Tag: desert

Backyard (Re)Discoveries: Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden

The Desert Botanical Garden

Unsurprisingly, having spent all this time at home, I’ve been getting a little stir-crazy. With Labor Day holiday rolling around, I wanted to get outside – something that wasn’t the usual walk around the neighborhood – but I was worried about heading anywhere that would be too crowded. After taking a look at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden’s website and feeling pretty confident about their social distancing measures, I decided to treat myself to a stroll in the Garden.

Since they’re limiting capacity, my partner and I reserved our time and paid for admission online. We chose the opening time slot because we figured it would be the coolest weather-wise (opting for the least sweaty mask experience since face coverings are REQUIRED for guests 6 and older) and better chance of fewer visitors.

We arrived at the Garden at 7 a.m. sharp (if you’re tardy to your time slot, you may be stuck waiting to see what capacity allows) and were rewarded with just barely a handful of other folks waiting to get in. It was a couple minutes to simply scan the tickets on our phones and then we basically had the run of the place!

We were able to leisurely walk about the Garden trails. I had the luxury of stopping whenever I wanted to take photos or when I was very patiently waiting for a butterfly nearby to flutter over and land on me (which never happened). Very rarely did we cross paths with other wandering guests, and each time we all politely gave each other room to pass.

Kudos to the Garden team who must have worked very hard (and continue to work very hard) to make this not only a safe experience for guests and staff, but also one where you have the time and space to enjoy the beautiful place that they have cultivated.

You can find full details about the new Desert Botanical Garden visitor guidelines here.

Stay safe and find joy where you can!

<3 Katie

Backyard Discoveries: The Tucson Rodeo

tucson rodeo

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros (or Celebration of the Cowboys) is a time-honored Tucson tradition. What started at just three days of events and competition all the way back in 1925, has grown to a nine-day celebration every February, with its main draw being the Tucson Rodeo.

tucson rodeo

La Fiesta is such a large part of Tucson culture that the schools close for two days just so Tucsonans can go to the rodeo! After hearing that, Nightborn Travel had to check it out.

tucson rodeo

Tips to Know Before You Go:

  • You’ll want to visit the Tucson Rodeo website – there you’ll find a detailed schedule of events and a way to purchase your tickets online.
  • We went on Saturday of the opening weekend and were able to get cheaper general admission tickets (meaning you could sit anywhere in the stands) – we think it was because these were only qualifying rodeo events. You could always call their box office to be sure.
  • Seats are basically open bleachers, meaning that it might get a little toasty if the weather is nice and sunny. Bring hats/sunglasses and sunscreen. We also saw some very smart and prepared people who brought blankets/cushions to sit on.
  • Basically any bag larger than a wallet or clutch isn’t allowed in, UNLESS it’s a clear bag. If you think they’re joking about bag size, they’re not, so you can find a full list of DOs and DON’Ts here.
  • In our humble opinion, you don’t need to know anything about rodeo sports to enjoy it, but it sure helps.
  • In addition to the rodeo, there’s the Tucson Rodeo Parade, which apparently the world’s longest non-motorized parade.

tucson rodeo

Gates at the rodeo don’t open until 11 a.m., so if you make it down to Tucson next year for La Fiesta and the rodeo, we humbly suggest that you give this hike at Tanque Verde Falls a try in the morning and then reward yourself with some tasty lunch at Guilin.

tucson rodeo

Keep Tucson weird!



A Hike Worth Hollering About: Tanque Verde Falls

It’s rare for us Nightborn Travel gals to pass up a chance to hike. On our recent trip down to the Ol’ Pueblo (or Tucson, as normal people would call it) we decided to venture out to Tanque Verde Canyon for our first time hiking Tanque Verde Falls.

View from the top of the trail – close to the trailhead.

This trail is located east of Tucson, just barely outside of the city – maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Take note that the paved road leading to the trailhead becomes a dirt road, so take that into consideration if your vehicle isn’t suited for dusty and slightly bumpy (but still driveable) terrain.

A comically angry-looking cactus near the creek bed. You’re welcome.

The hike itself is only about 2 miles long, but if you want to actually make it to the falls, there’s one BIG thing to take into consideration, and that’s water. Should you bring it? Yes. But also, has it rained lately? Because if it has, the creek along the trail will be running and while it will be beautiful, it will make your hike to the falls less of a hike and more of an… attempt.

Mmmm, sweet brown rainwater. (We did not drink this water, nor do we endorse drinking this water.)

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s exactly what happened to us. We made it about halfway up the trail before a mini-waterfall blocked us from going forward. We talked to a couple locals who told us that if the creek is dry or at least more of a trickle, you can scramble your way up the falls.

The mini-waterfall that hike-blocked us.

And here’s another thing to consider, the trail going down to the creek bed is relatively easy going, but from there on you’ll be encountering rock pile after rock pile and some times it will feel less like hiking and more like bouldering.

Rocks on rocks on rocks.

That being said, the area the trail is in is wonderful and the falls are said to be worth seeing, so there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be back. And, keeping what you’ve read in mind, we’ll hope you visit, too (if you’re not a big hiker, it’s a great little spot to find a rock along the creek and relax).

Happy hiking!


Camping for Five Weeks in Namibia Part Two: Etosha and the Namib

Etosha (c) Etosha National Park

Etosha (c) Etosha National Park

Besides Epupa, and having the opportunity to visit the Himba people, there are two other spots in Namibia that I want to talk about. The first is Etosha. While camping there it was possible to observe animals both from the car, and from watering hole observation points. The generally flat land of this national park makes it the perfect place to go out and view game, and the watering holes are utterly fascinating. I saw a lot of amazing interactions between different species in these locations, the likes of which I don’t think I ever could have seen in Kruger, South Africa. For instance, the most amusing thing I saw while there was just the sheer attitude of the elephants that came through for water. They would casually swat the other animals out of the way, and there was even a bull that had to follow a rhino around the water’s edge until the rhino gave up and left. The lions fared no better when the elephants were around, so it was pretty obvious who was boss out there. In terms of seeing animals, I think Etosha is at the top of my list of places to go.

Etosha retrieved from http://d2iaf7xwaf71rg.cloudfront.net/640/Etosha_Okaukeuj1__large.jpg


On the flip side, there were a few dangerous things that have happened in Etosha, so anyone visiting needs to make sure that they use their common sense. For instance, don’t fall asleep at the water holes; people have been attacked there in the past. It is fairly clear that those fences aren’t tall enough to keep curious lions out if there is a potential meal snoozing out in the open. Also, be careful when wandering around the camp at night, preferably go with a partner or stay close by. Etosha may be a national park, but it is still wild, and tourists should always be aware that just because they are on holiday, doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen if they aren’t careful. The same thing is a problem in Phoenix. Always respect nature.

Fish River Canyon (c) Bunnik Tours

Fish River Canyon (c) Bunnik Tours

On that note, my final favorite place in Namibia was the Namib-Naukluft Park, which is part of the Namib Desert, and a very daunting landscape. Again, not the sort of place I would mess around in, but definitely somewhere I would suggest visiting. When my class and I came here, we stayed with a woman who lived along the road through the park that goes towards Swakopmund. She knew the desert like the back of her hand, and owed camels besides. So, not only did I have the amazing opportunity to go camel riding in the desert, but my class and I got a backroads tour of the desert. I loved the stone canyons, and desolate stretches of land. It was threatening, in the way that I think any desert is threatening, but it was also so inspiring. Besides the landscape itself, the Namib-Naukluft is home to large, desert chameleons and the welwitchia plant, which is a unique, native plant that any nature enthusiast would enjoy seeing.

In the end, Namibia is full of beautiful places and wonderful people. It is a great country to visit for anyone interested in seeing some of Africa, and it is very safe compared to many other destinations on the continent.

Also, you can experience some super unique, extreme sports there! The Pink Backpack has the low-down on sandboarding in Swakopmund!

As always, feel free to comment below about your experiences in Namibia, and any suggestions for travelers going there, or questions if you are considering it.

Weekend in Tucson

Level of Experience: I lived in Tucson for four years; so, I definitely know a thing or two about this location! Feel free to ask me anything travelling related about this destination via comments. J

Trip Type: Domestic


First Stop: Guilin Healthy Chinese Restaurant


Type of Attraction: Dining

Website: http://guilinchineserestaurant.com/

The Catalina Mountains (c) ABR

The Catalina Mountains (c) ABR

Notes: Guilin was my go-to restaurant for Chinese food while living in Tucson, and they are an absolutely great deal for lunch, although their food isn’t a bad choice for dinner either. In terms of quality and taste, I think that Guilin squares up well with the other American-Chinese restaurants that I have been to. What really sets them apart, however, and lends itself to their claim of being “healthy” is that Guilin has a HUGE vegetarian menu. Almost anything that they have a meat option for, they have a veggie option for, and they have plenty of dishes that are veggie-only. My favorite dish there is actually their vegetable dumplings, but I have also thoroughly enjoyed several of their tofu dishes as well as classic meat dishes like Mongolian beef. If you go here for lunch, you can get soup, an egg roll, an entrée, and rice for about $5. So, not only can you get great food here, but it works really well for anyone on a budget.


Second Stop: Sabino Canyon – Bear Canyon’s Seven Falls Trail


Type of Attraction: Outdoor- Hiking and Tram Tours

Website: http://www.sabinocanyon.com/

Bear Canyon (c) ABR 2015

Bear Canyon (c) ABR 2015

Notes: Sabino Canyon is a great stop for anyone looking to enjoy some time outside, regardless of skill or activity level. There is a $5 fee to park at Sabino, and if you are willing to walk down the road to the trails, the rest of your experience will be free. People willing to spend a little more money, or needing some assistance exploring can buy a ticket to take the tram down Sabino or to Bear Canyon. The tram for Sabino is more expensive than Bear, but this tram goes further, makes several stops, and includes a guided tour during the ride. Sabino tends to be a little more busy than Bear Canyon for that reason, but anyone looking for a good hike should check out Bear. Sabino is more of a meandering adventure.

The main attraction of Bear Canyon is the Seven Falls Trail, which is about 2.5 miles long from the trailhead (which is 2 miles from the parking lot- total one way hike is 4.5 miles unless you take the tram). The Sabino website warns that the hike takes about three hours, which seems a bit long for a trail only 2.5 miles long, but the trail crosses the creek multiple times, and this can make the going slow at times, especially if the water is high and you have to pick your way across. The waterfalls at the end of the trail are lovely enough to serve as great motivation to get out on the trail, however, and even if you don’t make it to the end, the canyon itself is beautiful, especially when the creek is flowing.

Third Stop: Sentinel Peak/”A” Mountain

Type of Attraction: Outdoor- Outlooks and Views of the City, Picnicking

Tucson (c) ABR 2015

Tucson (c) ABR 2015

Notes: This trip was my first visit to this particular Tucson location, but it is one of my friend’s favorite spots to hang out and get some great views of the city. We really only drove up and took a few pictures, but the spot was popular with people coming to just unwind and take in the beauty of this little city. I can’t speak to any of the hikes on the mountain, but it does seem like a nice place to hang out and have a picnic. Lots of people park by the side of the outlook facing the city, but if you stop by and this looks too full, there is a parking lot further down the one-way road.


Fourth Stop: Zeman’s Too


Type of Attraction: Dining

Website: http://www.zemams.com/

Notes: I have never been to the original Zeman’s, but Zeman’s Too is probably the best Ethiopian that I have ever had. That being said, I have only been to one other place in Phoenix, but I go there fairly regularly, and I really enjoy Ethiopian. Zeman’s staff was really friendly, and they were pretty quick, although we ate a little early so it was just us and one other group. The atmosphere of the restaurant is pretty nice and airy as well, and it is built Tucson-style in an old house with decorative accents of Eithiopian origin. Most importantly, however, the food was great. I got the meat and veggie sampler- the veggies were all super flavorful, the meat was succulent, and the sauces were all smooth and delicious.

Danger, Nature, and Social Conflict in the Desert: Organ Pipe National Monument

Map of the Organ Pipe National Monument

In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Organ Pipe National Monument in order to protect its namesake, and the rugged Sonoran ecology of the Ajo, Puerto Blanco, and Sonoyta Mountains. Early on, the park struggled to balance its protective duties with the needs of miners and ranchers, both of which continued using the land there until the 1970s. These competing needs were eventually decided by the declaration of the United Nations in 1976 that designated the national monument as an International Biosphere Reserve, at which point alternative uses of the park ended (Reference).

The peace in Organ Pipe National Monument was short lived, however, as the park became the stage of drug and border conflicts between the United States and Mexico beginning in the mid-1990s. During this time, US policies concerning illegal immigration and drugs were tightened, and smuggling systems of varying complexity for both people and drugs have developed along the US-Mexican border. Popular border crossings along this border have experienced increasing security measures since this time, and these developments forced smugglers to look to the wilderness for ways in the United States. (See Back Again Cait’s No More Deaths post to learn more about the US border issues).


(c) AB Raschke

Organ Pipe became an increasingly frequented highway for these activities, as its borders were protected only by flimsy chain-linked fences, or concrete walls that could be destroyed by smugglers with relative ease. Impromptu roads began to crop up in the desert, trash and trails from trekking immigrants cracked the ancient bacterial crust of the Sonora, and reports of illegal activities grew in numbers, as did the armed conflicts between smugglers and the National Monument personnel.

This struggle culminated in the death of ranger Kris Eggle in 2002, when he was shot to death while pursuing drug cartel members through the park, attempting to protect his country from criminals that were already known to have murdered several victims in Mexico. At this time, the inadequacies of the Organ Pipe border were realized, and the dangerous nature of the situation that had developed there was finally grasped. Organ Pipe was dubbed “the most dangerous park in America,” and more than half of the National Monument was closed to visitors for their own safety. Plans were also drafted for the building a stronger border wall to replace the failing barriers, and the visitor center was renamed in honored of the park’s fallen ranger (Reference One; Reference Two.


(c) AB Raschke

As for me, I didn’t know about the real history of the park until I was thinking about visiting. I was aware, however, about its danger through stories that I heard from other Phoenicians. One in particular, involved a friend of a friend who was out hiking in the park, and just so happened to see smugglers dropping off contraband in a camouflaged, underground stash. According to the story, or the version that I remember, this particular friend of a friend ended up being pursued by the criminals, but I think that the general reputation of Organ Pipe may have created some embellishment in my mind.

At any rate, in 2014 the park reopened much of the area that had been closed after Eggle’s death, and I figured that this indicated that things had improved, and in fact, things had. The US government had expanded its border wall across the park’s boundary, and increased its patrols in the area. With this in mind, I thought it would be good to pair a trip down to Puerto Penasco with some exploration of Organ Pipe.


The Arch (c) AB Raschke

The most friendly, helpful rangers that I have ever met manned the visitor center here. There was also a great gift shop where I scored some prickly pear candy and mesquite flour (which made some great scones, by the way), and a nice little museum. Of course, the gift shop wasn’t the draw, and after learning about the lay of the park from the rangers, we decided to explore the Ajo Mountain Drive.

As its name suggests, this road runs right up to the Ajo Mountains, which had made for some of the most stunning landscapes on the drive from Phoenix to Rocky Point for the several years that I had been driving that way. I was giddy with the thought of seeing the mountains up close and hiking them. The drive didn’t disappoint, but I was surprised that the road was mostly unpaved. Luckily we were in a Honda Element, and the track was nice enough for us to travel it easily.


A hill covered in Organ pipes (c) AB Raschke

The desert here was breathtaking. I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life in both Phoenix and Tucson, and I have driven through much of the state. Even so, the rugged cliffs of the Ajo Mountains and the brilliant mix of Sonoran plants here seemed particularly perfect. We couldn’t help ourselves and kept stopping on the way to take pictures. About half way down the road we stopped at the Arch Canyon Trail, and hiked for about an hour. Much of the trail, as its name suggested, ran along the southern edge of a canyon in the shadow of a great stone arch that was formed along the side mountain cliffs. This path was just slightly inclined, and well maintained. Besides stopping to snap pictures of the arch all down the trail, we also spotted a centipede and plenty of beautiful desert birds among the varied plants that gathered along the path. Towards the end of the trail, where we turned around, the path twined its way of the stone side of the mountain and lost much of its demarcation. By the looks of it, it worked its way up to the arch, but we didn’t have the proper footwear to check it out.

At any rate, between the drive, the hike, and the friendly rangers, I wasn’t at all disappointed in our stop at the park, and it definitely felt like Organ Pipe had made good progress since being labeled the most dangerous park in the United States.

And if you have any questions about Organ Pipe or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on December 15th, about the Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Deigo, CA!

Puerto Penasco: A Beach Paradise in the Desert

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

About four hours from Phoenix and Tucson alike, and a little more than an hour’s drive past the Mexican border at Lukeville/Sonoyta sits the formerly small fishing town of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point to Americans and Ge’e Suidagi in Tohono O’odham). While it is currently a spring break/holiday hot spot for Arizonans looking to spend some time on the beach, Puerto Penasco’s major tourism development actually didn’t start until the 1990s. Initial development was slow, but by the 2000s the growth of the tourism industry and improvements in the city progressed at nearly a monthly rate. In some places, like the community of Las Conchas, condos starting at $100,000 were common- a mere 5 minute walk from the beach.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

I have been traveling to Puerto Penasco regularly for nearly a decade, and it is easy to see why people were eager to grab their slice of paradise here. The beaches, even at their busiest, were spacious compared to the overcrowded coasts that I have visited in California. Swimming here is easy- the water is warm and comfortable, the sand is soft, and when the tide is perfect there are large tracts of relatively shallow water to drift lazily through. At other times, the waves are good enough for body surfing or boogie bordering, and despite the generally sandy nature of the beach, there are also amazing tide pools here. Puerto Penasco’s beaches offer visitors a little bit of everything.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Besides the beaches, Puerto Penasco is home to CEDO, a vibrant shopping/dining hub in Old Port/Malecon, as well as some ecological treasures (and formerly a little aquarium). CEDO is also known as the Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceanos or the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans. CEDO has their base in Las Conchas, which has a small museum and shop for visitors. CEDO also runs a variety of ecotourism trips, which include paddling out at Morua Estuary, trips to Pinacate (a must see!) and the San Jorge Islands, among other things. For any one interested in the outdoors, CEDO is your go-to for Puerto Penasco.

Alternatively, Old Port or Malecon is a nice dose of culture, although this area is heavily influenced by tourism, and for any seasoned traveler, it is pretty easy to see. There is lots of shopping here, and while there are definitely some gems to be found, much of what you find here are the cookie cutter souvenirs that most tourists appear to be after. There are areas of Puerto Penasco with more authentic wares, of course, but Malecon is still a great place to visit. Standing on the edge of the main road in Old Port, you can look at some of the oldest parts of the town on one side, and the ocean,

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

rimmed by mountains, on the other. Many of the restaurants in this area are built to cash in on this view, with many of them having large, second-story patios (there is even one restaurant that was built over the water). There are also many places in this area to buy fresh seafood from Puerto Penasco’s own fishermen.

Besides dining downtown, I would highly suggest that anyone who visits Puerto Penasco stop and have lunch at Pollo Lucas. This is my favorite restaurant in the whole city, and while the dining is outside, beneath a thatched roof, it is the best Mexican food that I have ever had. Everyone that I have ever have brought here has loved it. It is simple, delicious, and affordable. I highly recommend it.

And if you have any questions about Puerto Penasco or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on November 15th; about the historic Tonto National Monument!

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

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