The incredible Sonoran Desert in bloom – Arizona

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Palo Verde flower

“WOW!” was the first word that came out of my mouth as we approached Tucson on I-10 from the east.  We were looking at a sea of yellow as the Palo Verde blooms had virtually exploded!  This was our “nth” visit here, the unofficial home base where we’d spent several winters and one long hot summer.  During most of those visits we’d seen a lot of brown and dark olive colors, and some uniformly lush green.  But this time it was yellow all around!

The Sonoran Desert in springtime, after an unusually wet winter

The weather Gods were finally with us during our two-week May visit, the coolest in more than 40 years according to the National Weather Service.  The locals also confirmed the desert would be more colorful longer this year, and they couldn’t remember a more intense and widespread Palo Verde bloom.  It looked like our timing was good!

The Palo Verde is Arizona’s state tree

Palo Verde is Spanish for “green stick”

Our priority on this visit was doctor appointments, everything from cancer follow-ups to eye and dental inspections.  Fortunately we both continue to have eyes and teeth, and no cancer!

While driving around we couldn’t help but notice the vibrant colors along every road, hillside, wash and just about everywhere else:

We managed to hike two trails: the Cactus Forest Trail at Saguaro National Park-east and the Douglas Spring Trail at a nearby city park.  During both outings we were awestruck by how lush, colorful and vibrant the desert was:

A Cholla cactus bloom brought red highlights to the landscape

The desert was awash with yellow and splashed with red from Ocotillo blooms.  Hints of pink to light yellow from Prickly Pear flowers, and deep red or bright yellow Cholla blooms added to the mix:

Red Ocotillo blooms added brilliance to the scenery

The usually drab Chollas and Prickly Pears were bursting with color:

Not to be outdone, the stately Saguaros were sporting green crowns on their heads, bulbous nubs blooming into beautiful flowers.  They usually start to wake up in mid-May, but a large number were already showing off their milky white blooms that are Arizona’s state’s flower:

A single Saguaro can produce as many as 100 flowers in a season, with each lasting only one day.  They usually open at night and close soon after the sun starts to beat on them:

This Sonoran Desert beauty was sporting white headdresses

All doctors gave us two thumbs up, with extra happiness about two years cancer-free for Steve.  Even Betsy got a full bath to remove filth carried many miles from Texas.  A great visit all around!

Oh, Steve (a habit copied from one of our fellow RVers, you know who you are!) 🙂

Wickenburg, Arizona

We moved on to Wickenburg, 60 miles northwest of Phoenix, to explore it as a possible place to settle down one day.  We placed it near the top of our list after driving around, hiking, talking to locals and looking into real estate prices.  It met most of our requirements and we intend to come back to take another look later this year.

We consulted several pioneers who were milling around downtown.  They seemed to be frozen in time, but each had a story to tell via audio stations:

With the Sonoran Desert as a backdrop, the surrounding mountains keep residents close to nature with access to numerous hiking trails.  We tackled two of them during our stay;  Vulture Peak and Sophies Flat.

At an elevation of 3,660′, Vulture Peak is the highest point in the Vulture Mountains

We had hiked Vulture Peak in 2015, but Steve wanted to give it another try.  It’s only four miles out and back, but the last half going up is a strenuous climb up a steep hillside on loose rocks.  We ran into a terrible gnat invasion this time which pretty much spoiled the hike, but Steve was happy that he made it without the exhaustion he experienced the first time around.

Dozens of gnats seemed to like our hiking pants

Assessing the challenge ahead

Scrambling through a rocky gully

Made it to the saddle!

He attempted the summit, but a rock wall and no available ropes stopped him 😦

The view from the mountain’s saddle is worth some scrambling

Sophies Flat Trail was a fairly easy 7-mile trek through washes, over hills and around Red Top Peak.  It was another scenic desert hike with yellow remaining the dominant color:

Soap Yuccas were in bloom too

Wickenburg in the distance

The Teddy Bear Cholla blooms were waning

Barrel Cactus showed some buds

Our lucky day, we spotted not one but two venomous Gila Monsters along the trail.  One of them hissed at me!

The Palo Verde put on a spectacular show, turning the desert a gorgeous yellow-gold.  We were delighted to be here during a special spring brought on by the unseasonably cold and wet winter that several of our RV friends had endured.  Simply breathtaking!

 

Next up:  Summer plans revealed, more hikes and meet-ups with friends!



 

The long road to recovery – Tucson, AZ

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First off, a big THANK YOU to everyone, family and friends who have reached out to us, left supporting comments, sent texts and private messages extending warm thoughts and virtual hugs for Steve.  We continue to feel the positive vibes from prayers sent our way and we couldn’t ask for more.

Just when my stress level was at an all-time high after Steve’s operation, Jim and Diana of exploRVistas arrived in Tucson to give me a warm hug and much needed emotional boost. It was our first meeting, and they came at the right moment.

Explore vista

With Jim and Diana

Steve had a 4-hour minimally-invasive robotic surgery that went well.  He was so curious about the robotic surgical system da Vinci used for the surgery that he talked the surgical team into showing him the machine before they put him under.  We learned that the da Vinci system is named in part because Leonardo da Vinci’s study of human anatomy eventually led to the design of the first known robot.

Steve is taking it one day at a time.  With the challenge of surgery behind us, we still have a long way to go.  In a few weeks he will begin his radiation therapy to kill the bad stuff that the surgeon could not remove from the base of his tongue.  At this point we’re glad that chemotherapy won’t be needed – he gets to keep his hair!

Lowes Travels

Following surgery we take twice-daily walks around the RV park

What this means is we’ll be in Tucson through the summer.  It may be sizzling hot here, but Betsy is parked under a towering 28′ high “Power Parasol” solar system, keeping her in the shade at all times.

Lazy Days KOA

Betsy is comfortably tucked in under the solar arrays

The good stuff

The reward for being in southern Arizona beyond winter is that we get to experience the progression of the desert wildflowers in bloom.  So while we were in waiting mode for Steve’s doctor appointments and surgery date we hiked daily to enjoy the remaining cool temps and desert landscape.

Staghorn ChollaWe would usually miss seeing these flowers, as we would be somewhere north by now. Unlike other wildflowers, cacti don’t bloom together in great masses of color.  Different species dominate at different times and vary in their showiness, depending on weather conditions.

Beyond this point the post becomes flowery, so if you don’t like flowers or cactus now is the time to end your reading 🙂

In  March the Ocotillos were showing off spikes of crimson red flowers, to the delight of many birds:

Ocotillo

House Finch

House Finch snacking

In early April, the Palo Verde trees turned the Sonoran Desert landscape into a sea of yellow, covering the area with dense blooms:

Palo Verde

Palo Verde

Palo Verde

This tiny bright yellow flower is what covers the Palo Verde trees in a blanket of yellow

The yellow creosote bush blossoms from late February turn into white wooly seedlings ready to be scattered by the wind:

Creosote Bush

The creosote seedlings give an iridescent glow when viewed against the light

Each time we followed a trail we were amazed how plants as spiky and homely as cacti produce such spectacular flowers.  The first one that caught our attention was the Engelmann Hedgehog for its bright beautiful fuchsia flowers:

The Prickly Pear were showing their best as well:

 

We’re seeing many colors in the desert in mid-April.  The Chollas are starting to display their blooms that range in color from bright red to yellow, pink, green, orange and peachy hues.  During our hikes in past years we never saw a single bud, much less a flower, and we just overlooked these Chollas as just another thorny desert plant.  But this spring we stopped, scrutinized and admired their colorful flowers.

The fuzzy Teddy Bear Cholla has a yellow-green flower

Staghorn Cholla

The top section of this Staghorn Cholla had red flowers, while the lower half had green ones

On the trail we came across the various hues of  Staghorn Cholla blooms:

 

Jumping Cholla

The nasty Jumping Cholla or Chain Fruit Cholla spreads a bright pink flower!

And now in May, the Ironwood Tree unfolds its beauty with lilac-colored blossoms which are abundant at Tucson Mountain Park.

Iron wood tree flower

Isn’t it pretty!

The Sonoran desert is alive with splashes of colorful desert flower blooms in the spring.  But admiring this beauty comes with a caution.  As temps warm up, the rattlesnakes that have been dormant are awakening, and one of them was waiting for us on the trail:

Rattlesnake

His appearance reminded us to stay alert!

 

Next up:  The superstar of the Sonoran Desert



 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument – Ajo, Arizona

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Organ Pipe Cactus

We are back in the good old USA, alive and well and recovering from sipping a few too many margaritas and eating a few too many burritos and tamales in Puerto Peñasco. Crossing back into the states was a non-event, except for an approximately 30-minute wait at the border.  Imagine a line of motorhomes as far as the eye can see waiting to cross!

The officers didn’t board Betsy, but they did ask if we had meat with us.  We answered truthfully that we had some frozen chicken and several pounds of seafood, and they seemed OK with that.  A quick check of our passports and we were on our way.

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The RV takeover of the border town begins!

Just five miles north of the border we pulled into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where we dry camped overnight.  We verified that our residential refrigerator could survive 14 hours on batteries, since we we weren’t allowed to run our generator for that length of time.  It was a good test, because we plan to do more dry camping this year.

We stopped here to explore the only small area in the Sonoran Desert in the U.S. where Organ Pipe cactus grows naturally.  We had seen them in abundance along the highway in Sonoyta, Mexico, but we wanted to take a closer look.

Organ Pipe Cactus national Monument

Of the two scenic drives in the monument, we took the Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive as soon as we got settled in.  The dusty and sometimes rough dirt road (better for jeeps, but our poor CRV managed to survive) winds up and down along the foothills of the Ajo Range.

We’ve been enjoying the beautiful desert landscape since November, but this drive was different and special as we viewed stands of Organ Pipe cactus that reside only in this area.

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Organ Pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) is so named because of its multi-limbed growth habit which resembles the pipes of grand organs found in churches.  It is a columnar type cactus that can grow as high as 23′ and the second-largest cactus, eclipsed only by the majestic Saguaro.

Jo Mountain Scenic Drive

It can live over 150 years, and won’t produce its first flower until near the age of 35.  Organ Pipe cactus blooms in May and June, opening its white, creamy flowers only at night.  The flowers will close up again by mid-morning, and very rarely remain open into the afternoon – which means I won’t see one anytime soon.

The 21-mile drive offered up magnificent desert scenery, comprised of extensive cactus plains separated by imposing volcanic mountains that were also covered with many and varied desert plants of the Sonoran Desert.

At stop #9 we took a closer look at an abnormal growth on an arm coming from the center of a cactus.  Known as a “cristate”, it’s an unusual trait that also forms rarely on Saguaro cacti.

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Dusky-capped flycatcher

While trying to avoid treacherous potholes, my eagle eyed-driver managed to catch a glimpse of a Dusty-capped Flycatcher

We noted that another desert plant, the Ocotillos which appeared to be just large spiny sticks during the past few months, are now growing leaves and blooming:

Ocotillo leaves

Ocotillo

Its  bright crimson clusters of tubular flowers are a favorite perching spot for some birds:

After a long day of driving from Mexico and then through the Ajo Scenic Mountain area, Steve was ready to kick back and resume reading his latest book as fresh shrimp from Puerto Peñasco cooked on the grill.  Not a bad way to end the day!

Twin Peaks Campground, Organ Pipe Cactus NM

After running the generator the following morning to recharge our batteries, we moved Betsy down to the visitor center parking lot.  Checkout was 11:00am and we didn’t want to be rushed on our hike.  From there we followed the Palo Verde Trail, and combined with the Campground Perimeter Trail we clocked 3.6 miles to get our legs warmed up.

The trails here don’t have any elevation gains to speak of, but it was nice walking across the desert on a cool morning before continuing our trek north.

Organ Pipe Cactus

Then I spotted a hidden crestate in the middle of a large Organ Pipe:

Crested Organ Pipe Cactus

Pam, I know you are smiling!

After the hike I was drawn to a garden near the visitor center, where a Costa’s Hummingbird was darting in and out of Chuparosas blooms:

Costas hummingbird

I patiently watched and waited until the light came at just the right angle to reflect off his purple head, while he perched on a branch:

Costas hummingbird

Ain’t he a cutie!

We had been desert rats for almost four months, and our overnight stay at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument capped our meanderings in the Sonoran Desert.  It may be a long time before we see the diverse flora and fauna of this area again, and we will definitely miss it!

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Till we meet again, Sonoran Desert!

 

Next up:  Flying high before leaving Arizona



 

Hiking with John and Pam – Tucson, AZ

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With most of Betsy’s maintenance items out of the way, it was time to have some fun.  At our happy hour Pam recited a list of trails to enjoy around Tucson, and we were geared up to go hiking with them again.  Many of you know John and Pam of Oh the places they go are avid hikers whose boots have passed over hundreds (probably thousands) of miles of trails.  We hiked with them last summer in Colorado and were looking forward to trekking with them again here in Tucson.

We initially chose two trails – Seven Falls Trail in Sabino/Bear Canyon, and the scenic Mt. Wasson Peak Trail at Saguaro National Park.

Seven Falls Trail, Sabino Canyon

The Seven Falls Trail is accessed via Bear Canyon Trail.  The hike begins at the parking lot of Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the eastern foothills of the Santa Catalina mountain range, northeast of Tucson.  As the name implies, the reward at the end of this trail is Seven Falls where the water cascades down a steep ravine creating an enchanting sequence of falls and pools.  We followed Bear Canyon Trail for about 2 miles and then continued a little more than 2 more miles to reach the falls.

Seven Falls Trail

The leaders conferring

When we settled on this hike we hadn’t considered the recent rain and snow.  The trail crisscrossed over Sabino Creek seven times and the water was high, making our crossings quite challenging.  At the first two we removed our boots and socks to wade across the frigid water.  Fortunately John was prepared and brought a towel for everyone to dry their feet with – thanks, John!

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Doing this seven times in each direction was not an option!

John was our leader and he searched for drier crossings several times, but alas there were none.  So after the second crossing we just gave up and our boots and socks were soaked the rest of the hike.

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Yikes my boot’s under water and it’s freezing!

Other than the abundance of cacti and other Sonoran Desert plants, it felt like we were not in the desert as we enjoyed the sound of rushing water during most of the hike.  After crossing the frigid water several times the trail rose up the side of Bear Canyon, then came back down to Seven Falls.

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Desert Marigold

The only bloom we saw on the trail, a Desert Marigold

The exposed granitic rocks were quite a sight, crossed by mineral veins but slippery when wet.

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Seven Falls, Bear Canyon

A large pool at the falls

At the end of the trail we were rewarded with the sights and sounds of the falls, and we relaxed for lunch next to one of the pools.  Off came the boots and socks as we exposed our legs to the sun to warm them back up.

Seven Falls Trail

The foursome enjoying a respite from wet boots and socks

The return trip was much shorter as we gave up on trying to stay dry and just plowed across the water crossings.  Our legs were double-tired after 8+ miles of hiking with heavy, wet boots.   But despite the minor inconvenience it was a great day!

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Hurry up and dry, our next hike is fast approaching!

Mt. Wasson Peak, Saguaro National Park

The second hike John and Pam led us on was to the top of Wasson Peak.  Mt. Wasson is located 15 miles west of the city in the Tucson Mountain Range, and is the highest point in the west unit of Saguaro National Park.  They had hiked this trail before, and due to the excellent views at the top they were happy to repeat the trek with us.    It’s a great way to experience Saguaro National Park and the Sonoran Desert.

King Canyon Trail

There are several trails leading to the summit, and we chose to follow the King Canyon, Hugh Norris and Sendero Esperanza trails, then we looped back around to the Gould Mine Trail to give us a 7.8 mile workout.  The trails are all within the Saguaro National Park, and we walked amidst the Sonoran Desert ecosystem with full displays of giant Saguaro, Prickly Pear, Barrel Cactus and Cholla, to name just a few.

Pam has great interest in Crested Saguaros and she tries to see as many as she can when in Arizona.  If you don’t know, a Crested Saguaro is one where the growing tip produces a fan-like form referred to a crest or cristate.  They are very rare, but Pam spotted one with her eagle-eyes on this hike.  If you’d like to see more of her Crested Saguaro photos click here.

King Canyon Trail

Looking at some black liquid coming out of a fallen cactus

This trail is moderate with some rocky and steep sections, and we followed several switchbacks as we approached the peak.

Wasson Peak

Our destination – Wasson Peak 4,687 ft

A history tidbit: Wasson Peak is named in honor of John Wasson, the first editor of the Tucson Citizen newspaper in the late 1800’s.

King Canyon Trail

Looking back at the switchbacks we just hiked

Wasson Peak

The foursome at Wasson Peak – John, Pam, ML and Steve

This hike is definitely worth doing.  The view of the valley, surrounding mountains and Tucson is spectacular from the peak.  Because of its accessibility and outstanding views we met several other hikers on this trail.

Wasson Peak

Can you see the airport way out there?

Picacho Peak

Picacho Peak – we’ve all scaled that tough mountain, but not together

Hugh Norris Trail

Hugh Norris Trail follows the ridge top with great views on both sides

Norris Trail

That formation looks like a man reading a book, no?

We also came across some desert blooms:

Skeletal Saguaro

A skeletal Saguaro is still a beauty

Fishhook cactus

Hugh Norris Trail

On our way down the Hugh Norris Trail

Sendero Esperanza Trail

Let’s do a final map check

What do you do after a long and rewarding hike?  Have mexican food!  Dave and Sue joined us that evening for dinner at El Charro, one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Tucson.

Yum!

Yum!  Three kinds of tamales

Great People

Great food, great company! – Dave, Steve, ML, John, Pam and Sue

 

Next Up:  What we missed the first time…



 

On the fringes of the Sonoran Desert – Black Canyon City, AZ

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Leaving the high country (including Prescott) behind, we headed south to lower elevations. As we descended a cut in the mountains on I-17 we began seeing the stately Saguaros jutting out of the hillsides, signaling that we were on the fringes of the Sonoran desert and bringing smiles to our faces.  We were fortunate to snag a site at Black Canyon Ranch RV Resort on short notice (Steve’s review here), especially considering we would be staying over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thumb Butte

Thumb Butte near Black Canyon City

The western half of Black Canyon City is nestled in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, while the eastern half is surrounded by table mesas.  The city was so named after the color of the basalt in the surrounding rock.  We found this small rugged city surrounded by beautiful scenery to be a place that we might be able to settle down in someday – just far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Phoenix.

Black Canyon Trail

A very lush sonoran desert landscape

Having been cooped up for several days at Prescott, we couldn’t wait to see if there were any hiking trails in this area.  We learned that the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail passes through here, stretching 79 miles from the Sonoran Desert lowlands in Phoenix to the high grasslands of Prescott Valley.  The trail was originally a corridor for early Native Americans and later became an official stagecoach stop in 1871 for weary travelers on the Phoenix to Prescott line.  Then in 2008 it was designated a National Recreation Trail to be shared by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

Black Canyon Trail

With a brochure in hand we immediately marked the trailheads that we would explore during our stay.  We picked five – Emery Henderson, Table Mesa Road, Black Canyon City, Glorianna and Big Bug – all within a reasonable driving distance of our homebase.

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At first glance these hikes may look boring, but we love hiking in the desert and enjoying the diversity it offers.  Trees such as the Palo Verde (Arizona’s state tree) are abundant and well developed on the desert ranges.  We hiked along thorny and non-thorny shrubs, cacti, herbs and of course the most conspicuous feature – the stately Saguaros.  We’re very happy to be back in the Sonoran Desert!

Black Canyon Trail

Saguaro cactus is the largest and the most conspicuous plant in this area

Surprisingly, each section of trail we followed offered different facets of this interesting area.  On one, the Prickly Pears were abundant, but the next was covered with Fruit Chain Chollas.  Yet another led us through a forest of Palo Verdes and Mesquites along a wash. But those Saguaros were omnipresent, standing like sentries everywhere we went.

Cholla forest

Chain Fruit Cholla forest

Palo Verde

Avenue of the Mequites?

Compass Barrel Cactus

How do you hug a Compass Barrel Cactus?  Very delicately!

Black Canyon Trail

A section of Black Canyon

Black Canyon Trail

Black Canyon Trail

Steve is dwarfed by Saguaros and Palo Verdes, can you spot him?

Black Canyon Trail

Creosote Bush

Hmm, yep this is Creosote!

Looking closely at the understory, I captured a burst of colors and prickly love.   Who says it’s all cacti in the Sonoran Desert?

Unfortunately, we also learned that the Black Canyon Trail can be a noisy place on weekends.  Lots of shooting in the desert and dust from the ATV’s and bikers buzzing by tended to interrupt our reverie.  Early in the morning on weekdays quickly became our strategy for enjoying the lushness here, and we went out every chance we got.

Black Canyon Trail

The trail is that-a-way, Steve!

Burros

A band of wild burros were amused at Steve talking to a Saguaro

Although most of our time here was spent hiking, we added one attraction we thought would be interesting.  Following a sign we saw along I-17 we decided to visit Arcosanti, billed as “an urban laboratory”.

Acrosanti

It didn’t really catch on with us.  Arcosanti is a unique community designed and built by Paolo Soleri as his experiment in marrying architecture and ecology – which he calls Arcology.  We joined a tour and learned about the philosophy, history, planning and ongoing construction of the project.  To us it sounded like another Crazy Horse Memorial, with no completion date yet predicted.

Arcosanti

The building behind us will supposedly be retail stores with residential units above – someday

Arcosanti viewed from the hill

Urban communal living in the desert, not our cup of tea

One day we had our alone time, with Steve heading off to a Good Guys car show in Scottsdale while I hiked the 2.5-mile High Desert Trail managed by volunteers from Black Canyon City.  I played hide-and-seek with a Cottontail rabbit, was spat at by a hummingbird and serenaded by a Curved Bill Thrasher.

We’re glad our stop at Black Canyon City was such a nice surprise, and those desert hikes gave us a warmup of things to come in the Sonoran Desert.  And that’s just the beginning of our winter sojourn in Arizona.

We’re struggling with bad connectivity and I’m falling behind on my blogging.  Hopefully we’ll be back up to speed soon for there is lots more to show and tell!

 

Next up:  Fun times in the desert sun!



 

Life’s a beach – finally! Dauphin Island, AL

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From the Sonoran Desert, to the plains of Texas, to the swamps of Louisiana to an island in Alabama!  Yeah!  We have been longing for white sand, sunny days and a long stretch of pristine beach.  One fine place we found all of it was Dauphin Island, Alabama. Following other RVers travels usually gives us great ideas for places to stay and explore along our upcoming path.  One of them is of course Wheeling it, who consistently point us to interesting locations like this island, which we had never heard of prior to reading their blog.

Dauphin Island is a barrier island located three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.  There are two ways to get here.  From the west, entry to the island is made by crossing a 3-mile long high rise bridge.

West Entrance to Dauphin Island

From the east  you can access via the Mobile Bay Ferry.  At this time RV’s are not allowed on the ferry because they are running only one boat; be sure to check with the ferry service if you wish to take your RV across in either direction.

Mobile Bay Ferry

The island is approximately 14 miles long and 1 ¾ miles wide at the widest point.  The 14 miles must include the attached stretch of Pelican Island that extends off the main island for several sandy miles, since we measured the main island at only 8 miles end-to-end.  At the east end you will find the Dauphin Island Campground, the Mobile Bay Ferry and Historic Ft. Gaines.

At the west end is several miles of privately owned and partially developed land.  It is estimated that 1300 permanent residents call Dauphin Island home, and we saw how that number soars as the weather warms up.  Vacation homes dot the coastline, with several either under repair or rebuild due to the nasty storms that often go through here.  Below are a few examples if you are interested, and we saw several rentals available too.

The entire island has been designated as a bird sanctuary.  There are two places you can view and enjoy the birds.  Birders take note: spring is almost here and pretty soon the island will be swarming with birds!  At the Audubon Sanctuary there are six trails which guide viewers about what species to expect on each trail.

At Indian Shell Mound Park there are benches everywhere to observe our feathered friends.

Other smaller areas or parks are set up for bird viewing or listening.

The pristine white beaches that stretch along the island are excellent places to take long walks as you view the sunsets and the shorebirds.  There is also a nice, wide paved bike trail running the length of the island.  This is one of the few stops where we have been walking AND biking almost every day.  Paradise!

We noticed that wherever folks were fishing there were almost always one or more Great Herons nearby to “guard” the Catch of the Day.

Dauphin Island Beach

Of course, I was just hooked on birds as usual…

and finally the beach sunsets of Dauphin Island.

Dauphin Island Sunset

Dauphin Island Sunset

Up next where we stayed and Historic Ft Gaines.

Sonoran Desert beauties!

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Northern Cardinal

We just realized we’ve been hanging around southern Arizona for two months now – how time flies when you’re having fun with friends in such a beautiful place!  Being here, you can’t help but take notice and admire the abundance of cacti, succulents, birds and other critters that make the this area unique.  The area is generally recognized as the Sonoran Desert, and includes the southwestern third of Arizona, a small area of southeastern California, most of Baja California del Norte and the western half of Sonora, Mexico.

Saguaro

Sonoran Desert is Saguaro central

It is during our many hikes and drives around town that we encounter these desert beauties in their natural habitat or being used as landscaping ornaments.  In particular, the ubiquitous saguaro, (pronounced SUH-WAR-OH) a  large, tree-like columnar cactus that develop branches (or arms) as they age.  The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and the most famous plant in the Sonoran Desert.  It is closely identified with the imagery of the American southwest, and all of them are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert.  This cactus is so important that moving, harvesting or collecting is strictly regulated!   Yet despite the saguaro’s popularity, the state plant of Arizona is actually the Palo Verde.

Some fun facts about this famous cactus:

It is slow growing and may take 10 years to reach 1 1/2 inches in height, and 30 years to reach 2 feet.

It begins to grow arms when it is between 50 and 100 years of age, although some never  grow arms.

Given the right conditions it can live for 150 to 200 years.

It  typically grows to heights of 40 – 60 ft.

It is more than 90% water content and when fully hydrated it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds.

The saguaro’s blossom is the state flower of Arizona, they blossom once a year, and the flowers open at night and stay open only 18 hours total.  Imagine how breathtaking the Sonoran desert would look with all of those blooms!

The woody ribs inside the plant have been used for fences and combined with mud and grasses to build homes.

Here are a few of the many desert cacti and plants:

The chirping and singing are everywhere with all these beautiful birds.  Here are just a few that frequently visited us at Catalina State Park. Click here if  you would like to see more of my bird pictures 🙂

Butterflies!

Lastly, when the sun is low here it gives a hue to the sky and mountains that is nothing short of spectacular.

Catalina Mountains

Orange glow at the Catalina Mountains before snow…

Catalina Mountains

…and a reddish-pink glow with snow

Table Top Mountain

Red-orange glow at Table Top Mountain, viewed from Casa Grande

Stay tuned as we return to Quartzsite to join the RV show madness!

Snowy Arizona? – Tucson

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Santa Catalina Mountains

Driving south from the Cave Creek area, we tucked ourselves in north of Tucson, the second-largest city in Arizona.  We thought it might get warmer as we headed south – wrong!  A cold front brought clouds and rain – even snow at the Santa Catalina mountains where we were parked.  For the first time during our travels we were faced with frozen water hoses as nighttime temperatures plummeted into the twenties.  When you think of Arizona, cold and snow rarely come to mind, but being winter it does get chilly here – especially at night.  However, we loved the view of the beautiful white mountains right outside our windows!

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park

Daytime temperatures were in the 50’s – plenty warm for us to go out and have some fun. Armed with recommendations from Dan H. (thanks, Dan!), we checked out some of the things to do in the Tucson area.  Here are a few we enjoyed:

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, nestled in the scenic Tucson Mountains, is the perfect place to get a good glimpse of what this beautiful desert is all about.  We walked through the open areas and were offered amazing views of the mountains dotted with Sagauro cacti, Palo Verde and many other desert plants.  Wandering through a living walled area, we found lots of information and close-up views detailing bobcats, prairie dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes and more.

Being from the west coast, this place gave us a good overall exposure to the diverse flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, and the ecosystem that thrives here.  A nice touch from the museum (although I would not call this a museum, per se) is the free SPF30 sunscreen and refrigerated water fountains along the trails.  This place is very well done and a must-see.

We hiked in Sabino Canyon, a spectacular desert canyon cut into the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  There were two tram tours, one appropriately called Sabino Canyon, a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8 mile tour into the foothills.  Then there was Bear Canyon, a non-narrated ride that took hikers to the trailhead of the Seven Falls. We purchased tickets and planned to take the Bear Canyon hike, but due to confusion by the tram driver we ended up getting on the Sabino Canyon tram instead.

On this tour our driver enthusiastically narrated some interesting facts about the vegetation and history of the canyon.  We got off at stop #9 and hiked up one of the trails to enjoy our lunch with a view overlooking the canyon.  Then, instead of re-boarding the tram we decided to walk back down the 3.8 miles to the visitors center.  We learned that we had actually gotten the better tour but paid for the cheaper one to Bear Canyon – not bad!

Sabino Canyon

Hiking on Phone Line Trail

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon lunch stop – wow!

Sabino Canyon

At the top of Eagle Mountain

The University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2dubbed “one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world”, was just up the road from our site at Catalina State Park.  We remembered the much publicized “Human Missions” experiments in the early 90’s, so we decided to check it out.  We toured what they call “wilderness Biomes” – building blocks of the biosphere; a tropical rain forest, savanna, coastal fog, desert, and a million-gallon ocean – all under one roof!

Our knowledgeable tour guide explained the history, research, and unprecedented science taking place inside this engineering marvel.  Despite all of that we still ended the tour as non-scientists.

If you are young enough to remember the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, you might remember the “Duck and Cover” exercises.  At the Titan Missile Museum, an underground tour relives a time when the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union was a reality.  The Titan II missile was capable of launching from its underground silo in 58 seconds and could deliver a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead to its target more than 5,500 miles away – in less than thirty minutes.

This is the only remaining Titan missile silo of the 54 that were constructed in the US.  It is very interesting to see and hear about life in the silos during the 22 years they were operational.  Steve had already been here once before with his pilot buddies but thought I would enjoy it as well.  And I did!

Titan Missile Museum

Underground control room

Titan Missile Museum

Titan II missile

Lastly, when you’re hungry and looking for authentic delicious southwestern food in the Tucson area, make the trip to El Charro Café.  Opened in 1922, this is reportedly the oldest continuously-operated, family-owned Mexican restaurant in the United States.  Don’t forget to try one of their yummy Margaritas.  Thanks Dan, this restaurant is at the top of our list!