Relaxing getaway at Roper Lake State Park

Natural hot springs tub makes Roper Lake unique

Remember Roper Lake State Park if you’re considering a peaceful Arizona weekend getaway. When we visited in early September, the place seemed almost empty. Except for a group of scouts loading up canoes, there were only a few several travel trailers plus a couple of tents scattered throughout the park — hardly any activity, granted it was a rather rain-soaked Sunday morning. But I have a feeling when the weather’s better, Roper Lake State Park, located 171 miles southeast of Phoenix, is probably buzzing with action. Roper Lake lures visitors for a variety of reasons. Here are a few:

Canoeing, kayaking. Add to that: paddleboarding, sail boarding and inflatable rafting. Exploring Roper Lake’s shores for wildlife sightings is one way to unwind. This quiet lake would be a great place for beginners to sharpen their skills on a non-motorized watercraft. Practice kayaking; try out stand-up paddleboarding. Rest assured: No jet skis or high-powered outboards will go whizzing by.

Mount Graham capped with clouds is a backdrop to Roper Lake's beach

Swimming. Roper Lake is one of 12 Arizona state parks with a designated swimming area and it also has a few hundred feet of “beach.” Although we didn’t see any people in the water on this rainy day — the only swimmers were ducks. I guess I could imagine children wading in the sandy shallows as a possibility, but the water looks to be more like a murky pond: muddy, sandy, with plenty of cattails.

Mariah Mesa Trail walkway starts from the hot tub area

Hiking. A short nature trail appears to be the only marked path. The Mariah Mesa Trail is about .75 mile and takes one up to a short ridge, but hikers are rewarded with closer views of views of Mount Graham and Pinaleno Mountains as well as blankets of Graham County farm fields. Walking around other sections of the park, such as along the lake’s edge and campground paths will measure about five miles. Otherwise serious hikers will be drawn to Mount Graham for numerous possibilities.

Picnicking. There’s a large picnic ramada on Roper Lake’s “island.” This location would be an excellent place for the family reunion, church or company picnic. Better bring the rolling cooler and wagon, because no vehicles are allowed in this area; it’s a bit of a toting distance from the parking lot. However, the grassy lawn area is ample enough to start up a game of touch football – just be alert that those long passes don’t get too long, or you’d be swimming out in the reeds for the reception.

Quaint camp cabins have porch swings

Camping. Cute little cabins have bunk beds, heat and a/c inside, and picnic tables, fire pits and porch swings outside. I’m imagining a perfect weekend retreat for relaxation: sitting on the porch swing finally finishing that novel and ‘cozying up’ around the campfire during the evening chill.

Fishing.  Small, quiet and calm, Roper Lake would be ideal waters for teaching children or beginners how to fish. There’s a fully accessible fishing dock, and 30 acres of surface area. Largemouth bass and rainbow trout are the popular catches. The park store has fishing supplies and bait.

Soaking.  Roper Lake State Park comes equipped with its own natural hot springs! It’s actually just one of many in this part of Arizona. But others are either on private land or difficult to reach. I’m estimating the waters in this park tub are about 95-100 degrees — perfect for a short “ah” moment. Imagine relaxing here after a day of fishing, paddleboarding or hiking.

A snowy egret tests the Roper Lake waters

Wildlife watching. As we strolled along the beach, we saw a number of different waterfowl and wading birds, including a snowy egret. Killdeer piercing high notes split the light breezy quiet of our morning. The high country desert scrub geography nestled at the foot of Mount Graham brings many other kinds of wildlife to view during the dusk and dawn.

Stargazing. Of course, you could venture up to the top of Mount Graham for a close-up view of stars, moons and planets or just relax in front of your cabin or in the hot tub and stare at the night sky. Because you’re far from Tucson or Phoenix city illumination, you’ll have a better view of constellations or the over-passing International Space Station.

Only major negative about Roper Lake State Park? It badly needs TLC. We noticed facilities were fair condition at best. Structures, signs and benches need repair and paint; day use areas need cleaning and clearing. We hope — if not the state parks department — maybe the Friends of Roper Lake will act soon to help with upkeep. Unfortunately, at this writing the group’s website was removed.

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Pros outweigh cons at Ashurst Lake

Arizona visitors to Arizona’s Ashurst Lake likely will conclude the pros slightly outweigh the cons. Ashurst Lake, located about 20 miles south of Flagstaff, has several strong points to its favor, but it does have a few minuses. However, those negatives shouldn’t be enough to keep most people away.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is usually filled. Water from rainfall, snowmelt and a few springs keeps the lake as a recreation attraction, even during dry early summer months. While Mormon Lake and Lake Mary are reduced to large puddles, fishermen could catch their yield at Ashurst Lake. Stocked rainbow trout is the common sight on stringers. Also, shoreline is easily accessible for the most part. From the road, several parking lots or two campgrounds, it’s an easy walk to the water’s edge.

Minus: Sadly, as you walk along the water’s edge you’ll see the large amounts of garbage. I understand some fisherman may unintentionally leave behind a broken bobber or two, but the bags of trash, cartons of empty beer cans, disposable diapers, broken lawn chairs, etc. make me discouraged. Ugh. A major peeve of mine: Some campers or day users are simply too lazy to carry their garbage back to the trash cans or their cars.

Plus: At Ashurst Lake you can see forever… well, at least for miles. You’ll be able lose any claustrophobia you picked up from the dense Ponderosa pines in nearby Coconino National Forest. You can inhale deep breaths of big sky before you realize you’re still in Arizona, not Montana. Late summer afternoons will consolidate those big cumulus clouds overhead. At Ashurst Lake, you’ll have full view of the monsoon storm cells mounting over the San Francisco Peaks.

Minus: Your views and images both from your mind’s eye and on digital media can’t help but include those high voltage electric transmission lines, Yes, I suppose a more ambitious photographer would “photoshop them out” of the photos, but then you’d have to question: Is the scenery around the electric poles really worth the photo editing effort? No: It’s a reality — Ashurst Lake just isn’t that beautiful. It’s more “ruggedly handsome.”

Plus: If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of metro Phoenix, Tucson or Flagstaff (is it okay to use the word, “metro” before Flagstaff?), you can find peace and tranquility at Ashurst Lake. The only screams heard will be those of joy when a youngster catches his first rainbow trout or when a group of teenage girls pretend to rock their canoe to and fro as if to tip it over. Or you may hear a call from shoreline to parking lot to bring down another beer or sandwich from the cooler. You may hear the calls from a huge variety of birds coming from the south end of the lake in the reedy, marshy areas. Great blue herons, ducks and many other shorebirds congregate at Ashurst Lake. Bring your scopes, zoom lenses and binoculars to get a closer view.

Minus: After you’ve spent a nice afternoon walking the lake, fishing offshore or from a small boat you may need to the restroom facilities. Please be warned: You may want to hold it until you get back to your camper, trailer or Mormon Lake Lodge. The restrooms we saw were pretty disgusting.

Plus: Ashurst Lake is great for boating. When we visited, we saw cartoppers, canoes, kayaks and a small, motorized pontoon boat (10HP limit). Most operators had their lines dropped to fish, but I think these boaters were really out on the lake for some of other “plusses.” What’s more, the boat ramp at Ashurst Lake makes launching a breeze.

Power towers, trashy shoreline and stinky outhouses might keep some people away from Ashurst Lake, but I believe most visitors will decide the pros will outnumber the cons. Camping is nearby; the shoreline is walkable; fishing is consistently good; wildlife – especially birds of all sizes and species – is plentiful. And Ashurst Lake is a short half hour drive from Flagstaff.

Note: While I was looking up info about Ashurst Lake, I landed on Arizona Game and Fish Department’s HabiMap. I didn’t even know this existed! If you like mapping and playing with layers, images and attributes like I do, you may want to play around with it. Plus, AGFD is always putting out more data and updates, so if you haven’t been to this mapping website lately, you may want to check it out again.

Woods Canyon Lake: Not just for fishing

Arizona has arrived at the ‘dog days of summer.’ Most Arizona metro streets are almost desolate on weekends. Every Arizona city-dweller with an RV, trailer, tent, cabin or hotel reservation escapes the heat, and heads out of town for cooler temps in northern and east-central Arizona (or any elevation over 6000 feet). Many campers will likely be on their way to Woods Canyon Lake.

Woods Canyon Lake is so popular during the summer for many obvious reasons. It has a beautiful location. It’s an easy two-hour drive from the Valley. You don’t need a monster mud truck to get to the site. It has great fishing, camping, hiking — and yes — it’s at least 15 degrees cooler. But there’s much more to Woods Canyon Lake than most people realize.

For instance, not everyone knows that Woods Canyon Lake has day-use facilities for lakeside picnicking. Don’t let the “campground full” sign deter you. You can still get in a day of fishing and picnicking. Rocky Point Picnic Area is located immediately adjacent to the lake, just northwest of the marina and store area. For a $5 day use fee, picnickers can enjoy a meal while watching trout fisherman float around the coves and inlets or gazing overhead for a chance sighting of one of Woods Canyon Lake’s large bird species, such as osprey or bald eagle. Just beyond the picnic area, you may spot one of the eagle nests high in the treetops.

Another popular attraction for visitors to Woods Canyon Lake are several hiking trails and nature paths in the vicinity. The main Woods Canyon Lake Trail makes a 5.5-mile circumference of the lake. It’s an easy walk of 2-3 hours. During summer months, you’ll see a variety of lush ferns and grasses growing from the forest floor under a canopy of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and oak. Watch for green meadows speckled with bright yellow wildflowers and steep, rocky ravines. If you start your hike southeast (to the right) of the lake’s marina, you’ll walk past people fishing offshore and over the earthen spillway. Soon you’ll be in a dense woods. Careful, now: Arizonans from mid-western and eastern states could get sentimental.  An easier walking option is the Meadow Trail, a paved path that short cuts through the campgrounds to a string of three Mogollon Rim overlooks along FR 300. Check the HikeArizona.com site and Woods Canyon Lake facility map for other nearby hikes.

Don’t forget to bring your bikes with you to Woods Canyon Lake. Many of the hiking trails nearby are also rated for mountain biking. These include the Rim Vista Trail 622 and FR 235. Just be alert for lightning as well as fast moving trucks zipping around the curves. Some people may think they’re still on the four-lane sections of State Route 260. Log on to everytrail.com to see more bike trails.

On summer Saturday evenings, families will have the opportunity to sit around the Woods Canyon Lake amphitheater and listen to one of Ranger Bob’s nature programs. This season the focus is wildfires – how they start, prevention and tools firefighters use to extinguish the fires. It’s both education and entertainment for the entire family. Programs start at 7:30 p.m. Don’t forget the snacks, hot chocolate and a blanket – for those chilly Rim country evenings.

Only non-motorized boats are permitted on Woods Canyon Lake and as you would guess, most are fishing boats. But that doesn’t stop other outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the lake for kayaking, canoeing or floating in an inflatable raft. You may even seen a small pontoon boat floating around the lake perimeter and coves, fishing, watching for wildlife — just enjoying those cool, mountain breezes and blue skies. Take a look at the Desert Mountain Paddlers meetup site to watch a fascinating slide show from the group’s adventures at Woods Canyon Lake last October.

If you’re going to Woods Canyon Lake to camp during summer months, know that these sites are scooped up quickly. Sites can be reserved online, and also, there are a few that are available on a “first-come, first served” basis.  Obviously on non-holiday weekends after the school year starts, sites become more available.

Handy links:

Woods Canyon Lake camping

WoodsCanyonLake.com

Woods Canyon Lake facility map

Apache – Sitgreaves National Forest

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Seven reasons to visit Guaymas/San Carlos, Sonora

San Carlos is one of our favorite Mexican getaways. The resort area is about a seven-hours’ drive south from Phoenix and half an hour from Guaymas, Sonora. It’s an easy drive though Tucson, Nogales and Hermosillo. Spring is a perfect time to visit. We love San Carlos for the same reasons most tourists enjoy Mexico: beaches, fishing, boating, diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, shopping, dining, nightlife, sight-seeing… the list seems endless. Here are just a few things we love best about the destination:

1. Crystal clean pools at our resort, the Sea of Cortez Beach Club

2. San Pedro Island’s sea lions

3. Walks along the beach: Playa Los Algodones

4. Sensational sunsets over San Luis, Doble and Venado Islands

5. Tours to Guaymas to see the city hall, municipal plaza and this church: Iglesia San Fernando

6. Snorkeling at San Pedro Island

7. Tetakawi Mountain and Lalo Cove

San Carlos has a wide variety of dining and lodging accommodations. Here are a few websites we recommend for additional travel information:

What’s Up San Carlos

San Carlos, Mexico

Go2SanCarlos

Desert Divers

 

 

Dead Horse Ranch packing list: what to bring to a state park that has ‘it all’

The Verde River provides a lush setting for Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Dead Horse Ranch State Park could be called the “ultimate” state park. It’s everything anyone could ever want in a state park. I mean, when you consider its location, events, history, attractions, beauty, activities — did I say location? — it has got to be up there near the top of the list.

I opted to make up a little packing list in case you want make a visit to Dead Horse Ranch State Park, located just outside of Cottonwood, Ariz.

 

1. Tent, RV or Sleeping bag and toothbrush

That’s right, you have your choice of accommodations. Some like tent camping; others prefer RV’s and the park has plenty of room for both. Or if you think Motel 6 is your idea of “roughing it,” perhaps you could try out one of the camp cabins. In that case, all you need is your sleeping bag and toothbrush (okay, maybe a few extras). Make your camping reservations online.

Two of the camping cabins at Dead Horse Ranch State Park

 

 

2. Soap-on-a-rope

… for your hot shower of course! Dead Horse Ranch campgrounds are equipped with clean restrooms and hot water showers, so naturally you’ll want to bring your towel, shampoo, conditioner and your soap-on-a-rope (shower gel works too.) And judging from the review sites, the facilities are  very well maintained.

 

3. Picnic basket or equivalent

I’m not sure if people still use these, but if you don’t have a picnic basket then just bring the ice chest stuffed with all your favorite goodies. The park has plenty of tables and ramadas in the day use areas, available on a first-come first serve basis, unless prior reservations are made.

 

4. Paddles

…for the kayak or canoe you’ll want to bring! Picture yourself venturing out on the lagoon or exploring the Verde River.  Please leave behind the Hobie Cats, Jet Skis and 90hp Johnson outboard. These waterways are oar-power only.

 

5. Tackle box

You will need a variety of lures, rods and reels in case you want to try all out the fishing possibilities. Arizona Game and Fish recently stocked rainbow trout for the winter months. Lagoons are favorite spots but river provides good places to try your hand at fly-fishing. Don’t forget your fishing license, but if you do, you can always pick up one at the local Walmart, just four miles away in Cottonwood.

 

 

6. Footwear

You’ll need to bring a variety of footwear from your closet: hiking boots for hiking; riding boots for horseback riding and cycling shoes for mountain biking. There are lots of trails: short nature trails, perfect for strolling along the river or longer ones, such as the three trails that make up the 7.8-mile Dead Horse Trail System. And now that the 15-mile stretch of Lime Kiln Trail is complete, you can ride (or bike) all the way to Red Rock State Park. Almost every trail at Dead Horse Ranch State Park is shared use, so remember to follow trail etiquette.

Horseback riding is just one of many activities at Dead Horse Ranch State Park

 

7. Camera, binoculars and nature guidebooks

According to the Park website, common mammals are grey fox, jackrabbit, deer, bobcat, mountain lion, javelina, skunk, and as we were told by the campground host, even the occasional river otters make their home along the Verde. The Park also hosts the “Birdy Verde,” a short name for the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival each April and the Verde River Days, held each September. Both events are not only great family fun, but they promote awareness about outdoor recreation and wildlife. The main reason for the plentiful wildlife is the vast number of cottonwood trees — not to be taken for granted!

Cottonwood trees are 'huge' -- in every aspect of the word

 

8. Credit card or cash

Okay, if you’re still not convinced Dead Horse Ranch could be the perfect Arizona getaway, just remember to bring money. You can always go shopping — at the gift shop in the visitor’s center where you’ll not only find bait, water and incidentals but also souvenirs and t-shirts. Or while your spouse and kids are fishing, paddling, riding, biking or hiking, you can take a two-minute drive into Old Town Cottonwood for a latte or a little lunch, followed by Arizona wine-tasting and window shopping along Main Street  — dotted with quaint gift shops, antique stores and art galleries. And later, If you’re in the mood for some ‘old West’ entertainment, take the family to the Blazin’ M Ranch for dinner and a show. It’s literally just across the street from the park. You’d better add cowboy boots to the list of footwear!