Highs (points) and lows (temps) in Arizona

12 Mar

At the appointed time on Thursday afternoon a smart mini bus pulled up on the campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument  for the afternoon drive into the mountains. We joined a group of eight others and along with our driver and guide, strapped our seat belts and began the trip. Our guide, Ed, was very interested in the wild flowers and plants of the area P1100747so his talk was heavily biased toward this subject, we did learn a few new facts however and were delighted to see the first orange poppies in bloom, very much like California poppies but only 2 – 3 inches tall, a large carpet on one hill captured all our attention.
Further on we stopped to observe a natural rock arch high upP1100749 on the hillside, Its dimensions of 36 feet high, 90 wide and 720 feet long surprised us, it must have been a good deal further away than it appeared!
Friday we hit the road again, we intended to stay in Tucson overnight but en route stop off at Kitt Peak Observatory. The flat Arizona landscape we had become used to began to change and high mountains came on to the horizon. Standing high on one of these the observatory is visible many mile before you reach it. A steep twisty road gives access to the mountain top, plus extensive P1100765views of the desert.  We had almost forgotten what it was like to be high up and looking down we had been on flat land so long, one of the disadvantages of height however is temperature, as we neared the top we began to see snow at the side of the road on getting out in the car park we also discovered a very strong wind!
P1100772There are several telescopes at the facility, three open to the public along with the National Solar Observatory, unfortunately due to the cloudy weather there was no observation happening. We browsed the information in the visitor centre and climbed to the observation tower on the 4 meter Mayall Telescope, enjoying the views as much as the observatory itself.

An ‘arty’ view of the Solar Observatory.

Clouds over Kitt Peak National Observatory                                           
P1100779
                      

The storm clouds continued to gather for the rest of the day,
overnight wind and rain left a grey start to the next morning, we moved on to the other side of Tucson and a RV Park in Benson  with thoughts of maybe staying a couple of nights as one of its very special features was its own small observatory with evening viewings. Unfortunately two things caused us to pick up our feet and ride next day, more clouds, so no chance of observations and TRAINS….. all night hooting at the nearby crossing, this must be our pet hate about campgrounds, we are not sure how others cope with it, maybe earplugs. A train every hour or so was bad enough but around 4am I counted 5 within thirty minutes…no fun – we run!
Today our destination was to be Kartchner Caverns, one of the newest State Card1_0006Parks it just celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. We found the campground very spacious as usual and the facilities all very new as you would expect. As we arrived before lunch we had plenty of time at the visitor centre to view the film about the discovery of the caverns in 1974, how they were kept secret for eleven years to protect them and then how, with the State help the facility came to be what we can enjoy today. There are two tours around the caverns and we were unsure which one to book for but eventually decided on the Rotunda and Throne Room, our tour was to be 11.20 next day.
We were surprised how many people were visiting, the campground was Card1_0004around 75% full and each time we passed through the day area parking it was also very full,  lots of people enjoying the visitor centre facility. While chatting to the guide on our tour we learned that a tour every twenty minutes enters the caves with around 20 people on each, this begins at 8.30am and continues until 4pm, the tours were fully booked most of the time, that makes for a lot of visitors!
In Montana we had visited the Lewis and Clarke Caverns and could not help but compare the two, Kartchner is huge, well laid out with modern walk ways and facilities. Its features are also grand but we enjoyed the ‘scramble’ at Lewis and Clarke and felt it was more intimate, the features in closer proximity. Kartchner’s limestone shields, stalactites and soda straws impressed us and  Kubla Khan, stands a proud 58ft high in its huge cavern while each feature around is illuminated to sympathetic music, very theatrical. We found the guided talk very informative and very worth while the visit.
We enjoyed the walks around the campground although they were not P1100787extensive, they were enough to stretch our legs and enjoy the view. The storms for the time being had cleared and a blue sky afternoon was very pleasant. Late afternoon however it all changed and yet another storm blew in, this time bringing hail and snow leaving a white covering before dark. After a second chilly night we were pleased the campground had hook ups and we had been able to use our heaters to keep warm.
We learned a while back that temperature and altitude strike a fine balance, the Kartchner campground was at around 4,700 ft, snow levels are around 5,000 in this area, too close for comfort. Next day we began a short journey south and a little west, again taking us very close to the Mexican border and a destination of Patagonia Lake State Park, and a thousand feet lower!
The small town of Patagonia is fifteen miles from the State Park which lies in a hollow of several mountains, such a change of scenery again. The blue lake surrounded by trees was bathed in sunshine when we arrived, luckily we P1100790managed to get a site which overlooked the lake one of the last hook ups  available, the campground was busy. This park is a haven for birds and bird spotters, also fishermen and boaters, a short bird trail leads from the end of the campground allowing visitors to meander around the far end of the lake and catch glimpses of numerous birds. Not being familiar with US birds we managed to spot lots of grey and brown jobbies, Martins swooping low over the water were easy to name and we did identify a bright red bird with a crest as a Cardinal (we had been pleased with a sighting of a Vermillion Flycatcher at Kartchner) also we were fortunate to spot a hummingbird close to our site but it did not stay around long enough for us to name it!
It delighted us to discover that when the lake was created in the 1930’s a portion of railway which ran close to where the campground now is, but on the lake bed, was completely covered!  Touché….

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