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White Sands National Park

04/26/24 - En route to Santa Fe, I stayed in Las Cruces for a couple days. I was traveling with a friend who never saw the White Sands National Park, so we decided to make it a day trip. As part of the National Park Service, there is a fee. At the time of this post, the fee is $25.00 per car. I recommend buying the annual pass as that pays for itself in about two or three visits. I live in the desert southwest so I have a lot of parks nearby. Those of you back east might not see the same value in it, but if you are 62 or over, spring for the lifetime pass regardless of your location.

Image of white sandy drift with vegitation.

There is a visitor center when you pull in. I recommend stopping in and talking to a ranger. They can give you the lay of the park, the current conditions, and give you any advice you might be seeking about your trip. There is also information about the history of the area and the surprising number of plants and animals living there. The National Park covers about 1/2 of the 275 square mile dune field in the Chihuahuan Desert. One thing they stress is to make sure you have water. The other thing is to be mindful of how all of the white sand will affect the temperature. They advised that it makes it feel 10-15 degrees hotter and I can attest to that. I beleive it was in the 70s on my trip and it felt like mid 80s.

Image of white sandy dunes with a person for scale.

The park starts off with a mix of grassy sand dunes at first. If this is your first visit to the park, don't think that this is all you paid for. As you continue on, you get to deeper longer expanses of this brilliant white gypsum sand. From the car, you just see mounds of sand surrounding the roadway. Where you really see the enormity of this park is when you get out and ascend one of the dunes. Then you can see how far and wide this park goes. Some people take disk sleds to ride the sand, but it didn't look to me like it worked so well. You can camp there, but there are no fires allowed. I imagine it would be quite peaceful in the cooler weather.

Image of a sign, almost buried by the drifting.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

04/19/24 - The McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a free park operated by the city of Scottsdale's Parks & Recreation Department. It has some static train displays, a small museum, a model railroading display, a 5:12 scale ride-on railroad, a carousel, and some playgrounds for the kids. This is a very popular park that gets around 1 million visitors a year, according to their website. On the weekends it can be pretty crowded, especially with families so if you are looking for a time with fewer people, try visiting it during the week. I was there on a Saturday in spring and it was pretty crowded, but still an enjoyable experience.

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The static trains include a 1907 Baldwin 2-6-0 steam locomotive, a 1928 Pullman car, a WWII French Merci Car, some other passenger cars, and a caboose turned into a snack shop. The Pullman and the accompanying freight car are walk thru displays where you can see how people were accommodated in the heyday of rail travel. The locomotive is restored very well and has the markings for the Magma Arizona Railroad. The Magma was a cattle and copper freight line that connected Florence, AZ and Queen Creek, AZ, through Magma, AZ. The Merci car was one of a series of 49 cars that were sent from France after WWII to thank the US States for their contribution of food relief to France in 1948. There is a lot more detail and history about that whole program so I will include a link at the end of this post.

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The model railroading building has three massive layouts in O, HO/HOn3 and N scale. The level of detail and just the pure scale of these layouts is amazing. Different clubs are responsible for each of the layouts but there is a symmetry in the detail and execution that crosses all of the displays. You'll see small towns, industrial areas, bridges, mines, rail yards, and even a military base. There is a lot more there, which is half the fun of going to a place with model train displays. I know that I can look at these for hours, always finding something new. In addition to the three huge layouts, there is also some love shown for Z scale with a smaller display dedicated to this tiny scale. One of the neat things with one of the displays is that it is built to the Z Bend Standard which means that this modular layout can connect with others from other clubs as long as they too are built to the Z Bend Standard.

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In addition to these things, there is a small museum with some railroad memorabilia in a converted station, a display of the history of the park in a smaller converted station, a gift shop, and a snack shop. For a train enthusiast, this could be a 1/2 day excursion if you really wanted to soak up all that this park has to offer. And since it is free, if you don't want to spend all of that time there, that certainly is an option too.

Desert Botanical Garden

04/12/24 - It's spring in the desert, so I decided to take a trip down to the Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale. I've driven by it for years, but I'm not much of a gardener so I never felt much of a draw to it. But, after the rain we had this winter, the places I do go for hiking an outdoor activities were more colorful than typical, so it seemed like a good time to check this place out. It seemed like a lot of other people felt the same way, because the parking lot was jammed, but once in side, I found the place somewhat busy, but not out of control. There is a main trail, named the Desert Discovery Trail and 4 additional trails that branch off of it and loop back, making it easy to navigate. There are a ton of volunteers there who are willing to help you if you get lost or if you just want more information about things in the garden.

Walking bridge entrance to the Desert Botanical Gardens.
Cardon cactus, about 25 feet high.

One of the things that I enjoyed was finding out more about the plants that I see in my own trips into nature. I know the names of a lot of what I see, but I don't know them all, and within the ones I do know, it's neat to find out more about them. With 50,000 plants here, there is a lot to see. When a specific plant is featured, there is a plackard that gives you more information about it. And the information is tailored to the trail you are on. Did you know the difference between a Saguaro and a Cardon cactus? I did not, but I do now. Also, if you are on the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert trail, the plackard will give you information on how the plant was used, or what parts of it are edible. On the Desert Wildflower trail, there is information on how the specific plant is of value to bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, etc.

A view of one of the waking trails with barrel cacti and other assorted desert plants.
Small bunny in the brush at the Desert Botanical Garden.

If you put that much flora in one place, you are bound to see some fauna. On this trip, I saw a bunny, a butterfly, some bees, and all kinds of birds. There was one display showing how birds use Saguaro as their homes and as if on queue, a bird flew into a hole at the top of a nearby cactus. The Desert Wildflower trail had specifc subsections for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds and I saw some of each while I was there. In addition to the trails, there is a butterfly pavillion, a restaurant, and a gift shop. One of the areas was cordoned off becuase a wedding reciption was being held. I think that is a capital idea as this place was beautiful and tranquil. If you go, make sure you are aware of the weather as this is all outdoors and there is not a lot of shade. Also, different seasons bring different looks in the desert so They do have water fountains and bottle fillers thoughtout the garden, so bringing a refillable bottle would be a good move. The ticket price when I went, was 29.95. Maricopa County Library members can get 2 free passes as part of the Culture Pass program.

Selection of wildflowers from the Desert Wildflower Trail,
Selection of desert flora as viewed from the bridge.

Hiking in Phoenix

04/05/24 - I got a call from an old friend who was passing through town and as he often does, he suggested we get together for a hike. I was reminded of how much good hiking there is in the Phoenix area. Most of it is on the flat side, but you can find some elevation if you try. And the desert can be beautiful if you pay attention to the details. There are about 3 months a year where hiking is just a hot mess, but for the other nine it's a great way to get outdoors, see some nature, and get some exercise. I have run across about 5 rattlesnakes since I've been here, and that's 5 too many for me, but they have all seemed to be more afraid of me than I of them. (If that is possible). Phoenix and the surrounding area is covered in trails for all abilities. Let's take a hike!

Waterfall trail at White Tanks Mountain Park.

Estrella Mountain Regiona Park is part of the Maricopa County park system. It is a less used gem of a park, just south of I-10 in Goodyear. It is 19,840 acres of mostly desert, with some seasonal wetlands. At one time, it was actually in Mexico, before the border moved. Most of the 17 trails are in the Easy or Moderate range, with only two listed as Moderate-Difficult. The longest trail is 8.4 miles, but you can put together multiple trails if you want something longer. This park has a lot of intesecting trails so it is easy to vary it up doing part of one and part of others. The difficulty in hiking Phoenix is usually tied to the weather in which you try to do it. There is not much shade so plan accordingly and bring adequate water. This park has a daily fee. At the time of this post it is $7.00 per car, but that also includes entry to the other Maricopa County Parks for the same day.

Baseline Trail at Estrella Mountain Park

Skyline Regional Park is a free park in Buckeye. It has 17 trails but they are smaller than the ones in the other parks. Like the others, you can link several together to get a longer hike in. Unlike the others, you can get a little bit of an elevation change here. Some trails like the Skyline Crest are up on the top of the hills and you have to gain some elevation to get there. In the picture below, you may be able to pick up some hint of the trail horiontally crossing in the middle of the shot. 4 of the trails here are classified as difficult, which I attribute to the elevation changes. This park is also part of the White Tank Mountains, but not part of the White Tanks park. There are a few slips for RV camping. At the time of this post, the cost is $20 per night.

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There are many other places to hike in Phoenix. These are just a few of my go to parks since they are local to me. Links to the parks and their trail maps below

Estrella Mountain Regional Park website
Estrella Mountain Regional Park map
Skyline Regional Park website
Skyline Regional Park map - Best Hikes in Phoenix


04/24, 03/24, 02/24, 01/24