Saguaro National Park

On either side of Tucson (east and west) lies the Saguaro National Park.  Consisting of a total of 92,000 acres, to the west lies the Tucson Mountain District and to the east the Rincon Mountain District.  The Rincon Mountain District of the park was originally created as a national monument, by President Hoover, in 1933.  It was transferred over to the National Parks Service later that same year by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.   In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added the western (Tuscon Mountain District) to the park.  The park is named for the Saguaro Cactus, one of the residents of the park.  It is part of the Sonoran Desert.

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We opted for the 8 mile driving loop in the Rincon Mountain District.  It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1936 and 1939.  It is pretty well maintained, though it isn’t a fast drive.  The highest speed limit in the park is a whopping 25 mph.  I wouldn’t suggest going over that because there are some steep hills and sharp turns through this arid forest.

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Mom was excited to learn that if she had been a Saguaro cactus, she would be approximately 16 feet tall by now.

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This is not the kind of forest where you’re going to want to touch the flora.

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Mom decided to do her impression of a cactus.

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I think she was a little sad that there weren’t any trees to hug.

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The buds on this cactus remind me of little pineapples.

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Today, the drive was low on traffic, though there were bicyclists and even a runner or two, moving along the road.  There are signs to watch out for desert tortoises and rabbits, but the only wildlife we saw were birds and an occasional chipmunk making a mad dash across the pavement.  There were plenty of hiking trails, for all skill levels, available as well as a couple picnic places.  The scenery felt otherworldly to us.  Definitely amazing to see that no matter the landscape, nature will survive and flourish.

The price for entrance is $15 per vehicle (for a week) or if you’re walking or biking in, $5 per person.  There is a visitor’s center with a gift shop and small museum, as well as park rangers on hand to give you more information about the hiking trails.

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Scoot City Tours

This morning, we hopped in Red Rover and headed over to Summerlin, another area of Las Vegas away from the Strip.  There, we met up with Cody of Scoot City Tours.  If we had been staying at one of the hotels downtown, then we would have been picked up by their free shuttle, driven by Cody’s tour guide partner, Frank.

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This is Cody, by the way.

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Mom was excited because she was going to ride with someone different.  “More cautious and less crazy,” she put it.  You go around one 25 mph corner at 45 and you get labeled crazy.  I, however, was riding in my own scooter.  Since we were early, Cody took plenty of time to explain how the scooters worked.  He also made sure we knew what we were doing, though he made sure to stick near our scooters while we were on the tour, too.

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The controls, he explained, were pretty similar to a motorcycles, with no pedals involved.  It took some practice, but eventually, we got the hang of it.  Once Frank and the rest of the group who were in the shuttle arrived, we got on the road for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

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You start out riding the streets of Summerlin on your way to the Red Rocks, which was a bit intimidating.  While the scooters are street legal, they don’t go over 35 mph and some car drivers were in a hurry and didn’t pay as much attention to our caravan of little red 3 wheeled scooters on the road as they should have been.

But Cody and Frank got us to our first stop, the Visitor’s Center at Red Rock NCA, in one piece.  Both men recommended using the bathroom facilities at the Visitor’s Center, as they were the only ones with running water.  Then, we were able to take a few pictures before heading into the red rocks.

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It was a beautiful day, with the temperatures rising in to the lower 70s and the sun shining in partly cloudy skies. The roads in the park were well paved, which made the ride enjoyable.

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Then it was time to drive on to our next stop, at almost 5000 feet elevation.  The road twisted and turned, going up into the mountains, following the terrain.

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Mom was enjoying herself immensely, but decided while we were stopped to get a dose of Vitamin D with a small sun bath in the scooter.

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Once again we drove on.  There were a total of 4 stops in different areas of the park.  Each site held its own natural magic.

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Mom caught me trying to take a picture, doing her best photobomb.

Finally, we headed back into Summerlin.  Cody and Frank were great guides, giving us time to explore while keeping us on task.  They also made sure that everyone who left with the group came back with the group.  Remember how I mentioned Mom was riding with a driver who was more careful than I was?  Well, we ended up leaving them behind multiple times.  But Cody, thank goodness, kept our little late ducklings on the road and eventually they caught up.

We both had a marvelous time.  Cody and Frank provided individual attention while also making everyone in the group feel special.  I would recommend this tour to everyone (though the age limit for those riding is 8 years old at minimum and drivers have to be at least 21).  Each car can hold 2 people (up to 400 pounds total) and run at $250 per scooter, though we found a Groupon.  Still, for something this different and off the beaten path, it is practically a steal.  Its amazing that this tour isn’t more well known.  It was great to get away from the neon and glitz and ride through nature with the wind blowing in our hair and the sun on our face.  A definite respite from the usual Las Vegas entertainment, Scoot City Tours is a fabulous tour to take if you’re in Las Vegas.

Grand Canyon South Rim (Grand Canyon Part 2)

After arriving in the Grand Canyon Village, we jumped on the bus for the Freedom Tour, included with our railway package.  This hour and a half tour takes you to 3 of the main overlooks on the South Rim.  Our driver was friendly and rather easy going, making certain not the leave the stragglers behind and dropping those of us who were staying overnight directly at our hotel.

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The views were astonishing.  We came here when I was a teenager, but there weren’t really any guard rails or security measures, so last time I got out of the car and that was as far as I went.  This time, with my camera securely blocking out the heights, I was able to get right up to the rails and take some pictures.

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Crows and other birds played on the thermal currents, swooping down and then back up.  Those same currents made it a rather breezy day, keeping things tolerable up at the top.

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Last time we were here, my younger brother climbed out on this rock and posed.

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I opted to stay firmly behind the low wall.  Mom, though, found another tree to befriend.

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Soon, we were at the Maswik Lodge, getting checked in.  We grabbed lunch and dinner from the food court at our resort before walking back to our room.  They don’t have bottled water in the park, but they do have bottle filling stations.  They can be found at the resort and at the visitors centers and other locales throughout the park.  It reminded me of drinking from the water hose in the summer as a kid.  Ah, metal.

The next day, before boarding the train back down to Williams, we decided to ride the complimentary shuttles throughout the park.  We stopped at the main visitors center and watched the 20 minute movie about the Grand Canyon.  We rode to the Geology Museum.  We ended up at the Bright Angel Lodge and had lunch in the Cafe, which featured items from its original menus back when it was run by Fred Harvey.  That lunch was delicious.  I had their club sandwich and Mom had chili con carne in a sourdough bread bowl.

But then, it was time to board the train back down to Williams.

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We kicked back in our seats and watched the scenery slip by.  Once again, singing cowboys wandered the cars and then those wily bad guys tried to rob the train.  They wanted money, jewelry and a woman who could cook.  They eyed Mom’s wrist and all her bracelets, but luckily, neither one of us is known for our cooking abilities and thus we were safe.  Just as the sun was setting, we pulled back into Williams.  Our bags were once again waiting in our room and after filling up at the buffet for dinner, we got cozy in our room, planning our drive to Bullhead City, AZ, our next stop.

Grand Canyon Railway (Grand Canyon Part 1)

Upon arriving in Williams, AZ, we checked into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.  We had purchased the 3 night Discovery plus package, which included one night in the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, one night in Maswik Lodge in the Grand Canyon and our last night back in Williams in the GCR Hotel again.  It also included dinner the night of our arrival, breakfast before the train departed the next day, dinner when we got back to Williams and breakfast the day we checked out.  This was on top of the trip up to the Grand Canyon and the afternoon train back.

The hotel is a 2 story building that sits next to the train depot and has a pub on site as well as a restaurant next to the train depot.  The depot has its own gift shop as well.  It was a comfortable room and they took our luggage to the Grand Canyon and brought it back for us.

But back to the train.

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This is an active train yard and they have more than just the Grand Canyon trip going through here.  Amtrak also makes a stop and they have their own Polar Express and Pumpkin Patch trips as well.

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Prior to boarding the train, they have a 20 minute skit involving a gang of hungry bad guys and one lone sheriff.

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One bad guy, Old Dutch, has the joy of being made a victim of twice.

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We had purchased the upgrade to First Class, so we had bigger seats and more leg room, plus snacks were included on the 2 hour ride up to the Grand Canyon.  There were strolling singing cowboys and lots of information about what to do while up at the South Rim.  We didn’t have to worry about our luggage, as it would be waiting for us in the room after we checked in.  Definitely the best way to get up into the National Park.

Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Parks

Sorry for the long wait between posts.  We were on the road to the Grand Canyon and then in it and wifi was pretty much non-existent until today.  So, let me tell you about Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park.

Most of the Painted Desert is part of the Petrified Forest National Park.  It was named by Coronado during his quest in 1540 for the cities of Cibola.  After finding the cities and discovering they weren’t made of gold, he headed back to the Colorado to get more supplies and passed through the area. It is easy to see why he called it “El Desierto Pintado” or Painted Desert.

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After crossing over I-40 and Route 66, you find yourself in the part of the park known as the Petrified Forest.  It was declared a national monument in 1906 and became a national park in 1962.

If you are expecting towering trees and woodlands, think again.  When my younger brother and I were in our teens, our parents drove us cross country and brought us here.  We were expecting trees.  We found…rocks.  Let’s just say, for a 19 year old and a 13 year old, this wasn’t our favorite stop.

Luckily, I’ve grown up since then and find the process of how the trees from 225 million years ago became solid rock.  The park is also known for its fossil finds, dating to the late Triassic period.

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For $20, you get a 7 day pass into the park for your whole car and those who are in it.  There are signs everywhere reminding you NOT to take home any rocks or animals from the park.  Everything within the park is Federally protected.  There are many pull offs and trails to hike, for those who want to get a bit more into the scenery.  It is a lovely place, but remember, don’t miss the trees when you’re looking for the forest.  They’re all around you.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Approximately an hour and a half south of Mancos, CO lies the Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, NM.  The ruins actually have nothing to do with the Aztec Empire, as they had been home to the Pueblo People.

Admission is only $5 per person for anyone 16 and older and free for anyone under 16. The admission is good for 7 days.  When you arrive, they have some loaner copies of the guide map you can use to follow the site and learn about the ruins.  If they are out of loaners, or you want your own printed guide, they are for sale for $2 each.

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The name ‘Aztec’ was given to the site by early explorers and it stuck.  Situated next to the Animas River, this location was the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas Valley.  It was being built and in use for over 200 years.  Then, around 1300 AD, the natives left the area, abandoning the site.  In the early 1900’s, excavation was begun of the West Ruins, the part we toured today.

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The Kiva, or meeting house, was reconstructed in the 1920’s.  The roof is estimated to weigh several tons.  You have to descend a flight of stairs to get in and another to get out.

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The doorways were quite short.  Mom, of course, had no problems with them.

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It is amazing the amount of work that went into building this community.  Each rock had to be carefully selected and carried back to the area to be placed.  The planning required to get the entire place to flow smoothly from room to room is awe inspiring.

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We were able to go inside the building, crouching to move from room to room.  If you are claustophobic, don’t worry.  There were windows built into the walls that connect to open air areas.

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The North wall has been found to perfectly follow the path of the sun on the summer solstice.

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Another puzzle that archeologists are trying to figure out is the line of green stones that run along the walls.

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The sheer size of the ruins is amazing, but so is the fact that there are more ruins that haven’t been uncovered.  The entire East side of the community still lie buried.

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The weight of history and mystery lies heavy in this area.  You can almost hear the voices of those who lived and died here, continuing their daily routines of survival.  This park really stood out with the way we were able to really interact with it.  You went into buildings and through doorways and up and down stairs, similar to those people who had lived here.  This was a really interesting, interactive site to visit.

Mesa Verde National Park

Between Mancos and Cortez, CO lies Mesa Verde National Park.  Created in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt, this Mesa has been occupied off and on since 7500 bc.  It is believed that the people originally built pueblos around 650 ad and then began building the cliff dwellings in the 12th century.

Luckily, we didn’t have to climb the mesa on foot, but the drive up takes nerves of steel.  As you ascend, you’re able to see out over the surrounding land.  The curves are sharp and the incline steady.  Mom spent most of the time wowing at the stunning views and reminding me to keep my eyes on road.

Eventually, we made it to view the cliff dwellings.  Due to rock falls, they aren’t allowing tours of the dwellings right now, but you can get a great view from the Chapin Museum area.

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One of the interesting things we learned is that the park is a federally exclusive jurisdiction, which means the park has its own police, emergency medical team and its own post office.

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The drive is amazing (if a little nerve wracking), the scenery is beautiful, and the architecture is stunning.  From May 1st to October 31st, the price per vehicle is $20.  From November 1st until April 30th, it is $15.  There is camping available and a lodge on site if you’re interested in staying in the park.  Last year, when we were driving across the country on our trial run, we stayed at the lodge in the park.  It seemed pretty rustic to us and cell service was non-existent and wifi spotty.  But, it was an experience.

Bandelier National Monument

Just outside of Los Alamos, NM lies the Bandelier National Monument.  During the busy months (May 15-October 15), visitors must park at the White Rock Visitors Center and catch a shuttle into the park.  Seemed a bit silly to me, at the outset, but once the bus was rattling up and up the tight corners to reach the Bandelier Visitors Center, I was glad not to be behind the wheel for once.

The monument covers 33,677 acres of mountainous terrain that is also home to a huge, currently dormant caldera.  It is also home to the ground based and cliff dwellings of the Pueblo People, dating between 1150 and 1600 a.d.  It was officially made a national monument on February 11, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.  Over 70% of the monument is classified as wilderness.

The bus drops passengers off at the Visitors Center, where you can walk through exhibits, watch a short film or buy gifts at the book shop or gift shop.

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The main area of visitation is in the Frijoles Canyon.  This is where you’ll find the Main Loop Trail, which is what we took.

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The mountainside is peppered with caves and holes.  Many made by nature, but quite a few weren’t.  But the Pueblo People lived both in the communal long houses or up in the cliffs.

They gardened and lived in the village Tyuonyi (Que-weh-nee).  There are around 400 rooms and housed about 100 people.

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The size of the ground site is pretty impressive, even when viewed from up by the cliff houses.

Those require a bit of a climb up both stairs and ramps, as well as ladders if you want to see into the dwellings.

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The fact that they were even able to reach these areas and make them a livable space is quite a feat.  And easily defended.  If someone tried to attack, they’d pull up the ladders and be safely out of reach.

The whole area is beautiful, from its rugged cliffs, pine forests and grassy valley.

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Definitely worth the shuttle ride up and down.  Without a National Parks Pass, it is $20 per automobile, $15 for motorcycles and someone on a bike or walking in is $10.  Not bad for such a majestic sight.  While we kept to the Main Loop Trail, the more adventurous might like to try out any of the other 70 miles worth of trails in the park.  This is absolutely something to see if you’re in the Northern New Mexico area.

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument

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This morning, Mom and I set off to find the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  Now, I’m going to admit right now that heights and I do not mix.  Especially open air bridge type heights.  Normally, if I’m looking through the camera, it isn’t so bad.  Today, that was not the case.  Sorry.

This bridge sits 565 feet over the Rio Grande river and is the 7th highest in the US and 82nd in the world.  Construction began in 1963 and ended in 1965.  It lies on US Highway 64, heading towards Taos, NM.

There were miles upon miles of open brush on either side.  We could go several minutes without seeing another car.  With the mountains as backdrops, it was beautiful.  Then, as you come over another rise, you see the tear in the Earth’s surface and can barely fathom the size of this gorge.

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Approaching from west, we found the Rio Grande del Norte rest area, which is also a state park.

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There were barriers up along the side of the road, making it difficult to park to walk out on the bridge, but there was a path to get some good pictures from the sides.

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We decided to drive out to Taos, just to give it a quick look over, before heading back to try and get a few pictures from the bridge.

I tried to go as far as I could (probably about 15 feet) out on the bridge to capture the sheer size of the gorge, but the slight shaking of the bridge as automobiles went by gave my acrophobia just too strong of a nudge and these were all I could take before nearly running back to the car.

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It really is an impressive piece of engineering and an awesome sight of Nature’s work.  I would recommend seeing this if you are in the Taos region.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

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Sitting around 10 miles outside of the Las Cruces campus of New Mexico State University lies the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.  The mountains provide the backdrop to the many acres of scrub lands and trails that dot this area.

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At almost 500,000 acres, this national monument contains several mountain ranges that are part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Over half the land is protected from any development or use of motorized vehicles.  This area was once home to Billy the Kid and Geronimo.  Many prehistoric fossils have been found as well as pteroglyphs left by the original Native American tribes that lived here.

There are many hiking trails throughout the monument, but no matter where you look, there is a stunning view.

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The view down to Las Cruces.

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The hummingbird feeder at the Dripping Springs welcome center.

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Whether you’re a hiker, a birder or just appreciate the wonder of Nature, a trip to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks should be on your to-do list if you’re ever near Las Cruces, NM.