Jenna’s AZ Bucket list No. 72 – Pueblo Grande

To celebrate the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum Day (@museum day, #museumdaylive) my husband and I journeyed to the edge of downtown Phoenix to visit the Pueblo Grande Museum.

We both suspected that we’d gone as kids on school fields trips, since we both grew up in the Phoenix area, but we couldn’t remember the details.

Even though this is a small museum and site compared to some other Native American sites we have visited, it is impressive and we appreciated the conservation efforts. You are allowed to walk around the Mound complex on a paved path. I remember feeling bored here as a kid because the colors are very monotone, but I appreciate it a lot more as an adult. I took a class last year in anthropology using my college tuition waiver (one of my favorite job perks!) and I learned a lot about mound people and culture. It’s amazing to think that people settled in the Phoenix area almost a millenia and a half ago and get their society going for about 1,000 years. The Pima Indians of Arizona call them the Hohokam, “those who are are gone.” No one really knows why these ancient people died out or went away, and they left scant clues. IMG_1320.jpg

My husband was most impressed with their amazing engineering skills. They built dozens of canals that are scattered around the Valley area. They would use certain ones forever, it seemed, but others were used a short time and abandoned or diverted. Back then, the old river flowed steadily, so they had a constant fresh water source. This allowed them to cultivate crops and support their community. Some estimates say that at one time around Pueblo Grande there were 40,000 people spread out in small farming villages. Anthropologists say that learning to cultivate crops allowed the people the freedom to travel and trade. It’s clear that some of them traveled as far as the California coast, because a lot of the jewelry they left behind was made from shell.

I really enjoyed this opportunity to explore an important heritage site, basically located in our own backyard. The experience reminded me of visiting the La Brea Tar Pits ten years ago. I still can’t get over the fact a site like this, thousands of  years old, exists right in the heart of Phoenix, like La Brea, a bubbling pit of black tar, still exists, right in the middle of LA.

Thanks, Smithsonian Museum! IMG_1319.jpg


Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 73 – Grand Canyon Railroad

I’ve always wanted to try the Grand Canyon Railroad, ever since I heard an ad on a local radio stati0n when I was out in Thatcher, AZ, for an overnight trip a few years ago.

I decided to really make the experience authentic for our family we should stay at the Grand Canyon Railroad Hotel, too. We were pleased that the hotel has a giant kids’ playground nearby, a beautifully refurbished indoor pool and spa (I’m a little biased because my dad worked on this pool) and a nice convenience store for RV visitors. Also if your family stays at the hotel, you can tour their small on-site train museum and depot, eat in the hotel restaurant and get up early in the morning to watch a live cowboy action show.

We rose early because we needed to check out before we boarded the train. Boarding happens promptly at 9:30, so you do not want to be late!

We were so happy about how much fun this was. The train has many historic cars, refurbished so it feels like you are back in the 1920s. We rode in the Pullman class car, which is literally an old passenger car restored from that era. I was a little apprehensive because I read a review online that this car had no central AC. However, with the windows open, we found the ride to be quite pleasant. Plus, if you need to get up, stretch your legs or get a snack, the cafe car is only one car over.

During your fun ride up from Historic Williams AZ to canyon country, traveling marauders sing country tunes, yodel at you and tell stories. I heard that occasionally the train even gets robbed by bandits!

We loved this experience. The 2.5 hours to the canyon flew by because there was so much to do. We were even allowed to pack our own lunch. There’s a dining car, a bar car, a dome car for better viewing and luxury cars available, too.

The website, however, isn’t the best. I couldn’t figure out much about what the experience would be like from their page. I think they need to make the website simpler and more straightforward. I’m a seasoned traveler, so we figured out things OK. But I feel the ticket ordering process is unnecessarily complicated. You don’t really know what you’re getting when you order. If we hadn’t stayed at the hotel the night before, I don’t know what we would have done about camping. Also, just because you can bring food, doesn’t mean you should bring a lot. We almost brought a giant cooler with us. That would have been a pain in the BUTT to carry around the canyon rim for 3-4 hours!

Many of the structures at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government agency started by FDR to get people back in jobs at the end of the Great Recession and, simultaneously, an effort to build up the U.S.’s national parks and infrastructure. Read more:

There’s a rule you can’t buy plastic water bottles inside Grand Canyon because there’s been too much trouble with garbage, so you must bring your own water in and take it out. We were so concerned about the availability of water, we brought way too much. It turns out there are many, many water bottle refill stations along the rim, sometimes you just have to look around or ask.

Also, if you are negligent or irresponsible with your food and a squirrel gets it or you feed them, a park ranger WILL slap you with a $500 fine. We saw a family get fined and get angry just because their kid dropped something. You need to stay away–far, far away from the wildlife. Fleas in Coconino and Navajo counties in Arizona recently have tested positive for the Bubonic Plague. I am not kidding. Do not feed the wildlife.

Finally, visitors REALLY, REALLY need to be told to bring enough water, sunblock and sun shade devices. There’s not much shade on the rim, nor on the trails. You don’t know how many extremely sunburned folks we saw walking around. That’s how you end up with skin cancer.

So, even though the train tickets were quite expensive (I paid more than $200 RT for our little family of four) it was worth it. I would recommend this experience to families, couples, or winter visitors–appropriate for all ages.

Rent these far-looking binocs for only a few cents.


Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 74 – Historic Williams, AZ

Sometimes the additions to my Top 100 AZ Bucket List surprise even me!

I never thought about going to Williams, AZ, until we actually went there. We were on a four-day weekend trip, me my sister and my two little nieces who are 3 and 5. Sightseeing, we spent two nights in Prescott. Then we ventured north, because our plan was to head to Bearizona and maybe the Grand Canyon Deer Park, too, if we had time.

Well, we spent almost three hours at Bearizona and loved it, didn’t get to the deer park, BUT: an amazing surprise is that Historic Williams, Arizona, on the old Route 66, is a hidden gem!

My sister and I, being Arizona natives, like road trips in our home state and love to discover “off-the-beaten path” small towns and big surprises. We love Flagstaff, Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City/Laughlin, for example. Also, big fans of Tucson and Ajo.IMG_1223.jpg

So, pulling into Williams, we couldn’t help but smile at the quaint Route 66 charm we found immediately. We were hungry from the road, so we stopped at Jessica’s family restaurant, right by the police station. The menu had an unexpected mix of Greek, Mediterranean and American foods. The service was a little slow, but we didn’t mind, because we appreciated the welcome family vibe. And they had good coffee, which is important to me, because I often need to take shifts as driver on these family road trips.

Later at night, we came back downtown to find a place for dinner. There were so many selections–we were almost overwhelmed. We were staying at the Grand Canyon Railroad hotel, and it looked like they had a nice big restaurant and good bar, but we still wanted to see what else was out there. There’s a giant beer hall called Grand Canyon Brewing Company that looked promising. But we weren’t sure they’d love kids, so we drove back down the main drag. Being night owls, we were impressed with all the cute shops and restaurants that were still open at 8 p.m. We settled on Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe, because there was live music outside and no wait for a booth. Again, the service was kind of slow, but we chalked it up to small town life. Our waitress was really nice and friendly, brought crayons and kids’ menus for the girls to color on, and didn’t lose her cool when my niece spilled a whole cup of water across the table. The quality of food was pretty good, too.

Later we walked around the shops some more. There’s an eclectic mix of local AZ souvenirs, antiques, clothing and more. We learned that if we had gotten downtown earlier in the evening, there are live cowboy soot-outs and other reenactments at certain locals. So much to do and so much of it is walkable from the little local hotels–we definitely will be returning to Williams for more family adventures.

red fox bearizona

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 75 – Bearizona

Finally made it up to Bearizona in Northern Arizona. This the amazing wildlife park where you can actually drive your car through a number of wild animal habitats–safari-style.

red fox bearizona
Adorable Red Fox, native to Arizona, featured in a habitat at Bearizona wildlife park.


We got to see black bears, white wolves, white and brown American bison, Alaska Tundra Wolves (giant white wolves that look like friendly backyard dogs), elks and mule deer–all right outside the windows of my Camry. It was amazing. The plains area where the bison roam had the most animals.

We were even more enraptured by the walk-around zoo area in the park. The very first animals we saw were cute little orange foxes. They were so playful and healthy looking. The trainers gave them marshmallows as a treat and they chased each other for fifteen minutes.

White Bison Bearizona
A classic North American plains animal, the white bison are literally right outside your car window at Bearizona park.

We went into the petting zoo and held exotic chickens and got to brush some sheep. They also have more bears (of course!), live peafoul roaming free, big healthy looking porcupines and bobcats. The bobcats are shy.

black bear
Of course you will see many, many bears on the drive thru safari experience at Bearizona!

Last year (2016) they added jaguars. They have a beautiful male and I guess they have a female, too, but they don’t live in the same habitat. We overheard a trainer saying they don’t get along. The jaguar was amazing. If you stood at just the right angle you could see that its coat is not solid black, but has large round spots on its coat, kind of like a cheetah.

Bearizona’s male jaguar.

I’m looking forward to our next visit to Bearizona. They are expanding the park, they have a nice enormous restaurant, an outdoor food cart area where you can get beers, cocktails and ice cream, and an enormous gift shop. I heard they are working on building a hotel. Hopefully we can stay there next year.

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 76 – Rent a boat at Lake Pleasant

On a whim, the husband and I decided to stop at Lake Pleasant after an overnight trip in Yarnell. So we took I-74 and cut across the desert. I’ve been to Lake Pleasant a handful of times now. That’s where I did my PADI SCUBA open dives for certification.

We drove into the park (Maricopa County Parks) and at first he was dismayed because there was a line of cars to get in. Keep in mind this was 1 p.m. on a hot August Saturday. But the line moved quickly, kudos to the park service for that, and we paid our $6 to get in. We had the dog with us, some sandwiches and a cooler full of water.

IMG_1155.jpgIf you go and want to rent boats or jetskis, follow the initial signs towards the campgrounds and then look for the signs for Scorpion Bay Marina. When we pulled into the marina parking lot, at first we were confused, because it feels like you are up on a big cliff far away from the water’s edge. In fact, you are! But don’t fret. The vender has a tall staircase (kind of steep) and two self-service trams (they kind of look like outdoor elevators) to get you down to the dock. We had no problem with our load and our dog. In fact, it was kind of fun to operate the tram. But watch out for fingers when you close the heave doors.

The dog has never been on a boat before, so he was being a real baby about the dock and the water and the heat on his paw-pads. But eventually we got him down there.

Everyone in the rental office was so nice. We’d never driven a pontoon boat before, but they assured us it was easy. We got the 20-foot pontoon because it was cheapest by the hour and there was just the two of us so we didn’t need a huge party boat. Check out their website for all rentals and the rates. They do reservations for half- and full-day rentals, but not for hourly.

All-in-all, we had a fun few hours on the water. No one got hurt or sunburned. We captained the boat around and took turns parking in spots in jumping in the water. Fun activity and I’m glad we did it!

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List, No. 78 – Sedona Film Festival

I got the opportunity to visit the Sedona Film Festival last month (2/25). I heard from an old, dear professor of mine from The New School in New York City. Doug Morrione was basically my senior thesis adviser when I was working on editing my Kooz documentary. Doug has a strong background as a professional film and television editor. He’s worked on many documentaries and different reality TV series-es. Anyway, he decided to go it on his own and make a documentary–like actually assemble the concept and film it himself. The result was “Everything in the Song is True,” a documentary about cowboy poets, trick riders and ropers, ranchers and generally, honestly salt-of-the-earth talented and hardworking people of the Southwest.
I had been wanting to experience Sedona Film Fest for year. I didn’t realize it’s been running for more than 20 years! (I thought it was relatively new, like Phoenix Film Festival). I can’t say that I got to experience it as a true insider, because I only attended one event, but Doug’s film was sold out and I could tell from the emcee, festival organizers, and other filmmakers that I met that the experience was a success. I was especially impressed with the availability of parking in various areas around Sedona and the shuttle system they had set up. I imagine the after-party at the Hilton was pretty fun, too. I hope to return next year and maybe ever splurge on the VIP pass. Like anyone needed an excuse to get up to Sedona! (But then again, for me it had been more than 10 years. Conclusion: gas money well-spent!)

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List nos. 84-79

Jenna’s Arizona Bucket List 84-79

  1. Tovrea Castle

When I was a kid living in the East Valley, the mark that determined we were crossing city line into Phoenix was driving past the Tovrea Castle, often on the way to the airport. The cake-like structure captured my child mind with wonder and intrigue. Was it a hotel? Was it some rich dowager’s estate? Was it merely a landmark that the city was invested in?

It turns out that throughout its lifetime Tovrea Castle, also sometimes known as the former estate of failed businessman Alessio Carraro, once was all of those things. Much has been written about this AZ landmark, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Carraro and family had originally hoped it would be a sensational hotel destination for Phoenix tourists (circa 1928). Turns out, in the early 30s a couple other AZ businessmen—cattle ranchers—bought up the land around it, started raising their herds and slaughtering right there near where the freeway bends now. This made the area stink to high-heaven—literally. Not so attractive for tourists. Carraro had a series of bad financial issues and eventually was bought out by E.A. Tovrea, the namesake.

Tovrea Castle image courtesy
Tovrea Castle image courtesy

His widow, Della lived there until she died in 1969. And then the fate of the odd architecture job was up in the air. There were all kinds of different plans; some called for demolition, some private owners thought of buying it. Eventually the City of Phoenix bought is with monies from a bond election. but even the city had trouble nailing down a business plan. As a teen when ever my family would drive by I’d long for the day I could set foot in this strange, iconic landmark. I wrote an article on the place in 1999 for Get Out Magazine (Tempe Tribune) and one of my sources suggested it may never be open to the public—too structurally unsound. That broke my heart.

Fortunately, through the concerted efforts of a community that really cared for the place as I had all these years, the City of Phoenix got its restoration plan together and they now open it up to volunteer-led tours. There is an admission to consider ($15), and you have to plan ahead of time. It’s only open certain hours and reservations should be made through the Tovrea Castle Tours website.

It’s well worth it. The tour leader drives your group up the front door on a shuttle and you get a couple hours inside. The place is sparsely furnished, but the tour volunteers are all trained as docents, full of fun stories and history. Like the time one of the workman’s sheds caught fire. And another time Tovrea’s elderly widow was tied up and held at gunpoint (there’s even a bullet hole in the kitchen ceiling!). The Tovrea Carraro Society oversees these volunteers and holds special events from time to time. For more information, email:

  1. Diving at Lake Pleasant

Someone once told me: Hey, Jenna! Go jump in the lake. So I was like, OK.

No, but for reals. I just completed my PADI SCUBA certification with some students and faculty from my school. This weekend we did our real and true first open water dives in Lake Pleasant.

I know what you are thinking: Lake Pleasant—disgusting! Isn’t it all murky and full of drunken boaters?

And …

you would be correct,  Sir or Madam! But when you are 26 feet below the surface level, all of that crap doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. You can think to yourself: I am breathing! Underwater!! Like a fish!

So, thanks Lake Pleasant, for helping me reach one of my Bucket List goals. I am now PADI Open Water certified. Headed back to the lake in a couple weekends to achieve Advanced certification status.

Lake Pleasant SCUBA diving image courtesy
Lake Pleasant SCUBA diving image courtesy
  1. Return to Chiricahua National Monument

When I was a kid, my dad would take us to Vegas on his weekends a lot. But my mom, on her weekends, would take us camping.

I have to give her a lot of credit for this. It isn’t easy to wrangle the kids, wash all the sleeping bags, pack up the tent, the charcoal, the coolers, enough water to get through the weekend AND remember your spare batteries, bathing suits, towels and camping cutlery. But somehow my mom had it together. In fact, I think after a few tries, she probably had a quick-to-go kit on the ready, not unlike something FEMA and varoius other state agencies encourage us all to have. Oh—but how few of us listen! Check out Google searches for FEMA Grab and Go and if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyway, those little excursions into nature were refreshing and sometimes breathtaking. There was the time we thought we were going to be attacked by bears out n Southern Arizona. The campground is literally called Bear Canyon Campground. It was extra dark that night and we heard all kinds of unfamiliar sounds. I think my mom went and slept in the car, leaving my little sister and I all alone in our big scary dark tent. There was a hike we did out at the Superstition Mountains where we got—legit—trained in desert survival by this cracked out old hippie guy with a gray beard. I still remember how to build a still well!

Rocks at Chiricahua National Monument
Rocks at Chiricahua National Monument

But the ultimate best adventure camping and hiking that we ever did was in Chiricahua National Monument. The place came up in a conversation with a new friend recently and I was elated that he knew about the place and seems to love it as much as I do. I don’t feel like I am exaggerating when I say this is the most beautiful national park I’ve ever been to (including Grand Canyon!).

First, the thing that takes my breath away is the diversity of natural topography within the park. On the same little parks maintained road you can go from woodsy, to exotic forest with maple trees (yes! maples! in AZ!) to high desert. Second is the incredible mix of wildlife you will encounter. Chiricahua is right dead smack there on the migratory bird path up from Central and South Americas. That means it’s not unusual to see roadrunners, wrens and jays, all kinds of hummingbirds, but also more exotic movers n’ shakers such as: ruby-crowned kinglets, Pacific-slope flycatchers and warbling virios. The National Park Service has recently updated its Birds list.

Apparently there’s a back way through the park that takes you almost through New Mexico but then up to a little town amidst the monument’s highest altitudes, but I don’t want to give away all the good secrets here in my blog. What I do want is another chance to go back to this magical place—it’s been a good dozen years for me. Any campers out there, email me stat. We could go this summer!

  1. Dine at The Stockyards

This one goes along with No. 84. I don’t have much to elaborate on this, except that it’s a dern Arizona landmark and I’ve always wanted to eat there!

I ate at Bill Johnson’s once as a kid. I guess that’s a good thing to brag about, seeing as the company has shrank and several of their outlying locations are gone.

I believe in ethically raising beef and of course, humane living conditions and slaughter. That said, I would sure like to share in the AZ cattle tradition and eat a nice big steak in a place that can proudly say it has called AZ home for 69 years! I suppose this adventure could be rolled in with my day out at Pueblo Grande. Also in the area is…

  1. The Hall of Flame Museum

The building is incredibly nondescript and there really isn’t much to catch the eye. Still, I’ve rolled past it probably 50 times or more and always thought to myself: Hey! I should go to the Hall of Flame Museum some day.

I mean for only $7, even if you spend just ½ an hour that would count. I think I only spent less than an hour at La Brea Tarpits in LA. I actually think I paid more for parking that day than the actual attraction.

Besides, who doesn’t love to look at some firefighters? Even photos of them. Am-I-right?

  1. Hot air balloon ride over Happy Valley

I realize I am going to have to get up at the ass-crack of dawn for this one, and that will be a compromise; I’ve never been a morning person. But I imagine it’ll be amazing. If anyone knows pricing, or even better “knows someone,” I am all ears.

Hot air balloon, Lake Pleasant, AZ
Hot air balloon, Lake Pleasant, AZ

I actually asked my hubby when we got engaged if he’d be willing to tie the knot with me up in a hot air balloon. It looked good… on paper. We both realized we hate flying. So we decided—the courthouse, it is!

Still, I’d like to go up there with a bottle of champagne, check out some romantic views, and then come back down to earth. Hopefully avoiding the I-17.