fully outfitted home, and now we were bringing endless boxes of stuff back to it that had absolutely nowhere to go.

Yet it was all great stuff that we couldn’t bear to part with.  Ugh!

How do you combine two households into one, especially when the one you’re moving into is 350 square feet?  You’ve gotta make some tough choices.

Mark washes our fifth wheel

The buggy gets a bath

And so it was.  This spatula or that spatula?  This set of socket wrenches or that one?

And what to do with all those awesome but unused stainless steel fasteners and spare parts we’d bought for the boat?  They might prove useful out on some remote road someday.

At the Goodwill Donations drop-off

We made many trips to Goodwill!

And all that clothing.  Oh my goodness!  We could have dressed an army — in bathing suits and tank tops!

Over the ensuing weeks we became regulars at the Goodwill drop-off center, and slowly our mountain of bins in the back of the truck dwindled to the point where we could actually find homes for everything inside the trailer.

Mercury hot rod

A Mercury bared its teeth at us!

This isn’t the kind of project that makes either of us leap out of bed in the morning with excitement.

So we took our time as the holidays approached and did lots of other things.

While out driving around in Cave Creek one day, we bumped into a car show.

 

Cool trike on the road in Phoenix

Smooth ride…

Mark can never pass up a chance to mingle with muscle cars, so we stopped to have a look.

Arizona is a mecca for car enthusiasts, whether they are buying new exotics from the row of Maserati, Lotus, Ferarri and other dealerships in Scottsdale, or primping their old cars for shows like this.

There were hot rods and rat rods and souped up cars of all kinds from yesteryear.

There were even some unusual motorcycles, including a few trikes that rumbled down the road.

 

Dirt bike jump acrobatics

A dirt biker does acrobatics over the crowd

What really caught our attention, however, was the dirt bike jumping show.

As the announcer began his patter on the microphone, we looked up to see a dirt bike flying high above the crowd.

Flying dirt bike

Dirt bike somersault

Dirt bike daredevils

Leaping motocross riders

Wow!  Those guys are crazy!!  They were all young boys in their late teens — one was only 16 — and with every jump, they soared higher and higher, doing wild and daring tricks in the air.

I was awestruck.  We’ve seen this kind of stuff on TV, of course, but it was different to be standing so close that when they landed we could reach out and touch them.

 

Dirt bike wheelie

These daredevils were amazing

At the end they all did wheelies past the crowd.

A more peaceful way to take to the skies around Phoenix is to go up in a balloon, and every morning the horizon was filled with them.

Balloons in Phoenix

Balloons soaring…no acrobatics!

Balloon ride over Arizona

With a pretty cactus

Sometimes we could hear the roar of their flame heaters before we saw them.

Balloons in the sky in Phoenix

The balloons make beautiful patterns in the sky

The balloons made wonderful, everchanging patterns in the air.  Floating around in slow motion, they’d move up and down and drift past each other.

We were both so happy to be back in the desert.  There is something about the Sonoran desert that is really appealing.

 

Sonoran desert sunset in Arizona

We just love the Sonoran desert

The cactus are so stately, and the sunsets are so colorful and varied.

Our son went tent camping at Cave Creek Recreational Area campground, and we spent a few hours with him at his campsite.

The campground was filled with RVs, and they all looked so snug and homey. Many of them had Christmas lights on.

We hung around the campfire, relishing the smell of mesquite wood that filled the air.

Even a brief downpour didn’t dampen our spirits, although we scampered off into the truck for the worst of it.

RV at campground at night

Cave Creek campground was full of RVs — and they looked so cozy and inviting!

Campfire in Cave Creek Arizona

And what a great campfire too…

We suddenly had such a longing to get back into our fifth wheel.  “Soon, soon!” we told ourselves.

Fake fireplace at Christmas

The little fake fireplace set just the right mood next to the tree…

Santa brings lots of presents

Santa brought joy to everyone

In the meantime, though, the holidays were here and were wonderful. This was the first Christmas we had spent with our family in five years, and the coziness around the little fake fireplace in the living room was just as intimate and heartwarming as the real thing outdoors.

Santa came with a bountiful array of gifts for everyone, and we spent a marvelous holiday season immersed in the world of our young granddaughters, where innocence, iPod games, Wii dancing, pizza and Barbie rule.  Whew!!

Our urge to set up housekeeping in our beloved buggy couldn’t be put off any longer, though, and the arrival of the new year saw us squeezing ourselves into the trailer alongside the last few boxes of unsorted stuff for an overnight, even though it was still parked in storage with no room to open the slides.

RV at sunset - the angels sing!

Our buggy was glowing when it found out we were going out adventuring together.

Riding our bikes once again

…and we were glowing too.

Within a few days we were out on our own again, the slides pushed out, the last boxes of things sorted and stored, and our spirits sky high.

We grabbed our bikes, suited up in our new Mexican “Bi-Zihuanas” cycling jerseys — gifts from our friend Alejandro who owns the very cool Bi-Zihuanas bike shop in Zihuatanejo (story here about 1/2 way down the page) — and we set out to ride the fabulous bike lanes of greater Phoenix into the far reaches of the desert.

It was our first real bike ride in ages, and it felt so good.

The wind was at our backs, the sun was on our faces, and we were so thrilled be alive and so excited to be looking down the road towards the fun of travel and exploration once again.

 

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Phoenix Parks – Saguaros and Sisters

Our saguaro friends say "hi."

Holding the moon close.

Wearing a halo.

An early Cardinal travel trailer.

1940's vintage

Another vintage Cardinal.

Saguaro holding pen.

First glimpse of Bartlett Lake.

These saguars have looked down this hillside for

more than a hundred years.

View of Bartlett Lake.

Pretty roads wind through the park.

From high on a ridge.

Cholla cactus catches the rays.

Lakeside Camping

Yellow Cliffs

Every saguaro has its own

personality.

Campground Full.

Not !!!!

Stray kitty says hello.

She'll be the new station cat for the

hot-shot firefighting crew.

Bartlett Dam.

North end of the lake.

Another great kayak ride.

A blue heron stalks the

shore.

The Bicycle Haus team takes a break in their 85 mile ride.

Dirt roads wander through the desert.

Hallelulia

Swoopy saguaro

Warm (prickly)

embrace.

After old age.

White Tanks & Bartlett Lake, Arizona

Early November, 2009 - We left Havasu Springs Resort ready for an exciting

change of pace:  White Tanks Regional Park on the west side of Phoenix.  This is a

pretty park and campground set smack in the middle of some of the nicest Sonoran Desert

there is.  We couldn't help but smile as the saguaro cactuses greeted us with arms held high.

The overall climate in central Arizona's Sonoran Desert

doesn't feel much different than the Mojave Desert of

Nevada, California and northwestern Arizona, but what a difference in vegetation.  It is lush

and vibrant, filled with unusual plant life, singing birds and hopping bunnies.

The central figure in this desert is the saguaro cactus, and they give the area its charm.  Each

one is unique, striking a pose with arms raised that suggests an almost reverent spirit.  These

precious and protected plants define the landscape, and as we drove into the park we felt like

we were coming home.

We woke up the next morning to find that one

section of the campground had been taken over

by a raft of tiny, ancient trailers.  Their owners, all

women, were gathered around a campfire,

and we learned that this was a rally of the

group "Sisters on the Fly."

Priscilla, one of the first members of the

group, invited me into her 1948 Pleasure

Craft trailer (unfortunately I never got a

photo).  The woodwork was beautiful,

but it was the antique refrigerator with

its heavy external latch that caught my

eye.  "That's what sold me on this

trailer," she said.  "That and this stove

here."  Both appliances were original,

and Priscilla was too.  What a great

gathering of ladies and buggies.

With their sporty air of independence,

laced with a touch of sass, these gals

seemed to have a great weekend

together.  I later checked out their

website, www.sistersonthefly.com, and thoroughly enjoyed their "Caravan Trailers"

link.  It is a gallery of photos of their members' fantastic vintage trailers, many featuring

wonderful and humorous paint jobs.  Started ten years by two sisters, the club has

grown to over 1000 members.  What fun.

We left White Tanks to spend a little time at Bartlett Lake.  On the

way out we passed the sad sight of what happens to saguaro

cactuses when developers do their thing.  In order to build a new

library, something that will enhance the human community

immensely, the lovely Sonoran Desert abutting the park must be

cleared.  In the process, the cholla cactus, mesquite, and creosote

bushes get mowed down without a thought.  The saguaros,

however, are protected and endangered, so they get moved to a

holding pen for later transplanting.  Seeing all these fun little

personalities standing in a jail cell, arms up, awaiting an unknown

fate, always makes my heart ache.  It happens all over central

Arizona all the time, but that doesn't make it any easier to witness.

It is unfortunate that the most lush and gorgeous of our American

deserts has also turned out to be such a popular place to live.  There are thousands of square miles of barren Mojave desert, but

the beautiful Sonoran desert that is unique to Arizona and northern Mexico has been systematically dismantled in Arizona for the

last century in order to make way for the urban sprawl of Phoenix and Tucson.  If only those cities had been founded in a place that

didn't lose its unique beauty when bulldozed.

The road to Bartlett Lake is one of the area's most scenic.  The

lake pops into view as you round a bend, and grows larger and

larger as you descend towards it.

Taking many bike rides along the roads that wind through this

part of the Tonto National Forest over the next few days, I kept

holding us both up by stopping to get photos.

This rich desert landscape is

otherworldly, although it is alive with

animal activity.  The prickly plants of

all shapes and sizes ring out with the

unique calls and rustlings of the

Gambel's quails, curve-billed

thrashers, cactus wrens and gila

woodpeckers.

Teddy bear chollas look so cuddly I

always find myself stomping into the desert to get a closer

look, only to find myself sitting with a pair of pliers later,

yanking their long thick thorns out of the soles of my shoes.

There is dispersed camping along the lake's shores, and

because the lake was being drained to an unusually low

level during our visit, to allow for dam repairs, the choice of

campsites was immense.

We rode down to the Yellow

Cliffs and circled back to our

campsite.  This area is layered in

memories for us, as we used to

ride our bikes out here

frequently to "get in some miles" and get away from the city, Mark

used to bring his kids here to swim, and we spent some happy

nights here in our popup as well.

Shortly after we pulled into our

campsite, we heard an incessant

meowing.  A little black and white kitty

suddenly came over to us and started

rubbing herself on our legs.  Where did

she come from?  The nearest house is in a huge masterplanned

community of mansions 14 miles away.  There was no way this

little cat had come that far.  Her coat was still clean and she was

perfect coyote snacking size.  We guessed she had been

abandoned or had snuck out of someone's car during a visit to

the lake in the last day or two.

We gave her some tuna,

and watched her lustily

chow down and lick the can

clean.  She promptly

adopted our top front step

as her own and spent the

afternoon watching the

world through half-closed

eyes from that vantage

point.  We couldn't keep her

and kept racking our brains

to come up with a friend in the area who might need

a cat these days.  None came to mind.

But at that moment a US Forest Service truck pulled

up and two young fellows jumped out.  They were

on the hot-shot forest fire crew for Tonto National

Forest and were busy trimming trees while waiting

for the next forest fire to break out.  They took one

look at the little kitten and fell in love too.  "Our

station cat was really old and he just died," one of

them said.  "We need a new station cat!"  How cool

is that.  The guys said they still had a stack of cat

food back at the station too.  The kitty hung out in

the shade near the fire fighters for the rest of the

day, and they whisked her off to the station once

their shift ended.  Truly one of the best stray cat

stories I've ever seen.

We've been to Bartlett Lake

countless times but had never

explored its back roads that wind

behind the dam.  After a steep

climb we got a great view of the

lake and then descended to the

river beyond the dam where there

are small campsites.

We even got out on the kayak and had

a chance to get up close and personal,

checking out the exposed shoreline.  A blue heron was patiently

fishing nearby.

One Saturday morning we got a glimpse of our old lives as the

Bicycle Haus bike team arrived from Scottsdale, flying down the

final screaming descent towards the lake.  We rode with

them back up to the ranger's station, some 14 miles from

the lake, and were glad we didn't have another 30 miles to

go after that to get to the starting point like they did.

Instead, we wandered along the roads at a slow pace, taking

leisurely photos of our dear friends, the saguaros.

In the backs of our minds we were mulling over what to do once

the winter weather started to arrive.  We didn't know just yet, but

new and different kinds of adventures were in store for us on the

Caribbean island of Grenada.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roosevelt Lake, AZ – Desert Oasis

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Roosevelt Lake, Arizona

April 5-18, 2009 - We left Chanute, Kansas in a blast of cold headwinds.

Those miserable winds pummeled us all the way across Oklahoma, Texas

and New Mexico.  We were totally windblown by the time we arrived in

Arizona, and we were utterly fed up with fighting it every time we set foot

outside the trailer.  Our usual mileage of 10 mpg while towing dropped as

low as 7.7 through parts of Oklahoma, and for the entire trip across

country our average was a dismal 8.5.

The truck and

trailer looked

like heck when

we got to

Arizona, and

we did too.  So

it was with great excitement that I

opened our door and looked out

at the lake on our second

morning and felt not just warm

sun on my skin but the sweetest

of gentle breezes on my face.

This is one of those areas that is

a little jewel on our planet.

Coming into Windy Hill Recreation

Area there is a fantastic curvy

road, and I spent several happy

hours on two different days

running up and down the road

getting pictures of RVs as they

drove past.

Roosevelt Lake was dammed in 1911, and at the time was the largest

man-made lake in the world.  We had lived in Phoenix, next door to this

little piece of heaven, for years, yet we had never been there.  I couldn't

believe how beautiful it was.  If we had known about it, we would have

camped there every spring and fall weekend in our popup tent trailer.

The lake is open to boaters of all kinds, and a marina sits next to the

visitors center.  There are lots of houseboats at the marina.  What a fun

place to roost for a while.

We had ridden our bikes on just about every road in the area with

various organized bike rides over the years, but the one spectacular

road that runs alongside the lake was a whole new discovery for us.

Everything

seemed to be

in bloom when

we arrived, and

the high winds

had blown

every bit of dust

and pollution to

kingdom come,

so the air was

crisp and clear.

The lake was

full to

overflowing,

and the views

in every

direction were

filled with the

promise of

spring.

We were blessed with a full moon

during our stay, and a group of birds

swooped back and forth in front of

the moon as it rose one evening.

The entire lake is smack in the

middle of Tonto National Forest, so

there is virtually no development

anywhere other than the slightly

developed campgrounds and an

Indian cliff dwelling site nearby.  I

was amazed by how many

campgrounds there are, and how

many campsites within each

campground.  The USFS has closed

several campgrounds and closed

many loops within the open

campgrounds, probably because

they just don't get enough

business to make it worthwhile to

maintain it all.

The campgrounds are set along little peninsulas, and many campsites

have a waterfront view.  Whoever designed the campgrounds along this

lake did an outstanding job.  There is boondocking too, but the

campgrounds are so spacious and pretty that we opted for a waterfront

site at the end of a peninsula instead.

Throughout our visit the cameras just kept clicking.  In every direction

we turned there seemed to be another lovely shot.  Friends of ours

were camped nearby, and each evening the discussion always seemed

to wander back to the various photos all of us had taken during the day.

One evening I

came back from a

bike ride to hear

an excited

discussion around

the campfire

about a clump of

clover and a bee.

This little bee had

unknowingly

become a

supermodel for the afternoon, and we

had fun comparing all the different

photos of him.

The Sonoran Desert is one of my

favorite places.  It extends from

Arizona into Sonora, Mexico, and is

extremely lush, filled with a wide

variety of flowers, birds and cactus.  It

is the only place in the world where

the wise old saguaro cactus chooses

to live, and they rule the landscape

with a myriad of personalities, all

seeming to wave a greeting to their fellow cactus.

The saguaros that have a cluster of arms are often 150 years old or

more.  Those cactus grew up in a very different world -- one with a

small river instead of a lake, for starters.

The main road hugs the lake for many miles, and on a few

days we ventured out to Tonto Basin, a small community at

the far north end of the lake.  On those morning drives the

hillsides were alive with bright yellow flowers and towering

cactus, looking down at the lake.  In the distance we could see

Four Peaks, an aptly named mountain range that makes a distinct

landmark on the horizon when looking east from Phoenix.  Here we got

to see its back

side.

A bridge spans

the river just

before the

dam, and every

time you drive

by it begs you

to take a

picture.

On several days we went out in the

kayak and pedaled and paddled

around.  The wind resumed its howling

every few days, so we had some

sloppy times on the water with the

spray flying.  But there were some

really calm days too.  Those were

times of heavenly relaxation and

serenity.

The lake is an interesting habitat because it is in the

middle of the richest Sonoran Desert land, but

because the body of water is so large, ducks, grebes and even seagulls set up

housekeeping here too.  Whenever we would go out in the kayak we were always

amazed to see hundreds of grebes swimming around.  They would alert each other to

our presence with frantic calls, and as we approached, one by one they would dive

underwater.  At the same time we could also hear the calls of the Gambel quail from

their perches in the desert scrub along the shore.

The fishermen complained

that the fishing wasn't too

good.  That surprised us,

because we saw all kinds of huge fish leaping out of the water as we

paddled.  Maybe their noisy powerboats were scaring off their catch.

The cycling in this area is spectacular as well.

There are a lot of organized rides sponsored by

the Arizona bike clubs that travel many of the

roads in this part of the state, however I know of

none that go along the lakeside road (route

188).  It would be the perfect location for an

organized ride: stunning scenery, challenging

climbs, screaming descents, and lots of picnic

areas for rest stops.

Roosevelt Lake is a gorgeous place, and we

felt blessed to be able to spend a good bit of

time there.

A little cardinal sang his heart out on one of our last mornings.

He seemed so happy to be alive.  Roosevelt Lake makes you feel

that way.  Sadly, we eventually had to pack up and go.  We drove

the beautiful lakeside road one last time and then turned west

once again to journey on to California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiery Sunsets and Interesting Folks in the Arizona Desert

Groups mark their territories and gather in the desert

in Quartzsite.

Whiling away the morning making music in the desert.

"Rowdy" of Cutler's Bull & Donkey Show

Quartzsite welcomes

characters of all kinds....

....no dress code required.

People come from all over, any way they can.

I heard a noise and looked out the window to see this

plane land a few feet from our trailer!

The desert pilots fly all manner of craft, but they have

nothing on the natural airborne essence of the

hummingbirds.

Sunrise

Sunset

Classic Sonoran Desert scenery at the White Tanks

mountains west of Phoenix.

The small cholla cactus applaud the silent, serene

performance of the Saguaros.

Water !!

And here it is, about 200 yards from the rock sign that the

ancients carved.

Arizona Deserts

December, 2008 and January 2009 - After Yuma, we stopped in Quartzsite en route to Phoenix for the holidays.  This became the

first of a delightful string of reunions with friends and family that filled our winter months, and we returned again in January.  As we

first settled into the strange desert living that characterizes boondocking in the Quartzsite BLM land, winter arrived with a

vengeance.  The land is ideal for RVs - flat, level, and hard-packed, as if it were paved.  But it is very exposed, with only some low

desert scrub brush and the rare saguaro cactus and hummingbird as company.  When the wind decides to blow the trailer rocks!

We camped next to our friends Bob & Donna Lea whose 20 years of

experience with winter camping in Arizona's deserts was invaluable as we

tackled the project of installing a new heater.  Their warm company made

the chilly, grey days pass very quickly, and we had a chance to compare

our solar setups (see notes at bottom of that page).

Each January, when it plays host to a series of gem shows and the

annual RV show, Quartzsite swells from a truck stop with a few homes

and small

stores to a 120

square mile

parking lot

filled with

retired RVers

from the north

country.  RVers gather in groups of all kinds, marking their territory with

signs.  "Loners on Wheels," "The Gadabouts," "Escapees Boondockers,"

and manufacturers' rallies fill the desert for miles in every direction.  A

paper plate with a couple's names on it and an arrow is enough to signal

friends to a gathering location.  There is no reservation system and no

management of these crazed senior citizens, so if you arrive and your

favorite spot is taken, you find another spot.

This year the Montana Owners' rally was the most impressive, even

though they took our friends' preferred spot by their favorite saguaro.  The

group drew an enormous circle in the desert floor, and as each rig arrived

it was carefully parked in a spoke pattern around the circle.  Some 50

Montana fifth wheels showed up, and

they formed a perfect circle around their

mammoth campfire.

Quartzsite is filled with unusual

characters.  As we walked one morning

we passed a couple making music

outside a rig.  He had been a

professional musician in his day, and

she was enjoying his pointers and

accompaniment.  Another day we were greeted by a

couple that puts on an animal show with their farm

animals in nearby Bouse.  They were doing rig-to-rig

advertising as they drove their animals through the

desert and invited people to their show.

Sightings of "rare birds" is common in Quartzsite, and

people watching is great entertainment for everyone.

We visited Paul's Oassis Books

bookstore again, and he was

dressed in his holiday finest.

Seeing Quartzsite out of

season makes you wonder

what would ever draw anyone

to visit this desolate, dusty,

shabby town.  But in January

people arrive

from all over,

and the town

comes alive.

We are accustomed to seeing hummingbirds at our trailer window's

feeder, but where else would you peek out your window to see a small

plane land just a few feet away?  We got a wave from the pilot when he

took off again!

Not just

Quartzsite's

culture but its

skies come alive

morning and

evening as well.

We were

blessed with

several stunning

sunrises and

sunsets.

I loved the way

the whole desert

sunset scene

would be

reflected in the

rear window of

our trailer.

Between visits

to Quartzsite,

we stopped in

Phoenix for

Christmas.  We

took several

wonderful hikes

in the White

Tank mountains

west of the city.

One hike goes to a waterfall that runs

only after a torrential downpour.  We were lucky and got a downpour and the waterfall was still

running when we hiked in.  I was fascinated to see a rock covered with petroglyphs showing

squiggly horizontal lines.  Clearly, the people who lived there a thousand or more years ago

noted the occasional presence of water by pecking out the universally recognized symbol of

water on the rock face.

After the holidays we

snuck back to San Diego

for the January sailboat

show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other blog posts from our RV travels to Quartzsite:

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