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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’snature 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.
Visiting a fish hatchery may not sound very exciting, but a stop at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery will add both fun and a learning experience to your next family weekend getaway in Payson’s Rim Country. All ages will enjoy a tour of the hatchery and the fish feeding demonstration.
Stop at the visitor center. You’ll learn the entire process of raising trout that eventually will be stocked into Arizona’s fishing waters. Rainbow, brook, brown and native Apache trout have been produced here over the years. The site has undergone numerous upgrades since its opening in 1937. At the visitor center, storyboards, posters and scaled models explain the fascinating fish growing process.
Bring quarters for fish food. Don’t forget to carry some quarters to buy handfuls of fish pellets to drop into adult trout pond. Younger children will especially enjoy this activity.
Watch feedings by hatchery staff. During weekend afternoons visitors will have a good chance of seeing hatchery workers make their presentation about the hatchery operations while feeding the fish. Watch the “feeding frenzy” by the young trout as they splash wildly in the raceways — those long, rectangular fish tanks. Trout will spend their first 15 months at the hatchery.
Explore the grounds. Spend some time exploring the area. Take plenty of photographs. Find out about other wildlife in the area. Learn how those sturdy canopies over the raceways not only provide shade, but also keep the young trout safe from predatory birds.
Make a whole day of it. Combine your hatchery visit with a three to four hour day hike on Horton Creek Trail or other nearby trail, a picnic lunch at one of several day use sites, or fishing in Tonto Creek in designated areas below the hatchery. Also worth a visit is the nearby Naco Paleo Site, located about three miles west of the hatchery turnoff, south of State Route 260. Walk up the old Jeep trail a hundred feet or so, and inspect the sloping side of the hill for fossils.
In one sense, Costa Rica seems so distant, so remote. Yet at times it seems comfortably close to home – especially if you stay at Casa de Mariposas.
Casa de Mariposas, located just on the outskirts of Jaco, is a vacation home at the point where the rainforest meets the beach, and where ‘town meets country.’ Even when you pull up to the house, you’ll have this feeling that you could be in the middle of a jungle. The sound of exotic bird calls greets you, as does the warm friendly charm of the front porch. It’s like you were meant to be here. When you step inside, you get that feeling you’ve come home, almost as though you never left the city, but then you smell those wonderful flowers and plants that could only come from the Costa Rica rainforest.
You could call it luxury with a fringe of the wild side. I mean, all the resort amenities are there in the home: spacious living room with flat screen TVs, luxurious beds and huge walk-in showers of tile and glass, but the views from the second floor through the green canopy to Pacific Ocean beyond the beach, make you feel like you might be in a tree house or on a deserted island. Then you hear the faint sounds of Latin music and laughter coming from the boutique resort, Club del Mar, located across the street, where you, as a Casa de Mariposas guest, have complimentary use of most facilities.
Imagine both ends of the spectrum: that of a remote, private little world in the rainforest or on an unspoiled beach, then the images of a comfortable, familiar, welcoming vacation home. After spending nearly two weeks here, I concluded it really does have the best of both worlds, one of uncivilized: adventure, excitement and intense natural beauty, coupled together with another world of civilization with its full rewards — lounging around the pool, feasting on fresh seafood, enjoying a massage at a spa or golfing at the nearby Los Suenos Marriott.
A visit to the owner’s website is the best way to get more clear idea of region’s beauty plus you can be impressed by all the fine details of the home and also obtain additional information about the huge amount of local attractions and activities. On the website, you may conjure up an itinerary of deep sea fishing, surfing, Scuba diving and snorkeling, zip-lining and rafting, beach sports, beautiful wildlife parks and nature preserves filled with the most amazing flowers, plants, and some of the most fascinating creatures you never knew existed. After you consider the “uncivilized,” think about the “civilized” – Jaco and neighboring towns have it all: casinos, great restaurants, nightclubs, big box stores, a yacht marina, fine golf courses. And right in the heart of it all is Casa de Mariposas. It really does have the best of both worlds.
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:
Instead of sleeping it off on New Year’s Day morning, consider hiking it off. As part of the First Day Hikes program from America’s State Parks, 12 Arizona state parks will be offering guided day hikes on Jan. 1. America’s State Parks began the program 20 years ago to promote outdoor recreation. 2012 is the first year all 50 states will be participating in the program.
Consider making a trip to one of Arizona’s state parks on New Year’s Day for a First Day Hike. Your New Year’s resolution for 2012 might be to visit all of Arizona’s 31 state parks. And if you start at the top of the list, you can check off Alamo Lake for your first state park visit and your First Day Hike. Add a couple of nights’ stay, and your Alamo Lake visit could be your first Arizona getaway of 2012!
Alamo Lake is neatly tucked away from Arizona’s cities in the Bill Williams River Valley, about 36 miles north of Wenden, Arizona. It’s about half way between Wickenburg and Lake Havasu City, “as the crow flies.” There are only two roads into Alamo Lake. Most people will use the paved route north from US Route 60 from Wenden. An alternate route is a dirt road from State Route 93 near Congress.
Alamo Lake was created when the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dam on Bill Williams River to protect the Lower Colorado River area from flooding. Alamo Lake became a state park in 1969. When state budget cutbacks were made, the future of Alamo Lake and other state parks was in jeopardy. With the help of nearby communities’ funding and private donations from support groups such as The Friends of Alamo Lake, state park board members voted to allow the park to remain open.
Alamo Lake thrives as a riparian home to many resident and migratory birds such as orioles, tanagers, warblers, owls, eagles and hawks. Mammals seen at the park include coyote, mule deer, javelina, bobcat, fox, beaver and burros. Yes, burros! Miners from the mid-1800s set their burros free when they moved out, overpopulating certain areas of northwestern Arizona. Now they are protected, and populations are managed through adoption programs. Herds of burros have been spotted roaming the hills and washes around the lake, and also walking along the park roadways.
Although there are no boat motor restrictions, fishing is the main reason visitors come to the lake, and largemouth bass is the popular catch. Heavy rains during the late 1970s and early 1980s caused the lake to increase in size. Tent and RV campers will enjoy the lakeside campsites. A small park store stocks all the basic camping fish and boating gear plus bait, licenses, day permits, even the ingredients for “s’mores.” Camping reservations can be made online. Because of its location, far away from city lights, Alamo Lake is a prime spot for stargazing. Each November astronomy enthusiasts converge at the park for the “Night Under the Stars” program.
If you’re new to Arizona or a long-time resident who has never before gone northwest of Wickenburg, I recommend making a visit to Alamo Lake State Park. Maybe you’ll consider making the trip for your first hike of the New Year. Here’s a list of all the First Day Hikes at Arizona State Parks for 2012. Great way to start Arizona’s Centennial.
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.
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.
… 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.
…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.
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.
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!
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!
Autumn is one of our favorite times to visit Kohl’s Ranch. It’s a great time to see changing leaves and feel cooler temperatures of the Ponderosa pine forest at the foot of the Mogollon Rim. Kohl’s Ranch, nestled next to Tonto Creek along State Route 260, is a rustic guest ranch and Arizona historical landmark. We keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch for these reasons:
1. Tonto Creek
Tonto Creek runs immediately in front of the Kohl’s Ranch’s lodge rooms, cabins and suites so each morning of our stay, we awake to hear the rustling water over the rocks as it makes its way into the Tonto Basin and on to Roosevelt Lake. On the National Forest land north of State Route 260, there’s plenty of space on the banks for fishing, picnicking or just listening to the wind in the pines. Farther up Forest Service Road 289 is Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, a nice place to spend an afternoon with the kids to learn how trout are grown for stocking Arizona waterways.
Kohl’s Ranch has recently changed their pet policy and now allows pets in selected units. There are restrictions and since only a few such units exist, it’s recommended to call well in advance to reserve a pet-friendly unit. The resort provides a pet welcome kit with treats and blanket.
As soon as we enter the building, we’re greeted with the scent of top grain leather sofas and wood, be it from cracking logs in the fireplace or the knotty pine walls. It’s like going back in time 70 years – to when the lodge was popular lodge among hunters and anglers. During the 1950’s and 60’s, the lodge a favorite stopover for vacationing families, with its dining room, ice cream parlor, post office and grocery store. A gallery of old photographs tells the history. The main lodge building now comprises the front desk, lobby, dining room, saloon, fitness center, kid’s club, studio suites and resort offices.
Zane Grey Dining Room
Despite some less than glorifying comments on those always-disputable hospitality review sites, we have always found the dining room at Kohl’s Ranch to exceed our expectations. For one recent meal, we ordered the daily dinner special: Cornish game hens with orange glaze — baked to perfection, with wild rice and steamed fresh vegetables. Our lunch the following day was equally as good. My husband said his onion rings was the best he has ever had — those huge rings of onion dipped in homemade batter. At each of our meals, our servers promptly arrived to our table with menus, drinks, meals and check.
Hiking Trail access
This is probably the most important reason we keep coming back to Kohl’s Ranch – the location. It’s nice to stay in a cabin right near your trailhead. We especially like Horton Creek Trail and other trails nearby. In fact, the Horton Trail is one of our favorites, for a rather easy-to-moderate day hike. This trail has everything: lush forest, lots of wildlife, waterfalls, plus an easy, gradual climb – nothing too steep. Plan to see a lot of hikers on weekends. Check out hikearizona.com or Arizonahikingtrails.com for more information and additional hiking opportunities in the area.
For anyone who wants to visit some of Arizona’s historical landmarks to commemorate the Arizona Centennial, we recommend putting Kohl’s Ranch on the list. It’s one of the few guest “ranches” still operating in our state – continuing to treat visitors to some western, rustic charm and authentic Arizona hospitality.
What was once an extremely popular vacation destination, Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico — more commonly known as Rocky Point — has seen a sudden drop in visitors because of the recession and the fear of violence. Travel writers, bloggers, Arizona journalists for years have been using the beach town as subject matter and in the past 15 years, the city on the Sea of Cortez in northwestern Sonora, had been gaining enormous growth. But in the past two or three years, since the Mexican government began heavy drug cartel crackdowns, the border towns have been hurting, after witnessing higher levels of violence, primarily along the Texas border. With the exception of rather isolated violence in the border entry of Nogales, Sonora, most of the Arizona border towns are relatively quiet. Puerto Penasco, like other municipalities within close proximity of the border, has also seen sharp decline. But things may be changing. Rocky Point is just beginning to see an increase in tourist activity as more and more Arizonans are beginning to feel more secure about traveling to Mexico. On our trip this month, we spoke to business owners, resort workers and restaurant staff that have said they felt tourism starting to improve.
With Rocky Point’s development of the area just north of town, known as Sandy Beach in the past 10-15 years, tourists are reminiscent of beach-lined resorts in other parts of Mexico, like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. Building after building of high-rise condominiums line up along the water, from the edge of the commercial fishing marina to the northwestern land’s end, known as Pelican Point. The Reef, with its bar and camping/RV park, is still there, a well-known reminder of spring breaks past and a time when Sandy Beach was more for campsites than condos. While the units of these condo resorts are almost all privately, individually owned, many are investment properties rented like hotel suites. They provide golf discounts, fine dining and nightlife opportunities – even spa, fitness and business center amenities.
So if you’re in Arizona, no doubt you’ve been watching the heavy boost of Mexico tourism-sponsored TV and print advertising, and perhaps now you’re thinking about returning to Rocky Point. Before venturing back to Puerto Penasco, here’s a few travel tips:
1. Travel during the day. It’s a good idea whether you’re crossing the Arizona desert or the Sonora desert. As a group of three couples, the six of us — all from the eastern Phoenix-area suburbs usually depart in the early morning hours, driving from Chandler to Maricopa, then take State Route SR 2387 to drive to Gila Bend, where we usually make a breakfast stop. From Gila Bend, it’s a straight shot on State Route 85 through Ajo (watch your speed on this stretch) and then on to Lukeville.
2. Be prepared when crossing the international border; there’s a few changes. When crossing the border, the Mexican authorities will now stop motorists and ask if they are transporting firearms. I have heard they have also questioned drivers about vehicle registration, passports or auto insurance. In addition, your vehicle may be randomly selected for a thorough search, so it’s important to know what you can and cannot bring. One website which has comprehensive travel information is the RPTimes site, but there are many numerous Rocky Point travel websites now, so it’s a good idea to check several to see which ones are up-to-date.
3. You might want to bring some loose change for charity donations. Periodically as you drive through Sonoita, just south of the border from Lukeville, and the north end of Puerto Penasco, you will encounter children and adults standing in the middle of the street, holding a can asking for donations for various charities. Popular ones could be Red Cross, the local fire department, a senior living home, an orphanage, etc. If you feel you want to donate, please do, and that’s why we always travel to Rocky Point with some loose change or pesos leftover from a previous trip. After you pass through Sonoita, it should be smooth sailing until you get to Rocky Point.
4. Buy your food and drinks for your vacation in Puerto Penasco. Except for your favorite wines, craft brews, apples and chocolate, you will find most everything else you will need for your vacation in Rocky Point stores and markets. Shrimp is best when purchased during the season, which is usually April-May or October. Find the wide assortment at the markets on the malecon. But many other seafood varieties are available throughout the year. In addition to the souvenir vendors at Rodeo Drive, there are many nice newer stores, selling high quality silver, pottery, T-shirts, cotton dresses, leather products, metal sculptures, glassware — much more. The blankets I bought in 1978 for $6 each, are still used today and in fantastic shape. Additional groceries stores are opening up in many neighborhoods. We particularly like the one called Super Ley, a kind of mini warehouse-type grocery and variety store.
5. Some of the best deals are found at places you’d likely least expect, such as these “Puerto Penasco” mugs I found at one of the local pharmacies. Many of these drug stores, have much more than prescriptions — they also carry sundries, beach toys, cosmetics and a few even stock sodas and frozen fruit treats.
6. One of the first things we do when we arrive to Puerto Penasco is pick up several of the English newspapers, featuring listings of many of the activities and events and current real estate classifieds, which often include news of new residential developments, businesses and tourism services. Three of the free newspapers we have found reliable are the Rocky Point Times, Join Us Here in Rocky Point, Rocky Point Weekly, plus there are probably more. Check your resort’s front desk, restaurant or in front of the nearby pharmacy for a display rack.
7. Develop a vacation tradition. As soon as we arrive in Rocky Point, the smells of the sand and sea, roasting chiles and simmering frijoles get our mouths watering for our favorite meals. One of our first stops we make after arriving in Rocky Point is for lunch, at Flavio’s (Aqui es con Flavio). This waterfront restaurant at the malecon (waterfront esplanade) is a favorite among locals and visitors alike for the fresh seafood dishes, well-equipped margaritas and real pina coladas. Each person in our group has their special favorite, whether it’s fish or shrimp tacos, an meal-sized shrimp cocktail, a whole fish dinner or a combo plate. Flavio’s is just one of several excellent restaurants along the Malecon. We like it not just because of the food, but also the excellent friendly service provided by the parking attendants, wait staff, bartenders — even the strolling musicians. Other visitors find their vacation tradition watching the sun set over the water at one of the hilltop restaurants with the best views like Casa del Capitan. Some find their tradition with a visit to JJ’s Cantina in Cholla Bay. Start a tradition for your family reunion group or circle of friends.
8. Find your own getaway niche at Rocky Point. This destination can be equally accommodating to any leisure pursuit, whether it’s a fiesta or a siesta. The resorts may be bustling at times, like late in the afternoons when everyone’s checking in to their suites and excited to be headed to the cafes or cantinas, or they can be calm and relaxing, such as the early morning, when only a few guests get up early to take a stroll along the beach, or simply sit in the common areas to enjoy the shaded pool areas or finely manicured gardens.
9. Beach it! I always have to chuckle when people come to the beach but then don’t go near the beach. Well, I guess some folks just want to “view” the beach. Too sandy? Too wet? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. But I know I want to be on the beach, especially Sandy Beach! The sand is really fine and smooth and except for a few deposits of coral which you can easily locate when the tide is out, most all the sea floor is perfect for wading, swimming, splashing, whatever. Indeed, there are times of year when jellyfish are more prevalent; those are usually when there seasonal weather changes, or windy conditions exist, such as during late summer monsoon time or occasional spring storms. I keep a spray bottle of white vinegar just in case of jellyfish sting. Then there are stingrays, so it’s best to do the shuffling of feet through the shallows. it’s good to know there is now an outpatient medical clinic on Sandy Beach.
10. Come ready to play on the beach! Bring the cooler full of lots of water, snacks, etc. Those backpack coolers work great, even better than the ones with the wheels, I think. For the kids, bring kites, sand castle construction equipment, frisbees, and plenty of other water toys. Of course, you’ll need the obvious sunscreen; plus maybe some wet wipes, which will come in handy after the kids eat those fresh dripping mangos on a stick. Many resorts have their own palapas — those grass covered canopies — but you may want to bring your own beach umbrella or other portable canopy with plenty of sand anchors. Nothing destroys a brand new beach umbrella more than the wind blowing southwest from the Sea of Cortez in late spring or early summer. We like our screw-in beach umbrella anchor.
11. Sandy Beach can often be the best place to shop. Why take away from valuable beach time when the jewelry, silver, pottery, hats, sunglasses, sundresses, etc can come right to you under the shade of your umbrella? Relaxing on the beach is the best time to shop for all those souvenirs you really don’t need. Why? Because the vendors are coming to you, of course. These vendors have no overhead costs, and every incentive to unload some heavy merchandise they’ve been toting around. Many of the items probably can be found almost anywhere in town or at the Rodeo Drive shopping district, but occasionally you will find something new or unique on the beach, and the deals on the beach are better than anywhere else. Remember these vendors can be very enthusiastic, so if beach shopping is not your thing, a simple shake of the head and a smile, or a polite, “no, gracias” will suffice to keep the vendors moving along.
Rocky Point has something for everyone. It can be a perfect place for a time of meditation and reflection, to take advantage of the tranquility of sunrise or sunset walks at water’s edge to relax. Or it can be a perfect place to recharge, energize, take part in some exciting challenge like parasailing, ultra-light flying, jetskiing or kite-surfing. Maybe there’s something in between or even a little bit of everything.
Are you a first timer to Rocky Point? Do some research. There are many websites to look at when you google Rocky Point, Mexico or Puerto Penasco. Read the reviews on tripadvisor or virtualtourist websites. Check out youtube for some videos of activities and events. Get to know Rocky Point. If you have been meaning to return to Rocky Point, I’d highly recommend it. Get to know Rocky Point again.