Led by cactus-hugging volunteers, Arizona’s revitalized state park system beckons heat-weary Phoenicians.
They trim the plants, guide the tours and tend the gates. They are the volunteer citizen activists and accidental heroes of Arizona State Parks, the state agency that oversees our 28 parcels of protected wilderness. When the destructive winds of The Great Recession began to shutter park operations, these tenacious volunteer groups rallied to nip the squall. They go by benign names like Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, Riordan Action Network and Hold the Fort, but make no mistake, they’re fighters – battling to buoy and enrich the park system.
And we’re lucky to have them, because state parks are core economic drivers for many Arizona towns, where hotels, restaurants and shops all graze on the greenbacks from tourism. Energized by a new, dynamic management plan that engages communities to build sustainable operations, all 28 parks are open for business. Moreover, park enthusiasts report the visitor experience has never been better, largely because of the creative might and sweaty brows of hundreds of volunteers. With parks encompassing every Arizona biome, from desert chaparral to pine woodlands, there’s plenty to see and do. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate the parks into your travel plans.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Margaret Jones makes a killer wild blackberry pie. As one of more than two dozen active park volunteers, Margaret collects the syrupy berries from the tendril vines growing on the moist travertine walls flanking Pine Creek, while helping maintain the flower-speckled grounds of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. “We have a heart for the history and the people that made the history,” Jones says of the passion she and her fellow volunteers share for the Mogollon Rim and its premier natural wonder: the world’s largest travertine bridge.
The park is also essential to the economies of Pine-Strawberry and Payson. When state budgetary woes shuttered the park, a group of locals formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge to provide the labor and staffing necessary to bring it back to life. The efforts paid off. The park is breathing on its own, but long-term life-support projects are still necessary, including opening the site’s historic lodge for public rental. When complete, the 1920s-era, 10-bedroom bungalow-style abode – infused with “Zane Grey slept here” cachet – will be rented for events like wedding parties, family reunions and business retreats. (The target opening date for the lodge is May 2014.) In the interim, Friends will be raising funds to install a much-needed monument sign on State Route 87, holding a Taste at the Bridge Dinner 2013 on Saturday, October 19th.
Location: North of Payson
Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Fee: $5 adult, $2 ages 7-13
Contact: 928-476-4202, azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA/index.html
Taste at the Bridge Event info: tontobridge.com
Red Rock State Park
It’s part nature preserve, part outdoor classroom, and a spectacular high desert river runs through it. Cradling the lush riparian corridor of lower Oak Creek, Red Rock State Park provides exceptional access to the complex beauty of Sedona. Thanks to the efforts of Benefactors of Red Rock State Park, visitors are treated to bird walks, geology talks and moonlight hikes designed to enrich appreciation for this rare riparian habitat that cozies up to russet sandstone escarpments, cypress-juniper ridges and flood plain meadows.
When the park was earmarked for closure during the budget carnage in June 2010, the Benefactors advocated keeping the recreational and educational opportunities of this jewel of the creek open for public enjoyment by raising funds, providing labor and mobilizing the talents of more than 80 highly trained volunteers. During October, the gigantic creekside cottonwoods, sycamores, maples and oaks explode in a festive autumnal gold along the park’s five miles of trails. Attractions include barrier-free strolls, easy dirt-path hikes linked by a web of wood plank bridges, and a difficult climb to a lofty viewpoint.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (hours vary by season)
Fee: $10 per vehicle, $3 walk/bike in
Contact: 928-282-6907, azstateparks.com/Parks/RERO/index.html
Benefactors of Red Rock State Park: benefactorsrrsp.org
Dead Horse Ranch State Park & Verde River Greenway State Natural Area
Beautiful to behold, but lethal to the Verde River ecosystem, invasive tamarisk (aka salt cedar) trees are targeted for eradication by the Friends of the Verde River Greenway. Tamarisk was introduced to Arizona from Eurasia in the 1800s for erosion control and ornamental purposes. However, the water-hogging, prolific propagator quickly became a “noxious weed” as it spread to displace native vegetation vital to the survival of desert waterway indigenous plants and animals. Outfitted with gloves and hip waders, the Friends are tasked with whacking the tamarisks and other damaging invasive species from the Verde’s free-flowing corridor to preserve native cottonwoods, willows and the hundreds of local critters that depend on them for food and shelter.
Additionally, the group hosts public conservation outings and the annual Verde River Days – a festival-like weekend packed with fun and hands-on restoration projects. Amenity-rich Dead Horse Ranch State Park anchors the greenway with rough to ritzy camping options, fishing, paddling, and more than 20 miles of hike-bike-equestrian trails spilling into the wilds of Tonto National Forest.
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Fee: $7 daily per vehicle, $3 bike or walk in; camping $15-$55 daily
Contact: 928-634-5283, azstateparks.com/Parks/DEHO/index.html; Friends of the Verde River Greenway Natural Area: verderivergreenway.org
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
Wrapped in a wind-whipped frenzy of colorful sigils, Spanish Colonial troops in period military regalia arrive on horseback, parading directly into a fiesta of mariachi music, folklorico dance and living history demonstrations. This 4-mile reenactment ride from Tumacacori National Historic Park to Tubac commemorates Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1775 expedition from Arizona to the Pacific ocean and highlights the annual “Anza Days” celebration at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Taking place Saturday, October 19, the festival transforms the state’s oldest presidio and first European settlement into a riot of activities. Friends of Tubac State Historic Park and Museum recreate history through demonstrations on Arizona’s first frontier printing press and other living history presentations. And there’s food. Lots of food.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Fee: $5 adult, $2 youth daily fee (waived October 19)
Contact: 520-398-2252, azstateparks.com/Parks/TUPR/index.html Friends of Tubac State Historic Park and Museum: tubacpp.com/presidio.html
Wild West Base Camp at Lost Dutchman State Park
Jess Wade got a bum rap and Elvis didn’t sing, but the sins of the 1969 film Charro! have been absolved by the enduring legacy of its soundstage. The B-movie western featured Elvis Presley as Wade, a surly bad guy gone good framed for theft. One dramatic scene has Elvis lying wounded by a chapel – and Apache Junction was firmly ensconced in Hollywood history. The chapel was part of a set at now-defunct Apacheland Movie Ranch, an East Valley film studio used for television programs and movies such as Death Valley Days and Bonanza before it was moved to Superstition Mountain Museum (superstitionmountainmuseum.org) and christened the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel – the first stop on our “Apache Trail Corridor “ tour.
First, we’ll need to set up base camp at Lost Dutchman State Park. Facilities range from fully-loaded RV sites to bare bones tent plots. Most of the park’s hiking trails are easy, but fearless hikers can cross into Tonto National Forest to scale the famous Flatiron by way of Siphon Draw Trail. Indulge your inner cowboy fantasy by booking a horseback or hay wagon ride with OK Corral Stables (okcorrals.com), check out Goldfield Ghost Town (goldfieldghosttown.com), or drive up to the “town” of Tortilla Flat, the remains of an early 1900s stagecoach stop with a population of exactly six souls. Finally, get the heck back to Dodge by sundown to watch the setting sun drench the park’s majestic volcanic rock formations in warm ochre-violet light.
Location: Apache Junction
Hours: Sunrise-10 p.m. daily
Fee: $7 per vehicle, $3 walk/bike in, camping fees online
Contact: 480-982-4485, azstateparks.com/parks/LODU