Walter and Sara Let the good times roll
We spent Friday and Saturday nights (Jan 30th and 31st) at De Anza RV Resort in Amada just south of Green Valley and north of Tubac AZ. We did laundry and grocery shopping so we could set off into the wilds for a few more days. As we went to get on the freeway to go south towards Nogales on Sunday February 1st, we chanced to see this Border Patrol tower parked next to the freeway. It was unmanned but you get the picture. There are lots of these scattered across the border regions looking for smugglers and undocumented immigrants.

Border Patrol Tower on I-19 Arizona

We got off the freeway to drive east towards Highway 82 but encountered a parked train on the tracks with traffic backed up for blocks. We waited for a while but nothing happened so we headed south on a frontage road and Carmine the Garmin managed to get us through the northern sections of Nogales and over to Highway 82. Less than 20 miles north you come to the turn off for Patagonia Lake State Park. The road goes through a hilly area with houses on 5 to 10 acre lots and finally arrives at the lake.

We arrived before noon and had the pick of the spots that folks were vacating on after staying the weekend. We got a nice spot with a partial view of the lake (there are lots of dormant mesquite trees along the banks of the lake so you have to look through them to see the lake). They have water and electricity here (no sewer but they do have a dump station) all for $25 a night.

We set up camp and then drove over to the Visitor’s Center to learn about trails and birds in the area. This is a favorite birding area and folks regularly see the Elegant Trogan, a fancy parrot-like bird from Mexico. After lunch we took the birding trail out along the edge of the lake and into the thickets.

This is Patagonia Lake looking eastward towards Sonoita Creek (the source of the water for the reservoir). It was pretty muddy because there had been heavy rains and thus lots of muddy runoff the last few days. The folks at the visitor’s center said the lake was higher than they’d ever seen it.

Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

We spied a Great Blue Heron sitting in the reeds along the edge of the lake. He spent part of the time we were watching cleaning his feathers so I was glad I managed to get a decent shot of him.

Great Blue Heron Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

They had this nifty display of the tracks of their most common wildlife. There was a lot of mud since it had rained really hard both Friday and Saturday so we checked this out pretty carefully hoping to see some interesting tracks. Instead our wildlife sighting consisted of some cattle that were grazing in the area. Ah well.

wildlife footprints at Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

There were big agave growing along the hillside.

Agave Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

And some jumbo yucca too.

yucca at Patagonia State Park AZ

In the ponds along the shore we saw a number of Northern Shovelers.

Northern Shoveler Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

We gingerly made our way along the trail trying to stay out of the mud but still stay on the trail. We didn’t hit anything really bad but there were a couple of puddles that helped to wash the mud off of our shoes. Sonoita Creek was at full flood. It was flowing so high it had washed out the small bridges that are normally used to go further around the lake.

Sonoita Creek Patagonia State Park AZ

There was still plenty of trail and we enjoyed our walk.

On the way back we stopped to rest sitting on some logs and this Cinnamon Teal duckling came paddling into the still inlet where I was sitting.

Cinnamon teal duckly Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

Further along I saw a Cinnamon Teal adult

Cinnamon Teal Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

When we got back to the start of the trail the Great Blue Heron was still sitting in amongst the reeds. He’d moved maybe 2 feet while we were gone but now he had his neck nicely stretched out and was no longer preening his feathers.

Great Blue Heron Patagonia Lake SP

Monday we decided to just have a quiet day. We ended up spending some time talking to our next door neighbors who were from Colorado and then took a little walk along the trail that follows the edge of the lake.

Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

We followed the shoreline westward spying ducks (and more cattle) and listening to the coots nasal noises out on the water.

Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

The trail took us into a little inlet and we saw a small group of mallards taking baths.

Mallards taking bath in Patagonia Lake State Park

Here’s the little inlet where we spied the ducks.

Inlet Patagonia Lake State Park AZ

We stopped at the Visitor’s Center again and asked about the trails out in the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area. They said that they didn’t recommend going out there since most of it was flooded. There were places you had to cross through hip deep water and no place that you could go without it being at least calf deep. Clearly it was WET.

On our way back we passed this lovely Little Free Library. The folks who own it are from Austin Texas originally (they’re full timers now) and they said that it was the first mobile Little Free Library when they first got it. I’d read about them and seen photos of them but had never seen one in the flesh before. Walter took a magazine to read and then next day I donated one of our used magazines to it.  

Little Free Library at Patagonia Lake SP

Late that afternoon not long before sunset the nearly full moon rose over the hills.

Moonrise at sunset Patagonia Lake SP

I was excited to get a photo where you could actually see the variation on the surface of the moon!

Moon Patagonia State Park

Tuesday February 3rd we packed up and drove a big 30 miles north on Highway 82 to Las Cienagas National Conservation Area, a BLM-run grassland set aside for Sonoran Antelope and the Chiracahua Leopard Frogs. All the roads here are dirt but they were working on the main ones so they were in really great shape. We had been a little concerned about driving on dirt roads after so much rain but the road out to the free camping area were fine—just a few soft sandy spots but nothing serious.

There are about 8 semi-designated free campsites in the Cieneguita Camp Area. We drove through the whole area and ended up with this great pull-through site complete with a little fire circle.   

Genevieve Airstreat at Cieneguita Camp Area AZ

The grassland is in a great bowl surrounded by hills and mountains. There are 44,000 acres here of mixed grassland and mesquite thickets. The thing that made it so nice was the great view of the hills and the lovely yellow grasses waving in the breeze. There were these cool folded hills to the south.

Hills south of Las Cienagas NCA

And these gently rolling hills to the north.

Hills north of Las Cienagas NCA

The eastern hills and the Whetstone Mountains lit nicely at sunset.

Whetstone Mountains at sunset

And we had just enough clouds to make for a lovely sunset.

Sunset Las Cienegas NCA

After all the color was gone from the sky we saw a sliver of light appear over the top of the Whetstone Mountains. I ran out and took a series of photos of the full moon as it rose into the darkening sky.    

Moonrise over Whetstone Mts

As the amount of light available changed the automatic settings on the camera produced a really different affect.

Moonrise over the Whetstone Mts

This is a bit of a close up. The moon just seemed to get bigger and bigger as it rose in the sky.

Moonrise over Whetstone Mts

The next morning I took this photo of the Whetstones in the morning light.

Eastern view morning Las Cienegas NCA

Folks have been ranching here nearly 150 years and there are still 4 ranches running cattle in the Conservation Area. The Empire Ranch was the original ranch here and the BLM bought it in 1988. We looked at our maps and decided that the outing for the day should be to drive back to the Empire Ranch Headquarters which is set up as a self guided museum telling the history of ranching and cowboys in the area.

The original ranch house was built in 1871 and that building is still standing. It was expanded in 1878 and in 1886 and again in 1900.

This weathered door is part of the original section of Empire Ranch house.    

Door at Empire Ranch Las Cienegas NCA

We spent some time going from room to room reading about the ranch and the history of cowboys in the area. Then I went back out and took some photos of the old windmill and corrals.

Empire Ranch corral Las Cienegas NCA

And the barn and corrals.

Empire Ranch corral Las Cienegas NCA

In addition to the old ranch house they have a short Heritage Discovery Trail with this lovely gate.

Empire Ranch Heritage Discovery Trail Gate

This old adobe was built in about 1910 for ranch employees.

Empire Ranch old adobe

The doors were wonderfully aged.

Old adobe Empire Ranch Las Cienegas NCA

The adobe bricks seem to have been fired but the mortar looks like raw adobe.

Adobe bricks and mortar Empire Ranch

The trail leads along Empire Gulch and has huge Fremont Cottonwoods. There was also a facility to raise Chiracahua Leopard Frogs. They had a sign up that said they had released thousands of them in the fall.

Fremont Cottonwood Empire Gulch Las Cienegas NCA

We followed the loop trail through the cottonwoods and then decided that we’d take a drive out on Oak Tree Canyon Road and see what we could see. It got narrower and muddier and we finally hit a HUGE mud puddle. We both could imagine getting stuck in that lovely gooey adobe mud and were not interested in that particular experience. So with a sign of relief, we turned around. The energy out this way was very strange and I was glad to go back towards camp where it was nice and light and airy.

Oak Canyon Rd mud puddle

After lunch we took a bit of a walk along the road out through Cieneguita Camp area. We followed the road as it went through a gate into no doubt one of the cattle ranches. The mesquite has slowly been taking over the grasslands and the BLM has been working to try to remove it because it reduces the habitat for the antelope. My suspicion is that over grazing causes bare ground that invites the mesquite to spread.

Las Cienegas NCA

As we walked back to the rig the afternoon sun cast great shadows on the road.

Late afternoon shadows

We had no sunset that night to speak of. Instead, the sky everywhere but the west turned a nice light pink that slowly faded to lavender as the sun set. On Thursday February 5th we drove a big 30 miles to the Quail Ridge RV Resort in the northern section of Huachuca City AZ. This place only charges $10 a night for a full hook up site with Good Sam or Passport America. They were nearly full because there’s a big 3-day Cowboy Poetry Festival starting on Friday night in Sierra Vista, the next town south of here. Since we were willing to take a back in site they had room for us—whew! Our spot backed into a lovely big hedge full of birds. There were lots of sparrows but also we spied a female Northern Cardinal--which turns out to be instead a male Pyrrhuloxia.

Pyrrhuloxia Huachuca City AZ

And a Gambel’s Quail.

Gambel's Quail Huachua City AZ

We camped here for 5 days while we visited places like Tombstone, Bisbey and a number of wildlife areas that are supposed to have lots of birds.

We didn’t get to see the Super Bowl but we did have a hot spot signal so we got to monitor the game as it went on. Down to the wire we hung onto the edges of our seats. Ah well. It will keep them hungry for another year.