Category Archives: Arizona

Portal, Arizona – A Birding Hotspot

Portal’s Main Street Great Horned Owl

Before coming to Portal for the birds, I researched the best places to see them. One book mentioned a walk down Portal’s Main Street as a good birding opportunity. I was surprised when we arrived to find that Portal’s Main Street is far from looking “Main.” It is just a short narrow road with about four businesses and several residences. Portal is tiny with one cafe/lodge, a doctor’s office, post office and library. We dropped in to the post office and met the postmistress who reported that she has worked there for 40 years and wants to retire, but is afraid they will close the building once she leaves as there is no one to take over.

Mark relaxing at the Post Office

Although in a remote area, Portal’s cafe and lodge is bustling with visitors and seems to be the heart of the town. This is a popular area for birders who come to see the hummingbirds and many other birds that flock to the Chiricahua Mountains with Portal situated at their base. Some of the town’s residents have opened their yards to birders and diligently keep feeders stocked. Some yards attract certain kinds of birds and word gets around among the birders where to go see them. When we asked several visitors where we could find a Crissal Thrasher, we were told Bob’s yard would be the best opportunity. Although we visited twice, we never saw one, but we did see many other birds like the Gambel’s Quail below.

Ms. Johnson’s yard in the photo below has a welcoming gate for birders and chairs arranged in different parts of the yard for viewing. She came out and sat with us for awhile, pointing out some of the birds we saw. Some yards have donation boxes to offset the cost of seed but she didn’t have one and refused to take a donation.

Mark checking out hummingbird feeders

On one fun day of birding we visited three different yards including Dave Jasper’s pictured below. Cave Creek Lodge was another great spot and the perfect vacation lodge for birders. It has a beautiful location under rocky cliffs and plenty of places around the property to see the birds at feeders.

Dave Jasper’s welcome sign and gate to his birding yard

The Chiricahua Mountains are grand and mysterious with their rocky cliffs and spires. Although we had hoped to visit Chiricahua National Monument as well, since it was a bit of a drive over a horrible road and we were enjoying so much birding, we decided to spend our time in the Portal area. Besides, we were experiencing some of the same beautiful scenery here. I took the photos below after walking a short trail to a viewpoint.

Mark and I got tips from two different people that we must go and see the Whiskered Screech Owl. The first tip was from a birding guide who told us where to stop on the road when we saw two large sycamore branches hanging over. We drove to the spot and diligently searched but no luck. The next day when I visited a small visitor center and asked the volunteer if there were any birding hot spots, he said that we should definitely check out the Whiskered screech owl and gave very detailed directions on how to find it reporting it had just been sighted that day. Ever persistent, we drove back to the road and followed his directions. After a great deal of searching where two other birders saw us on the side of the road and joined in, we gave it up. I wanted to see this new “life” bird but the Whiskered screech owl would have to remain for another place and time. (Just like Mark’s official Chiricahua National Monument stamp).

Our stop near overhanging sycamore branches to find an owl

We visited the Southwestern Research Station, a biological field station where scientists, naturalists, teachers and students come to study the plants, animals and birds of the region. This is a diverse environment from low deserts to alpine meadows, home to many different species. The Station is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While there, we talked to a group from the Bronx – high school students doing field projects. One of their leaders showed us photos of the owl banding they had done the previous night. We spent quite a bit of time at the hummingbird feeders which were buzzing with activity. We were able to see about seven different species, including the largest hummingbird found in the United States – Blue-throated and the second largest – Magnificent (Rivoli).

Rufous Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird coming in for a landing
Magnificent (Rivoli) Hummingbird

We really enjoyed our brief visit in the “town” of Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains area. In the next post I will be exploring one of my favorite national monuments! (And for those that might be getting tired of bird posts and photos, there will be no birds mentioned – smiley face).

More Arizona Birding and Coronado National Memorial

Mary Jo’s parking lot has space for about six vehicles

Sierra Vista in Southeastern Arizona is considered a Mecca for birders. Since it is close to Northern Mexico, many birds seen in that country can be found in the nearby canyons here. There are also different habitats such as mountains, grasslands and deserts that attract a variety of birds. Since eleven years ago I had been on a birding trip here with my parents and uncle, there were a few places I wanted to return to. One of those was Mary Jo’s home in Ash Canyon. Mary Jo has been opening her yard to birders for many years. She puts out dozens of different feeders and attracts lots of birds. It was so easy to bird here – no craning of the neck looking into high trees or scurrying around to find some bird I thought I saw fly by. It was relaxing to sit in one of her chairs and just watch them come. Sometimes Mary Jo comes out to chat with the birders and sometimes she stays in her home.

Mark watching for birds at Mary Jo’s place

On my previous family birding trip we kept lists of the birds we saw each day and then voted as to our favorite birds of the trip. The winner was a Scott’s Oriole and we saw those orioles here. On this trip I was looking forward to more views of this striking black and yellow bird.

Mary Jo’s dish of jam draws the orioles

Orioles are some of my favorites as their colors are so bright and we saw other orioles including the Bullock’s and Hooded.

Bullock’s Oriole
Hooded Oriole

Lots of other birds entertained us such as Lazuli Bunting, Acorn, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhees, Lesser Goldfinch and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Using his long lens, my driver got some great closeups of the birds.

Gila Woodpecker
Spotted Towhee
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ramsey Canyon is perhaps the best known birding location in the Sierra Vista area. People have been coming to see hummingbirds here for years and 15 species are possible different times of the year. When Mark was living in Tucson as a teenager, he was acquainted with the former caretaker of Ramsey Canyon in the 1970’s and visited him there. Today it is run by the Nature Conservancy with a visitor center and gift shop on site. The area is beautiful with tall canyon walls, a rushing stream and large sycamore and maple trees. A trail goes up the canyon and there are several spots where benches have been placed near hummingbird feeders. I spent a few hours birding the canyon and checking out the feeders. It was not a particularly productive day but I really enjoyed the scenery.

Ramsey Canyon hummingbird bird feeders

South of Sierra Vista and right on the Mexican border is the Coronado National Memorial operated by the National Park Service. The Memorial honors the journey of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer and conquistador who in 1540 with an expedition of 1,000 people traveled through this area looking for the ”seven golden cities of Cibola” with riches they hoped to find. The expedition went as far as the state of Kansas before turning back. Although Coronado did not find what he hoped for, he brought a new culture to this land, introducing Spanish ways to the native population and also introducing Europeans to the culture of the natives. The Memorial notes that the influences of Spanish, American Indian, Mexican and Anglo cultures blending together began as a result of Coronado’s expedition.


During the expedition, the most common type of armor used by the soldiers was chainmail which protected them from close contact fighting. The fine mesh of the linked metal rings prevented swords or other blades from penetrating. The National Park visitor center has chain mail and helmets that visitors can try and it is surprising how heavy the chain mail is. I could not put it on or take it off without Mark’s help. We estimated it must weigh about 40 pounds and I found it to be pretty uncomfortable. I was more than happy to take it off as well as the heavy and cumbersome helmet.

View of the winding dirt road up to Montezuma Pass

The Park has a scenic road that travels to Montezuma Pass on a steep grade with switchbacks. At the top are magnificent views into the valley below where you can see in the distance the wall separating Arizona from Mexico. You also get an idea at how immense the valley was that Coronado and his men had to travel through.

Coronado Peak Trail

From the parking area is a trail that heads up to Coronado Peak. From the peak the views extended in every direction, a vast landscape that Coronado explored so many years ago. What a great place to stand and think about the past!

Views from Coronado Peak of Arizona (left) and Mexico (right)

Camping With the Birds and Hummingbird Banding

Pyrrhuloxia

After five weeks in Tucson we headed to Tombstone Territories RV Park, an hour and a half east and located between the towns of Sierra Vista and Tombstone. This campground was a big change as it was no longer in town but out in the middle of nowhere. Cell service was nonexistent and WiFi was weak. We were staying in this area for the birds. Sierra Vista boasts great birding in the nearby canyons and along the San Pedro River. We also had fun birding at our campsite where we placed a few feeders. Since traveling, we have had great bird encounters at a number of our campsites such as St. Augustine, Florida; Corbin, Kentucky and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but this was the best yet. I counted 16 different species that came regularly to our site. Several of my favorites were the shy pyrrhuloxia also called desert cardinal, the little black throated sparrows, the curved bill thrasher and the cactus wren.

Black-throated Sparrow

The cactus wren turned out to be the most mischievous of the group. At times I saw him running around the outside of our truck, checking it out. One day Mark left the truck door open and when he went back, the cactus wren was inside the truck on the dashboard where he left a little “deposit.” A few days later, I left the truck door open as I was loading things up. When I went back there was the cactus wren on the passenger seat. I wish I would have had my camera with me, but I wasn’t expecting a photo moment.

The mischievous cactus wren

We had another curious visitor in the evenings – javelinas. We were warned the first day we got here not to leave our dish of seed on the ground as the javelinas could get into it. We forgot about it and they came and licked it clean. I could hear them outside but when I grabbed my camera they were walking away and it was too dark anyway to get a decent photo. Another evening I watched as two of them left our campsite and started trotting toward the campground office as if they were on a social call. Mark had a close encounter with them when they walked by him as he was sitting outside. There were walking/hiking trails outside the campground that went into the mesquite scrub and once I attempted to walk one of them. But the scrub was thick and since I was afraid of a close encounter with a javelina I turned back.

Curved-bill thrasher

Our first day birding the area took us to San Pedro House, a birding center that is next to the San Pedro River. We walked along the river scanning the tall cottonwoods for the many birds that live here.

San Pedro River

Although we did see birds, we saw a lot more of something else – tent caterpillars. There were many, many gray sacs hanging from the trees and the caterpillars were dropping from the sacs in the thousands. Every where we looked they were crawling about and we could hear a constant soft patter as they hit the ground. Unfortunately, they were also dropping on us and we were frequently flicking them off our pant legs, shirts, hats and hands. It was really getting to me, but I still wanted to find the birds so we pushed on.

Tent Caterpillars

In spite of this annoyance, we found some birds including colorful ones like the Yellow warbler and the Vermilion flycatcher which is always fun to see with its bright red and black markings.

Vermilion Flycatcher

When we had first arrived to the San Pedro House in the morning, we found out there would be a hummingbird banding at 3:00 in the afternoon. This was something I definitely wanted to see. It turned out to be a very interesting and informative event. I had never been to a bird banding before. This one was organized by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) staff. The public is allowed to participate including carrying captured birds to the banding table and holding birds before they are released.

Broad-billed hummingbird at feeder

In order to capture the hummingbirds, traps are set up at the feeders so when they come to drink, a release mechanism is triggered dropping a curtain around them. They are then removed, placed into a small mesh holding cage and carried to the banding table.

Carrying a captured hummer to the banding table

A hummingbird expert did the banding and checking of the birds while two other staff recorded the information. If a bird has not been banded before, it receives one with its own number which is recorded in a database. As can be imagined, the bands are very tiny and have to be put on with special pliers. Some of the birds that were caught had been banded previous years, so information collected is entered with their already assigned number. The birds were weighed, measured, checked for sex, possible age and species. In the photo below, the expert blows a little air from a tube onto the hummingbird to move the feathers and check the condition of its body.

While the expert completed her examination of each bird, she talked about what she found with the audience. She explained that the average life span of a hummingbird was five years, but one was found on this date that was eight years old. I learned that determining the age of a hummingbird can be very difficult and only happens if a bird is caught and banded the first year of life when they have shed their first feathers. While examining one bird, the expert Sheri Williams noted that it had suffered a bloody nose, possibly from hitting a cactus or other sharp plant. Most of the birds caught were Black-chinned hummingbirds like the little guy in the photo below, showing his bright purple throat. A few of the birds were caught twice on this day, one three different times.

We learned that banding the birds provides valuable information as to migration habits, life span, reproductive cycles and health of the bird population and habitats where they live. One question is whether banding is traumatic for the birds. Sheri explained that hummingbirds are fierce and intelligent, not prone to stress when captured like other birds. Because of this and their small size, they are easier to work with. I was able to hold one of the birds before it was released. Each bird was first given a drink of nectar from a feeder so hopefully it would be full and not head right back to the trap. Then the bird was held close so I could get a good look. This little hummer below is a female Black-chinned.

The hummer was then placed in my hand for release. The heartbeat of a hummer is so fast that one cannot feel it. Some hummers stay for a few seconds when let go, but the one in my hand took off like a shot.

It was a great day with the hummers! I will close with a photo of a Western Screech Owl which has taken up residence next to the San Pedro House. It was sitting in a heart shaped knot high up in the huge cottonwood tree.

The Rose Bush Too Tough to Die

In the old west town of Tombstone, Arizona I found an attraction I would never have expected. Although most people come here to see the famous OK Corral and watch the “gunfight” from 1881, others are excited to see the world’s largest rose bush, especially in the spring when it is blooming. I really enjoy seeing attractions that are the largest, smallest or oldest of their type and roses are especially appealing to me, so seeing this was my kind of thing. Actually, Tombstone has the nickname “The Town Too Tough to Die,” but I couldn’t resist the above title instead.

The gnarled trunk is about 14 feet in diameter

The root for this bush was planted in the back of a boarding house in 1885 after being shipped from Scotland. The rose is a Lady Banksia but has the nickname “Shady Lady.” When the rose got too big and had to be put on a trellis across the back patio it provided a shady spot for Tombstone residents. It now covers more than 8,000 square feet and when I saw it, it was densely covered with miniature clusters of white blooms. It doesn’t require any feeding or spraying, but does require watering and pruning. Several truckloads of brush are pruned from the bush each January.

The “Shady Lady” is now the centerpiece of Tombstone’s Rose Museum. It has been in the same family for six generations. There is a theory as to why the bush has grown so large. During the early years of Tombstone before plumbing, sewage seeped into mine shafts and it is believed the roots reached into the shafts and were fertilized. The branches of the bush are so thick that while standing under the canopy, you can’t see the blooms on top, so the owners have placed a raised platform in back of the trellis area so people can see over the top of the bush. It is hard to imagine the largest rose bush would be in a dry desert town in southeast Arizona. For those interested, clippings of this rose can be purchased. Each spring Tombstone celebrates with a rose festival and parade.

With the “heroes” after the gunfight

While in Arizona, I visited Tombstone on two different days. The first time I saw the reenacted gunfight which is held throughout the day. Tombstone embodies the Wild West and the shootout between the town’s “lawmen” including Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holiday against a group of outlaws known as the cowboys, is one of the most famous events in Old West history. Many books have been written and films made which has kept Tombstone a popular tourist spot.

Before I came here I had to brush up a little on Tombstone history as I had never read about the shootout and the OK Corral or seen any of the Tombstone films. I knew little about Wyatt Earp, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, once Tombstone’s famous citizens. As we gathered in the bleachers to watch the showdown, the event was explained by our capable narrator and all the characters were introduced. The gunfight itself was short, lasting less than a minute. There is only speculation as to who started the shooting due to a lack of reliable witnesses, but the outcome left three cowboys dead and three lawmen wounded. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday went on to other adventures and much notoriety throughout their lives. In order to be more historically correct, Tombstone has an exhibit at the “exact spot” where the shootout occurred, although this is also still in question. Eight life size figures of the Earps and the cowboys stand facing each other with their guns.

On my second visit to Tombstone I learned more about the town during a group walking tour with the popular Dr. Jay, a retired dentist. Dressed in period attire with a pistol at his side, he provided lots of interesting details about the Old West, the development of western films, how Tombstone got started and why it was too tough to die.

Dr Jay’s walking tour

He talked about a few serious fires that burned much of the town and how the silver mines which brought the town its wealth had tunnels that went underneath for many miles. He pointed out that the foundation of the town is only several feet thick due to all these tunnels. For entertainment he and other Tombstone citizens like to come and watch when the utility company is putting in a pole. Once a hole is finished, the citizens wait to see if the pole will drop out of sight and a new hole will have to be dug. He gave more information about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the gunfight and took us to the street next to the OK Corral, explaining that this was where the fight really ended up happening. Dr. Jay was funny and animated and full of so many interesting stories I wished I was taking notes.

After the tour I wandered some more around the streets and down the wooden sidewalks. I came upon “Johnny Bones,” one of the town’s more colorful characters who is a busker or street performer. Supposedly buskers are the second oldest profession (learned this from Dr. Jay) and were very popular in the 1800’s. Johnny reported he had to fight with the city to be allowed to perform on the street. Covered with bells, coins and playing the bones, he does a fine job dancing with that big smile always on his face.

During Dr. Jay’s walking tour he mentioned historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and since we didn’t go by it, I headed over to get a peek. It is hard for me to pass up an old church, especially when this one has a unique history as the oldest Protestant church in Arizona.

Built in 1882, the church was financed by miners and prostitutes, who were the ones that had the money back in those days. The prostitutes conducted their business in very small rooms called “cribs.” To honor their generosity, the town moved one of the cribs to the property in back of the church as an exhibit. A piece of history I doubt I will ever see again in the backyard of a church.

While I was taking a photo of the front of the church, a woman came over and asked me if I would like to see the inside, explaining that she was the church’s warden. She gave me a tour and and showed that much of the inside is original, including the ceiling beams, pews, light fixtures and stained glass windows. Two of those windows have bullet holes from the days of the wild west. In one room is the building’s original adobe brick and looking up I could see the bell tower. She said that she really enjoyed ringing that bell every Sunday morning before the service. When traveling it is always enjoyable meeting the locals and learning more about the places where they live and work.

Tombstone is proud of their oldest buildings, with the Birdcage Theater one of the few originals left after the fires. The theater was open from 1881-1889 during the height of silver mining and was one of the rowdiest places with gambling, prostitution and fighting. Prostitutes had their own rooms with red velvet curtains near the ceiling called “bird cages” where they charged $25.00. Downstairs in the basement high stakes card games went on with a $1,000 deposit taken from each prospective gambler. What is most interesting is that after it closed in 1889, it was not reopened until 1934 where everything was left intact inside. The building has never been restored but is preserved so the rooms with their peeling wallpaper, frayed curtains, dusty furniture and relics are left as they once were. This place is literally frozen in time and fascinating to see.

Big Nose Kate was the girlfriend of Doc Holliday and a famous person in town. The restaurant in the photo above is named for her and is the most popular place to eat. Inside it is decorated in old west style with a guitarist playing and singing. For those that wish, you can dress up in period costume that is provided. I thought the food and atmosphere were worth coming for.

1882 Tombstone Courthouse now an Arizona State Park and museum

There is lots more to be seen in historic Tombstone but I hope you enjoyed a look at some of the attractions. I will close with a sunset picture from Tucson.

African Cuisine, Gallery of the Sun, Catalina State Park and a Bit of Nostalgia

In an area where Mexican food dominates, I would not have thought one of the best meals we would have in Tucson would be African. Before going out for some sightseeing one day, we were trying to figure out a restaurant in the direction we were heading. Tucson is very big and distances from one part of the city to another can mean a 30 to 40 minute drive in any direction. While researching, Mark noted there was a restaurant specializing in West African food from the country of Benin. Since our son Matt and daughter-in-law Emma served as volunteer nurses on the Mercy Ship (hospital) in Benin we knew we had to give this place a try. We texted them and asked what dishes they would recommend and it was fun to reminisce. They even gave us a few phrases to try out with the owner.

Ismael cooking fufu

We arrived to Alafiya Restaurant, finding the small space to be empty other than the very friendly owner. Having an empty restaurant turned out to be a good thing, because we were able to talk to him about Matt and Emma’s experiences in his country and show him some photos. Eating here was like having a meal cooked at the home of a friend. The restaurant is casual and homey with native clothing, masks and other decorations displayed on the walls. The owner Ismael had a number of pots cooking on a simple stovetop next to the counter so we were able to see some of the action going on. We had hoped for peanut stew with chicken, but it was not available. Ismael suggested goat soup and tilapia so we went with his suggestions. I watched as he cooked fufu into a soft dough, a staple made from cassava flour and placed it into the soup.

West African Goat Soup

The goat soup had a delicious broth and the tilapia fish served whole with a side of couscous was very tasty and tender. We finished off with fried plantains. I have to say that after having several disappointing Mexican meals in Tucson this West African meal was a real pleasure.

One of the places I was looking forward to during our Tucson stay was a repeat visit to Gallery of the Sun. It had been years since I was last here and bought a print to have framed for our house. The Gallery features the art of Ted DeGrazia, a famous southwestern artist. This is more than a gallery as this was once his home, chapel and now gravesite all set on a 10 acre historic site. When he and his wife began building here in the 1950’s, this was a remote area in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. At the time, they had no electricity, water or services. Things have changed considerably as Tucson has grown and spread out. Homes and businesses are now scattered around these hills, but the magic of this gallery and property still remains.

When I think of DeGrazia’s work I think of the faceless Indian children he often painted. Growing up in Arizona, he developed a lifelong appreciation of native cultures and many of his paintings and sculptures reflect that. But wandering the different gallery rooms, I noted the many genres he enjoyed painting such as the stations of the cross and the journeys of explorer Cabeza de Vaca and the missionary Father Kino. He enjoyed painting roadrunners (symbol of the desert), bullfights, horses, cacti and angels. Even the gallery itself is a work of art. Using traditional adobe bricks made on site, he built it so his paintings “would feel good inside.” My favorite was the unusual flooring in one section. It was made from cholla cactus embedded in the adobe.

On May 12, 1976, DeGrazia made a big protest against the Internal Revenue Service when he created a bonfire in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix and burned 100 of his paintings, watercolors, pastels and sketches valued around $250,000. They were burned because his heirs could not have them without paying taxes on their market value.


DeGrazia built this lovely adobe chapel, noting that he was not a church going man but was religious. It was the first building constructed on the property. The ceiling is open to the sky and his frescoes dominate the walls.

Inner doorway to chapel interior

DeGrazia’s first home here with several rooms remains and is very rustic and atmospheric. It looks like it has not been renovated in any way but left as it was when he and his wife moved out and into newer quarters on the property.

DeGrazia home – living area and doorway to bedroom

After this enjoyable visit, we headed to the other side of town to see our former home we bought in 1982. This was the first house we ever purchased and we lived here for just a few years before moving to California. We have been back to see the outside a few times since we left, but it had been a long time since we last saw it. I found the front yard to be so different from when we lived here. For those that remember from a previous blog article, I talked about how much I liked saguaro cactus and even planted one in our front yard. Well, I noted with a little sadness that the saguaro was gone. We had some good times in that house, ah…..memories.

Our former home in Tucson

We finished our day at Catalina State Park, a popular and very beautiful place to explore outside of Tucson. The park opened in 1983 when we were still living here, but I don’t recall us visiting it before we moved away. Mark can remember hiking in the Catalina Mountains when he was a teenager and there were no established trails. After being dropped off by his parents, he and a friend took off into the hills for a few nights of backpacking.


The park features camping, picnicking, miles of trails to explore in the foothills and mountains of the Catalinas, streams, meadows and many saguaros. We decided to do a little hiking on one of the trails. During our trek we came upon wildflowers such as the field of lupine in the photo below.

The trail followed a stream much of the way with hillsides dotted with saguaros.

There were several fun little stream crossings so we got to do some rock hopping.

The trail switchbacked up for some closer views of the mountains.

We talked to one lady, a former Californian who was out for a walk. She said since she lived nearby, she came often to walk here after work. She said she missed her former home, but this was one perk of living in the Tucson area. I would love to be able to visit this park often and explore all the different trails and areas. Tucson has some great places to hike and this is certainly one of its gems.

In the next blog I explore the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona.

A Visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ pipe cactus

With long spiny stems that look like columns rising from the base of the plant, the organ pipe cactus is impressive. I had been curious about visiting Organ Pipe National Monument for some years, but the opportunity had never presented itself. This park is in a remote section of Southern Arizona on the Mexican border. It is not near any town or city of size, so you have to go out of the way to visit. But I think this monument is more than worth going out of the way for. The location is very scenic and this is the only place you can see these cactus growing in large numbers in the U.S. While staying in Tucson we made the two hour plus trip to come here and I was very glad we did.

Stamp and sticker from our National Park book

During our RV travels, Mark and I have really enjoyed visiting sites administered by the National Park Service. We like seeing the visitor centers, getting recommendations for things to do and stamping our park book. When Mark wanted to get one of these books while visiting the Carver National Monument in Missouri in October 2018, I figured it wouldn’t get much use. I thought most National Parks and monuments were out west and we were going to be spending a lot of time in the Eastern part of the U.S. Little did I realize how many National Park sites we would be visiting, which were mostly historic sites that I just was not aware of. In the first 15 months we visited close to 50 of them and got plenty of stamps for our notebook.

The organ pipe cactus is common in Mexico but only grows in this section of the U.S. where there are no freezing temperatures. This cactus likes it warm! The park is an International Biosphere Reserve because it is such a great example of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. We decided to drive the favorite scenic loop road in the park, Ajo Mountain Drive so we could get some great views of the organ pipe and other cactus. As we began the drive and came upon this sign, there was no question we were close to the Mexican border!

Ajo Mountain Drive

The 21 mile drive on mostly dirt road heads into the foothills and along the way we saw plenty of organ pipe, saguaro and other desert plants such as cholla cactus and blooming hedgehog. The rugged hills were a great backdrop to the desert scenery.

Organ pipe cactus on the side of Ajo Mountain Drive

We stopped for a lunch break and I liked how the park service used ocotillo stems for a covering on the ramada at this picnic site. I have also seen ocotillo used for fences in other places we have visited in Arizona.


Some more photos from stops along our drive. I loved the rocky hillsides in the park.


After our drive we did a little hike from a primitive campground. Envying the campers, I wished we could have spent a day or two enjoying this gorgeous spot!

The trail went up into Alamo Canyon along side a green wash. It was a beautiful desert walk with the bluest sky. We came upon perhaps the largest organ pipe cactus we had seen that day. This cactus can live to be more than 150 years old.

A very large stand of organ pipe cactus

The remains of an old ranch house can also be found on the trail. Cattle were once kept in this canyon and the previous owners also had a mine claim in the area.


I would like to return to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument again some day. The memory of this special place will stay in my mind for some time. On the next trip I am hoping we can drive the other scenic road which is 35 miles long and more rugged. It would be great to see more of this stunning park!

The Blooming Desert

Exploring off trail at Saguaro National Park West

One of my favorite things to do is wander the Sonoran Desert checking out all the plant life. There is so much growing in the deserts of Southern Arizona that it is truly a feast for the eyes. This is the kind of place that you have to constantly watch your feet when you walk because things are sharp here! A few times I have pulled a small cactus spine out of my foot that found its way into my shoe and dislodged pieces of cholla cactus that hitched a ride on my pant leg. Although I should stay on the trails, I can’t help but wander off to see an interesting cactus, bush or tree. Enjoying nature for me means getting right into the middle of it (often to my driver’s amusement). In the photo above it almost looks like I am sitting on a cactus!

Strawberry Hedgehog

Exploring the Sonoran Desert at the end of March and early April was the perfect time for spring bloom. I thought I would share some of the beauties we found on our wanderings. The hedgehog cactus was the most colorful and eye catching with bright violet or pink blooms clustered on top. This one was particularly vibrant. One hedgehog called the claret cup is a beautiful reddish color.

Claret Cup Hedgehog

The ocotillo puts on a lovely show with orange/red flames at the tip of its long spiny stems. Since arriving in Tucson, we have watched the flowers change from a dull pale color to a more vibrant one toward mid April.

Blooming Ocotillo at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Below is a close up of another ocotillo. This is one of the more unusual and less attractive desert plants as throughout the year the stems can be bare of leaves. I sometimes think they just look like a bunch of long sticks jutting from the ground. Then after winter rains, small green leaves start forming on the stems. During hot weather droughts the plant loses its leaves until the monsoon rains come in the later summer and new leaves form once again. With its stems a leafy green and red flowers bursting from the tips, the ocotillo transforms into one of the more attractive desert plants.

Ocotillo in bloom at Saguaro National Park West

The brittlebush is one of the more common blooms we have seen growing in profusion along the roadways in both the East and West sections of Saguaro National Park. We have seen masses growing on most of our walks; they are a bright ray of sunshine in the desert.

Brittlebush at Saguaro National Park East
Brittlebush at Saguaro National Park East

Speaking of yellow, one of my favorite desert wildflowers is the desert marigold which has such pretty, showy flowers that grow in clumps.

Desert Marigold at Saguaro National Park West
Desert Marigold at Saguaro National Park West

While staying in Tucson I was hoping to see saguaro cactus blooming. But I found out they usually don’t start until closer to the end of April or first part of May which would be after we planned to leave the area. As we drove around I could see buds forming on some of these cactuses, signaling flowers to come including a few saguaros near our RV site. So, I was pleased when we took our last drive in Saguaro National Park a few days ago and off one of the scenic roads saw two saguaros just beginning to flower.

Saguaro flowers bloom for only 24 hours, opening at night and blooming through the next day. They have only that short time frame to be pollinated by bats, bees or birds so they can produce fruit. The fruit has a juicy red pulp which can contain up to 2,000 small seeds! It is enjoyed by a number of desert birds and animals. The Tohono O’odham Indians have been harvesting the fruit for a long time. It is also the state flower of Arizona.

Saguaro cactus beginning to bloom

Sometimes a landscape can be so lovely in person, but the camera just doesn’t catch the beauty of what you see with your eye. That’s how I felt when we were taking a walk on one of the trails in Catalina State Park outside of Tucson. I found some of the hillsides covered with lupine flowers with a backdrop of the Catalina mountains. The late afternoon light seemed to fade the color from the lupine in the photos. Of those photos, I liked this one the best of lupine surrounding a barrel cactus.

Lupine at Catalina State Park

On several of our outings I kept seeing this bush covered with fluffy looking pink flowers. I couldn’t figure out what it was called until I visited the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum and saw a sign identifying the plant as a “fairy duster.” It seems like an apt name for these delicate, airy looking flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Fairy Duster

Yucca flowers were also in bloom. The bell shaped flowers are large and I just learned they are edible. In fact, I found several recipes posted on the internet for frying the flowers in a tempura batter. I would definitely try them if I ever get a chance in the future.

Blooming Yucca

I hope you enjoyed these desert blooms and will get to enjoy some spring weather wherever you are.

Hedgehog Blooms, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Owl’s clover and poppies at Catalina State Park

Exploring Tumacácori National Historical Park

I love visiting historical churches and Mission San Jose de Tumacacori is a beautiful example of a Southwest mission. It is located about 45 minutes south of Tucson and is operated by the National Park Service. In 1691 Jesuit Priest Eusebio Kino founded a mission nearby at an O’odham Indian village, the oldest mission site in Southern Arizona. In 1756 the first church was built here and in 1800 the present church. This site was on the route of the 1775-1776 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, the first Spanish overland expedition from New Spain or Mexico to Alta California. Anza led a party of about 240 people to establish a settlement in San Francisco.

View of Tumacacori Mission
Front of Tumacacori Mission

The Mission was abandoned by 1848 after the Mexican-American War. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a National Monument and efforts began to restore the church and outer buildings. It was redesignated a National Historical Park when two other nearby mission ruins were added. The complex includes an historical adobe building housing a museum with exhibits and gift shop. We started our visit in the small museum – I liked this sign board explaining history of the tortilla.

After stepping outside onto the grounds near the church, we actually got to eat a homemade tortilla with beans prepared by a local woman. She rolled out flour tortillas by hand and baked them on a mesquite fueled grill. I got the photo below of Mark mid bite with his tortilla.

Tortilla Demonstration

On the grounds is the heritage orchard with trees planted in the same area as the original orchard. A project was formed to find and propogate the oldest living fruit trees from historic orchards in the region. Communities were identified where fruit trees descended from mission orchards might still exist. Seeds, cuttings and grafts were collected from yards and orchards in Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora, Mexico with eleven fruit varieties collected. The trees planted here include apple, apricot, fig, olive, peach, pear, plum, pomegranate, quince, lime and orange. The photo below is from a blooming peach tree.

Flowering peach in the heritage orchard

A pathway leads for a short walk to the Santa Cruz River, a lovely spot lined with huge cottonwood trees. Close to the river is the historic Anza trail where a four mile portion can still be walked from Tumacacori to the nearby town of Tubac. I would love to walk this trail if we return in the future. Rangers also conduct walks here during certain times of the year visiting the ruins of two other missions along the way.

Santa Cruz River

Below is a side view of the church. An adobe wall surrounds the back and includes a small chapel and cemetery.

The inside is open to the public and is very atmospheric with its crumbling adobe brick walls.

Interior of the Mission Church

Tumacacori is a very small town with only a few businesses including the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company, a small family owned shop. This is a favorite stop as they have an interesting assortment of spices, sauces, jams and honeys.


Although they feature a number of chile spice mixtures, they also have other spices and herb mixtures for cooking and baking. I was most interested in their cinnamon, as they have several kinds from different parts of the world. The great thing is one can sample most of the spices or herbs for sale, so I could pick out the best cinnamon and chile to buy. Mark and I really liked the prickly pear cactus candy.

A little cinnamon on my hand at Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.

After this “fragrant” stop, we headed to Tubac, a small town with a number of shops and galleries. Mark was not too enthralled with the shops, but I like these artsy kind of places and enjoy seeing things people have created. I was happy they had an RC Gorman studio as he is one of my favorite southwest artists.

RC Gorman Gallery in Tubac

As a Navajo painter, his works often included brightly colored images of Native American women. We visited his original gallery in Taos, New Mexico some years ago. The gallery owner here told us that one of his paintings hung in the White House dining room. With some birthday money I got a decorative tile from the gallery, pictured below.

RC Gorman Art

We wandered around checking out the Tubac Art Center and several shops. Some of them had yards filled with decorative metal art, pottery and statues for sale. The owner at the Gorman gallery told us that there is no crime in Tubac and shop owners leave their wares outside and unsecured when the buildings are closed. He said some pieces like a sculpture outside the Gorman gallery are worth quite a bit of money but there are never any thefts. How encouraging in our modern age that a town can leave things as they are with no worries!

Enjoying the shops in Tubac

I hope you enjoyed a look at our day of exploring in Tumacacori and Tubac.

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Saguaro National Park – Where is the Moon?

We were sitting in the patio of the Saguaro National Park Red Hills Visitor Center watching intently at a spot in the nearby hills, waiting to see the moon rise. Each month the National Park Service (NPS) does a moonrise program during full moon that features music and a presentation. Last month when we attended, there were two guitarists as well as a man who makes handmade Native American flutes. He brought about five different flutes to demonstrate. The music was hauntingly beautiful and went well with the desert scenery.

Although our flute player valiantly tried to conjure the moon into view, it was to no avail. The moon rose behind cloud cover so we couldn’t view its ascent. The usual clear desert skies eluded us on this evening, but the music, desert scenery and camaraderie was worth coming for. The setting sun cast enchanting golden light on the landscape around us.

We visited Saguaro National Park (SNP) a couple of different days and times. This is a beautiful place dedicated to the preservation and understanding of the park’s name sake cactus. There are actually two SNP’s, one on the west side of town and one on the east. Since Tucson is a big city, they are a bit of a drive from each other. In this post I am focusing on the west side since this was the one closest to our RV park. This is the 7th National Park we have visited since traveling in our RV. Although we had visited here some years ago, it is still a thrill to add another National Park to our list as full time travelers.

As the sign pictured above shows, saguaros are the “sentinels” of the desert, the largest cactus not only in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, but also in the United States. They start out as tiny black seeds, usually germinating under nurse plants like palo verde and mesquite trees for protection from the elements. They grow slowly with few surviving life in the harsh desert environment. When they reach about 75 years of age they might begin sprouting arms. These cactus produce red fruit that feeds the animals of the desert such as birds, rodents, coyotes, and javelinas. The fruit is also favored by Native Americans in the region who boil it to make a syrup. Saguaros usually don’t live more than 200 years and walking through the desert one can sometimes see the skeleton of either a standing or fallen giant.

Bajada Road – Saguaro National Park

Late one afternoon we spent some time driving the Bajada Road, a great drive through magnificent scenery. Below is one of the trails we checked out.

When I took the photo below, I was thrilled to capture the almost full moon between the two saguaros.

We stopped at another trailhead called Signal Hill to see the petroglyphs and take in some desert views.

I took the photo below of one of the rocks with ancient drawings. Mark told me later that he felt compelled to say something to one young man who in spite of signs requesting that people stay off the rocks with petroglyphs decided to climb and sit on one. After Mark said something, he did get off the rocks. It is sad to see evidence of people not concerned about preserving historical artifacts.

Above is a photo of ocotillo stems and a saguaro with the moon above the cactus. We stayed on Signal Hill for the sunset and below Mark photographs the spectacle.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the beauty of Saguaro National Park. I am quite enamored with saguaros and each visit to the Sonoran desert I find myself amazed by their variety of sizes and shapes and commanding presence in the desert. They are one of the most interesting plant life- forms I have ever seen. I could never grow tired of them!

In the next blog we journey south of Tucson to visit a historic site and artsy town.

Exploring Tucson’s Sabino Canyon

Beautiful desert scenery can be found in and around the city of Tucson. Perhaps the jewel is Sabino Canyon located in the Santa Catalina Mountains, a beloved spot for many residents and visitors. It showcases the best of what nature provides – mountain vistas, desert plant life and a mountain stream. A visitor center can be found here as well as a shuttle that takes people up a road into the canyon. The shuttle hadn’t been running for awhile when we visited, which was fine as it was good for us to do some walking. So we took off on one of the pathways.

Our progress wasn’t quick because we were distracted by the cacti, snow on the distant mountains, coyotes howling close by and birds, such as the Phainopepla. Can you pronounce that word? Even after practicing I still am not too sure about saying it correctly. But it is a beautiful jet black bird with a crest and red eye. They favor the berries of the desert mistletoe that grow in the palo verde, mesquite and ironwood trees.

We came to Sabino at just the right time. It had been a little cool, windy and stormy when we first got to Tucson but on this day the sun was the perfect amount of warmth, skies were clear and there was no wind. During winter and spring Sabino Creek rushes down from the mountains and this year there is a lot of water due to an abundance of rain and snow. Some of the trails through the canyon cross the creek requiring feet and perhaps more getting wet. I wanted to try out the water as it crossed one of the paths and found it to be icy cold! There is something rather precious about a creek racing through the dry desert.

The dam is a popular area at Sabino and with all the water it was overflowing. This would be a great place to wade and swim in the warmer months.

Sabino Dam
Sabino Dam

While I explored along the creek and falls, Mark took a break and pondered life. From my vantage point he appeared a sad, forlorn character perched on a rock in the desert. Oh, the life of a driver!

I followed the creek for awhile up the canyon and found beautiful scenery where rocky cliffs rose above the water, saguaro cactus clinging to the slopes.

This was my favorite area – it was serene and the perfect meeting of water, rock and desert plant life.

Taking a connector trail to a different road we made a loop for our walk back. I took this photo of Mark on top of the rocky trail looking out at the scenery.

So many beautiful views all around awaited us.

It was a wonderful afternoon in Sabino. If you ever have the chance to visit the Tucson area, put this on your must do list!