A perennial favorite: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Golden barrel cactus radiate in the morning sun

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park never fails to inspire and impress me. It’s not only one of the best places to see spring wildflowers and wildlife in Arizona, it’s an ideal spot to bring visiting out-of-state guests who want to see some native flora and fauna — no matter what the season. Plus the popular destination attracts photographers who want to catch a shot of a perfect sunrise, a rare bird or one of the garden’s amazing cactus blossoms.

What’s impressive is the number of activities, classes, guided hikes, plant sales, and other activities and events are held each year. No weekend at Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the same. Of course, you’ll walk the same paths, stop at the same viewpoints, gaze at the same gardens paths and lunch at the same picnic areas, yet it always feels like a new experience. Every time I visit the park, I almost feel like it’s my first time.

Ayer Lake attracts birds, butterflies and dragonflies

Ayer Lake attracts birds, butterflies and dragonflies

Even in the summer, visits to the park can be pleasant — especially during the early morning hours. The huge cottonwood trees in the picnic areas provide cool shady comfort. Walks along the creek and canyon are equally enjoyable.

Learn more about which wildflower varieties and cactus blooms currently are visible at one of several upcoming guided tours. Visit the arboretum’s University of Arizona website or watch the short video on the State Park website.

Historic Smith Building was the original park visitor center

Historic Smith Building was the original park visitor center

The park is open daily except Christmas Day. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except during May through August when hours are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Last admission is one hour before closing. Fees are $9 for adults/teens 13 and older, $4.50 for ages 5-12. Frequent visitors may want to consider membership options or becoming a volunteer.

Excellent views of Boyce Thompson Arboretum from the High Trail

Excellent views of Boyce Thompson Arboretum from the High Trail

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Explore Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park in Safford

Discovery Park's shuttlecraft Polaris takes 'tours' to the planets

When I would think of Safford, the first thing that would come to mind is a small town in southeast Arizona, the center of Arizona’s patchwork of agricultural acreage. Now, after a visit last month to the Graham County seat, other images will appear: Safford — as the site of the world’s largest binocular telescope atop nearby Mount Graham, and as the location of Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park campus.

Discovery Park is several educational attractions in one. It’s more than just a community college campus, it’s the official visitor center for University of Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory, where travelers can embark for day-long tours to the top Mount Graham to view three world class telescopes: the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter (Radio) Telescope of the Arizona Radio Observatory, and the Large Binocular Telescope. The latter is reported to be the largest binocular telescope in the world.  Through advance reservations, visitors may book a 40-mile road trip up to the top of 10,720-feet high Mount Graham. They are treated to a sack lunch along with a tour of each of the telescope facilities. Trips are arranged through Discovery Park from May through October and spaces are limited, so those interested may want to call well ahead of time to reserve space for May 2013.

Old butter churn, paddle and mold: Discovery Park's also a temporary host for Graham County history

Discovery Park visitor center is also a historical museum. Portions of the Graham County Historical Society’s museum exhibit, originally housed in an aging school building in neighboring Thatcher, have been moved into the galleries at Discovery Park until the Historical Society can find a new home. Now Discovery Park visitors also will be able to get a glimpse into Graham County history. Here you can view artifacts, farm tools, cooking utensils and historic documents from the mid- and late19th century pioneers.

Learn about light and sound in Discovery Park's science gallery

And the Discovery Park visitor’s center also is a space science center, so it’s an especially great place to bring the kids. Families can learn about the planets, the Sun, and light and sound waves of space. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to “hear” space. The history of astronomy and contributions by important innovators of planetary, earth and physical sciences are described in the galleries. If you plan your visit on a clear Saturday evening, you’ll be able view the night sky through Governor Aker Observatory’s Tinsley 20” telescope.

A highlight of our visit to Discovery Park’s visitor center was the Space Shuttle Polaris, a flight motion simulator vehicle, which takes passengers on a 10-minute jostling, jolting tour of all the planets, lifting off from the top of Mount Graham and the Pinaleno Mountains. It’s reminiscent of Disney’s Star Tours ride attraction, with elevators, doors, long drops and fast swoops. Even though you’re only watching an on-screen video for the ride, you may want to hang on to the seat — some of those visual effects can be knuckle-whitening!

Walk through riparian wetland areas - part of Nature's Hideaway at Discovery Park

After my flight simulator ride, it was time to get a little fresh air. So, while I regained my composure, I learned that this multipurpose venue continues beyond the visitor center doors. Discovery Park is also a wildlife preserve. The riparian wetland area below the visitor center, called Nature’s Hideaway, includes several desert trails and walkways. During our visit, summer monsoon rains were preparing to refill the low-lying ponds, which attract migrating ducks and other waterfowl. Our visitor center host provided us with some snack crackers for Howard. (The duck, of course.) We walked down the sloping driveway to the grassy, reedy ponds looking for Howard. We didn’t see any ducks that afternoon, but we did find an excellent environment for watching wildlife.

It's snack time for Discovery Park's box turtle and tortoise

Just as we were leaving, we passed a miniature locomotive engine, the Discovery Park Express and its cars now sitting idle beyond a chain-linked fence. We were told that steep insurance costs now prevent the park from offering train rides. We hope — through private funding, grants or with a ‘Friends’ fundraising group — this train may once again may be chugging down Discovery Park’s narrow gauge track.

Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park campus, located at 1651 Discovery Park Blvd, is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no shuttle rides after 4:00 p.m.) and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Call 928-428-6260 for tours, special event reservations and more information.

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Wings Over Willcox nature festival bolsters tourism

Willcox, Arizona is earning a well-deserved place among Arizona’s tourism communities. When Arizona visitors think about Willcox, they will not only imagine singing cowboy-actors, apple orchards and agriculture, but also quaint shops, museums, fine wines and nature festivals.

Willcox can boast about being hometown to one of Arizona’s favorite celebrities: singing movie cowboy Rex Allen. His son, Rex Allen Jr. also brought his own fame to the small, but growing southeastern Arizona city. The region around Willcox also became known for its famous apple orchards and pistachios. More recently, a new crop of wine grapes has flourished and wineries have sprung up around Willcox. The town is now a popular spot for wine tasting.

What many don’t know: Willcox is famous for birds, birding and bird watching. Wings Over Willcox (WOW) is an annual birding and nature festival with the main focus on the winter migration of sandhill cranes. Seminars, trade show and bird tours bring visitors to Willcox for the four-day festival. This year’s event is January 12-15.

While in town for the event, visitors and festival attendees will have much to do and see. The chamber website has listings for attractions as well as dining and lodging.  The city’s website also contains visitor information. Here are just a few of the places we recently visited:

Downtown Willcox, along Railroad Avenue holds several of Willcox' main attractions. Willcox Commercial Store is said to be the oldest, continuously operating retail establishment in Arizona.

 

Also on Railroad Avenue, Rex Allen Museum is a tribute to the singing cowboy-actor and his son

 

Vintage Photography, Gambing Hall and Parlor is full of antiques and vintage clothing

 

Coronado Vineyards, a few miles northeast of Willcox, is one of several area wineries. Its retail shop has a large selection of quaint gifts, and wine, of course.

 

A Taste of Coronado offers Willcox visitors an option of upscale dining

Wine-tasting at Carlson Creek Winery

 

 

Window shopping along Railroad Avenue

Wine tasting room at Keeling Schaefer doubles as art gallery

Readers: what are your favorite things to do in Willcox? Any favorite restaurants? Attractions?

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!