Benson, Bisbee and Birds – The San Pedro River Basin

Saguaro SKP Co-op

Saguaro SKP Co-op

On our way out west on Christmas Day we stopped briefly in the town of Benson, AZ to check out the Escapees Saguaro SKP Co-op. I had heard that it was a good RV park option in the Tucson area, and although we already had a campground booked for that week, I wanted to consider it for the return trip. Because of the holiday, no one was in the office to talk with us, but a quick walk around looked promising, so we put it on the list of future options.

Three months later, we were back in Tucson on our way back home. Before leaving Gilbert Ray Campground I called Saguaro to see if there was going to be space for us. It looked promising: there were going to be a few people checking out that day, so we should be able to snag a spot. (Sites are first come, first served, so if they are booked up when you arrive, you can stay in the boondock area – essentially an asphalt parking lot – for a day or two until things open up).

The Saguaro co-op has a very interesting membership model. Each of the 289 lots in the park (each 52′ x 75′) is “lifetime leased” to a member for a base price of about $11,000, plus the cost of any improvements made by previous leaseholders.

Our "basic" lot

Our “basic” lot

For the base price, lots are just plain gravel. Lots with nicely furnished casitas (maximum 288 square feet) with a kitchen, bathroom and laundry can range up to $40,000. Few lots are plain anymore; most have casitas. Since this is a licensed RV park, you are supposed to live in your RV, not the casita, but the few casitas that we saw on our tour were very comfortable for everything but sleeping.

Typical casita

Typical casita

When it comes time to sell your lot, you notify the co-op and they put it up for sale at a weekly Saturday call-in. The co-op keeps a “Hot List” of members with interest in leasing a lot, sequenced by the order in which their name was added to the list. The member with lowest number on the list gets first choice of available lots, and so forth through the list. At the time of our visit there 267 names on the Hot List, so apparently you don’t have to wait long to sell your lot if you want to.

Because of this pricing model, when your lot is sold, you get back what you paid, plus the cost of any improvements you made. So essentially you’re living rent-free, except for monthly maintenance and operating fees (about $800/year). If you place your lot in the rental pool, 75% of the value of the rent is credited against your M&O fees, regardless of whether it is actually rented or not. Seems like a pretty sweet deal.

In addition to short term rates ($20/day, $110/week, $330/month), lots can be rented for 6 or 12 months periods for $320-$375/month. But for first-time guests Saguaro has the deal of the century: $50 for a week with full hookups!

The week we stayed, there were 174 leaseholders were in the park, 60 were out of the park and not renting their lot, 30 long term renters, 67 short term renters, and only 2 spaces available. It was peak season, so we were lucky to get in. The office has a cool video board that gives you the status at a glance.

Saguaro SKP-4

The status board

Just like at Jojoba Hills, there is a full list of activities to get involved in, if you’re so inclined. We went to happy hours and a dinner, and Maureen took advantage of exercise, walking and yoga groups, a movie night (“The Big Short”) and morning coffees. It’s an active group of friendly people. We’re not interested in leasing a lot – it’s more intended for full-time RVers who want a base camp without having to own a “sticks and bricks” house – but it’s a great place to stop over, meet some interesting people, and get a real sense of community.

But we didn’t just hang around the park!

The first excursion we took was to the quirky town of Bisbee, AZ. Founded in 1880 as a mining town, Bisbee was the home for a large copper mining operation until as recently as 1975, when the mine shut down. The town’s leadership had the foresight to transform the old mine into an attraction as the foundation for making the town a tourist destination.

Quaint old buildings

Quaint old buildings

Now it seems to be a seemingly-thriving artsy community with several galleries, restaurants, boutiques and a historic hotel. It was good to see a place that was in a tough spot, but took advantage of its assets and its past, and avoided the fate that “ghosted” other mining towns.

We did our part to help out by taking the mining tour. I expected it to be cheesy, but was pleasantly surprised.

Down Into the Queen Mine

Down Into the Queen Mine

Our guide used to work in the mine, so he brought real credibility to his talk, and I think he genuinely enjoyed sharing his experiences with us. I have great respect for how difficult and dangerous that job was. Dealing with tourists has to be much easier!

David tells us how he did it

David tells us how he did it

Our next stop was the town of Sierra Vista, home to the Fort Huachuca (gesundheit!) Army base, and the obscure, but very well done Military Intelligence Museum. Yes, the name begs to be an oxymoronic punch line, but this compact museum does a great job of presenting the history of US Army intelligence operations, organizations and significant individuals, dating back to the Revolutionary War. The main draw for me was to see a German Enigma cipher machine in the flesh. I’ve long had an interest in cryptography, and having just read Turing’s Cathedral (which discusses the Colossus machine used for codebreaking), it was fun to see one of these very analog-looking devices that not long ago was considered unbreakable. (If you want to visit, plan on a 30 minute wait to do a background check and get a security badge before you can get on the base.)

A 3-Rotor Enigma Machine

Hack This

While in Sierra Vista we spotted a food truck advertising street tacos. Tip: there was a long line of service members in front of the truck, so we knew it had to be good, and it was.

How to spot a good food truck

How to spot a good food truck

From there we headed south to the Coronado National Memorial and drove up to the peak, from which you could clearly see the Mexican border, but also the broad, grassy plain where Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540 is supposed to have marched with an expedition of 1400 soldiers, Indians and slaves in search of gold. They didn’t find gold (should have gone to Bisbee instead!), getting as far as what is now Kansas, but they did pave the way for the many waves of miners and missionaries to follow them over the next three centuries.

Coronado was here

Coronado was here

The last highlight of the week was birding on the San Pedro River. Because of its location near the edges of both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the river is known for its biodiversity. The San Pedro National Conservation Area, in partnership with local organizations, hosts frequent bird hikes, and we were fortunate to latch onto one. In the course of a two-hour hike we saw 45 species of birds, including Grebe, Gray Hawk, Inca Dove, Vermillion Flycatcher, Abert’s Towhee, Bewick’s Wren, Black Phoebe, Warblers (Lucy’s, Yellow-Rumped, Common Yellowthroat), and many more that we had never seen before, and which we never would have seen without an experienced guide and other birders. We were a little early for the spring migration; in another week or two there would be an inrush of even more birds making their way north for spring.

Updating the day's "catch"

Updating the day’s “catch”

But sadly we couldn’t wait for them. Just like the birds, we were slowly making our way north too. And the good news is that, by the time we get home to Indiana, some of these same birds will be migrating through there too, so we’ll get to see them twice!

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