A South-west Arizona Walkabout
I am standing in the checkout line at the supermarket.
You know that awkward moment. My orange juice, bananas, beer, and granola bars are on the counter. I have my debit card ready, and then I see it.
Not People, or Newsweek, or National Enquirer, but THE Arizona Highways Magazine. It is still in print, and it has been years since I read an issue.
Arizona Highways has published beautiful outdoor photography for over fifty years. I remember working in the Crafton Hills College Library checking in and filing periodicals. I would scoop up Arizona Highways for my dinner break, and while my Marie Calendar’s chicken pot pie was warming in the microwave, I would pour through the colorful and poetic landscapes of Arizona. Sweeping horizons, bright pink flowers, surreal sunsets, otherworldly rock formations, big skies, and even bigger adventures awaited in the vast open scenery of Arizona.
As a photographer, Arizona Highways was always the gold standard. It was the kind of thing that was at the top of your introduction list. “I would like to intorduce a wonderful photographer who has been published in National Geographic, Popular Photography, Outdoor Photographer, Shutterbug, Click, and Arizona Highways… She is not only an amazing photographer, but also a fascinating person…” and in my fantasy it is all about me and my photographs.
Alas, I have no credits to my name. Just my Big Dream and this blog. So, I am declaring this is my Arizona Highways Moment.
This trip was my desert wildlands walkabout week through the south-west corner of Arizona. My wild west wandering partner and I started in Catalina State Park north of Tucson, south to the Mexican border, across to Organ Pipe National Park, and returned north again on our way home.
I have been to Arizona, but this trip I was able to visit several diverse desert ecosystems that I have not seen before. We were roaming the wild western landscape.
First Stop - Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Romero Canyon Trail
It is hard to believe that this quiet natural desert reserve on the western slope of the Catalina Mountains is across the street from the Oro Valley Marketplace that includes an Olive Garden, a Walmart Supercenter, and movie theater complex.
We hiked the Romero Canyon trail. Surprisingly, the nearby development around the park is not visible from the trail system or the campground. The campsites are designed for motorhomes of all sizes, but they are also comfortable for tent camping.
Catalina State Park is very busy In the winter and we were fortunate to get a reservation. It is one of our favorite desert campgrounds because it is so easy to get to services and wild places. We were only able to get a site for a few days, but next time we will be making reservations well in advance.
Learn more about Catalina State Park at https://azstateparks.com/reserve/catalina/camping/
Sabino Canyon, Coronado NF, Telephone Line Hike
On the other side of the Catalina Mountains is Sabino Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. I had read about the tram and hikes in the canyon in VIA magazine, and I wanted to give it a try. For $10 you can ride the tram and either get off and hike, or enjoy the ride up and down. We took a one-way trip to the last stop at the top of the canyon, and we walked the Telephone Line trail back to the visitor center.
The hike was quiet. I like communing with native vegetation up close and personal. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all integral parts of the thriving ecosystem.
Whispy clouds and a dusting of snow reminded us that it was winter in the desert. This time of year, there are no flowers here. Yet, it is still beautiful. The cottonwoods, willows and many of the shrub species were without their leaves which allows open un-interrupted views of the surrounding canyon.
Very few people were on the trail and have been no vehicles allowed in the canyon since 1978. Tuscon is still sprawling with urban development into new areas! It was good to see a portion of the desert ecosystem separated from the pressures of the local population explosion.
Learn more about Sabino Canyon at
Patagonia Lake State Park, Bird Walk Trail
Patagonia Lake State Park is a man-made lake surrounded by rolling hills, mesquite trees, and grasslands. Portions are now owned by the Nature Conservancy. It has a long history as part of the railroad system associated with the led, copper, zinc and molybdenum mines in the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains.
Judging by the number of campsites, parking sites, boat parking sites, and picnic tables, we were not there in high season. Despite being a constructed environment, this area is still an important wildlife migration area.
I like finding a central base location to park our trailer then take day-trips out to see near-by areas. The willow and cottonwood trees were just starting to leaf out hinting at spring. It makes for an interesting landscape because you can see the structure of the trees and see through them to the surrounding areas. Some places are still too brown to enjoy. But if you are looking for birds, it is much easier to find them without the leaves on the trees.
Learn more about Patagoina State Park at https://azstateparks.com/reserve/patagonia-lake/camping/
Paten Bird Preserve
From their website:
Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build.
It is a lovely place to stop and sit on a bench and wait for the emerald flashes of Anna's hummingbird. On our visit, it was rather quiet. It didn't help that it was mid-afternoon and it was a very dry winter. Not many birds have migrated north from Mexico.
We spoke in hushed voices as we took our place to sit and wait. If you are patient, this is a great place to photograph hummingbirds and butterflies.
But, I am not a patient photographer.
Learn more about the Paton Hummingbird Center at http://tucsonaudubon.org/go-birding/tucson-audubons-paton-center-for-hummingbirds/
San Pedro River National Riparian Area
Migrating wildlife do not recognize the Mexican border, but they do know a good travel corridor when traversing north to south, then reverse with the seasons.
We weren't migrating, but we did take a day trip to the San Pedro River National Riparinarian Area. This unusual area has running water all year and hasn't been sucked dry by ranches and agriculture. At least not yet. It is in danger of going dry.
Walking under the ancient cottonwood trees I can trace the various historical river flow areas. High water marks, eroded side banks, and old channels are braided with the trail and the river.
The riparian area is narrow and the length is impressive. It demonstrates the value of water in Arizona. I walked only a short distance and I could recognize habitat for migrating birds, coyote, deer, elk, and the other wildlife that annually make the trek up and down the river with the seasons.
But that day it was quiet. We saw few birds and no wildlife. It wasn't hard to imagine that climate change could bring Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" to this corridor.
Learn more about the San Pedro River National Riparian Area at https://www.blm.gov/visit/san-pedro
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Area
I wanted to see just how big Southwest Arizona could feel, and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Area took me way out to the Wild Wild West.
This is cattle country. Grasslands, big skies and plenty of open space. The kind of landscape seen in a late night cowboy movie. The kind of habitat that is harsh to the visitor and vulnerable. The type of habitat that kills people trying to enter the country on foot; inhabited regions are few and far between.
The area is accessed by driving on a dirt road or riding on a horse. The grass was dry, and the mesquite was without leaves.
This wasn't a movie. This was the real McCoy. All I was missing was a horse and a set of spurs.
Learn more about the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Area at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/buenos_aires/
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Visiting the Organ Pipe National Monument really brought out my inner Botanist. I didn't have a plant list, and the wildflowers weren't in bloom, but I could have spent days identifying desert flora! The diversity of life was apparent even in the winter. This is the top end of the natural range for organ pipe cactus and I can only guess that there are many more species where this is their only habitat in the United States.
The Monument has a 3 hour Puerto Blanco Drive tour consisting of 37 miles well groomed dirt and gravel road. On the southern end, it parallels the border for the last one-third of the drive. Some sections are one-way for the public, but we encountered Border Patrol Agents driving the opposite direction. In this National Monument there is no need to build a wall. Just gather up all the agents and have them stand and hold hands along the wall, and that will prevent anyone or anything from crossing.
I would like to return sometime to hike more of this desert landscape. Alas, we only had one day. I will dream of one day returning when it becomes a National Park and the border patrol will be less of an issue.
Learn more about the Organ Pipe National Monument at https://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm
I think that Ajo, Arizona is an undiscovered gem. This remote desert community is making the best of a messy situation. It gave me second thoughts about living next to an abandoned silver mine.
Looking at the town using Google Maps, the mine is a huge eye in the middle of the desert. An alarming view from above and unavoidable from the ground. The mine isn't operational, but it also isn't closed. They are doing just enough to avoid rehabilitation of the area.
We decided to take a break from camping for a little luxury at an airbnb. Cute as a bug's ear, this rental is destined to be a snowbirds annual winter retreat.
I would return to Ajo for the culture and I hope the best for their future.
Learn more about Ajo at: http://www.ajochamber.com
Arizona is still wild with unspoiled open spaces and Arizona Highways is still a beautiful magazine. One of their regular features is “Fifty Years Ago” where they recall something from their archives.
I was surprised that there were no ads in the magazine, and they are still published monthly. The lack of commercialization is thanks to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Because of this, or despite this, it is still an impressive outdoor photographic magazine.
I love you Arizona Highways.
Learn more about Arizona Highways at: https://www.arizonahighways.com
Maybe, one day I’ll be a good enough to be published in Arizona Highways.
I have plenty of trips to travel, photos to take, adventures to write, and things to publish. I guess Arizona Highways will just have to wait. Right now, I’m busy traveling and writing for Whelan on Walkabout.
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