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Deeply Personal: Why I Care About National Monuments

Thank you to everyone who submitted a comment by the deadline! I’ve struggled for days to write this post. But nothing I type seems remotely adequate. Some drafts have been too argumentative. Or too wonky. Others have been downright angry. One was rather melancholy, a sad ode to losing the places you care most about. I’m stumped—there’s … Read more

Kayaking the Blue Ridge Reservoir

FR751 from Red Rock Crossing campground to Blue Ridge Reservoir (aka C.C. Cragin) will be closed from September 10, 2018 until April 2019. For more info, call Mogollon Rim Ranger District at 928-477-2255.

Look on most maps of the Mogollon Rim region of Arizona and you’ll have trouble finding a label for Blue Ridge Reservoir, one of the nicer lakes in Arizona to kayak. Instead, you’ll run across a far less glamorous name, the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. This gorgeous narrow lake is located about 25 miles north of Payson, but only came into being because of water needs 200 miles away.

The lake that copper built

In the early 1960s, Phelps Dodge was looking for water to service its huge mining operation in Morenci. The most obvious source was the nearby Black River, but its water rights were tied up by the Salt River Project, better known as SRP. Phelps Dodge and SRP found a solution in a water trade. SRP would allow Phelps Dodge to use water from the Black River if the mining company delivered the same amount of water from outside SRP’s existing service area. A site on the Mogollon Rim was selected to complete the deal.

By 1965, Phelps Dodge had constructed a dam on East Clear Creek an hour’s drive north of Payson. The resulting reservoir—originally named Blue Ridge—held only 15,000 acre feet of water, but was surprising reliable given its location atop the Mogollon Rim. The project included an 11-mile long pipeline to deliver the water down the rim to the East Verde River, which eventually flows into SRP’s reservoir system. It was an exchange that served both parties well for decades to come.

Blue Ridge Reservoir

How ‘Blue Ridge Reservoir’ became ‘CC Cragin Reservoir’

More than 40 years later, the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004 changed the name of the dam and reservoir to honor C. C. Cragin, a former SRP superintendent that helped greatly expand the system of dams along the Salt River east of metro Phoenix. The following year, Phelps Dodge handed over the reservoir to SRP, who now provides water to Payson and surrounding communities.

What’s it like to kayak here?

Blue Ridge Reservoir is definitely a favorite of many kayakers in the state. The narrow, intimate lake is flanked by relatively steep pine-covered slopes, so it feels more like you’re paddling a slow moving river than a broad lake. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only boat on the water here, as the lake curves around multiple bends just as a river does, obscuring other paddlers. With a treeline that comes right down to a 15 mile-long shoreline, the lake offers many opportunities to dock and enjoy a snack under the shade of the cool pines. Craggy rock outcroppings abound at the water’s edge, offering plenty of geologic eye-candy while you paddle past.

The lake is split between two arms. The western arm is much longer, while the southern arm includes the interesting curved dam that holds the water back. At an elevation of 6700 ft, the paddling season runs from May through October. While small motorized boats are allowed, this isn’t a place where paddlers will feel overwhelmed by motors.

How to get there

Blue Ridge Reservoir is located about 45 miles north of Payson, a roughly 2-hour drive from Phoenix. From Payson, continue north on Highway 87 for roughly 40 miles to FR751, near milepost 295. You’ll see a large US Forest Service sign pointing the way to Blue Ridge Reservoir (as with most paddlers, the CC Cragin name hasn’t quite taken hold). Turn east on FR751 and follow it about 4 miles to the boat ramp.

Parking at Blue Ridge Reservoir


One of the appealing qualities of kayaking on the Blue Ridge is the narrow, river-like canyon of the reservoir. Unfortunately, the same narrow width applies to the approach road, boat launch, and available parking area. You won’t find a large paved parking lot capable of storing dozens of trailers here. Indeed, there are only a handful of legal spots clinging the guardrail near the top of the boat ramp loading area, with a small parking lot up the hill for the remainder of the vehicles. Parking is currently prohibited anywhere else along the road. In short, expect an uphill walk after your paddle to retrieve your vehicle. I recommend either arriving early in the morning or late in the day to claim a parking spot.

Camping near Blue Ridge Reservoir

The Rock Crossing Campground is just two miles from the reservoir boat launch, so it’s well placed for a weekend of boating. It’s a popular place during the summer months and no reservations are accepted, so you’ll want to have a backup plan in case it’s full. Blue Ridge Campground and Clints Well Campground are the next nearest options, each a 10 minute drive away.

In addition, dispersed camping is available throughout the surrounding national forest, so you shouldn’t be without some sort of campsite to call home for the night. There are a handful of spots that work for shoreline camping from your kayak or canoe, if you’re feeling adventurous.


Driving the Black Hills Back Country Byway

The Black Hills Back Country Byway runs 21 miles off US-191 between Clifton and Safford.

There it was—an obscure, thin black line on a map, a 21-mile dirt road shortcutting two sections of Hwy 191 along the eastern edge of Arizona: the Black Hills Back Country Byway. I had first noticed it when I was inspecting the map for the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, one of the state’s many National Conservation Lands. The road subtly poked into the Gila Box, providing a popular put-in spot for rafters down the Gila River. I wasn’t here to raft the river though—at least, not yet anyway.

Arizona Highways had included the route in its listing of scenic drives in the state, so I had been attempting to work it into various trip itineraries for quite some time. On the return journey from southern New Mexico last weekend, I found my opportunity.

As we made our way north from the settlement known as “Three Way” [insert giggling], we wondered if the basalt-covered hillsides to the west were the black hills after which the road was named. We searched online for a detailed map of the backcountry byway, but—as is often the case these days—the BLM website was not forthcoming. After a bit of searching, we discovered that the ‘Guthrie’ and ‘Toll Gate Tank’ topo maps seemed most useful quads for navigating the route, and the Gila Box Riparian NCA map probably gives the best overview. Having a map isn’t essential to this endeavor, as the main roadway is well defined and the turnoffs are well signed, but it’s always a good idea when you’re traveling in the backcountry. While high clearance vehicles are recommended by BLM, I’d consider the road passable under dry conditions by most sedans. Nonetheless, this area is remote and you should be fully prepared with extra water and emergency gear before attempting this or any backcountry drive. Not including stops, you’ll need roughly 60-90 minutes to drive from end to end. You can access the Black Hills Back Country Byway off US Highway 191 near milepost 139 east of Safford and near milepost 160 south of Clifton. Both ends are well-signed and feature an informational kiosk a short distance up the road.

The Black Hills Back Country Byway isn’t a knock-your-socks-off scenic drive, but it is definitely a worthy detour if you’re passing through the area.

The byway follows the old road between Safford and Morenci built in the 1930s. There are a handful of interpretive sites and picnic areas along the way, as well as access to several rugged roads penetrating more remote areas. One of those side roads accesses the Black Hills Rockhound Area, where you can try your luck at taking some gems home. You’ll also cross the historic Old Safford Bridge over the Gila River (built in 1918 and listed on National Register of Historic Places, but more recently renovated), which offers a great spot to stop and enjoy the river and the resulting shade. The 7-site Owl Creek Campground is on a bluff overlooking the bridge and riverway for those who want a longer experience.

The Black Hills Back Country Byway isn’t a knock-your-socks-off scenic drive, but it is definitely a worthy detour if you’re passing through the area. It’s a rather pleasant drive through the backcountry of southeastern Arizona. The view from the Canyon Overlook Picnic Area overlooking the surrounding topography with Mt Graham looming in the distance is definitely camera-worthy. And the thin ribbon of lush green riparian vegetation along the Gila River also begs for an extended stop. The scenic drive would be a perfect compliment to any journey down the famed Coronado Trail.

Five ways to keep cool while hiking in the desert

One of the keys to desert hiking is staying cool. The most obvious way to do this is to limit your desert hiking to the cooler months. But for some places, there aren’t exactly many “cooler months” to begin with. As someone who has spent my own fair share of adventures in the triple-digit heat … Read more

agua fria hidden bird site

The best way to find secret Indian ruins in your state

The West is littered with cultural artifacts of Native American peoples—pueblo ruins, petroglyph panels, tool-making sites, and plenty of others. There are hundreds of these sites that are well-known and publicly interpreted, usually in national parks, state parks, national forests, or on other public lands. And then there are a host of other ruins and … Read more

Walking behind a waterfall at Horseshoe Dam


Located just outside the metro Phoenix area, there’s a surprisingly cool waterfall that flows during the rare occasions when water is being released from Horseshoe Reservoir. The best part of this easy-to-get-to adventure is that you can walk behind the waterfall along a concrete walkway.

When to go

The “waterfall” only occurs when water is being released from Horseshoe Reservoir, one of several dams storing and delivering water to metro Phoenix. Unfortunately, large releases from Horseshoe Dam aren’t that common, usually only occurring during wet periods when the system can’t safely store any additional water.

That means that you’ll need to pay close attention to conditions to catch it at the right time. If you see someone post a video or photo of the waterfall running, I’d hop on the chance to get there.

Your best bet is to check the SRP daily water report when you think there might be a release happening. Select today’s date and look for the Reservoir Release section about halfway down. If you don’t see Horseshoe Reservoir listed (it’s currently highlighted in a little yellow box below the section), then you’re out of luck. As you can see from this screenshot, the release was 425 cfs in the photos and videos you see here.

Getting there

The parking area is located about 24 miles from Carefree, Arizona. The road is about half paved and half good gravel or dirt. There are numerous potholes that blend in with the dirt, so pay attention and take it slow. If you’re careful, you can make it in a sedan, though you’d probably be more comfortable in an SUV. There is one short section—maybe 20 yards long—that is quite rocky; be sure you go slowly over this section in particular.

Starting at the corner of Tom Darlington (Scottsdale Rd) and Cave Creek Rd in the town of Carefree, head east for a little over 6 miles. Turn right onto Bartlett Dam Road/FR205; you’ll see signs for a ranger station and Bartlett Dam. You’ll take this road for 6.25 miles until you see a well-signed road heading left (north) for Horseshoe Reservoir. Turn left onto this road and follow it for 10.5 miles.

You’ll then want to turn right onto a well-maintained road signed for Horseshoe Dam Vista. Follow that for nearly half a mile until you reach the parking area. From the parking area, you’ll be faced with two roads in front of you. The one on the right goes to a great viewpoint of the dam and the waterfall. The one on the left goes to a higher viewpoint, and is where you access the walkway behind the waterfall.

I’ve embedded a google map below with the route and some points of interest. You can clearly see the parking area and the viewpoints you’ll want to see. You can even open this map using the Google Maps app on your phone to follow along.

Do you need a Tonto Pass?

Along the way, you’ll see many signs telling you that you need a Tonto Pass. Sadly, an “interagency” pass, such as the America the Beautiful pass, does not count—that pass doesn’t cover areas with “enhanced amenities,” which is how Tonto National Forest gets away with not accepting the interagency pass. If this frustrates you as much as it does me, check out this organization that’s leading the fight against additional fees.

The area that you’ll be parking in does not have the elements required by law to qualify as an enhanced amenity area, but Tonto National Forest may disagree and ticket you anyway if you don’t have one. I keep an unused one in my vehicle, so I often play-it-by-ear when I’m in an area that doesn’t seem to qualify but is signed inappropriately. This is your decision, not mine, so don’t blame me if you get a ticket.

What you’ll see

I suggest starting with the viewpoint found on the road to the right from the parking area (point 3 on the map). This is the best view from this side and gives you a good overview of the scene.

From there, you can backtrack to the parking area and take the higher road on the left, or find one of the paths that leads up the slope to the higher road  near where you’re already at. From that viewpoint (point 5), you can clearly see the entrance to the walkway in front of you.

Once you’re behind the falls, watch where you’re walking—the footbed turns to gravel and puddles about halfway through. It’s pretty relaxing to stare out as the water falls down in front you, separated into streams by debris barriers above you. The roar of the water is quite loud, and there’s quite a bit of mist and some water dripping too.

Keeping walking and you’ll find yourself on the other side of the dam. There’s a sloping path up (point 6)  to a viewpoint (point 7) that provides an interesting perspective looking back towards where you started. There are a number of cascades and smaller falls facing you, as the water finds its way down to the river channel below.

From here, you can make your way down the slope closer to the water for a slightly different view. Be careful, it’s a steep slope that can get wet and slippery from the mist.

You can also make your way back towards the damn, arriving just below the walkway right where the water falls onto bare rock (point 8). The force of the water is very apparently from this vantage point.

When you’re done exploring, head back the way you came—back up the slope, across the walkway, and back to the original vista point.

For an additional view of the runoff, follow the very rough road downstream that leads you to Fishermans Point. From here, you can wander out onto the rocks (point 9) for a good water-level view up towards the dam.

Before you head back to the city, you might want to explore more around this gorgeous area.

If you found this guide useful, please do me a favor and share this on social media or send the link to a friend. I appreciate it!


The Little Ruin Canyon of Hovenweep

Hovenweep National Monument doesn’t get much fanfare. It’s hard to live in the shadow—almost literally—of nearby world-famous Mesa Verde National Park. It’s also hard to compete with the sheer number of cultural sites protected by Bears Ears National Monument and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, both next door neighbors to Hovenweep. At only 784 acres, it’s among the smallest national parks in the West, and a little bit out of the way for many travelers.

But it’s the quaint nature of Hovenweep’s aptly-named Little Ruin Canyon that really shines for visitors.

Behind the visitor center, an easy 2-mile loop brings you close to each of the canyon’s major ruins: Tower Point, Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower, Hovenweep House, Rim Rock House, Twin Towers, Stronghold House, and Unit Type House. The canyon is small and feels homely—you can easily see across to the structures on the opposing rim. And the scale of the ruins here, known as the Square Tower Group, really makes it easy to imagine each as its own house on an ancient neighborhood block.

hovenweep trail guide

The Ancestral Puebloan people (often called the Anasazi until recently) who inhabited this canyon left behind countless ruins, rock art, and other artifacts in the Four Corners region. While the stunning Mesa Verde and Chaco Culture are among the best known parks preserving the remains of this culture, Hovenweep provides visitors with a different experience.

Whereas the sheer scale of Chaco’s sprawling Pueblo Bonito or the massive Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde tell the story of great cultural centers, Hovenweep’s story seems far more intimate. In some ways, it’s like comparing Manhattan with a sleepy suburban neighborhood. One has the glitz and glamour, but the other excels at its relatability.

hovenweep campsite

That even holds true with Hovenweep’s small campground. Featuring just 31 sites—but equipped with curved shade structures and graveled tent pads—the small campsites give off a comfy, yet cozy vibe. There are even delineated trails thoughtfully placed from each campsite to the central restroom facility, which features flush toilets and running water. Not bad for a $10 stay.

When we camped there on a Friday night in March 2017, only three of the sites were occupied. And the occupants of each were fast asleep not long after dark.

That’s too bad really, because the night sky is one of the best features of the park. In 2014, Hovenweep was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, a testament in part to the park unit’s remoteness.

There’s more to Hovenweep than just the canyon and campground, however. The national monument also boasts four outlying parcels—Cajon, Cutthroat Castle, Holly, and Horseshoe/Hackberry—each containing additional related ruins.

In short, Hovenweep is a great destination for avoiding the park crowds, visualizing what life might have been like for this community of Ancestral Puebloans, and enjoying an interesting and intimate little slice of the Four Corners region.

The secret about National Park visitor center restrooms

If you’ve been to quite a few National Park units—especially the ones that don’t close at night—you may have noticed something odd about the layout of their visitor centers. In nearly all of them, the public restrooms are located on the exterior of the building, as opposed to down an interior hallway inside the visitor center. There are exceptions to … Read more

A day spent exploring the Kofa

After having our weekend camping trip get cancelled, Jen and I decided to salvage our Sunday with a day trip west towards the Colorado River. Our goal was to explore the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge a bit, check out the desert wildflower scene there, and scout a few places to camp in the future.

After packing up the car with our gear, snacks, and picnic supplies, we hit the road for the 2.5-hour drive to the western approach of the Kofa Mountains. The entire low desert region around the town of Quartzsite, Arizona is prime RV camping in the winter months. The BLM public lands surrounding the town, and those that ring the Kofa, allow for long-term camping, so the desert flats are filled with both trailers and coaches, as well as the occasional #vanlife rig.

Kofa is a rather large place. It’s 665,000 acres of rugged mountain ranges and sloping valleys, all but one-fifth of which is designated Wilderness. The land was originally set aside to protect desert bighorn sheep back in 1939, the product of a Boy Scout advocacy campaign to protect the species. Mining, however, has seemingly always been a part of the modern history of this area. The name Kofa comes from the King of Arizona mine located along the mountain range’s southwestern edge.

The spiral labyrinth

I’m definitely not a fan of transforming the landscape of our public lands—even impressively-created spiral labyrinths.

Our first stop of the day was just outside the National Wildlife Refuge’s official boundary at a feature called the spiral labyrinth. I have no idea when it was constructed, who made it, or why. I’m not exactly a fan of mutilating the desert with something like this, but I’ll admit that it’s a lot cooler than I expected it to be.

The labyrinth is located just off the main road into Palm Canyon and is scraped into desert pavement, much like the ancient intaglios further west. At more than 60 feet wide, the spiral is impressive—especially given the quality of its design and construction.

I would have loved to stay here for much longer than we did and to walk the entire thing. Unfortunately, two inconsiderate asshats were camping right next to the thing, preventing us from taking the photos we’d like or even enjoying a serenity.

Queen Mine Road

Moving along, we entered the refuge and turned onto Queen Mine Road. The road is quite a bit rougher than Palm Canyon, as it eventually leads into a tight canyon where it dead ends. Thank goodness I have Sam the Subie. I’ve always wanted to camp along this road, which is home to a somewhat iconic photo spot, sometimes called the Kofa spires or Kofa sea stacks. It’s also the approach one would use for scrambling up Signal Peak, the highest point in Yuma County. I’ll be back to tackle this summit another time as part of my Arizona County High Points quest.

Palm Canyon

We doubled back and headed towards Palm Canyon for lunch. Palm Canyon is the most common destination for visitors. It’s incredible easy to find—the main sedan-friendly road into the Kofa leads directly to it. It’s also a signed half-mile foot trail, which means it’s usually the only Kofa destination that you’ll find on hiking websites or guidebooks. The canyon is home to the California fan palm, the only palm species that grows natively in Arizona.

We positioned the car to block the wind, made some sandwiches and enjoyed the vista. After lunch, I scouted around the mouth of the canyon for some tent-appropriate campsites we could use on a future group trip. And yep, there are some primo sites with great views into the canyon. We’ll definitely be back.

King Valley

It was now time to explore the expansive King Valley, which bisects the wildlife refuge and separates its two primary mountain ranges: the Kofa Mountains and the Castle Dome Mountains. We headed back to the highway and down to King Road, then took it southeast into the interior of the refuge. Passing countless camp pull-offs and expansive vistas, we eventually headed northeast over the desert flats towards Polaris Mountain and the Kofa Mine. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the foothills, so we couldn’t stay and explore the area on foot.

A stop in Yuma

After departing the Kofa, we turned south towards Yuma. On our way, we stopped at the Yuma Proving Ground, a large military testing installation. The proving ground, still currently in use, is a remnant of General Patton’s massive Desert Training Center. An interesting note on the national wildlife refuge: in times of war, it can automatically revert to active Yuma Proving Ground land.

There are a dozen or more old tanks on display outside the main gates—each of which was originally tested on the facility grounds—so I stopped for Jen to take a look and read the various plaques.

Our purpose in heading out of our way to Yuma was simple: beer. Jen has officially adopted #azbeerquest and had not yet marked off Yuma’s sole craft brewery. This must be corrected. But first, we needed to stop at a dive bar that’s been on my list to visit for several years. It didn’t disappoint. I even had to fight off some handsy (and apparently quite lonely) locals looking to get frisky; I suppose that’s what you get at a former strip club.

We departed to grab dinner and a beer flight at the brewery and mark another off the quest. After a long but enjoyable day, we headed towards home, completing an impressive loop around southwestern Arizona.

Day trips rock!

I’m always a bit surprised when a friend seems shocked that we’d did a day trip like this one. I sometimes get questions like:

“How did you know where to go?” or “How long did it take you plan that trip?” or even “I could never just go do something like that.”

Let’s just set the record straight: day trips rock!

They’re easy to put together and they’re easy to do. They allow you to get out and explore your state. And if you bring food along with you, then they only cost a tank of gas. Don’t have a destination in mind? Don’t let that stop you. Grab a map, hit the road, and decide as you go. Don’t know what to bring? Just bring whatever you want to have with you. I’d recommend some water, beverages and snacks, and warm clothes if it’s cold out. Besides that, there’s really not much to it.

Stay tuned here and we’ll help ensure that you start taking more of those day trips and just get out more.