North of the Border

Not sure how Julie and I pulled this one off. I know it’s been a long time since the two of us had gone anywhere together, but to get all four children provided for so we could get away was a special treat. The goal was to take a week and visit all of the national sites (twelve total) in Southern Arizona. Neither of us had ever been to any of these locations before.

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You can observe on the map below several of the locations we visited. What you really need to see is how, in only five days and four nights, we were able to cover the entire lower fifty-percent of the state.


Off we go to the Philadelphia airport!


I snapped these pictures of Chicago out the airplane window as we approached our layover!

A lot of memories down there!



We arrived late in the evening, but at the crack of dawn (it was an incredible sunrise) we were on the road heading east to our first destination. As you can see in the pictures below, the area we drove though was rugged and  foreboding. Many of the roads were dirt, lined with steep cliffs, abrupt elevation changes and sharp turns. Julie didn’t care for this too much, particularly because of the  speeds in which I addressed them.

Tonto National Monument

Dating back about 700 years, Tonto National Monument preserves and protects two Salado-style cliff dwellings. The goal is to tell the story of the Native Americans who lived in this part of the Sonoran Desert. On the way up to the cliff dwelling, we were warned by one of the rangers of the vast amount of rattlesnakes in the area. We were not left without a representation. He was a big guy, making his way off the trail in a casual manner, but with his rattle actively warning us to keep our distance.

Midday ice cream break!


Fort Bowie National Historic Site

“Fort Bowie was established by the California Volunteers in 1862 after a series of engagements between the California Column and the Chiricahua Apaches. The most violent of which was the Battle of Apache Pass in July 1862. The fort was named in honor of Colonel George Washington Bowie commander of the 5th Regiment California Volunteer Infantry who first established the fort. The first Fort Bowie resembled a temporary camp rather than a permanent army post. In 1868, a second, more substantial Fort Bowie was built which included adobe barracks, houses, corrals, a trading post, and a hospital. The second Fort Bowie was built on a plateau about 300 yards to the southeast of the first site. For more than 30 years Fort Bowie and Apache Pass were the focal point of military operations eventually culminating in the surrender of Geronimo in 1886 and the banishment of the Chiricahuas to Florida and Alabama. The fort was abandoned in 1894” (Wikipedia).


A dirt road will take you to the beginning of the trail. From there it’s a 1.5 mile walk to the ruins of the fort. On the way (and seen in the pictures in the slides below) you can observe the ruins of the Butterfield Stage Stop and the Apache Spring. There is not much remaining from the old fort beyond a few weather-beaten adobe walls. Nevertheless you can get a good idea of the overall dimensions of the location and with the aid of some displays an general idea of what the structures originally looked like. As we departed the fort we took a different trail back to the car. This trail scaled a high hill that gave a great overview of the location (also pictured in the slideshow).

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Here’s what we the fort originally looked like compared to what we saw from the same location on the top of the hill roughly 150 years later.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument covers a small section of the Chiricahua Mountains in the extreme southeast corner of Arizona. As you can see in the slideshow below, the large expanses of proposed volcanic rocks have eroded into dramatic pinnacles and spires. Due to its location, the park is rarely visited and thus we encountered only a small population during our overnight stay. We arrived in the late afternoon, spent the night and departed later in the morning on the following day. We did some hiking through the rock spirals on both days. This place was really interesting, perhaps one of my favorites on the trip. I wish I would have booked more time to spend at this location before we needed to move on.

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We found ourselves frequently driving parallel to the border of Mexico on this trip. On one occasion we entered the wrong lane (as seen below) and found ourselves heading directly into Mexico with no opportunities to turn around. Since we didn’t have our passports and ending up there was unintentional, we informed the border guard of our situation. He kindly let us turn the car around inside the building shown in the picture below. We were careful not to let curiosity lead us to make that same mistake again.


Coronado National Memorial

Close to the Mexican border is  the Coronado National Memorial. It commemorates the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540, the first known excursion of Europeans into the United States. Coronado, a Spanish governor, was chosen to lead a large group of settlers charged with exploration of the then unknown territories to the north, suggested by rumors of the time to include major cities decorated with gold and jewels – the “Seven Cities of Cibola.”


In the pictures below you can see Julie and I dressed in the military garb of the ancient explorers. Since there was hardly anyone there (and they seemed bored out of their minds), the rangers enjoyed helping is with the equipment, answering our questions and taking our pictures. You can see in one of the pictures that the chain garment was a lot easier to put on than it was to take off! Julie needed to pull for quite some time before I was fully free. Also, though it’s hard to see in the profile picture of me below, I was left with several grease marks on my face (look at my nose) as the metal was closely dragged along my head upon it’s removal.

 A view from the top. The San Pedro River valley, were Coronado entered “Arizonia” with 339 soldiers and 1,100 Indian allies on his epic journey.


In my efforts to always look for a short-cut and new adventure, often we found ourselves on very remote dirt roads.


Tumacacori National Historic Park

The park protects the ruins of three Spanish mission communities. Not much time was spent here. We went inside one of the units, looked around and then departed.


Saguaro National Park – East Unit

Saguaro was the only formal national park we visited while on this trip. The park is divided into two districts that bookend both sides of the city of Tucson. Both districts conserve fine tracts of the Sonoran Desert, including two mountain ranges – the Tucson Mountains to the west and the Rincon Mountains in the east. The park gets its name from the saguaro cactus, the iconic cactus of Arizona, which is native to the region. Many other kinds of cactus are also commonly found in the park, including the barrel, cholla and prickly pear. Both districts currently encompass 91,327 acres.


When we arrived we went for a moderate hike through the park. The trail was on level ground and provided close and varied exposure to the the indigenous vegetation found in the area. Despite the map in Julie’s hand pictured below, I’m embarrassed to say we also got lost on this hike as well!

We were warned about the “cholla cacti” (or as they are sometimes called “teddy bear cholla”). They look rather innocent from a distance, even someway fuzzy. But as you get close you can see the plant is filled with large spines. The danger comes if you touch one of these plants. As I said, we were warned, but that made me even more interested to test the claim. Story has it that if you touch one of these guys, a part of the cactus will “jump” off the plant and impale several of it’s fishhook spikes withing your skin. I’m not kidding, I barely touched it and to my dismay found the story absolutely reliable. The small curve on the tips now embedded in my skin made several of these two-inched barbs very difficult to remove. You can see a picture of this cactus represented in photograph below with Julie. Don’t get too close!

More pictures from our first hike! Look at that massive saguaro dwarfing me!

Saguaro National Park at sunset!

Saguaro National Park – West Unit

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The next day when we arrived in the west unit of Saguaro National Park, we hiked the Hugh Norris Trail. This trail is not only the longest trail (4.9 miles), but also the one that makes the greatest elevation change (2,130 feet). It starts with a steep climb and then works its way to the summit of Wasson Peak for beautiful views of the entire area. You can see from the slideshow below the great experienced that we enjoyed on this hike.

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Peanut Butter and Tuna Fish lunch…with a Gatorade!

Old Tucson Studios

Though we hadn’t planned on going here, we couldn’t resist stopping off when we passed by Old Tucson Studios. Hundreds of films and TV shows were shot here. You were permitted to walk around the sets, go on a stagecoach ride, enjoy the small amusement park and watch different acts that were scheduled throughout the day.

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Something about the taste of Mexican Food in the desert!

For two nights we stayed at a local campsite. It was a bit chilly at night, but we did take advantage of their pool and hut tub.

Early morning cold cereal breakfast.


Ironwood Forest National Monument

Getting its name from one of the longest living trees in the Arizona desert, the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument is a true Sonoran Desert showcase. This area was really remote. Apart from some deep wilderness hiking, there wasn’t much to do here. Thankfully there is a “U-shaped” road runs its way through the park and reconnects with Route 10. Our idea was to simply drive this road and explore the landscape by car. Not long after we started, the the road turned to a dirt road. Soon the dirt road turned to a very rocky and hole-infested four-wheel-drive road. Despite the wear on the car, headaches and signs that warned of illegal smuggling we continued. It took us over an hour to make it to the end, some twenty miles later. Then just as we could see the finish line in sight, a thirty-foot wide river (the Santa Cruz River) was running directly across the road. It looked deep. There was no way to cross it. You got it. We needed to backtrack to the point where we started. Thankfully we did eventually find a different dirt road that cut about ten miles off the returning trip. The pictures below do a good job illustrating this story.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

This monument preserves the ruins of multiple structures surrounded by a compound wall constructed by the ancient people of the Hohokam period, who farmed the Gila Valley in the early 13th century. “Casa Grande” is Spanish for “big house” which is the name given to the largest structure on the site. Covered now with a roof, the “big house”  is the remains of a four story structure that may have been abandoned by 1450. The structure is made of caliche and has managed to survive the extreme weather conditions for about seven centuries.

More Mexican food!

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Sonoran Desert National Monument


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Located on the extreme southern border of Arizona, this monument which borders Mexico preserves the only only pace in the U.S. where the Organ Pipe Cactus grows wild (seen in two of the pictures below).

An evening hike up the mountain by our campsite to watch the sunset!

For the duration of our morning during the second day at Organ Pipe we hike the Victoria Mine Trial. The trail ran across the Sinoyta Mountains and ended at the Victoria Mine (one of the oldest prospecting sites in the U.S.), a center for sporadic gold and silver excavations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ruined stone buildings, rusting pieces of iron equipment and sealed-off mine shafts can be seen. The views of the desert from this isolated location were fantastic. The total distance was 4.5 miles.

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Agua Fria National Monument

With some extra time on our hands we passed through Phoenix and traveled a bit north to two more national monuments we discovered on the road atlas. Neither were an expected part of the trip so neither were researched. Almost as soon as we arrived in Agua Fria (“cold water”), we realized there wasn’t anything to do here. There wasn’t even a visitor’s center and the people we saw could have been counted on one hand. We drove in a bit and then turned around. Upon our return route we did see an older man and his trailer along the side of the road. He came over and spoke to us. He was camping in the park for a few days. When I took the picture below he was telling us that he was the reigning horseshoe champion of Arizona.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

A few miles up the road was Montezuma Castle. We finished just as we started with another cliff dwelling.

Still more Mexican food!

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By the time we reached Montezuma Castle I told Julie we were only another 2.5 hours from the Grand Canyon. I had just been there, but Julie had never seen this awesome wonder of God’s creation. I suggested we go for it, get up there with plenty of time to look around and watch the sunset. Julie said she’d rather return to Phoenix, chill-out a bit and get prepared for our flight home which was leaving early in the morning. She prevailed. After I took a dip in the hotel pool we went to sleep.

A music video showing our trip highlights:


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