We were back among the stately saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert.
Tucson, Arizona has a bit of a funky college town feel. That vibe and its 530k population reminded us of our home, Austin, from when we’d first moved there in the 1980’s. Austin’s population has since exploded and it’s small-town funkiness has faded somewhat, so we relished our time in Tucson.
We’d slept in after arriving late the previous evening. By the time we waited for seating at a popular brunch spot (see below), the sun had moved well west of 90⁰. Yet, we continued as planned… to hike among the enchanting saguaros.
Saguaro National Park – West
The city of Tucson divides Saguaro National Park into west and east sides.
While the city seems to be encroaching the parks’ borders, both are full of saguaro cacti, and have hiking trails and scenic loop drives.
We first headed to the western section, or the Tucson Mountain District, because it is smaller and recommended for those pressed for time.
Yet, it still provided us with a sense of wilderness hiking.
The Sendero Esperanza Trail begins just off Golden Gate Road near the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area where we found plenty of parking space. The first mile stays within a valley and crosses through and around sandy washes.
The valley was lovely, with the trail winding through saguaro, barrel and cholla cacti.
Birdsong filled the air and critter holes dotted the trail’s sides.
We saw several lizards and beetles and kept a lookout for road runners, snakes, and cactus mice.
As the trail began to climb the saguaros became more abundant.
We noticed how each one, with their varied appendages – twisting, pointing, displaying, signaling – seemed to have its own personality.
We loved hiking among them!
After a series of switchbacks, we reached a ridge and the intersection of another trail, the Hugh Norris Trail.
Instead of continuing down the Sendero Esperanza Trail, we cut left up the ridge that leads to Wasson Peak, (4,687’).
Although the summit was only about 1-1/2 miles away, the sun was now low in the sky. We had to turn back to avoid hiking after dark.
We returned to the Escape Mobile just after the sun had set and turned the western sky a gorgeous shade of burnt orange.
The silhouettes of our new friends, the saguaros, against the backdrop of an orange sky is a favorite memory.
Saguaro National Park – East
Cool, crisp air filled the Rincon Mountain District. The morning was beautiful and perfect for touring the east side of Saguaro National Park by bicycle.
Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way, 8-mile loop covering a tiny portion of the park.
But its saguaro forest, scenic overlooks, and optional ecology trail offer a taste of the vastness that stretches eastward from the road.
Access to this wilderness is by foot only so we stayed to road.
The ride is hilly, at times steep… you need durable legs and good brakes.
Fortunately, there are several areas to stop, rest, and bask in the desert vistas.
Our early arrival allowed us to take our time and return to our hotel to rest up for the evening’s adventure.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
“We must not allow the clock and the calendar
to bind us to the fact that each moment of life
is a miracle and a mystery.”
From every direction, mountains spring up from the desert floor and surround the city of Tucson. There are five mountain ranges within and around the city’s perimeter, and even more on its outskirts, including the Quinlan Mountains.
At 6,877 feet, Kitt Peak is the highest of the Quinlan Mountains and is accessible off AZ Hwy 86, about forty miles west of Tucson. Kitt Peak lies on native land (Tohono O’odham) far from city lights; it’s also home to the world’s largest collection of telescopes.
In addition to daily public tours, they offer nightly sky/star viewing programs, which is what we opted to do.
With temps in the 30’s and the moon close to full, the conditions weren’t ideal for star gazing. Yet, we were thrilled with the experience.
Our guide, Sean, explained the purpose and capabilities of each telescope and was extremely knowledgeable. We watched the sunset and then identified stars and planets as they appeared in the darkening sky.
Eventually, and with some help from Sean and a pair of binoculars, we spied our galactic next-door neighbor, Andromeda. Using one of the telescopes (not heated, but at least sheltered from the icy wind) the night sky was even more wondrous!
The 12-mile drive from the highway up to the peak is narrow and winding… not a problem in the daylight. But the return drive down the mountain was harrowing. Because headlights interfere with the telescopes, only parking lights are allowed until you’ve passed a certain point.
Even with a near-full moon, it was extremely dark. As we strained to assure the Escape Mobile stayed on course we also kept an eye out for wildlife. We were instructed to continue driving slowly after turning on our headlights because wildlife hang out along the road, including a great Horned Owl around mile marker 8. We had hoped to see that owl.
After safely descending Kitt Peak and soon after turning east onto AZ Hwy 86… Wowza! That Great Horned Owl cut right in front of us! His wings spanned across our entire windshield blocking our view briefly and scaring the heck out of us. We weren’t sure if he was chasing after potential prey or exclaiming, “Here I am, you dummies!”
Blue Willow was a fun, funky, and delicious brunch spot. Fresh and local. They also have a great gift shop to peruse while waiting for a table… it is extremely popular with the locals!
Local dive, Franks, was great for a cheap, quick, classic American breakfast. No frills and that’s the way they like it!
Cross Roads Restaurant was advertised as some of the best Mexican Food in Tucson. We skipped the buffet and ordered off the menu.
Trey was incredibly pleased with his favorite… enchiladas con huevos, as was I with a southwest version of huevos rancheros. Two yums up!
Next Stop… Gila National Forest and Silver City, New Mexico