Camping: Alamo Canyon Campground

Organ Pipe Cactus are a type of cactus that grows in the rocky Sonoran desert with many tall stems that grow from one short stump resembling a pipe organ. Their territory falls within the Saguaro’s territory and just like their iconic cousins the Organ Pipe Cactus only grow in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. Out in the remote Arizona desert on the Mexico border is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is one of the best places to explore these plants limited range and just like any remote National Park the best way to explore is by camping. The monument has two campgrounds, a larger one with running water and showers and RV hook ups, and a primitive one with a vault toilet and only four campsites out in a remote part of this already remote area. Naturally I chose the small remote Alamo Canyon Campground over the larger Twin Peaks Campground in my recent visit.

To reach the campground you must drive south on Highway 85, just before you enter the National Monument you will pass a border patrol checkpoint on the north side of the road, once you enter the Monument the campground is located down the unmarked dirt Alamo Canyon Road at mile marker 65.5. The road goes for 3 miles before dead ending at the campground and is suitable for most cars.

While driving down this road late at night I noticed a flashing blue light in the direction of the campground. I thought perhaps it was a police car or park ranger but as I got closer I realized it was a tall 30 foot pole with a large box bolted on. The box had a large red button with simple instruction above: “press if you need help”. This vague button with the combination of signs in the park saying that known smuggling routes exist in the park was a little disconcerting.

We arrived at the campground around 10pm and quickly set up and spent some time watching the stars. Having only seen this area at dark at this point I couldn’t help but feel a little spooked from the tall Saguaro silhouettes and the looming rocky mountain behind us but at the same time it’s hard to feel too spooked with the stars unfolding in the sky.

In the morning the place felt peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed our coffee among the tall cactus before departing. I really liked the Alamo Canyon Campground and will go back as soon as I can! There’s nothing like camping out alone in the desert wilderness!

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Wasson Peak

I visited Saguaro National Park for the first time a few years ago and loved it! I visited the west side of the park (or Tucson Mountain District) for the first time in April this year. Saguaro is unique among the National Parks because of its proximity to a fairly large city. The Park is cut in half by the city of Tucson and each side has its own special features. On the east side (or Rincon Mountain District) the park’s namesake cactus that only grows naturally in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico are older and larger (meaning they are often 100+ years old and can reach astounding heights close to 50 feet tall). In contrast the west side’s Saguaros are younger but more densely populated. The east side also provides the opportunity for backcountry camping along the Tanque Verde Trail in the Rincon Mountains. While the west side doesn’t have backcountry camping it does boast the highest peak in Saguaro National Park, Wasson Peak at 4,687 feet above sea level.

So out of desire for great views and a great hike Erin and I set off in the early afternoon to take on the 7.8 mile hike up to the peak and back with 1,800 feet in elevation gain. Before setting off we decided it would be smart to ask a ranger for the best route since there are many intermingling trails in the park that can take you up to the top. The park ranger said he thought it would be best to hike up the King Canyon Trail and back down via the Gould Mine Trail. He also recommended to go up the wash that runs parallel to the first section of trail because the terrain is a bit easier to traverse and there would be more shade. We thought that all made since so we headed out towards the trailhead excited for our hike! I quickly filled my water bottle up and above the water fountain I noticed a sign warning of “Africanized Killer Bees” in the park. It warned how painful their sting is (though not really deadly) and that if you disturb them they will chase you for up to a quarter mile. I showed Erin and we both agreed that we didn’t want to run into any killer bees.

Finally at the trailhead we started our hike from the King Canyon Trailhead. You can either go straight and up along the old jeep road paved with loose gravel or you can go left and down into the wash that has nice rocky footing and more shade from the Arizona sun. I recommend the former and here is why. We went in the wash just as Mr Ranger Man has suggested and it was all great and dandy. Their were lots of Saguaros to take pictures of along with the blooming ocotillo and lizards galore hopping about.

We hiked for about half a mile and then the trail began gaining elevation via a slight incline but mostly through small cliffs that we climbed up with ease while picturing the waterfalls that form here when large rains fall.

In the next quarter mile we encountered a couple more of these small ledges before coming to the largest one that was a little taller than me. I began climbing up and as I poked my head up above the top my ears were filled with the buzzing of bees and my eyes took in the terrifying sight of a hundred killer bees that had taken up residence right in the middle of our wash. Without much thought I hopped down from the cliff and we started back to take the jeep road. Luckily the bees were busy bees and didn’t pay us much mind but we didn’t want to risk trying to go around the bees since it felt like the permeated the entire airspace above the trail. And so we hiked back 3/4 of a mile cursing that ranger for sending us into the hornets nest.

By the time we returned to the trailhead the sun was right overhead and gave us a typical springtime temp of 90°F with no wind chill. The jeep trail gained elevation much steadier than the wash and we quickly were treated to great views of the desert and mountains behind us and our mountain top destination in front.

Pretty soon we had finished the first mile of trail (not including the wash detour) and were at the first of many crossroads. To the left you could go to the hike-in picnic ground and connect to the Gould Mine trail (where we would later descend) or continue straight and upwards to Wasson Peak.

That is what we did and with most of our elevation gain ahead in the next 2.5 miles. As the trail steepened the view widened and the sun beat down harder on us. In the most strenuous parts of the trail with no shade whatsoever we would use the thin shadows of the Saguaro to hide from the suns insidious rays. (I say “we” but I really mean Erin did that while I poked fun at her even though I knew it was a brilliant plan). Anyways we kept on upwards while the sun shone down and we cherished every time the occasional breeze would blow by to keep us going.

After another 1.5 miles we created a ridge that then gave way to our first views of Tucson and the eastern mountains. The view to the west was great too and we took a moment to take it in. Here we met our second crossroads with a right turn on the Sweetwater trail that goes around Wasson Peak and meets with the northern end of the park and a left turn leading to our summit.

Soon after the left turn we crossed over a fallen Saguaro in the trail that seemed like before its downfall was one of the larger cactus around.

After a horseshoe of a turn in the trail and before the next we spotted a fenced of area to the right and went to investigate! The fence blocked off entrance to a cave where miners once dug for iron. With rusted iron bars obstructing the deep blackness of the cave it made me think two things, one being that I wish we could take advantage of this cave’s shade and secondly that somewhere in that blackness could be the den of a cougar which I shuddered at the thought of and decided to continue on hiking.

After another mile from our last split we reached the third crossroads. A left turn which began descending back to the parking lot and a right going another third of a mile to the top.

The homestretch was upon us and forgetting the heat we rushed to the top and were treated to 360° views of the beautiful Arizonan landscape. There are many reasons why I love the desert and a big reason is it’s lack of obstructions. In our home state of Georgia we are at all times surrounded by forest and even atop our highest mountains the trees cloud the earth below (not to say it isn’t pretty. I love Georgia’s mountains). Out West in the desert though the landscape rolls out and unfolds forever only interrupted by large mountains or the limited sight distance of the human eye. Sadly though no matter how many carrots a human eats their eyes reach a limit and there’s no way around it. There is a way around the mountains though and that is to climb them. From atop a mountain in the desert the earth shows its form and what looked like a hill or a ditch from the bottom becomes a part of a landscape that no man could create that despite being dirt and rock comes alive and fills me with excitement and awe.

Anyways after taking all that in it was time to start back on our 4.3 mile return trip. Back down from the mountain we went and along the rest of the trail the views were great as the sun went from it’s piercing position up above to meet the horizon. After a quick two miles of downward hiking and all around enjoyment of our surroundings we came to our next crossroads with four directions all shooting of in different directions to different corners of the park.

Our turn was left and so we went left to connect to the Gould Mine Trail. The crossroads sat atop a ridge and the trail went down the side and turned back east to cling to the canyons side that led us back to the trailhead. We turned a corner and noticed a deep orangey red dirt ahead that stood out greatly from the tan dirt we were used to. Turning the corner more we saw another fence and larger iron grate that covered a deep mineshaft whose bottom must have been in the earths core. I assume the redness of the dirt was either because the miners accidentally came across some artifact that cursed the land and made it red or because of the iron they were mining.

There was also an old stone miners hut here.

After we passed the mine we came across a lot of old rusted metal from the miners lunch boxes and tools. We passed another mine shortly after that one and kept on down the trail that now took us through the valley’s floor. The sun was setting quickly now and as the changing light gave a golden hue to the desert we were suddenly back at the parking lot after crossing the wash that we had started in so long ago.

With a bit of a drive ahead of us to our next destination we made some coffee and got rolling but not before taking some pictures by the entrance to the park as a classic Saguaro sunset unfolded before our eyes.

This hike is one of my favorites and I’m very glad we hiked up to Wasson Peak and would encourage anyone else that loves a good hike and great views to do this hike as well!

Thanks! – Josh

Camping: Forks Campground, Gila National Forest

The Forks Campground in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest is great for many reasons. The first being that it is free. Who doesn’t love free? It’s location just off of highway 15 makes it the perfect location when visiting the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings. The views aren’t bad either as the campground is next to a very cool canyon formed by the West Fork Gila River. Once the sun goes down and you can’t see down into the canyon anymore then you can look up as the stars come out in the millions. The Gila is one of the darkest places in the contiguous United States so unless there are clouds you’ll be stargazing all night at this campground.

The only downside to the campground is the lack of potable water so be sure to bring enough water for your camping trip! (You can hike down to the river quite easily if you are in dire need of water but be sure to boil it before consuming!)

There are vault toilets that are fairly well maintained by the forest service and a large fire pit in the center of the campground if you want to have a party. I prefer to find a nice secluded site and hang out by the fire though. Whatever you do here though I’m sure it’ll be a great time!

PS. Be sure to check the fire hazards for the national forest. As a native New Mexican, Smokey the Bear wouldn’t be too happy if you started a wildfire in his home state.

Thanks! – Josh

Picture of the Day: Starry Night in the Gila National Forest

I took this picture in early April from my campsite in the Gila National Forest of southwest New Mexico. The stars were beautiful that night and I’m really glad I got a good picture of them to remember! I hope this encourages you to get out and go see some stars for your own! The new moon will be tomorrow night (the 12th) so go find a dark area near you and stargaze a little!

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Gila Cliff Dwellings

Decoy for a Dognapper is an episode of Scooby Doo: Where Are You set in the american west with one of the main locations being a Native American cliff dwelling based on the Gila Cliff Dwellings and the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings. As a kid I loved Scooby Doo and probably watched that episode a million times so you could imagine how excited I was to visit the South Western New Mexican cliff dwellings I had burned in my brain as a kid.

The hike begins from a gravel parking lot where a park ranger warned us of the park’s large pack rat population and to be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. After hearing his small speech we crossed the bridge over the creek that starts the trail off. On the other side of the bridge some old lady told us she had to turn around because the cliffs were too steep (I never felt like it was that dangerous but there is a steep ladder to climb down).

From here the trail turns to a clockwise loop so we took the left fork and headed through the canyon. There are many more bridges that cross the small stream flowing through the canyon.

The canyon opens up and the trail starts gaining elevation and here is where our first view of the cliff dwellings was! There is also a little spot for taking pictures with a good view of the cliff dwellings. There was a big lizard here that we looked at for a minute before continuing.

The trail climbs steeply and make a right turn making you level with and facing the dwellings. The narrow trails took us to the base of the cliff dwellings where another park ranger was answering question and telling everyone to be careful.

Unlike Mesa Verde you can still go into the dwellings in the Gila and I take every chance I take to pretend I’m Scooby Doo infiltrating a dognapper ring so I climbed up the stairs into the cool and dark cave.

The inside was empty and all that was left inside were rocks and dust. It would be fascinating to go back in time and see what the Gila Cliff Dwellings were like during their 20 year inhabitation.

After exploring the dwellings we climbed down a large wooden ladder and down to the cliff side again.

From here the trail took us downwards and around the side of the dwellings where there were many charred trees from a past forest fire. The trail goes down and back to the bridge where it all began.

At just one mile this loop trail is an easy and fun way to explore humanities past in the Gila National Forest. I look forward to my next trip here and would encourage anyone to check out Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument!

Thanks! – Josh

Picture of the Day: White Sands Morning

These pictures were all taken just after waking up from sleeping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument. The morning light on the sand dunes is beautiful and something I could stare at every morning! From even the small ripples created by the wind to the large mountains in the distance, every bit of this area is stunning!

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Dune Life Nature Trail

The Dune Life Nature Trail is located in White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico along the Dunes Drive road. It is one of the first trails you will pass along the road. There are signs along the trail with an informative cartoon fox that talks about how the desert comes alive at night and the various animals and plants living in this environment. These signs are geared towards kids but are still a useful tool for adults to learn about their surroundings.

The hike is a short mile loop through the desert. It begins with a steep climb up a sand dune with loose footing and then takes you through a small area where the trail climbs up and down some dunes, passes some cool dead trees that would make Thomas Cole drool, and through a very grassy area between two dunes. Then the trail walks along the top of a sand dune before returning to the steep sandy hill and back to the parking lot!

This was the first trail I hiked in White Sands and most of what I remember is how beautiful it was! The sand really is white as snow and the dunes roll gracefully into the distance before being interrupted by the high rocky peaks at the other end of the dune field. White Sands is a place that has to be visited and experienced to really understand the beauty there! Pictures just don’t do it justice. I encourage everyone to make the trip down to White Sands National Monument and to spend a day dune sledding, hiking, and taking in the beauty of creation! Just make sure you drink plenty of water because even if it’s a good temp, the sand reflects the sun so it feels like there are two suns hitting you and with no shade you can get dehydrated easily and quickly! So be careful and stay hydrated but have fun!

Thanks! – Josh

Picture of the Day: Moonrise over Albuquerque

I took these pictures from Petroglyph National Monument on back to back nights in late March. I like these pictures not only because they show the beauty of my favorite state, New Mexico but also because it shows how every day has new and different things to experience. The first night my focus was on the mountains and the city but the next night the moon crept above the Sandia Crest four times the size of the previous night and my focus was changed just to try to capture the New Mexico moon. With all that being said I hope this encourages you to get out and explore the nature around you because even if you visit the same place every day there are new experiences to have in nature!

Thanks! – Josh

Sunday Hikes: Lighthouse Trail

For the longest time I have heard of Palo Duro Canyon and about how awesome it is. Sitting just south of Amarillo and I-40 I have driven right by it many times but never stopped to check it out. So on a recent trip out west I made sure to see the United States’ second largest canyon. After reading up on on Palo Duro Canyon (AKA looking at a map on the state park website) I decided to hike to the lighthouse rock as the one hike I wanted to do there.

The trail begins from a dirt parking lot on the canyon floor and begins with a sign warning of the danger of heat exhaustion in the desert.

I wasn’t too worried though because I had plenty of water and it was a cold, overcast, and windy March morning. We started off on the red dirt trail with excitement as this was our first hike after driving 16 hours the day before from Atlanta, Georgia.

The first point of interest along the trail is a hoodoo poking up from the end of a small but steep peak. There is a very weathered sign here that talks about the formation of hoodoos.

The trail travels around the peak and through a couple washes. There are a few benches to rest on scattered across the trail. After following the trail for a little longer we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse rock, a massive hoodoo resembling a lighthouse.

We passed a split in the trail for mountain bikers and after this split the trail turned from hard red dirt to soft sand.

We reached a small area with some picnic tables and a million bikers (well like 10) and saw the trail sharply cut left and steeply upwards towards the lighthouse. We waited as a large group of people made their way down the narrow trail before we began our ascent. This part of the trail has very loose footing so we took our time making it up.

Once we got to the top though we looked up at the massive lighthouse rock and I felt a little surprised having not realized how large it was until being so close.

From here we climbed up on the flat rock area between the lighthouse rock and it’s counterpart rock. We also climbed over to the other side where the best views of the lighthouse are and took a bunch of pictures.

You can climb up to the top of the unnamed rock next to lighthouse rock but we decided not to because it seemed a little too sketchy. After enjoying a good 45 minutes with the lighthouse we started our trek back through the desert. It began to heat up and the blue sky finally came out from behind the gray clouds that had filled the sky until now.

We reached the trailhead that had filled up with cars and made lunch before heading towards New Mexico!

Thanks! – Josh

Picture of the Day: Pronghorn Antelope

The pronghorn antelope is a creature that would fit in perfectly in the African savanna. They are native to North America’s plains and deserts though. I have seen them running across the badlands of New Mexico, playing around the high altitude plains of Wyoming, and grazing in Bryce Canyon National Park.

I spotted this pronghorn while driving through Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. It was hanging out on this hill all alone which is strange since they are typically herding animals. It was exciting to see this animal and made my afternoon in Petrified Forest even better!

Thanks! – Josh