Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Two

On February 19, 2016, we continued our Winter 2016 tour toward Big Bend National Park, stopping at the Gila Bend KOA in Gila Bend, Arizona, for a few days of poking around. We liked the extra roomy spaces with plenty of room for multiple vehicles. The park was fairly quiet with only a negligible amount of road noise and the soft rumble of trains off in the distance. The friendly neighbors, who had wintered at the park for years, were a bonus. They gave us ideas for things to do.

Hard to beat an Arizona sunset

In need of restocking our pantry and refrigerator, we inquired at the office to find out the best place to shop. The town of Gila Bend once had a regular grocery store, but it had closed. Our choices were the Family Dollar that had a small supply of food or the Mercado De Amigos Carniceria that had mostly meat.

The Butcher & the Farmer in Buckeye, Arizona

Had we known, we would have stopped in Buckeye at the Butcher & The Farmer Marketplace a half-hour north before we arrived. Our grocery shopping curtailed the amount of sightseeing, so we picked a drive to Organ Pipe National Monument and a quick ride to the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site.

Organ Pipe National Monument

Seventy-six miles south on SR 85 from Gila Bend led us to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. It was well worth the trip to see the Organ Pipe National Monument, and we were glad we had packed lunch because there was no food near the monument.

Our lunch spot along the Ajo Mountain Drive

This, our first visit, introduced us to the east side of the park and the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive, which made us fall in love with the area.

Sorry little squirrel, you need to find your own food.
The rock formation reminded us of a dinosaur head

The well-graded gravel road took us through forests of organ pipe cactus, saguaros, and ocotillo.

Organ pipe cactus and saguaros
The organ pipes get huge
Jon taking photos
Not many saguaros with arms in this area

About halfway around the one-way loop road, we stopped at Arch Canyon where visitors can take an easy 1.2-mile round-trip walk into a canyon.

Arch Canyon Trail

Aptly named, the canyon contains several arches, which are difficult to see depending on where the sun shines.

We almost missed the bridge in the bottom third of the photo.

A sign warned the steep hill was a dangerous climb. I went up a little way and carefully scrambled down before I landed on my bottom.

Careful on the slippery rock
Chain cholla
Jumping cholla
Prickly pear
Crested organ pipe cactus
Ocotillo bloom

Interested in learning more about the monument? We’ve stayed in the Twin Peaks campground a couple times since our first visit and have posted descriptions and pictures here and here.

Painted Rock Petroglyph Site

It is about a 30-minute drive east of Gila Bend to the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site and Campground. Visitors will find hundreds of petroglyphs on the jumble of rocks at this ancient archaeological site. There is no potable water at the campground, so plan accordingly when visiting.

Bring your own water, there is none around here

Jon and I took the path to the right around the cluster of rocks and boulders, searching for the petroglyphs. We didn’t see much until we had walked halfway around. I’m glad we took the route we did because when I saw so many petroglyphs, I wasn’t sure where to look. If we only knew the meaning of the etchings, we could learn so much about the culture that lived there thousands of years ago.

Split rock
Travelers from the 1800s left their marks beside the ancient ones
So many petroglyphs

Jon called me over, “Hey, look at this.” I had never seen a lizard so beefy and long before. I didn’t want to get too close.

Common chuckwallas are rock dwellers
There must be a story in there somewhere
Desert Sunflower

That ends our time in Gila Bend, Arizona. We next make brief stops in Benson, Arizona; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Fort Davis, Texas. Big Bend National Park will come up soon.

Stay safe

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

 We rolled into Twin Peaks Campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on October 29, 2019. Fall is a good time to visit. With no reservations required and the pick of sites available, we slid into a site with no problem even though barriers blocked off four or five of the campground rows.

Our campsite at Twin Peaks Campground with no one to our right, to our left, or in front or back.

We talked about heading into Mexico to check out Puerto Peñasco since we were so close. All we managed was a drive to the Lukeville border crossing where we thought we could fill up with diesel. Unfortunately, the station was out of diesel. Perhaps we’ll make it to the beach on our next trip to the area.

Night Photography Attempt

Sunset view of peaks

The dark skies and lack of ambient light turned out to be a perfect place for nighttime photography. I set up my Sony and the tripod and waited for the sun to set.

Typical fiery Arizona sunset

As I watched the stars and planets take form and twinkle in the deep black sky, a feeling of peace and calm settled in my bones. The swath of light that sparkled above, reminded me that the Milky Way is present each night even if fog, clouds, or light pollution obscures it from view.

After sunset, the full moon was visible even though it was in its waxing crescent phase

It was as if the universe was giving me a message: a message of hope that humans will once again survive the chaos of the world.

First attempt at capturing the Milky Way. Looks like I need more practice.

Victoria Mine Trail

 The Victoria Mine Trail leads hikers into and out of 13 sets of washes and plateaus and past hillsides covered with saguaro, organ pipe, cholla, paloverde, ocotillo, and other shrubs.

Steps made it easy going in and out of the gulleys

The reward after about 2.4 miles is the ruins from a 19th-century gold and silver mine at the foothills of the Sonoyta Mountains.

Mine store ruins

We rested on a makeshift bench in front of the ruins and ate our lunch, guarding our tuna sandwiches and chips against greedy squirrels that would have easily snatched our meal if given half a chance.

Mine store ruins

Covered mine shaft

View of peaks across a plateau of saguaros, organ pipes, and ocotillos

Inside the mine store ruins

Mining equipment

Historic Events

President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the monument on April 13, 1937. As one might imagine, the local ranchers and miners raised a fuss because they would no longer be allowed to use the land for their own purposes. Congress took action during WWII that allowed mining within the monument, which drew prospectors to the area in droves. On September 28, 1976, the act was repealed and the mining operations ceased.

Organ Pipe Cactus

In 1976, UNESCO declared the monument an international biosphere reserve and in 1977 congress declared 95% of the monument as wilderness.

Chain fruit cholla

During the 1990s, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers found the monument a convenient location to enter the United States with over 200,000 undocumented immigrants crossing monument lands during 2000. In 2002, park ranger Kris Eggle was killed in action and in 2003 the park service renamed the visitor center in his honor.

Ocotillo

This led to the closing of 70% of the monument. In 2004, construction on steel vehicle barriers began along the 33 miles of the international boundary and was completed in 2006. This significantly reduced the illegal off-road vehicle traffic, which had caused severe damage to the desert ecosystem. In the 2010s new technology further deterred illegal entry and on September 15, 2014, the park reopened the closed areas.

Creosote blooms

Recently, as work began on replacing border barriers with a steel bollard design, controversy, protests, legal action, criticism, and even support erupted. The debate continues with scientists and environmentalists intent on protecting endangered species of wildlife and desert plants pitted against a government determined to stem the current tide of illegal immigration.

Baby saguaro arms

History shows that wildlife and plants often lose at the hands of the government. My wish is that the groups on either side of the debate are able to achieve an agreement that is palatable to both. Can the issues be resolved by this time next year? I wonder.

I found this guy digging around in the ground before he grabbed the thing in his beak and took off

If you would like to learn more about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, check out our previous discussion on the park in our post titled Lake Havasu and Beyond.

Next up is another visit to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. With family and friends in the city, the location is a convenient stop for us when traveling beyond California.

Oh, before I sign off, I have an announcement. On January 1, 2020, a good friend of ours opened a new bar in the desert. For those of you in the area, check out The Bunker Bar near Havasu Heights. Here’s a photo I took on November 8, 2019, a few days after the containers were delivered.

The Bunker Bar Lake Havasu City November 8, 2019

From Highway 95, take Havasu Heights Road and immediately turn right on the graded dirt road. Drive about 2 miles and enjoy the beer and wine, food, music, and fun. Visit Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For current pictures and more information go to https://www.facebook.com/bunkerbarlhc/

Safe Travels

Lake Havasu and Beyond

A visit with family and friends in Lake Havasu City AZ was the perfect place to kick-off our winter 2017 travel. With San Antonio TX selected as our ultimate destination, we only had to figure out which route to take and what we wanted to see on the way.

We selected Prospectors RV Resort as our home for four nights in Havasu. Prospectors offers paved streets, large graveled sites with room enough for off-road vehicles alongside the RVs, spotless bathrooms and all the amenities expected by the long-term winter visitor.

London Bridge is an icon in Havasu. The original bridge built in the 1830’s in London was dismantled and rebuilt in Havasu by Robert P. McCulloch as a tourist attraction for the town he founded in the mid-sixties. Today the city boasts a population of approximately 53,000. Havasu is a popular destination for RVers who live in colder climates (affectionately referred to as snowbirds), college students on spring break, and people who are passionate about watersports.

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As happened during the start of our spring and summer 2016 trips, truck trouble slapped us in the face when the check engine light illuminated. Visions of our two weeks stuck in Elko NV last summer came into view. The dealer got us in on Monday morning, and in the time it took us to eat breakfast at Rusty’s they had replaced a bad sensor, which was covered under warranty. Good thing we were back on the road so soon because Prospectors was booked solid and we would have had to leave whether we had a truck or not.

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Rusty’s Great Place for Breakfast

On January 17, we headed south on I95 and made a quick stop at Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge. Behind me on the hill is the Hillcrest Bay Development, which has fantastic views of the refuge.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was our planned stop for a few nights, but when we neared Gila Bend, we opted to stay the night at the Gila Bend KOA. We didn’t want to arrive too late at the monument’s campground since the spots are first-come-first-served. We had stayed at the KOA last year and were pleased to see that they continued with their improvements by putting in a pool, a patio behind the activity building, tent sites, and soon to arrive a new building to house restrooms and showers.

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Abandoned Building Near Gila Bend KOA

The next morning the campsites that greeted us at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Alpine Campground included wide long spots with plenty of natural habitat between them giving us the feeling that we were camping in the wild. An added bonus was that we had no neighbors beside us or across the road.

We ate lunch after our quick set up (no water, electrical or sewer hookups to worry about), and took the 1.3-mile trail to the visitors center where border patrol folks gave a talk on their responsibilities. The monument’s property extends to the border with Mexico and the visitor’s center is about five miles from the nearest crossing.

Besides the checkpoints on major highways, the border agents grade roads and paths that illegal immigrants and drug runners cross to identify locations where recent activity has occurred. They also use technology such as night vision, infrared, dogs, aircraft, and drones. It was interesting to learn that this border patrol region was responsible for the seizure of about 50% of all drugs seized in the United States and exceeds the illegal immigrants crossing the border.

Ever since Trump promised to “build a wall,” I’ve been worried about the 1,254-mile border between Mexico and Texas, which is defined by the Rio Grande River. Learning that border patrol will work with other departments to find the best solution should a wall be mandated gave me hope that the natural habitat and view along the Rio Grande border between Mexico and Texas may escape disastrous consequences.

Sprinkles woke us Thursday morning along with a little wind, but by 11:30 a.m. the sun was shining bright. We opted for the Desert View hike through Saguaros, Ocotillo, Palo Verde and other plants and cactus and shrubs. A cabana covered table was a great place to eat our tuna sandwiches after the hike before heading to the visitor center.

We arrived in time for a ranger talk on the leaf-cutting ants, Atta mexicana. It’s amazing that new colonies of the ants have increased over the years since only five of the 500 queens that fly out of the nest to mate manage to establish a colony. These ants form fungus, which is their fuel. They discard the leftovers outside of their nests, which provides nutrients to the neighboring plants in a symbiotic relationship.

Afterward, we drove the north Puerto Blanco Road where numerous saguaros grow. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each saguaro has its own personality and no two are alike. Some grow arms out their tops some grow them low to the ground. Many sport baby arms that look like little fluffy balls next to their brothers and sisters outstretched arms.

Back at our campsite, the sky was ablaze. Smoke from a fire beyond the left side of the photo’s frame made it look like the setting sun was the center of the conflagration.

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There were plenty more hikes and things to see at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that we have to save for another trip. We didn’t bring our generator on this tour and our batteries required a fresh charge, so it was time to move on. Next stop? Benson AZ.

Safe travels.