Travels : Day Trippin' In Arizona

You don't always have the ability, time, or even desire to go on a major trek - a big adventure that takes major planning and lots of enegy. Sometimes you just want a short getaway - a quickie, so to speak. A place to pull over and enjoy the scenary. Maybe you need to relax and recharge - to clean up and repack before you head out to the backcountry again or continue on your roadtrip. Sometimes you have a companion that does not share your passion for adventure and tolerance for dirt and danger.

Whatever the reason, its nice to know where you can have a pleasant getaway without a lot of effort. Arizona has many places to fit that bill. Here are just three:

These are just a small sampling of the many day trips available in Arizona. I could recommend many more; but this is intended as a teaser, not a comprehensive state travel guide, to give you a taste of the multitude and variety of available quick getaways and encourage you to explore on your own. As any seasoned traveler knows, a large part of the fun is discovering new places on your own. And more often than not, you will end up exactly where you are supposed to be.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

This spot has a lot to offer and I enjoy visiting this lovely little high desert paradise. It is a well developed park, so it is not for those looking for a backcountry wilderness experience. The park is filled with beauty, natural wonders, and interesting history. It is a serene place where you can just relax and take it easy.

The park is about 10 miles north of Payson, AZ and about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix, making it a nice day trip or stop while on a longer excursion. The park has four trails in total. All are relatively short, with the longest being about an hour. There are restroom facilities, picnic areas, a museum, and a visitor center. Note that there are park entrance fees. More information can be found at the park website.

The major attraction is the natural bridge. The Tonto Natural Bridge is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. Travertine a finely crystalline form of dissolved limestone that can take on a variety of colors and sparkles in the sunlight.

The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point. There are several observation points. Some are located at the top of the bridge and the one at the bottom is accessed via a hiking trail that is well worth the efort, although some will find it steep and rough.

With two springs supplying it, there is a plentiful amount of water in the park. A stream flows under the bridge, part of the reason for the bridge's existence, and the park has some beautiful pools and waterfalls. Unfortunately, there is no swimming in the park; but swimming is available downstream, outside the park boundaries.

At an elevation of 4530 feet, the top of the bridge serves as part of the floor of a verdent valley in which an interesting mix of various trees (e.g., oak, alder, juniper, pinyon, sumac, etc.), and succulents and cactus thrive. Homesteaders also planted walnut, apricot, peach, apple, cherry and pear trees - and some specimens are still present. One of the surprising things to me is how you can be on the valley floor and not even realize that you are actually on top of a rock bridge and a stream flows beneath you.

With such lush surroundings and a reliable water source, it is not surprising that there is also an abundance of wildlife - including a wide variety of mammals and birds. Mammals include: Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Coyote, Gray Fox, Black Bear, Elk, and Cottontail. Bird species include: Turkey Vulture, Hawk, Eagle Osprey, Roadrunner, Owl, Woodpecker, Vireo, and Wren.

The park is also rich in human history. Although not as sordid as some areas of the west, the history of the park contains all the familiar elements. For generations, Native Americans used the local caves for homes and cultivated the fertile valley. The valley and the bridge was discovered by the first white man, David Douglas Gowan, in the spring of 1877. His homesteading of the land, its further settlement by his family, and eventual transfer to the state of Arizona is an interesting story detailed on the park website. I have also read some of Gowan's original writings about the area. They are facinating and definitely worth reading.

The beauty of the park has comforted me on many occasions and its lush, cool surroundings been a welcome relief from the heat of the desert - an escape occasionally welcomed by even this old desert rat. While there, I like to imagine what it must have been like to stumble on this amazing wonder. Could Gowan and other Europeans even fathom that such places existed? I try to grapple with what it would be like to have the opportunity to live in such a paradise. The powerful pull to make such a beautiful place your home; while also knowing that your attainment of paradise comes at a high cost to others. Such are the joys - and at the same time the heartaches - that such places offer to us.

The inherent and powerful attractions and conflicts encapsulated in the valley and its story can been seen as a microcosm of much of the history of the entire West. And that has also served as a deep source of self-reflection. Those forces and their conflicts permeate all of the West. They are as powerful and intregral to the West as is the stunning geography and natural wonders. Anyone who travels and loves the West has to somehow reconcile the unpleasant aspects of that history with the fact it is also what enabled you to be there enjoying its wonder  - that your presence there reflects both the good and the bad in what has passed. For in that past and in this present are all those things that you cherish: all that still remains...all that has been lost...and all that we will pass on to the future.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This national monument is a nice example of the Sonoran Desert, offering many of the things us desert rats love: solitude, beauty, an abundance of desert flora and fauna, interesting rocks, and grand vistas. For day trips, the monument has pleasant drives and easy hikes. There are also more strenuous hikes, if you are so inclined. Camping is available if you want to extend your stay, and enjoy the stars or some celestial event - such as an eclipse or meteor shower - in a clear night sky with no urban lights. The official monument website has a lot of information to help you with trip planning. ï»¿

The photo to the above shows just a small sampling of the many specimens of the monument's namesake - the organ pipe cactus. Even though it is the hottest desert region in North America, the Sonoran Desert is tremendously fertile - teeming with both plant and animal life. The contrast with other desert regions can be stark, and the Sonoran supports an ecosystem whose diversity rivals many non-desert climates.

The overall amount and diversity of the ecosystem is often surprising to those not familiar with the Sonoran, and serves as a clear example of the wide variability among different desert regions. Deserts are much more than just a bunch of rocks, sand, cacti, snakes, and scorpions - not to say that isn't enough for us desert rats. Each desert region has its own unique characteristics and ecosystems. Like people, each is an individual - with commonalities and differences. And also like people, each is a mystery to be explored and a wonder to be appreciated. 

Twenty-six different species of cacti call Organ Pipe National Monument home. In addition to the organ pipe cactus, there are some fine examples of my old friends - the saguaros. The photo to the right shows just a few of these majestic giants. They are a site to behold and each saguaro cactus is a little ecosystm unto itself - both supporting and supported by a wide array of other plants and animals.

There are also a variety of animals that live in the monument. The endangered Sonoran Pronghorn - probably the most notable species - migrate through. The monument website has some interesting information on the Pronghorn recovery program. The usual cast of Sonoran Desert characters can also be found. To name just a few: Javalinas, Mountain Lions, Coyotes, Desert Bighorn Sheep, Kangaroo Rats, Bats, Lizards, Scorpions, Snakes and Spiders. An amazing variety of birds can also be seen. Some are permanent residents and others migrate through the region.

And if you are really lucky, the desert may reward you with a stunning sunset. An experience unique to the desert. and that only exists for that day and in that moment. With a massive sky as a canvas, desert sunsets produce colors and depth that are more of a visceral than visual experience.

As dusk approaches, the daytime heat that has been absorbed by the sand and rocks now eminates out and blends with cool breezes coming down canyons that reach far into the mountains. Rich fragrances from desert greenery and flowers fill the air and are carried on the wind. At first it gently tickles your nose; but then becomes a thick, intoxicating mixture that you can taste on your tongue.

And as the temperatures become more accommodating, the world reawakens. All around you are sounds and movements as creatures of all types come out of whatever burrows and shade they used to protect themselves from the daytime heat. The world is transformed and the daily cycle of life continues.

If fortunate enough to experience such a sunset in the desert, you will feel touched by the divine. 

The Spring brings blooms to the desert. The specifics - timing, locations, amount and types of flowers, etc. - vary dramatically, depending on rainfall patterns and temperatures. Check the monument website for flower bloom information and updates.

Although not common, you may see fields and valleys full of poppies and other flowers, as pictured on the right. The flower photographs, as well as that of the sunset, are from the monument photo gallery. Checking out the pictures in the gallery will give you a better sense of the wonders in the monument. 

More likely than large swaths of flowers is that you will see small clusters of blooms or individual flowers that are marvelous in their own right and whose nectar is a strong attraction to both avian and insect pollinators. ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿

The western section of the monument includes a two-wheel drive accessible road called the Puerto Blanco Drive. It is a pleasant five mile road providing the opportunity to see many cacti, and sweeping vistas. The Ajo Mountain Drive in the eastern section of the monument is longer and a little rougher than the Puerto Blanco Drive. It is still officially a two-wheel drive road and generally that is true. After storms, it could be questionable for some vehicles. Use your own judgement; but as always in the desert, be cautious and well-prepared. The Ajo Mountain Drive works its way into the foothills of some craggy mountains where there are interesting rock formations and arches. The arches may not be as grand as some, but they are still picturesque.

It must be noted that the monument is near the international border with Mexico. Because of that, you are likely to be monitored closely, although maybe not overtly, while you are in the region. During each of my visits there, I have been pulled over by the Border Patrol. It has never resulted in a major problem and the agents are always polite and professional; but, it is an inconvenience and its potential should be taken into account as you consider a visit. Also, the access road - Highway 85 - can have heavy traffic. Many of the vehicles are towing boats to the Mexico and/or are RVs. Cautious and defensive driving is advised. But , none of that should scare you away. Organ Pipe Catus National monument is a great place for anyone wanting a desert escape.

Montezuma Well National Monument

I think that Montezuma Well National Monumennt is a gem. It has beauty and history, and seems somewhat incongruent with its surroundings. It may not have as much appeal to some as it does to me. It is not as spectacular as other western parks and destinations. It is a small monument that sits in the Verde Valley, which some perceive as relatively nondescript and unspectacular. To me, the Verde Valley is a verdant paradise in the desert. It is full of trees and other vegetation - hence the Verde, which is Spanish for 'green' - and there are many pleasant surprises tucked away in obscure corners. 

The photographs used in this section are from the Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona (VOAz) website. They are an admirable organization that provides volunteer opportunities for people of all ages to build, repair, and maintain trails, restore wildlife habitat, and protect native flora and fauna in Arizona. You can meet people, spend time in the wilderness, get some exercise, and make the world a little better by improving the environment and creating opportunities for others to enjoy nature and learn about our history. This is a great organization that can use your support and time, and deserves it. So that's my pitch for volunteering. Now back to Montezuma Well.

People frequently combine Montezuma Well with other sites in the Verde Valley area - specifically Montezuma Castle National Monument and/or Tuzigoot National Monument - to make a full day's schedule. Both of those locations are also worthy of a visit. I will leave it up to you as to how much of your time each deserves. I am more of a "take it easy, sit and enjoy" type of tourist than a "pack in as much as possible, and race from one place to another" one. 

Montezuma Well has a mysterious and magical quality that I find engaging, and I can spend hours there. It is a geological wonder - a sinkhole with vents that feed water into it, resulting in the wonderful pool of water we see today. Unfortunately, the Park Service website provides minimal information about Montezuma Well, focusing more on Montezuma Castle. The brochure on Montezuma Well provided on the website is probably the best single source of information on and history of the Well.

Given the available resources and the beauty, it is not surprising that humans made the area home. ï»¿For generations, several different peoples inhabited the area. Eventually, a Sinagua community estimated to total about 200 individuals lived in a hilltop pueblo and cliff dwellings. The largest cliff dwelling at the Well is pictured on the right. Smaller cliff dwellings are scattered around the Well.

The water exits the Well through a 300 foot cave and into an irrigation ditch that was constructed over 1,000 years ago by the Sinagua people, who then used the water to farm the area. During your visit, make certain to go to the backside of the Well and take a stroll along the irigation ditch, pictured on the right. It is an impressive engineering marvel. The temperature drops under the canopy of trees. and with the lush vegetation. The gurgling water and the lush vegeation it supports are ...examples of how water can transform the desert into an oasis - the gurgling is the sound of life. 

As you stroll the monument and absorb the landscape, your imagination may be sparked and you begin to envision some of the scenes from when the Sinaqua occupied this place: the daily chores of small family units working together to cultivate the land; joyous harvest celebrations to express gratitude for the precious crops that sustain them; ceremonies to thank their gods for the gifts that have been provided, including the wisdom to know how to utilize those gifts; and occasionally, travellers pass through, telling tales of other far off lands.  

I come from midwest farming stock and places like Montezuma Well strike me as a western version of what my ancestors' lives were like generations ago. Living hard - but ultimately fulfilling - lives in isolated areas where the daily routines of small communities centered on cultivating the land. Their very existence was dependent on each other, and what they could grow and accomplish together. I do not overly romanticize those lives, as I am very aware of the many hardships and other aspects of it. I also appreciate much that our modern lives provides. But, I also feel that something important is often lost - that we have lost important connections to the land and to each other.

The Montezuma Well village was abandoned in the early 1400s for unknown reasons. Hopi legend - detailed further in the brochure - tells of a people who left the area because life had become too easy, causing them to lose their way and creating a culture of shameless corruption. As in many such tales, the gods took revenge for such degredation with catastrophic calamities and frightening beasts. It is unlikely that we will ever definitively know the complete history and ultimate fate of those that lived here. But it is a story probably as old as humans themselves - one told over and over again in the course of human history and in many places throughout the world. Nothing new, but ever true and engaging - it continues today.

In Summary

Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises Land of contradictions... That is Arizona. ~ Federal Writers Project, Arizona: The Grand Canyon State, 1956

Arizona is full of great places to visit. Many are an easy and short trip from major urban areas or other great places to use as a base while you explore the varied wonders in the state. I have detailed just a small sampling in an attempt to whet your appetite.

Do a little research or just start traveling the backroads. Either way, you will find a vast array of natural beauty and rich history. And you may just find something you never knew you were looking for.