A Visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

One of the first stops on our latest Southern Arizona road trip was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the outskirts of Tucson.

Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool.  Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time.  But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.

The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails.  Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

Aquarium at the Desert Museum

As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium.  Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense.  We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it.  Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez.  Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.

Aquatic Life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Walking on the Trail

Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible.  We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us.  I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.

Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.

We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well.  I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes.  No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.

The Organ Pipe – Cactus

Organ Pipe Cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”

“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.

“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”

As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.

“Could ours get this big?” she asked.  “It would take over the whole front yard.”

It probably would.  As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night.  It is a night-blooming cactus.  Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open.  It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.

Back on the Trail

Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.

We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside.  Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon.  The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see.  My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago.  They live in both environments.

Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time.  It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day.  But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike.  Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.

Blue Heron in the Desert?

In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself.  Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around.  The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.

My Visit with the Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit.  I noticed the mountain lion.  She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine.  As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her.  Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.

They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program.  So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

Earth Science Center

Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.

 

 

 

Winter Hikes in Phoenix

With temperatures finally dropping, Phoenix becomes a paradise for hikers.  You wouldn’t expect that from a huge city, home to over four and a half million people.  Yet, we have hikes for people of all abilities.  Huge areas of the desert are left untouched and protected  within the city’s limits. One of them, South Mountain, is the largest preserve in the US in an urban area.

Within 41,000 acres of park preserves, Phoenix has more than 200 trails to enjoy. Though it is not only inadvisable but even dangerous to go out on any of these trails in the summer,  in the winter they are the perfect place to be.

The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
Easy Hikes for Families with Young Kids, or Those Who Are Not Ready for Anything Strenuous

You’ll find some of the easiest hikes in and around Papago Park, in the center of Phoenix.  Each trail within the park is fit for children of all ages, and people of all abilities.  One of the most popular hike here is the hole-in-the rock trail.  It offers and easy walk around this known Phoenix spot. Kids and adults alike have enjoy looking at the city through the hole in the rock.

The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is another spot for easy hikes.  The trails run along the Rio Salado Riverbed, and offer a glimpse into the riparian habitat of the desert. You will find that the desert can be very green,  full of life, especially along riverbeds.

Many of the Sonoran Preserve Trails offer easy walks through beautiful desert vistas. Most of them start at the Apache Wash Trailhead.

Riparian Area at Reach 11, Phoenix
Riparian Area at Reach 11 in the winter

The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix offers plenty of short and easy hiking trails.  Enjoy the desert vegetation and wildlife that you will most likely see on any of these trails.  You can even walk through a riparian area, if you take the trail to the pond off Tatum Boulevard.

You’ll find one easy trail in the North Mountain Park as well, the interpretive loop of the Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail.

For A Little More Serious Hikers the City Offers Many Moderate Difficulty Trails

Most of the trails in South Mountain Park are of moderate difficulty, still fit for most hikers.  You’ll find beautiful scenery, gorgeous views and lots of petroglyphs on any of them.

North Mountain Park also offers miles of trails with moderate difficulty. On some you’ll hike up a few buttes, on others walk with some elevation gain through the valley between the peaks.

Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter
Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter

The trails in Dreamy Draw and Piestewa Peak are also fit for hikers of all abilities, and offer only a bit of a challenge. Hiking through the are you will most likely encounter desert wildlife, including coyotes and jackrabbits.

All the trails in Lookout and Shadow Mountains, areas known only to locals, are in this category.

Most of the trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve that start at the Desert Hills trail head, are also moderately difficult. They take you through beautiful desert areas.

For the Serious Hiker, Phoenix Offers a Few Difficult to Extremely Difficult Trails

Th best known trails within the city limits also happen to be the most difficult ones.  I am talking about the two trails that summit Camelback Mountain. 

Echo Canyon Trail is the city’s most famous hiking destination, known to hiking enthusiasts all over the world.  Though challenging, not only for its elevation gain, but the rocky terrain and exposure, since there is no shade on it, most Phoenicians hiked it at least once.  Why do we live here, if not for this challenge, after all? Even if you don’t summit, the views from the trail are exquisite.

View from Echo Canyon Trail
View from Echo Canyon Trail. Image by Flickr

If you want to summit Camelback Mountain from the other side, the Cholla Trail is also spectacular, and just as difficult.  Although at the bottom it does have an easy part. So if you want to hike within Camelback Mountain’s boundaries, but want an easy walk, start on this side, and turn around when it is too much.

With So Many Trails, There Is No Excuse to Stay Inside When the Weather is Finally Nice

When the temperatures drop, Phoenicians usually hit the trails.  The summer months, with temperatures over 100 degrees, are so long, we usually can’t wait to get outside.

As soon as we do, we are rewarded with beautiful desert vistas and a variety of trails to choose from.  Yes, we might live in the city, but we can get lost in the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert within a few minutes of stepping on a trail.  This is what makes living here worth it.  And this is what attracts so many visitors here in the winter months.

 

 

 

 

A Southern Arizona Road Trip

A road trip is just what we needed on a long weekend, with school being out on Friday. Since it is mid-November, almost winter, we opted for a Southern Arizona trip.

On a normal year this is the time when things finally cool down in the desert. On a normal year.  However. This year is still a bit too warm.  Next week is Thanksgiving. And we are still hot.  We had the air conditioning on a few days ago.  Yeah. Life in the desert.

Saguaro National Monument, AZ

Still.  It is only in the eighties, and mornings and nights are pleasant.  A Southern Arizona road trip seemed like a great idea. We haven’t been passed Tucson in years. And I wanted to take my youngest child to Kartchner Caverns. She’s never been there.  The older two visited on school trips years ago.

First we figured, as usual, let’s go! Then we looked up the site – fortunately – and realized that we needed reservations. Since it is such a popular destination, we had to do it well in advance. We did make a reservation for sometime next month.

As luck would have it, someone canceled and we ended up with reservations for both tours in the same day, this past Sunday. Lucky us! Of course, we took the opportunity and made a three-day-weekend road trip out of it.

First Stop: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Our first stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  And of course, we were hot. Still, the museum is spectacular, a combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one.

Despite the heat, we had a great time.  And heat is relative.  It wasn’t in the 100s, only the high eighties.

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion.  I remembered them having more than one, but that was many years ago. I might have been mistaken.  We caught a presentation of a ranger with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, sat in the shade watching hummingbirds flutter around us, walked through an aquarium, through an underground exhibit, under water through a riparian habitat, and even through a cave.  We were going to see the real deal at the end of the trip, but this was a nice little preview.

Road Trip Stop 2: Saguaro National Monument

Since we were basically in Saguaro National Monument already, we decided to stop at the visitor center, and maybe even take a short hike. We did stop and enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, but we felt too hot for a hike.  We live in the desert, after all, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through the land of cacti.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaro cacti in one place anywhere else.  It was nice to enjoy the view of it, then drive through it for a while.

Unplanned Stops: Apple Annie’s Country Store and the Amerind Museum

We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see.  But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum.  We originally planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, however, after a fw minutes of debate, we decided to take a side trip the next morning and visit the Amerind Museum, as soon as it opens.  It is the place where they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquime in Mexico, not far from the border, and we knew this.

We have been in Paquime (Casas Grandes) more than fifteen years ago, and we thought it would be great to see some artifacts from the site. So we changed the plan for the next day, and decided to visit the museum before heading to the Chiricahua National Monument.

Since it opened at 10am, we had some time on our hands, and stopped at Apple Annie’s, where we bought a delicious loaf of apple bread and spent some time enjoying a country store. (We are city slickers, don’t get to see many of them often).

Apple Annie's Country Store

We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach the Amerind Museum, and it did seem like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a nice desert location though.

Amerind Museum - Door of the Art Exhibit

It didn’t have as many artifacts as we hoped for, but it was still pretty good.  They have other Native American exhibits worth a look, and it is well organized. As bonus, we got to even visit an art exhibit on the premises – all Native American art, of course.  In one of the first rooms we entered, I noticed the name on the painting as Ed Kabotie. I didn’t know he was an artist, too. We’ve seen him perform multiple times in Flagstaff with his reggae band.

4. Chiricahua National Monument

One of the highlights of the trip, Chiricahua National Monument is a beautiful place, and, being higher in the mountains, we finally felt cool enough to enjoy a few hikes.

Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road.  We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, with breathtaking views all around, then stopped at Massai point and hiked a little more.  It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, in the forest, for a short time as well.

Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in the mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day.  I was looking out for them, but I guess fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.

The Main Destination of This Road Trip: Kartchner Caverns

The highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our last destination. Save the best for last. Well, that and we could only get the reservations for Sunday.

I heard and read a lot about these caves.  Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget.  No, it wasn’t my first time in a cave.  We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, growing up around he Carpathians.  But this cave is truly magnificent.

Again, we left the best for last.  Our second tour was the Throne Room, with Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular, we would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns in this room that the cave’s first explorers called Xanadu.  Why did they call it that? Well, read the poem and you’ll guess.  Then definitely go see the room.

The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room.  I am not sure which one I like better overall.  As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch.  Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry.  Staying under ground without food for a long time, all they will think about is going to be food.  Though no matter if you’re hungry or not, the formations called bacon, indeed look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).

No photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside.  You can look on their website for some great ones.

 

 

 

 

How to Enjoy a Visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Visiting the South Rim

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.

Grand Canyon South Rim 1

The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.

Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.

Grand Canyon South Rim 2

Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.

Grand Canyon South Rim 3

If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.

The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People

The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.

The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.

The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.

The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.

The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.

The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.

For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.

Grand Canyon South Rim 4

You Are In a National Park 

Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such.  Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.

All is well if it ends well.  After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.

Sunset at Grand Canyon South Rim

My Visits Over the Years

The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.

Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.

But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail.  Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it.  Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.

Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.

But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.

The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.

This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it.  But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.

If You Go 

Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season.  It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays.  Try to walk in the morning, if possible.

No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail.  You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.

You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.

As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote.  That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim.  To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.

 

A Quick Stop at Montezuma Castle in Arizona

If you’ve ever heard of Montezuma, you’re wondering what in the world I am talking about.  Wasn’t he the legendary Aztec king? Didn’t the Aztecs live in today’s Mexico? You are right, Montezuma has never set foot in the land that is now Arizona.
 
Yet, there is a National Monument not far from Phoenix, Arizona, named after him.  Back in the 1860s its first visitors were miners and soldiers. Coming upon the “castle, they thought that Montezuma’s people built it, so they named it after him. People make mistakes. The name stuck, and now we have Montezuma Castle National Monument in the high deserts of Arizona.
Who Built Montezuma’s Castle?
Well, if it wasn’t Montezuma or his people, who built it? Long before the known Aztec king was born, indigenous people of the desert built this place in the surrounding rocks. In this particular spot, they built a five-story dwelling. The Spanish called these people Sinagua, meaning “without water”. They lived in a harsh environment that seemed to have no water.
 
Although the structure is not a castle in the traditional sense of the world, it is spectacular in its own right.  It housed most likely an entire village, between 600 and 1100 people.

Take a Walk in the Park

The walk in this particular National Park is short and paved all the way around. It takes you on a winding path in the shadows of sycamore threes.

A Glimpse of the Montezuma's Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path - photo by Győző Egyed
A Glimpse of the Montezuma’s Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path – photo by Győző Egyed
The cliff dwelling is its major attraction, but the walk itself is pleasant. In the winter months you can even enjoy the river that runs through the area, passed an ancient embankment.
 
Since it is off the highway I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, the park is an easy stop. It offers a welcome rest on the way to the pine-filled mountains of northern Arizona.  
 
For us, it is one of the easiest and more spectacular place to bring our out-of-state visitors. Even before seeing the Grand Canyon, we impress them with our beautiful state.

 

Aspens in Flagstaff. Autumn in Arizona.

Aspens are some of my favorite trees in the autumn. Living in the desert, surrounded by cacti, I don’t get to see autumn colors in my backyard.  However, not far from us we have some of the best sites for aspens, in the mountains around Flagstaff, Arizona.

Aspen in October. Snow Bowl
Aspen in October. Snow Bowl, Flagstaff

Our Yearly Pilgrimage

Every year since we live here, we make it a point to go up to Flagstaff during the first few weeks of October.  It is usually when the leaves peak.

We can enjoy fall in all its beauty, and it only takes a day trip. We usually watch the watching the “leaf-o-meter” to find the best time to go, then we take off for Kachina Peaks. About two hours later the bright yellow leaves of the aspens greet us.

Aspens in Flagstaff. Snow Bowl
Aspens and pines in Flagstaff. Snow Bowl

Pine trees, as well as aspens fill the mountains around Flagstaff. Lower, in town, we can spot a few maple trees, but the biggest attraction at this elevation are still the aspens.

Every year is a bit different, though.

Last year it rained, which made it even more wonderful for us. I know it sounds odd to most people, but for us desert dwellers, rain is a real treat, especially in October.

Aspens

I’ve always been fascinated by aspens. Their white and smooth bark, and their bright green/bright yellow in autumn leaves makes them unique among trees.

I grew up watching old Russian movies, which inevitably had a few scenes set in aspen forests. In fact, most of what I remember of all of those movies were different characters walking through aspen forests and talking. They could be lovers, politicians, good guys, villains, no matter what, they all ended up in one of those forests at some point.

Aspen forest.
Aspen forest.

Later on, when I visited Russia, I understood. We were driving through Belorussia (White Russia), among miles upon miles of aspen forests.  Aspens were on both sides of the road, and nothing else.  We seemed to be in the middle of this forest forever, looking through the while barks. I felt like I was in one of the movies I grew up watching. It was the most beautiful part of that country, my favorite moments there.

The Oldest Aspen Growth

Turns out that the oldest aspen colony is not even in Russia, but right in our back yard, in Utah. It has a name, Pando, and it’s around 80,000 years old. I learned about all that later.

Pando is an aspen clone colony in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. I haven’t been there yet, it is on my list of places to visit. Pando is over one hundred acres large and has about 47,000 individual aspens. But wha tis really mind-boggling is its age. Where was Earth 80,000 years ago? Younger clone colonies are still between at 5,000-10,000 years.

Interesting Facts I Learned About Aspens

A few years ago I sat through a ranger talk at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The topic was aspens. I learned a few amazing facts there, and later on I researched a bit more. These trees are even more amazing than I ever imagined.

So how is it possible for an aspen colony to be 80,000 years old? No other tree can be quite as old as that. Aspens, as young as they seem, might be ancient.  No, not the individual trees, it is their root system that is virtually immortal.

Aspens rarely grow from seeds.  Most of them sprout from their roots, much like a potato plant, and some even clone themselves.

The cloning is the most amazing part of this process. It means that new trees grow from the lateral roots of another tree. So even when an individual aspen dies (they don’t live more than about 150 years), the rest of the colony is still alive while new ones sprouts from the same root. The clones are identical, but differ from aspens that belong to another set of clones.

This explains the fact that aspens turn color at different rates at the same elevation, even in the same forest. We notice patches that turn color the same time, but others next to them, don’t. The patches with the same color are clones. Clones might be less than an acre or up to one hundred acres large.

Aspens Survive Forest Fires

Because of their ability to clone, aspens are able to survive forest fires. Not the individual trees, they burn just like the rest of them.

Did you ever notice that after a forest fire aspens are the first trees to grow? Their roots are safe from the fire underground, and as soon as the fire is over, new clones shoot up towards the sky from them.  Talk about survival of the species.

Locket Meadow, Our Old Favorite

Years ago we used to go up to a place called Locket Meadow to see the aspens. It is the best place to see large colonies of aspens. It could only be reached by a four-wheel drive, on a very narrow dirt road on the side of the mountain.  Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of Sunset Crater. Up in the wilderness, the trails go for miles among aspens and pines.

We no longer have an SUV, but that isn’t the main reason we changed the place we visit this time of the year. A huge forest fire destroyed much of the side of the mountain where the dirt road goes up and it is just too sad to drive through the devastation until we reach Locket Meadow. We haven’t been on the dirt roads that we used to love so much since. I’m guessing though that in time we will see more aspens on the side of the mountain where it used to be covered by pine trees. Then slowly the pines will grow back, as well. It will take a very long time, though.

Trails Around Snow Bowl

So now we just go up towards Snow Bowl and stop along the way. Our favorite place has become the area by the ski slope. There are a few aspens growths there, each with a different shade of yellow.

Aspens in Flagstaff
Aspens in Flagstaff. Across the meadow.

A few of the trails start at the parking lot. The aspen loop is an easy one-mile walk through a smaller aspen growth.

For a real treat we cross an open grassy area, and enjoy being in the middle of a larger aspen colony, with barely discernible trails crisscrossing it.

Fun to Run in an Aspen Growth
It’s fun to run in an aspen Growth.

 

Sometimes the leaves fall earlier on one side, covering the ground under our feet, while across the ski slope, they might be only starting to turn yellow.

Another Year, Another Autumn Trip

We always have a wonderful day up among the aspens, enjoying not only the beauty of these amazing trees in autumn but cooler weather, clouds and rain. I can’t wait to get back.

Aspens at Snow Bowl in the Rain
Aspens and pine trees and rain.

I feel very fortunate that we are able to do this as a family tradition.