Mojave Desert National Preserve

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground
Nights: 5
Hikes: 2
Desert Hare sightings: too many to count

In an effort to get caught up, I’m doing a short post on our time here, but that in no way reflects how much we liked Mojave. Again we are finding that some of our favorite places are not the “official” national parks, but other national lands like this national preserve. Wondering what the difference is? Apparently everyone does, because they printed it in the brochure. The only difference between a national park and a preserve is that a preserve allows hunting. Luckily for us it wasn’t hunting season, but the park was busy with a steady stream of folks arriving each evening. With many organized groups of students I figured it must be spring break. Still the campground was never full and with the well spaced sites in the upper loops, we had plenty of space for ourselves.

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Our site at the base of Barber Peak.
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Watching wildlife.

This is another spot where we spent much of our time sitting outside enjoying the sunny views and watching the wildlife. We saw desert hares bounding through the campground at all times of the day. In the morning the Antelope ground squirrels were chasing each other up trees and onto rocks, perhaps it’s mating season. There were also plenty of lizards scurrying over rocks and under bushes.

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Can you see the desert hare?

We hiked an awesome trail right from the campground. The Barber Peak Loop is 6 miles of varied views with a surprise at the end. We started at the north end of the campground heading counter-clockwise around Barber Peak, which I’d recommend. You quickly hit some interesting rock formations, then have a long, dry stint along a wash in the desert scrub.

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Around the back side you enter a valley with pinyon trees and then climb a hill to a rocky cactus garden.

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Heading back down you pass through another wash before heading into the eerie, holey rock walls of Banshee Canyon.

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To get out, you make your way between the rock walls and climb two sets of rings. This rock climbing stuff is getting fun!

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A long drive (13 miles of which were on on a rugged dirt road) brought us to the Kelso Depot Visitor’s Center. Housed in the original train depot for the area, we learned how steam-driven trains stopped here to get water and helper engines for the steep grade ahead. Later Route 66 also passed along here. We opted to take the longer paved route back. I was glad we had driven the dirt road though because our GPS wanted to route us that way when we left. Even though the ranger said the road was fine for trailers, we discovered many spots that were narrow, soft, or had deep ruts and decided against it.

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Kelso Depot
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Trains stopped for only 20 minutes so service at the lunch counter had to be quick. It’s now the gift shop.

The next day I decided I liked the rings so much I had to climb them again. This time I was by myself while Chuck let his ankle recouperate from our first hike. Opting for a shorter loop, I started from the left of the visitor’s center on the Rings Loop trail.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center

This mostly flat trail skirts a large rocky hill east of Banshee Canyon. I was surprised to find an area of petroglyphs and enjoyed the cactus on the rocky hillside before heading into Banshee Canyon again.

It was just as mysterious this time through and the rings were fun too.

Coming out by the picnic area I followed the Barber Peak Loop along the base of the hill above the campground and found another wonderful cactus garden among the rocks.

 

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This mutated barrel cactus was a surprising find. It reminded me of the crested saguaros we saw in Arizona.

All that hiking earned me a treat. After a couple of disappointing forays with the GoSun Solar Oven (one in which I put too much batter in the muffin cups so they got stuck all over the inside of the tube when they rose—cleaning that tube was not fun!), I made some awesome fudgy brownies! Served with ice cream they reminded me of the brownie sundae we used to get at the Bonefish Grill.

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Fudgy Flourless Brownies
6 servings

3 T coconut oil
3 oz. chocolate chips
1/3 cup coconut sugar (regular sugar should work too)
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
3 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt

In a small pan over low heat, stir coconut oil and chocolate chips until completely melted. Take off heat. Stir in sugar until it dissolves some (mine was still a bit grainy). In a medium bowl beat egg and vanilla for about a minute. Add about 1/4 of the chocolate mixture and mix until incorporated. Mix in the rest of the chocolate mixture and beat well. Add cocoa, cornstarch and salt. Beat on low speed until combined, they beat on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Mixture should be glossy and thick. Line GoSun tray with parchment paper. Spread batter evenly into tray leaving 1-2 inches empty at each end. Place tray in GoSun Stove. Cooking time will vary with the intensity of the sun, but brownies should be set in the center. Mine took about 25 minutes on a mostly sunny day. You do not want to overcook. Cool 5 minutes in tray if you can wait. Great served with vanilla ice cream and a sprinkle of nuts or raspberries!

Though I didn’t try it I think you could make these in a regular oven. Double the recipe and place it in a 8” square pan lined with parchment or foil. Bake at 350 degrees until set in the center, about 20-25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in pan then move to wire rack to finish cooling.

Joshua Tree Rocks!

Joshua Tree South BLM
Nights: 7
Hikes: 1

While the Joshua trees are cool, it the rocks that make this park special. In some places they look like they’ve pushed straight up through the ground to rise above the surrounding desert.  In other places it appears some giant has been stacking them like blocks, but in actuality it’s erosion that’s done the work over thousands of years.

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We opted to stay at the Joshua Tree South BLM*. With the other areas of the park at higher elevations, we knew they would be cooler at night in early March. Plus this spot is convenient since it’s immediately outside the southern entrance and not far off the freeway. After first heading 8 miles into the park to dump tanks and fill our fresh water at the Cottonwood Spring campground, we were set to enjoy another free boondocking spot.

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We spent our first full day driving through Joshua Tree to get oriented. This is another huge park like Big Bend and Glacier, with vastly different areas. In the south you have the Colorado Desert, like we found in Anza-Borrego, but as you go north you climb into the Mojave Desert where you find the Joshua trees and giant boulders that are favored by climbers. As we drove from the south looking out at the red mountains similar to those of Anza and seeing the same ocotillo, cholla and creosote bushes I was thinking maybe I’ve had enough of the desert.

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Cholla forest – some taller than me!

Then as we moved into the Mojave section of the park near White Tank huge boulders were suddenly rising out of the ground and joshua trees began to appear. Wait, this is a whole different desert!

We stopped for lunch among the boulders at Live Oak picnic area and it was tempting to climb them, but as Chuck’s ankle was still healing we opted to stay on the ground.

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The park was busy on this Friday and the campgrounds were full. We drove through Jumbo Rocks, right in the heart of the park, to see if we wanted to move up there after the weekend but found the spots crammed together amongst the boulders. Even though there were some sites for larger trailers and motorhomes, they were basically parking spots along the side of the road, making for a very narrow path through the campground. We decided this tight, chaotic campground was not a place we wanted to risk bringing the Airstream. Rocks (and passing vehicles) leave big dents!

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Stopping at Hall of Horrors, we saw someone attempting to walk a tightrope strung high between two rocky hills. It was obviously pretty tricky as he kept falling off and having to pull himself back up. Thank goodness he had a safety harness! Sorry, I didn’t get a photo.

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Joshua Tree bloom

Deciding to make a loop out of the drive we exited the park in the quirky town of Joshua Tree, where we stopped at the small visitor center. Then we headed east along highway 62 to Twentynine Palms, stopping for a snack, before heading back back into the park. We were both getting tired so skipped the visitor center there. Kinda strange that this park has two visitor centers that are not actually in the park, but it looked like most folks stayed in this northern region to visit the park. The drive ended up being a very long loop, but we felt like we got a good view of the park.

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Saturday turned into chore day. We headed into Indio to do laundry and grocery shop. Our first stop though was the #4 restaurant in the US on Yelp, TKB Bakery & Deli. Funny that here in the middle of nowhere is a sandwich shop with so many reviews. I was excited they had gluten free bread so I could enjoy a turkey club and picked up a couple of gluten free muffins and cookies to enjoy later. With the very personable owner keeping things lively I could see why this place is so popular.

After seeing the park on our drive, I knew I wanted to spend time among the giant boulders. So we headed for the Split Rock Trail, a 2.5 mile loop that shouldn’t be too hard on Chuck’s healing ankle. It was a great hike among the rocks, each turn giving a different scene of amazing boulders.  We even saw a pair of climbers on one of the rock faces.

Afterwards we drove up to Keys View touted as a great vista, only to be disappointed that it was mostly a view back into the valley where Indio and Palm Springs are located and not a view into the park. Our last stop was the short trail to Arch Rock, a hidden gem in the White Tank Campground.

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Since it was a long drive to the heart of the park from where we camped and Chuck’s ankle still needed rest, we decided not to do any more hiking, which is fine because it leaves us something to look forward to if we ever return. I think next time I’ll try to get a reservation at one of the northern campgrounds that has trails and rock views right in the campground.

We visited the General Patton museum just a few miles up the freeway at Chiriaco Summit and found out this whole area (a  350 x 250 mile stretch of CA, NV and AZ) was used as a military training ground in the early 1940s. Patton figured it was perfect to prepare troops for the desert conditions in North Africa. Over 1,000,000 service men and women trained here. I couldn’t believe they limited them to one canteen of water per day. How they did not all die of heat stroke is a mystery.

It was the 30th anniversary of the U2 album that made Joshua Tree famous so of course we had to listen to it while we were here. Turns out the famous cover photo was not taken in the park but near Mojave Desert Preserve. That’s ok. It turns out I’m not sick of this desert so that’s our next destination.

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Maybe we’ll see even more wildflowers there. They were just starting to pop out here.

As we pulled out Thursday morning, I spotted a desert tortoise on the side of the road. A rare sighting and a fine ending to our time here!

*BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. They manage public land for various uses including grazing, camping, and off-roading. While areas can vary a lot you’ll usually find no amenities like tables, water or restrooms so it’s great that we travel with our own. 🙂 If you are set up to be off-grid and can navigate some dirt roads they are often great places to camp.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Nights: 9
Hikes: 4
Bikes: 1
Bug Bites: 0 (got to love bug-free winter time)
Injuries: 1 😦

We were starting to feel the itch and knew it was time to leave Yuma but still wanted nice weather. I had seen pictures of metal sculptures on Instagram that piqued my interest about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and there seemed to be plenty of boondocking and good weather so off we went not knowing much else about the area.

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We found a spot at the edge of the huge gravel boondocking area.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is rare in that even though they have a developed campground they allow dispersed camping anywhere in the park with a few rules. We chose the Rockhouse Road area, a former BLM site that is now part of the park. There were lots of others there too, but plenty of space for everyone. With trash, recycling, and water available at the visitor’s center on the outskirts of town we were set.

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Thanks to recent rains there was more green than we expected for a desert.

After a month of full hook-ups we wondered if it would be hard to switch back to the boondocking lifestyle. We really don’t live much differently one way or the other, but when dry camping monitoring resources (power, water, wastewater) is key.  We monitor the weather to gauge our solar power input and enact water saving measures to make our fresh water last longer and keep our grey water tank from filling up too fast. Yes, that means back to navy showers and putting a pitcher under the faucet while waiting for the water to get hot and, where possible, dumping dish water in the bushes. It was good to find that we had no trouble sliding into water saving mode and with all the sunshine we were making way more power that we were using. Lasting 9 days was pretty easy, especially since we got to enjoy a beautiful area free of charge.

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The evening view from out our door.

We found plenty to do right at our site when we weren’t enjoying the views. A fellow camper told us about the rock art hidden in the hills above the campground. (If you look west to the hills, the rock art is behind the one with the big gash running down it.) Heading that way we saw trails going up either side so we made a loop out of it. From the top we enjoyed a nice view of the campground and saw even more trails to follow further but headed back down.

We rode our bikes down the road, struggling through the sandy spots to Clark Dry Lake. It was covered in cracked mud from the recent rains and although it looked like there was water in the distance, Chuck rode out to confirm it was just a mirage. Heading back was a bit harder as we had to come uphill through the soft spots and fight the wind, but it made for a good workout. During our stay we saw many jeep excursions heading out the road, but never explored further into the canyon ourselves. Something to save for next time.

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Clark Dry Lake
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Found art in the campground

We did visit all 100+ metal sculptures in the area (get a map at the park visitor’s center or Chamber of Commerce). They were the idea of Dennis Avery, who funded the project and placed the giant rusty artwork on his land, Galleta Meadows, north and south of town. The artist, Ricardo Breceda, sculpted the creatures, many of them prehistoric beings who would have roamed this area, over several years beginning in 2008. His artistry is amazing.

We even had a little fun posing with some of the sculptures.

The state park has a nice visitor’s center on the edge of town with displays about the history, geology, and wildlife in the area. We walked the nature trail that identifies some of the plants and a paved trail to the campground that has a scaled representation of the solar system with the visitor’s center as the sun.

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Another day we came back to do the Palm Canyon hike, one of the most popular of the parks many trails. You can pay $10 to park at the trailhead in the campground or park for free at the visitor’s center and walk a little over a mile to start the hike. Thus our 3.5 mile hike turned into 6 miles. We weren’t too impressed with the palm canyon (the one at KOFA was hard to beat) but there were some good views, especially on the way down via the alternate route.

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Our enjoyment was interrupted though when Chuck badly twisted his ankle climbing over a large boulder. He had to grit his teeth and limp the last 2 miles and spent the next 2 days implementing R.I.C.E. That ended our hiking in the area although I took a couple of hikes exploring the hills in the campground on my own.

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View from the top of the hill I hiked up.
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View looking down from the hills toward the campground.

Wildflowers were just starting to bloom here and there. We saw desert lily, lupine, jojoba, and others. In another week or two they said the bloom, and the crowds, would be phenomenal. In fact after we left someone sent us a post about the “superbloom” happening this year.

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The state park completely surrounds the charming little town of Borrego Springs. Visiting the Friday morning farmer’s market we scored fresh strawberries, baby kale, oranges, lettuce and pea pods, even though some of the vendors were already packing up at noon (the market goes until 1pm). We also heard that the grapefruit at Seely’s Ranch are great, but didn’t head out that way. I wandered for nearly an hour in a great shop, Borrego Outfitters. In addition to a good selection of outdoor and casual clothing and shoes, they had gifts, wine, kitchen items, kids crafts, hats, hiking gear and so much more. On the advice of another camper we found a small grocery store, Desert Panty, that was much more reasonable than the bigger Central Market. Sadly, we never got a chance to check out the Red Ocotillo restaurant that was recommended by two different people.

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With so much more to explore in California’s biggest state park and some favorites to return to, I’m sure we’ll be back again!

Yuma Round 2

While we loved the beauty of KOFA National Wildlife Refuge, we didn’t like the cold weather so we headed back to sunny, warm Yuma. After just one night in dry camp we lucked into a spot we could stay in long-term and ended up staying four weeks. Combined with the 9 days we spent here before going to Quartzite, it is our longest stay anywhere since we left Washington. We hadn’t really planned it that way, but when we looked at the weather other places it was hard to leave the sunshine (plus there was the incentive of half-off our fourth week).

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Our sweet spot for the month.

We found the living pretty easy at KOFA SKP Ko-op in Yuma. We didn’t need to monitor our power and water—our solar panels were making more electricity than we could use, we had water hook-ups, and there was cheap propane on site. With a laundry room nearby we could put in a few loads and walk back to the trailer to enjoy the sun while they washed. I could grocery shop whenever we needed something and we could order from Amazon. Soon we settled into lazy mornings lingering over coffee and tea watching the Today Show and sunny days spent reading, surfing the web, or watching the acrobatics of the hummingbirds at our neighbor’s feeder and the installation of their park model (what a process!). Chuck puttered around the trailer doing maintenance and cleaning. When it hit 80 degrees we couldn’t believe we were swimming in an outdoor pool in February.

The longer we stayed the more we found to do in Yuma. We visited the Arizona Marketplace, one of Yuma’s famous flea markets. As we walked through the booths catering to the huge population of RVers, we thought this is what we expected at Quartzite. One even had every kind of screw and plug and part you could ever need to fix anything in your trailer.

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Only in Yuma would you find a shop about Montana!

We went back to the historic downtown for the Yuma Date Festival. We walked through the small fair twice, bought a bag of organic dates 🙂 and walked up the block to the local coffee shop for a latte and tea. Not much of a festival by Seattle standards, but we’re not complaining when you can be outside in the sunshine in January.

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Date Tasting!

We rode the bike path along the Colorado River and found nice parks at either end of the 3 mile trail with interesting signage about the history of Yuma and an old locomotive in Gateway Park. We also rode the the longer canal path, but it’s not too scenic unless you like peering into people’s backyards.

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Of course being in one spot we discovered a few good local places. We ended up having dinner twice at the Prison Hill Brewery on Main Street. The Peanut Patch is a little store full of all kinds of nuts and dried fruits, both plain and chocolate covered (try the unsweetened pineapple!), ice cream, candies, souvenirs and some delectable fudge. We needed Valentine’s chocolate and the Almond Joy and Alaskan fudge did not disappoint! We had to make a return visit there too. 🙂 I also found some lovely soap at Bare Naked Soap Company.

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Can you guess which plate is mine? Gotta love all those veggies!

Chuck finally convinced me to order a small solar oven called the GoSun Sport and we had fun testing it out. I miss baking, but hate to turn on the propane oven because it takes 20 minutes to preheat and warms up the inside of the trailer. This seemed like a good alternative. Once we figured out how to aim the oven correctly things got cooking. After 20 minutes our test hot dogs were bursting open. Next I lined up silicone muffin cups in the tray and filled them with batter. It’s a little tricky because you don’t really know what temperature you’re cooking at (it varies with the intensity of the sun) and thus how long it will take, but after 45 minutes we had perfectly baked hot muffins. Amazing that using only the sun you can get such good results. I’ll definitely be experimenting some more. I also tried out a recipe for chocolate lava cake in the crockpot. It was yummy! I’ll include my recipe at the bottom.

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Looking for hiking in the area, I found little that was close. The most popular, a very steep hike up a service road to Telegraph Pass, seemed not very scenic unless the wildflowers were in bloom but another blogger (wheelingit.us/2013/01/20/back-in-time-to-the-heydey-of-gold-hedgestumco-ghost-town) talked about an old mining town that looked interesting (see her post for the full history of the area). Driving west from Yuma fields quickly gave way to arid desert landscape and in the distance the Imperial Sand Dunes. Taking Ogilby Road north we found the Tumco mine site at the base of the chocolate colored Muchacho Mountains.

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Unfortunately, as we are finding is usually the case, the interpretive guides for the trail were long gone but there is a sign about the history of the town and it was interesting to walk among the ruins.

Afterwards we drove across the road to Gold Rock Ranch, a really old RV park that has a sort of makeshift historical museum in it’s old dusty registration building and many artifacts from the mine displayed on the grounds. We couldn’t believe anyone would pay $40/night to stay there. It was really creepy, so we skedaddled out of there.

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Historical Marker at Gold Rock Ranch.

Back across the road we explored the different boondocking options, peered through the fence at the still operating American Girl Mine, and even found a few geoglyphs. It was an interesting area that should definitely be on your list if you’re in Yuma.

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Can you tell what it’s supposed to be? We couldn’t. Supposedly it’s best viewed from the air.

So even though Yuma didn’t seem like much at first, as we spent more time there it really grew on us. If you can get past the fact that it’s dusty, especially when the wind blows across the sandy desert soil, and you regularly hear jets and helicopters from the Marine Core Air Station, the reasonable rates, cheap produce, things to do and abundant sunshine make it a hard place to beat for waiting out the winter weather.

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Yes, that’s a real cactus!

Crock-Pot Chocolate Lava Cake
This makes a cake with a layer of fudgy sauce on the bottom. It’s rich so you can serve 3-4, especially if you top it off with vanilla ice cream! Recipe is for a 1 quart crock-pot. Double it if you have a 3 or 4 quart one.

Mix these together in a bowl:

Put 2 T cornstarch in a 1/2 cup measure. Fill the rest of the way with brown rice flour. (If you’re not gluten free just use 1/2 c of regular flour.)
2 T coconut sugar (can sub white or brown sugar)
1 T unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 t baking powder

Add and stir just until moistened:

1/4 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy)
1 T oil
1 t vanilla extract

Stir in:

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Pour into greased slow cooker.

In a heat proof bowl or cup combine 3/8 c. sugar and 1 T cocoa powder. Mix with 3/4 cup boiling water and slowly pour over batter in slow cooker. DO NOT STIR.

Put lid on cooker and turn on high for 1.5 hours or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove lid and let cool a bit before scooping into bowls and topping with ice cream.

Enjoy!

KOFA and Quartzite

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After our relaxing time in sunny Yuma we travelled about an hour north to Quartzite. Every year thousands of RVers converge on this spot in January for the big RV show and many spend their entire winters here because of the cheap camping. In the Long Term Visitor Areas you can stake your spot in the desert for only $140 all season. They even have a dump station, water and trash. We opted for a more remote area with no services but lots of beauty about 15 miles south of town. The KOFA National Wildlife Refuge has camping for 14 days free of charge. Even though we only ended up staying 3 nights you can see we got lots of scenic photos. By the way, KOFA stands for King of Arizona and was the name of a mining operation.

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We arrived on Thursday to scope out a spot. Heading in the gravel road we were worried we wouldn’t be able to turn around if we went too far so we picked a big level spot still a ways from the mountains. After unhitching we decided to drive up the road and found an even better spot with amazing views of the rock cliffs. We put out some chairs to claim it, drove a couple of miles back, hitched up again, and towed the trailer to the base of the mountain. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get our trailer level while facing the right direction for the solar panels, but once we got it all set we enjoyed the stunning views.

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You’ll notice from the photos that KOFA wasn’t as sunny as Yuma. While it made for great photos, it made for chilly camping. We spent the whole day Friday inside as the wind and rain whipped around us. We were glad our trailer is aerodynamic because some of the gusts were quite strong.

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We even had a few rainbows.

We took advantage of the nice weather on Saturday to visit the RV show. We had been looking forward to this show since we left Seattle. I don’t know what we were expecting, perhaps something like the RV show back home only bigger, but boy were we disappointed. The “Big Tent” as they call the main area of the show was filled with vendors like those you find at the fair selling mops and pans and such, and not a lot of RV specific products. In fact we found nothing we were looking for on our list and only bought a Mac Attack BBQ pork sandwich (it had mac and cheese on it) and we didn’t even manage to take any photos. We walked through some of the swap meet area in town but soon grew bored of tent after tent of the same stuff. After less than 2 hours in Quartzite, we were done. We opted not to check out the small town (perhaps another time when the show isn’t on).

Insider tip: If you ever visit the show you can park for free during the day at the LTVA just south of the show. It’s much better than the crazy show parking where people circle endlessly and we saw 3 different vehicles stuck in the sand, plus it’s just as close.

Instead, we headed back to KOFA to take advantage of the sunny afternoon by hiking the Palm Canyon trail. It wasn’t too hard to get to the spot where you could see the palm trees, but we decided to scramble up the side of the mountain to get closer.

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The way up.

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These crazy palm tress grow here naturally. The microclimate on this hillside supports the only grove of native palms in Arizona.

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That’s the trail back down.
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Making my way carefully.
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View from half way down.

Looking ahead the forecast called for more cloudy, cold weather. While we can use our propane to heat up the place, it’s just not as comfy when it’s really cold and with the clouds our solar power was dwindling. It was a pretty easy decision to head back to Yuma for more winter sunshine. Amazing what a difference 50 miles can make!

Yuma

We came to Yuma because it’s supposed to have the most sunny days of anywhere in the US and things were getting chilly. Turns out they do get lots of sun. Even on the days we wake up and it looks cloudy, the clouds are replaced by sun later in the day. But it’s also pretty windy here and with all the fields and sandy soil that means it is dusty. I guess I shouldn’t complain though when we’re getting temps in the 60s and 70s in January and I’m back to wearing flip flops every day!

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We were greeted by this amazing sunset.

Yuma is full of snowbirds. In fact the population doubles in winter. Driving in on I-8 we saw RV park after RV park lining the freeway and they were packed. Luckily the KOFA Escapees park where we stayed is about 8 miles south of town among the citrus groves. At first it seemed liked an inconvenient spot, but we soon realized it was peaceful and the 20 minute drive to town was not bad.

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We had to spend 2 nights in the dry camping area before getting a spot.

This place reminded us of the park Chuck’s parents used to winter at in Florida, only smaller. About half the spaces in the park have “park models” on them, basically a tiny 10 x 40 mobile home, but the rest are large, gravel sites with full hook-ups that owner’s rent out when they’re not here. They are some of the nicest sites we’ve found in an RV park.

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The spacious spots have concrete patios and are separated by low brick walls.

The park has an active community of retirees. They feature daily activities in the clubhouse like line dancing, crafts, bingo and billiards. They also have an outdoor pool, hot tub, shuffle board and horseshoes. Plus there are groups that go bike riding and walking and of course a bunch of potlucks sprinkled in. For the most part we were reluctant to join in (perhaps we felt a little too young), but everyone was super nice and friendly. Mostly it’s just really peaceful and laid back here and we both seemed to have slowed way down.

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Maybe this roadrunner is on his way to join the line dancing.

I think this might be a good thing since there is not much to do in Yuma. We skipped visiting the big attractions, the Yuma Territorial Prison and the Quartermaster Depot from the late 1800s. Instead we walked the historic downtown which had some interesting buildings. Sadly only a handful of shops have managed to survive although the restaurants were busy. With most major stores here we did some shopping, stocked up our fridge, and visited the farmer’s market. You would think we could get really good produce since Yuma claims to be the winter vegetable capital growing 90% of the lettuce, cauliflower and other veggies for the US this time of year and we are surrounded by citrus groves, but only one of the ten booths was a local farmer and they didn’t have much. I did like the booth selling Girl Scout cookies though!

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I love that the cell tower by the park looks like a huge palm tree.

Our big reason for hanging out here in Yuma for a week was to wait for the big RV show in Quartzite and with all the sunshine it turned out to be a great place to chill before heading that way.

More Desert Beauty

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Twin Peaks Campground
Nights: 8
Hikes: 3

Organ Pipe is what we expected Saguaro to be—a remote, quiet place with captivating views, giant cacti, and abundant hiking. It feels like a full fledged National Park with its great campground, nice visitor’s center, scenic drives and daily ranger programs. They even have a “Not so Junior Ranger” activity booklet for folks like me who really want to be a Junior Ranger again. 🙂 You can take the pledge and earn a patch and everything!

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Views from the campground.

So what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Guess they get that question a lot because it’s in the booklet. Mainly it’s about how they are created. National Parks are established through an Act of Congress while a National Monument is established by a Presidential Proclamation. Not sure which president established this National Monument, but I’m glad he did.

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Again we were treated to stunning sunsets every night.

While we saw just as many giant saguaros at Organ Pipe as we did at Saguaro National Park, this park gets its name from another cactus. Organ Pipe is the only spot in the US where you will find large groups of organ pipe cactus growing wild. Unlike saguaro that shoot up one main column and then branch out arms, these look like a clump of arms coming up from under the ground. They reminded early settlers of church organ pipes, thus the name. The plants grow to about 15 feet tall and we saw everything from 3 to about 20 arms. Plants don’t flower until they are 35 years old and when they do the white flowers open only at night, an adaptation to the heat, and are pollinated by bats. Later red fleshy fruits provide food for Sonoran desert animals.

We found the largest Organ Pipe cactus in the park. It had cool crested arms in the middle.

Organ Pipe has one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve found in a national park. There is a staffed entry station where they assign you campsites, collect your fee and answer your questions. When we arrived the friendly ranger greeting us was from Forks, WA!

A little aside about park rangers here. We have met so many helpful, knowledgable, kind rangers who care about sharing and protecting our nation’s beautiful lands. I never realized that most are part-time seasonal workers earning low wages. It takes a ranger about 10 years to get a full-time, year round position. These are folks who do this work because they love our parks and I’m glad they are there to make our visits not just possible but also pleasurable. In addition our parks wouldn’t run without the many volunteers who staff visitor’s centers, act as campground hosts, and work on trails. A big thank you to the folks working to make sure our parks continue to thrive for another 100 years and beyond!

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Back to the campground… Every site has a poured concrete parking pad and patio area. A few have ramadas (shade structures over the picnic tables). There is decent space between the sites, nice desert landscaping providing some privacy, free solar showers (which we didn’t try) and really clean restrooms. The campground was pretty empty so we asked and February is their busy season although it sounded like the 208 sites (174 of which are for RVs) are rarely all taken. This little gem is still undiscovered.

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Ocotillo get green leaves only after it rains. We even saw a few with red flowers at the tips.

Part of that may be due to its proximity to the Mexican border. People seem to fear border areas, but we’ve been following the border through Texas and Arizona and never felt unsafe. Here they had lots of signs warning visitor’s what to do if they encountered illegals crossing into the US. Basically it boils down to leave them alone and report sightings to a ranger. They say don’t give them water because they may venture even further into the desert and get stuck. In opposition to this there is a group in town that reports over 90 bodies have been found in this area in the last 2 years and they regularly put water in remote areas as a humanitarian gesture.

We did not spot anyone while we were hiking (they say it’s rare as these folks don’t want to be seen), but we did see a couple of black water jugs on the side of a trail, a sure sign illegals had been there. (They use black water jugs because they don’t glint in search lights). And one day several border patrol vehicles were near the entrance with a woman handcuffed in the back seat. But we always felt safe in the campground. Rangers and border patrol patrolled frequently and the only people we saw around were other campers. Last year we read an article about how the park had a bad reputation, but a new superintendent turned that around by bringing in more staff and border patrol.

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Awesome color on the mountains at sunset!

With no worries about safety we were free to enjoy the park. We spent much of our time relaxing at camp soaking in the sunshine and views, but we did get out for some activities too. On our first day we rode our bikes the 1.5 miles to the visitor’s center, took in the exhibits, and walked the short nature trail. Chuck sat through a little of the ranger talk on pupfish, an endangered species they are bringing back. The ride back to camp had a few good uphill bits, that let me know I’ve been getting lazy.

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Looking back toward the campground from the nature loop trail.

The next afternoon we took a hike from the campground to the Victoria Mine (4.3 miles with just a bit of up and down). Other than the crumbling stone building, it wasn’t very interesting. Still with the heat it did wear us out a little. I do not think this is a place you want to hike in summer. There is little shade and the sun and low humidity mean you have to carry a lot of water to stay hydrated, even in the winter.

Our favorite hike was on the 21 mile, unpaved Ajo Mountain loop drive. The park guide lists 8 scenic drives, all on unpaved roads. This one had great views and a booklet to guide you. Numbered markers along the way signaled stops with information in the booklet. We were also in search of the crested cacti and rock arches listed in the “not so junior ranger” booklet. Luckily they give you mileage points, but we still couldn’t locate some of them.

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One of the arches on the loop drive.
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Thank goodness for a shady lunch spot! The top was covered in ocotillo branches.

About half way around we stopped to eat our lunch and head out on the hike recommended by the “Forks” ranger. One guide said it was 3 miles roundtrip to Bull’s Pasture, another 4.2. All I know is we kept climbing and climbing and when we thought we were there, we weren’t, so we trudged on. Luckily someone put a sign at the end to tell us we had made it! Although the trail descriptions claimed it was only an 800’ elevation gain I’m sure it was more! That ranger was right though, it was worth it for the great views. I’m finding I love exposed rock mountains rising up toward the sky.

I wish we could count Organ Pipe toward our official National Park number, but alas it’s not on our map. Still it will remain one of our favorites.