Peace and quiet and wide-open spaces are what we needed after the big city sights and sounds of San Diego. Although temperatures approached 100 degrees, Gila Bend KOA seemed like the perfect spot to get away from the ants that invaded our coach and the roar of the freeway outside our bedroom window.
We checked in at Gila Bend KOA on October 3, 2019, for a three-night stay. This RV park has been our go-to campground whenever we pass through the Sonoran Desert. Each year we arrive anxious to see what improvements the owner Scott Swanson has made since the previous year. A major street resurfacing project was underway when we arrived, closing off the main road. Our escort led the way along an alternate route to our site. This was the best site we have ever had at this campground.
A new gate at the entrance prevents people from entering that do not belong. Unless I missed it during our last visit, the Solitary Confinement shelter was a great addition for folks who want to enjoy a little solitude.
Chairs have been placed inside the two cubicle-like spaces with a view of the usually dry creek lined with palo verde trees. Don’t even think about talking while cocooned in solitary, it’s not allowed. And pets and loved ones must stay at home.
Patio and fireplace behind the Ranch House
Although Gila Bend boasts a Dollar General, Family Dollar, and a Carniceria, for shopping we prefer to drive to Buckeye for our groceries. The Butcher & The Farmer Marketplace had everything we needed under one roof.
We took Old US 80 to Buckeye, a scenic route that winds through farmland, around lava flows, and past The Co-op Grill.
Operating farms and dairies and smaller ranchettes also lined the road. Dotted here and there were a few properties that appeared abandoned.
The highlight of the drive is the Historic Gillespie Dam Bridge and Interpretive Plaza. Unfortunately, someone had removed the interpretive part of the plaza leaving only the sign supports. Never fear, Wikipedia to the rescue to fill in the details of the artifact’s history.
The concrete gravity dam on the Gila River was constructed during the 1920s for irrigation purposes. In 1927, the steel truss bridge opened to traffic and incorporated into the highway system as Route 80.
It carried US 80 traffic until 1956 when the bridge was decommissioned. On May 5, 1981, the bridge earned its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
It carried US 80 traffic until 1956 when the bridge was decommissioned. On May 5, 1981, the bridge earned its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Following extreme rainfall in 1993, a portion of the dam failed, remnants of which can be seen from the road.
Driving through Buckeye we noticed the school looked like it had been recently renovated. Across the street stood a two- and three-story brick building that housed the city offices and chamber of commerce. It all seemed too fancy for such a small town until I learned the population approached 69,000 people, about 10 times what I thought, and was the fastest-growing town in the US during 2017.
Before we left Gila Bend for cooler climes in Payson, Arizona, we drove east on Interstate 8 to see if any progress had been made at Big Horn Station since our visit in February 2018. Our post, dated March 3, 2018, titled Gila Bend and Ajo, Arizona, here provides more detail of the historic property.
Refreshed from our respite in Gila Bend, it was time to move on. Payson, here we come. But before we go, here is a sunset photo.
Aah! It feels good to be back on the road exploring these great United States. Between heart surgery and recovery for me, and sciatic nerve pain for Jon, we were ready to roll.
We pointed at the landscape that zoomed by as we left the Bay Area. “Look over there,” I said. “The hills were still green in the Tri-Valley. At the Altamont Pass they turned the color of a teddy bear.” Further on, the fruit and nut trees along Interstate 5 had already leafed out, and newly planted crops painted the San Joaquin Valley floor in patchwork fashion.
We stopped for the night at our favorite way station in Bakersfield, the Orange Grove RV Park. Dove calls, the chip-chip-chip of quail, and the trilling and singing of other birds welcomed us to the grove. Sure, we have birds in the Bay Area, but the abundance of birds nestled in the orange trees was like a chorus.
Guests are allowed to pick the fruit when in season so long as they don’t use ladders or climb in the trees.
It seems like we are seeing more and more solar panels in use where ever we go.
The next day, we continued oohing and aahing over the landscape. The sage, bristlebush, creosote, Joshua trees, and grasses colored the desert terrain green. Even yellow mustard still bloomed in the higher elevations.
A train of black tankers with double engines at the head, mid-train, and rear worked its way through Tehachapi pass. We wanted to know what the tankers held, where they were going, and where they began their journey. Our curiosity and taste for adventure returned quickly after the nine-month absence.
Lake Havasu City (LHC) came next so we could say hey to my sister Merri. Unfortunately, she had to work so we didn’t get to spend much time together during our three nights there. A breakfast meet-up at The Red Onion downtown and a quick goodbye at her place of business would have to suffice. We’ll have to make sure our next visit coincides with her days off.
One day while in LHC, Jon and I walked along the channel south of the London Bridge.
We stopped in at Kokomo. A refreshing Mai Tai and a slice or two of pizza was the perfect snack.
Then we wandered about before making our way back to Rotary Park. It was a good thing the walkway included plenty of benches to sit and take a break in the shade. After almost a week of very little sciatica, Jon had trouble walking without pain for more than a few yards. We discussed turning back home, but he would not hear of it so we pressed on.
The weather forecast for May 19 predicted a high wind advisory for the state of Arizona and rain the next day in Cortez, Colorado, where we had reservations. We decided to skedaddle and called Cortez/Mesa Verde KOA for early arrival.
But before we left LHC, we stopped in to say goodbye to my Merri.
We made an overnight stay in Tuba City, Arizona, at the Quality Inn and RV park, and a quick stop at Four Corners Monument the next day.
Then we arrived safe and sound at the KOA.
Our decision to arrive early turned out perfect. Snuggled in our fifth wheel on Monday, May 20, we gazed out at RVers arriving, not in the rain as forecast, but in the snow. The freak storm surprised the park operators as much as it did us. Accuweather.com sure got it wrong. It wasn’t until late in the day the app actually acknowledged that snow had fallen.
The snow stopped after about four hours. I zipped up my jacket, pulled on my knit cap, and slung my new Sony A6500 around my neck. I needed some quality time with my new camera. The smaller form factor and weight was my goal for purchasing new gear. A bonus was the 5-axis in camera stabilization. I wasn’t sure I’d like going mirrorless. But so far I’m quite pleased with the lighter weight and stabilization. I rarely use a tripod and have noticed an improvement in the sharpness of my photos. Editing the raw images also seems easier and quicker.
For the past few days, we’ve stayed close to camp because of the weather, but also because of the return of Jon’s sciatica. The week before we left on this trip, Jon’s pain had eased considerably with physical therapy and exercises. After being on the road for a few days, the beast struck again. His walks of a 1/2 mile to a mile have reduced to a few steps. Will acupuncture give him some relief? “I’m ready to try anything at this point,” Jon answered.
Stay tuned for the results and a little bit about Mesa Verde National Park, if we’re lucky.
On Wednesday, March 21, 2018, we left New Mexico behind and began our trek back to California to meet up with family at Disneyland. First, the fifth wheel and truck needed a good bath after 52 days on the road, so we stopped in at Rincon West RV Resort in Tucson for four nights. Mid to late March seems to be a great time to travel in southern Arizona. The weather was great and the resort had plenty of sites available, unlike what we found in February the previous year.
After our cleaning day, we rewarded ourselves with a trip to an RV show at the convention center and an early dinner downtown. At the RV show, we took a good look at motorhomes to compare to our rig. We didn’t see anything that would make us switch at this time. The thought of having to deal with maintenance on a motorhome plus a vehicle towed behind put the kibosh on a new rig. On the other hand, the walk around town and an early dinner was a hit.
Obon Sushi Bar Ramen served up a Salmon Poke and Tonkotsu Ramen that matched our taste and left us wanting more even though we were full. In between lunch and dinner is our favorite time to grab a meal at a restaurant because they usually are not too busy. With only a few customers, our server checked on us frequently to make sure our food tasted good and we had everything we needed. We topped off our meal with a scoop of the most flavorful green tea ice cream I ever tasted.
The next day’s forecast called for 80-degree weather and high winds in the afternoon, so we got up early for a hike on the Douglas Spring Trail that leads into the Saguaro Wilderness Area. Parking is limited so it’s a good idea to arrive early.
As we walked up to the trailhead, we heard a coyote howl behind us. Then another coyote responded. I love it when nature comes out and lets us experience their lives. Several hikes ranging from .2 to 12.4 miles are accessible from the trailhead.
We opted for the 1.5-mile Carrillo Trail cut-off and then returned thinking the strong winds would begin roaring through the canyons by early afternoon. We found a well maintained, easy to moderate trail with no signs of litter, which was remarkable given the number of hikers we met along the way.
The trail starts out as a botanical garden of sorts with several specimens of the cactus such as this blooming ocotillo and saguaro.
The trailhead is at the end of a road near the entrance to the Tanque Verde Ranch. Our curiosity about the ranch led us down the road to see what there was to see. Turns out Tanque Verde is a dude ranch/spa type place that goes for an all-inclusive $409 per night. At this price three meals per day and access to all of the activities are included. Only want to stay the night and eat breakfast in the morning? The price is $149.
Since finding a site in Tucson was easy peasy, we risked fast-forwarding the rest of our way to Anaheim without reservations. After a quick stop in Yuma at Carefree RV Resort, a night at Banning KOA, and a night in the Inland Empire on the street in front of Jon’s brother’s house, we arrived in Anaheim on Wednesday, March 28, 2018.
Anaheim, California, and Disneyland
Anaheim RV Park was the perfect place to stay while exploring Disneyland. Not only are the sites spacious with concrete patios, the hibiscus, dwarf citrus, and cell towers disguised as palm trees were a pleasant change of pace from the desert scenery of City of Rocks, Tucson, and Yuma. Best of all a shuttle bus ran between Disneyland and the RV Park every 20 minutes for a small fee.
When grandchildren have special moments in their lives, Papa and Nana must do what they can to be there. So it was when our granddaughter Maya’s middle school band and honor guard was invited to parade down Disney’s Main Street.
Jon thinks The Happiest Place on Earth is the most Frustrating Place on Earth because of the long lines and overcrowded conditions, so spending two days there wasn’t his idea of a good time.
During this trip, however, our daughter Laura served as our personal Disney guide, scheduling the rides to avoid the long lines and planning where to go for our meals.
With the Disneyland App in hand, she had all the information she needed to make our visit as painless as possible.
And here comes the band and color guard.
We all had a great two days at Disneyland. Even though Jon said he had a good time, I’m sure he’ll say no the next time the opportunity arises.
Day 15 of our 2018 Winter Tour took us to Willcox, Arizona. Our goal was to see Fort Bowie National Historic Site, another place we had seen while passing through the area on our way to somewhere else. It smelled like rain when we left Gila Bend, gusty winds and thick sandstorms pelted our rig through Casa Grande. The clouds finally cleared by the time we hit Tucson, but the wind stayed with us all the way to Willcox, finally dying down around 7:00 p.m.
The groves of pecan and pistachio trees in this part of Arizona always surprise me. After traveling miles with only the desert landscape to gaze at, acres of trees pop up like a mirage. We drove through Pistachio Alley on our way to and from Fort Bowie National Historic Site Trailhead. The trees with their bare limbs don’t look like much this time of year, but I bet they are majestic covered in leaves.
Fort Bowie was named in honor of Colonel George Washington Bowie commander of the 5th Regiment, California Volunteer Infantry, who first established the fort. The trailhead can be reached through either the town of Willcox or the town of Bowie. We selected the Bowie route to avoid what I gathered was a 10-mile drive on a graded dirt road over the Apache Pass. Going through Bowie, there is only about 1 mile of the dirt road.
Don’t expect to drive a car up to a visitor center at Fort Bowie. (Accessible travel can be arranged). A 1.5-mile hike to the ruins meanders up and down hills, through a valley, alongside a spring, and past a cemetery. Information signs reveal the historic significance of the ruins along the way.
We took our time stopping at the ruins, reading the information signs, taking pictures, and wondering how it must have been riding a stagecoach through the rugged land.
The rocks in the photo below outline the spot where a cabin once stood. A local prospector and well digger, Jesse L. Millsap, lived in the cabin, according to his nephew who visited his uncle in a Model-T Ford with his father.
It was a pleasure walking along with only the sounds of nature surrounding us. Without the noise of a freeway, trains, and airplanes, it was like experiencing what someone during the 1880s might have experienced. Standing near the ruins of the Stage Station brought the scene to life.
Imagine 6 – 8 foot-high walls surrounding a kitchen-dining room where stagehands and passengers ate a meal of bread, coffee, meat, and beans for fifty cents and rooms where guests might rest while waiting for the stagecoach to continue its route. Also enclosed within the walls was a storage room for feed and weapons and a corral for mules.
One of the biggest events that occurred in the area was the Bascom Affair. On February 4, 1861, Lt. George Bascom gathered with 54 of his men on a mission to find Cochise, the principal chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache. Bascom believed Cochise and his band kidnapped a boy and stole livestock and he was intent to recover both the boy and the livestock. The problem was Cochise and his band did not take the boy or the livestock and was insulted over the accusation.
The conflict lasted for sixteen days with both Indians and soldiers capturing hostages and executing them in retaliation. For twelve years tensions between the two groups continued until President U.S. Grant sent General Oliver O. Howard to join army scout Thomas Jeffords to make peace with Cochise.
The Post Cemetery predates Fort Bowie when soldiers of the California Column were interred there in 1862. Other graves include military dependents, civilian employees, emigrants, mail carriers, and three Apache children including one of Geronimo’s sons.
The ruin in the photo below is of a late 19th-century adobe building, which housed the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency in 1873-77. Based on an archeology study conducted in 1984, the building contained fireplaces, three rooms, and a wooden floor. A porch may have occupied the front of the building along with corrals at the back of the building for holding agency livestock. Adobe plaster covers and stabilizes the walls exposed by the archeologists.
When Cochise died in 1874, he left a band divided in leadership and conduct. Some Apaches lingered on the reservation while others left to plunder Mexican Settlements. U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Jeffords governed the remaining 900 Chiricahua Apaches at the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency in 1875-76.
In June 1876, the government removed Jeffords and moved 325 Apaches northward to the San Carlos Reservation. Many escaped and fled to distant sanctuaries to renew hostilities for another decade.
Imagine a camp of several thatched wickiups like the one in the photo below. Clustered together but hidden for safety, camp life continued as it had for hundreds of years. Men rode off to hunt for game while women harvested crops, prepared food, and cared for the children. The freshwater spring and other resources in the surrounding area supported hundreds of Chiricahua during the winter and spring seasons.
A unique feature located in Apache Pass, and a cause of many conflicts, is a freshwater spring that flows from a geological fault. Native Americans relied on the water long before the emigrants and soldiers arrived on the scene. Eventually, the Chiricahua were driven away from their home.
The walk to the ruins was not strenuous, but we were glad to have plenty of water and a snack with us. It is also a good idea to take along a sweater or light jacket, depending on the time of year, in case the weather conditions shift.
The steps up to the big porch at the visitor center and a comfortable bench where I could rest for a few minutes was a welcome sight. Inside the building, are a small museum and the typical national park T-shirts, hats, books, and junior ranger paraphernalia offered for sale.
We followed the docent advice and took the return trail back to the parking lot. Although the steep incline up a hill behind the visitor center was intimidating, switchbacks and flat stretches made the descent easier.
The best part was the spectacular views of not only the fort ruins but also the agricultural zones, valleys, and cities off in the distance.
We enjoyed our hike to the Fort Bowie ruins and wouldn’t mind returning some day during a prettier time of year. I’d like to see the pistachio and pecan trees dressed in their leaves and the ocotillo in bloom. Next time we’ll carry a full lunch in our backpack instead of the measly snacks we had packed.
Keeping with our 250 – 400 miles a day, Van Horn seemed like the next logical place to stop as we headed into Texas.
This desert area became a national park in 1994 after being set aside as a monument in 1936 by President Roosevelt. Jon and I had driven by the park several times going to and from other places and often commented that we needed to go back and spend some time. I was curious about what had changed since I camped at Jumbo Rocks with a group of friends while still in high school. Finally, I’d find out.
Oasis Visitor Center
We started our exploration at the Oasis Visitor Center where we picked up a pamphlet and a map of the 794,000-acre park. We also walked around the Oasis Trail with a volunteer ranger. She had a grade school teacher’s personality that roused our interest as she pointed out features of the palms, the different plants, and the animals that visited the pond. She explained that they do not trim the dead palm fronds from the trees because they serve as homes and protection for birds, owls, and other critters.
The main highway traffic ebbed into white noise leaving only the sounds of wind whistling through the palm fronds, the trickling spring, birds trilling their songs, and scampering lizards and mice rustling in the brush.
Along the path is a series of signposts that tell the story of what happens when a seventeen-year-old girl of the Chemehuevi falls in love with a white man. The story gave me a glimpse into the people who visited the oasis in the early 1900s.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes while navigating the quarter-mile loop trail in the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Although the branches appear as if they are covered with something soft and fluffy, don’t touch. The prickly barbs will latch onto shoes and clothing and you’ll have a jolly time trying to remove them. The cone shapes tipped with yellow are what is left from the flowers that bloom from March through May.
Split Rock Loop Trail
Take the Split Rock short loop trail to see rocks and cactus up close, or extend the hike to a full 2.5 miles by taking the extension to Face Rock.
Joshua Tree National Park is unique in that it encompasses portions of both the Mojave Desert on the western half of the park and the Colorado Desert on the eastern half. The Joshua Trees, a species of yucca rather than a true tree, are most prevalent on the western side where elevations are greater than 3,000 feet.
Skull Rock Trail
This is another loop trail and quite popular with cars and trucks parked on both sides of the road for about a quarter mile on either side. Start at Jumbo Rocks Campground, or at Skull Rock. There are trails on both sides of the highway and plenty to see.
A sampling of plants seen on the trails.
Red Top Buckwheat
Paper Bag Bush
Beaver Tail Cactus
Hidden Valley Trail
I think Hidden Valley Trail was one of my favorites. It’s such a surprise to break through the tight boulder formations and encounter a rock enclosed valley that cattle rustlers may have used to hide out.
Keys View (5,183 feet)
Keys View overlooks Highway 10 and across the valley stands the Indio Hills.
29 Palms Inn and Restaurant
We didn’t expect much in the way of a decent restaurant in town since the main drag was where most of the fast-food chains set up shop. We were surprised, however, when we drove to the end of a road, skirted the pool, and walked into the restaurant at the 29 Palms Inn on the Oasis of Mara. They have been dishing up tasty food since 1928.
The inn includes several adobe bungalows, suites, wood frame cabins, and other accommodations guests wanting a quirky place to stay. Oh, the stories those bungalows could tell if only given a chance.
Camping at Joshua Tree National Monument
Camping is available year round. No reservations are needed during the summer when the temperatures rise to 100 degrees or more. October through May is the busiest time and mid-February to mid-May and holidays are the busiest. Two of the campgrounds accept reservations and six are first come, first served. By Friday morning, October 20, 2017, the campgrounds were already full. I’m glad we had arranged for accommodations outside of the park, although it would have been fun to look up at the pitch black sky and watch the Orionid meteor shower without ambient light getting in the way. Oh, about what has changed at Jumbo Rock Campground? Although I noticed a definite upgrade in the amenities, the crowded sites turned me off. Maybe Sunday through Wednesday wouldn’t be so bad.
Another Restaurant Recommendation
On our way from Prescott, Arizona, to Twenty-nine Palms, California, we passed through Wickenburg, Arizona, at lunchtime. The Tastee Freez looked to be the best bet in town, and we weren’t disappointed. Expecting only grilled hamburgers and French fries, this Tastee Freez, along with Sundance Pizza, has a large menu to satisfy any guest, including deli sandwiches and salads. If you are traveling through Wickenburg and it’s time to eat, don’t be shy about giving this Tastee Freez a try.
Tastee Freez in Wickenburg
Tastee Freez in Wickenburg
If the timing is right the next time we roll through Twenty-nine Palms, we’ll have to stop and explore more of Joshua Tree National Park. Plenty of trails still remain for us to take.
Coming up is the Borax Visitor Center in Boron, California, and then on to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
We headed south on Highway 17 on Sunday, October 15, 2017, the 22nd day of our fall tour. We transitioned onto scenic Highway 89A through Sedona and on toward Prescott, Arizona. We wanted to stop in Sedona and see what the town had to offer, but there was too much traffic, vehicles and pedestrians, and no place to park.
Along the way we saw signs advertising Montezuma Castle National Monument, so we detoured east on Highway 260 to Camp Verde, Arizona, to take a look.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Montezuma Castle is one of three national monuments in the Verde Valley that protect and interpret the legacy of the Sinagua culture. Although it is a small monument, it contains well-preserved cliff-dwellings. A paved trail meanders through a forest of Arizona Sycamore and Walnut trees with an undergrowth of creosote bush, velvet mesquite, catclaw mimosa, and soaptree yucca, to name a few.
Along with Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well—a natural oasis—and Tuzigoot—an excavated ancestral village—depicts a farming life in the valley some 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, we were only able to see Montezuma Castle and had to add the well and Tuzigoot to our list of places to visit during a future trip.
Highway 17 would have taken us to Prescott, but we wanted to go through Jerome, Arizona. Jon remembered steep cliffs without safety railings along the road through Jerome, so I braced for a white-knuckle ride. I’ve seen cities built on hills before, but nothing to the degree of how Jerome is situated. Billboards mentioned RV parking, but with so many vehicles around, it was clear there was no spot for our truck and 30’ fifth wheel. We continued on along the narrow street, navigating hairpin turn after hairpin turn until we stopped at a vista point to calm our nerves.
Point of Rocks RV Park and Watson Lake
As advertised, Point of Rocks RV Park in Prescott, Arizona, was a short walk to Watson Lake where we had our first views of the Granite Dells.
The lake, one of two, was created by the Chino Valley Irrigation District in the early 1900s. Today the City of Prescott owns the lake and has preserved it and the surrounding area for recreational purposes. Visitors enjoy fishing and kayaking at the lake and birding, hiking, and rock climbing along the 4.6-mile trail that surrounds the water.
Besides the available outdoor activities around Prescott, we found the preservation of historic buildings and the Sharlot Hall Museum of interest.
Historic Downtown Prescott and Whiskey Row
We stopped in at the Tourist Center and grabbed a pamphlet that detailed the location of the buildings built over 100 years ago.
The Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza is at the center of the historic district which encompasses a 17-acre area that includes 26 contributing buildings in its designation on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Whiskey Row, across from the courthouse, is where a total of 40 saloons once occupied the commercial space when the street was rebuilt after the 1900 fire destroyed four blocks of businesses.
The Palace Restaurant and Saloon, originally established in 1877, is considered the oldest frontier saloon in Arizona. The Palace lists Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday as patrons in the late 1870s. The 1880s Brunswick Bar is still in use, having been carried to safety across the street by patrons before the 1900 fire destroyed the building.
A gentleman costumed in old western attire greets customers as they enter the bar and escorts them to a dining table. After we enjoyed our meal and an Arizona Sunrise Margarita, we took time to walk around the restaurant to check out the memorabilia and photos that line the walls.
Here’s a sample of other buildings around the square.
Sharlot Hall Museum
I never heard of Sharlot Hall before, but I’m glad I met her while visiting the Sharlot Hall Museum. She is truly a woman to admire.
Sharlot moved to the Prescott area with her parents and brother in 1882 at the age of 12. She saw the need to collect and protect Native American and pioneer artifacts early on and planned to develop a museum for her collections.
She lived at her father’s Orchard Ranch until 1927 when she moved her collection of artifacts and documents into the Old Governor’s Mansion. She opened the museum one year later. A journalist, poet, and essayist, she served as the territorial historian from September 1909 to February 1912 and lobbied against a bill that would have combined New Mexico and Arizona territories into one state.
Working with the Civil Works Administration during the 1930s, the Sharlot Hall Museum building was built. After her death in 1943, the entire complex officially became The Sharlot Hall Museum. In 1981 she became one of the first women elected to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. Today the museum consists of ten exhibit buildings, four of which have been historically restored.
The museum operates daily from October through May, conducts four annual festivals, and offers living history events. We enjoyed our visit to the museum and highly recommend it for anyone interested in Native American and pioneer history of the old west.
Of all the places we have visited over the past two years, Prescott has to be one of my favorites. With plenty of outdoor activities, museums, and dedication to historical preservation, it is a place I would like to stay for more than three or four nights. I’m sure we will return soon.
We managed to fit into our schedule a couple more Flagstaff sights while in town: the Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, and the Walnut Creek National Monument, where a civilization once lived and farmed 1,000 years ago.
Percival Lowell had a theory about life on Mars, mainly, that water flowed through what he thought were canals. Although controversial, Percival was undeterred. Using a 24-inch Alvan Clark refracting telescope installed in 1896, Lowell spent fifteen years mapping Mars and creating hand-drawn globes of the planet that showed details of the canals.
Later, he was devoted to searching for Planet X, a planet located beyond Neptune having a gravitational impact on Uranus and Neptune. The Pluto Discovery Telescope, currently under renovation, was built in 1928-1929. The year before Lowell’s death in 1916, astronomers at the observatory photographed what would later be identified as Pluto, which was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. The scope is an astrograph with three 13 inch diameter lenses and designed to take photos of the night sky for survey purposes and to detect objects, such as meteors. Today, I understand astronomers are searching for Planet Nine which could be ten times the mass of Earth. Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii and its Subaru Telescope is one such tool being used to find the elusive planet.
Other discoveries made at the Lowell Observatory include V. M. Slipher’s observations that lead to the theory of an expanding universe and the measurement of motions and properties of stars, some of which were used in the 1960s to create maps of the moon.
While at the observatory, we had an opportunity to view the sun through a solar telescope. After a lifetime of being told not to look directly at the sun, I had a strange feeling as my eye focused on the orange ball for a minute or so. Although the sun was quiet that day with no solar flares evident, it was still an awesome sight to see.
Other buildings of interest include the Rotunda Museum where the public can view the first telescope Percival Lowell received when he was 15 years old, his hand-drawn Mars globes, instruments built by Lowell scientists, and classic scientific books.
The Putnam Collection includes Percival Lowell’s state-of-the-art horseless carriage, a 1911 Stevens-Duryea still in working order.
And don’t forget Percival Lowells Mausoleum, a perfect resting place for the astronomer.
Daytime guided tours, films, and evening programs will please the amateur and professional astronomer alike.
I admire Percival Lowell for embarking on his pursuit of water on Mars and a new planet. His theory of water on Mars may not have panned out, but his persistence led to further searches for objects in the night sky beyond what we can see with our naked eyes.
Walnut Creek National Monument
Walnut Creek National Monument, established in 1915, is accessed a few miles east of Flagstaff off Highway 40.
The Island Trail takes visitors into the canyon 185 vertical feet on 273 stair steps. The reward for this effort is to walk among the 25 cliff dwelling rooms where the Sinagua people made their home among the cliffs 1,000 years ago.
Views of other structures etched into the surrounding cliffs are also visible. Were these rooms used only for storage, or did the people make their homes in the small structures? I tried to imagine how the people accessed the caches. Did they use ropes? Or maybe they constructed ladders? Either way, it must have been treacherous.
The self-guided Rim Trail follows the canyon rim to two overlooks, and loops around to a pit house and pueblos set back from the rim. This is the area where the Sinagua grew their crops. Signposts along the way describe the vegetation and other information about the people who lived there.
I think I would have felt more comfortable living in a pueblo like the two-room structure below, but I’m sure there were other dangers there as well.
Across the path stands a pit room where, presumably, the people stored their food and other possessions. Or, perhaps this was someone’s home.
I tried to imagine the sounds and smells of life when the Sinagua lived on this land: the squawk of birds overhead, the echo of children laughing, men joking while they work, meat cooking over an open fire. How would I have managed along the cliffs with a baby swaddled to my body or toddlers underfoot and in constant fear of a child falling into the canyon abyss? Not very well, I guess.
Flagstaff has so much more to offer visitors than what we were able to see during our short stay. When the desert valleys turn hot, head to Flagstaff to beat the heat, go on a hike, or explore the downtown. Or visit in winter to shuush down slopes, cross-country ski, or set out with snowshoes strapped to your feet. Any time of year would be a great time to visit Flagstaff.