A Desert Garden of Eden

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Arizona’s fabled Valley of the Sun surrounding Phoenix is, in the final analysis, a desert.  On the positive side, that’s why so many RVers head there when skies turn gray back home and the TV meteorologists point out wave after wave of approaching low pressure systems conveying rain, ice and snow. Who wants to shovel snow and scrape frosted windows when you can bask in 70-degree temperatures?  As with most things, there is a flip side. The Valley of the Sun isn’t the most pleasant place to be in June, when the Phoenix TV meteorologists start keeping track of how many days in a row it’s been over 110 degrees.  Again, it’s a desert.

What exactly is a desert?  A great place to find out is in a stunning Arizona State Park known as the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s only an hour’s drive from Phoenix, but in that hour, you’ll leave behind the traffic, the congestion, the endless subdivisions and that ugly brown air. That’s the first benefit of visiting what the locals call BTA.

Arboretum founder William Boyce Thompson built his house next to the grounds.The second benefit comes when you realize this is no Sahara wasteland of sand and rock.  The setting is Arizona at its best with the twisted volcanic Superstition Mountains to the north and Picketpost Mountain dominating the southern skyline. The surrealistic rhyolite prominence of Magma Ridge serves as a beige backdrop to carefully planned paths that wander through the gardens.  A portion of the arboretum is along Queen Creek, a riparian zone of towering Fremont cottonwood, Arizona ash, Gooding willow and Arizona black walnut.  And along Silver King Wash, you are magically transported to the arid lands down under, complete with towering eucalyptus trees and even an Australian drover’s wool shed.

By this time, it should be apparent there is no single definition of “desert.” The Chihuahuan Desert Trail showcasing the plants and trees of the desert lands of New Mexico, Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua demonstrates the differences of this land and its flora from the adjoining Sonoran desert that encompasses Phoenix.  Having lived in both deserts, we can point to the place east of Tucson where palo verde trees give way to velvet mesquite and where the range of the stately saguaros ends. In one area of the arboretum, you’ll discover that trees from the Canary Island and southern Europe are quite similar to trees found in Arizona.  Northern Africa and southern Europe have climates similar to the southwestern United States.

Birds and Butterflies
Queen Creek provides water for the arboretum.You don’t have to be a plant fanatic or even a plant lover to enjoy Boyce Thompson, just a lover of the great outdoors. In fact, our introduction had little to do with the plants themselves.  As avid birders then living in Phoenix, we were first drawn there by a continuing parade of avian rarities; birds that ought to be some distance south or east but which regularly showed up at the arboretum. It is also known as a place to look for butterflies and dragonflies, both common and unusual. The hummingbird and butterfly garden is planted with plants whose flowers attract these flying rainbows. Over time, the arboretum has become as popular a destination for birders, butterfly and dragonfly seekers as it is for plant lovers. Visitors to the arboretum seem equally divided between those with cameras and those with binoculars.

The Children’s Garden, completed in April of 2008, is a wonderland of bright colors, whimsical decorations, and activities for children of all ages. Plantings are changed and added to throughout the year, making this a part of the arboretum that is always colorful.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the fulfillment of an unusual man’s dream. William Boyce Thompson had a natural gift for studying prospective mines and selecting the most promising for development and investment.  He made investors a lot of money, and in doing so, became quite wealthy himself.  In Arizona, he was the founder and first president of Inspiration Consolidated Copper Mine at Globe-Miami and Magma Copper Company in Superior. He also gained a reputation as a humanitarian when in 1917, he joined a Red Cross expedition bringing medical and humanitarian assistance to a war-torn and devastated Russia, whose armies were still fighting Germany in World War I while engaged in a brutal civil war with remaining adherents of the deposed Czar. Forced to reach the Russian capital from the Pacific because of the war, Thompson became impressed with the role plants played in sustaining life in the arid lands he passed through and he began to dream of an arboretum for plants of the world’s deserts where uses and even seeds could be shared. He began his work in Yonkers, New York, with a research institute that is now named for him. In Arizona in 1923, he began to make his dream of an arboretum a reality.

Thompson’s goal was to bring together plants from arid lands so that scientists and researchers could study, experiment, research and investigate uses and attributes that made the plants unique.  Just as importantly, he wanted the arboretum to be open to the public.  By the time he died in 1930, the arboretum had already gained a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of Arizona.

Worldwide Examples
Stately Saguaros soar above the desert floor.Today, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum has greatly enlarged on Thompson’s original dream. A demonstration garden shows the varieties of plantings that don’t require excessive water, even in the torrid Sonoran desert summers. What water is needed for the arboretum is drawn from Queen Creek and stored in Ayers Lake, a man-made lake also used as a habitat for two endangered fish: the Gila topminnow and the desert pupfish. The herb garden is the envy of anyone who enjoys preparing culinary delights.  Sections of the arboretum grounds are devoted to plants of specific arid lands, including portions of Australia, South America, Asia and North America.  Greenhouses built adjacent to the original visitor’s center contain unusual and rare succulents and cacti.  And if your definition of a desert is a place devoid of color, come prepared to be astounded.  In spring and summer, color is always present at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, sometimes subtly and often in riotous, outrageous extravagance.  Fortunately, there’s hardly ever a time when BTA could earn the sobriquet of a monochrome place. 

Research continues; in fact, BTA is not only a state park; it is also part of the University of Arizona. But Thompson’s goal of giving the public access is best expressed by the thousands of visitors who come and have their horizons expanded as to the value and use of plants and trees from arid lands for food, shelter and livelihood, both in the past and the present.

The arboretum today is over 1,000 acres with approximately 300 acres open to the public.  Literature available at the visitor’s center claims there are 3,201 different types of plants in the arboretum. We didn’t try counting them to see if they were right.  Thompson’s home, the 8,000-square-foot Picket Post House, is immediately adjacent to the arboretum and easily viewed from the far end of the main trail. It was in private hands for years, but in 2008, the state was able to purchase it with Heritage Funds and it is now under park management.  Unfortunately, due to dated plumbing and electrical wiring and the state’s current funding crisis, public access may be some time in the future.

Easy Access

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is located 55 miles east of Phoenix. From Phoenix, take the Superstition Freeway (U.S. Highway 60) east.  The arboretum is on highway 60, about three miles west of the town of Superior. The entrance is on the south side of the road at milepost 223 and is well marked.  It is open every day of the year except Christmas, usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Summer hours from May to September are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased up to one hour before closing.  Admission is $7.50 per adult, $3 per child 5 to 12 years of age. Annual memberships are $45 for a couple or $60 for a family. Arizona State Park passes are accepted.  Well-behaved pets are welcome on a leash no longer than six feet in length. 

Those with physical limitations will want to know that at least half of the trails and paths are barrier free.  They are not paved but are made of packed earth, allowing wheelchair bound visitors and those with walkers to enjoy much of the arboretum.  The demonstration garden is a particularly nice setting for those whose mobility is limited.  There are peaceful gardens and knockout vistas to enjoy as well as color almost year-round.

RV parks are available in and beyond Apache Junction along Highway 60.  The parking lot at Boyce Thompson has parking spaces for RVs but no overnight parking is allowed.  The town of Superior is small but there are restaurants both along Highway 60 and in the old historic downtown.  Superior RV Park is less than three miles from Boyce Thompson on Highway 60.

If you are in the Phoenix or Tucson areas, we strongly recommend a visit to Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.  The planted areas, the creative use of water, the statuary all combine to make it a very special place.  Plan on making a day of it; the arboretum is large; the main trail is 1 1/2 miles long and only skirts the edge of the several specialized gardens.  Tours of the arboretum are at 1 p.m. each day October through April and are included in your entrance fee.  There is a picnic area along Queen Creek with charcoal barbeques and shaded by lovely trees.  If you plan on using it, ask for a token when you pay your entrance fee.  This will allow you to park your car in a special lot near the picnic tables. 

For further information and to get information on events that occur throughout the year, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or go to the website: ag.arizona.edu/bta. Groups of twenty or more should make advance reservations and can be furnished guided tours.  Reservations can be made by telephone (520) 689-2723.

Gerald C. Hammon and his wife, Sharon, are writers and full-time RVers.

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Written by Gerald C. and Sharon L. Hammon
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