For our time in southern Arizona, we stayed in Florence, just Southeast of Phoenix. We stayed at Rancho Sonora RV Park, and we loved it so much that we extended our stay there and just did a daytrip to Tucson and Tombstone instead of changing campgrounds. The campground was on the very outskirts of the charming town of Florence, which put us in the Sonoran Desert, as you can see below…
Camping directly in the desert gave us an opportunity to view its beautiful plant and animal life. We enjoyed the Gambel’s quails with their babies ever on the move through the campground. They reminded me of my chickens, constantly running with their heads down and only stopping to scratch the ground here and there.
We also had a family of ground squirrels surrounding us. Ground squirrels look like a much smaller version of a prairie dog, and they live in burrows under the ground with a connected system of holes on the surface. To our delight, we had two coyotes trot through the campground on separate occasions as well – one at dusk and one in the middle of the afternoon. It can’t be the desert without a roaming coyote. One evening while we were walking the grounds, we passed another quintessential desert dweller – the diamondback rattlesnake. The park is also filled with native plant species as well from saguaros to barrel cactus and palo verde trees. There is an inn on the grounds with exactly the southwestern style look and feel one could hope for.
Casa Grande While in the Phoenix area, we were able to visit one of Arizona’s many ancient Indian sites…Casa Grande. In this area, the ancient Indians are known as the Hohokam. They were experts at desert survival who built permanent settlements along the Salt and Gila Rivers. They ate mesquite pods, saguaro cactus fruit, prickly pear cactus fruit and hunted the game available to them such as rabbits, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Archaeologists date the Hohokam culture’s beginnings to small village establishments in 300 B.C. and their final movement and abandonment of settlements to the 1400s A.D. Their many ruins have shown canal systems, and what they believe to be ball courts for recreation. By the time the Spanish explorers and missionaries viewed the area in the 1600s, they found the Hohokam ruins and the Pima and O’odham tribes, the ancestors of the Hohokam.
One of the most prominent ruins found was Casa Grande, which has been preserved as a national monument. Casa Grande lies South of Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert near the Gila River. It is a four story building. The walls were built of caliche, a mix of sand clay and limestone. They were made 4 feet thick at the base and then tapered as they rose.This is a very easy place to visit, as there is a visitor center and the ruins lay directly behind it. Very little walking is necessary, which is helpful to those with limitations, but also helpful to everyone in the summer heat.
As we viewed the site and pondered how these desert dwellers survived, our attention was drawn to some fluttering of feathers above us in the rafters of Casa Grande’s protective canopy. And what did we find above us? Large birds with feathers that were barred in color. There heads were rounded, not shaped like a hawk. It took only a few seconds to recognize them as Great Horned Owls. There was an entire family living in the rafters. We spotted the two adults, who made the species easy to identify, and there were four large adolescents looking as though they were not far from ready to fly on their own. Afterwards, we spoke with one of the rangers, and he said that the pair return each year to raise their young, but this is the first time they have had four babies survive to be that large. May I relate that we heard a Great Horned owl at our campground one of the nights, and my hope is that it was one of the parents hunting? I regret to inform you that we completely forgot our good camera for this visit, so I do not have a single good photo of the owls, but I will share with you a photo of babies about the same age that we had at our home in the Pennsylvania woods as a replacement. Forgive me, reader.
Superstition Mountain: (This write-up is dedicated to my sister, Sarah, who’s enthusiasm about Superstition Mountain inspired us to visit.) Now that we have visited and pondered Phoenix’s ancient Indian civilization, let’s jump ahead through time and take a look at civilization during the mining and pioneering era with a twist. The twist is the intrigue surrounding Superstition Mountain. A mountain promising men the most tantalizing and precious metal – gold, but delivering in its place mysterious death. The tale of Superstition Mountain begins long ago in the age of the Spanish Empire’s rule propped up by its many New World conquests. It was the age of the conquistador, the ruthless Spanish explorer whose purpose was to deliver glory and riches to the Spanish crown from the New World. Spain had an interest in obtaining the New World’s riches from the beginning. After all, it was King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, already historically significant for uniting Spain and expelling the last of the Muslim strongholds on the Iberian Peninsula, who funded Columbus’ exploratory mission. As a result of the Spanish Empire’s determination, the Mayans, the Incans, the Aztecs; each of these empires fell at the foot of the Conquistadors in their relentless pursuit of glory and gold. With so many riches found in these civilizations, the perspective for further exploration was that there could only be more riches ahead. This very pursuit is what drove explorers, including Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, farther North into the present-day United States. In 1539, Franciscan priest Friar Niza reported seeing the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. The following year, Coronado’s search for Cibola led him into the Arizona area (at the time known as New Spain). Coronado came to a sharp pointed mountain, and he was the first man recorded as believing that this mountain held gold in its bosom, which he confirmed with the native Apache. However, the story reads that as they attempted to explore the area, several of Coronado’s men died in mysterious fashion causing the rest of his men to become wary of the mountain. Were they truly mysterious deaths, or did the disappointed greed taint their view of bodies killed and mutilated by Indians? Regardless, Coronado’s men gave up their greedy search and returned to the Spanish empire in debt, but the mountain gained its name – Superstition Mountain.
Coronado may have been the first to be lured by Superstition Mountain’s promise of riches only to find himself left in great debt, but he would not be the last. Next in line to be lured and consequently broken was Don Miguel Peralta, a successful Mexican rancher. The greed of Coronado transposed itself on the heart of Peralta upon hearing the legend, and Peralta decided to give search. In 1845, he is reported to have discovered the richest gold mine in all of Western history! He shipped gold back to his home in Mexico, but his newly found riches would come at a great cost. The Apache were angered by his men’s presence and before they could make an escape, the Indians fell on them and murdered everyone, including Peralta himself. However, the legend of the mine grew, and it was named the Peralta mine after the discoverer.
The Peralta mine left seekers no clues to its location, but it continued to inspire hope and dread in the hearts of men until one day in 1870 when the promise of Superstition Mountain met a new heart to deceive…the hearts of two Jacobs. Jacob Waltz was a German who had come to America in 1845. Jacob Weiser was a Dutchman who, legend claims, met Waltz working in the mining field. The two Jacobs sought the Peralta mine together, and were said to have showed up in Phoenix with gold to spend. People assumed the two had struck it rich, but the Jacobs never did reveal any details of their findings. The legend goes that for the next ten years or so, the pair would return to the Peralta mine and take enough gold to last them until their next run. They never did reveal any information on their find, and they took the location of their finds to their graves. However, they did contribute to the mine’s new name…The Lost Dutchman Mine.
How much of the legends are fact and how much are fiction, we will never know. What we do know is that the legends have become facts for the many, some estimate hundreds of, people through the years who have faced the harsh desert and mountain terrain of the area in search of gold. While some have reportedly found gold, many more have found death. The search for the Lost Dutchman Mine continues to claim lives to this day, and it only takes a few hours in the presence of Superstition Mountain to understand the real risks native to the environment. While the prospect of riches taunt men’s heart to risk it all, the dehydration, exposure and inhospitable terrain ultimately claim their lives in too many cases.
You may now ask, reader, “How does an actual visit hold up to the legends surrounding Superstition Mountain?” And I shall answer, “It holds up quite well.” The overshadowing presence of Superstition Mountain’s sharp edges lends itself to mystery. The jutting spires in the sky are tyrannical seeming to impose their will on anyone who dare enter. While there is an obscure beauty, the land here is treacherous and unharmonious. The jarring terrain underfoot adds even more of an uncertainty to the experience. Greed is not my vice, but if it were, I do not believe any amount of gold would tempt me to endlessly search this unforgiving landscape. If greed is your vice, allow me to make a suggestion…let Superstition Mountain inspire you to take a hike enjoying its mystique, but avoid the temptation of seeking a treasure that even if it does exist, would not save you from whatever you are looking to make up for in gold.
Our first stop in the area was the Superstition Mountain Museum. For a small fee, we learned all about the different legends and mystery shrouding the mountain. We also saw many mining artifacts and were given maps and information for visiting the area. There is a lovely gentleman at the museum who has perfected playing an Indian flute. His music is as delightful as spending a few minutes with him in conversation.
After the museum, we headed into the Lost Dutchman State Park for a hike. We chose the Treasure Loop Trail, which is about a 2.5 mile loop that took us close into Superstition Mountain and above some of its lower rocky outcroppings before returning us to the desert below.
After our hike, we drove past Canyon Lake to Tortilla Flat for lunch. Tortilla Flat was a stagecoach stop along the Apache Trail. With its location so close to Superstition Mountain, it is only natural that there are many different legends surrounding Tortilla Flat’s history as well. For today’s visitors, it is a small street built in the old western style, and the restaurant plastered with dollar bills is worth a stop for lunch. There was a small free museum there to highlight the town’s history and give information about the large fire they suffered.
Now that I have completely intrigued you talking about Superstition Mountain, it is time to see it for yourself…
On our return, we stopped at the Goldfield Ghost Town, which was really just a tourist trap, but it does give you a little bit of a feel for mining towns, and it would be a lot of fun for kids as there are many activities to be enjoyed.
Scottsdale: Let’s take another giant leap through time and visit Phoenix’s current civilization. For a look at the culture of modern civilization, we headed to Scottsdale. Scottsdale sits Northeast of Phoenix and is home to almost 250,000 people. When traveling in the Phoenix area, this is a great place to enjoy southwestern art and culture. We met a friend for lunch (the ability to rekindle old friendships with people across the country is an added bonus to fulltime RVing) and then walked around Old Town and the shops. I found Scottsdale to be the perfect mix of laid back and sophisticated with a true southwestern flair.
Hope you enjoyed a look at the Phoenix area’s past and preset, up next is the Sedona area.
Fun Facts & Tips:
- Casa Grande is our nation’s very first archaeological reserve, established in 1892! (Well before Arizona became a state in 1912.)
- Lost Dutchman State Park had very nice looking camping facilities, including some electric and water spots; but there was no protection from the glaring sun.
- I read that Phoenix is ranked number 6 in size for a U.S. city, just below Philadelphia.
- Sonoran Desert National Park is just Southwest of Phoenix – we did not make the visit only because we were camping in the Sonoran Desert, so we experienced it by living in it.