March in the Bloomin’ Desert

Saguara panoSaguaro National Park:  loop ride (East border of Tucson city)

Myths about southern Arizona abound. These popularly include:  it’s brown and flat, scattered with cacti, filled with seniors, golf courses and mobile home parks, is always sunny, too hot, and too dry, and in Trump’s world, has an extremely porous border for both drugs and illegals. We, too, held some of these ideas believed which have often been kept alive by media and snowbirds’ tales. Our actual experiences of southern Arizona have constituted a most pleasant surprise and a re-evaluation of why this land appeals to so many Canadians, especially as a retirement or snowbird destination.

1. brown and flat:  yes, there is a lot of brown, but in every shade and provides a contrast for the reds and oranges, blues, yellows, lavender and purples. Little of the state is actually flat – mostly around Yuma. Instead, there are hundreds of mountain ranges (including snow-capped mountains at over 12,000 feet), rolling hills, valleys, and canyons.

Hiking Coronado National Monument / Overlook of South Tucson / Winding bike road Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Cycling Saguaro National Park / Hiking Arch Canyon / Camping at Organ Pipe Cactus National Park (can you spot Van Gogh?)

2.  scattered with cacti:  yes, with several of the 500 varieties, some of which only grow in very specific areas of the state. For example, the organ pipe cactus only grows in the south central area that is now Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Many cacti grow only at certain elevations or on a particular directional slope. Sometimes, the cacti are sparse and many times, they grow in “forests.” At this time of year, many are in bloom, lending much colour all around. Some cacti are night bloomers that will only bloom in summer in the cool of the night. Other flora include a multitude of shrubs and trees, including mesquites, ironwood, palo verde, and acacias at lower elevations, maples, birch, cypress, ash, walnut, juniper, cottonwoods, oaks, and pines at mid-elevations, with the addition of elders, spruce, firs, and aspen at high elevations.

A sampling of cacti / agave

The Bloomin‘ Desert

3.  filled with seniors, golf courses, and mobile home parks:  as non-golfers, we cannot speak to whether there are more or less golf courses than in other areas of the country, however we can attest to the apparent popularity of pickle ball (look it up). Yes, there are many retirees drawn to southern Arizona, either full-time or as snowbirds. Many do live in permanent or semi-permanent motor homes set up for the season in RV parks that cater to the “active senior,” which much to our chagrin, includes us in the 55+ designation. Some of these RV parks are like mini-cities, with 2,000 or more spaces. These communities have their own activity centres (woodwork, sewing, bridge, etc.), sports teams (see pickle ball), on-site medical and aesthetics services, outings, fundraisers (and favourite charities), and even their own newspapers. While some of these parks are rather hoity-toity (no RV’s less than 28 feet, or more than 10-years old, no visible “camping-like” activities allowed – god forbid if you should hang a towel out to dry), others provide a more affordable monthly cost with fewer amenities and/or older facilities. So among the retirement communities, there is a definite socio-economic hierarchy. We stayed in both a very fancy one and a less fancy one on opposite sides of Tucson, and in more family-oriented RV parks in Ajo and Phoenix. Our favourite camping spots remain the National or State Parks. Moreover, several Universities bring in loads of young people, and the Air Force base at Tucson as well as the very large border patrol campus at Ajo means many young families. Several smaller towns that were built on mining have reinvented themselves to serve tourists (e.g., Tombstone), have become artist enclaves (e.g., Bisbee), or are becoming hotbeds for sustainable agriculture and food and social projects (e.g., Ajo).

[L] Behemoth rigs (our van would fit twice into the towed garage)                                                      [R] “park model” permanent  trailer home

Tombstone: Michaela with the good guys, gunfight at the OK Corral,                                Sarsaparilla vendor, gun tricks, 1862 wagon ride

Bisbee:  a vertical town known for its 1000 stairs race, art shops,                                                              Turkey Vulture parade, Brewery Gulch graffiti wall, Bisbee Brewery

Ajo:  street art project samples

4. always sunny, hot, and dry:  there is a local slogan – “Arizona: where summer spends the winter and hell spends the summer.”  Yes, Tucson has 286 days of sunshine/year, however that still leaves 79 days of potential grey. We had a few of those overcast days which were a welcome relief from the almost 2-week heat spell. At NASCAR/Phoenix, we experienced temperatures that were averages for July. We were puzzled as to why some of the regular NASCAR attendees toted along loads of firewood and not puzzled when several elderly people needed medical attention during the races. However, this was an unusual spell. The rest of the time, winter and spring bring very cool nights (even freezing temperatures) and pleasantly warm days that allow for myriad outdoor activities. There is a reason that athletes do their winter training here. Winters are definitely quite dry which is why all signs emphasize the need to carry and drink lots of water, even on cooler days, and especially when active in the outdoors. But summers are monsoon season, which apparently bring stormy skies that are sights to behold. (We’ll have to return in summer sometime…). On the north side of Phoenix is Pleasant Lake and a boater’s paradise, with a marina, boat cruises, kayak and SUP rentals, and water-skiing in summer. Swimming holes do exist and are very popular in summer. We were able to dry camp on our own little point overlooking the lake and marina, replete with saguaros and desert blooms, while still having access to the RV resort’s large swimming pool/hot tub, showers, laundry, and media room–all about 500 metres away. And not being a 55+ resort, the sound of children was a delight!

Ajo bike pano

Cycling opportunities abound

Phoenix International Raceway / NASCAR (left pic shows miles of dry camping)

Pleasant Harbor on Pleasant Lake (Phoenix)

5.  porous US-Mexico border:  according to the political propoganda, one of the first walls to be erected is south of Tucson. We spent a fair bit of time in this area including a 7-mile hike involving a 1500 ft climb to a pass at Coronado National Monument (within 1 mile of the massive fence that marks the US-Mexican border from Nogales all the way to New Mexico). At the top of this hike, having lunch under a ramada taking in both the shade and the expansive views, we had a very interesting conversation with a off-duty border patrol agent. Suffice it to say that his description of his job as generally calm and peaceful stands in stark contrast to Trump and company’s claim of the porous border in this area and the under-resourced border patrol. Camping at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument also involved hiking and biking near the border, at which the National Parks Service educates visitors about potential problems and provides a second patrol service. Also, the Tohono O’odham, with the second largest tribal land, covers most of border area and their people are actively working with the border patrol. If you’ve seen this geography, you might come to believe that anyone who makes it across the border alive deserves to stay.

US-Mexico border fence (middle, with closer photo top left), park visitor information,                                                                               Stuart at the Coronado peak with border overview

Additional explorations included Tucson neighbourhoods, Mission San Xavier del Bac, and the spectacular Arizona-Sonoma Desert Centre.

Tucson:  [left column] Presidio (oldest building), 4th Avenue                                                                                   [middle column] community lake, Arizona State Museum, pottery                                                 [right column] Hopi art, Navajo dolls, Tohono O’odham women sketch

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Arizona-Sonora Desert Centre:  animals, minerals, and plants of the Sonora Desert

As we headed north towards the Grand Canyon and Southern Utah, we were struck with the contrast between northern Arizona and southern. We stopped in the town of Prescott (all things western/rodeo/Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday) and then found snow on the ground around Flagstaff. We boondocked in freezing temperatures just north of Flagstaff in a National Forest. Yes, crazy. And that is why you will read about our adventures north of the Grand Canyon with our next post as we explore the numerous National Parks in south Utah.


As we enter the final leg of our journey, we’ll leave you with some sage words…

advice from cactus

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