Don’t Miss This in Arizona: Sedona/Cottonwood

Most travel writers will inform readers about all the highlights, most iconic things to do and see in a particular part of Arizona. Sedona Arizona is a prime example. Guidebooks and information centers are plentiful, offering the most popular (and most populated) sights. They steer people to such sights as Red Rock Crossing, Cathedral Rock, Slide Rock and Bell Rock… all those rocks! But so many excellent activities and sights are not given enough due in other websites. Here are a few:

Many folks travel to nearby wineries for tasting. Most will sample the vintages at Page Springs Vineyards and Oak Creek Vineyards. We suggest also including a stop and spending a bit more time at Javelina Leap. Step behind the winery’s original main tasting room into the new “Arizona Room” and you’ll find a larger gathering spot for trying out the best vintages from Javelina Leap. There’s even a airy patio for nibbling and noshing when the weather’s right. We not only sampled wines, but some excellent appetizers — tapas —  to cleanse our palate.

Javelina Leap’s Arizona Room

 

Stuffed mushrooms at Javelina Leap Winery

 

Before you spend an afternoon instagramming rock cairns at Red Rock Crossing, which by the way will now cost you $10 to park, visit Red Rock State Park. for a short stroll along Oak Creek or a moderate climb to Eagle’s Nest. It’s amazing what you may see along the way.

Oak Creek weaves through Red Rock State Patk

Doe and fawn mule deer spotted near the visitors center

Gorgeous views at Red Rock State Park

Many Sedona/Cottonwood visitors may have Montezuma’s Castle on their itinerary, but Montezuma’s Well — maybe not so much. Stop at Montezuma Well and follow the trail to the end. You’ll see the native inhabitants’ cliff dwellings and natural springs which feed the well. Roaming rangers and docents will provide the history of the well and its original water users.

Dwelling ruins

US Calvary troops left their names on these ruins

Montezuma Well overlook

Escape from high gas prices, admission fees with a day trip to Chandler’s Veterans Oasis Park

Okay, so gasoline prices are sky-high. You’d like to take an out-of-town day trip, but don’t want to shell out the bucks for a couple of tank fill-ups. Admission charges for zoos and animal parks also run a little too steep for your budget. Here’s a suggestion: try spending the day at one of the Phoenix-area municipal parks or riparian preserves. Many of the local parks offer a variety of enjoyable ways for a family to spend the entire day.

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Inside the Environmental Education Center at Chandler's Veterans Oasis Park

 

We recently spent a few hours at our one of our local parks, Chandler’s Veterans Oasis, located at the northeast corner of Chandler Heights and Lindsay Roads. It’s one of our area’s newest parks, and it really does have a little bit of everything. The Environmental Education Center (EEC) is a standout – it houses classrooms for nature camps and classes, landscaping workshops, healthy cooking, scouting programs, fishing lessons, birding, art, even yoga. Spring Nature Camp during the two-week Chandler school spring break provides both full and half-day programs.

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Urban fishing lake at Veterans Oasis

 

But we didn’t come to the park to look at nature programs; we came to look at nature. The park sits on 113 acres with a five-acre urban fishing lake, over four miles of trails and walks, many picnic ramadas with grills, playground areas, equestrian trails, butterfly and hummingbird habitats, plus an outdoor amphitheater for outdoor concerts like the Sonoran Sunset Series. Upcoming appearances include a folk/country trio from Gilbert called “Firefly,” on March 8 and a locally known jazz singer, John Vold on April 12.

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Spring wildflowers bloom along one of the walking trails at Veterans Oasis Park

 

Municipal parks such as Veterans Oasis are the perfect getaway for a Saturday or Sunday – or any day of the week, because they provide such a different environment than you’re accustomed to. For example, the day we were there, we couldn’t believe we were still in Chandler. As we strolled around the lake, we heard some bird songs and nature sounds we certainly wouldn’t hear at our subdivision’s playground, park or retention area, or even some of the city’s other parks. And as we came around the far side of the lake, I spotted a jackrabbit about the size of my border collie, just lumbering around a few feet from us between the bushes. I couldn’t get my camera or phone out fast enough.

Veterans Oasis Park has recently been named, “Certified Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation. From the beginning, naturalists and park administrators have combined their efforts to plan the park so that it will attract small animals, birds, fish, butterflies and other forms of wildlife to the park and maintain the environment to protect them. Since the park’s opening in 2008, more than 135 species of wildlife have been documented.  Last year the park became the first municipally owned park to be a part of the Bird Habitat Recognition Program from the local Desert Rivers Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

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Part of a recent community art exhibit at the Environmental Education Center

 

Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler is the perfect location for the family to observe Earth Day 2012. The City of Chandler is combining Earth Day, Arbor Day and the four-year anniversary of the EEC into one event on April 20 from 4 to 7 p.m. with hands-on activities, live animal exhibits, food booths, artisans and prize giveaways.

The best thing of all about Veterans Oasis? It requires little gasoline to get there, (at least for those of us in the Southeast Valley) and it’s FREE!

Regular park hours are 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. The wildlife preserve is open 6 a.m. to sunset daily and the Environmental Education Center is open Monday and Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Readers: Where are the riparian preserves or wildlife areas near you? Have any suggestions for day trips that are close to home and free? I’d like to hear about them…

Don’t miss Costa Rica’s La Paz Waterfall Gardens

No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Even if your only stop in Costa Rica were to be this wonderful combination resort and sight-seeing attraction, you would have seen much of what this Central American country is famous for: beautiful butterflies, amazing hummingbirds, colorful snakes and frogs, lush tropical gardens surrounded by spectacular rivers and waterfalls. All of this flora and fauna is set in a magnificent hillside cluster with fishing lake and boutique spa resort. But the Costa Rica ‘to-do’ list wouldn’t be finished without volcano and coffee plantation tours, forest canopy zip-lining and river rafting. Guests at the adjacent Peace Lodge can arrange nearby day tours to these areas as well. La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge are centrally located between Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose and other iconic Costa Rican tourism highlights: Arenal Volcano and hot springs resorts near Fortuna. It’s an ideal location for those considering a vacation in Costa Rica.

Butterfly feeding time at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Hummingbird taking a rare rest break

Aviary birds are perfect close-up 'models'

Colorful ox cart ready for passengers

Favorite photo opportunity along 'Trail of Falls'

Restaurants, lodge rooms -- even restrooms have the feel of the tropics

These photos don’t really do justice for this wonderful Costa Rica park, wildlife refuge and hotel. Find more descriptions and a photo gallery on the website.

US Airways flies from Phoenix to San Jose International Airport daily. Best times to visit are November through April. This is the high season, so expect rates to be higher.

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!