After our relaxing time in sunny Yuma we travelled about an hour north to Quartzite. Every year thousands of RVers converge on this spot in January for the big RV show and many spend their entire winters here because of the cheap camping. In the Long Term Visitor Areas you can stake your spot in the desert for only $140 all season. They even have a dump station, water and trash. We opted for a more remote area with no services but lots of beauty about 15 miles south of town. The KOFA National Wildlife Refuge has camping for 14 days free of charge. Even though we only ended up staying 3 nights you can see we got lots of scenic photos. By the way, KOFA stands for King of Arizona and was the name of a mining operation.
We arrived on Thursday to scope out a spot. Heading in the gravel road we were worried we wouldn’t be able to turn around if we went too far so we picked a big level spot still a ways from the mountains. After unhitching we decided to drive up the road and found an even better spot with amazing views of the rock cliffs. We put out some chairs to claim it, drove a couple of miles back, hitched up again, and towed the trailer to the base of the mountain. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get our trailer level while facing the right direction for the solar panels, but once we got it all set we enjoyed the stunning views.
You’ll notice from the photos that KOFA wasn’t as sunny as Yuma. While it made for great photos, it made for chilly camping. We spent the whole day Friday inside as the wind and rain whipped around us. We were glad our trailer is aerodynamic because some of the gusts were quite strong.
We even had a few rainbows.
We took advantage of the nice weather on Saturday to visit the RV show. We had been looking forward to this show since we left Seattle. I don’t know what we were expecting, perhaps something like the RV show back home only bigger, but boy were we disappointed. The “Big Tent” as they call the main area of the show was filled with vendors like those you find at the fair selling mops and pans and such, and not a lot of RV specific products. In fact we found nothing we were looking for on our list and only bought a Mac Attack BBQ pork sandwich (it had mac and cheese on it) and we didn’t even manage to take any photos. We walked through some of the swap meet area in town but soon grew bored of tent after tent of the same stuff. After less than 2 hours in Quartzite, we were done. We opted not to check out the small town (perhaps another time when the show isn’t on).
Insider tip: If you ever visit the show you can park for free during the day at the LTVA just south of the show. It’s much better than the crazy show parking where people circle endlessly and we saw 3 different vehicles stuck in the sand, plus it’s just as close.
Instead, we headed back to KOFA to take advantage of the sunny afternoon by hiking the Palm Canyon trail. It wasn’t too hard to get to the spot where you could see the palm trees, but we decided to scramble up the side of the mountain to get closer.
These crazy palm tress grow here naturally. The microclimate on this hillside supports the only grove of native palms in Arizona.
Looking ahead the forecast called for more cloudy, cold weather. While we can use our propane to heat up the place, it’s just not as comfy when it’s really cold and with the clouds our solar power was dwindling. It was a pretty easy decision to head back to Yuma for more winter sunshine. Amazing what a difference 50 miles can make!
We came to Yuma because it’s supposed to have the most sunny days of anywhere in the US and things were getting chilly. Turns out they do get lots of sun. Even on the days we wake up and it looks cloudy, the clouds are replaced by sun later in the day. But it’s also pretty windy here and with all the fields and sandy soil that means it is dusty. I guess I shouldn’t complain though when we’re getting temps in the 60s and 70s in January and I’m back to wearing flip flops every day!
Yuma is full of snowbirds. In fact the population doubles in winter. Driving in on I-8 we saw RV park after RV park lining the freeway and they were packed. Luckily the KOFA Escapees park where we stayed is about 8 miles south of town among the citrus groves. At first it seemed liked an inconvenient spot, but we soon realized it was peaceful and the 20 minute drive to town was not bad.
This place reminded us of the park Chuck’s parents used to winter at in Florida, only smaller. About half the spaces in the park have “park models” on them, basically a tiny 10 x 40 mobile home, but the rest are large, gravel sites with full hook-ups that owner’s rent out when they’re not here. They are some of the nicest sites we’ve found in an RV park.
The park has an active community of retirees. They feature daily activities in the clubhouse like line dancing, crafts, bingo and billiards. They also have an outdoor pool, hot tub, shuffle board and horseshoes. Plus there are groups that go bike riding and walking and of course a bunch of potlucks sprinkled in. For the most part we were reluctant to join in (perhaps we felt a little too young), but everyone was super nice and friendly. Mostly it’s just really peaceful and laid back here and we both seemed to have slowed way down.
I think this might be a good thing since there is not much to do in Yuma. We skipped visiting the big attractions, the Yuma Territorial Prison and the Quartermaster Depot from the late 1800s. Instead we walked the historic downtown which had some interesting buildings. Sadly only a handful of shops have managed to survive although the restaurants were busy. With most major stores here we did some shopping, stocked up our fridge, and visited the farmer’s market. You would think we could get really good produce since Yuma claims to be the winter vegetable capital growing 90% of the lettuce, cauliflower and other veggies for the US this time of year and we are surrounded by citrus groves, but only one of the ten booths was a local farmer and they didn’t have much. I did like the booth selling Girl Scout cookies though!
Our big reason for hanging out here in Yuma for a week was to wait for the big RV show in Quartzite and with all the sunshine it turned out to be a great place to chill before heading that way.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Twin Peaks Campground
Organ Pipe is what we expected Saguaro to be—a remote, quiet place with captivating views, giant cacti, and abundant hiking. It feels like a full fledged National Park with its great campground, nice visitor’s center, scenic drives and daily ranger programs. They even have a “Not so Junior Ranger” activity booklet for folks like me who really want to be a Junior Ranger again. 🙂 You can take the pledge and earn a patch and everything!
So what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Guess they get that question a lot because it’s in the booklet. Mainly it’s about how they are created. National Parks are established through an Act of Congress while a National Monument is established by a Presidential Proclamation. Not sure which president established this National Monument, but I’m glad he did.
While we saw just as many giant saguaros at Organ Pipe as we did at Saguaro National Park, this park gets its name from another cactus. Organ Pipe is the only spot in the US where you will find large groups of organ pipe cactus growing wild. Unlike saguaro that shoot up one main column and then branch out arms, these look like a clump of arms coming up from under the ground. They reminded early settlers of church organ pipes, thus the name. The plants grow to about 15 feet tall and we saw everything from 3 to about 20 arms. Plants don’t flower until they are 35 years old and when they do the white flowers open only at night, an adaptation to the heat, and are pollinated by bats. Later red fleshy fruits provide food for Sonoran desert animals.
We found the largest Organ Pipe cactus in the park. It had cool crested arms in the middle.
Organ Pipe has one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve found in a national park. There is a staffed entry station where they assign you campsites, collect your fee and answer your questions. When we arrived the friendly ranger greeting us was from Forks, WA!
A little aside about park rangers here. We have met so many helpful, knowledgable, kind rangers who care about sharing and protecting our nation’s beautiful lands. I never realized that most are part-time seasonal workers earning low wages. It takes a ranger about 10 years to get a full-time, year round position. These are folks who do this work because they love our parks and I’m glad they are there to make our visits not just possible but also pleasurable. In addition our parks wouldn’t run without the many volunteers who staff visitor’s centers, act as campground hosts, and work on trails. A big thank you to the folks working to make sure our parks continue to thrive for another 100 years and beyond!
Back to the campground… Every site has a poured concrete parking pad and patio area. A few have ramadas (shade structures over the picnic tables). There is decent space between the sites, nice desert landscaping providing some privacy, free solar showers (which we didn’t try) and really clean restrooms. The campground was pretty empty so we asked and February is their busy season although it sounded like the 208 sites (174 of which are for RVs) are rarely all taken. This little gem is still undiscovered.
Part of that may be due to its proximity to the Mexican border. People seem to fear border areas, but we’ve been following the border through Texas and Arizona and never felt unsafe. Here they had lots of signs warning visitor’s what to do if they encountered illegals crossing into the US. Basically it boils down to leave them alone and report sightings to a ranger. They say don’t give them water because they may venture even further into the desert and get stuck. In opposition to this there is a group in town that reports over 90 bodies have been found in this area in the last 2 years and they regularly put water in remote areas as a humanitarian gesture.
We did not spot anyone while we were hiking (they say it’s rare as these folks don’t want to be seen), but we did see a couple of black water jugs on the side of a trail, a sure sign illegals had been there. (They use black water jugs because they don’t glint in search lights). And one day several border patrol vehicles were near the entrance with a woman handcuffed in the back seat. But we always felt safe in the campground. Rangers and border patrol patrolled frequently and the only people we saw around were other campers. Last year we read an article about how the park had a bad reputation, but a new superintendent turned that around by bringing in more staff and border patrol.
With no worries about safety we were free to enjoy the park. We spent much of our time relaxing at camp soaking in the sunshine and views, but we did get out for some activities too. On our first day we rode our bikes the 1.5 miles to the visitor’s center, took in the exhibits, and walked the short nature trail. Chuck sat through a little of the ranger talk on pupfish, an endangered species they are bringing back. The ride back to camp had a few good uphill bits, that let me know I’ve been getting lazy.
The next afternoon we took a hike from the campground to the Victoria Mine (4.3 miles with just a bit of up and down). Other than the crumbling stone building, it wasn’t very interesting. Still with the heat it did wear us out a little. I do not think this is a place you want to hike in summer. There is little shade and the sun and low humidity mean you have to carry a lot of water to stay hydrated, even in the winter.
Our favorite hike was on the 21 mile, unpaved Ajo Mountain loop drive. The park guide lists 8 scenic drives, all on unpaved roads. This one had great views and a booklet to guide you. Numbered markers along the way signaled stops with information in the booklet. We were also in search of the crested cacti and rock arches listed in the “not so junior ranger” booklet. Luckily they give you mileage points, but we still couldn’t locate some of them.
About half way around we stopped to eat our lunch and head out on the hike recommended by the “Forks” ranger. One guide said it was 3 miles roundtrip to Bull’s Pasture, another 4.2. All I know is we kept climbing and climbing and when we thought we were there, we weren’t, so we trudged on. Luckily someone put a sign at the end to tell us we had made it! Although the trail descriptions claimed it was only an 800’ elevation gain I’m sure it was more! That ranger was right though, it was worth it for the great views. I’m finding I love exposed rock mountains rising up toward the sky.
I wish we could count Organ Pipe toward our official National Park number, but alas it’s not on our map. Still it will remain one of our favorites.
Picacho Peak State Park
Nights: 6 (2 in the main campground, 4 at the group site)
New Friends: Lots!
During our last week at Gilbert Ray, there were 4 other Airstreams camped in our loop. Walking the loop one afternoon we met fellow Airstreamers Bonnie and Alan. After swapping some stories, they invited us to join them for their club’s New Year’s Rally at Picacho Peak State Park. Having been on the road now for 6 months with mostly just the two of us 24/7, I thought that hanging around some other people might be a good change of pace. Not that I’m complaining because we genuinely enjoy being in each other’s company and we are both introverts, so the idea of walking into a group where we know no one makes us a bit anxious. But we decided to go for it, and I’m glad we did.
Now for those of you who don’t know, Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, used to lead Airstream caravans all over the world back in the 50s. The Airstream owner’s group is called Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) and when you see an Airstream rolling down the road with those big red numbers on the front that means they are a member. The numbers are how they identify club members on caravans (hard to tell all those shiny aluminum trailers apart—in fact one person at the rally warned us to be careful because it’s easy to walk right into the wrong trailer and Chuck almost did!) although not all members stick them on. Within WBCCI are regional clubs or units. This rally was part of the 4 Corners Unit (4CU).
While we have owned Airstreams since 2004 we have never joined WBCCI or been to a rally. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we studied the agenda, planned and shopped for the potlucks, and figured we would just see how it went.
The rally didn’t start until Thursday, but we had to be out of Gilbert Ray on Tuesday so we headed to Picacho Peak ahead of the rest of the group and spent two nights in the main campground. We soon found out how friendly the 4CU is when another early arrival stopped by to chat. After talking for a bit he assured us we would enjoy the group. We watched a few trailers pull in early on Wednesday and debated moving over to the group area ourselves but since it was cold and overcast we decided to stay put with our electric hook-up one more night. On Thursday we had our shortest driving day yet, about 2 minutes, as we moved to the group area. It was fun watching Airstream after Airstream arrive. In the end there were 38 trailers total, with several vintage models.
After setting-up we set out to walk the loop and gaze at all the different trailers. Immediately Bonnie and Alan spotted us and walked along introducing us to all the folks who were out reconnecting with old friends. By the time the Happy Hour mixer started we knew a few people, but it was still a little scary being the outsiders. We shouldn’t have worried because soon people were walking up to us and introducing themselves and talking Airstream—models, solar panels, floorplans, favorite destinations. It helps to have that common shiny orb to break the ice 🙂
Each day there was coffee and breakfast goodies in the group ramada, although we were never moving early enough to partake. Daytimes there was quilting, viking bowling, or time to be on your own. Some even tackled the hike to the peak which requires gloves to grip the cables attached to the rocky path. We enjoyed a bike ride through the campground, but didn’t attempt the hike as the weather was a bit iffy.
Wait, did you say quilting? I know—not an ordinary camping activity, but a few years ago Bonnie wanted a way to fill the time at the rally so she spearheaded a service project assembling pre-cut quilt kits from Quilts for Kids, a charity out of her former home state of Pennsylvania. It has become a New Year’s rally tradition. A few people brought sewing machines, while others helped cut, pin and press. With 2 days of chatty, joyful work they finished 8 quilt tops which Bonnie will later sandwich with batting and quilt before sending them back to the charity.
In the evenings there was either a Happy Hour with everyone bringing nibbles to share or a potluck dinner followed by more chatting around the huge bonfire. Since it was the holidays the hosts decorated the group area with an inflatable trailer that had Santa popping out the door and the coolest light display ever with laser lights aimed at the desert foliage making it look like everything was coated with jewels. One night someone set up a telescope and we got a close-up look at the craters on the moon. Other activities included an entertaining white elephant gift exchange, giant Jenga, and a huge game of Left Right Center.
After the second night we were both feeling a little socialized out. It was a bit of overload after our long stint of aloneness, but then we started to relax into the rhythm of the rally and found that we really liked it. People were friendly. We got lots of tips for places to go. We got to exchange Airstream ideas and stories from the road. Other than some cold weather which had us digging for those winter clothes we thought we’d never need, it was a great weekend. In the end we decided we really enjoyed the rally and ended up joining the 4CU. We hope to make it to another rally someday to reconnect with all our new found friends!