Celebrating Railroad History at the Benson Visitor Center

Courtesy of Bob Nilson

Those who have explored small towns around Arizona may have noticed distinct themes among them. Benson, in Southern Arizona, is no exception, Bob Nilson says.

“Each town has something they’re noted for," says Nilson, a tourism supervisor for the town. "Tombstone is 'The Town Too Tough to Die.' Willcox is famous for its wine. Well, Benson, we’re famous for our railroad." He adds: "We’re only here because Southern Pacific built a town in 1888 when they put the tracks through."

That heritage is reflected at the Benson Visitor Center, where Nilson, described by one visitor as “the most delightful character," put together a G-scale locomotive setup that welcomes guests. "Benson has been a railroad hub for 155 years. I figured we needed to let people know we’re a railroad town,” he says. So Nilson wrote applied for a grant from the Union Pacific Railroad and proceeded to hang 96 feet of track inside the visitors center.

Nilson said he “kind of winged it” when it came to making his idea a reality. After the tracks were set, he wanted to add a control stand so visitors could feel like they were operating real train controls, but options online were expensive. Once the stand was complete — the build took about four months, using components donated by railroad companies — Nilson added a drone camera to the front of the train and added a receiver with a video screen to the control stand.

From there, his co-workers created displays in the corners of the tracks for added interest.

"The ladies I work with made little displays up in the corners, so when the train is coming around the corner, you’re watching it," he says. "They have a fairyland up in one of the corners now, there’s Tinkerbell and little gnomes and houses. The kids will actually slow the train down. Normally they like to go as fast as they can, but when they see all the little items in the corner, they slow down to see what’s up there.”

The team effort resulted in a fun experience for visitors of all ages. "I found there’s a lot of people that love trains," Nilson says. "I had a 91-year-old woman who came in on her birthday and we let her operate our train. We give everyone a certificate — it’s all free — and it says they’re a Benson train engineer.

The variety of visitors is one of the things Nilson says he loves most about his job. He gets to meet people and share Benson’s railroad history. He says the crowds at the visitors center used to be mostly older, but once the train was put in, more families started to visit with their kids. "They smile from ear to ear,” he says.

Nilson has always been a history buff but started researching the history of trains more so he could answer questions from visitors and local groups. "After [I did one panel], I had several of the historical groups have me come talk," he says. "Now they think I’m an expert, but not really. I’m just an enthusiast."

Nilson’s enthusiasm for Benson attractions doesn’t stop at trains. He is also known for his homemade Batmobile, which he built in honor of nearby Kartchner Caverns State Park, a haven for bats. He drives it for special occasions, such as parades, and to work a couple times a month. "I like my toys, the Batmobile, trains … whatever,” he says.

Nilson moved to Benson from San Diego nearly 30 years ago, and while it was a cultural shock, he says he's enjoyed the opportunities the town has offered.

"I really love my job," he says. "I’ve been here 15 years, and I get to meet people from all over the world. We have fun here."

To learn more about the Benson Visitor Center train and other town attractions, visit the town’s website.

— Kirsten Kraklio

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You Tell Us: Can't-Miss Attractions for Arizona Newcomers

Russ Glindmeier | Grand Canyon

Arizona is one of the nation's fastest-growing states in terms of population, which means plenty of people are moving here from other states. And a recently published list by the website Thrillist got us thinking about what those people should do once they get here.

The list is titled "Everything You Have to Do When You're New to Arizona," and it includes some attractions you might expect, along with a few you might not. Here's a handful of the website's "can't miss" choices:

  • Visit the Grand Canyon. This one probably goes without saying, as the Seventh Natural Wonder is Arizona's best-known destinaton.
  • Eat a pie at Pizzeria Bianco. There's no doubt this Phoenix restaurant makes some of the best pizza around — if you can snag a table. (If you can't, Tratto, another Chris Bianco creation, is right next door to Pizzeria Bianco's northern location.)
  • Grab a beer at Four Peaks. This brewpub in Tempe has since expanded to other parts of the Valley, and it topped a 2015 ranking (also on Thrillist) of the state's best breweries.
  • Hike Camelback Mountain. You certainly won't be alone on this Phoenix peak, even in the heat of summer. Make sure you're in good shape and carry plenty of water.

You can check out the full list at Thrillist's website. We'd venture a guess, though, that many native Arizonans might find this list lacking. So, you tell us: What would you suggest for new residents of the Grand Canyon State? Let us know in the comments.

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Exit Is Closed, but Seligman Is Open for Business

Courtesy of Arizona Department of Transportation

Access to one of Historic Route 66's most iconic towns will be limited for nearly a year while bridges along Interstate 40 are improved.

With that in mind, the Arizona Department of Transportation is working with the town of Seligman to ensure Northern Arizona travelers know they still can reach the Snow-Cap Drive-In and other attractions in town.

Exit 121, which takes drivers from I-40 to the west side of Seligman, closed earlier this month so decks on three bridges could be replaced. The bridges are between 40 and 50 years old, ADOT said in a news release, and the 10-month construction project will provide a smoother ride for Seligman visitors.

Exit 123, which leads to Seligman's east side, will remain open while the $4.3 million project is underway, ADOT said. From there, visitors can easily reach the Snow-Cap, Westside Lilo's Café and Angel Delgadillo's barbershop, along with other Seligman destinations. Signs on I-40 will direct travelers to Exit 123 during the project, ADOT said.

Seligman also makes an excellent starting point for a trip down Route 66 to Kingman. That scenic drive passes Grand Canyon Caverns, one of Arizona's best-known cave systems.

To learn more about the project, visit ADOT's projects website.

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Traveling Exhibit Explores Past, Present and Future of Water

Bisbee, whose water history is tied to the Lavender Pit Mine, is the first stop for a traveling exhibit about the importance of water. | Gloria Delia Reyes

A Smithsonian exhibit making its way around the state aims to help people understand water's environmental and cultural importance in Arizona and elsewhere.

Water/Ways, a project by the Smithsonian Museum on Main Street, is visiting 12 rural communities in Arizona from now until March 2020. Its first stop is at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, where it'll be until July 15. Future stops include Miami, Sierra Vista, Page and Lake Havasu City.

Each stop on the Water/Ways tour has a "complex and unique" water story, organizers said in a news release. In Bisbee, for example, copper smelters depleted the groundwater supply, causing wells to go dry. And Lake Havasu City is best known for its historic London Bridge, but Lake Havasu itself supplies billions of gallons of water per day to Arizona and California destinations.

All Water/Ways programs and events are free and open to the public, organizers said, and all ages are welcome. The project is supported by Arizona Humanities and Arizona State University.

For a complete list of Water/Ways events, visit the project's website.

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10 Years of Celebrating Art at Grand Canyon National Park

Amery Bohling paints during last year's Grand Canyon Celebration of Art. | Courtesy of Grand Canyon Association

The Grand Canyon has long been a source of inspiration for artists, and that connection is the focus of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, which marks its 10th installment this year.

The event, scheduled for September 8 through January 21, is a thrill not just for artists, but also for visitors, according to the Grand Canyon Association, the organizer of the event. "Art plays a critical role in the appreciation of our national parks, and this event helps to keep the artistic tradition part of the Grand Canyon experience," the GCA said in a news release.

The event's goal is to raise funds for a dedicated art venue at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Perhaps the best-known part of the annual celebration is Plein Air at Grand Canyon, which occurs September 8-15 at various South Rim locations. Visitors can watch participating artists paint "en plein air" (outside, on location), with their works then showcased at historic Kolb Studio in an exhibition and sale.

"Visitors will have the opportunity to watch the artists paint along the South Rim as they interpret the ever-shifting light and shadow," the GCA said.

Other events include a quick-draw event and live auction, on September 15 at Bright Angel Trailhead; a grand opening reception and sale, on September 16 at Kolb Studio; and the exhibition and sale, which runs until mid-January. Most events are free with park admission and open to the public.

For more information and updates on this year's Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, visit www.grandcanyon.org/coa.

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Iconic Sculpture Planned for Prescott Museum's Entrance

A 14-foot version of George Phippen's "Cowboy in a Storm" is shown during the reproduction process. | Courtesy of Phippen Museum

The entrance to a Prescott museum will soon feature a larger-than-life version of an iconic sculpture by the museum's namesake.

George Phippen's Cowboy in a Storm, which the Prescott artist was in the process of finishing when he died at age 50 in 1966, is being reproduced as a monument that will grace the entrance to the Phippen Museum, located along U.S. Route 89 north of Watson and Willow lakes.

The Phippen Museum said the 14-foot sculpture reflects "all of the trademarks of [Phippen's] extraordinary Western artwork: It's accurate, funny and, just like George, larger than life."

Several organizations, including the Prescott Area Art Trust and the city of Prescott, contributed to the project, the museum said in a news release. "Serving as a gateway to Granite Dells and Prescott, and a heartfelt welcome to visitors from far and wide, this permanent tribute to George Phippen is most appropriate and well deserved," it added.

The sculpture will be unveiled at downtown Prescott's Courthouse Square at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 26, during the Phippen Museum's 44th Annual Western Art Show and Sale, before being installed at the roundabout at the museum's entrance. The public is encouraged to attend the unveiling, the museum said.

For more information, call the museum at 928-778-1385 or visit www.phippenartmuseum.org.

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One Week Away: Grand Canyon's North Rim Set to Open

Dustin George | Grand Canyon North Rim

As temperatures rise in Arizona, visitors and residents are looking for ways to escape the heat. And there's no better place to do that than the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, whose operating season begins a week from today — Tuesday, May 15.

For most of the state, the North Rim is much less accessible than the South Rim, which is open year-round. But that's part of its appeal, especialy for those looking for a bit of solitude at the Seventh Natural Wonder. Only about 10 percent of Grand Canyon visitors see the gorge from the North Rim, according to National Park Service statistics.

All Park Service facilities, including the North Rim visitors center and the Grand Canyon Association bookstore, will open at 8 a.m. May 15. Grand Canyon Lodge, the historic hotel and restaurant perched on the rim, will open for lunch and dinner that day.

Visitors who make the trek up north can enjoy numerous hiking opportunities — including the North Kaibab Trail, which runs all the way to the bottom of the Canyon, and the Nankoweap Trail, which was featured in the May issue of Arizona Highways. Those preferring to stay in the car can make the easy drive to Cape Royal, one of the North Rim's most stunning viewpoints, or travel a rugged dirt road to Point Sublime farther west. (For more ideas, check out our story from last year's North Rim opening.)

Besides Grand Canyon Lodge (where rooms and cabins tend to get booked up quickly), lodging possibilities in the area include Kaibab Lodge, just north of the park entrance, and Jacob Lake Inn, farther north.

Visitors to either rim of Grand Canyon National Park should be advised that entrance fees will increase June 1 to $35 per vehicle and $25 per motorcycle. With that in mind, consider purchasing an annual National Park Service pass, which provides entry for one vehicle (or four adults) at any Park Service site for $80 per year.

The North Rim's operating season runs through October 15. For more information about Grand Canyon National Park, visit the park's website.

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Kartchner Caverns State Park Adds New Hiking Trail

Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park

One of Arizona's most distinctive state parks is celebrating the opening of a new hiking trail, along with an existing trail's renovation, this weekend.

Kartchner Caverns State Park, south of Benson in Southeastern Arizona, will hold a grand opening event for the Ocotillo Trail on Sunday, April 22, at 10 a.m. Following the grand opening, there will be a guided hike for the public at 10:30 a.m. The cost of the event is the park entrace fee of $7 per vehicle.

Kartchner Caverns is best known for its namesake caves, but it also features multiple hiking trails above ground. The park said in a news release that the Ocotillo Trail was constructed in response to visitor requests for additional and more challenging hiking trails. All trail work was completed with hand tools by Arizona Conservation Corps trail crew and park staff. The work was funded by a federal grant, the park said.

The new trail is 1.75 miles long and considered challenging. Those hiking it should wear appropriate shoes and clothing, and take plenty of water. Also being celebrated Sunday is the renovation of the park's existing Foothills Loop Trail, a moderate 2.5-mile route.

Guided tours of the caves will be available for an additional fee during the grand opening, but those seeking tours should make advance reservations by visiting the park's website. And if you stay until evening to do some stargazing, keep in mind that the park has been recognized for its dark skies.

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Tonto Natural Bridge State Park Hosts Open House

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park | Ray Minnick

An open house and brunch this month at one of Arizona's most unique sites will feature natural wonder, Old West charm and a delicious breakfast.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, northwest of Payson on State Route 87, is hosting the event Sunday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The park is best known for its namesake, a 400-foot-long, 183-foot-high natural travertine bridge that's believed to be the largest such bridge in the world.

But the "Brunch at the Bridge" event will focus on the park's Goodfellow Lodge, which was built in the 1920s. It now features 10 guest rooms and is available for overnight stays. Brunch attendees can take tours of the lodge, and they'll also get updates on planned trails and development at the park.

The park's new manager, Dan Roddy, also will be introduced at the event. "This park is a hidden gem, and we want to show off the amazing assets you can find just minutes away from the town of Payson," Roddy said in a news release.

The cost of the event is $15, which includes brunch — scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, juice, coffee and more — and an all-day park pass. For more information, visit the park's website. And if you make the trip, keep in mind there are plenty of other things to do on the Mogollon Rim while you're there.

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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Up for National Award

An owl takes flight in front of an audience at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. | Steve Wolfe

A Tucson-area facility that focuses on Sonoran Desert flora and fauna is one of 20 finalists for an award chosen by USA Today readers.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is competing for the title of Best Zoo in the newspaper's 10 Best Reader's Choice Awards. Voting continues online through Monday, April 30; the 10 winning zoos will be announced Friday, May 4.

The museum was founded in 1952, and today, it features nearly 5,000 living animals and nearly 250 species. There also are more than 50,000 plant specimens and nearly 17,000 mineral and fossil specimens. The facility is perhaps best known for its live animal demonstrations, which include Raptor Free Flight shows every day from mid-October through mid-April.

The Desert Museum was the only Arizona zoo to make the list of finalists, but other competing zoos in the region include the Denver Zoo; the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, in Palm Desert, California; and the San Diego Zoo.

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