Louise Speaks: After 4 days at Roper Lake State Park it is time to head on home. Our last stop and only about 50 miles from our Mesa home is yet another State Park. Different from the others, but is listed as a state park, because the state parks manage the upkeep. Although I had been by here many times I had never stopped. I guess living in Arizona where you see cacti and desert plants all the time it just didn’t seem important to stop. However, having stopped today, I really wish I had stopped here before and maybe taken my children. A very unusual place and being that it is April, many of the cactus flowers are blooming so it is quite spectacular. The weather today is perfect as well, not too hot and a very nice breeze is blowing.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the largest and oldest botanical garden in the state of Arizona. The Arboretum has a visitor center, gift shop, research offices, greenhouses, a demonstration garden, picnic area, and a looping 1.5-mile primary trail that leads you through various exhibits and natural areas. There is so much to see that you feel like it is much further than 1.5 miles, The exhibits include a cactus garden, palm and eucalyptus groves, an Australian exhibit, South American exhibit, aloe garden and an herb garden. There are also side trails such as the Chihuahuan Trail, Curandero Trail, and High Trail. We missed the suspension bridge so I guess that means I have to come back.
The arboretum was founded by William Boyce Thompson, a mine engineer. In the early 1920s, Thompson, enamored with the landscape around Superior, built The Picket Post house, overlooking Queen Creek. The impressive 7,000 sq ft mansion, can still be seen, perched atop the volcanic magma cliffs just east of the Arboretum. This was the winter home of the founder, Colonel Thompson. The mansion was sold and remained in private hands for decades, but was re-acquired by Arizona State Parks in 2008. Arizona State Parks cooperatively manages the “castle on the hill,” which was suppose to re-open for occasional tours in 2009. The house looks pretty good, but when I asked about it, I was told it was not inhabitable as it is not up to code. Seems like a beautiful structure to just let sit and rot. I would think someone would find a way to make it up to code so that it could be seen and toured again. In doing my research, apparently a special tour was conducted just this past January and the photos of the inside are just incredible. I would gladly have paid the additional fee to tour the mansion. Hopefully this will soon become a regular option. Yup, another reason to come back.
Boyce Thompson definitely had a vision. He wrote: “I have in mind far more than mere botanical propagation. I hope to benefit the State and the Southwest by the addition of new products. A plant collection will be assembled which will be of interest not only to the nature lover and the plant student, but which will stress the practical side, as well to see if we cannot make these mesas, hillsides, and canyons far more productive and of more benefit to mankind. We will bring together and study the plants of the desert countries, find out their uses, and make them available to the people. It is a big job, but we will build here the most beautiful, and at the same time the most useful garden of its kind in the world.” It seems like he did just what he intended to do. This place is huge and so well organized. The gardens are separate and everything is labeled so you can see what they are.
The Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum was established on April 1, 1924, by hiring its first two employees. Their first project was the construction of two homes that still exist on site, the Crider House and the Gibson House. Propagation buildings were put up in 1925 and by 1926, the Smith Building which was the administration building, and the first visitor center. Two connecting greenhouses were later built. You are able to go into this building and the green houses. Ayer Lake, named after Charles Ayer, was created the same year to help irrigate the lower portion of the park. Ayer Lake is the source of irrigation water for the entire collection plants. The lake gets it’s water from Queen Creek. There’s a shallow well located in the canyon just east of the suspension bridge that spans Queen Creek and leads to the High Trail. Water from the well is piped up and over the cliffs, then flows downhill through a drainage to the lake, entering at the east end. If you’re walking near the Picket Post Mansion, listen and look for the artificial “waterfall” splashing down from the cliffs above when the lake is being refilled! The Desert Pupfish and the Gila Top Minnow live in Ayer Lake. They are both endangered fish and are used by Game & Fish to stock other bodies of water where the fish have died off.
In 1927, the Boyce Thompson Southwest Arboretum was incorporated, becoming the first non-profit research organization in Arizona. The chief attraction at the Arboretum is the system of nature trails, with over two miles of combined length that weave through the botanical gardens. bThese gardens represent the “living museum” of plants capable of living in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. Many are native species; others have been introduced. A series of shady interpretive ramadas are located along the Main Loop Trail to provide a place to relax, get out of the sun, and learn about the Arboretum’s plants, animals, natural and human history.
As you approach the Arboretum on Highway 60 you’ll see towering Picketpost Mountain dominating the southern horizon. The Arboretum brings together plants from the Earth’s many and varied deserts and dry lands and displays them alongside unspoiled examples of the native Sonoran Desert vegetation. No matter what the season, you will enjoy a moving and memorable experience of the beauty, majesty, and mystery of arid land plants. Who would have thought that desert plants could be so beautiful. You will also enjoy the many natural communities that form the arid land environment. You will see so many plants, flowers and trees as you as you walk the Main Loop. It is a very easy walk with many shaded areas. There are park benches along the way as well as water fountains for drinking and water bowls for your pets. You will also find peaceful reflection in the cool shade of towering trees in Queen Creek Canyon; and intellectual stimulation in the many and varied displays at the Smith Interpretive Center. In 1976 the Arboretum became part of the Arizona State Park system.
Like I said I have been by here numerous times and had never stopped. We spent several hours here just wondering and enjoying all the desert bloom. This was the perfect day for this adventure, although we were told there is something in bloom all year long. This attraction is right off Hwy. 60 and I would recommend it to everyone. I’m sure visitors from places other than the desert will find this to be one of the most beautiful and informative sites they have seen. Local Arizonians should find it equally interesting and enjoyable because we don’t usually see so many plants, trees and flowers in one place. The Boyce Thompson Arboretum gets an A+ rating. It is a MUST see!