What is “work camping”? Like “boondocking” this is a term that has varying meanings to different folks, but we use it to mean any sort of work where a place to park the RV is part or all of the compensation.
When we visit Arizona, plenty of free dispersed camping is available on public lands, allowing us to find paying jobs rather than bartering labor for a site in an RV park as so many work campers seem to do. Some people enjoy campground work, and when the barter arrangement is fair it can be a real win-win for both the park owner and the work camper. However, with the growing popularity of Rving and work camping, Some RV parks and owners seem to be attempting to exploit workers. In a barter arrangement, the value of the campsite is the pay, and when dividing the pay by the number of hours required results in too low an effective hourly wage, we just are not interested. We are very happy to volunteer our time at state and national parks, but have no desire to help a private business avoid paying fair wages. If all work campers would do the same, then park owners would start offering better compensation, but too many workers are all to willing to “volunteer” at private RV parks.
While visiting Tucson I wanted a way to make some extra cash in order for Curly to take classes at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. Craigslist gigs can be hit-or-miss, but I kept checking and eventually found a job building horse fence at Grasshopper Hill Farm in Patagonia. We contacted the owner to see if there were someplace we could park the camper on the farm, As it turned out, they were currently homeschooling their daughter and were more than happy to welcome another homeschooling family to camp out on their property. The pay was $13 an hour for the fence job, with no charge to camp there and a few meals thrown in. The kids were close enough to supervise throughout the day and happy to have a new friend and some farm critters to spend time with. The couple we were working for were laid-back, intelligent, and fun to talk with, and we bonded over a beer at the end of each workday.
They invited us to stay on for a week after the job was done and see some of Patagonia, and have invited us to come back again. One of the best parts of traveling is making new friends!
As we planned a visit to Tucson, we began by looking for attractions that were free to the public or free with our WNC Nature Center membership. A look at the ASTC Travel Passport participant list led us to check out the International Wildlife Museum, a fabulous experience for both the scientists and the artists ni the family.
About the International Wildlife Museum
The International Wildlife Museum is located on Gates Pass rd. on the west side of Tucson. Admission is $10 for adults and teens, $7 for seniors and military, and $5 for children (3 and under are free.) The museum is open 7 days a week at 9:oo AM, but is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Admission includes all exhibits and the wildlife theater, which shows nature films and documentaries. Seating is first-come, first-served, but plenty of seats were available when we visited. A sign on the door says popcorn is for sale in the gift shop for $1. Visitors should know that this is microwave popcorn, popped on request.
Visitors should understand that the International Wildlife museum is not a zoo, and with the exception of a couple of exhibits in the insect room, you will not be seeing live animals, but rather preserved specimens and replicas. One of the benefits of viewing a specimen is that it isn’t moving, allowing your young scientists and artists to carefully observe its anatomy and the colors, textures and patterns of its fur or feathers.
Some of the displays depict predators in the act of pursuing and taking their prey. If you think your children may be sensitive to this, we suggest preparing them ahead of time by reminding them that the animals are not alive, but stuffed, and that the scenes are created by humans.
In addition to animal exhibits, the International Wildlife Museum has some art on display. One current exhibition is a collection of sculpted leather mixed-media pieces by Jana Booker
Although mammals and birds make up the bulk of the museum exhibits, the insect room was a great favorite with us all. There was a wide variety of butterflies and beetles displayed, from native species to exotic. There were live Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a live tarantula (which is not actually an insect, but an arachnid)
We were also happy for a chance to see a specimen of the extinct passenger pigeon. Nobody will ever have a chance to see this bird again in the wild or in a zoo, so we were grateful to see it at all.
The International Wildlife Museum would have been well worth the price of admission, however, the ASTC Travel Passport program saved us $49 on admission to this attraction. The adults and children alike learned quite a lot and we even went back a second day to sketch and take another look at some of our favorites. I hope you get a chance to visit too!
Although we found lots of other things to see and places to go once we got there, the reason we went to Arizona in the first place was to see the Grand Canyon.
We were there in March, not due to any preplanning but simply because that’s when we got there. The weather was cool still, but there was no snow on the ground. I should say, there was no snow on the ground when we arrived.
About Grand Canyon National Park
A national park since 1919, Grand Canyon National Park contains 1904 acres. The canyon itself averages a mile in depth and ten miles across. At the widest point, the distance from rim to rim is an astounding eighteen miles!
Entrance fees for the park are for a seven day period. Entrance for a private vehicle and occupants is $30, a motorcycle is $25, and bicyclists or pedestrians pay $15. An annual pass for Grand Canyon National park is $60, which admits the passholder and the other occupants of the vehicle, or when entering by bicycle, on foot, or by shuttle/train, admits the passholder’s immediate family (defined as parents, spouse, and children) While the Grand Canyon annual pass is a good value if you’re going to spend two weeks or more visiting, the “America the Beautiful” annual pass, which grants admission to National Parks and other federal lands, is an even better deal at $80.
The south rim has a visitor center near Mather Point, with educational displays, video presentations about the canyon and a knowledgable staff to answer questions. The Yavapai Geology Museum features exhibits about the formation and geology of the canyon, and large viewing windows (a great choice for viewing the canyon if you have young children and are nervous standing near the rim with them!) Kolb Studio, near the Bright Angel trailhead, was previously a photography studio and private home. Today the building houses art and history exhibits. At Verkamps Visitor Center you can learn about the history of settlements and development in and around the Grand Canyon. On the eastern end of the park, you can climb the Desert View Watchtower for 360° views of the canyon and surrounding landscape. The tower itself, though, is also worth seeing for its design and architecture. Designed by Mary Coulter, the building contains murals by renowned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. Hermit’s Rest,on the west end of the park, is another Mary Coulter design, has exhibits, a gift shop and cafe. Finally, don’t overlook the Tusayan Museum and ruin. There are no sweeping canyon views here, but rather an intimate look at the ways of life of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Although RV and tent camping is available in developed campgrounds within Grand Canyon National Park, free dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest puts visitors just outside the park. Stop in at the Tusayan District Ranger office for a Motor Vehicle use Map (MVUM) or get an electronic version ahead of time. We chose a campsite on FR 307 up the road a ways from the Grandview Lookout fire tower. There is a trailhead near the fire tower, with vault toilets.
Within the park there is a building with coin-operated laundromat and pay showers. Visitors do not need to be registered at the in-park campgrounds to use these amenities. Showers cost $2 for 8 minutes, and the water was good and hot. A bill changer is available in the laundry room. There were men’s and women’s rooms with multiple showers, as well as a handicapped accessible/family shower. I saw the attendant unlocking the handicapped accessible shower for a woman with a young school-age boy. I supposed she felt he was a little old to go in the women’s showers, but she didn’t want to send him in the men’s showers alone. I was glad to see the staff accommodate them!
We recommend bringing plenty of groceries with you. Prices close to the park are very high. We only planned to stay a few days and were not well-stocked. Then we got some snow, which quickly melted, and we felt it best not to try to get underway until the mud dried out. After a week, when we decided to stay a second week, we took a day to drive into Flagstaff to resupply. Had there not been a 14-day stay limit in the National Forest, we might have stayed even longer!
Things to Do
In addition to the many museums and visitor centers, Grand Canyon National Park offers a variety of ranger-led programs. There are daytime talks suitable for younger children, but we particularly enjoyed the evening ranger programs. We learned about subjects ranging from the Colorado River to the effects of fire suppression on the forest landscape. These programs are held at Shrine of the Ages, which also is home to various religious services on Sundays. Although most worshippers were employees (and their families) of the National Park Service, US Forest Service, or the hotels and eateries within the park, we were made to feel very welcome at church services as visitors.
One of the best parts of visiting Grand Canyon National Park was hiking. We hiked about 3 miles along the Rim trail, hopping on and off the free shuttle at various points. We also hiked below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel trail, going as far as the lower tunnel before turning around. It’s much harder climbing back up than going down!
When we visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2017, we learned of the National Park Service Hike for Health pins. Five National Park sites in Arizona participate, and each has a unique pin one can earn just by hiking a minimum distance in the park. The hiking distance can be accumulated over multiple trails on multiple days. Just take photos of yourselves on each trail hiked to show the staff at the visitor centers.
Where and how we earned our National Park Service Hike for Health pins
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 5 miles required.
Since we were staying in the campground in the park, we took the Desert View Trail for 1.2 miles. The trailhead was accessible from the campground, though we would consider it more of a walk than a hike. Next we hiked the Arch Canyon Trail. The maintained trail is 1.2 miles round-trip, but we decided to keep going up to the top of the rocks to the arch. The route was marked with “unofficial” cairns but turned into a fairly challenging scramble. Since Tiny was riding in a back carrier and making it hard for Dusty to keep his balance, we decided to turn back about halfway up the “unofficial trail.” It’s always been our rule that any of us feels we should turn back on a hike for any reason, the others will respect that. We estimated 2.5 miles total for this hike based on Dusty’s fitness tracker. The next day, we all went on a 1.6 mile ranger-led hike to Red Tanks Tinaja. Although there were a couple of other people on this hike, ours were the only children. They had lots and lots of questions for the ranger about what we were seeing along the trail, and although the pace was slow, the time flew by. We were all excited to get our hiking pin and resolved to get them at the other participating parks the following winter.
Chiricahua National Monument: 5 miles required.
The day we arrived it was rainy, snowy at higher elevations, and the road was closed past the visitor center. Not to be discouraged, we put on rain gear and hiked the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail out and back for a total of 3 miles. We came back a couple of days later when things had dried up rode the hikers’ shuttle, which allowed us to hike from Massai point to the Heart of Rocks Loop, then back to the visitor center. This hike was over 7 miles so we got our hiking pins when we got back to the visitor center, but we weren’t done hiking at Chiricahua yet! On subsequent days we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain (1.8 miles) Echo Canyon Loop (3.3 miles) and Natural Bridge Trail (4.8 miles) bringing our hiking total for Chiricahua over a ten-day period to 20.1 miles
Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 3 miles required.
Fort Bowie is unusual in that one doesn’t begin by driving to a visitor center, but rather parks at a trailhead on a gravel road and hikes into the park. A 1.5 mile trail takes one past the post cemetery, Apache spring, ruins of a miner’s cabin, the Indian agency, and the Butterfield Stage Station, ending at the Visitor’s Center and ruins of the second Fort Bowie. We took a guided hike, offered once a week, and received our pin at the visitor center, even though we had only done the first half of the hike. After all, we had to hike back out to get to our car, didn’t we?
Coronado National Memorial: 3 miles required.
We started by exploring Coronado Cave. There’s a half-mile hike to the cave entrance, so there and back gave us one mile. The next morning, we got up early to ride the hikers’ shuttle up in order to hike back to the visitor center via Joe’s Canyon Trail. This hike by itself was just over three miles one way.
Tumacacori National Historical Park: 4 miles required
Although Tumacacori itself was wonderful to see, most of the hike for this pin is outside of the park. We only did it because we wanted to get the last pin! The trail is flat without any particular points of interest and the further we got from the park boundary, the more trash we saw on the ground and in the water. It would be a very good birding walk if one isn’t in a large noisy group, however. We walked two miles out and then two miles back, but another option in January through March is to ride a hikers’ shuttle, offered the first and third Saturday of the month, and hike the four miles one way back to the park.
In the beginning of March, we were in Arizona already, and this National Park site was not too far from the FamCamp where we were staying, so we decided to check it out. The entrance fee was $12, which was good for a seven day period.
We decided to camp inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The rate was $16 per night, but with the Access pass it was discounted to $8 per night. There were no hookups available, but each site had a barbeque grill and a picnic table. Some sites had shade ramadas. The sites were rather close together, but we had adequate room, and anyway we were really only at the campsite to eat and sleep. There were RV rows where generators are allowed, RV rows where generators were NOT allowed, and tent rows, with the no-generator RV rows acting as a buffer between the tent sites and the generator sites. We chose a site in the no-generator section as close to the tent rows (and thus furthest from the generator rows) as possible. We had a solar panel rather than a generator, and wanted to minimize noise. There were comfort stations with flush toilets and solar-heated showers. I was also very excited to see a book exchange near the entrance to the campground. I got rid of some books we were done with and picked out a couple of new ones.
We felt that camping in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was a good value because the amphitheater where evening programs are held is adjacent to the campground. Had we camped outside the park on BLM land, I doubt we would have had time to come back into the park for evening programs after returning to our campsite to cook supper, and the evening programs were well worth our while. Topics ranged from night-blooming cacti and the bats and moths that pollinate them, to identifying animal tracks, to the Native American stories behind the stars and constellations. The evening programs at this park were the best we’ve attended in any park so far.
The children, big and small, enjoyed completing the junior Ranger program and earning a badge. They also particularly enjoyed going on a Ranger-led hike to Red Rocks Tinaja. We were the only family with children on this hike, but the ranger was happy to answer their many questions.
One of our favorite parts of our visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the ‘Hike for Health” program. We picked up a log sheet in the visitor center and recorded our hikes. Once we reached 5 miles in total, we recieved a free pin. By dividing the milage among shorter hikes over a couple of days, even my three-year-old was able to do it!
This park site preserves a unique piece of habitat in the Sonoran desert. Not only is it one of the only places where the organ pipe cactus is found in the US, it is also home to an endangered pupfish. You can see the pupfish in a manmade pool at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, and also in their original habitat, Quitobaquito Springs.
The Monument is right on the Mexican border, and there has been illegal activity in the past. The Visitor Center is named after a ranger, Kris Eggle, who was killed in the line of duty in 2002 while pursuing drug cartel members. Don’t let that deter you from visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, however! We didn’t encounter anyone sneaking across the border, but we did see a gorgeous variety of plant and animal life.