Desert Favorites 2018
Although there’s not much to Bluff—a few dusty streets fit between incongruously orange bluffs and a snaking river, a handful of old Victorian homes, and a cemetery with a beautiful view—we’d like to go back. We had an appointment in Flagstaff so we had to pass through without thoroughly exploring the area. (I think you’d need a lifetime to really explore this corner of the earth!) Through the years, Bluff yo-yoed between multiple booms and busts (agrarian, livestock, coal, gold, oil, uranium) so it has an expectant feel to it as if biding time for the next big thing. It’s a jumping off point for Bears Ears and, from the yard signs, a lot of the town’s people are worried, for good reason, the monument will be taken from them, and us.
We stumbled upon the Dead Horse Ranch State Park when we couldn’t find any uncrowded boondocking spots around Sedona. Only about 20 miles from Sedona, it would have been an easy drive back for a day trip. But there was enough to keep us busy nearby that we didn’t leave. Mitch found some good road bike routes; the park maintained a nice trail system with access to miles of national forest trails. And best of all, we could ride our bikes into town for beers!
McDowell Mountain Regional Park
We’d seen the tail fins along this stretch of I-10 on our other trips out west and had just assumed it was an airport or military base. Now, with Mitch’s commercial drone pilot license, he researches all things “aero”. So as we were approaching the tail fins this time, Mitch said, “I’m pretty sure that’s a graveyard.” We pulled off the interstate to investigate.
There are actually two graveyards right next to each other. The formal “Boneyard” is part of the Davis-Monthan AFB. With 4,400 military airplanes it is the largest aircraft boneyard in the world. Right beside it is the Pinal Airpark where commercial airplanes go to die (believe it or not, they call the dismantling process “end-of-life services”). If you make advance plans (which leaves us out) you can get a tour of The Boneyard. The Pima Air and Space Museum runs the tours. They require a minimum of 10 days notice so they can run a background check on you. But anyone can drive into the Pinal Airpark and, let me tell you, it is bizarre.
It used to be the Marana Army Air Field and was off limits to civilians. The CIA ran global covert air operations out of it starting in the 1950s. It was the maintenance home of the CIA owned airline, Air America. We paused at the entrance, eyeing the abandoned guard house, but continued on. Once inside, the area had a “ghost town” feel to it. Weeds grew up through cracks in the asphalt roads; many of the cross “streets” were dirt trails; and huge, eerily quiet airliners in various stages of dissection were scattered all over the place. Some had lost their nose cones and tails so you could look straight through their cylindrical bodies. Some had lost their landing gear and sat on stacks of wood pallets. We saw old TWA airplanes, huge double-decker airliners, and lots of international carriers we’d never heard of. It felt like we shouldn’t be there and we kept waiting for a Hummer full of scary guys with AK 47s to descend on us, force us to delete our photos, and escort us out. But our only encounter was with a chubby security officer in a newish sedan who told us to watch out for coyotes.
This was THE most beautiful boondocking site ever! Ironwood is west of Tucson on yet another dusty, washboardy road. Camping is allowed on any of the turn-outs off the main road. We passed a number of them thinking they were only 4WD trails before we saw another camper tucked into one. Our spot was about 300 yards off the road and ended in a truck-camper sized plateau with a gorgeous view of the area. It took a lot of maneuvering to get into it, and a lot of cringing as we listened to ironwood branches (they are named “ironwood” for good reason!) scratch the length of the camper. But we had a perfect evening as we watched the sun set over the tranquil landscape. And then, early the next morning, we raced out of our perfect spot because our poor little puppy dog got really, really sick. Thus started a week of vet visits, pet ER waiting rooms, X-rays, ultra sounds, medications, and worry.
Patagonia is a funky little town about 30 miles from the Mexican border in a beautiful area of grass, cactus, and pine tree covered mountains. We first boondocked about 6 miles from town off of Harshaw Road in the Coconino National Forest. From there we took turns biking into town (see #4 in The Trouble with Boondocking). Then we stayed at Patagonia Lake State Park about 10 miles south of town. The state park was enormous with over 100 campsites, a marina, a store, a nature center, guided pontoon boat tours, two boat ramps, and no cell phone service. My favorite part of the park was the trail that followed Sonoita Creek. Tucked tidily into a valley, the creek was a different world—green and lush with the water in the creek rushing and gurgling like a mountain stream. So different from the dusty landscape we’d become accustomed to.
In between our boondocking site and our campground reservation, we went to Nogales, AZ to do a Walmart run and to try a restaurant that the woman in the Patagonia Visitor’s Center had raved about. Cocina La Ley, down a narrow, scary side street beside an auto repair shop, was not a place you’d stumbled upon. The place was packed. But the minute we walked in the door, a man, who turned out to be the owner, told us to have a seat. He followed us to the table, pulled out a chair, sat down with us, and explained every detail of their menu (beef tongue was one of their specialties – the fish tacos were more our speed though!). “Order slow,” he said. “We make it fast.” We ordered a couple of tacos, and then a couple more, and then their wonderful seafood soup which they only have on weekends, and then another seafood soup to take with us. Nogales is no garden spot, but I’d return just to go back to that restaurant.
We boondocked for two nights at Las Cienegas. Except for the mountains in the background, the vast views of rolling grassland made me homesick for Nebraska. The entire area was once part of a cattle operation called the Empire Ranch that by the late 1800s encompassed over a million acres. The original ranch house is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is being restored so we couldn’t go through it but we were allowed to walk around the grounds. Surrounded by the peaceful, lonesome landscape, it seemed impossible that once this land was a busy, thriving ranch.
Aguirre Spring Campground near Las Cruces, New Mexico
I don’t think a person could ever tire of the views from this campground. In one direction you can see for miles, looking down over the boundless, sloping basin landscape. Then turn around and look up at the rugged, Organ Mountains jutting from the desert like a prehistoric jawbone. Biking and running was tough because everything was either steep up or steep down. But Brandi and I went on a gorgeous hike on the Pine Tree Trail. We crossed streams, wound through pine forests, and passed beside sprawling alligator juniper trees (their bark actually looks like alligator skin). The morning we left threatened rain but it didn’t make it to us. We watched as the clouds rolled up towards the pass and then receded like the tide.
Prada Marfa, somewhere in west Texas
If the dictionary had a definition of “the middle of no where” it would simply be a picture of this place. Too hard to explain. Must see video.