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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Fountain Hills Plans Festival to Celebrate Dark-Sky Honor

A full moon illuminates the night sky over the Fountain Hills fountain. | Rob Mains / Courtesy of International Dark-Sky Association

Earlier this year, Fountain Hills became the 17th place in the world to be designated an International Dark Sky Community — the result of two years of work from community members. This month, to celebrate the honor, the town is hosting the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Festival on Saturday, April 21.

Joe Bill, a Fountain Hills resident and the co-chair of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association, says his interest in dark-sky communities started a few years ago, when his wife, Nancy, noticed the bright LED lights that were hitting the market. “She read about it, and it’s one of the factors contributing to light pollution. There are many forms of pollution: water pollution, noise pollution, and there’s such a thing as light pollution,” Bill says. “She learned about the International Dark-Sky Association — which is actually based in Tucson — and we started reading about how you can get a community designated as a dark-sky community.”

The Bills started explaining their idea to other Fountain Hills residents, including Ted Blank, co-founder of the Fountain Hills Astronomy Club, who was immediately on board. But the path to the designation required a lot of steps, including getting Fountain Hills' outdoor lighting ordinance changed so it complied with IDA requirements. “After lots of questions and lots of time at the podium, we got unanimous support from our Town Council,” Bill says.

Next came a 100-plus-page application that included letters of support from town organizations. Finally, on January 8, the group received the news: Fountain Hills was officially designated the world's 17th International Dark Sky Community. “After that much effort, it was a high for us, really," Bill says. "We were ecstatic, and it was fun to pass the news on to key leaders in the community that we had achieved our goal. That led to: ‘OK, that’s a big enough achievement that we should plan a festival,’ so that’s what we’re working on now."

The April 21 Dark Sky Festival is scheduled for 3 to 10 p.m. It'll include nationally known speakers and filmmakers, plus a star party — where amateur astronomists from across the Valley set up telescopes for visitors to use. Also planned are art and photography displays, food trucks and a beer garden.

While the star party is happening, astronomers will conduct laser tours of the night skies. “They’ll be talking about both the mythology and the science of the constellations, pointing out those features in the sky with the lasers and talking about what you’re looking at, pointing at planets, galaxies, et cetera," Bill says. "It’s going to be an educational experience for anyone interested in what’s up there.”

The town's museum, library and community garden will also host activities during the festival. The museum will offer live animal displays with owls, raptors and snakes, as well as family discovery stations with crafts. At the community garden, visitors can take tours from master gardeners.

The designation has been positive for the town, Bill says: "It really put Fountain Hills on the map." And even though the town is celebrating its distinction this month, that doesn't mean the association is done working. “We feel that Fountain Hills — on the edge of a metropolitan area, but virtually a dark-sky oasis — has the potential to develop some astrotourism," Bill says. "We think maybe someday we could have a public observatory in town, which would really be a neat experience.”

— Kirsten Kraklio

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Jerome Home Tour Will Feature Katie Lee's House

Katie Lee's iconic home is a highlight of this year's Jerome Historic Home and Building Tour. | Courtesy of Jerome Chamber of Commerce

An annual tour of the old mining town of Jerome's historic structures includes a special addition this year: the home of one of the town's most legendary residents.

Conservationist, author and musician Katie Lee, who died late last year at age 98, lived in Jerome for much of her life. She was a frequent writer of essays, and subject of stories and essays, in Arizona Highways. Her home there will be featured next month in the 53rd annual Jerome Historic Home and Building Tour, which is May 19 and 20 and is hosted by the Jerome Chamber of Commerce.

The two- to four-hour event's first tour begins at 9 a.m. each day, and the last tickets are sold at 3 p.m. each day. A van will take participants to most locations, but a few are within walking distance of each other. Also featured this year is an East Avenue home that once was the Cottage Inn, billed as the longest-running B&B in Arizona; and the newly restored Anderson Home, on Main Street.

Tickets to the tour are $25 for adults and $10 for children; children age 3 and younger are free. Participants are advised to wear comfortable shoes. For more information or to purchase tickets in advance, visit

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A Different Kind of Flying: Vintage Stunt Championships Mark 30th Anniversary

Vintage Stunt Championships participants show off their control-line model airplanes. | Courtesy of Jim Hoffman

Thirty years ago, at Whittier Narrows in Southern California, a group of hobbyists gathered to compete in a contest dedicated to a cherished childhood pastime: flying control-line model airplanes. These planes, controlled by 60-foot cables and an internal combustion engine, were popular from the 1940s to the 1970s, before radio-controlled airplanes became the norm.

Since 1988, the event, now known as the Vintage Stunt Championships, has been held annually in Tucson, and today, it's the largest control-line event in the Southwest. Although the control-line model-airplane community is relatively small, hundreds of people turn out each year for the VSC, which this year is March 13-17.

A variety of competitions are planned. The stunt contests start early each morning, because of more ideal weather conditions. During these contests, each pilot performs a series of tricks with his or her plane in about six minutes, then receives a score from the judges on how perfect their loops, figure-eights and other maneuvers were. There are several different specialized stunt contests individuals can compete, such as Ringmaster, Super 70s, Old Time and Classic. Each has its own set of rules.

A fan favorite of the VSC is the appearance competition. Unlike more modern model airplanes, these planes are never bought from a craft store. Each plane is meticulously handcrafted and hand-painted, and takes hours to complete. The planes are laid out in rows on the ground, and judges then arrange them from best to worst appearance. According to VSC contest director Jim Hoffman, this is one of the most popular parts of the competition, because everyone is together and can see all the beautifully made planes at once.

Because flying control-line model airplanes is a hobby of the past, the VSC is a chance not only to compete, but also to celebrate history and keep the tradition alive. A new and popular part of the VSC is the exhibition event. Participants are invited to bring a unique item related to control-line model planes from the past and show it off. This event isn’t a competition and is open to anyone who has something special they want to share.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event, for the first time since the first VSC back in 1988, all the contestants will pose for a group photo. Although the participants come to Tucson to compete, Hoffman said for him and many others, it’s really about the community that has formed over 30 years.

“Most of us have been doing this most of our lives, we all know each other, and there’s a camaraderie that goes with that,” Hoffman said. “People go there for the camaraderie and to see the airplanes and to be together more than the actual competition. As much as I enjoy all the other stuff, the hugs and the gratitude from so many people that have become lifelong friends are really my favorite part.”

The Vintage Stunt Championships, March 13-17, will take place at Christopher Columbus Park and the Hotel Tucson City Center. Admission is free. To learn more, visit or contact Jim Hoffman at 480-329-3316 or [email protected].

— Emily Balli

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New Sites Added to Forest Service's Cabin Rental Program

One of the common buildings at Big Springs Cabins. | Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service has added two remote locations near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to its Rooms With a View cabin-rental program.

Both sites, Big Springs Cabins and Jumpup Cabin, are in the Kaibab National Forest's North Kaibab Ranger District. And according to Forest Service archaeologist Jeremy Haines, both offer "a great tipping-off point for numerous hiking and biking adventures."

Big Springs Cabins, on Forest Road 22, has six cabins available to rent. Each cabin has two twin-size beds and one full-size bed, and the cabins share a shower house, fully furnished kitchen and dining hall. As the Forest Service notes, it's a good base camp for day hikes on the Kaibab Plateau or the North RIm.

Jumpup Cabin, on the edge of the Kanab Creek Wilderness, is more rustic and has fewer amenities, but it includes a two-room cabin and a composting toilet. There is no electricity, propane or running water at this site.

Both sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And while both sites aren't open until later this year, reservations are being accepted now via the links above.

To learn more about the Rooms With a View program, click here.

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Wickenburg's Gold Rush Days: A Step Back in Time

Courtesy of Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce

They travel from the north, south, east and west. They come from far away and from just down the road. Every year, thousands of people from all over the country travel to Wickenburg to celebrate the historic town’s rich mining and ranching heritage at Gold Rush Days. This year is especially significant for Gold Rush Days, as it’s the 70th anniversary of the event — as well as Wickenburg’s 155th birthday.

The four-day event, running February 8-11, is jam-packed with a variety of Western-themed activities and performances, both free and paid.

The festivities kick off Thursday, February 8, with a Wickenburg history exhibit at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, a carnival and a performance by the 3 Red Neck Tenors.

The rest of the weekend, eventgoers can check out the classic-car show on Frontier Street, wander around the arts and crafts fair at the Wickenburg Community Center, watch mining contests or catch one of the melodrama performances at the historic Saguaro Theatre.

Year after year, the most popular of the many Gold Rush Days events are usually the parade and the rodeo, said Julie Brooks, executive director of the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s parade, recognized as the fourth-largest in Arizona, will take place Saturday at 10 a.m. and will feature close to a thousand horses. The parade’s theme is “Ropin’ the West,” and the grand marshal will be Cody Custer, a Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association world champion.

The Senior Pro Rodeo Slack will take place Friday, February 9, at 11 a.m., and the Senior Pro Rodeo will be on Saturday and Sunday, February 10 and 11, at 2 p.m. Both will be held at the Everett Bowman Arena.

Admission to most of the activities are free, but tickets must be purchased for the rodeo, the melodrama and the Thursday and Friday night concerts. You can pay at the gate, but it's recommended that you purchase tickets in advance online, at

Those who live in Arizona’s fourth-oldest town seem to always look forward to Gold Rush Days because they’re able to show off not only the town’s long-standing traditions, but also all the other great things Wickenburg has to offer, Brooks said.

“The whole town is very thrilled with this signature event, because it’s a wonderful time in Arizona, weather-wise, and there’s a number of things that visitors can do besides all the things that are a part of our schedule of activities,” she said.

“We have local restaurants, hiking trails, a beautiful Western museum, concerts at the Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts and horseback riding. They can do a lot of things during that weekend that would bring them to stay a little longer than just for the special event,” she added.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary, a limited-edition poster was designed by Maverick Engelhart. You can buy one, or learn more about Gold Rush Days, by contacting the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce. at or 928-684-5479.

Find a full schedule of events and ticket prices at

— Emily Balli

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Staying Warm (or Cool) at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Colossal Cave Mountain Park features an extensive cave system. | Noah Austin

On the way back from a recent Arizona Highways assignment in Southeastern Arizona, my wife and I were looking for something to do in the Tucson area. Having visited Kartchner Caverns State Park last year, we decided to check out another well-known cavern in the area: Colossal Cave Mountain Park, located east of Tucson.

On an hourlong tour past the cave's stalactites, stalagmites and other unique formations, we learned while Colossal Cave is similar to Kartchner Caverns in many ways, there also are important differences between the two caverns. For one, water continues to flow into Kartchner Caverns, meaning that cave's rock formations continue to grow. Colossal Cave no longer has water flowing, although it's not technically a "dead" cave — a bit of monsoon runoff trickled into the cave this summer, the first time that's happened in 12 years, our guide said.

The other big difference is the caves' human histories. No one had ventured into Kartchner Caverns before its discovery in the 1970s, and its designation as a state park has kept it in pristine condition. In contrast, Colossal Cave was used for storage by the Hohokam people about a century ago, and after white men discovered it in the late 1800s, it became a hideout for bandits and a target for treasure hunters. Many of its rock formations were broken off to be sold as curiosities.

But Colossal Cave is still a spectacular place to visit, starting with the above-ground facilities constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. CCC crews also built the walkways inside the cavern, where the temperature stays in the low 70s year-round. The basic tour, on which we were joined by three others on a rainy Sunday morning, follows a half-mile loop and includes information about the cave's history, geology and legends. More extensive tours that utilize CCC ladders and rock-climbing techniques also are available.

Our tour guide addressed one popular legend: that bandits hid a stash of gold somewhere in Colossal Cave. If they did, he said, it's never been found, and park personnel have extensively explored the cave. Even without a stash of gold, though, Colossal Cave is a treasure worth seeing.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park is located at 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail in Vail. For more information, call 520-647-7275 or visit

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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Ancient Textiles on Display at Camp Verde Museum

One of the Sinaguan textiles now on display at the Verde Valley Archaeology Center. | Courtesy of the museum

A new exhibit at a Central Arizona museum focuses on 800-year-old textiles discovered in a cliff dwelling along Wet Beaver Creek.

The Verde Valley Archaeology Center in Camp Verde last week announced the opening of the exhibit of ancient textiles from the Paul Dyck Rock Shelter, named for the Paul Dyck Ranch, in Rimrock, where the cliff dwelling is located.

Extensive excavations at the cliff dwelling in the 1960s and '70s unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including perishable materials preserved in dry midden deposits inside the dwelling. The artifacts include woven materials such as textiles, sandals, skirts, ropes and bags, the museum said.

"The Dyck textiles represent the most extensive and well-preserved collection of Sinagua textiles ever recovered," the center's director of archaeology, Dr. Todd Bostwick, said in a news release. "Some of the 800-year-old textile fragments have retained their color so well, they look like they were woven yesterday."

The fragile textiles are being rotated into and out of display to protect them from deterioration. Among new items recently added to the display is a plain weave (pictured) with a dark brown tie-dye pattern.

The museum is located at 385 S. Main Street in Camp Verde, and its exhibits are open and free to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., although the center will be closed December 23, ahead of Christmas, and December 30, ahead of New Year's Day.

For more information, visit

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National Parks Waive Fees for Veterans Day Weekend

Saguaro National Park near Tucson is one of the parks waiving entrance fees this weekend. | Vijay Kannan

The National Park Service's final fee-free days of 2017 are coming up this weekend, in honor of Veterans Day.

Saturday and Sunday, November 11 and 12, all Park Service sites that charge admission fees will waive them. That includes Grand Canyon National Park, which currently charges $30 (per vehicle) for a seven-day pass, so visiting this weekend could be a prudent financial move. (As we told you recently, the Park Service is considering increasing entrance fees at Grand Canyon and other parks during peak season. That proposal would not affect the fee-free days, though.)

The waiver applies only to entrance fees, commercial tour fees and transportation entrance fees. Campsite, concession and other fees will still apply.

Even if you can't make it to a national park this weekend, keep in mind that the vast majority of Park Service sites charge no entrance fee at all. And there are 22 such sites in Arizona that are open to the public. To find a park near you, click here.

The Park Service has not yet announced its fee-free days for 2018, but the first one is likely to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Monday, January 15).

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