Pipe Spring National Monument

At Exploring Off the Beaten Path, we’re always looking for out of the way places with interesting but little known things to see and do. Not long ago, we came across a real gem in the high desert north of the Grand Canyon, an area called the Arizona Strip. One of the historical highlights of the Strip is Pipe Spring National Monument. For our readers outside the U.S., here’s a miles to kilometer converter.

Grand Gulch Mine in the Arizona Strip

There are over 6,000 miles of dirt roads in the Arizona Strip. Here’s one of them. The Grand Gulch copper mine is in the western side of the Strip. Active from the 1880’s to the 1960’s, it’s as remote now as it was then. From St George, it’s an 80 mile drive – one way – on that dirt road to get there. Because of the climate and the remoteness, the site is remarkably well preserved. The Arizona Strip is full of these things for those rugged enough and prepared enough to get there – and get back.

With an average altitude of 5,000 feet, the Arizona Strip occupies almost 8,000 square miles in the extreme northwest corner of Arizona. That’s about the same size as Massachusetts. Almost all of it is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the Kaibab Paiute Nation. To the south (and 3,000 feet higher) lies the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Utah is to the north with Zion National Park about 25 miles up the road. East of the Strip is the foreboding Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. To the west lie the equally foreboding thousand foot high Hurricane Cliffs and the Parashant Wilderness on the way to Nevada. This is hard country, as physically isolated and remote as you can get in the continental U.S. There are two small towns and two decent paved roads. If you get away from them, you’re on your own.

Weather can be extreme and unpredictable, causing danger and disruption for the unwary and the unprepared. Yet as forbidding as it is, the Arizona Strip has been settled, farmed, grazed and mined for over 1,000 years. The reason – water. Due to a stroke of geological good fortune, fresh water springs bubble up year round at various places. One of them is Pipe Spring.

Winsor Castle at Pipe Spring National Monument

This odd looking outpost is the centerpiece of the monument – Winsor Castle. It was built by Anson Winsor, an elder in the Mormon Church. Construction began in 1870 and took a year and a half. It was designed and built as a fort to defend against Indian raids, which had plagued the area for years. By the time it was completed, the raids had ceased. That’s probably a good thing. As a fort, this thing was useless. It’s dug into the side of a rocky hill with the second story at ground level. Attackers could have been over the hill, down the slope and up on the roof in nothing flat. It was placed in this vulnerable position because Winsor wanted to build the upper structure directly over the spring, assuring a supply of fresh water under any circumstances.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Nobody really knows how Pipe Spring got its name, but the Park Service spins a yarn about it that’s as good as any. According to the NPS story, sometime around 1858, Mormon missionary and explorer Jacob Hamblin and several companions camped at this unnamed spring. They decided to have a shooting contest. One of the targets was a corn cob pipe. Hamblin sent his bullet through the tobacco chamber and out the back without hitting the sides. Afterward, he dubbed the flowing water – Pipe Spring. **

In early 1863, Pipe Spring got its first homesteader – James Montgomery Whitmore. Leaving his wife and three children in St. George, he set to work making Pipe Spring a working ranch on the 160 acres he had been deeded by Washington County, Utah. His home was a dugout, dug into the ground, built up with rocks and covered with dirt and bark. He split his time between Pipe Spring and St. George. Two years later, he had corrals enclosing 11 acres, orchards, grapevines and several hundred head of cattle and sheep.

Inner courtyard of Winsor Castle

The inner courtyard. The yellow arrow points out the steps down to the spring room. The yellow line shows the route of the spring water pipe to the spring room. The actual spring is beneath the floorboards of the parlor on the far bottom right. Both top floors and the bottom floor of the north (right side) house were living quarters. The bottom floor of the south (left side) house had rooms cooled by spring water to produce dairy products. The intimidating looking gates were removed by a new owner in 1884. The entire castle was rebuilt by the CCC in 1935. You must be on a Ranger tour to access the inside of the fort. The NPS web site has an excellent virtual tour of the whole castle.

In January 1866, the Indian raids came to Pipe Spring. They ran off with Whitmore’s livestock and destroyed much of what he had built. Whitmore, who now had six children, was in St. George when it happened. He got word through the militia that he’d been hit. Whitmore and his brother-in-law Robert McIntyre saddled up and rode hell bent 60 miles to the ranch. Finding everything gone, they followed tracks in the snow in an attempt to recover the herd. They were never seen alive again. Three days later, a militia patrol found their frozen naked mutilated bodies about four miles south of Pipe Spring. The patrol continued the pursuit and came across a small band of Paiute wearing clothes belonging to the dead ranchers. They were executed on the spot. Later it was discovered that the Paiute had traded for the clothes with the Navajo war party responsible for the Pipe Spring attack and killings. Several weeks later, Joseph, Robert and Isabel Berry, a Mormon family returning home, were killed by Paiutes as revenge.

Southwest corner of Winsor Castle

A closeup of the southwest corner of the exterior wall. Note the firing ports built into the solid stone construction. This is the outside wall of the spring room. The yellow arrow shows where the spring water comes out. It then flows down into two man-made pools for irrigation and watering livestock. Originally, there were no doors or windows in the exterior walls but some were added later.

That’s the way it was in the Arizona Strip and southern Utah for the better part of a decade. From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Homesteads were attacked. Livestock stolen. Dozens of Mormons were killed. Nobody knows how many Indians were killed. Atrocities were committed on both sides. The frontier was basically abandoned and the prosperous Mormon expansion there came to a screeching halt. In today’s dollars, they lost millions.

Brigham Young requested federal troops but was turned down. They were on their own. The Mormons were not pacifists. They were well armed and organized. Although they went to great lengths to promote peace, they were fully prepared to resist any threats. For safety and security, they concentrated their people at key towns, built forts and patrolled aggressively on horseback. Like their U.S. Cavalry counterparts, the Mormon militia spent most of their time chasing shadows and ghosts up endless canyons.

The parlor at Winsor Castle

This is the parlor, the center of family life for the ranchers. It was on the bottom floor of the north building in the northwest corner of the fort. The main item of interest here is that this room is built right on top of the spring. From here, it flows along a short pipe buried underground directly across the courtyard to the spring room. The spring water kept this room nice and cool in the hot Arizona summers. Note the blank wall on the right with no firing ports. It’s built right up against the rock wall. The far wall is also partially covered by rock.

The fort at Pipe Spring was part of that defensive effort. With its central location, fresh water supply and commanding view of the area, it would be a good place for a fort. The church bought the land from James Whitmore’s widow and assigned a church elder, Anson Winsor, to take charge of the ranch, build the fort and get the operation up and running again.

The design called for two stone ranch houses of two stories each built facing one another. Their ends would be joined by walls and gates, forming an inner courtyard and a stone perimeter. The long axis of the outpost ran southwest to northeast, so the two houses were called the north and south house. On top of the north house was a wooden observation cupola. There would be no windows or doors in the outside walls. Instead, firing ports were built into the stone walls on all sides and on both floors. Defensive ramparts lined the upper walls and two massive wooden gates bracketed the courtyard.

The spring room at Winsor Castle

This is the spring room, located in the southwest corner of the castle. Note the firing ports on the two exterior walls. The water entered from the right, flowed into and along the concrete trough and exited to the left. The water was ice cold, keeping the temperature in the room around 50 degrees all year. This could also be called the dairy room. In the early days of Winsor Castle, the ranch produced dairy products as well as beef. That started right here. After Winsor and his four sons milked 80-100 cows twice a day, the fresh milk was set out in pans on the rack above the trough. In the cool room, it separated and the cream rose to the top. It was skimmed off and carried into another room where cream, butter and cheese were made. Most of the ranch’s food production went north to feed construction crews and cowboys. The dairy production didn’t last long. By 1874, the ranch had gone to all beef cattle.

The red sandstone was quarried in the nearby hills. Each rock had to shaped individually. Lumber had to be brought 50 miles from Mt. Trumbull in the forests of the Grand Canyon’s north rim. The whole thing was built right on top of the spring, which was channeled into a spring room. This ensured fresh water in the event of an attack. It took a year and a half to complete. The result was a very formidable looking outpost, although much smaller than originally envisioned. It’s not real big. It measures 68 feet long and 40 feet wide with connecting walls that are 20 feet high. The fort was promptly dubbed Winsor Castle. The name stuck and even became the name of the new ranch – the Winsor Castle Stock Growing Company. Pipe Spring had a new lease on life as a working cattle ranch belonging to the Mormon Church.

The ranch was active from 1871 to 1924, but was a revolving door for owners and managers. Anson Winsor left in 1875. The ranch changed hands again in 1879, 1884, 1887 and 1896. That last one was significant because the church sold it to a family and relinquished ownership. For the first time, Pipe Spring was private property, but the revolving door continued. It was sold again in 1901 and yet again in 1906. The 1906 buyer, Jonathan Heaton, was central to the Pipe Spring we know today.

Map of the Arizona Strip

A National Park Service map of the Arizona Strip. Pipe Spring National Monumment is clearly marked as are some of the other features mentioned in the text below.

Heaton was a established rancher who had 15 sons. He owned a 400 acre spread several miles away at Moccasin Springs and worked it with them. The church and the federal government both pressured him to share the water with the Paiutes, other ranchers and anybody else who needed it. To increase his supply, he bought Pipe Spring in 1906. He had no interest in the buildings and they deteriorated badly. For the next 15 years, cowboys, round ups, Paiutes, travelers and everyone else used the water sources at Pipe Spring. Winsor Castle became an oddity in the high desert as memories of the violent past faded.

Entrance to the Pipe Spring National Monument

The Pipe Spring National Monument near Fredonia, AZ. It recognizes the contributions of the Mormon Church in the settling of the west. It also recognizes the Kaibab Paiute Nation and their history on the Arizona Strip. Many Paiutes remained friendly to the Mormons even at the height of hostilities with other tribes and their own. The Pipe Spring Ranch never quite became the lucrative operation it was envisioned to be. However, it was a welcome outpost for travelers, cowboys, salesmen, wagon trains, gold miners and Indians. All were welcome, knowing they could get fresh water, a meal and a room or a place to camp. In that respect, Pipe Spring played a key role in the settlement of the Arizona Strip and Utah, which is why it’s a National Monument today. It’s open year round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas ans New Year’s. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.862796, W112.737425. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson formed the National Park Service. The first director was Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman and conservationist who was instrumental in getting the service formed. In 1920, Mather was touring parks in the region and looking for new possibilities. In addition to the Grand Canyon, Zion and other well known established parks, he came across an odd looking outpost in the Arizona Strip that looked totally out of place – the dilapidated, ramshackle remains of Winsor Castle.

Mather sought out the owners and the Heatons told him all about the place. Mather was fascinated by the history and intrigued by the idea of a park service property dedicated to it. Heaton, anxious to get rid of the place, happily went along. In 1923, Pipe Spring was designated a National Monument.The land and buildings became the property of the government in 1924. By this time, the eldest Heaton son Charles was running things. They paid Charles Heaton $5,000 and hired him as the caretaker.

In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up camp near Pipe Spring and completely renovated it into what we see now. By this time, there was a new caretaker – Leonard Heaton, son of Charles and grandson of Jonathan. He was there until 1964. During his 30 years on the job, Heaton collected an untold number of artifacts from the early days. They are now on display in the castle, on the grounds and in the museum.

Early tourists

Early geocachers on the Arizona Strip. They’re doing it right – dressed for the weather, closing the gate behind them and driving a high clearance vehicle. Well done, comrades!

The first tourists came in 1925. There were probably no more than 100 the whole year. Today, there are 60,000+ each year who visit this unlikely castle in the desert. Sandwiched in between Zion and the Grand Canyon, it’s easy to get to and worth a few hours of your time. There’s much more to see and do here than we can cover in one blog post. That includes a short hiking trail, more historical buildings, ranger tours and geocaches.

There are geocaches everywhere, however, cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging. It’s ok on the paved roads and at the monument. If you head off road, you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS along with a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. A couple of spare tires would be good too.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. The back country of the Arizona Strip is not the place for a leisurely Sunday drive. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution and common sense. If you like exploring off the beaten path, you won’t be disappointed.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

Top 10 Geocaching Safety Tips

The Find

Here’s a find deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania with stick and gloves displayed. We find our caching sticks, which are five foot lengths of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod, to be indispensable. In any terrain, they give you a third leg. Here, it also helps to avoid copperheads, which are numerous in these parts.

Geocaching and related outdoor activities all carry an element of risk.There are a number of factors that come into play such as activity level, location andphysical conditioning. But we feel the most important part of keeping safe is to know your limits and be prepared if something happens.Natasha and I like to push the limits. We’ve been lucky. Early in our geocaching career, we blundered into a couple of situations that worked out OK but could have been serious. We learned our lessons. Now when we saddle up for a long range cache, we are seriously geared up. Of course, if you’re doing drive by caching in parking lots and the like, you don’t have to be as intense. But if you’re headed into the boonies or even just out of sight of your car for a while, you need to be prepared. You don’t want to be out there, separated from your geopartner, no communication, no water plus it’s starting to rain, get dark and you’re not sure how to get back. We speak from some experience on that. It happened to us near Farmington, New Mexico about 10 years ago. Keep the following 10 things in mind and apply as needed for safer and more effective caching.


#10. Be bear aware…. If you’re in bear country, especially griz, your outlook changes because you’re not at the top of the food chain anymore. Bears can’t see very well but their hearing and smell are sensational and they can outrun a horse over a short distance. Talk to people about recent local bear activity. Make some noise as you walk – people type noise. Bells and whistles just make bears curious. I like to use binoculars to check the area around us as we move. Be careful with food. Stick together. Keep an eye down wind. Carry bear spray. We’ve spent a lot of time in grizzly country and have never had a problem. But some unfortunate people do.

#9. Do what the cops tell you…. Geocaching often looks suspicious, especially these days. Hanging around, looking, climbing, crawling can all get you noticed. We’ve been confronted by the police four times, once by the Ski Patrol and once by a construction foreman. Be nice and tell them about geocaching. The vast majority are cool with it. One cop even helped us look. Recently, we ran into Officer Friendly of the Illinois State Police. We were geocaching at a rest area and he threatened to arrest us for trespassing. About that moment, Natasha made the find and waved it. He waited there until we had signed the log and moved on. Be ready for just about anything when a lawman shows up.

#8. Take extra batteries….The energizer bunny’s name is Murphy. It’s downright gut wrenching to have a GPSr die on you when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Same with flashlights, phones, etc. If you’re depending on battery powered equipment to complete your quest, make sure you’ve got enough juice for the job – especially if you need to find your way back. Lithium batteries are the way to go. Regular alkaline batteries don’t last very long.

#7. Carry a big stick, small flashlight, leather gloves, Swiss Army knife….These items have a multitude of uses, from poking inside a dark cache to probing the trail in front of you to protection from animals (both four legged and two legged). We find the sticks to be almost indispensable. They’re effective, innocuous and legal. Natasha and I use a five foot length of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod which you can buy at any hardware store.

#6. Bring a first aid kit….Scratches and bug bites are part of the charm of geocaching. It can also be dirty, so take care of any open wound. The kit doesn’t need to be massive. Outdoor stores all sell small kits that will fit in a pocket. It can’t hurt to throw in an ACE wrap. Combined with your stout stick, you can limp back to the car if you have to. If you’re allergic to bee stings, take your epi-pen. Keep your tetanus shot up to date for that rusty old barbed wire at Ground Zero. Remember – if something happens out there, you’re on your own, at least for a while. Plan accordingly.

A SPOT GPS locater and messenger. We always have one with us out in the boondocks. We’ve never needed it, but we know we’re ready if something happens. See the link in this paragraph for more information

#5. Take your cell phone or walkie-talkies or both…. Becoming separated from a geopartner is mildly annoying at best and can be downright dangerous. It’s happened to us a couple of times. So now we use handheld radios in the FRS/GMRS range with cell phone backup. The handheld radios are inexpensive and don’t require any ham licensing. Get a radio check before you launch. Have a reconnect plan if all comm fails. Go to a pre-arranged meeting place after a certain amount of time passes. Whatever that place is, enter it into your GPSr as a waypoint so you can find it. Also enter the trailhead or parking areas as waypoints. If all that fails, call 911, assuming you have cell phone coverage. A good alternative for the back country is a GPS locater beacon. We use a SPOT Locater. It sends and receives signals via GPS satellites. You can send check-in messages, call roadside assistance or send an emergency signal. That 911 signal goes to an operations center, which will notify, dispatch and coordinate rescue help. My brother used to race in the Baja. He and his buddies all had one. They had to summon help a couple of times and it arrived in less than an hour. They are a little pricey, but we don’t head for the hills without them.

#4. Don’t forget the hat and sunscreen…. This is one can really sneak up on you. I’ve screwed up in the past. I’m out getting multiple caches, in and out of the car and the trees and figure I don’t need to worry about the sun. But it all adds up and at the end of the day, I look like a lobster. If you’re going to be out in the sun, make sure you protect yourself. Lather on the sunscreen and keep it fresh. Then top it off with a wide brimmed hat and cool UV sunglasses.

#3.Be tick aware …Ticks are a clear and present danger in the outdoors – much more so than bears and snakes. They carry Lyme disease and other assorted diseases and they’re everywhere. Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts. Douse your shoes and pant legs with DEET. Check yourself and each other thoroughly and often and keep checking. The critters seem to come out of nowhere and are almost indestructible. The good news is that they have to attach themselves to a human host for 24 hours to pass on the virus. If you find one latched on, pull it straight out with tweezers. Lyme disease is treatable but no fun.  If you geocache, you’re going to get ticks. Stay vigilant and stay healthy. One additional note – don’t go inside the house with your geocaching clothes on. You’ll have ticks in the house. Basement, garage, laundry room but not in living spaces.

Alien geocachers

Expect the unexpected and you’ll be prepared to deal with whatever (or whoever) comes along, as Natasha demonstrates here in Roswell, New Mexico.

#2. Bring lots of water…. This one that can sneak up on you too, usually in the form of a “quick cache” which turns into a marathon. Next thing you know, you’ve been out there for two hours with nothing to drink. Unless you’re doing PNGs, throw a bottle of water in your kit. For longer ventures, you can’t beat a CamelBak. Fill it with ice and top it off with water. You’ll have ice water the whole day.

#1. Know when to back off….Geocachers are a pretty tenacious bunch and we’re probably at the top end of that scale. Part of this activity is recognizing limits. We’ve stopped literally yards away from GZ because we didn’t think we could complete it and/or get back safely. Things can go south in a real hurry out there. Don’t compromise your safety for a cache. It’ll be there tomorrow. Go back and re-group. Next time, you’ll probably walk right to it.

Learn from our mistakes … Boris and Natasha

The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Titan Missile Museum – Green Valley, AZ

“Anybody who isn’t wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day.”
……Sarah Connor, Terminator 2

Warhead of a Titan II ICBM

This R2D2-looking thing is a re-entry vehicle (RV) for a Titan II ICBM. It carried a single Mark-53 nine megaton nuclear warhead. That’s over 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb dropped at the end of World War II. The Titan II would have carried this payload over 6,000 miles in roughly 30 minutes after a launch sequence that lasted 58 seconds. This RV is on display at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ. It is the only museum of its kind, safeguarding and preserving a piece of Cold War history – a complete Titan ICBM launch facility. If you get up to South Dakota, you can check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site  near Wall, SD.

I admit it. I’m a Cold War junkie. I grew up in the days when we did “duck and cover” drills in school. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my 20 years in the Marine Corps were spent as a cold warrior. Now I’m a road warrior, but I’m still fascinated by the whole Commie/nuke/Dr Strangelove thing. Looking back on it now, a lot of the stuff was ludicrous (nuclear land mines, anybody?), but it was deadly serious back in the day.

If you lived in Tucson between the early 1960’s and the late 1980’s, you were surrounded by 18 Titan II ICBM’s and the Soviets knew all about them. That means in the event of war, there were probably several dozen Soviet missiles targeting Tucson’s Titan force.

Fortunately, it never came to that thanks to the deterrent effect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). When the Titans were taken out of service during the Reagan administration, the missiles were reconfigured as launch vehicles for NASA. The launch facilities were gutted except for this one. Launch Facility 571-7 was kept intact, a deactivated Titan was placed in the silo and a museum was born. The 571-7 designation is shorthand for the 7th launch facility of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron. It was one of two missile squadrons, along with the 570th, belonging to the 390th Strategic Missile Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Got all that?

When we came to Tucson for the winter several years back and discovered the Titan Missile Museum, it was high on the bucket list. I went there not knowing what I might find. Some of these military museums are little more than roadside attractions with a bunch of junk laying out on tables. Happily that is not the case here.

Blast door

There are four of these blast doors in the blast lock area at the bottom of the access steps. They work in pairs like an air lock. One pair seals off the crew from the outside world. The other pair seals off the silo area from the crew area. Each door weighs 6,000 pounds and is opened/closed manually. They are perfectly mounted and balanced on simple pin hinges. Even after hanging there for over 50 years, they can be moved with one hand. The design and construction of these launch facilities is unbelievable. In addition to the obvious workmanship and attention to detail, everything is redundant and backed up. Nothing was left to chance. When all sealed up, the facility could survive just about anything except a direct hit by a nuke.

Tucked away in the Sonoran desert hills, the museum is a hidden gem. They have static displays inside and out, a documentary film and several kinds of guided tours that go through the whole underground facility. The silo contains a de-activated Titan missile. You’ll get a good look at it from above and below. There’s also a simulated launch conducted in the control room with the tour. Afterwards, you can walk around topside for as long as you want. Photography is allowed throughout. The all volunteer staff is knowledgeable and includes several docents who worked as missile crew or contractors. Everyone is very informal and friendly. The cost is about nine bucks per person and is well worth it. The museum is a private non-profit entity and also a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab a hard hat when they offer them. There’s all kinds of head bangers underground.

The entire facility and tours are very informative. Some of the revelations are downright jaw-dropping. For instance, assuming they survived, what did the four person crew do after the launch? They had a 30 day supply of food and water but only two weeks of air in their sealed underground bunker. The hard reality was that there was no plan. They were on their own. It was assumed that the crew commander at some point would begin to probe outside the facility. Now there’s something to look forward to. If the main access route was untenable, there was an emergency escape tunnel that would take them outside. At least, that was the theory.

Titan II ICBM

The star of the show – the museum’s Titan II ICBM. The Titan II was the largest ICBM deployed by the U.S. during the Cold War, measuring 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It also carried the largest warhead. The Mark-53 had a yield of nine megatons, i.e. nine millions tons of TNT. A train carrying nine million tons of TNT would be 1,200 miles long. Weighing around 8,000 pounds, it was a thermonuclear bunker buster.

We’ll never know what targets the Titans would have hit but with nine megatons of firepower, they weren’t going to be used on radar sites and truck parks. It’s a virtual certainty that they would have gone after command centers, key military installations, industrial centers and nuclear storage facilities. Even the launch crew didn’t know the targets. A total of 150 Titan II’s were built. Fifty were used as test and evaluation platforms. Fifty four ended up in silos with nuke warheads. There were 18 each in Tucson AZ, Wichita KS and Little Rock AR. One of the missiles in Little Rock blew up in its silo in 1980.  Built in safety locks kept the RV and warhead intact.

The Titan II missile was a rock steady and reliable system and performed several roles simultaneously. At the height of the Cold War, it was the most dangerous missile on earth. In terms of speed and accuracy, the Soviets had nothing like it until the late 1970’s. Twelve were used to launch the NASA Gemini manned space missions from 1964-66. In 1977, two modified Titans (Titan III) launched the Voyager satellites on their journey out of the solar system. Others were used to launch scientific and commercial payloads from Vandenburg AFB. The last Titan II was launched in October 2003. A platform with a planned service life of 10 years lasted 40. It was finally done in by the economics of its high maintenance.

In a way, the museum’s launch facility is still involved in a Cold War scenario. The START Treaty requires measures to verify the absence of weapons that may be in violation. The RV on display in the exhibit room has a big plexiglass cutout to show at a glance there are no weapons on board. Also, the 760 ton sliding silo hatch is locked in the half open position so Russian satellites can keep an eye on it.

Museum entrance

This is the place. GPS coordinates N31.9020636, W110.9995385. Click on the coordinates for a Google map. Click the following link to find out all about the Titan Missile Museum. BTW, Count Ferdinand von Galen is a real person and a real German Count. He’s also a successful Arizona businessman, aviation enthusiast and chairman of the Board of Directors for the Arizona Aerospace Foundation.

When you finish at the museum, you can fire up the smart phone and start gathering up some of the dozens of geocaches and munzees in the immediate area. Cell phone coverage is excellent along the I-19 corridor. Then it’s time for some Mexican food. El Patio, El Rodeo, Agave and Manuel’s are all excellent and about 10 minutes away. There’s also a Taco Bell nearby.

Then you can walk off the calories and the guilt at the Pima Air and Space Museum. One of the largest non-government air museums in the world, it’s magnificent.

Enjoy your visit …. Boris and Natasha

NPS Passport Stamps – More Things to Hunt

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. Boris and Natasha

Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ

Hi again,

If you like to explore off the beaten path, it’s hard to beat Arizona.  We recently checked out a place we’d never heard of before – Tuzigoot National Monument.

Tuzigoot (which is Apache for “crooked water”) is a puebloan ruin on the banks of the Verde River that was built and occupied between about 1100 and 1400. People lived here for longer than the United States has been a country. Then 100 years before the first Europeans arrived, the occupants moved on, leaving few traces or clues as to where they went or why.

Tuzigoot National Monument

The builders of Tuzigoot picked their terrain well. The pueblo was built on a strategic ridge that provided easy access to the river and was highly defensible. Construction was continuous for its entire 300 year existence.

The Verde River in northwest Arizona is one of the few in the state that runs all year. It has a watershed of almost 6,000 square miles along its 170 mile length. The Verde River Valley was a natural draw for the hunter-gatherers that migrated there. At its peak of pre-European settlement, there were at least 40 separate pueblos in the valley.

Defense of a pueblo.

This painting by Paul Coze appeared in the August 1951 edition of Arizona Highways. Pueblos were built for security, not comfort or convenience. There were few doors and none on the first floor. Ditto for windows. Access to rooms was by a hole in the ceiling and a ladder. That was also the only ventilation for smoky cooking fires and summer heat. Pueblos were at constant risk of raids, especially once the Apache showed up. That is thought to be one of the main reasons the entire area emptied out in the space of a generation.

After its abandonment, Tuzigoot spent the next 500 years wide open to the depredations of both nature and man. The National Park Service excavated and restored it in the 1930’s. It was designated a National Monument by President Roosevelt in 1939. The name Tuzigoot came from a member of the excavation crew who was an Apache Indian. It has nothing to do with the original structure or people.

Here’s a before and after picture comparison of Tuzigoot.

Tuzigoot in 1934.

A 1934 National Park Service picture of Tuzigoot before the excavation began. It’s taken at the southern end of the pueblo looking up the hill to what was known as the Citadel. Many more historical photos can be found in the National Park Service gallery.

The Citadel.

The same view taken in 2014. The re-construction you see dates to the original work in the 1930’s, although there is considerable maintenance.

The people who built and lived in Tuzigoot and the other pueblos in the valley are called the Sinagua by anthropologists. “Sin agua” is Spanish for without water. Dominating the skyline of Northern Arizona are the San Francisco Peaks, which can be clearly seen from the Verde Valley. Those 12,000 foot mountains have no rivers flowing out of them. The Spanish called them “sierra sin agua” – mountains without water. The name was applied as a generic name for pre-European native people in central Arizona. They were hunters, gatherers, farmers and traders. The Hopi, Zuni and Navajo all trace their lineage back to the Sinagua.

Rooms at Tuzigoot

There were around 110 rooms at Tuzigoot, built over the course of three centuries. They ran north-south along the spine and spread down the hill to the east and west. It was a sizable community. Excavations revealed that all the rooms had evidence of food preparation, unlike many pueblos where some rooms were used only for storage

Inside construction at Tuzigoot

Inside construction was solid, with wooden beams as uprights and also cross-members. Thatched mats covered the beams which were in turn covered with adobe to make a ceiling. The beams were cut from Arizona sycamore trees that grew prolifically along the river. Everything was done with stone tools and manual labor. The Sinagua had no horses and the wheel was unknown to the them.

Central Arizona has many pueblo ruins that are now under state or federal protection. Montezuma’s Castle, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments are within easy driving distance. So is Sunset Crater National Monument, site of a volcanic eruption that affected the surrounding area around 1000 A.D. For a different type of exploring, check out Jerome, AZ and Prescott, AZ. There’s also historic Route 66 weaving its way through the entire area. Like we said earlier, if you like to explore, you’ve come to the right place.

The Tuzigoot Visitors Center (click the link for a map) is located at 25 Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ. Just follow the signs. The GPS coordinates are N34.7723230, W112.0278880. The visitor center is small and was built in the 1930’s as part of the re-construction. There is a 1/3 mile (500 m) trail that takes you in and around the pueblo. You can see the whole thing in about an hour.

There are geocaches everywhere in the area. Cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging and there are few munzees. There is a healthy supply of letterboxes.

BTW, if you go to Jerome, try lunch at the Haunted Hamburger. Fantastic burgers with a view of the San Francisco Peaks. On weekends, be prepared to wait for a table.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

The Hotel del Coronado

Opened in 1888 on the shores of San Diego Bay in Coronado, California the Hotel Del Coronado is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and America’s grandest Victorian seaside resort. It was built by Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story after they purchased all of Coronado for $110,000 in 1885.

Built on 33 acres, it was the largest hotel in the world upon completion.  It was also the largest building in the world outside of New York City to have electric lighting.  Thomas Edison supervised the installation of the electrical system.

The front of the Hotel Del

My son in front of the Del a couple of years ago. There was a geocache right behind him. It’s gone now, but there’s plenty more where that came from. The large turret on the left is the roof of the main dining room – the Crown Room.

You have to see The Del to really appreciate it.  Pictures don’t reveal the true scope, size, setting or architecture of this national treasure. When you go through the doors, whether it’s to stay or just have lunch, it’s like walking back in time. It’s especially enchanting during the holidays. They spare no effort to bedeck the entire place in the spirit of the season. When we lived in San Diego, we went to the Del for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, depending on who was around.

Movies have been filmed here. It has been featured in books and been home to writers.  L. Frank Baum did much of his writing here and used The Del as a model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  He also designed the chandeliers that still light the main dining room – the Crown Room.

The list of stars and VIP’s who have visited here reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. One of The Del’s favorite stories is about the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920, who later became King Edward VIII.  He abdicated his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who lived in Coronado.  They met at the Del.

There’s also a resident ghost – Kate Morgan –  who died here under mysterious circumstances in 1892 and frequents the old section of the hotel.

The interior courtyard of the Del.

The interior courtyard of the Hotel Del. It’s more than a place to stay. It’s a destination. There’s world class shopping here, dining in several restaurants and live music. Enjoy the surf and the sun. Stroll on the beach. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the Del. You do, however, have to be prepared to pony up some serious money for your excursion here.

Much has changed in Coronado since The Del opened. The city has grown up around it. A cracker box fixer-upper in town runs about $1,000,000. The US Navy has a substantial presence here with the Naval Amphibious Base and North Island Naval Air Station. The Naval Special Warfare Center where the Navy SEALs are trained is practically next door. In fact, some of their rough water boat training takes place on the rocks of the jetty right in front of The Del.  The SEALs routinely run along the beach, much to my daughter’s delight the last time we were there.

If you come to southern California, don’t miss The Del.

Hooyah … Boris and Natasha