Rural America ~ Desert SW Roadtrips: San Diego to Santa Fe   7 comments

Technicolor sunrise over the grinding pits (metates) at a native village site in Mine Wash, Anza Borrego, California.

Our photographic journey through rural America continues with the final segment of road-tripping the Desert Southwest.  I’m approaching these trips from a rural perspective because, despite profound change, much remains of the flavour of America in its halcyon days.  All you need to do is get off the beaten track, slow down and explore.

We start this long road-trip along the southern reaches of the Desert Southwest on the Pacific in San Diego.  And I can’t think of a better place to end but in the historic center of the Southwest, Santa Fe.  If you’re flying in and renting a vehicle, you might use LAX instead of San Diego.  And dropping off in Albuquerque rather than Santa Fe may make more sense depending on airfares and vehicle rental.

Mogollon Mountains, New Mexico.

San Diego to Tucson

Despite my aversion to using interstate freeways, save some time and start out by traveling east on I-8.  Give at least a little time to Anza Borrego, southern California’s premier desert state park.  Great little canyon hikes are found just off the freeway.  Or for more depth detour north into the park’s heart by turning left onto Hwy. 79 to the charming town of Julian.  Then drive east on Hwy. 78 into the Mojave Desert.  If you come this way an interesting spot to check out is Mine Wash, site of a former native village (see image at top).

Keep going east to El Centro, heart of the Imperial Valley.  This is where, courtesy of massive diversion of the Colorado River, America grows winter vegetables.  The agricultural area draws great numbers of day-workers from Mexico.  I’ve spent some time in this area working.  At the Mexicali border crossing I’ve stood in line with hundreds of Mexicans at 4 a.m.  (Don’t ask me why I was crossing back over the border at that hour!)  They were patiently waiting to cross to work the fields until sunset, then queuing up again to cross back into Mexico after dark.  I honestly don’t know how they can do this day after long, hot day.

Teddy bear cholla cactus blooms during summer monsoon rains in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Pass through the town of Yuma, where the temperature is routinely well above 100 deg. F in the summer.  Keep going east on the freeway into Arizona, then turn south at Gila Bend on Hwy. 85 toward Ajo.  This little town has some character, but is dominated to some degree by the presence of a nearby border control base.  The money that the U.S. has thrown into border control since 9/11 can be easily appreciated in this unpopulated desert region.  You’ll see plenty of their SUVs around, but don’t worry.  They are very good at distinguishing tourists from vehicles that warrant their suspicion, and will generally leave you alone.  Still, be ready to stop at checkpoints if you’re anywhere near the border.

The town of Ajo, Arizona has the feel of a small town in Mexico.

After a little walk around Ajo, with its Spanish Colonial feel, continue south into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  This is a wonderful desert park to explore, and the landscape photography is especially rewarding during the late summer monsoon season.  Sure it is hot this time of year, but the storms put on quite the light show.  I did a post on this park, so check it out for more detail.

Travel east again through the desert on Hwy. 86, passing beneath the telescopes of Kitt Peak.  This is one of the world’s premier observatories (it hosts the world’s largest solar telescope), and can be visited on tours or enjoyed at night when the public is invited to come at sunset and stay to peer at the stars through telescopes.  Continue east to Tucson, stopping at Saguaro National Park if you’ve never been there.  Also worth visiting is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, just west of town.

A drive through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Tucson to Silver City

Continuing east of Tucson you’ll have a decision to make.  If you’re in no hurry, and depending on how much time you want to devote to New Mexico, detour south to the interesting copper town of Bisbee, on the way visiting Tombstone, which is touristy but fun.

For superb hikes in mountains where Geronimo and his Apache brothers used to hole up where the U.S. Cavalry couldn’t find them, turn south off I-10 at Willcox and head up into the Chiricahua Mtns. on Bonita Canyon Drive.  For a stroll through pioneer history, stop at the Faraway picnic site and walk the mile or so through the old Faraway Ranch.  Further up this paved road, which ends at the visitor center, Echo Canyon to the Grotto is a short mile walk.

But if you make time for a longer hike, the amazing rock formations of Heart of Rocks Loop, accessible either from the visitor center or Echo Canyon, are where you should spend most of your energy.  It’s a 7+ miles round-trip trek.  Sadly I seem to have lost my photos of Heart of Rocks.  Time to go back!

In southern Arizona’s monsoon season frequent thunderstorms cause the desert valleys to green up.

Drive back down Bonita Canyon and turn south on Hwy. 42, Pinery Canyon Road.  This partly unpaved road takes you up and over the Chiricahuas, dropping east down a lovely canyon (image above) to a place called Paradise.  Along the way a campsite sits in open forest.  Once you leave the mountains you find yourself in a big desert valley.  There is a community near here based around ultralights and experimental aircraft.  It was established by an internet tycoon.  Also popular in this area is amateur astronomy.  The skies are some of the darkest and clearest on the continent, so stay up late and do some stargazing!

Summer monsoons cause wildflowers to bloom in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.

The desert garden landscape of the Chiricahua Mtns., AZ

Turn north on Portal Road and reach the freeway, where you’re not far from the New Mexico border.  Once in this unique state, which feels a bit like a developing country (or like its namesake to the south), set your GPS for Silver City.  The town, set at the base of the Mogollon Mountains (Mogoyon), is gateway to the rugged and remote Gila National Forest, the state’s largest.  The Gila includes America’s first wilderness area, of the same name, along with one named for the man who inspired the creation of wilderness areas, Aldo Leopold.

 

Whiskey or beer? New Mexico.

Silver City to Santa Fe

Silver City, New Mexico, a former mining town that now has a modern look, is still small enough to charm.  It’s home to those who’ve chosen to live set away from the rushed and busy world.   The history of this incredibly scenic area is interesting and multilayered.  About 45 miles north of town are the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  On the way make a quick stop at Pinos Altos, a little town whose mining past is not well-concealed beneath its mountain-rural present (image above).

Once you’re finished with the one-way trip to the cliff dwellings, travel west and north from Silver City on Hwy. 182.  Take the short side-trip to Mogollon, where the historic architecture and remnants of the mines are very well preserved and spectacularly situated.  From here you can continue on Hwy. 159 or 182.  Whichever route you take from here to Santa Fe, don’t be in a hurry.   If you take the time to wander, even stop and chat with a local or two, you may discover what makes rural New Mexico so unique.

The old mining boom town of Mogollon, New Mexico.

Gila Wilderness, New Mexico.

Here are a couple ideas for nature stops to anchor your travel from Silver City to Santa Fe.  If the time of year is right (November-January), consider visiting Bosque del Apache.  It’s a bird refuge near Socorro on I-25, host to huge wintering flocks.  Get there early in the pre-dawn hours – bundle up, it can be cold.  While you’ll have plenty of company in the form of bird photographers, the spectacle of tens of thousands of snow geese taking flight will raise your spirit right along with the noisy birds.  The area is also famous for Sandhill Cranes.

Breath the pristine air: El Malpais, New Mexico.

Another potential route north to Santa Fe takes in El Malpais, a geologically fascinating area of lava flows surrounded by sandstone rimrock.  Not many people seem to visit this vast and pristine area.  Acoma Pueblo, a native community dating from 1100, is a worthwhile stop as well, and is not far east of El Malpais; just an hour further east is Albuquerque.  On your way north to Santa Fe from there, make time to stop and contemplate the Rio Grande River, the lifeline of the region’s culture past and present (image below).

The Rio Grande flows through its canyon: central New Mexico.

Thanks so much for reading (I know, a lot of words!).  I so enjoyed taking you along on a few of my favorite roadtrips through the great Desert Southwest.  Happy shooting!

Bidding goodnight to another day: Salton Sea, California.

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7 responses to “Rural America ~ Desert SW Roadtrips: San Diego to Santa Fe

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  1. Your photos are REALLY inspiring!!!!

  2. Absolutely spectacular, from the grand landscapes to the delicate floral studies!

  3. Wonderful photo essay, great landscape compositions!

  4. I have to admit, Michael, you must have an amazing collection. You keep pulling out great shot after great shot after great shot…

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