Print Park hosts activities to encourage locals to visit
Written by Greg Ruland   
Monday, 19 September 2011 00:00

Autumn is just around the corner at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, a wildlife oasis at the heart of the city of Cottonwood. Most locals know the park is there, but too many pass up the chance to see the rare animals and plants it supports.

Park officials hatch a plan this month they believe will change all that.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park ranger Max Castillo explains  Sept. 6 some of the park’s hydrology while offering a preview of future nature walk programs in the park. The nature walks will be guided by park volunteer Margie Sanchez and take place every Sunday from Oct. 2 until Nov. 13.Starting Sunday, Sept. 25, the park hosts weekly mountain bike seminars to train inexperienced cyclists on the art and science of touring the park on two wheels. The following weekend, Sunday, Oct. 2, weekly nature walks begin.

The free programs, led by park rangers, are expected to bring area residents back to the park and entertain the thousands of tourists who flock there each year, park ranger Max Castillo said.

“To not come out here and enjoy it is kind of silly,” Castillo said.

A 35-year veteran of the park, Castillo knows just about every inch of the place. He led an abbreviated nature hike Sept. 6 to point out what so many people are missing. Flora and fauna abound.

For example, Verde Valley sage, Arizona cliff rose and Ripley’s wild buckwheat, all endangered species, find refuge in the park thanks to particular soils and climate that rarely combine in nature.

Pointing to the water, Castillo describes an entirely different problem related to cattails, an invasive water plant that proliferates so quickly it threatens to choke the life out of the park’s three lagoons.

An aquatic lawnmower, actually a boat with a rotating blade, cuts the cattails back beneath the surface.

“It’s a constant battle,” he said.

Catfish, trout, bluegill and bass, among other fish species, dodge the blades and multiply in the depths of the lagoons, as deep as 20 feet in places. Specially prepared habitat maintained by park rangers make the ponds excellent breeding grounds.

While fish are easier to see when attached to a pole, a large variety of other animals may be viewed through binoculars or up close and personal, Castillo said.

White-tailed deer, javelina, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, foxes, bobcats and ring-tailed cats call the park home, but it is the birds thousands come to see, especially during the annual Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival, Castillo said.

The cottonwood-willow habitat along the Verde River provides a high-altitude home for bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches, olive warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos and many other species. The endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher nests there as do bald eagles, which can be seen perched at the top of tall, dead cottonwoods preparing to dive and catch a fish or two for supper.

The park has 10 miles of well-maintained trails that are well-traveled by hikers, bikers, horses and riders, birders and dog walkers. Most trails average around 2 miles in length and vary in difficulty from easy to moderate, Castillo said.

For more information, call 634-5283.