McNeal

Every year we make a late winter trip down to McNeal in southeastern Arizona to see the Sandhill Cranes. These 4-foot tall birds with a 7-foot wingspan, along with many other birds, use the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area as their winter migration stop.

The winter weather has been typical this year with day-long rains and snow in the higher elevations across Arizona. A little weather was predicted for the trip, but we decided to hit the road anyway.

We drove east through Globe to Safford before dropping south through Wilcox. The spring orange and red desert poppies were in bloom across the San Carlos Indian Reservation hillsides. Blue lupins lined the roads as we made our way towards Safford. We did stop for lunch in the small farming community of Thatcher at Kainoa’s Hawaiian Grill. The food there is always good, so we always stop there. Pretty simple.

We got to Whitewater Draw on a beautiful evening and squeezed into a camp spot near the old hay barn.

Pam and I found a Great Horned Owl couple in the hay barn. One of the owls was nearly hidden in the huge nest in the rafters, while the other kept watch from his rafter perch.

The Sandhill Cranes has just returned for the evening from feeding in the farm fields to the north when we arrived. There were still thousands around the ponds.

A group of Snow Geese were also calling the area home as they will soon begin their migration north. You can tell the Snow Goose from the Ross Goose by the black lips of the Snow Goose. Who knew a goose had lips?

The Arizona Wildlife Game and Fish Department purchased the area some time ago and fill the ponds with water from a local well. The ponds were lower than usual, but the waterfowl appeared to like this reduced level because it made bottom feeding a little easier. Three female, Northern Shovelers were enjoying shallow water.

These two Long-Billed Dowitchers were also enjoying the reduced water level and larger feeding areas that it produced. While they spend the winter along the Arizona-Mexico border, soon they will fly to their summer home at the northern shores of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

Once night approached, the owls took to the skies for hunting. The great horned owl perched on a pole until it spotted something in the grass and became a high-speed, silent glider about to eat. There was also a bat house in the hay barn. As night fell you could see the hundreds of bats take flight to feed on the local insect population.

The sunset turned beautiful colors of orange and gold as we sat outside and enjoyed the evening.

A little rain was predicted for the next morning, and we heard it start in the middle of the night. It was still raining in the morning and the ground was fully saturated. Also, the dirt in this region turns to a slick clay that makes walking and driving a little more interesting.

The folks camped next to use were up and gone at daylight. We didn’t need to be anywhere until noon, so we had a nice relaxing morning in the rain. I even walked out to see the birds again and realized that the ground was just not muddy, but a little slick getting around.

We packed up and left the site and had to travel two miles by dirt road to get back to pavement. I put the rig into 4-wheel high and even then, noticed that the back of the rig was not always directly behind us. We turned north out of the Whitewater Draw area and could see a couple of RVs and fifth-wheels stopped in the road about a half a mile to the south. It soon became obvious that they were not stopped as much as stuck on the road as we fish-tailed north on the road in 4-wheel.

We turned onto the road we came in on and about ¾ of a mile on that road was the couple that was camped in front of us the night before. They had made it 1 & ¾ miles in the clay muck but came up ¼ mile short of the pavement. I stopped a little distance away to leave some recovery options open. The road was luckily flat in the middle, but I didn’t want to get too close to the side and slide into the ditch.

I walked over to discuss options since the Roamer has a front and rear winch. I figured I could winch him back towards us to get him aligned with the road and the get in front of him and winch him to the pavement. The Ontario couple we glad to see us, but they had already contacted AAA and a tow truck was on its way.

Our tire treads were big enough and the vehicle heavy enough that we pushed down the 2 inches or so to the clay surface of the road. You can see their tread mark in front of our back tire, where they were not even pushing any mud away and eventually got stuck. Even our rig was tough to keep aligned with the road as the picture shows.

Unfortunately, they had been sitting there for hours (since daybreak). No regular tow truck from AAA would agree to get them out because they probably couldn’t. AAA called in a bigger tow truck from Douglas, about 50 miles away, to do the job for $425. They arrived a few minutes after we did. The tow truck had nice big rear dual wheels so it left a nice path for us to follow.

The tow truck came with a helper in a 4-wheel drive truck who was driving to all the folks stuck on these backroads and getting them into the cue. The tow team must have made some good money that afternoon. The local sheriff stopped by and said as soon as we cleared the area the roads were being shut down.

Luckily, we did make it out because we were heading to a wine tasting even just south of Wilcox, AZ at the Bodega Pierce winery. Not only is this area known for the sandhill cranes, but it is quickly becoming one of the better wine regions in the state. Twice a year they hold a tasting event to release new wines, in Cottonwood, AZ, near Sedona, and Wilcox, AZ.

We dried off, I shed a layer of mud off my boots and we sat down for a nice afternoon of wine tasting. After a few hours we left with a new selection of wines to compliment future dinners at our house.

We then made our way to Chiricahua National Monument to camp for a couple days. While the rain had finally stopped, the clouds were still very low as we climbed up to roughly 5,000 feet into the Chiricahuas.

We camped at the Bonita Springs campground within the NM. The campground was very nice. The camp sites were big and there was a small stream running though the campground.

We caught some good birds in the campground too. This Acorn Woodpecker was busy digging for bugs and making holes to put acorns into in a tree next to our site. There were also large Mexican Jays flying around the campground but they moved from branch to branch so quickly I never got a good picture of one.

When we have hiked the Chiricahuas in the past, we have driven to the top and hiked down into the canyons and then back up to the vehicle. This time we decided to hike from the campsite up and then back down on the way home. We found out later that the rains had caused some rockslides so the road to the top was blocked most of the day. I did see a backhoe with a big front bucket drive up the road towards the top as we were getting ready to hike. I guess my hunch was right.

We hiked up along the stream into the canyons. The rhyolite rock pinnacles that surround you along the hike are eroded volcanic ash from a volcano eruption that occurred just south of this area millions of years ago.

Here is Pam on one of the few sections of rock steps as we approached the Heart of Rocks loop.

The Balancing Rock is an interesting site.

We made our way back down to the campground after about a 7-mile hike. Because our spot was nicely shaded, our solar panels didn’t get a chance to recharge our camper battery during the beautifully sunny day. I had to let the rig idle for awhile to generate enough juice to take a hot shower, make dinner and have a cup of good coffee in the morning.

We headed home the next morning to finish up a very short, but nice trip.

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