Spring Travel in the Desert of Arizona

When you think of the deserts of Arizona, most non-Arizonans tend to think of dry, arid land filled with sand that goes on for miles. The picture is of rugged rocks protruding from the earth without a single colorful flower in bloom as if they wouldn’t dare compete with the attention from these breathtaking structures. Yet, those of us who know the desert in springtime have a much different and much more beautiful image of Arizona during the spring months. The temperature may be on the rise, but the hardy vegetation will last throughout, wishing for those few days of rain to extend their livelihood. There are hundreds of flowers and plants that bloom in the spring months, making the desert in Arizona a magical place to visit for anyone who loves nature and the great outdoors. And with so many activities one can do during the spring months, it becomes the perfect destination for active vacations and quality time for those who are on the hunt to see some of the most beautiful and unforgettable flowers anywhere.

According to experts on the blooms of the desert, many flowers are already beginning to show their true colors. The desert grassland and the areas north and east of the metropolitan Phoenix area are still showing many flowers which can sustain a little more heat than what is presently occurring. Temperatures are on the rise meaning that they will soon begin to seed. Rains in December in the area were a hopeful sign that the flowers would be in full bloom this spring, though January brought little rain and a hard freeze. Searching for the spectacular desert flowers and cactus is a great family outing and will make for a memorable experience.

According to the National Park Service, “Grand Canyon Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park.” To have a scavenger hunt with the family, finding different types of flowers by color is a great learning adventure in the fresh air. Add the following to your list:

  • Displaying a white flower are the “datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, desert tobacco, watercress, and white violet.”
  • Those with a yellow flower include the “broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, hymenopapus, groundcherry, common mullein, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower.”
  • Find those with red or orange flowers include the “globe mallow, red columbine, skyrocket, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower.”
  • Stunning plants with pink and purple flowers include “the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, toadflax penstemon, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.”

When you think desert lands of the Southwest, a cactus most likely comes to mind. Cacti are actually flowering plants with flesh-like green stems and a waxy coat which helps them to retain water and moisture for the dry, hot weather they live in. Rather than having leaves, they have spines or tiny barbed bristles depending on which family of cacti it is. Grand Canyon cacti typically have red, purple, or yellow colored flowers and the majority grow on the inner canyon making it a spectacular place to visit. Some species survive on the rim of the canyon, adding to the layers of beauty that the Grand Canyon has to offer. Some of the most popular species of cacti found in the Grand Canyon and surrounding desert areas include claretcup hedgehog, Englemann hedgehog, beavertail, desert prickly pear, the California barrel, fishhook, and whipple cholla to name a few.

The Saguaro Cactus is unusual looking, but flourishes in the Southwest. Normally, it conjures up images of a desert and what the area is known for. The Saguaro Cactus flower is actually the state flower of Arizona, although commonly misrepresented as being the state tree. The white flower is quite beautiful and you can of course see why it represents the beauty of Arizona. It is found in the Sonoran Desert, which includes about 120,000 acres of California and Arizona. Most of Baja California and half of the state of Sonora, Mexico is also included. Because it represents Arizona so well, it is sold in many stores. It can actually be grown from seeds in a pot which makes it very appealing to visitors and natives alike. As long as you care for it properly, it will grow. A saguaro’s arms usually begin to grow only after it is about 15 feet tall and around 75 years old. The actual number of arms that they grow varies. The average saguaro has about five arms and is about 30 feet tall. According to the National Park Service’s website, the tallest known saguaro was nearly 78 feet tall. That saguaro cactus was probably more than 200 years old. Lastly, experts explain that a saguaro with many holes in it has probably been visited by the Gila Woodpecker. The tiny bird will drill several holes to get to the water stored inside. The saguaro seals off the hole with scar tissue to prevent water loss. Cacti are known for capturing and holding moisture internally.

Grand Canyon National Park Service has many reminders for hikers during the spring. Both the South Rim and the North Rim offer rim trail hikes that have phenomenal views of the inner canyon, and some even have paved trails that many people will utilize. You can also choose to day hike into the canyon. Permits are not required for non-commercial day hikes, according to the National Park Service. The most important thing to remember on your day hike as you head onto the trails to look at the views and the wildflowers is that there is no easy trail to hike into the Grand Canyon or out of it. Different seasons bring different dangers. Hiking smart is important for anyone about to the take journey. It is important to bring water, food, a first aid kit, a map, a flashlight, a pack to carry the essentials, extra batteries, a spray bottle, a hat, sunscreen, whistles or a signal mirror for emergencies, and waterproof clothing like a poncho or jacket. Spring and summer hikes mean extreme sun and heat, making it better to avoid hiking between 10AM and 4PM, and remember that it typically takes twice as long to hike out as it took to hike in. Water and food is essential during day hikes, as staying hydrated is vital for physical and mental health and safety.

Besides viewing just the flowers blooming in springtime, springs and seeps are also common and stunning views along your travels. They are some of the most important and precious natural resources found in the park. Spring discharge is important in supplying aquifer systems. Likewise, the water has been found to give base flow to the Colorado River, providing drinking water to wildlife and visitors. Not only did these springs assist in the erosion that has made the canyons into what they currently look like, but these springs are often locations of exceptional natural beauty and many hold cultural significance to the Native American tribes in the region.

As many people consider the desert to be dry and stark, springtime obviously does bring vegetation to the region. Winter rains are the first step in helping the flowers bloom in early spring and then the desert will come alive with beauty. Its wildflowers begin to bloom and there is life in the arid region once again. Although these flowers are not daffodils and lilacs as some imagine wildflowers to be, the colors and numbers vary by year. Thinking of taking a trip to bask in the beauty that this region has to offer? East of Phoenix in Superior, Arizona the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park was founded in the 1920’s to exemplify the beauty of the desert environment. The best time to see the wildflowers is in early spring. Many groups and experts keep track of where the wildflowers are in bloom and how many, as winter rains are a good predictor of just how many flowers will be in bloom. Searching for flowers is a great adventure, but researching ahead can certainly save time for other adventures with the family as well.

Venture Back Through Rugged Wilderness and Into The Old West: Hike Poland Creek, Crown King, Arizona

Summers in Arizona are hot! But that’s just the central and southern portions of the state called the Sonoran Desert Region. What many people don’t know is that here in Arizona even in the summer there are still plenty of beautiful and interesting places to go if you want to get outdoors and cool off for the day. So if you’re up for a new hiking adventure with the possibility of getting wet, then check out Poland Creek, in the Castle Creek Wilderness, Crown King, Arizona, and journey back through rugged wilderness beauty and into the real old west!

I have always been interested in taking a trip out to Crown King which is located south of Prescott and in the Bradshaw Mountains, bordering the Castle Creek Wilderness. If you have a truck or 4wd then you should do just fine because Crown King is only accessible by a 27 mile all dirt road. But I recently joined an excellent local hiking group called the TLC Hiking Group, and when they said they were heading out to Crown King to hike down into a place called Poland Creek to a 30 foot waterfall with a large swimming hole called the “Big Dipper”, I thought wow, that sounds pretty interesting and eagerly signed up.

So bright and early on a Saturday morning, I met the TLC Hiking Group at Anthem, just north of Phoenix at about 6:15am. Those of us with passenger vehicles car pooled with other members who had trucks, jeeps and 4wds. We were also advised to try and car pool together due to the limited parking available at the trail head. By 6:45am we were on our way to Crown King heading north on route I-17 until we reached the Bumble Bee exit, just past Black Canyon City. We exited the freeway and took a left onto FR 259. Most of FR 259 in the early 20th century used to be an old rail road line called the Bradshaw Mountain Rail Road and its one lane bridges are still being used today. We first passed through the small town of Bumble Bee, then on through an even smaller and much more old and rustic looking town, called Cleator. The drive on FR 259 is absolutely beautiful with scenic views all around as you slowly climb up in elevation and further into the rugged Bradshaw Mountains and Castle Creek Wilderness. Overall, I thought the road was in pretty good condition and in dry conditions would be very passable for regular vehicles if you took it slow enough.

We arrived up at the top, elevation 5500 feet, called Poland Vista Point, and our trailhead by 7:30am. It’s not an easily recognizable trail head from the road but at mile marker 25, watch for the small pull out and parking area on the left. After a couple of group photos, we set out on our hike by 7:45am. In order to reach Poland Creek, you first need to follow the Algonquin Trail. The views of Horse Thief Canyon from the Algonquin Trail are breath taking and the decent, although a total of about 1000 feet, is really quite gradual. After making our way down, we hung a left and headed down into the canyon and into Poland Creek. This is where the hike actually becomes a bit more strenuous as you begin hopping over huge rocks and boulders in the creek bed. We continued on for a short ways past various small swimming holes until we reached the falls area, what’s called the “Big Dipper”. Unfortunately though, the water level at this time was too low and no water fall was running. A small group ventured on in search of another possible swimming hole while the rest of us hung back and rested. When they had returned, they reported having seen a full grown Black Diamondback Rattlesnake sunning itself on a rock!

After about an hour or so, and with temperatures starting to quickly warm up, we decided to head back. The return trip back over the rocks and boulders in Poland Creek, then up 1000 feet in elevation on the Algonquin Trail felt more difficult by this time. However, the scenic views of the surrounding area were again absolutely stunning as I stopped here and there to catch my breath and take some photos. Most of us had arrived back at the hill top where our cars were parked by about 11am for a total round trip hiking distance of about 3 miles.

After collecting our group at the trailhead, we got back into our cars and headed two miles down the road into the old west town of Crown King. They had a lot of road construction going but after only a couple of minutes wait, we were allowed into town and immediately were personally greeted and welcomed. We were also invited to have lunch at “The Mill Restaurant” up on the hill, an old reconstructed Gladiator Mill built in 1893, and said to have the best food in town, and it did! The food was great and the service across the board, very friendly, personal with everything done with a homemade touch. Really excellent! After lunch we decided to check out the rest of the town of Crown King. The town originated back in 1875 after a prospector found gold and then grew for about 45 years after that as a gold mining town with the Bradshaw Mountain Rail Road to support the mining economy. However the mines were not productive, they say, and the rail road went out of business early in the 20th century. Today, they still have a few gold mines in operation and mining their own gold too. It’s definitely a very quaint town that hasn’t lost its “rustic” old west history or charm. Nestled in the pines at elevation close to 6000 feet, the temperatures on this August day were warm, but mild, in the low 80’s and with a slight cool breeze too. Perfect! After checking out the town’s old saloon, Prospector Mall and General Store & Post Office, we returned to our cars and left Crown King at around 2:45pm.

The drive heading back down in elevation on FR 259, was single lane with many switchbacks and tight s-curves. It seemed a bit more hair raising too with a lot of oncoming trucks and construction vehicles, all of whom seemed to be driving at a fast clip. We almost went head on with a dump truck! But thankfully, my good friend Dan was a great driver with a lot of experience behind his belt so we were in good hands. We thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the beautiful drive and arrived back at Anthem, where our cars were parked by 4pm.

In all, it was a great day of fun, amazing mountain wilderness scenery, an excellent “moderate level” hike with some really wonderful people and a very enjoyable visit to the old west town of Crown King. So if you’re up for a hiking adventure and a scenic day trip back into the old west, then I definitely would recommend checking out Poland Creek in the Castle Creek Wilderness, at Crown King, Arizona.