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Sonoran Desert Trip
April 2003

    Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
    Tonto National Bridge State Park
    Parker Canyon, Tonto National Forest


Day 1 
We arrive in Phoenix and head east out on the open road. This was our first visit to the Sonoran Desert. We spot our first saguaro standing tall in the open desert ... a loggerhead shrike showed promising birding.  On the side of the road, the tall ocotillo waved their bright red flowers proudly in the air.
We reach our first destination... Kofa NWR.   Turning down the dirt road, we begin our adventure to the great unknown. We bump along the gravelly road as it rocks and weaves and dips us over  the desolate land... creosote... cholla... saguaros... the road drops us into a wash, very loose gravel... rock walls guide us down our path, mesquite grows taller in the washes. Suddenly after a minimal amount of bird activity, small birds burst from the brush.  Fliting and flying around us, looks like a great place to camp.  A small steep off-shoot road leads us to the "Kofa Monument" a 6 foot high pile of rocks, somewhat appropriate I suppose. Our first camp site in the open Sonoran desert, rolling hills dotted  with plants around us.  Taller mountains stand out in the distant.
An evening walk down the wash... Ladderback Woodpeckers chuckle at us... desert cottontails flee... ghost flowers grow along the sides of the wash. Gambel's quail attempt to call...
The desert fades to darkness and we set up camp in the open bed of the truck...Vague worries of the creepy-crawlies fade as the stars make their appearance.  In the distance, a screech owl called in the still night. 
Day 2 
We awake early, before the sun peers over the distant mountains. The birds of course were awake long before then, the calls of the owl give way to flycatchers... quails... morning doves.  A small spring not far from our camp site is a magnet for small birds. 
A walk down the wash reveals a disappointing abundance of house finches, but all is not lost, a quick glimpse of bendire's thrasher, the bouncy flight of the gila woodpecker, the cooing of the white-winged dove and the frequent mating displays of costa hummingbirds quickly remind me that i didn't travel this far to see the everyday birds.
Midday, we pack up and continue trucking along the wash...  a steep rocky incline gives us pause.  The road looks worse ahead...  We turn back and try to convince ourselves that it was the best course of action
We bounce along through rocky washes and sections of "desert pavement." not much life out here... even the saguaros even seem to refuse this land. Sometimes it hard to tell where the road is.  We stop at a spring that has been altered for cattle... fenced off and piped into a trough... in the shallow trough are small tadpoles... no signs of the parents... well except for a mummified one...
A small flock of black tailed gnatcatchers bounce around gleaning in a short mesquite bush.
We continue trucking on and take a turn to Palm Canyon,  High noon... doesn't make hiking into the canyon all that appealing...  We head up toward the canyon.  A look through my binoculars reveal a palm up in the far reaches of the canyon... 
We return to the truck and continue on to search for a new camp site.  We truck along another 4WD road... teddy bear chollas seem to take over the land... perhaps on a parade or out for a picnic?
More saguaros... creosote... ocotillo the flat monotonous land doesn't look too promising for an exciting campsite... We approach McPearson pass... which might be a different environment? 
The vegetation changes in its subtle ways... it's amazing to see it change even though it still looks the same... if that makes sense?  but more importantly birds are about.  we find a satisfying spot and settle down...
fighter jets roar overhead from the Yuma military grounds... not perfect but it will do.  We hike up the road and into a wash... Costa's are everywhere! Northern mockingbirds Lesser Goldfinch and Lazuli bunting find this pass a great paradise to call home, as does a beautiful gopher snake that was probably 3 feet long...
We return to our truck for another night of starring up into the sky as we fall asleep in the bed of the truck, no owl to wake us... but a restless mockingbird occasionally reminds us of his presence.
Day 3
We wake before dawn again... the birds are a reliable alarm clock.  We hike up further along the road... a hermit warbler flits in and out of the mesquite... I wonder how quickly he'll be migrating through the desert...
We continue out of the "birdy" valley and into open desert again. Ocotillo wave their fire red flowers high above our heads.
We decide to head back to the car and head north hoping to dramatically change our scenery from desert to the alpine forests of the Mogollon Rim
We head out of Kofa only to stop at the sight of a basking rattlesnake in the middle of the road... we gently persuaded it to the side of the road. 
Heading onward, we notice a more dramatic change of scenery... different vegetation... yucca... barrel cactus... how many RV parks are in AZ anyway? 
We reach the alpine forests.  I’m quickly disappointed it so... trashed... trees aren't more than 20 feet high... no old growth?  We move back down toward the desert.
Moving back south toward the desert, we stop at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. We hike down the trail to go under the bridge and are taken aback by the natural wonder... a towering bridge... slowly eaten away by a small creek to form a bridge... The walls are washed and covered by lime... smoothed down the by the trickling water that spouts out from a creek up above.  We clamber along the boulders that fell long ago that were once apart of the bridge.  Every once and a while a strong breeze would splatter large cool water drops onto us.  The inside of the bridge is wide, an old ladder protrudes from a top
shelf of the cave... probably left from explorers long ago... small cracks and niches make perfect spots for nesting birds.  A pair of ravens found a perfect ledge to raise a family.  white-throated swifts build their mud houses on the underside of a bridge.  A pair of black phoebes call near the bridge, probably also taking advantage of the nesting possibilities here.
We try to take a few clumsy pictures with our 35mm, trying to capture the beauty and awe of the place.  We leave the state park, and aim for a campsite in the Tonto National Forest.  With map in hand we try to navigate the forest roads nearby.  Entering the forest is more of a challenge than we think... we weave through suburban sprawl trying to find the road into the forest... a sewage plant and sludge drying pit greets us at the entrance...
The forest is somewhat mountainous - compared to the desert.  Shrubs, barrel cactus, and prickly pear cover the land, but I become disappointed as the forest is obviously overused and trashed.  Mounds of trash litter what would have been a good campsite.  We continue to crawl along the bumpy roads in our little truck... to the end of the road on the edge of Mazatal wilderness area.  We find some goodness to the national forest.  The wilderness areas are protected from motorized vehicles, thus cutting out all those backroad driving people who just like going out to shoot up some beer cans or drop off a pile of trash. Unfortunately, the end of the road is very accessible and slightly ruined by human touch, but we make due as it grows late.
The trailhead that we park at has a stream flowing by with larger stands of trees grow close to the stream.  Fields of grass surround the trees.  Another car is parked near a large tree... perhaps a backpacker who went out to enjoy the wilderness and solitude... It quickly becomes late and we realize that this habitat is perfect for mosquitoes; we set up the tent... no sleep in the bed of the truck tonight.
A poorwill called nearby... despite having no wind over our heads or bugs buzzing by our heads or birds to keep us up, our sleep was still restless...
Day 4 
We awoke later in the morning that usual.  Being nestled among the mountains, we were not woken up by the morning light as in the past days.  However, the birds still called, we managed to sleep through them this time. I wandered the stream edge I was pleasantly surprised by the array of birds.  A brilliantly colored Vermilion Flycatcher cheerfully chattered away on the top of a small bare bush.  The sun highlighted its bright red breast, perhaps as bright as the ocotillo flowers. We wander up the stream poking along the side, trying to stay within the cooler shade of the trees.  Flashes of oriole further brightened our day.  Two types of orioles, bullock's and hooded honored our presence.  A Virginia Warbler flitted about in the trees, only pausing once and a while to give me a better look.  A couple of Common Black Hawks call from above, they are enjoying the ride on the thermals.
In the stream, there were fair size fish, 4 to 5 inches in length... they skirted along eating bugs and hid in the aquatic vegetation.  A turtle was slowly crawling in the stream among the vegetation.
In a field encircled by tall trees, we stopped for a snack while listening to the birds calling around us.  Another bright red bird - the Summer Tanager hopped from tree to tree.  We returned to the car and decided to move on to our final camp site.  After scanning the map for potential sites, we decided on Theodore Roosevelt Lake... we decided to drive there and see what we would see...
The drive out of Tonto national forest was uneventful... happy to see it go... although the wilderness area will leave a more lasting impression. As the desert scene returns, I happily welcome it.
We reached the lake and pulled into the first of one of the many designated camp sites along the lake... "please camp in designated campsites"... we pull in... There are tire track marks everywhere... where are the camp sites?  Like the other part of the national forest, people managed to trash an actual campsite.  It’s barren and open, not to mention close to the main road.  We drive over to the other side of the lake where there isn't a paved road will be more "wild" or at least less messed up... maybe they didn't screw that up yet... we hope...
We go to a campground on the other side. At the recently built boat ramp and campground, half of it is locked up... we enter a large empty parking lot... looks like it could hold 50+ cars with trailers... There's a large ramp going down toward a small dirt road below... could this be a boat ramp??? maybe this road goes out to the water we follow it for 1 or 2 miles.  We stop and get out to walk. There's a shallow marsh with brush growing around the side.  Numerous Clark’s Grebes call from behind the reeds... it doesn't look like this is a very good camping spot. We walk along the road and discover a turn around spot were people launch the boats.  A narrow path is carved into the reeds leading out toward deeper water.
The campground and boat launch was built in 1997.  Apparently the drought has left it useless.  The lake slowly dried up and people continued to drive down a dirt road to launch boats... their drive slowly got longer and longer... we looked at the campgrounds for a camping spot.  It wouldn't be too bad, certainly is deserted here, but it is still early in the day and we continue to look for a more "natural" spot. 
We aim for another spot on the lake: a small dirt road that dead ends at the lake.  It’s only about 20 miles of forest road from the boat launch to that spot... shouldn't take too long, right?  The drive is on switchback, rocky and bumpy and steep, some parts have drop offs on both sides.  It’s beautiful though.  Large saguaros tower over us...
We drive through gulches and washes, over mesas and through creeks.  It’s a slow go... by the time we reach the road, I forget where our original goal was and just was looking forward to getting off the road.  We pass the road we aim for, but I quickly remember and we make a u-turn to go down the road...
Down the small road we bump and scrap over large rocks, we crunch along until we decide to take a look around.  We hop out and quickly realize the lake water level has gone down over here too, there won't be any lake at the end of this road... slightly disappointed and exhausted from driving, we back out and continue on... On the map, we notice a road that dead ends at a spring... It's close by so we check it out.
Not expecting much, we were very surprised.  We park above a slope which looks over the opening of a canyon with water trickle from it.  Seems like a good place to stay. After settling down, we hike down the steep slope to the water.  The water was bleak at first... only drying algae clung to the rocks.  Occasional pools of water turned into a small trickle, which turned into a good size creek.  A pair of ravens nesting at the entrance of the canyon called excitedly as we entered the mouth of the canyon.  We were not sure how deep the canyon continued, but the stream was definitely interesting.  Sun bleached bones littered the side of the stream, as a cow probably fell to its death here.  I wondered if the ravens called excitedly because its next big meal just entered the canyon. 
The canyon walls were steep made of composite rock.  Small pockets and crevices along the side of the canyon were prefect houses and dens for animals.  We found small bones and barn owl feathers in one den.
The canyon slowly got narrower and some parts of the stream were deeper.  It was amazing how much water there was.  Birds buzzed around happily.  We came to a part were we could no longer walk on the bank of the canyon.  We roll up our pants and walk through... we weren't going to quit while it was getting more exciting. The water was cool... and fish scattered as we tromped through the water.
With wet shoes we continued on.  The blue sky contrasted the drab canyon walls... a couple saguaros managed to grow on the few flat spots along the canyon wall.  A call from down the canyon caught our attention... was it a goat?  sheep?  weird.  maybe it was a raven? 
After passing through another corridor too narrow to keep our feet dry, the canyon open up a little.  A striped skunk was startled by our sudden appearance.  It scuttled away as I tried to snap a couple of pictures of it.  We walked up the stream a little more and discovered a small mud nest plaster to the bottom of a large bolder.  Four small white eggs were nestled in there.
With the possibility of encountering the skunk and with dusk quickly approaching, we turned back down the canyon.  Exiting the canyon we hear the strange goat like call again.  perhaps it was a bird?  In our later trips, we found out it was a canyon tree frog.
The canyon was an awesome experience and I would have loved to explore the canyon given more time.  We spent the last night in the Sonoran desert sleeping under the stars in the bed of our truck. 
Day 5
Our travel day back.  We woke up and packed, we walked down the road a little and discovered that the canyon continues further than we thought.  We headed out onto the road back to Phoenix.  We passed through the desert for the last time.  There was a beautiful red canyon with large boulders and few shrubs holding onto the cracks.  It sadly dawned on me that I failed to see a roadrunner... should have packed the acme birdseed...



Kofa NWR
Mummified Frog
Kofa NWR
Gopher Snake
Kofa NWR
Kofa NWR
Kofa NWR

Bird List

Clark's Grebe - R
Turkey Vulture - K, M, R
Osprey - R
Red-tailed Hawk - K
Common Black Hawk - M, R
American Kestrel - K
Gambel's Quail - K, M, R
American Coot - R
Killdeer - R
Morning Dove - K, M, R
White-winged Dove - K, M
Western Screech Owl - K
Common Poorwill - M, R
White-throated Swift - K, B
Black-chinned Hummingbird - K
Costa's Hummingbird - K
Ladderback Woodpecker - K, M
Gila Woodpecker - K, R
Northern Flicker - K
Say's Phoebe - K
Black Phoebe - B
Dusky Flycatcher - K
Ash-throated Flycatcher - B, M
Vermilion Flycatcher - M
Western Kingbird - M, R
Cassin's Kingbird - M
Loggerhead Shrike - K
Bell's Vireo - K
Common Raven - K, B, M
Barn Swallow - K
Violet Green Swallow - M
Cliff Swallow - R
Verdin - K
Rock Wren - K, R
Cactus Wren - K, R
Canyon Wren - K, B, R
Bewick's Wren - M
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - K, R
Northern Mockingbird - K, R
Bendire's Thrasher - K
Curve-billed Thrasher - R
Phainopepela - K, M, R
Townsend's Warbler - K
Hermit Warbler - K
Yellow Warbler - M, R
McGuillavary's Warbler - K
Wilson's Warbler - K
Virginia Warbler - M
Lazuli Bunting - K
Western Tanager - K
Summer Tanager - M, R
Black-throated Sparrow - K, R
White-crowned Sparrow - R
Chipping Sparrow - M
Lark Sparrow - R
Scott's Oriole - K
Bullock's Oriole - M
Hooded Oriole - M
Red-winged Blackbird - R
Black-headed Cowbird - K
Black-headed Grosbeak - K
House Finch - K, M
Pine Siskin - K
Lesser Goldfinch (green-backed) - K, M (& black-backed)

K = Kofa NWR
B = Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
M = Matazal Wilderness (Tonto NF)
R = Roosevelt Lake/Parker Canyon (Tonto NF)

Other Critter List 

Fish sp. - M
Tadpoles/Toad sp. - K
Turtle sp. - M
Gopher Snake - K
Rattlesnake sp. - K
Desert Horned Lizard - K
Desert Cottontail - K, M
Black-tailed Jackrabbit - K
Bat sp. - K
Striped Skunk - R



Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
Tonto National Forest


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page updated: 3/18/08