Dawn to Dusk Desert Delights

Desert awakening
Desert awakening

Our day began at dawn as we loaded up the truck to take the 90-mile journey into Tonto National Forest.  It looked to be a glorious day for a road trip.  Our destination was Tonto National Monument, home to the Salado ancient cliff dwellings.

Situated within rugged terrain in the northeastern part of the Sonoran Desert, Tonto National Monument tells the story of the migration of ancient peoples who called this land home and is the setting of two 700-year old cliff dwellings. Recessed into shallow caves, they overlook today what is Roosevelt Lake, but in earlier times was a verdant valley with a river flowing through it.

Roosevelt Lake seen from trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling
Roosevelt Lake seen from trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling

The first Tonto Basin inhabitants (between 100 and 600 AD) support evidence of some of the earliest farming communities.  The river provided fertile ground for many crops until the year 600, when all who had settled here moved on, perhaps due to adverse climate conditions that laid the land barren.  No one was to return for another 150 years.

During ancient times tribes migrated to land that was able to supply most of their meager needs.  Off and on through the 12th century a constant ebb and flow of settlers marked this land.  Periods of drought and flooding caused these huge migrations as farm crops withered or irrigation canals were washed away in the rushing waters, leaving hundreds of acres of useless farmland in their wake.

Lower Cliff Dwelling
Lower Cliff Dwelling

By the early 13th century, thousands once again called the Tonto Basin their home.  New immigrants began seeking refuge in the basin’s upper elevations, perhaps because all the prime Salt River Valley floor was occupied or maybe due to strife between tribes.  The cliff dwellings that remain have provided archeologists many clues to their lives.

The structures that stand today, the Lower and Upper Cliff Dwellings, are two of hundreds that once stood in the thriving Tonto Basin.  The skeletal remains of the rooms within tell a story of people who flourished and struggled  with the changing climates.  Dump sites have unearthed many important artifacts, along with the remains of a few, lovingly buried where they lived.

The first written record of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument date back to 1880.  What the first Europeans who explored this dwelling found was a much larger, well-preserved structure than we see today.  The effects of time, weather, visitation, and vandals have taken their toll, which is why President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in 1907 and declared this site a National Monument.

The Lower Cliff Dwelling, built in 1250 AD, was occupied and maintained for ~100 years and can be viewed as a self-guided tour, a one-half mile paved walk with a 350-foot elevation gain.  At its height it housed 20 rooms.

The Upper Cliff Dwelling, also built in 1250 AD, can be seen only by guided tour. Our Park Ranger tour guide Jan has a passion for preserving this site, and gave an excellent tour.  Our small group took the 3-mile hike (round trip) into the rugged wilderness, up 600 feet, to the cave which once housed 40 rooms within its depths.

We chose the route back over the Apache Trail.  One would think, based on its length (40 miles), that this would be the shortcut, but you would be wrong. Although a part of it is now paved, many miles are rutted dirt road, but passing by some amazing scenery, and the mile-long Fish Creek Hill is not to be missed for some hair-raising fun.  Winding, steep, and narrow, if meeting a vehicle coming the other direction, someone must back up to the nearest turn-out.  This was once a stagecoach trail that ran through the Superstition Mountains, named after the Apache Indians who traveled through this harsh country.

President Theodore Roosevelt had this to say about the Apache Trail in 1911:

“The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the Glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have, to me, it is most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful.”

We arrived back home just as Mother Nature was painting the sky the most delicate shades of coral and lavender, a delightful ending to the day.

Mother Nature's final gift at dusk
Mother Nature’s final gift at dusk

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Desert Hikes and RVing Friends ~ Cave Creek, AZ

dancing saguaro

Soft breeze, deep blue sky

desert delight round the bend

Saguaros dancing!

When I rounded the corner on the Spur Cross Trail, this saguaro, with his arms extended, looked to be dancing.  He didn’t seem to have a dance partner at the time and, given his prickly nature, I wasn’t about to oblige him either.

We have enjoyed a few hikes now while hangin’ out in the burbs north of Phoenix, taking advantage of these warm winter days.  Spur Cross Trail is one of many in what is the newest addition to Maricopa County’s Regional Parks system, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area.  A moderate hike at 5.2 miles; link up Elephant Mountain Trail with this and you have a nice 7.5 mile trek.  We chose to just gaze at Elephant Mountain on this day as I was looking forward to another 7.5  miler the next day with the gals, friend Nina and her most precious pooch Polly.

Hiking destination for the girls’ outing was Pass Mountain Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park.   Terry and I had done this hike last year so there was zero risk of me being found wandering aimlessly in the desert.  I do have quite the reputation for having a pitiful sense of direction, which I will not even attempt to deny. This trail offers sweeping desert vistas, mountain views, and saguaros dotting the landscape, a most enjoyable way for Nina and I to catch up on the adventures we each have had over the past few months.

Meeting other RVers is always an enjoyable part of this lifestyle.  What we didn’t know when we booked our reservation at Cave Creek Regional Park was that we would have the opportunity to meet another nomadic couple and they would be camped right next to us!  Stay tuned for my next post when I introduce you to our new RV friends.

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The Sounds of Silence ~ Cave Creek Regional Park, AZ

Calming beauty of a desert sunrise
Calming beauty of a desert sunrise

We have seen some fabulous country since we began this nomadic RV adventure and many times we find ourselves asking “could we live here”?   The west is where  we feel the greatest pull, from the sandy beaches in So Cal, to the mountains in the Eastern Sierras, to the rugged Oregon coastline, we seemed to fall in love with the land around every turn.

Driving across the deserts of Arizona, looking out over the layers of craggy peaks, spiky cacti and the vast open spaces, I felt a strange pull, oddly comforted, like I had come home.   Having lived in Arizona for 20+ years I wondered, when we leave an area we have loved, does a little piece of our soul remain, to be reconnected with us upon our return?  This is exactly how I felt.  Looking across the great expanse of desert, I felt I could hear the whispers of our native ancestors welcoming me back.  The hawks circling overhead seemed to be guiding us towards our destination, Cave Creek Regional Park.

Me and my shadow on the Go John trail
Me and my shadow on the Go John trail
Spiky ocotillo in her winter wear
Spiky ocotillo in her winter wear
Barrel cactus with its menacing fish-hook needles
Barrel cactus with its menacing fish-hook needles
Stately saguaro, home to the cactus wren
Stately saguaro, home to the cactus wren

I could hardly wait for the next morning’s sunrise, wondering how I would feel as I walked alone in the desert.  Out the door before the break of dawn, complete silence enveloped me, the air punctuated only by the trilling of songbirds and the distinctive sound of the desert quail, which will forever remind me of our home in Sedona. Bunnies merrily chased one another and the stately saguaro, barrel, teddy-bear, and ocotillo cacti seemed to quietly nod their welcome as I passed by.  The scent of desert sage wafted over me as I inhaled deeply. In the early morning splendor of the desert, all manner of creature was awakening for the day.  I walked back to the RV, a deep sense of contentment filling me, as the thought of sunny days hiking deep into the desert mountains filled my thoughts.

A desert awakening at Cave Creek Regional Park
A desert awakening at Cave Creek Regional Park

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A Bird’s-Eye View

Advise from a Hawk:  Soar to new heights/Be a keen observer/Swoop down on opportunities/Rise above it all/Spread your wings/Find a field that suits you/ The sky’s the limit!  ~ (c) Ilan Shamir http://www.yourtruenature.com


We spent the bulk of the day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, founded in 1952, and part of the pristine Sonoran desert in Tucson.  It encompasses 21 acres and is primarily a walking experience, with two miles of paths winding through its boundaries.  It is very unique in that it is part zoo, museum, and botanical garden and is one of the most visited attractions in Tucson.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has garnered a worldwide reputation in the scientific community as a foundation dedicated to research and conservation efforts directed at the land, plants, and the animals of the Sonoran Desert Region.  Their mission is to inspire others to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering an understanding and appreciation of the Sonoran desert. This facility was also the pioneer for the creation of naturalistic enclosures for its animals.

Although the desert this time of year does not have the brilliant color that springtime brings, there has always been something very appealing about the desert for me, and the cooler temperatures are a welcome respite from what is soon to come.  With more than 300 species of animals and 1200 types of plants at the desert museum, you could certainly spend an entire day here and this is the perfect time of year to do so.

This facility is a wonderful haven for birds and there is a fabulous hummingbird exhibit on the grounds, giving visitors the opportunity to walk freely amongst these inquisitive, brilliantly colored little creatures.  Granted, it is difficult to capture these smallest of birds in a photo as they are buzzing you in midflight, but Terry was able to snap a couple of good shots.

We had the opportunity to view a couple of wonderful programs at the desert museum, the most remarkable being the Raptor Free Flight program.  We got an up close bird’s-eye view of a family of Harris’ hawks on a hunt.  The narration was terrific and it was so thrilling to watch this family of four soaring overhead and alighting on saguaro cactus.  How do they do that?  Very carefully, of course! Many times their flight paths took them literally within inches of our heads.  This program showcased how these magnificent hunters  cooperatively work in their native environment and they were successful in the hunt!

Running Wild is another program that has been presented for four years running at the desert museum and one that we were lucky to see.  A screen presentation regarding the history of the park, now in its 60th year, was recounted by curator George Carpenter.  At various times throughout this screening, background music was the cue for live animals to scamper or waddle onto the stage, while the curator described the habits of these animals and the conservation efforts that came into play to develop this Desert Museum.  It was amazing to see a hooded skunk, ringtail, Gambel’s quail, brown pelican, and porcupine sashay on stage and exit on cue.  We learned that it takes several months to train these animals to walk across the stage.

Last, but certainly not least, was the cute and cuddly prairie dog exhibit, always entertaining to watch.

Wait! Don’t take the picture yet! This is my chubby side.

Time for us to move on as it is now siesta time at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  What a great day!

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