Destination: Petrified Forest National Park


Unfortunately for me this isn’t really a hiking sort of park.  There were a couple of short trails but it seemed like one of those places were you drive through, stopping at pull offs to see a few things.  A few minutes there, a couple of pictures here, on to the next.  I read in their guide later that “off the beaten path” hiking is apparently OK in some places, but I had seen so many signs telling me to stay on the paved paths that it just got confusing.  Anyway I never really know what to do in these kinds of places.  Like am I supposed to dive out of the car to examine every single one of the bazillion petrified logs that are laying all over the place?  They’re interesting, but they’re not THAT interesting.


There were some things that I DID find really interesting, like the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and a handful of other pull offs.


The park is arranged as a 28 mile drive between the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center at the north end and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end.  I started at the south end, but either way is fine.


I stayed about 20 miles away in Holbrook.  It’s one of those desert towns with a profusion of Route 66 memorabilia and goofy dinosaur statues.  (I loved it)


Route 66 was replace by I-40 long ago, but once upon a time it ran through where the park is now.  The pavement is gone, but the telephone poles remain, and there’s even a rusting Studebaker to mark the spot.



Gallery: Crescent Moon Recreation Area

Crescent Moon is a small but very pretty recreation area just outside of Sedona, right along Oak Creek.  In hot months it would be good for swimming.

Other people’s trash that I packed out:



Gallery: West Fork Trail (Call of the Canyon)

This is easily one of my favorite hikes.  The trail follows the west fork of Oak Creek for almost three and a half miles as it flows down through the canyon.  The trail is fairly flat, with soaring cliffs on each side as a backdrop to the forest.  All along the trail were signs of flood and fire damage, and even a few patches of snow.  It crosses the creek 13 times, including several that require wading through ankle deep (and ICE COLD) water.  The first ford turned back at least two large, obnoxious groups of hikers, so I wasn’t too broken up about having to get my feet wet. >:D




Other people’s trash that I packed out:



Destination: Out of Africa Wildlife Park


Out of Africa is a different experience from most of the zoos I’ve been to. General admission is $30 and includes all of the different shows.  For an extra charge they also offer small-group safari tours on unimog trucks ($20) and a zipline tour ($90) over the animal pens.


The first thing I did was the 10 o’clock safari tour through the Serengeti section of the park.  Getting on the bus our guide handed us each a stick of celery. We didn’t keep our celery for very long because Kivo the giraffe was waiting at the gate to take them from us. If you’ve never gotten a sloppy kiss from a giraffe, this is your chance. Stick that celery in your mouth and let Kivo slobber all over your face when he reaches for it with his 18-inch tongue (I declined this particular opportunity and held my celery in my hand like a normal person). The guide also had a bucket of treats for the other animals so there were zebras, an ostrich, highly endangered addax antelope, and others coming right up to the bus. We even got to see a tiny, week-old baby zebra.


After the safari bus I took a tram up to the main part of the zoo.  The tram circles the whole thing, stopping at a few different places before heading back to the gate every twenty minutes, so you don’t really have to walk farther than you want to.  This section is where you’ll find the large predators and smaller animals that can’t be in the safari pen.  There’s a reptile house & yard, a prairie dog habitat, a marmoset garden (which was empty the day I visited – boo, I love marmosets 😦 ) and several species of big cats.  The shows are held near tram stop #2, mostly at the Critter Court.  Go here for giant snakes and the Creature Feature, where you can pet whichever animals they bring out that day.  The day I was there the show featured a black & white tegu, an green & yellow hybrid anaconda, and a Patagonian cavy, which was about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.  Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they have the predator feed, where you basically walk along with the keepers while they throw big chunks of raw meat over the fences.  Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they do the Wonders of Wildlife Show in the splash arena.


My favorite thing about Out of Africa was the Tiger Splash show.  Supposedly they are one of only two zoos in the world to do this (the other being Australia Zoo in Beerwah, Queensland).  There’s no training or schedule involved; basically, they let one of their full-grown tigers into a large pen with several zoo employees and they just play for half an hour.  The toys were mostly trash bags & shredded inflatable pool toys stuffed full of balloons.  That day’s tiger, a 340-pound white one named Chalet, had all of her claws so every time she tackled one of her toys all the balloons would pop.  The splash part of the show came into play when they held the toys out over the small pool in the middle of the pen, sending Chalet flying through the air and into the water.  I was surprised how similar the games were to ones you’d play with a house cat.  At one point an employee pulled out a long rope with a large ring on the end of it and started running around the pool trailing it.  His goal was to make it around two or three times, he almost made it before Chalet caught the ring, and that was it for him.  She didn’t budge during the tug-of-war that followed, even with two guys pulling on the rope and a woman trying to push her forward.  Chalet was very good-natured and the employees weren’t afraid of her at all, playfully pulling her tail and messing with her.  After the show everyone had the opportunity to go up and feed her ($5) through the fence with tongs.


Given the zoo’s emphasis on tigers & lions, it was funny that the very first animal I saw was a housecat. 🙂


Destination: Phoenix Zoo


Arriving at the zoo just after opening, I expected to spend a few hours, maybe get lunch and go to the botanical garden next door.  I ended up not leaving until closing time.  General Admission is $20, but I went with the $28 Value Ticket which includes the safari train ($5), stingray bay ($3), and 4D theater ($5).  The $36 Total Experience also gets you onto the carousel ($3) and a camel ride ($6).  Any of the added experiences can also be paid for separately.


The zoo is arranged with a savanna/desert section on one side and a tropical section on the other.  Going straight in from the entrance brings you to the African savanna exhibit, which contains several species all mingling together.  One of the giraffes seemed to have a crush on a common eland, he was following her around the whole time I watched them, while she smacked his legs with her horns.  From there you can turn left to continue with the savanna or right to head for the tropics.



The desert section has an exhibit of Arabian oryx and large display on the zoo’s efforts to rescue them from extinction.  Oryx are beautiful animals that were hunted down to just 10 individuals.  The Phoenix Zoo’s breeding program has been successful enough to release 300 animals back into the wild, in a sanctuary in Oman.  For some reason they keep the Sumatran tiger over here as well, but they’re building him a big new exhibit in the tropical section.  There are other big cats, a massive rhino, monkeys, a giraffe feeding station ($5), and plenty of other African animals.



Just off the main trail is the Arizona Trail, with displays of animals native to the area.  In the aviary I noticed a vulture sitting in a tree right above the prairie dogs.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was contemplating eating one of them.  The Arizona section had more than it’s share of reptiles and nasty bugs.  There’s only so many sleeping lizards and coiled up snakes I can look at so I didn’t spend a lot of time in those buildings.  I always feel bad for them because they’re usually in such tiny boxes.  You’d think even a tarantula would notice that it really doesn’t have anywhere to go.



The centerpiece of the tropical section is a large lake with three islands where the lemurs and gibbons live, along with a menagerie of birds.  No doubt some were captive, but quite a few were obviously wild.  I saw one woman sit down with a bag of popcorn and immediately had two Canada geese trying to get it away from her.  On the Forest of Uco, the South American section, I watched an Andean bear trying to get comfortable on an extremely uncomfortable looking tree.  He had a nice hammock and plenty of other places to sleep, I have no idea why he wanted to be on that branch.  This was also the section with the most stunningly beautiful birds.  Parrots, flamingos, toucans, hornbills, numerous colorful doves, all just steps apart.  I stodd for a while watching the two juvenile orangutans play in their large habitat.  One of them kept running around with a sheet over his head, falling off of walls while bothering his friend.  The other half of the habitat holds the adult orangs and their 4-month-old baby.  He stayed at the top of a tower hidden by his mother, but the male one came down and sat by the window picking his nose.



One the other side of a second small lake is the Children’s Trail, but don’t be fooled, it’s not just for kids.  This is where they keep emus, bald eagles, more monkeys, and a couple kinds of smaller cats.  There’s also seasonal pedal boats to rent ($10) and a petting zoo (free) neither of which I personally checked out.

They had two movies going in the 4D theater, a documentary about grizzly bears and a shortened version of Ice Age 3, which is the one I went to.  They run every half hour so it’s easy to catch one of them and they aren’t very long.  You can go to both, the package tickets only include one so you’d have to pay for the other.  I had never heard of anything referred to as a 4D theater before, turns out it’s a 3D movie with seats that vibrate, water that sprays in your face,  snow that blows out of the ceiling, and a thing that pokes you really hard in the back, which I didn’t like one bit and spent the rest of the movie dreading that it would happen again.  It might be a little scary for young children – I was surprisingly terrified the first time a huge carnivore showed up and my seat vibrated along with its footsteps, and one little boy started flipping out when a dinosaur sneezed and water sprayed in his face.

The safari “train” was a bit of a disappointment in that it was really an airport tug pulling several trailers with benches on the same road I had already walked, but it was still a fun break and very informative.  Our guide seemed to know everything there was to know about the animals, their ages, names, when they arrived at the zoo, I was impressed but really she could have been making it all up and we’d never know the difference.  Still, kudos to her.  The kid in the back of our car kept asking his grandma if I was a “real cowgirl” because of the hat that I was wearing.  Fortunately they never asked me because I couldn’t think of a single witty response except to tell them it wasn’t really a cowboy hat, but that probably wouldn’t have gone over well because I don’t actually know what the style is called.

I’m not sure I’ve ever passed up an opportunity to pet a stingray.  Their skin feels so cool, I can’t get over it.  According to the stingray bay workers the rays actually enjoy getting petted and will headbutt your hands and slow down in front of you to get attention.  I found out as I was leaving stingray bay that they like to have the middle of their backs petted rather than their wings, which probably explains why so many of them seemed to hate and avoid me.  At least they weren’t splashing me, one guy got completely soaked, I guess they do it when something touches their tail and freaks them out.  At some times of day you can feed them ($2).

My favorite part was the monkey village.  There are several large aviaries scattered throughout the zoo where you can walk freely with various birds, but in the monkey village you share the enclosure with common squirrel monkeys.  You can’t interact with the monkeys at all but they’re an active species and it’s so much fun watching them without a fence to block the view.  Apparently it’s the only walk-through monkey exhibit in the country, but seriously they should do this everywhere.  Being surrounded by adorable yellow monkeys while they scamper around is the best thing ever.



By the time I left my pedometer said I had walked a hair over four miles, and I was way too exhausted to go to the botanical garden.  I had no desire to do that at all anyway because the lakes, creeks, flowers, and birds singing everywhere make the zoo so beautiful it’s basically a huge garden with animals.



Destination: Tucson


Saguaro National Park

The park is split into two sections, one on each side of the city.  Both are fairly easily accessible from I-10, although they’re not right near the interstate. The Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side is so beautiful & pristine that I kept forgetting I wasn’t in a botanical garden.  It has an 8-mile loop that’s drivable and plenty of trails for those who want to explore on foot.  I enjoyed the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that leaves from the Javelina Picnic Area.  It goes way up into the mountains, although I didn’t take it all that far.  At one point I came across a box where they wanted me to register my presence there, so I filled out my name and then realized they wanted to know what time I left and what time I came back.  I was so afraid that I’d forget to write down when I came back by and they’d be all in a tizzy thinking I went up in there and died or something that I filled in a time I thought I might come back and rendered the whole thing moot.


The Tuscon Mountain District on the western side borders county-run Tuscon Mountain Park.  The landscape here is totally different, with more rolling mountains and interesting rock formations.  There are miles of trails and roads, however a large stretch of Golden Gate Road is not well maintained and requires a high clearance vehicle.  A 1/4 mile trail at the signal hill picnic area leads up to series of ancient Hohokam petroglyphs on the rocks.  I always think ancient artwork is so interesting, even if nobody has any idea what it means.  It looked to me to be mostly authentic, although there were a couple bits that I thought had been carved more recently by vandals.  I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do that.  “Bob loves Jill 2002!”  Guess what?  Nobody cares.


Of course its namesake saguaro cacti are all over both halves of the park, along with tons of other cool looking plants.  I have to wonder how anybody ever made it through these places before there were roads given that everything seems to have giant murderous thorns.

A Journey

Highways 82 & 83 run through the desert from Vail to Nogales, passing many ranches and a couple of small towns along the way.  Just don’t make a wrong turn at the end & accidentally end up in Mexico.  There are a lot of dirt side roads leading off to various things, including probably some ghost towns, but be careful: signs at the turn offs warn of drug smuggling.  Tuscon is just back up I-19, including a trip through a border patrol checkpoint complete with drug dogs so don’t have anything illegal in the car.  The vast majority of the road signs all the way back to Tuscon express distances in kilometers, so it’s a little harder to keep track of locations.

On the way back to Tuscon I-19 passes right by the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, a decommissioned Cold War era nuclear missile silo that still houses its Titan II rocket.  They offer 1-hour tours ($9.50) through the command center, including discussions of the crew’s daily life, a simulated launch, and a look at the rocket itself.  Other types of tours are also available a few times a month, check their website for details.  I went on the basic tour and found it very interesting.  Our guide, Ed, was very knowledgeable.  He showed us the technology involved in running the place, the various security procedures and steps involved in crew changes, and walked us through the launch sequence.  Given that the base operated from 1963 to 1982 their tech seems downright ancient now, and I’m always fascinated by the way complex things operated in a time before computers ran it all.  Punch tape targeting systems, thumb wheel code entry, no electronic screens anywhere, it’s completely nuts.  The other weird thing is that the whole place is set on shock absorbers.  Everywhere you look there’s huge springs on the walls and along the walkways.  Ed said one time they got a bunch of people to push on one wall of the command center and they actually got the room to move.



Destination: Tombstone

A stagecoach in the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is an interesting place.  An old mining town like the bazillion others in the Southwest, but this one is famous for the characters that once resided there and the crazy antics they got up to.  Various Earp brothers, the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theater, cowboys, outlaws, the place is chock full of history.

The day I was there the main roads were all closed to cars, I don’t know if they keep them like that all the time or only on weekends or what, but there’s lots of free parking within a couple of blocks so it’s easily walkable.

The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park ($5) does a great job presenting the town.  It’s a big place with lots of artifacts, photos, and information.  There’s a whole section on the debate over what happened during the O.K. Corral shootout.  Apparently it’s quite a thing.

One of the most famous buildings in town is the Bird Cage Theater ($10), so named because it held so many “soiled doves”.  It’s the only original building left on Allen Street, the others having been rebuilt after burning to the ground in various fires over the years.  I’d seen it on ghost hunting shows and it really is a neat place.  Everything is original and exactly as it was left in 1889: the wallpaper, the curtain on the stage, the bullet holes below it from a drunk cowboy who wasn’t happy with the show, the gaming tables in the basement, and the private rooms where the prostitutes plied their trade.


The nearby Boothill Cemetery (free) holds a lot of the famous characters from Tombstone, and a lot of goofy grave markers.  As I understood it only a few of these are original, but the recreations are historically accurate.  Some of them really give you an idea of the social order of the era, like the one that just says “Two Chinese”.  Many of the graves are simply marked “Unknown”.

Tombstone is easily reached by taking I-10 from Tuscon to Benson and then Highway 80 south to town.  For a side trip on the way back, take Highway 82 through San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and stop at the ghost town of Fairbank. There’s not a lot there, a few tumbledown buildings, the train station, and the schoolhouse which now houses a nice museum (free) and gift shop.  The Fairbank cemetery is located on a hilltop about a half mile down a side trail.  Continue on 82 and I-10 is just a short drive back up Highway 90.

I actually camped a half hour away at the Benson KOA where I woke up to some new friends:


And that’s the end of the good things about the Benson KOA.  Two nights I was there and the showers never got warmer than slightly above frigid.  There’s a million places to stay around there though, including several right in the town of Tombstone.

Destination: Oak Creek Canyon


Climbing up from Sedona to Flagstaff, Highway 89A winds along Oak Creek, passing waterfalls, quaint lodges, and beautiful picnic spots.  Surrounded by forest, it’s easy to forget that there’s a desert just a few miles back down the road.  The several picnic areas along the way all require a parking pass, the Red Rock pass works for most of them and can be purchased as daily, weekly, or annual.  Aside from Slide Rock State Park, it’s all run by the U.S. Forest Service so a National Parks pass also works.  If you really want to immerse yourself there’s four campgrounds in the canyon.

Call of the Canyon (West Fork Trail)

That being said, none of the Red Rock or Federal Lands passes work at this spot like they do all the other picnic and hiking areas, so forking over $10 to park here is mandatory.  If you’re looking for a day trip the trail meanders about three and a half miles through the West Fork canyon; I didn’t go all that far but still managed to spend over an hour just taking pictures and drinking it all in.

Mayhew Lodge

On the West Fork Trail, Mayhew Lodge began as a small cabin on the banks of Oak Creek, became the set of a movie and then grew into the vacation destination of presidents and film stars.  The lodge was purchased by the forest service in 1968 and burned to the ground in 1980.  The remaining stone walls and foundations are now being overtaken by trees and ivy, looking like some kind of secret garden.  A more intact chicken coop and a cave used for food storage are located right on the other side of the trail.

Banjo Bill

This was the only other picnic spot I stopped at.  No idea why it’s called Banjo Bill.  It’s a beautiful spot with a waterfall pouring right over the driveway of a lodge up the hill.  I love the rocks along here.  They have the most incredible textures, and this time of year there’s colorful leaves laying all over them.  A lot of the trees have grown the rocks right into their roots.

Destination: Superstition Mountains


The area around the Superstitions is rife with ruins, ghost towns, abandoned mines, yipping coyotes, and legendary figures.  Classic movies were filmed, canvas tent mining camps rose and fell, American Indians built and abandoned cliff side settlements, and stage coach stops still operate.   The history of this place is immense; in four days I feel like I only scratched the surface.

The Legends

There are many stories about how they got their name; most seem to revolve around the local American Indian tribes, who claimed that many strange things happened up beyond those stone faces.  My favorite theory is that the wind blowing through the wild crags makes wailing sounds that put people in mind of spirits and monsters.  Supposedly there’s an unbelievable vein of gold running through the Superstitions.  Jacob Waltz claimed to have found it, but on his deathbed 115 years ago could only give a series of cryptic clues as to its location.  People have been trying to rediscover the Lost Dutchman Mine and its treasures ever since.  Of course there’s no way to know how true the stories are, but it’s a part of the Southwestern lore nonetheless.


The Place

Located just about 45 minutes east of Phoenix, the cliffs on the southwestern edge of the range rise suddenly out of the desert floor, jumping up hundreds of feet into spires and canyons that could inspire a million stories.  Lost Dutchman State Park, just outside the suburb of Apache Junction, isn’t much on its own but makes a great jumping off point.  The campground and picnic areas are very nice and many trails lead directly into the mountains.

I hiked a little over a mile up Siphon Draw Trail into its namesake canyon that cuts into the center of the range, which offered great opportunities to shoot some mid-day infrared photos.  Much as I would’ve preferred to hike in the cooler morning or evening hours, IR demands bright sunlight.  The trail went a lot farther and connected to other ones criss-crossing the wilderness area but my goal was to get up into the canyon and once I did that I was content to go back.  Besides, by then I was hungry.

A Journey

Highway 88, the historic Apache Trail, loops up along the reservoirs of the Salt River to Roosevelt, where it meets 188 and then 60, which comes back around to Apache Junction.  On the way it passes many towns and historic sites as it weaves through the mountains.  Altogether it covers about 125 miles and makes for a very nice day excursion through the desert.  Between Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt (about 22 miles), Highway 88 is dirt, but it’s well maintained.  Aside from some washboarding it was fine, with very few ruts or rocks.  Only the very lowest vehicles would have a problem with it.

The Superstition Mountain Museum consists of an indoor exhibit hall ($5) as well as several buildings outside, including the barn and chapel from the Apacheland movie set.  The rest of the set burned down years ago, but those were saved and eventually moved to the grounds of the museum.  Elvis Presley himself once sang gospel songs in the chapel during breaks in the filming of Charro!, the only movie of his in which he did not sing.

Goldfield Ghost Town straddles the border between historic and downright silly.  Rebuilt with antique lumber after the original town burned down, it now consists of gift shops, ice cream parlors, and semi-authentic tours.  The historical society museum ($1) does a good job of presenting the area and people who made it what it was.  The train and mine tours ($8 each) were interesting although not especially long or realistic and they gave some conflicting information.  There was also a bordello tour ($3) that made a point of letting potential customers know it was “child friendly”.

Tortilla Flats is a one-time stage coach stop that’s still in operation as a restaurant and gift shop out in the middle of nowhere.  Highway 88 meets 188 at the Roosevelt Dam, the largest masonry dam in the world, made of blocks carved right out of the canyon, although the newer concrete facing covers the original stonework.

Tonto National Monument ($3), overlooking Roosevelt Lake, is a small cliff-side settlement long abandoned by its original builders for reasons unknown to us today.  The lower ruins are readily accessible, although a visit requires a 1/3 of a mile hike up a steep trail.  The upper ruins can only be visited on occasional ranger-led tours (reservations required), visit the park service website for dates and information.  Unlike other ruins I’ve been to, most of the rooms at Tonto are actually open for visitors to walk through.  They’re so well protected that textures and fingerprints are still visible in the walls.  They also contain surprisingly little graffiti, although unfortunately a few people have managed to get away with it over the years.

Fall asleep listening to coyotes howling, and try not have Stevie Wonder singing Superstition in your head the whole time.


Hippies & Ancient Ruins

Destination: Jerome, Arizona

There aren’t very many towns that do a decent job of straddling the line between touristy & genuine, but Jerome, Arizona is one of them with lots of hippie artists & plenty of unique shops displaying their wares.  They call themselves the biggest ghost town in the country; I’d call it the most heavily populated ghost town in the country, but whatever.

Not far away down the mountain in Camp Verde in Montezuma Castle, a set of Sinagua ruins built into a natural opening in the side of a cliff overlooking Beaver Creek.  Unfortunately the ruins themselves are closed off to visitors and can only be viewed from below, but it’s a beautiful walk along the cliff base with some nice interpretive panels discussing the history of the area & the people who lived there. 2014.11.03.023