Campsite 12 at Kodachrome Basin State Park

Sometimes, you find yourself in a really great campsite. Last weekend was one of those instances.

While we often disperse camp on BLM or National Forest lands, we had decided to reserve campsites last weekend, given our rather aggressive itinerary. Kodachrome Basin State Park seemed like the natural first night’s stop, since we’d be driving Cottonwood Canyon north through the middle of famed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We selected site 12 from the available options, and it did not disappoint.

What makes a good campsite?

For me, there are a few things that I tend to prefer in campsites. Please note that I’m referring to developed campgrounds here—not dispersed or backcountry sites, which I’d evaluate using much different criteria.

First, I prefer small to medium-sized campgrounds, usually between about 15-40 sites. Larger campgrounds tend to have very small sites that feel nearly on top of each other, and tend to be more crowded to begin with (hence, their large capacity). Extremely small ones often lack useful amenities, like flush toilets and sinks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine using vault toilets and otherwise roughing it. But if I’m paying $15-30 for a place to sleep for the night, I expect a few additional conveniences. It’s often nice to have showers too, especially if you’ve been outside all day. I tend to sleep better when I feel clean. I don’t rely on firewood being available for purchase at the campground, but it’s always nice to have as a backup or supplemental option.

While campgrounds can sometimes be a fun social experience, I usually prefer more privacy. So I look for sites along the outer loops and especially those that have a visual barrier between my site and neighboring ones. Shade can be an important factor too, especially here in the desert southwest, so some tree cover or a shade structure is often appreciated.

I usually don’t care much about distance to the restrooms or water spigots; neither is usually too far way to cause much hassle. However, the inverse isn’t true—proximity to the restrooms or water can mean a constant stream of visitors passing by your tent. Worse, occasional whiffs of an overly ripe vault toilet can really ruin the camping mood.

If you’re tenting it as I often am, a flat tent pad that’s not too rocky is key. After that, it’s all bonus. Being a westerner, I have a relatively high expectation that really good campsites should offer some sort of expansive or scenic views, too. Proximity to streams or lakes is usually nice as well, though sometimes that means more bugs or higher winds.

Evaluating campsite 12 at Basin Campground

On par, campsite 12 was nearly perfect for our needs last weekend. The campground is the perfect size, and offered just the right amenities. The restrooms were clean and modern, and the shower stalls were spacious. While there wasn’t any way to adjust the shower temperature, it was exactly the right temp for me. In addition, a sink for washing dishes and a self-serve supply of firewood—a handy to carry bundle for just $5, with proceeds benefitting the Boy Scouts—were appreciated conveniences.

The site is well isolated from neighbors with its own mini loop, making it feel like you were alone. Due to the configuration of the campsites, all RVs were on the other side of the campground. Best of all, it was at the far end of the campground near the head of the basin, making for some excellent panoramic views. We’ll be back the next time we find ourselves looking for a campground in the area.

If you go

There are multiple campgrounds atat Kodachrome Basin State Park, but the one you’re looking for is the largest one, Basin Campground. Campsites are $20 per night, plus an $8 registration fee. Check availability on site 12; if it’s already taken, there seemed to be several other sites that looked like quality backup choices. Not all sites are reservable online, so you might be able to snag one on a first come, first served basis, too.


Meet Pando, the world’s oldest living organism

Just outside of Fish Lake, Utah lies a beautiful stand of quaking aspen. But this isn’t just your average aspen forest.

Meet Pando

It’s been named Pando, or alternatively, The Trembling Giant. Scientists believe that this stand of aspen is actually just a single living organism. Each of the approximately 47,000 ordinary looking aspens growing over 106 acres is genetically identical to one another and shares the same root system. It’s estimated to be an astounding 80,000 years old, making it the oldest known organism on Earth. Pando is also believed to be the most massive living thing, too.

A single organism

Like creosote, aspens are clonal plants that can reproduce vegetatively (as well as sexually) from a single individual. What appear to be separate trees are actually stems growing from the lateral roots of a single individual tree. Each new tree shares the same dna and remains connected via the root system, even sharing nutrients and possibly disease. Over time, this single organism can continue to spread and grow, even as particular stems die off. In this way, the organism seems to repeatedly cheat death.

Is Pando dying?

Unfortunately, Pando doesn’t seem to be regenerating new trees to replace the ones that die off. Efforts are underway to study the problem, which includes fencing off several monitoring plots as well as treating plots with understory fire and canopy thinning.

pando sign

Visiting Pando

Unlike other famously-old trees, Pando’s location is well known and easy to access. The grove is located in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah about one mile south of Fish Lake and is bisected by Highway 25. You can easily find it on google maps. As mentioned above, parts of the forest have been fenced off and aren’t accessible. But there’s plenty of Pando otherwise accessible to visitors, including a section of it containing a campground.


Your Pando “moment of zen”

Kayaking the Salt River Under a Full Moon

One of my favorite annual trips to lead is a moonlight paddle down the Lower Salt River east of Phoenix.

The Salt River is a great little trip either early in the morning, or long after the tubers have gone home—it’s serene, has some nice scenery, is convenient to the metro Phoenix area, and offers easy logistics. I think it’s at its best during a full moon.

Armed with water cannons, some adult beverages, and glowstick-decorated kayaks, we met at Blue Point Picnic Area after work, unloaded our boats, and set up the car shuttle. We hit the water just as the sun set and stopped to enjoy the moonrise over the mountains in the first eddy downstream. There’s something special about paddling a river with just the light of a full moon. With the limited light, there’s an interesting incongruity: ripples and small rapids seem more exciting while the overall trip seems more placid.

Generally speaking, our night was more float than paddle. We shared beverages, enjoyed small conversations, and relaxed in the tranquility of the water. We stopped for a break and a group photo at the beach at Goldfield Ranch, joined by about a dozen feral Salt River horses. Drinking vessels sufficiently refilled, we returned to the boats and continued downstream to our take-out at Phon D Sutton Rec Area.

The remainder of the trip was a continuation of the earlier enjoyable night. The water cannons got quite a bit more use, which are particularly fun when you’re not entirely sure who squirted whom. The worst part of the evening was finding ourselves at the take-out; it had arrived much sooner than everyone wanted. Clearly, we’ll need to arrange another one next month.

I didn’t put much effort into taking photos. The combination of low light, the constant rocking of the kayak, and my preference for carrying a small point-and-shoot camera generally make for less-than-stellar photos. However, I post them in the hopes that they paint at least a crude picture of the evening’s moonlight adventure.

A ‘Monumental’ Day of Blogging

30 outdoor bloggers came together to publish posts in support of our national monuments on the 111th anniversary of the Antiquities Act. We called it ‘A Monumental Day of Blogging’ and ask readers to defend #MonumentsForAll.

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!