Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – Wild Animals in Tucson AZ

February 2016 – During our RV travels in Tucson, we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which is located in Saguaro National Park. This really fun “museum” is really more of an outdoor nature walk and zoo that lets you see all the creatures native to the Sonoran Desert up close in their natural environment.

Big horn sheep Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

The great thing at this “museum” is that the animals don’t run away!

The Sonoran Desert spans the states of Arizona on the US side of the border and Sonora on the Mexican side of the border, and it is an ecosystem and habitat that we just love. But the most exotic birds and animals are a bit reclusive, and the iconic creatures aren’t so easy to find while out hiking in the desert.

So it was just fabulous to see a big horn sheep sitting up on a rocky hill and to be able to admire him will he slowly turned his head this way and that in the morning sun.

Big horn sheep Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Within moments of entering the park, we saw a big horn sheep sunning himself.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has several habitats for the animals of the different regions of the desert, with a mountain habitat for the animals that like the cooler climes amid big rocks and trees, and open grasslands for the creatures that prefer those areas.

Fox Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A cute little fox walks by

We haven’t ever seen a fox or a wolf while out hiking, but we got see both here at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A beautiful wolf who was pacing in his enclosure, no doubt looking for Little Red Riding Hood.

Wolf Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A wolf on the prowl — looking for Little Red Riding Hood!

Little did he know that Little Red Riding Hood was actually over at the mountain lion enclosure!

Mountain lion Arizona Sonoran Desert museum

A little girl checks out a mountain lion… or vice versa!

You can watch the mountain lion on two sides of her enclosure. There is a plexiglass window in one corner where the little girl was, or you can stand on a slightly elevated viewing area on the opposite side of the enclosure for another view down into her mini canyon.

Mountain Lion Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

What a beautiful cat.

This lioness kept everyone guessing and on the run. First she’d hang out by the window, but when the crowd got thick, she’d move around the corner out of sight. Then the crowd would trot around on the path to try and see her from the open viewing area on the other side.

What a hoot! As this enormous cat leaped effortlessly between the rocks by the window and the big open gully around the corner, all of us tourists ran back and forth on the path outside her enclosure, cameras and cell phones at the ready!

Mountain lion Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum Saguaro National Park Tucson

This mountain lion kept all the tourists on the run!

The trick to getting the most out of this museum is to arrive a little before the place opens at 8:30 a.m. When we arrived at 8:32, the parking lot was quickly filling and there was a line for tickets at the door already. The thing is, the animals are fed at opening time, so if you hustle down the path to the ones you want to see, you’ll catch them as they eat their breakfast.

Within an hour, most of the animals were settling in for a nap, and many of them were hard to spot!

We caught a fleeting glimpse of an absolutely gorgeous ocelot. What a fur coat!!

Ocelot Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The ocelot ran past so fast she was just a blur.

But after that out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes peek at her, she was gone for the day in a quiet corner where we could just see her head moving as she licked her paws…

But we did see the bobcats. They were snoozing under a rock!

Bobcats Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Bobcats catnap under a rock

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is artfully laid out, with paved and dirt walking paths that intersect and wind through the property. In some higher areas there are lookouts, and we loved the gnarly shade shelter that protected one of them.

Lookout Area Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A fun and crazy awning over a viewing platform.

There are lots of more common animals too, and we got a kick out of the javelina, an animal we have spotted many times in the desert.

Javelina Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Arizona’s desert “pig” – a javelina (pronounced “havaleena”

A little squirrel was busy scratching…

Squirrel Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

I’m not sure if this guy was on display or just stopped by for the free food.

And a coyote posed for several minutes while a crowd of camera shutters clicked away.

Coyote Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A coyote strikes a classic pose.

We even spotted a deer back in the brush.

Deer Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

We saw deer through the trees.

One of the big highlights of a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the Raptor Free Flight presentation which happens twice a day at 10:00 and 2:00 all winter long. Again, even though we were there on a mid-week school day, the crowds were thick. Everyone stands along the walking path in one area and then a presenter begins to talk about the various birds that will be flying by.

Raptor Free Flight demonstration_

The highlight of a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the raptor free flight show.

There are two trainers who have yummy dead animal pieces in their pockets, and they go into the various bird enclosures and ask the birds if anyone wants come out and fly around and get a snack.

They bring out only those birds that are in the mood, so there is no guarantee who will be flying on the day you are there!

The first bird we saw was a raven. These guys love the western National Parks, and we’ve seen them many times, but it was still a thrill to see one swoop over our heads and land on the trainer’s hand.

Ravens and crows are extraordinarily smart birds, and I’ve read of a study of a flock of crows where one member of the flock was taken away for seven years and then brought back. The flock went wild upon his return, obviously recognizing their long lost buddy.

Free Flying Raptor Exhibit Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A raven flies to the trainer for a snack.

Perhaps most thrilling was the great horned owl. I have a super sweet spot for owls (we had a wonderful encounter with some adorable wild burrowing owls just a little southeast of Phoenix last year and watched a wild great horned owl at the sandhill crane roosting area in southeastern Arizona too).

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A great horned owl came out to see the crowd.

To keep all these free flying birds within reasonable range, the trainers pulled bloody bits of thawed quail out of their pockets every so often and lure the birds over. (These weren’t pieces of the southwest’s sweet Gambel’s quail, thank goodness, but were commercially grown to feed raptors). Mark got an awesome shot of the great horned owl downing a bite!

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

Mmmm, mmm, good!!

What a beautiful bird!!

Great horned owl Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

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Last up was a peregrine falcon, and it was really wonderful to see a falcon flying without the leather hood that falconers usually put on them. This guy zipped around and did some fabulous dives.

Peregrine Falcon Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A peregrine falcon comes in for a landing.

Arizona was once home to a parrot species too. The Thick Billed Parrot lived all over the American southwest and was last seen in the Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the 1930’s. They were reintroduced to the wild in Arizona in the 1980’s, but the effort was a tragic failure, in part because of predators, like hawks, and also due to releasing adults that had lived in cages for too long and had lost their street smarts.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had two thick billed parros on display, and they were making a wonderful racket!

Thick Billed Parrot Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

A pair of thick billed parrots squawked happily

There are two big walk-through aviaries in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — one for bigger birds and one for hummingbirds.

What we’ve discovered in our RV travels around the southwest is that hummingbirds of all varieties are super easy to attract with a hummingbird feeder hung outside the rig, or mounted an RV window, and filled with a concoction of four parts water and one part table sugar.

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are easy to attract and fun to photograph from an RV if you’ve got a feeder.

Hummingbird hand-feeding kit

A hand-feeding kit!

Even better — and a reader just alerted us to this — get a hummingbird hand-feeding kit. Doesn’t that look like fun?! We’ve just ordered one ourselves!

Another great way to attract both birds and other small animals is to put out a dish of water a little ways from the rig. We’ve used a big upside down frisbee with great results. Several birds at a time, including cardinals, will stand in and around the frisbee, taking baths and drinking.

The Sonoran Desert spans the Sea of Cortez too. This is an unusual eco-region because the creatures that live in or near the water have to contend with the very cold Pacific Ocean temps and climate that sweep up from the open ocean and the very hot desert climate and water temps that develop each summer.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a tropical fish display that shows some of the fish of the area.

Fish Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum

The Sonoran Desert includes Baja California and the Sea of Cortez where tropical fish abound.

A trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a really fun excursion, especially for RV snowbirds looking for a neat daytrip during their stay in Tucson. Be sure to get there early so you can catch the animals as they chow down their breakfast!!

There’s more info at the links below…

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Old Adobe Doorways & An Evening Walk in Tucson AZ

February 2016 – During our RV travels to Tucson, Arizona, we had a chance to delve into pre-history when we saw the petroglyphs of Saguaro National Park, and we also experienced the deep Spanish roots of this southwestern city at Mission San Xavier del Bac. While in town, we met up with some very special friends who took us on a walking tour of the older historic part of Tucson. Here the old Mexican flavor of the area intensified.

Tucson Arizona Visitors Center

Tucson’s Visitors Center – Yup, this is an ARTSY town!

The homes in the older parts of Tucson are all made of adobe, a sun-dried clay, and the walls are enormously thick, often 8″ or more.

Adobe door in Historic Tucson district Arizona

We loved the thick old adobe walls surrounding the doorways and windows

These super thick walls offer excellent insulation and keep the interior of the house cool in the blistering heat of the summer.

Historic Tucson Adobe Doorway Arizona

Each adobe door was unique

The buildings are painted many different shades, and we had a field day taking photos of all the doors.

Tucson historic adobe doorway Arizona

The homes are all different colors

Old Town Tucson Historic Adobe doorway Arizona

Lovely old architecture and a shadow of a tree

Tucson Adobe Doorway Arizona

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Historic adobe door Tucson Arizona

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Wooden door in Old Town Tucson Arizona

An ornate wooden gate

One building had several multi-colored doors all in one wall!

Tucson Historic Adobe doors Arizona

A door of every color…!

We wandered past the old courthouse too. What a wonderful old structure!

Tuscon Courthouse Arizona

The Old Pima County Courthouse

At one point in our stroll, we passed the classic neon sign for the old Pueblo Hotel. The hotel has been replaced by offices now, but what a great throw back to yesteryear.

Pueblo hotel and swimming pool sign

What a fun neon sign!

Tucson is a very fitness oriented city, and with its comfortable evening temperatures year round, lots of people enjoy getting out for a brisk walk after dark. Our friends introduced us to a unique Tucson event that gathers walkers and joggers together every Monday night, called Meet Me at Maynards.

We joined the Meet Me at Maynards crowd at their starting point in front of the Hotel Congress where a band was playing.

Congress Hotel Tucson Meet Me at Maynards

Meet Me at Maynards is a special weekly Tucson gathering of walkers and joggers.

This is an informal and free spirited walk, and we wandered all through the streets of Tucson for three miles (the full walk is four miles). Towards the end of the walk we went through an intriguing spot where clusters of modern day hippies were hanging out with the homeless. It made for an interesting mix of sportily clad walkers/joggers making their way between folks with dreadlocks sitting cross-legged on the ground strumming guitars and singing.

Enjoying a sip in Tucson Arizona

We met some colorful characters on our evening walk around downtown

At the end of the walk, everyone gathered in front of the Hotel Congress to enjoy the live music over a beer.

What a fun and utterly urban neighborhood event!!

Meet Me at Maynards Monday walking event in Tucson Arizona

Back at Hotel Congress the band was playing and the beer was flowing. What a great gig!

If you take your RV to Tucson, be sure to spend an hour or two wandering among the old adobe homes in the older parts of town. If you feel energetic, join the walkers for a quick spin or for the full four mile hike on Monday evening at Meet Me at Maynards! More info and links below…

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Saguaro National Park Petroglyphs – Tucson Mountains, AZ

February 2016 – We have spent a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert in Central Arizona, but have not spent much time in Tucson down in the southern part of the state, other than racing the wildly insane El Tour de Tucson 100+ mile bicycle race long before we dreamed of becoming full-time travelers.

So, a trip to Saguaro National Park was long overdue for us.

Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona field of cactus

A view in Saguaro National Park (western district in the Tucson Mountains)

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections, the Western section (the Tucson Mountains) and the Eastern section (the Rincon Mountains). Amazingly, these two vast national park systems hug the east and west flanks of the bustling city of Tucson, which is home to about a million people.

Field of cactus Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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The first thing we noticed as we drove through the park is that because the land is under strict preservation management by the National Park Service (as opposed to the looser standards that exist in the National Forests like Tonto National Forest up by Phoenix), is that there are lots of old saguaro cactus skeletons standing and lying around.

Saguaro skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

We were surprised to see cactus skeletons all over the place.

These unique relics are prized as garden and household decorations, and in the open Sonoran Desert that lies all around central and southern Arizona, they get hauled away by energetic folks to be re-purposed for interior decorating and outdoor garden ornamentation.

It was neat to see so many cactus skeletons in their natural desert home.

Cactus skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

The skeletal trunk of a saguaro cactus

Saguaros like to be warm, and they often get bent out of shape when there is a heavy frost. They drop their arms and never put them back up again!

swoopy cactus

After a heavy frost or snow, the saguaros surrender with their arms down.

Saguaro National Park was first established in 1933. as a National Monument, and President Roosevelt’s CCC built some wonderful stone picnic ramadas that still stand today. The undersides of the roofs are lined with saguaro cactus ribs.

Picnic ramada built by CCC Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

The CCC created wonderful stone picnic shelters lined with saguaro cactus ribs

Reading about the early history of this National Park, it was interesting again to see the differences between the National Park Service, which is a bureau of the Department of the Interior charged with preserving America’s natural treasures, and the US Forest Service, which is an agency of the Department of Agriculture charged with sustaining the health and productivity of the nation’s forests.

CCC picnic shelter Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

Cool view from the picnic ramada

Back in the 1930’s, the US Forest Service had been managing the land where the proposed Saguaro National Monument was going to be, and they didn’t want to give up cattle grazing on it, something the National Park Service would require. Fortunately, they eventually agreed to the concept of a National Monument in this forest of bizarre human-like trees. In 1994 it became a National Park.

The main loop drive through the cactus forest is a graded dirt road called the Bajada Scenic Drive, and there are several short hiking trails that go from there.

The Signal Hill hike follows a short path up to a pile of big boulders. Eons ago, the ancient Hohokam people pecked out a bunch of symbols and artwork on these boulders.

Petroglyphs at Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

At Signal Hill there are lots of intriguing petroglyphs

Some of the petroglyphs are like wheels with spokes while another popular image is an animal with long swept back horns.

The horned animal is a common motif seen in rock art all over southern Utah and Arizona, and usually it is referred to as a big horn sheep. But if you look at the horns on a big horn sheep, they are tightly wound and are nothing like the gently curved horns of these rock images.

big horn sheep petroglyph Saguaro National Park Signal Hill AZ

A “big horn sheep” petroglyph

I found an interesting photo-essay by a fellow who thinks these are not big horn sheep at all but are actually an extinct animal that roamed before the last ice age, an idea that would date the rock art to a far earlier period than is currently thought.

Talk about rocking the boat of the academics!!

Big Horn Sheep

The horns on a big horn sheep are a lot more curved than ancient rock art images typically depict…

I don’t know if his theory holds water or not, but I love it when new ideas make us look at history and pre-history with fresh eyes.

A very large and tightly wound spiral image dominates the rock art on these boulders.

Signal Hill Spiral petroglyph Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

A large spiral image is the biggest petroglyph by far

Looking at this carefully pecked imagery, it is interesting to ponder what motivated those early people to make their art, and why they did it on these particular rocks, and whether it was just graffiti, or a warning, or a bit of news for the next folks coming down the path. Or perhaps it had some deeper spiritual meaning.

Spiral Petroglyph Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona 2

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Petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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wheel sun sheep petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona

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Back on the path that leads from the parking lot to the mound of boulders, there is a bunch more rock art that is easy to miss on the way up. Just turn around as you begin to descend and keep an eye on the rocks. There is quite a bit there, fairly high up.

Signal Hill petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Arizona

If you don’t catch them on the hike up the hill, turn around on the way down and look up.

If you are really into rock art, taking along a pair of binoculars or a long camera lens is a great idea! I was glad to have my 28-300 zoom..

Spiral and people petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Signal Hill Arizona

Cryptic message, or spiritual symbols, or plain old graffiti?

Saguaro National Park is very large, and there are other hiking trails that can really get you out into the cactus forest. For this trip, we were just doing an overview and getting feeling for what is there. We’ll dive in more deeply next time.

Hikers at Saguaro National Pak Tucson Arizona

We enjoyed this little foray into Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a really beautiful place to see Arizona’s Sonoran Desert scenery, whether you are an Arizona resident or are in the Tucson area as a snowbird RV visitor in the winter months. There are oodles of hikes and lots of ranger led events too, and there are links for more info below.

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Sometimes on this blog I put up a post with some beautiful photos only to discover later than I missed a few special ones that I’d really like to share. That happened with our earlier stay during the rains at Roosevelt Lake. The other day Mark and I were reminiscing about the bitterly cold week of rain and snow we experienced out there last month, and we came across these stunning photos of his. So here they are. Better late than never!!

Desert rain Roosevelt Lake Arizona

After the rain at Roosevelt Lake

While were camped at Roosevelt Lake, Mark snuck out of bed in the wee hours of the night and got this jaw dropping image of the stars:

Roosevelt Lake starry sky at night Arizona

Starry, starry night…

What a fabulous image!!

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San Xavier Mission – Spanish Colonial Architecture in Tucson AZ

After we were done with our dental and doctor visits in San Luis, Mexico just south of Yuma, we crossed the southern part of Arizona to visit Tucson. Getting off of the interstate at Gila Bend, we enjoyed a beautiful backroads drive through the Tohono O’Odham Indian reservation.

A few miles south of downtown Tucson, we visited the San Xavier Mission (Mission San Xavier del Bac).

Mosaic circle in front of San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

Mission San Xavier del Bac

This catholic church was built in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary who traveled throughout New Spain, an area that now includes both Mexico and some of the American southwest.

San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson AZ

The exterior has lots of ornamentation.

Mission San Xavier del Bac was the northernmost mission in New Spain, and it was built to impress the local Indians and encourage them to convert to Catholicism. Today it remains largely intact and is considered a premier example of Spanish Colonial architecture.

Mission San Xavier del Bac Spanish Colonial architecture

Pretty details on the outside of the Mission

The Mission has been lovingly restored with generous donations and very fine craftsmanship over the past two decades. Now it is now in full splendor, and there are wonderfully ornate decorations all over the outside, from pretty windows and doorways to elaborate carvings and balconies.

Balcony San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

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There are several buildings at San Xavier Mission, and a small shrine off to one side has a bell tower.

Bell tower San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson Arizona

The bell tower

Inside were small statues and candles burning.

Shrine Chapel San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

Candles burn alongside statues

Even though it was midweek, there were loads of tourists visiting and taking the free tours. After our tour, we really enjoyed walking around at leisure and taking photos.

Photography at San Xavier Mission Tucson Arizona

Mark lines up a scraggly tree for a photo.

Starburst tree San Xavier Mission

Nice shot!

The inside of the Mission has rounded arches and is decked out with sculptures.

Interior San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson Arizona

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The San Xavier del Bac Mission sits on the San Xavier section of the Tohono O’Odham Indian reservation, and it is likely that the ancestors of the people that live there today were the ones converted to Catholicism by Father Kino three hundred years ago.

Interior San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

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A combination of Italian, Mexican and Tohono O’Odham artisans did the painstaking restoration of the church.

Altar San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

The altar is very elaborate.

During the restoration, layers of history of the mission were uncovered. Apparently when the building was first painted, there were blue thumb-sized dots covering all of the walls. But during one of the earlier renovations the priest of the time didn’t like the spotted walls so he washed most of them off!

Now, specialists think the blue dots were actually fingerprints of all the people who labored to build the building three hundred years ago!

Column San Xavier Mission Tucson AZ

At one time all the walls were decorated with blue thumb prints like the right side of this column

There is a museum, and I was very taken with the callligraphy in an antique book on display under glass.

Calligraphy scriptures San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson AZ

Beautiful calligraphy from ages ago.

Outside we were free to roam around. A pair of lions guard the hill next to the mission.

Lion sculpture San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson Arizona

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We had fun taking photos of the barrel cactus which were in bloom. Wonderfully vibrant yellow flowers poked out of their tops, perfect for some creative shots.

Photographing barrel cactus Arizona

The barrel cactus were in bloom with yellow flowers

San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson Arizona

Looking down at San Xavier Mission with the barrel cactus to one side

If your RV travels take you to southeastern Arizona, a excursion to Mission San Xavier del Bac is a really fun way to spend an afternoon.

Front San Xavier del Bac Mission Tucson Arizona

Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Arizona

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Swift Trail Scenic Drive up Mt. Graham – Autumn Color in Arizona

November 2015 – After a whirlwind nine month trip around the country in our RV this season, we left New Mexico‘s City of Rocks behind and crossed the border into Arizona. We had come full circle and arrived back at our winter roosting grounds.

We heaved an enormous sigh of relief and reveled in the thrill of being able to enjoy an endless stream of days with no agenda and no need to hustle down the road to our next destination. During the nights, the Milky Way showered stars over our rig.

Arizona starry night sky with RV

The Milky Way rained glitter on us every night.

Arizona is cotton country, and cotton was being harvested all around us.

Cotton fields Safford Arizona

The land of cotton!

Huge rolled bales of cotton were lined up on the edges of the fields. One day as we drove past a field in the morning, it was full of fluffy cotton plants. When we drove past that afternoon, all that was left was flat dirt and hay bales lined up on the edge of the field!

Cotton fields harvest time Safford Arizona

Harvesting done, all that remained was bare fields and rolled bales of cotton.

Towering Mt. Graham formed a backdrop to many of the views around us, and one morning we drove the roller coaster Swift Trail Scenic Drive that snakes up the nearly vertical slopes of this mountain. Starting at the desert level at the bottom, within a few miles we were making switchbacks.

Swift Trail Scenic Drive Mt. Graham Arizona Coronado National Forest

The Swift Trail Scenic Drive heads up off the desert floor to the top of Mt. Graham

Soon the landscape began to change, and hardwood trees in the peak of autumn color began to appear.

Golden fall color Coronado National Forest Arizona

As we drove higher, we began to see some fall color

The road curved higher and higher, often making sharp, steep hairpin turns, and the colors became more and more vivid.

Swift Trail Scenic Drive Mt. Graham Arizona

The road passed through all the eco-systems of Arizona in a scant 20 miles

Fall colors Mt. Graham Arizona

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Golden yellow and brilliant orange leaves filled the trees, and we stopped to get out and savor the crisp autumn air.

Fall arrives in Mt. Graham Arizona

Evergreen and vivid orange side by side.

Autumn leaves Mt Graham Arizona

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A few miles further up the road we came across a small stream with water tumbling over rocks here and there.

Mt. Graham Swift Trail Scenic Drive Arizona Waterfall fall colors

A babbling brook was surrounded by colorful leaves.

Vivid leaves floated in the water, and the air had a moist, pungent smell.

Fall leaves on Swift Trail Scenic Drive Arizona

Leaves submerged in the stream.

Mt. Graham Arizona Waterfall in autumn

The stream rushed by.

Time flew by as we became immersed in our photography. We had so much fun trying to capture this special spot on camera.

Photographing fall colors Mt. Graham Recreational Area Coronado National Forest Arizona

We were both in our element, soaking up the bright colors and pungent smells of fall leaves.

We had thought we’d missed the fall foliage season in our travels this year, leaving the famous states like Vermont and upstate New York and even Oklahoma way too early. Yet, here we had finally caught up with autumn and found fall aglow in all her splendor right in Arizona.

Campsite Arcadia Campground Mt. Graham Coronado National Forest Arizona

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There are quite a few small campgrounds on this stunning road up Mt. Graham, and we stopped to look around Arcadia Campground. Oh, to have a tiny trailer, van or pickup camper!! This campground was utterly charming, with paved loops and not a soul around but the campground host. What a place to become immersed in the colors of fall for a few days!

Arcadia Campground Coronado National Forest Mt. Graham Arizona

Arcadia campground would be a delightful place to stay for a while.

Climbing higher still, we passed out of the last of fall’s peak and into a colder zone where the colors had already come and gone.

Fall color Swift Trail Mt. Graham Arizona

We got a last glimpse of color as we drove even higher up the mountain.

And then we reached the highest summit of the road where the view stretched out across the rolling brown mountains to the valleys far below.

View from top of Mt. Graham Arizona

The view from the top was hazy and brown as we looked out over ripples of lower mountainsides

The road continued on, but it turned to dirt, so we turned around. As we drove down, we passed back through the vivid colors.

Autumn leaves Mt. Graham National Recreation Area Arizona

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And then we stopped for a picnic lunch by the babbling brook.

Picnic Swift Trail Scenic Drive Coronado National Forest Arizona

A great spot for a picnic!

What a truly beautiful day that was!

RV boondocking in Arizona

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The Swift Trail Scenic Drive is a wonderful excursion for RV travelers who find themselves in eastern Arizona. If you are lucky enough to have a short trailer, van or a truck camper, the drive is steep and twisty but doable, and the campgrounds beg to be camped in. For anyone with a bigger rig, there is a wonderful state park campground near the base of Mt. Graham, Roper Lake State Park, and the scenic drive is easy to do in your tow vehicle or toad! More info and links below.

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Arizona’s Eastern Chiricahuas – Finding Beauty in Devastation

February, 2015 – The Chiricahua Mountains are a big mountain range that rises up from southeastern Arizona’s desert floor. They are one of many “Sky Islands” in the area that are filled with high altitude flora and fauna.

You can get to them from both the west, in Arizona, and the east, via New Mexico. The west side is home to Chiricahua National Monument, a fabulous area full of exotic rock hoodoos and hikes that climb straight up to grand views and plunge straight down to cool caverns among the roots of very tall trees. The east side is an extremely popular birding area, and birders from around the world walk the forest roads and prowl through the thick vegetation in search of unusual species.

Eastern Chiricahua Mountains Arizona seen from Portal Road

On the road into the Eastern Chiricahua Mountains

We have been to both sides, but on this trip we came in from the east. What a dramatic view greeted us as we turned onto Portal Road and began to drive towards the mountain range.

Chiricahua Mountains Arizona Visitors Center

The beautiful Visitors Center building.

The Chiricahuas hold a special place in our hearts, because we enjoyed many camping trips here with our popup tent trailer a decade or so ago, before we started RVing full-time.

Cave Creek in the Chiricahua Mountains Arizona

Cave Creek is at the heart of the Chiricahuas on the eastern side.

Every time we visited the eastern Chiricahuas in those days, the area was absolutely teeming with campers, hikers, scientists and birders. The region is very woodsy, and several absolutely charming little campgrounds are tucked between babbling Cave Creek and the soaring, sheer faces of towering cliffs.

RV camping in the Chiricahua Mountains Arizona

We had been looking forward to a return trip to the Chiricahuas for a long time.

When we used to drive the one road that leads into the heart of these mountains, we could always spot little trailers and tents between the trees, and we could always hear the voices of people camping and enjoying the area. Sunny Flat was our favorite campground, and even though our current RV would never fit into a site there, we were looking forward to taking a memory-filled stroll around the picturesque campground loop.

Cave Creek flowing in the Chiricahua Mountains at Dawn in Arizona

The river is tame and mellow…

Chiricahua Mountains at Dawn in Arizona

…the rock formations are majestic and striking.

What a surprise it was to stop in at the only store in the tiny village of Portal, Arizona, on the edge of this magical woodland, and discover that all the campgrounds on the eastern side of the Chiricahuas were closed. We were told it was because of the recent floods.

It had rained a lot a few days ago…had that caused huge flooding? The storekeeper was a little unclear. But when we drove in, we found the woods were deathly silent and the road over the stream to our beloved little campground had been gated since November, 2014. The sign made it clear that it was illegal even to set foot on the other side of the fence!

Road Closed sign leading to Sunny Flat Campground Chiricahua Mountains Arizona

The road into Sunny Flat campground is closed.

What a shame! We drove up and down this once beautiful road, and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The campers were gone, the hiking trails and forest roads were all closed, and there wasn’t a birder to be found.

Waterfall in Arizona's Chiricahuas

Mild mannered Cave Creek, we discovered, can have a terrible temper…

Most shocking for us to learn us, however, as we were stopping at viewpoints and clambering over wobbly river rocks towards the little stream, was that the very tame looking Cave Creek had become a raging ocean of currents last September, and had cut a wide swath into the woods on both sides.

Downed trees were everywhere, and the more we walked along the river banks, picking our way between the uneven rocks, the more we realized the size and scale of the devastation.

Painterly effect on Cave Creek

We found (and created) beauty in spots between the destruction.

Bulldozers had piled rocks high in places, and they had dumped loads of trees and root balls in various spots too. The whole place was a total mess. There was still beauty here and there, and we enjoyed many hours of photography on the riverbanks, but the mood was somber, and we didn’t hear any birds.

Cathedral Vista Chiricahua Mountains Arizona

Cathedral Vista is a stunning overlook and easy hike.

Fortunately, the dramatic rock formations are unscathed, and Cathedral Vista was as magnificent as ever. We climbed up to enjoy that overlook several times!

Starburst in the Chiricahuas

The origin of all this devastation was a 350 square mile forest fire back in 2011. The loss of all that living vegetation destabilized the hillsides, and big rains this past October (2014) swelled Cave Creek beyond recognition. The rushing water in the river and torrential rainfall on the mountainsides caused massive erosion, toppling trees and cutting huge gouges in the riverbanks.

Starburst on Cave Creek Arizona

Who would guess this glittering brook could be so violent!

We were told that water covered the campgrounds completely, rising to knee height in the bathrooms and nearly sweeping them away. It’s not clear when the forest roads, hiking trails or campgrounds will reopen.

Pink and blue sunset with century plant in Arizona

A candy-striped sunset filled the sky one evening.

The eastern Chiricahuas are still a beautiful place, even if they are not as vibrant and alive as they once were. The sky took on pastel hues at sunset, and at one point I found myself standing right next to a deer on the totally vacant main road (blog post here).

Mark took some fantastic photos of a blue and white striped sky one morning, and we reveled in an incredible quiet that wouldn’t have been here otherwise.

Unusual skies over craggy tree

The heavens were striped white and blue one morning.

Soft striped skies with cliffs in Arizona

Striped skies over RV in Arizona

If you are planning an RV trip to the Chiricahuas, the western side and the National Monument are still open. Friends who were just there tell us the hikes among the hoodoos are as exhilarating as we remember. The eastern side still needs time to recover, however, although we still enjoyed our brief visit very much.

Dawn near Portal Arizona

We see a stunning view over our shoulders as we leave the Chiricahuas behind us.

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Sandhill Cranes in Willcox Arizona – What a Party!

February, 2015 – Every winter an amazing sandhill crane extravaganza takes place in southern Arizona and New Mexico. These big, raucous birds don’t mean to put themselves on display, but whenever 20,000 or so of any species show up in one place, whether its to witness a rock concert or just to loll about by the water’s edge, the sheer volume of identical creatures becomes an Event.

The sandhill cranes show up in November every year, and they hang around until March, and one of the best places to see them during those months is around Willcox, Arizona. When we woke up on our first morning there, it was the cries of sandhill cranes flying overhead that got us out of bed.

“It’s them!” I said to Mark excitedly as I whipped off the covers and flew out the door in my PJ’s. “They’re here!”

Sandhill cranes in southeastern Arizona

We look up and see wild zig-zag patterns of sandhill cranes in the sky.

“Huh?” He said, clambering out of bed beind me. “Who?”

I grinned at him as he joined me outside the rig in the pre-dawn light, and we both stared at the sky in awe as hundreds of sandhill cranes flew right over our trailer, making scattered V-formations all across the sky.

This was their morning commute, and they were honking and jostling around in the sky just like motorists do on the freeways every morning on their way to the office. These guys were heading for their favorite foraging grounds, however. Once there, they would catch a bit of breakfast and then find a quiet spot for some mid-day frolicking or perhaps a nap. In the late afternoon they’d grab another quick bite to eat and then commute home to roost.

Sandhill cranes fly in formation in Willcox Arizona

These guys are heading to breakfast out in the farm fields.

One of the best viewing areas is the roosting area at Whitewater Draw, a wide and shallow body of water about 6 miles south of the tiny town of Elfrida. As we drove down there in the middle of the day, we saw little pockets of sandhill cranes flying here and there, and we spotted little groups of them standing around in the farm fields. Their distinctive cries filled the air now and then as they called out to each other.

Great exhibitions often come with entertaining sideshows, and the sandhill crane exhibition at Whitewater Draw is no exception. A pair of great horned owls had taken up residence in a large lean-to building, living in the rafters and watching all the crazy bird people coming and going below them.

Great Horned Owl

The “sideshow” at the sandhill crane extravaganza

Crazy bird people never miss a bird trick, though, and these birders had set up a row of seats right below the owls so everyone could have a good look at them. When we got there, only one owl was in the rafters, but he made some priceless faces for us as we set up our tripods and took portrait shots of him.

Sandhill cranes at a pond

Throngs of birds line the shore

A little ways from this shelter is a paved walking path for people to stroll along the edges of the water and take in the exotic spectacle of thousands of large birds standing around. At midday, most of the flock was out in the farm fields, but a sizable number was still at the water’s edge here at Roost Central.

Sandhill cranes milling around by the water

These guys were busy and oblivious to the people watching them from the walking paths nearby!

The noise of these guys conversing among themselves was a low, continuous hum.

A pair of sandhill cranes flies overhead

Every so often a pair or trio would fly by.

Overhead we’d catch them flying by every so often. This was a lazy time of day for them, and they flew past in pairs and threes. Most of their social activities were taking place on the ground, though, and they strutted and flapped and preened and marched around on the far side of the pond. Every once in a while the noise of their cries would rise momentarily and a few birds would take to the air and fly to a new spot.

Three sandhill cranes fly over farmland in southeastern Arizona

Three sandhill cranes flying over Whitewater Draw Arizona

Sandhill cranes flying

Hey! Wait for me!!!


As the sun began to set, we suddenly began to notice small flocks of cranes flying in. The din of squawking and flapping from the birds on the ground would swell slightly when a new flock was sighted in the distance.

The first sandhill cranes arrive at the lake

As the sun began to sink in the sky, small flocks appeared on the horizon.

As the flock would get closer the cries from the crowd on the ground would increase. Then another flock would show up on the horizon and the squawks from the home team would grow a little louder.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Arizona at sunset

More and more flocks began arriving.

Soon the arriving flocks were truly enormous. Literally thousands of birds were arriving at once, coming in from all directions and flying in massive V’s and W’s. The welcoming song from the birds on the ground grew ever louder, as if an orchestra conductor were leading them, waving his baton and flapping his arms and coaxing them to sing ever louder.

A flock of sandhill cranes arrives at sunset in southern Arizona

The noise of the excited birds on the ground and in the air calling to each other was deafening!!

The crescendo grew louder and louder until the sound was truly startling. It was as if the rock stars had arrived. The crowd on the ground surged as the arriving birds landed, and the noise of them all squawking at the tops of their lungs became a defeaning din.

For once, the people — the humans watcing all this — were all silent. Crazy birders, maniac photographers, and happy couples out for a stroll, all stared in stunned silence as the Arrival of the Cranes took place.

People watch the sandhill cranes fly in Arizona sunset

People watch the cranes arrive.

We all watched with silly, happy smiles too. For once, humanity was completely upstaged by Nature as this miraculous event unfolded before us, totally beyond our control.

And then, as if a light switch had been thrown, the vivid orange of sunset was gone, and delicious shades of pink and blue slowly blanketed the sky. The birds had all landed now, and the roar of excitement was gone from the air.

Sunset at Whitewater Draw

Peace reins once the birds have all found a spot by the water’s edge.

The birds didn’t completely settle down for hours, though, and we heard them long into the night. Little squabbles would break out now and then, and suddenly a bird or two would take to the air in a huff, squawking loudly as he flew.

First thing in the morning, about an hour before dawn, we crept down to the water’s edge, drawn by the rising sound of the sandhill cranes. When it was finally light enough to see across the pond, we noticed that the cranes had settled in the water overnight rather than on shore. No dry toes at bedtime for these guys. They like to stand knee deep in water when they sleep!

Flocks of birds standing in a pond at sunrise

We creep down before sunrise and find the birds slept standing in the water overnight!

They shuffled around and, one by one, each bird’s head came out from under its wing as it shook the fuzzies and sleepies from its feathers. And then the low hum of crane squawks began to grow again. Soon the low rumble became a roar, rolling across the water like thunder, and then suddenly the pitch seemed to rise and the noise peaked, just as it had the night before.

The rock stars had taken flight, and they were off — and they were ushered off stage with a cacophony of beating wings and loud squawks. Thin ribbons of birds began to fill the sky, and they wove their jagged patterns from horizon to horizon as they set off to get breakfast.

In no time, the number of birds in the water had dwindled to just a small remaining few. The morning show was over, and the rush hour commute to the distant farm fields was well underway.

Sandhill cranes roosing and flying in the morning in Arizona

The raucous send-off is just as loud and wild as the welcome home was the night befor

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Dear Deer in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains

We have been loving our visit to the eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona for the past two day. This unique area is a “sky island” in southeastern Arizona’s desert that is filled with high elevation flora and fauna it shares with other “sky island” mountain ranges in the area.

Last night, we were out on a picture-taking evening stroll, getting shots of the vivid pink and blue sky after sunset. It was one of those yummy skies that is layered with light blue at the horizon and soft pink above.

Pink and blue sky in the Chiricahuas in Arizona

A layer cake of pink and blue

As I stood in the middle of the road taking my umpteenth photo of the same scene, wondering how to make it look as beautiful in the photo as it was in person, I suddenly felt a presence near me. I looked up, and there was a deer standing right next to me!!

Deer in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona

This little guy was just a few feet away!

He paused at the edge of the road just long enough for me to get his photo. Then he ambled off down the middle of the road to join his two girlfriends who had gotten ahead of him while he dawdled with me. I guess they were out for an evening stroll too.

Deer cross the road in Arizona's Chiriahua Mountains

His girlfriends were waiting a little further down the road.

Sometimes the best things in life are just right there, only an arm’s length away.

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