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.
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 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.
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.
Grants, New Mexico
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Nancy and I decided to pay a visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens on a quiet Saturday morning in early March. The garden grounds are located in the northwest corner of the city, in a pleasant area of residential neighborhoods and small businesses. The gardens are at an expansive former family home, which adds a decided sense of intimacy to the experience of visiting.
We spent most of the morning wandering around the Cactus & Succulents Garden, which afforded us an opportunity to see some really interesting cacti and some birds as well.
The Cactus & Succulents Garden features plants from around the world that also perform well in the southern Arizona environment. The plants have been divided into four major areas representing the:
Sonoran Desert of North America
Chihuahuan Desert of North America
Desert regions of South America
Desert regions of Africa
Mexico has between 750 and 800 different species of succulents. The United States has about 200 native species, and South America has about a thousand species.
We saw a number of birds at the Botanical Gardens, including five species I’d never seen before.
We were really happy to visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It’s always fun to visit a garden that, like Denver’s, is in a residential area, and there were several more habitats in the gardens that showed even more diversity in plants. Even in early March, there were plenty of blooming flowers to enjoy throughout the gardens.
In arid areas like southeastern Arizona, water is especially important. Not least of all is its ability to support wildlife, and a wide range of it. Lake Cochise, just east of the town of Willcox, is one of the biggest bodies of water in the region. Located in the Sulphur Springs Valley, an 80-mile-long region stretching from north of Willcox to the Arizona-Mexico border, the lake supports a number of different species of birds and other animals throughout the year. Nancy and Gunther and I visited Lake Cochise in mid-February.
The town of Willcox hosts an annual event each January, Wings Over Willcox, that attracts bird enthusiasts from around the world. In one year, attendees saw 146 different species of birds, ranging from great horned owls to chipping sparrows.
However, Lake Cochise is best known as a primary winter stop for migratory sandhill cranes. Many thousands of cranes spend the winter each year around the lake, with the highest populations present between the months of November and February. In 2008, the Arizona Game & Fish Department counted more than 36,000 sandhill cranes in the area – the highest number ever recorded.
Two groups of cranes spend the winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Rocky Mountain and Mid-Continent populations. The Rocky Mountain group has about 20,000 birds and nests in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Alberta, Canada. This is the population that has a major migration stopover in Colorado’s San Luis Valley; the town of Monte Vista has its own crane festival each year to commemorate the event.
The Mid-Continent population of sandhill cranes has about half a million birds and nests in northern Canada and Siberia. This population has a major migration stopover in the Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska. That town, too, has a festival each year – Nancy and I enjoyed a visit there some years ago where we were first introduced to sandhill cranes from an Audubon Society blind next to the river. We also saw and heard sandhill cranes during our stays last year in Albuquerque through Las Cruces, New Mexico.
We had a great time at Lake Cochise, and we encourage everyone to attend a sandhill crane festival if one’s about — the cranes are a lot of fun to watch, and there are always other species to enjoy if cranes aren’t your thing.
13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona – February 6, 2022
Apache Pass is a natural low geologic divide in southeast Arizona separating the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”; see more below) Mountains from the much larger Chiricahua (pr. “cheer-uh-cah-wah”) mountain range. Apache Spring, a year-round source of flowing water near the pass, is the main reason many thousands of people traversed the pass beginning in 1848 through the end of the U.S. Army’s conflicts with Native Americans in the mid-1880s. Horses and people needed water to keep moving, and Apache Spring was the only dependable source of water for many miles. From the end of the Mexican War in 1848 through the end of the Apache Wars (1862-1886), Apache Pass provided a corridor for travelers between El Paso and Tucson. Once the southern route of the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1880, the pass became less important for travelers and commerce since trains weren’t as dependent on water as horses were. Until then, Apache Pass was an important point in the expansion of the American west: many thousands of people and great tonnages of goods found their way to the West by traversing the pass.
Chiricahua Apaches lived in this area for many years prior to other cultures entering the Apache Pass region. The pass was identified by both Spanish and, later, Mexican forces during their respective control of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Many Anglos first used Apache Pass on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1858, the U.S. Congress authorized the development of an overland mail route, operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In operation between 1851 and 1861, the Butterfield route took advantage of Apache Spring to water its horses.
Apache Pass was also the site of the Bascom Affair, a conflict between Chiricahua leader Cochise’s band of Apaches and the U.S. Army in 1861. The Bascom Affair was the beginning of a decade of conflict between the Chiricahua and the Army, and led to the development of Fort Bowie to protect travelers using the pass and spring.
In 1872 the U.S. government struck a peace accord with the Apaches, establishing the Chiricahua Apache Reservation. For four years things went pretty smoothly, but the Apaches began to flee the reservation and conduct raiding parties into Mexico; the military presence in the pass subsequently increased. Geronimo eventually surrendered to the Army in 1886. Between the removal of the Native Americans and the completion of the railroad, the need for the U.S. military in the pass disappeared. Fort Bowie’s last garrison left the fort in 1894.
Fort Bowie National Historic Site, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and located about 35 miles from Willcox,, preserves some of the building ruins and other features of a U.S. Army outpost built in the 1860s to protect travelers using Apache Pass from Native American attacks. In addition to fort ruins, this 1,000-acre site also features a number of other interesting historical areas, all of which are accessible by a 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot to the site’s visitor center.
Nancy and Gunther and I visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in early February. It was an immensely rewarding experience, from both a historical perspective as well as a natural history view.
The site is unique in that visitors are encouraged to hike 1.5 miles to the visitor center rather than simply driving to a visitor center parking lot and then hiking from there; it’s certainly possible to drive to the center and park, but you’d miss out on a lot of natural and historical points of interest.
The Bascom Affair
The Bascom Affair ignited more than 20 years of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the United States government. Significantly, Felix Martinez Ward had indeed been kidnapped by Apaches but not by Cochise’s Chiricahua. He was raised among the White Mountain Apache and, as an adult, became a scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army.
The company received $600,000 per year to carry the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Butterfield started with 2,000 employees, more than 250 coaches, nearly 2,000 horses and mules, and 240 stage stations along the route.
After the stage stop ruins, the next stop along the trail is the post cemetery for Fort Bowie.
The next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.
A recreation of an Apache camp is a little ways further down the trail. The surrounding area, although rocky and mountainous, provided everything that the Chiricahua needed to make their home here: water from Apache Spring, wild game, edible plants, and materials for building shelter, weapons, and tools. The Chiricahua culture centered around the wife’s extended family; after marriage, the husband entered into the family and committed to supporting his wife’s relatives. While the men hunted and participated in raiding expeditions, the women maintained the wild food crops.
The Battle of Apache Pass
We were on this trail in early February and were plenty warm; I cannot imagine what it would have been like to engage in battle with Apaches in mid-July, and while trying to fight your way to water.
The First Fort Bowie
After the visitors center, hikers can either retrace their steps back to the trailhead’s parking lot or use an alternate route that provides a different perspective on the surrounding area. We chose the latter.
We also decided to drive back to The Goddard by a different route, making a loop between Willcox and Bowie on either end. It gave us a chance to see some different country, and I’m glad that we did.
We really enjoyed Fort Bowie National Historic Site. This was a “the journey is the destination” sort of experience — while it was interesting to see the ruins of the actual fort, the hike to those ruins, and the natural and cultural historic points we saw, was more rewarding. Hiking in the same paths that Cochise and Geronimo once walked, and learning more about the conflicts between the Chiricahua who lived here and the U.S. Army, is something that we’ll always remember.
When we traveled to Arizona from New Mexico in late January of this year, we noticed a lot of very tall and very thin pine trees growing next to buildings (as in, just inches away from them), and also grown close together as natural windbreaks or privacy fences. They are called pencil pines, and they are a cultivar of a species of cypress tree called Cupressus sempervirens.
Did you know / did you care that this cultivar was developed from trees native to the Mediterranean region of western Europe? The same conditions in Italy and Greece can be found in some parts of the American southwest, and the cultivars are very popular in Arizona’s arid and hot climate.
In addition to providing protection from wind and prying eyes (when planted in close proximity), pencil pines, we were to discover, also serve as great habitat for a wide variety of songbirds. Their dense foliage and impressive height – up to 110 feet – provide plenty of safe nesting and perching spaces for our feathered friends.
Of course, all of this avian activity was of great interest to the feline member of The Goddard’s crew.
Riparian areas, or habitat on or near flowing rivers, have historically constituted only 2 percent of the state of Arizona’s landmass. According to the Bureau of Land Management, in the last 200 years almost 95% of that meager acreage has disappeared due to human development from grazing, farming, and diversion projects
The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, located between Safford and Clifton in southeast Arizona, was established in 1990 to protect 23,000 acres (about 36 square miles) of wildland river habitat and the surrounding area.
The word “Gila” is found in many, many placenames and other references in New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s thought to be derived from a Spanish contraction of “Hah-quah-sa-eel,” which is a Yuma Native American word that means “running water which is salty.” The river starts near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and flows almost 650 miles along an watershed of nearly 60,000 square miles in the two states before emptying into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado forms the state’s western border with California..
The Gila Box Riparian NCA includes more than 20 miles of the Gila River as well as sections of three other waterways that flow year-round in southeast Arizona. Gila Box is one of only two riparian NCAs in the United States; the other is San Pedro Riparian NCA, located in extreme southeastern Arizona along the border with Mexico.
The waterways provide food, shelter, and water for a huge variety of wildlife, including fish, mammals, and birds as well as invertebrates.
The importance of preserving these lands can be seen in the variety of animals that call Gila Box home, including at least:
175 permanent and migratory bird species
42 mammal species, including bighorn sheep, black bear, javelina, mountain lion, and cougar
24 reptile species
17 fish species, including the endangered Gila chub and razorback sucker
and 10 amphibian species.
Despite not being able to find any trails on which to stretch our legs (and it’s very possible that trails exist in parts of the NCA we didn’t see), we did enjoy the visit to Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. It would be really interesting to see it in spring, when the water’s really flowing. Maybe we’ll find Gila monsters somewhere else in Arizona.
The opportunity to photograph another roadrunner presented itself while we were at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden on Sunday, Nov. 14. The garden has a display of vintage farm equipment next to its exhibit on old-timey farmsteads, and this greater roadrunner (as we now know, the state bird of New Mexico) was hanging out among the implements. He/she spent a couple of minutes in full view. I really like the coloration on that snappy head crest.