St. Vrain State Park

Firestone, Colorado – May 2022

St. Vrain State Park had its beginnings in 1958 when the Colorado Department of Transportation bought some land around St. Vrain Creek to mine gravel needed for the construction of highways in the area. The mining projects left wide but relatively shallow holes in the ground, many of which filled in from the low water table of the St. Vrain. Over the years, more mining companies extracted more gravel, and now St. Vrain State Park has eight ponds and reservoirs, along with 87 campsites in eight different campgrounds. The state park is a popular destination for campers along Colorado’s Front Range; it’s just an hour’s drive from our former house in Denver. We camped there in our former trailer every April for a decade before becoming full-time RVers, and we returned to the shores of St. Vrain State Park in early May 2022.

St. Vrain State Park is a bird enthusiast’s dream destination. The park’s literature lists more than 200 bird species that can be seen in the park’s ponds, wetlands and meadows. Not all of those species are in the park at once; many use the ponds as a migratory rest area on their way to points north or south of Colorado, and others stay in the park for a few weeks or months out of the year. We saw more American white pelicans in the park in 2022 than we had in previous years. Watching them float noiselessly on the surface of the water is a very relaxing experience. When we were camping along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Arkansas a few weeks later, a flock of about 200 pelicans darkened the sky as the birds flew overhead.
St. Vrain State Park is the largest great blue heron rookery in Colorado. Great blue herons are relatively common sights along the banks of the larger ponds in the park; they usually fly off if approached. If one is patiently quiet and still, however, it’s possible to see a heron catch a fish in the shallows. The largest of the heron family, great blue herons can grow to 4 1/2 feet tall and weigh more than five pounds, with a wingspan of 6 1/2 feet. I photographed this one on an early foggy morning on the bank of Sandpiper Pond.
Whenever I think of St. Vrain State Park, the first bird that comes to mind is the red-winged blackbird. Their distinctive call (you can hear it at the soundfile below) can be heard throughout the park practically all day long, but especially in the early morning hours. While I’ve seen red-winged blackbirds perch on waving reeds and cattail stalks, in addition to tree limbs, this one found a solid fencepost upon which to belt out the hits. This is a bird species in which the males and females look nothing alike. This is a male blackbird; I’ve mistaken female blackbirds for some type of sparrow because they share the same light and dark brown markings.
We were happy that our friends Mary and Robert, and their German shepherd, Otis, could camp at the site next to us on one of the weekends we were at the park. Mary, Robert, Otis and I took a walk one morning around Blue Heron Reservoir, the largest and newest of the lakes at the park, and happened to spot this guy out in the water. This photo of a western grebe isn’t great – it was 50 yards out and drifting further away – but it’s an interesting bird. They dive underwater to catch fish, which is their main diet, and it’s kind of fun to guess where they’ll pop up to surface. One of five grebe species that visits St. Vrain State Park, I’d also seen this species at Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg in October 2021.
This well-camouflaged little bird is a song sparrow (I’m pretty sure; there are many varieties of sparrows and most of them look at least a little alike). It was hunting for bugs one evening along the banks of Mallard Pond. Click the link below to see why they got their name.
Nancy and Gunther and I went on a longer hike one Saturday morning and saw a pair of tree swallows feeding their young nestlings inside a tree cavity. This is the female of the pair, who was hanging out on a tree limb and watching her mate feed their kids in the tree. She’s got just a hint of iridescent blue coloring on her head, whereas the male tree swallow is mostly blue. Like other swallows, their diet is mostly bugs that they catch while flying in the air; unlike other swallows, they also eat berries which allows them to make it through winter much easier.
I took this photo of a female brown-headed cowbird a few minutes’ walk down the trail from the swallows’ nest. Cowbirds used to follow bison herds in the American West and forage on insects that were kicked up by the animals’ hooves. These days, they do the same with cattle herds and they’re found from coast to coast. This species has a fairly poor reputation among bird enthusiasts: it doesn’t build a nest in which to lay its eggs but instead lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species. This parasitism, which is practiced by only a few other birds, results in reduced numbers of other songbird species.
I’ll be the first to state that this is a terrible, terrible photo. However, there is a story behind it: a little while after taking the photo of the brown-headed cowbird, we looked up and saw what we thought was a flock of Canada geese flying overhead. I took a picture of part of the flock, and I really don’t know why. After our hike, I looked at the photo on my laptop’s screen and realized that those weren’t Canada geese. Look at the beaks of the birds (they’re flying toward the right side of the photo): they’re very long and slightly curved. I thought they might be ibis (ibises?), and I looked at the park’s literature to see if ibis were ever sighted in the park. Turns out white-faced ibis do indeed migrate through St. Vrain State Park! Here’s a link to an Audubon Society page so you can see what these beautiful birds really look like.
I know some readers of this blog frequently drive on I-25 between the Denver metro area and the northern reaches of the state. This is what’s beneath the bridges just north of Exit 240: thousands upon thousands (not kidding) of cliff swallow nests (those brownish smudges are the cliff swallows returning to feed their nestlings; I couldn’t get any decent photos of the birds themselves because they move so fast). The swallows have built the nests here to take advantage of the great biomass (bugs) available at the ponds and lakes of St. Vrain State Park. It’s important, I think, to remember just what a huge service that bug-eating birds do for us: imagine how many more grasshoppers, caddisflies, and mosquitoes we’d have to deal with were it not for these feathered friends of ours.
The hike that Nancy and Gunther and I went on was chock-full of nifty birds we hadn’t seen before. I had no idea what this was when I took the photo, but I could tell it wasn’t a seagull. Again, after returning to the Goddard, I looked it up. It’s a Forster’s tern (might be another species, the common tern, but Forster’s terns are, inexplicably, more common than common terns). This was an incredibly acrobatic and fast flyer, and much fun to watch during its migratory stopover at the park.
I took this photo of a beautiful barn swallow on the same morning that I took the photo of the great blue heron. The lighting, because of the fog, wasn’t great, but I was happy to see this little fellow light for a few minutes on a stretch of fence. Swallows of all kinds are very aerobatic flyers – they dip and whirl about while chasing bugs over bodies of water. We would see yet another species of swallow, the northern rough-winged, while camping on the Mississippi River in mid-June. There are six species of swallows, including the northern rough-winged, that visit St. Vrain State Park either on a seasonal or migratory basis.
Over the years I’ve probably taken a hundred photos of double-crested cormorants, but they’ve all been taken when the birds are too far away from shore to turn out very well. They seem to like the company of pelicans while swimming (or perhaps they’re opportunistic feeders taking advantage of the schools of fish found by pelicans), but they’re much more timid than the big white birds and stay further from shore. They also take flight well before the pelicans do. The stars aligned during our trip to St. Vrain State Park in May, and I finally got some photos that aren’t embarrassing to share. During our stop I also figured out why these birds look so odd while swimming: unlike pelicans, or ducks, or geese, or pretty much any other waterfowl, they keep most of their bodies submerged. I think cormorants are one of the greatest visual reminders that, in a way, dinosaurs still walk the earth. This guy would not look out of place as an extra in a Jurassic Park movie.
I’ll close with one of the best photos I’ve taken in a good long while. St. Vrain State Park is home to several pairs of nesting ospreys, which return to the same nest year after year, and the number appears to be growing. I noticed a new osprey nest (really not that impressive; it looks like a pile of trash and twigs because that’s what it is) along the road leading into the park, and asked a ranger about it. Turns out that the nest had delayed construction of a section of a long-planned hiking and biking trail that winds its way along the I-25 corridor, at least until the osprey fledglings had left the nest. True enough, work on the trail appeared to recommence a few days before we left, so I guess the fledglings had left home. Anyway, this osprey pictured was perched above Mallard Pond one late afternoon when the sun happened to be shining for a few minutes during an otherwise overcast day. It’s obviously used to passersby, but it’s a beautiful raptor nonetheless. The ponds and lakes have plenty of fish for both anglers and birds, like pelicans, and terns, and grebes, and cormorants. It’s fun to watch a grebe pop out of the water with a fish in its beak, but watching an osprey slam into a lake, talons outstretched, and then lift away with a trout in its grasp is a fantastic experience.

In the two weeks we were at St. Vrain State Park, we saw 26 different species of birds, including five, like the tern and ibis, I’d never seen before at all. We don’t have immediate plans to return to the park, but I don’t doubt that we will go back sooner or later. It’s a great place to unwind, and, although it’s close to I-25, it provides plenty of opportunities to get to know a tremendous variety of our feathered friends.

The National Museum of World War II Aviation

April 30, 2022 – Colorado Springs, Colorado

The city of Colorado Springs is home to a number of U.S. military installations, including the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson; the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, and Air Force Academy; and the U.S. Space Force’s Cheyenne Mountain Station, Space Command, and Space Operations Command.

I spent some of my early years (1975-1979) growing up just south of Colorado Springs, and it was fun to be able to camp in the Goddard for a week in April a few miles from my childhood home. I’d forgotten how common it was to see people in military fatigues while walking around Colorado Springs: almost 10 percent of the population is active-duty military, and the defense industry is responsible for about 40% of the Pikes Peak region’s economy.

The U.S. military’s strong presence in Colorado Springs makes the city a fine host for the National Museum of World War II Aviation, which opened in 2012. The museum has a collection of 28 aircraft dating from the 1920s through just after World War II, and here’s what makes this collection unique: each of them still flies. Nancy and I have been to plenty of aircraft museums to see hundreds of aircraft, but this was the first one in which all of the aircraft could be taxied to a runway and take off. The airplanes are used in a number of airshows across the country, and therefore must be maintained to be reliable and safe in the air.

The non-profit museum is co-located at the Colorado Springs Airport with a private business called WestPac, which specializes in restoring and maintaining vintage aircraft. Our tour of the museum on April 29, 2022, also included a good look at what WestPac does to restore these beautiful birds and keep them in the air.

North American Aviation T-6 Texan

This T-6 Texan is one of 15,495 of the aircraft built by North American Aviation between 1935 and 1951. The Texan was used as a training aircraft for pilots of the U.S. Army Air Force (which later became the U.S. Air Force) and the U.S. Navy, as well as air forces of the British Commonwealth, during the World War II era and into the 1970s. The T-6, with a cockpit built for the flight instructor and student, has a maximum speed of 208 mph and a range of 730 miles. Because of the number still capable of flight, the Texan makes frequent appearances at modern-day airshows. That’s Pikes Peak (elev. 14,115 feet), which had received some new snow up top a day or two before this photo in late April, above the cockpit.

Waco JYM

That’s our guide for the tour, docent John Lynch, in front of a 1929 Waco JYM airplane. This particular aircraft is known as “The Lindbergh Plane” because Charles Lindbergh, who in May 1927 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, later flew this airplane to help promote the new industry of airmail service (which had employed Lindbergh before his historic flight). The airplane pictured provided airmail and air taxi service on the nearly 900-mile-long route between Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Waco JYM doesn’t have anything to do directly with World War II but as is the case with all aircraft, its service record helped develop the technology used in later airplanes. The museum is right to be proud of having this airplane in its collection: it’s one of four Waco JYMs produced for Northwest Airways, and this 93-year-old aircraft is the only one still capable of flight (note the pan underneath the engine to catch oil – all of the aircraft in the museum’s collection have those). Mr. Lynch, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, provided a thoroughly educational and entertaining tour; he was able to speak not only about the mechanics required for powered flight from the viewpoint of an engineer, such as wing and propeller design, but also the global developments of World War II from a historical perspective. He’s one of the better docents Nancy and I have had the pleasure of meeting.

Douglas Aircraft Company SBD Dauntless

This is an SBD (for Scout Bomber Douglas – in U.S. Navy nomenclature of the day, the first two words of the acronym describe the function and the last word names the manufacturer) Dauntless; they were originally designed by Northrup but the model was further developed and then introduced by Douglas in 1937. The first flight was in 1940. The Dauntless was a light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with a maximum speed of 255 mph and a range of 733 miles. It had two .50-caliber forward-facing machine guns and two .30-caliber rear-facing machine guns (which were operated by the gunner/radio and radar operator, who was kept plenty busy in the back of the cockpit). An SBD also carried up to an 2,250-pound bomb load. These were the primary U.S. Navy aircraft in service during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and a Dauntless was the first airplane to sink an enemy ship in World War II (a Japanese submarine, three days after Pearl Harbor).

I don’t think Nancy nor I were prepared for how big these Navy planes were – I guess we’re just used to primarily seeing, in person at least, fighter aircraft that were used in the European theater of the war. An SPD-5 had a length of 33 feet, wingspan of 41.5 feet, and a height of 13.5 feet, all with an empty weight of 6,400 pounds. Interestingly, the Goddard, the fifth-wheel trailer in which we live, has a length of 35 feet and a height of just over 13 feet, but it has a dry weight of 14,000 pounds — it’s not expected to take to the air, though.

If you’ve seen either version of the movie “Midway” (the 1976 release with Charlton Heston or the 2019 edition starring a number of CGI pixels), the Dauntless is the airplane that gets the most screentime while showing the events of the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. In the latter battle, these aircraft sank or disabled four Japanese aircraft carriers. Also serving in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Dauntless was, despite its slow speed and relatively light armament, a very hardy and reliable dive bomber. These airplanes sank more enemy ships in the Pacific Ocean than any other World War II bomber. As aeronautic and armament technology increased rapidly during the war, the production of SBDs ceased in 1944.

It was a great experience to see an example of the aircraft that was able to so effectively counterattack the Japanese naval forces during the early weeks and months of the United States’ involvement in World War II. This particular aircraft has an interesting story: it crashed into Lake Michigan in May 1944, during aircraft carrier training exercises, and wasn’t extracted from the lake until the mid-1990s. It has since been restored to be a fully functional flyer, one of only six SBDs in the United States still capable of flight (one-tenth of one percent of the original total of 5,936 produced between 1940 and 1944).

Grumman TBM 3-E Avenger

An unidentified tour participant, who seems to be in a lot of these photos, lends a sense of scale to this TBM Avenger. With a gross weight of 15,500 pounds, this was the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War II. Grumman built the first Avengers, which originally flew just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was formally introduced in 1942, and Grumman would go on to build almost 2,300 TBFs (torpedo bomber, and the “F” was for “Grumman,” for reason that probably makes sense from a military perspective). Electing to stop building Avengers in 1943 so that it could focus on the production of fighter aircraft, Grumman awarded a contract to General Motors to continue building the torpedo bombers. GM would call its versions TBMs (“M” for “Motors”). In all, Grumman and GM built almost 10,000 Avengers for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Allied naval and air corps. Note the folding wings, which allowed for more of these aircraft to be carried by … aircraft carriers.

TBF Avengers were not an immediate success story: of six unescorted aircraft that participated in the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, five were shot down and the sixth returned with one crewman dead and the other injured. As the war progressed, however, crews gained invaluable experience (each aircraft had a pilot, a gunner/radio operator, and a bombardier) and the Avenger played a pivotal role in naval operations; the airplanes destroyed two Japanese super-battleships and sank dozens of Japanese submarines in the Pacific and German U-boats in the Atlantic. The TBF/TBM had a maximum speed of 200 mph, with a range of 1,000 miles. It carried one 2,000-pound torpedo or 2,500 pounds of bombs, in addition to three .50 caliber machine guns and one .30 caliber machine gun.

George H.W. Bush, who would later serve as a U.S. President from 1989 to 1993, was shot down by Japanese forces during a September 1944 bombing mission while flying an Avenger. He parachuted from the plane and was picked up offshore by an American submarine.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

Here’s the first fighter aircraft we saw on the tour: the P-38 Lightning, which was the only truly successful twin-engine fighter seeing action in World War II. It was used primarily in the Pacific theater of the war, where big oceans and dense tree canopies made having redundant propulsion systems desirable. The Lightning was the first fighting aircraft in history to exceed 400 mph, and the only American fighter in production from the beginning of World War II until its end. The Lightning was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns, a .30-caliber machine gun, and four hardpoints for bombs or rockets. P-38s were credited with destroying 1,800 Japanese airplanes in the Pacific during the war. Lockheed made just over 10,000 P-38s during its production.

This particular P-38, like many of the other aircraft in the museum’s collection, has an interesting history – including the deepest combat history of any other airplanes in the museum. Pilot Ken Sparks, on a mission on the last day of 1942, was credited with two aerial victories while flying this airplane. He downed one craft with gunfire, and then inadvertently clipped another with the Lightning’s right wing. The wingtip lost several feet of material, but the aircraft survived while the Japanese craft crashed. Sparks would have 11 more victories in several additional aircraft. This airplane was buried for decades near an airfield in Papua New Guinea, and was restored by WestPac in 2017.

This is another very large airplane, especially for a fighter, which made getting a good photo difficult – it has a wingspan of 52 feet. Empty, it weighs 12,800 pounds – twice the weight of the Douglas SBD Dauntless.

Republic P-47D Razorback

This was an interesting exhibit, located just behind the P-38: it’s the hulk of a P-47D Razorback, which was found in roughly the same condition as the remains of the Lightning. WestPac has plans to restore it, which would likely make it the only flying Republic-built P-47D in the world. It, like the P-38, was buried in the jungle for more than 50 years and gives you an idea of what the WestPac restorers sometimes have to work with.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

This is the same model of aircraft as shown in the previous photo, but it has the later bubble canopy that improved the pilots’ abilities to see their surroundings. With eight .50-caliber guns totaling 3,400 rounds, P-47s were the most heavily armed Allied fighters of the war. They were also fully capable as bombers; a Thunderbolt could carry about half the bombing ordinance of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Thunderbolts had a top speed of 433 MPH and a range of 800 miles. About 15,500 P-47s were manufactured during the war years, and their versatility saw them perform in every theater of the conflict. As we were to discover at yet another aircraft museum in a few months, Thunderbolts were built primarily in Evansville, Indiana, in the southeastern corner of the state.

Douglas A-1E Skyraider

This airplane wasn’t discussed much on our tour, but it caught my eye for a couple of reasons: it’s painted in the livery of the South Vietnam Air Force, and it’s positively loaded for bear. The A-1E Skyraider was designed by Douglas during World War II as a aircraft-carrier-based single-seat replacement for the Curtiss Helldiver (see below) and the Grumman Avenger (see above). Prototypes first flew in March 1945, and Douglas Aircraft would go on to build 3,180 of these aircraft. Skyraiders saw a lot of action in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. An A-1E had four 20mm cannons and up to a dozen rockets. Depending on the mission, a Skyraider – powered by a single Wright 2,800-hp engine – could carry bombing materiel equivalent to that of a four-engine B-17 or B-24: it was tested to carry 10,000 pounds of bombs. While Skyraiders were flown in aerial combat during the Vietnam War by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the South Vietnamese Air Force – two of these aircraft shot down a Soviet MiG jetfighter – the primary mission of the aircraft was to provide air support for ground troops. It was the most accurate bomber of that conflict.

Grumman F3F-2

Our tour continued into the maintenance hanger of WestPac, which was a great experience. Compare this Grumman F3F-2 to the P-47 in a previous photo, and you’ll see how rapidly aeronautics advanced when there was a world war underway. The F3F-2, the last U.S. Navy and Marine biplane fighter, was introduced in 1936 and retired from service in 1941 – before the United States entered the war, and the same year that the P-47 entered service. The F3F-2 had a .30-caliber and a .50-caliber machine gun, but could carry only 700 total rounds of ammunition. It could also carry one 116-pound bomb under each of its lower wings. Its engine is a Wright Cyclone producing 950 horsepower (less than half that of the Thunderbolt’s Pratt & Whitney’s 2,000 hp), and it had a top speed of 264 miles per hour – a little better than half of the P-47’s top speed. It’s a beautiful airplane for its (or any) time, to be sure. but it’s also instructive to see how quickly technology can improve when the conditions couldn’t be more serious. We saw this particular model in WestPac’s service center being readied for its annual inspection so that it could once again take to the skies.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

Here’s an aircraft currently under restoration by WestPac, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver-1A. These airplanes had a troubled beginning, as their heavy weight. as well as issues with control and stability, caused multiple delays after a prototype first flew in December 1940. Curtiss was heavily criticized by the U.S. government for failing to produce combat-ready Helldivers in the first four years after the placement of the order, but the first SB2Cs finally saw combat in November 1943 and performed admirably during the latter period of the conflict – replacing the Douglas Dauntless SBD. Helldivers carried four .50-caliber guns and one .30-caliber gun, in addition to a thousand-pound bomb. Eventually 7,140 of these aircraft were constructed. This particular airplane was used as a trainer and saw action for a short while after World War II. It was later sunk in a lake, but recovered in the 1980s and is now one of WestPac’s restoration projects.
This is the Wright 2600-8 engine of the Helldiver (shown at top left in the preceding photo; the propeller has been removed). The engine produces 1,700 horsepower and takes the aircraft to a maximum speed of 295 MPH and a range of 1,165 miles. I think it shows just much work went into the design of all of these beautiful aircraft so that America could contribute to winning World War II. Moreover, it shows what must go into their ongoing maintenance to make sure that they still fly safely; when we owned a house, I felt proud of myself when I remembered to add oil to the lawnmower.

The National Museum of World War II Aviation is tremendously fascinating. Seeing a range of aircraft developed for both air combat as well as bombing was illuminating. It has fewer aircraft than most aviation museums we’ve seen, but the idea that all of the restored airplanes are still capable of flight really sets the museum’s collection apart. If you’re in the Colorado Springs area, the museum is well worth a visit – the aircraft there are really quite beautiful machines.

Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 2

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 26, 2022

We made our first visit to Petrified Forest National Park on March 25, 2022, restricting our time to only the northern, smaller section of the park. That part doesn’t have much in the way of petrified wood, but it has plenty of awe-inspiring views. We returned the next day, with Gunther, to experience the southern side, and we did see some fossilized wood. And how!

Petrified Forest National Park, which measures about 350 square miles, receives about 600,000 visitors per year. That number, while impressive, makes it just the third-most-visited national park in Arizona, following Saguaro National Park in Tucson (1 million visitors per year; Nancy and I were two of those people a couple of weeks earlier) and the most-visited park in all the land, Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 million). Incidentally, Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado is just behind Grand Canyon, at 4.4 million visitors per year. If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the last 20 years and felt a bit cramped, it’s probably due to 4.4 million other people visiting a park measuring 415 square miles.

Wind and water erosion in the northern Arizona desert does some interesting things to rocks, like resting the one on the right side against the one on the left.

But we’re here to talk about rocks. A piece of petrified wood isn’t really wood any longer: it no longer contains any organic material and it is most definitely a rock. The process of petrification takes several important factors, including a tree, water, sediment, and time. Lots and lots of time.

Many of the rocks at Petrified Forest National Park represent trees that were quite large when they were living, about 220 million years ago. Here we see a park visitor with her dog observing a massive rock. (It’s Nancy, with Gunther, who appears ready to return home to The Goddard but we’d only been at the park for about 30 minutes at this point.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The scientists believe that the trees in Petrified Forest National Park were alive between 210 and 227 million years ago. At that time, the Late Triassic Period, the current area of the park was just north of the equator – in fact, it was close to where Costa Rica is today. The land was much different then: covered with forests of immense trees as well as large rivers and other wetlands. Huge amphibians and early dinosaurs roamed the forests and dwelled in the rivers. (Although there were many dinosaur species in the ensuing years, famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops wouldn’t appear until the Late Cretaceous Period, almost 160 million years later.)

There’s still a lot of detail from the former trees to be seen in their petrified logs. While it appears that the logs have been cut with a chainsaw to achieve those smooth sides, they’ve simply cracked along the crystalline structure of the quartz. That usually happens because of erosional processes: either geologic uplift over millions of years, or supporting materials below the log being removed through relatively quick wind or water action.

Many of these coniferous trees (there are nine species identified in the park; all are now extinct) grew to be enormous: some may have grown to 200 feet in height. When the trees died they lost their branches and bark, then eventually toppled over after being undercut by a river. If the tree fell into the river, it may have eventually been covered in sediment being carried by the waterway. This relatively rapid burial is critical to later petrification: the water sealed the dead tree away from both oxygen and bacteria, which helped prevent decay. That delay gave time for silicic acid in the rivers to percolate throughout the tree. This process chemically altered the wood into a mineral called opal that still retained the tree’s fine features, like the grain of the wood, or indications of where branches once sprouted from the trunk.

This is one of the biggest, if not longest, pieces of fossilized wood in Petrified Forest National Park. “Old Faithful” is 35 feet long and weighs about 44 tons. It’s also one of the relatively few logs that retained part of its root structure, which measures 10 feet across today, during the petrification process. In 1962, lightning struck and fractured this log. The National Park Service used mortar to reattach the pieces and added the retaining wall seen near the base of the former tree – a process that, in the name of resource management, the NPS would probably not undertake today. Old Faithful is located just west of the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the park’s southern entrance.
Here we see a park visitor with her faithful dog, standing next to the base of Old Faithful. (It’s Nancy, again, with Gunther, again; the dog appears to have perked up somewhat.)
While perhaps not quite as spectacular as the views we enjoyed in the northern part of the park the day before, there were still great vistas to enjoy on the Giant Logs Trail near the visitor center. One can see erosional forces still at work on the rocks at right.

Converting the wood into opal took only a few thousand years. Further layers of sedimentation over millions upon millions of years would cover the logs with tons upon tons of soil and rock. This process recrystallized the logs, converting the opal into quartz and a few other minerals. Over many other ensuing millions of years, erosion and geologic upheaval brought the logs back to the surface of the earth to once again see the light of day – this time as petrified wood.

Now that you know the factors involved in creating petrified wood, can you name the states in our country that contain it? The answer is below – keep on scrollin’!

The silicic acid in ancient waterways percolated through fallen logs, converting the trees’ organic material into opal. This closeup photo shows that the minerals retained the features of the trees, such as the grain of the wood.

The visitor center at the southern end of the park, which is part of the original monument created in 1906 (it was made a national park in 1962), contains some interesting fossils of both trees and animals. The fossilized remains of many amphibians and some dinosaurs dating to the time that the trees were alive have been discovered in the park (and the process for creating animal fossils is much the same as that used to create petrified wood). The museum also exhibits some handwritten letters: apparently, some visitors over the years were unable to withstand the temptation (and federal law) to leave the petrified wood where it lay within the park. Upon their return home with a fossilized wood souvenir, some of them inexplicably fell into bad fortune, such as personal or business relationship issues, and returned the rocks via mail, with an apologetic letter, to the national park.

Some of the many trails within the southern part of the park feature these helpful fossilized logs to help keep hikers on the path. Walking beside them gives an idea of just how tall these trees were.

After going to the visitor center and museum, and walking the Giant Logs Trail behind the building, we decided to go on a longer walk to see some more rocks. The Long Logs Trail, located a short distance from the visitor center, is so named because some of the petrified wood is more than 180 feet in length.

We saw this horned lark while on the Long Logs Trail. It had a very pretty song. We had never seen one before, and were happy to watch and listen to it for a while. (I write “we,” but Gunther couldn’t possibly have cared less.)
More than 1,200 archeological sites, indicating prior human habitation as long as 12,000 years ago, have been found in the park. The Native Americans arrived first as nomadic cultures, then over the centuries began to occupy the area on a seasonal basis. Eventually, the cultures lived in what is now the park year-round. A short spur from the Long Logs Trail leads to Agate House, a building that was reconstructed by the NPS to represent an actual seven-room dwelling built by ancient Native Americans, using the only construction material available, petrified wood, about a thousand years ago. Although centuries of weathering caused the original structure to collapse, park service staff used the same rocks to rebuild the house.
Realizing it’s a reconstruction, Agate House is still very pretty and was probably fairly resistant to the elements when it was first built.

About the states that contain petrified wood: were you able to name them? If you named all 50, you’re correct. Although each U.S. state contain some amount of petrified wood, northern Arizona is able to display one of the largest concentrations in the nation because of the geologic upheaval processes that brought the logs to the surface of the earth.

This particular log caught my eye because of the many colors it features. It’s simply spectacular. The different mineral composition within the petrified wood contributes to the varied coloration. The rocks can contain natural quartz, which is nearly clear and translucent, as well as varying amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and chromium, all responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and greens. I would never take any rocks from Petrified Forest National Park. It would have meant that someone else wouldn’t have been able to see this one. However, if I was going to take a rock home, this would have been the one. But we have a weight limit, for towing safety purposes. on The Goddard. Also, I like my luck the way it is.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 1

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 25, 2022

Progressing east and west, Interstate 40 divides Petrified Forest National Park into northern and southern sections. The interstate generally follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66, which connected the midwestern United States to the country’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. Although Route 66 stretched more than 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Petrified Forest is the only national park with former segments of the historic highway within its boundaries. The area south of the interstate, much larger in size than the northern part, contains most of the petrified wood specimens in the park. The northern area, however, boasts incredible roadside vistas of the Painted Desert and a sizable national wilderness area. Nancy and I visited the northern part of the park in late March. Gunther stayed with Rusty in the Goddard, but Nancy and I would enjoy the dog’s company when we returned to the park the following day.

We briefly stopped in at the northern visitor center, which was undergoing significant renovation at the time, then proceeded to drive along a route that included a number of overlooks of Petrified Forest National Park.

I decided to use my 14mm wide-angle lens for taking pictures the day we visited the Painted Desert. I got it a couple of years ago to primarily take pictures of the night sky but thought its properties would help capture the feeling of the vast open landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park. There is a disadvantage to using this lens, though: it’s not automatic, so the aperture, ISO, and other settings all must be set manually. I’m no good at any of that. Many of the photos I took were over- or under-exposed, and I had to make manual adjustments using a couple of pieces of photo editing software.

One gets a different perspective of time and distance when visiting this part of Petrified Forest National Park. The different colors in the gullies in the center of the photograph represent 200 million years of sediment being laid down by rivers and then being eroded by later rivers, and the rock formation on the horizon at left, Pilot Rock, is nearly seven miles away. The horizon in the center is much further – perhaps a hundred miles.
This view of a deep basin formed from erosion is from one of the first overlooks on a road that goes through the Painted Desert. One can see for, literally, a hundred miles to the horizon. They’re not visible in this photo, but we could see many, many tractor-trailers traversing Interstate 40 on the other side of this huge basin. Sharp-eyed viewers will, however, note a distinct lack of petrified wood in this view; that’s because most of the petrified logs are well south of this part of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park contains only a small part of the Painted Desert, which stretches across almost 8,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. The colorful rocks, primarily mudstone and sandstone, of this region are called the Chinle Formation. Deposited from 227 to 205 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period while most of the land area on Earth was on the single supercontinent Pangaea, the rocks have been buried, lifted, and eroded during Pangaea’s breakup and shift into today’s major continents.

There are still living trees to be found in Petrified Forest National Park, but they’re nothing like the towering conifers that grew 200 million years ago when the area was located at about present-day Costa Rica. The park’s overlooks are built on a layer of basaltic rock that was ejected from volcanic eruptions only between 16 and five million years ago, forming a protective layer that is much more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary layers of rock below.

During the Late Triassic Period, the land comprising Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park was located just north of the equator and supported a much different environment (different enough, for example, to support a forest of 180-foot-tall trees that would later become petrified). As Pangaea divided, the land mass migrated north and the land itself underwent massive changes.

The different colors seen in the Painted Desert are quite impressive. Large river systems flowed through this area hundreds of millions of years ago, depositing many layers of gravel, silt, and sand. The different colors of the layers are created by varying mineral content of the soils, which have been exposed through geologic movement as well as water and wind erosion.

The Chinle Formation is itself divided into five members: Mesa Redondo, Blue Mesa, Sonsela, Petrified Forest, and Owl Rock. Each member represents a transition of the land from wet to dry environments over millions of years: the Mesa Redondo, the oldest layer and therefore the one underlying the rest of the formation, consists of red sandstone originally laid down 226 million years ago, and the youngest, Owl Rock, includes pink and orange mudstone at the top of the formation that was deposited 207 million years ago.

Here we see a visitor to Petrified Forest National Park (it’s Nancy) contemplate more than 200 million years of geologic change that resulted in these magnificent views.

Older rock formations in the Painted Desert are at the bottom of the geologic column, and the layers of rock grow younger in age as the elevation increases. The colors of these rocks come from the iron they contain. Drier climates allow the minerals to become exposed to oxygen, causing the iron to rust and develop distinctive red, brown, and orange colors. When the climate is wet, moisture essentially covers the sediments and prevents their oxidation. Those layers are colored blue, gray, and purple.

I think a lot of people might underestimate just how wide-open the American West can be. This picture, taken from the Pintado Point overlook at the national park, gives an idea of how far one can see in the northern Arizona desert. For instance, Turkey Track Butte is nearly 23 miles away from this viewpoint but is still distinctly visible. Behind the butte, the San Francisco Peaks are barely discernable, but they’re more than a hundred miles away. Pilot Rock is the highest point in the park, and Lithodendren Wash is a seasonal stream.

Nancy and I took a short hike along the rim of the basin, and one of the highlights of that walk was a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, which was originally built as a respite for travelers on Route 66. The highway passed just a short distance south of the building, and a spur road brought visitors to the inn for refreshments.

Records are unclear regarding exactly when the building was first constructed, but descendants of the original owner say he built it in the late teens of the 20th century. The Painted Desert Inn had several owners during the course of its life as a place of rest for Route 66 travelers, but the U.S. government bought the building and four surrounding square miles of land in 1936. Petrified Forest National Monument had been established 30 years earlier, and the area became a national park in 1962.

The interior of the Painted Desert Inn now serves as a visitor center for the Painted Desert as well as a museum with artifacts from the inn’s heyday. It’s all very impressive and you’re going to have to take my word on that because none of the pictures I took inside turned out.

Despite my photographic foibles, we really enjoyed this first visit to Petrified Forest National Park. I grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, and I know long, uninterrupted distances. They are nothing compared to what can be seen in northeastern Arizona.

We’d see more of the park, and a little bit of actual fossilized wood, the next day. (Actually, we’d see a lot of fossilized wood. So. Much. Fossilized. Wood.)

Navajo County Courthouse

Holbrook, Arizona – March 20, 2022

Holbrook, Arizona, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is the seat of Navajo County, which was split off from neighboring Apache County in 1895. Both counties are still huge: Navajo measures 9,960 square miles, and Apache still has more than 11,000 square miles even after the division. Navajo County is bigger than the state of Vermont and just slightly smaller than Massachusetts. (For reference, my home county in eastern Colorado, Kit Carson, is considered very large at 2,162 square miles; in fact, Navajo County is about a tenth the size of the entire state of Colorado.)

Nearly two-thirds of Navajo County is designated Native American reservation land, including parts of the Hopi Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, and Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

We camped in Holbrook for a week because of the town’s close proximity to Petrified Forest National Park – the park is only 25 miles northeast of the city – but we found plenty to like about the town itself.

The Navajo County Courthouse, completed nearly 125 years ago, is now home to the Navajo County Historical Society’s museum. Built in 1898 at a cost of $15,000, including a $3,000 jail, the courthouse was in use until 1976 when the Navajo County Correctional Complex was constructed on the south side of Holbrook.

Construction of the Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Arizona, was completed in 1898. The courtroom and jail are on the right side of the building. You can probably determine on which floor each is located: one has cloth curtains on its windows and the other has metal bars.

The museum was open on a Sunday afternoon in March after the Goddard’s arrival in Holbrook, so we were able to spend a few pleasant hours touring the exhibits.

The first exhibit in the museum is the county jail, which is to the right after one enters the courthouse. The jail was built in Kansas City, Missouri, by the Pauly Jail Company, which began operations in 1856 and is still in business today – be sure to consider it for any incarceration needs you may have. The jail was then shipped by rail to Holbrook and placed in the still-under-construction courthouse.

The jail’s desk and other office furniture is on display in the office. That’s a receipt book along with some historic postcards on the desk. The longhorns at top left allude to Navajo County’s ranching heritage, which is extensive.
Here’s a handy feature located in the wall across from that desk: it’s a peephole covered by a swinging cover that affords a view into the detention area …
… and here’s what one sees if one looks through that peephole. The sleeping accommodations are somewhat spartan.
I don’t know how often you consider turning to a life of crime, but I know that when I do I make myself think of scenes like these and my thoughts quickly change to other, less illegal pursuits. Nancy and I didn’t have an opportunity to visit the new correctional facilities in Holbrook, so I don’t know how they compare to these. One would think they’re an improvement.

Firmly deciding to continue living our lives on the straight and narrow path, Nancy and I proceeded to other parts of the museum. Volunteers for the Navajo County Historical Society spend more than 2,000 hours each year curating and conserving artifacts from Holbrook’s past. The items represent the lives of Native Americans, Euro-American settlers, ranchers and cowboys, bankers, homemakers, railroad employees, teachers, merchants, and travelers through the area over the past centuries. Like many community historical museums we’ve visited, the exhibits in the building show a tremendous range of cultural, social, and economic pursuits. I wish other museums, however, were as well curated as Holbrook’s: the society has really done a fine job of keeping the exhibits relevant and reasonably sized.

The Mother Road

Holbrook makes much of its location on the former Route 66, one of the original highways of the U.S. Highway System. Established in 1926, Route 66 connected Chicago, Illinois, with Santa Monica, California, and passed through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in its 2,448 miles.

Route 66 was an extraordinarily important highway in the first half of the 20th century, serving as the primary means by which Americans migrated to the West – especially during the Great Depression (John Steinbeck’s novel “Grapes of Wrath” alludes heavily to the highway). The route proved to be an essential economic driver for dozens of cities and towns along the way, as businesses provided food, fuel, shelter, and services to those who traveled the highway. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985, having been mostly replaced by a variety of segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

The museum displays interesting artifacts from Route 66, and Holbrook itself makes many references to the highway along its former route. While we were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we also saw many references to Route 66 (according to the mileage chart in the display above, Albuquerque is 1,329 miles from Chicago).
This marker for mile 322 on Route 66 was originally located east of Petrified Forest National Park – Holbrook today is at mile markers 285 and 286 on Interstate 40, which follows the path of Route 66 in northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The interstate highway splits Petrified Forest National Park into two parts, and the 350-square-mile park is located in both Navajo and Apache counties. This is a really attractive mile marker, and I wonder how many of them are still around.

The Hashknife Outfit

In addition to the town’s Route 66 connection, the Holbrook museum also features extensive exhibits on the Aztec Land & Cattle Company. The company was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884 to take advantage of significant drops in cattle prices in Texas. Many large ranches in that state had continued to add to their herds, intending to reap profits when the beef markets improved. However, lingering drought caused prices to drop even further.

Aztec bought the Continental Cattle Company and its Hashknife brand (so called because the cattle brand resembled a bladed kitchen utensil), then shipped a total of 60,000 cattle and 2,200 horses from Texas to northeastern Arizona. The cattle were grazed on land purchased for 50 cents an acre from the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. The grazing lands stretched about 300 miles from just south of Flagstaff to the New Mexico border (Arizona and New Mexico were both U.S. territories until 1912). With the ranch headquarters in Holbrook, the company’s employee base was a significant economic force for the town. However, Holbrook’s population of 300 residents found that not all of the Hashknife Outfit’s cowboys were of the law-abiding type. Cases of armed robbery and cattle rustling escalated, and there were 26 shooting deaths in 1886 (again, in a town of 300 people).

The Aztec Land & Cattle Company’s cattle brand looks a lot like this handy-dandy kitchen utensil, called a hashknife.

As was typical in the days of the Old West, range wars involving different ranches and their possessions were common. Many of the cowboys involved, either current or former Aztec employees, were incarcerated or outright killed.

The original end of Aztec as a beef-raising company came in 1902, with a drought, flooding, and overgrazing that destroyed the land on which the cattle were grazed. Aztec sold off its land and its remaining cattle, and the Hashknife brand was sold to a family in Flagstaff (and Aztec continues today as the third-largest private landowner in Arizona).

However, many of the cowboys of the Hashknife Outfit would go on to become respectable citizens of Holbrook and the surrounding area as independent ranchers, law enforcement officers, businessmen, and community leaders.

Although it was definitely the largest, the Aztec Cattle & Land Company wasn’t the only cattle concern around Holbrook and the museum has many artifacts about the ranching way of life.

Is it really a Western historical museum if it doesn’t feature a barbed wire exhibit? I think not. These barbed wire examples from the early Holbrook area date from the mid-1870s and 1880s.

Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher and cattle trail developer, is credited with introducing the chuckwagon, a mobile kitchen used to keep cowboys’ bellies full, in 1866. Goodnight’s model was a modified wagon from the U.S. Civil War, to which he added a box with drawers and shelves for food and supply storage. Goodnight’s cattle drives took cattle from Texas to New Mexico on the Goodnight-Loving Trail (which also followed part of the Butterfield Overland Mail route). He’d later go on to drive cattle from New Mexico up into Colorado and Wyoming. Cooks for the cattle drives would also serve as barbers, dentists, and bankers for the outfits, and were so important that they were usually second in command to the trailbosses.

This particular chuckwagon belonged to George Hennessy (1877-1974), who was mayor of Holbrook in 1918 and was married to the daughter of the Hashknife Outfit’s foreman. Another resident of Holbrook, C.F. Lee, owned the wagon later, and his son, who donated the wagon to the Holbrook museum, said it was special to his father because, as a teenager on his first cattle roundup, he ate off this chuckwagon.

Back to the Triassic

One of the things I really appreciate about community historical museums is the breadth of items they display. The artifacts can range in dates from the times of ancient Native American cultures up to the Great Depression of the 1930s and even more recent. As I wrote, the Navajo County Historical Society has excelled at displaying just a few items from each era in order to abstain from overwhelming visitors. Let’s go back even further in time for a moment:

This is the fossilized skull of a critter still needing positive scientific identification, found about a mile east of present-day Holbrook. It is likely an amphibian that lived during the Triassic period, 250 to 200 million years ago. The skull is maybe 18 inches wide. Holbrook is, of course, also near Petrified Forest National Park and its huge fossilized trees that lived about 225 million years ago.
Writing of hard things, this is an example of an adobe brick from an early Holbrook building. Many of the buildings of the city are constructed from adobe, which has since been stuccoed to prevent erosion. Adobe is, of course, a time-honored construction material in the American southwest. This display also included other building materials, including sandstone blocks and red clay bricks, from since-demolished Holbrook buildings.
The citizens of Navajo County have long held a strong interest in preserving the past. In 1940, the war in Europe was threatening to spill over into other parts of the world, including the United States. Political leaders in Navajo County wrote a prayer for peace and sealed it in the three-inch galvanized pipe shown above. The capsule was then deposited in the left pilaster of the courthouse entrance. Other items included in the time capsule included two buffalo nickels, two March of Dimes pins, a newspaper from 1940, an election ballot form, and a number of written letters. The capsule was unearthed in 1995 during an annual celebration in Holbrook. In 1998, the contents of the time capsule along with other items from that year were reburied in a PVC pipe in the same location, and officials decreed that the plastic time capsule will be reopened in the year 2098.
The courtroom, located on the courthouse’s second floor, looks much like it did in the final days of its use in 1976. The jury seats are on the left, and museum exhibits are on the room’s other walls. The judge’s chambers and legal library, through the door to the left of the exhibit cases, are also preserved. After the courthouse’s construction, this room was also used for community dances until it was decided that the festivities were putting too much weight on the floor. Note the ornate design of the ceiling. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in courtrooms, willfully or not, but for some reason they always have a calming effect on me.
I took this photo of the courthouse’s front door as we were leaving the museum. There’ve been a lot of people who walked through this door in the last 124 years: some to face a trial, some to pay a county bill, some to attend a dance in the courtroom (when that was still permitted). The door and its hardware have a lot of character, and they’re just a few steps from the PVC time capsule that will be reopened in just over three-quarters of a century.

Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

March 14 & 15, 2022 – Near Camp Verde, Arizona

Having nothing at all to do with Montezuma, the early 16th-century emperor of the Aztecs (known now as Moctezuma II), nor a castle in any sense of the word, Montezuma Castle National Monument is still a very rewarding site to visit.

It was very convenient to visit Montezuma Castle in the late afternoons after the workday ended, but the shadows weren’t conducive to good photos. However, we really appreciated our two visits to the monument.

Because access to enter the actual structures is limited to those who really need to go in them, the park also focuses a lot on native species of flora found in the region and provides a lot of interpretive signage next to examples of plants to explain how the plants were used by the occupants of the dwellings. As an (extremely) amateur botanist, this was fine by me.

This pretty shrub is four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), named for the four-winged bracts on its berries. Everything on the plant – the leaves, fruits, seeds, and young shoots – is edible. The ashes from burned saltbush leaves make a type of baking soda which fortifies baked goods; the leaves can also be used to relieve pain from insect stings.

We were able to make a couple of late weekday visits to fully explore this monument, which is located just a few miles north of our campground in Camp Verde, Arizona. It was also the first opportunity for Gunther to earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger certification (more on that later).

Montezuma Castle includes a 20-room structure, as well as several smaller dwellings on the same cliff face. The area was established as a national monument on Dec. 8, 1906.

The structures in the monument were built by the Sinagua, Native Americans who migrated to this area about 1,400 years ago and began building the cliff dwellings about a thousand years ago – hundreds of years before Moctezuma II was born. The current name of the monument, Montezuma Castle, comes from European Americans who in the mid-1800s were extremely interested in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of present-day Central America and wanted to bestow exotic names on nearly everything they found.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridendata) is one of the oldest species of plants on the planet. Some stands of the bush grow in the same location for thousands of years. Its leaves definitely have an earthy smell like you’d experience after a rainshower. Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat a variety of ailments ranging from infections and toothaches to nausea and sprains.

The cliff dwellings are built in Verde Formation limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, the erosional forces of water and wind have had their way with the limestone to carve many holes into the rock. The erosional holes that are enlarged by humans into structures are called cavates by archeologists. At Montezuma Castle, most cavates extend about 10 feet into the cliff. By closing up naturally open spaces, and building exterior and interior walls with masonry, the Sinagua were able to construct secure housing for their culture.

This collection of 20 rooms belonged to multiple Sinagua families, very similar to today’s apartment buildings.

The Sinagua built and occupied the dwellings between the years 1100 and 1425, leaving the residences about 70 years before Columbus set sail. Montezuma Castle was at the crossroads of a Native American trading network that stretched from the coast of present-day California to eastern New Mexico, and from Utah into Mexico. That central location provided the Sinagua with many resources that weren’t available in the Verde Valley:

  • Obsidian, used for projectile points, came from the San Francisco Mountains north of the castle
  • Wild game and plants were taken from the Mogollon Rim, located east of the structure
  • Strong trading relationships with the Hohokam culture, in present-day southern Arizona, provided much more than was available in the Verde Valley

Contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion, because of that trading network the Sinagua had an awareness of their world that stretched for thousands of square miles.

Where the Sinagua went, and why, after about the year 1425 is still up for debate, but most researchers believe the exodus was due to at least one of three factors: drought, depletion of food resources, and threats from newly arrived cultures.

The Hopi culture, which may be descended partially from the Sinagua, believe this structure wasn’t meant to be the final home of their ancestors. When a culture stays too long in one place, the Hopi believe, environmental disasters and societal collapses remind them of their migratory nature – and they move on. The Zuni and other Puebloan groups are also said to be descended from the Sinagua.

The Apache name for catclaw acacia, ch’ill gohigise, means “a bush that scratches you.” The long and sharp thorns of catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) are best avoided, but ancient peoples relies on many different parts of the bush for food and the branches are used to make furniture and drumsticks. The honey made from this tree’s blossoms is especially prized for its delicate nature. This specimen is growing directly in front of the dwellings; there’s an doorway visible behind the bush (and accessible only by ladder). We first saw catclaw acacia in late February 2022, when we visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeast Arizona.

Between 1991 and 1994, an inventory of the plants and animals at this national monument was taken by a team of researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. That research resulted in the cataloging of 784 species of plants and animals in this 859-acre (less than 1.5 square miles) site; only 11 percent were non-native species.

A level and paved trail passes in front of the five-story castle, allowing visitors to see different perspectives especially as the sunlight changed. The Sinagua made improvements and additions to the castle over a 300-year period beginning around the year 1130.
In the American Southwest, plants with protective thorns – well beyond species of cacti – are very, very common. The catclaw mimosa (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) has the nickname “wait-a-minute bush” because it catches unwary hikers’ clothing. Catclaw mimosa is a genetic cousin of the catclaw acacia, and honeybees also seek out this acacia’s blossoms for their nectar.

Looters of the 19th century took many of the contents of the structures, and today the ruins are open only to scientists for research, inspection, and maintenance. This is in contrast to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, in which visitors are allowed to enter the structures. Part of that policy us is perhaps due to proximity. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of those places you have to want to get to, since it’s nearly a two-hour drive from the closest large city; Montezuma Castle is just a couple of miles off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. About 350,000 people visit Montezuma Castle each year; Gila Cliff Dwellings gets about 42,000 visitors annually.

The modern structure at the bottom of the photograph is a kind of amphitheater in which U.S. national park rangers provide talks about the history and culture of Montezuma Castle. I wish we could have seen the castle with better lighting; as always, I blame the sun.
In autumn, the netleaf hackberry (Celtis laevigata) produces berries with high levels of calcium. The leaves are used to treat digestive disorders, and the bark of the tree can be woven into sandals.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established by the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his administration (1901-1909), five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries. In all, Roosevelt authorized a total of 230 million acres (almost 360,000 square miles) for the enjoyment of future generations like ours.

Reaching up to 120 feet high, Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii) are some of the state’s largest trees. When seasoned properly, the logs stay structurally sound for hundreds of years: there are Arizona sycamore beams inside Montezuma Castle still supporting roofs, 700 years after they were first placed.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife while at the monument (Nancy and I were both surprised at the number of late-day visitors each day, but that was probably due to the monument’s easy access from the Interstate); however the habitat’s diversity (holes in cliffs to dry meadows to riparian areas) supports all kinds of bats, foxes, mice, owls, songbirds, snakes, lizards, and turtles.

These partially reconstructed ruins are just a few steps down the trail from the vantage point underneath the castle. Smaller cliff dwelling structures were located above these rooms.

Being open only to researchers is also due to the fact that ladders must be used to access the cliffside ruins: the buildings were definitely at least partially planned with defense in mind. Additionally most of the cliff faces south, which allows the dwellings to be warm in the winters and cool in the summers. The elevated location also protects the dwellings from occasional flooding of Beaver Creek, which flows beneath the cliffs.

Oneseed juniper (Juniperus monosperma — hey: I can figure out that Latin!) provided the Sinagua with wood for cooking, heat, and light, as well as shelter. The branches are also boiled for treating stomach disorders. When we’re hiking, Nancy and I really enjoy finding juniper berries — they smell really, really good. I love the character of this juniper’s trunk.
This is Beaver Creek, which flows a few hundred feet south of the main cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle. Residents of the cliff dwellings dug ditches to transport water for irrigating corn, beans, squash, and cotton crops that were planted on land by the creek. The large tree on the far bank of Beaver Creek is an Arizona sycamore.
Providing food and shade, the Arizona walnut tree (Juglans major) was named ch’il nehe (“nuts you pound”) by the Apache. The thick husks of the walnuts were also ground to produce cloth, hair dye, and paint.
Here we see a monument visitor and her dog (it is Nancy with Gunther) passing underneath the branches of a western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria) tree. The tree produces small yellow berries, but the fruit is harmful when eaten. Despite their toxicity (and true to the tree’s name), the berries are used to make soap for laundry, shampoo, and general bathing. You can also see an interpretive sign next to the tree; that signage adjacent to the plants and trees is where I got most of the background information for this posting.
This is a view of Beaver Creek looking to the southwest. A few dwellings, much smaller than the main one we first encountered, were built in the cliffs on the right side of the photo. The creek was prone to flooding in spring, which was one reason the dwellings were built high on the cliffs.
Here’s a plant that should be familiar to many: the prickly pear cactus, in particular the Engelmann’s variety (Opuntia phaeacantha). This most common of Arizona’s prickly pears is still widely eaten throughout the southwest (after removing the spines). The pads, called nopalitos in Spanish, can be steamed, fried, pickled, or roasted. The fruits after flowering, too, are edible and are used to make jelly as well as to create red dye. This specimen was just outside the visitor center at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Un cactus más para ti: the desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). In December of each year, this cactus produces a bright-red fruit which is crushed and made into jam. We saw some of these plants at Saguaro National Park near Tucson and would see additional specimens of desert Christmas cactus in a few days, at Tuzigoot National Monument.

The National Park Service has a pretty nifty program in which dogs can earn their B.A.R.K. Ranger certification in certain parks and monuments. Gunther knows, and you should too, that B.A.R.K. Rangers:

  • Bag your poop. Always have your humans bag and dispose of your waste properly.
  • Always wear a leash. When in the park, always wear a leash (6 feet or less) and don’t let your humans leave you unattended.
  • Respect wildlife. Don’t harass or harm wildlife by making noise or chasing them.
  • Know where you can go. B.A.R.K. rangers are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and designated trails.
Park Ranger Stephanie greets the newest B.A.R.K. Ranger, Gunther, at the Montezuma Castle National Monument Visitor Center and congratulates him on his many achievements.
Here’s Gunther relaxing in the Goddard with his certification (the inside is signed by Ranger Stephanie). Good job, Gunther!

The B.A.R.K. Ranger program is really clever: it keeps dogs out of hot vehicles while their owners visit national parks and monuments, while encouraging those owners to be responsible for their pet. Since that great day at Montezuma Castle, Gunther has also earned B.A.R.K. Ranger certification at Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona, and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Look for future blog postings about those visits and more, and look for Gunther on the trails!

Saguaro National Park

March 12, 2022 – Tucson, Arizona

Nancy and I visited Tucson in 2010 in part to see the Colorado Rockies baseball club play a spring training game. It was their last spring in Tucson, as they moved their training operations to Phoenix the next year. We got a rental car at the airport, and driving away from the airport and into Tucson proper, we saw a saguaro (pr.: sah-WAH-row) cactus growing by the side of the road. We were so excited that we almost stopped and took a picture of it.

We needn’t have. We saw a lot more saguaros on that trip. They’re fairly common in the Tucson area, but not as common as they used to be because of land development and agricultural practices. Protecting a forest of saguaro cactus was the impetus behind the establishment of Saguaro National Monument in 1933, and the area was elevated to a national park in 1994.

The national park is divided into two districts, Rincon Mountain on the east and Tucson Mountain on the west, with the city of Tucson in the middle. We visited the Rincon Mountain District in mid-March, and enjoyed a five-mile loop hike (with only 185 feet gain in altitude) on the Loma Verde Trail.

I think this is a fairly typical image that most people see in their minds when they think of Arizona: flat, hot, and not a lot of plants, with some mountains in the background. But there’s a lot of diversity in this photo: several different species of cacti, some grasses, and a palo verde tree on the right side. There are a lot of palo verde (Spanish for “green stick”) trees in and around Tucson. They are the state tree of Arizona, and easily live for 100 years and in some cases 400 years.

During the hike, Nancy and I saw a lot of different kinds of cacti and succulents, some nifty birds, and a group of three German tourists with whom I briefly practiced mein Deutsch. (Me: “Woher kommen sie?” They: “Deutschland.” Me: “Willkommen!” And then we went our separate ways.)

The Loma Verde (“green hill”) Trail allows hikers to walk next to the impressively tall saguaros. The cacti usually grow up to 40 feet in height, and many have eight or more arms branching from their trunks. They are found only in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, and northern Mexico.
Saguaros grow very slowly: just about an inch to one-and-a-half inches in the first eight years of their lives. At 70 years of age, a saguaro will be about 6 feet tall and can start producing flowers. A 15-foot-tall saguaro is probably 95 to 100 years old, and will only start producing its first arm at that age. The spiral-looking cactus on the right was germinated around 1950 or so, and the ones on the left and center were most likely germinated in the mid- to late 19th century. The tallest saguaro on record, one growing near Cave Creek, Arizona, reached 78 feet into the sky. It was felled by a windstorm in 1986; because the plants’ root systems reach only a few inches into the soil, their great weight makes them susceptible to toppling.
The pleated structure of a saguaro allows it to expand during periods of heavy rainfall. Its roots may extend only three or four inches underground, but they draw in a lot of moisture: a 40-foot saguaro that’s full of rainwater can weigh 2,000 pounds, and taller and wider cacti can weigh seven tons.
Among the 25 species of cactus in the national park, including saguaro, are seven species of cholla. This specimen of staghorn cholla, spanning about five feet wide, was one of the largest we saw.
This is a very common type of cactus in the southwest United States: it’s a fishhook barrel cactus, named so because of its formidable curving thorns.
Some cacti say “Stay away,” and others scream it loudly. This strawberry hedgehog cactus is one of the latter.
This is desert globe mallow. While they can grow up to 3 feet tall, this particular one was only about 12 inches high.
This flowering shrub is called fairy duster. Its blossoms are an important source of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.
One of the features of the Loma Verde Trail is a very short spur that leads to the top of Pink Hill (where we gained most of that 185 feet in altitude). This is looking west from the top of the hill toward the Tucson Mountains, and you can see part of Tucson at the foot of the mountain range. The Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is to the right of the mountains.
This is a cristate, or crested, saguaro. The scientists aren’t entirely sure what causes the growth pattern at the top, whether it’s a genetic mutation or damage caused by lightning strikes or freezing, but it’s pretty rare: only about 25 saguaros in the park, which has thousands upon thousands of them, have this fan-shaped feature.

Damage from freezing temperatures is a real threat to saguaros. A record cold snap in Tucson in 1937 caused many of the huge cacti to die a few years later. In the 1960s researchers discovered that exposure to 20 straight hours of sub-freezing temperatures can kill a saguaro. As recently as 1980 there were predictions of saguaros being extinct by the 1990s. The cacti have recovered, however: there are now plenty of healthy saguaros in the park.

Many birds make their nests in the protective height of saguaros. The holes are originally made by Gila woodpeckers or gilded flickers, and then when they leave the cavities are occupied by a number of different other birds including owls, finches, and sparrows.
Hikes with unexpected surprises are always fun. This is the site of the Loma Verde Mine, a copper and gold venture in the 1880s. It had a 350-feet-deep shaft. Although the copper ore was fairly high-grade, the mine soon closed and the shaft was filled by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews in the 1930s.

I couldn’t find online why the Loma Verde Mine closed, but I do know that it’s remarkably hot in Tucson. It was in the low 80s in mid-March when we visited the national park. I’m writing this post on April 27, and Tucson recorded its first 100-degree day of 2022 yesterday.

I learned a valuable bird photography lesson while taking this photo. From an eighth-mile away, the object on the right top of this saguaro appeared to look through my telephoto lens to be another bud of cactus growth. However, I took a picture anyway in case it was a bird of some kind. The picture didn’t turn out very well because it was from 700 feet away. From about 150 yards, it still appeared to be a cactus bud, but I took another photo anyway (this one) so that I’d have a better picture of a possible bird. From about 50 yards, it was clear without looking through my telephoto lens that it was only a cactus growth so I didn’t take any more pictures of it (I already had plenty of pictures of cactus from 150 feet away). Then, at about 40 yards, the cactus growth lifted its wings and flew off to the west. It was, in fact, an American kestrel, North America’s smallest raptor and a bird that I have really, really wanted to get a good picture of for several years. This terrible photo will have to do for now.
Here we see an intrepid hiker making her way past some saguaros on the Loma Verde Trail. Who knows what she’ll see around the bend of the trail? (It’ll be more saguaros.) Note the large number of bird-nest cavities in the cactus nearest the trail – it’s like a condominium building.
This cactus is at least 50 feet tall and looks like it has some stories to tell. Maybe while giving you a big hug …
… but you probably wouldn’t want it to. This is a closeup of the top of a three-foot-tall saguaro growing next to the trail. It’s definitely a cactus.
This photo gives an idea of the number of saguaros in the park – they’re in good shape for now, but it’s only because of the establishment of the national park that we get to see them in this quantity.

As is the case with all of the national parks and monuments we’ve visited, our experience at Saguaro National Park was fantastic. We’ll likely go to Tucson again in the coming years, and we’ll definitely travel to the other district of the park where we’ll hopefully see … more saguaros!

Pima Air & Space Museum, Day 2

March 6, 2022

We’ve found that many museums and other attractions in the southwest allow visitors to bring their dogs along. That policy is probably, at least in part, so that people don’t leave their dogs in their cars. For whatever reason it is, we’re good with it.

Gunther was able to join us on the second of our two visits to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. The exhibits that we saw on March 6 were all outside. It was a lovely day and there happened to be an airshow training program taking place at a nearby airfield, so we saw plenty of planes on the ground and in the air. As I wrote in the posting about our first day’s visit, there are hundreds of airplanes on the grounds of the museum, and taking them all in, even with a two-day pass, is a lot to handle.

I finally remembered to take a picture of a museum’s exterior so I’ll include this photo. That’s a Douglas A-4C Skyhawk in the foreground. It was a carrier-based bomber produced by Douglas Aircraft Company, and later McDonnell Douglas, from 1954-1979. The Skyhawk, which played active roles in conflicts ranging from the Vietnam War through the Falklands War, could carry the bombload equivalent of a World War II-era Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. It had a top speed of 670 MPH; about 3,000 were produced.
This was one of the many, many formations of aircraft that flew over the saguaro cactus of Tucson in the days that we were camping there. The pilots were training for upcoming airshows, taking off and landing at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. They usually flew in groups of three or four, and some of the formations included vintage aircraft like this A-10 Thunderbolt with P-51 Mustangs and others featured current airplanes like the F-22 Raptor flying alongside World War II and Korean War-era craft.
The aircraft on the outside grounds of the museum are lined up in long, long rows, grouped mostly by their era. The museum is a big complex — Nancy and Gunther and I walked four miles during our visit that day. That’s a Vought F-8 Crusader, produced beginning in 1957 and retired as a fighter by the U.S. Navy in 1976, in the foreground. It was also a carrier-based jet, and the last American-made fighter to use guns (20mm cannons) as a primary weapon. Crusaders, which could reach 1,227 MPH (Mach 1.8, or 1.8 times the speed of sound), were used to take low-level photographs of missile installations in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962; they saw most of their action later during the Vietnam War.
Rotary-wing aircraft fans aren’t left out: here’s a row of helicopters starting with the Sikorsky UH-19B Chickasaw. This cargo helicopter was introduced into U.S. Air Force service in 1950 and retired by the U.S. Navy in 1969. The UH-19 had a crew of two, could carry 10 troops, and had a maximum speed of 101 MPH. This particular UH-19B is one of about a dozen Chickasaws on current display in the United States.
A museum visitor and her ill-behaved dog take a look to the skies at the ongoing training operations while standing in front of another big helicopter, the Mi-24D Hind-D. This Russian-made gunship has been in operation since 1974 and has seen action in nearly every conflict since then, including the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). the Gulf War (1991), and in this year’s operations in Ukraine (both the Russians and the Ukrainians have Mi-24s). The Hind has a maximum speed of 208 MPH and has a substantial range of armament capabilities. Almost 2,700 Hinds have been produced, and armed forces all over the world have them in their inventory. They’re very menacing aircraft; it’s unfortunate that the paint used to protect the canopy is nearly the same color as the rest of the helicopter.
One more widebody whirlybird: this is the Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low, a USAF combat search and rescue helicopter in service from 1974-2008. The Pave Low had a crew of two pilots, two flight engineers, and two gunners, with a top speed of 200 MPH. It weighs 16 tons empty.
From a design standpoint only, I love me some MiGs. This product of the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau is a MiG-29 Fulcrum, which entered Soviet Air Forces service in 1982 and is still in use by a couple of dozen air forces today (including those of Russia and Ukraine). It was developed to compete with U.S. fighters like the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Fulcrum has a top speed of 1,500 MPH (about two times the speed of sound, or Mach 2). This particular aircraft is one of seven MiG-29s currently on display in the United States.
Here’s an earlier MiG, and one of my favorite aircraft designs as well, the MiG-21 Fishbed. This is the most-produced supersonic fighter in the world, introduced in 1955 and still in use by some countries’ air forces. It has a top speed of 1,350 MPH. Almost 11,500 MiG-21s were built, and we’ve seen two of them: we saw another of these aircraft on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in November 2021.
This big boy (it’s almost 20 feet tall and weighs 31,000 pounds empty) is the English Electric Lightning, introduced in 1960 and retired by the Royal Air Force in 1988. This is the only British-designed fighter that reached Mach 2. It was developed to protect the United Kingdom from potential attack by Soviet nuclear bombers. This particular Lightning is one of only two on current display in the United States.
Staying with European manufacturers for now, here’s a Dassault-Breguet/Dornier Alpha Jet, a fighter in production from 1973 to 1991 and built cooperatively by France’s Dassault Aviation and Germany’s Dornier Flugzeugwerke. France’s air force used the Alpha Jet primarily as a trainer, and Germany’s air force used it as an attack jet. About 500 aircraft were built; the jet, which had a two-person crew, had a maximum speed of 620 MPH at sea level.
I didn’t know that Hawker Aircraft, which built the WW II-era Hurricanes that, along with Supermarine Spitfires, ably fended off German attacks during the Battle of Britain, also built jets. This is the Hawker Hunter, which was introduced in 1954; the last combat craft was retired (by the Lebanese Air Force) in 2014. The Hunter had a maximum speed of 623 MPH. Besides the Royal Air Force, 21 other overseas air forces used the Hunter.
The Pima Air & Space Museum also has a good variety of civilian aircraft. This is a Cessna 172M Skyhawk. The Cessna 172 is the most-produced aircraft ever built: since 1956 more than 44,000 have been produced by the Cessna Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, and its partners. It has a cruising speed of 140 MPH, with room for one pilot and three passengers. In 1911, a farmer in central Kansas named Clyde Cessna built his own airplane. He tested further aircraft in Enid, Oklahoma, but when Enid bankers refused to lend him more money, he moved his operations to Wichita. Cessna is now a brand of Textron Aviation, which also owns the Beechcraft and Hawker Corporations. This is one of four different Cessna models that my dad, Steve Goering, has flown. That’s a Lockheed L-049 Constellation airliner, which had been restored by Trans World Airlines, behind the Skyhawk. This particular airplane started out as a military transport but was later to converted to civilian use as one of the first aircraft in TWA’s fleet. The airliner had room for between 62 and 95 passengers and a maximum speed of 377 MPH.
Two more airliners, with that same museum visitor and her same ill-behaving dog in the middle. On the right is a Boeing 737 and on the left is a prototype of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Almost 11,000 737s have been produced since 1966; they are capable of carrying up to 215 passengers. The Dreamliner, in production since 2009, can carry between 250 and 290 passengers and has a range of about twice that of the 737 (more than 6,400 nautical miles vs. up to 3,850 NMI). The Dreamliner’s top speed approaches 600 MPH.
I don’t know how old this young boy is or how tall he is, but he does provide a good sense of scale for one of the Dreamliner’s jet engines.
It wasn’t part of a program at the Pima Air & Space Museum, but seeing these Heritage Flight Training Course aircraft flying in formation overhead was pretty thrilling. That’s a North American Aviation F-86 Sabre (capable of Mach 1, or 678 MPH) flanked by a pair of North American P-51 Mustangs (top speed of 440 MPH), all being followed by an Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (top speed of 1,500 MPH, or 2.25 times the speed of sound). I write a lot about the speeds of all of the aircraft we saw at the museum because I’m always impressed with the rate of technological development following World War II. The Mustangs are propelled by a completely different technology (um, a propeller) than the jet-powered Sabre and the Raptor, of course, but the Sabre, introduced in 1947 and just five years after the Mustang, is 50 percent faster than the P-51. There’s a span of just 58 years between the introduction of the Sabre and the Raptor, which has a top speed more than twice that of the Sabre.
Here’s that same formation, with visitors to the Pima Air & Space Museum watching from below. It struck me that the Mustangs, introduced 80 years ago and still capable of flying alongside an F-22 Raptor (with the latter throttled waaay back, naturally), were airborne above hundreds of other aircraft that will never be in the air again but still served their respective purposes.

There are about 400 aircraft at the Pima Air & Space Museum, inside hangers and outside on the ground, and each of them has an interesting story to tell. I wanted to limit the number of photos in this posting to 10 or 12, but couldn’t decide what to exclude. I didn’t include photos of the EWACs (early warning and control) airplanes like the Grumman E-1 Tracer that flew over Europe during the Cold War, or the bombers like the couple of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses on display. Even with the two-day pass, we could have spent a lot more time looking at these airplanes and learning about their place in history.

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