March 01, 2013

Tucson and the Saguaro National Park

Wednesday morning we woke up at the gas station on the side of Interstate 10. It was a bright and sunny morning in the New Mexican desert and we had plans to drive west into Arizona to our next destination, Tucson. The weather forecast for southern Arizona called for snow later in the day, and I had trouble believing it. Snow…in the desert…on such a nice sunny day? We’d run into similar craziness last time we’d come through Flagstaff, AZ when we experienced a gorgeous sunny day followed by a morning snow blizzard, only to end in another sunny and warm afternoon. Well, we set out on the road hoping to be parked at our campground, snug and safe, by the time this “snow” rolled in.


Views off of I-10 in New Mexico
Views off of I-10 in New Mexico
In the first hour of our drive we were passing through a portion of New Mexico I-10 that runs straight through flat desert, where wind storms are a normal occurrence. We drove in and out of sand clouds, sometimes being able to see only the taillights of the cars directly in front of us. When we crossed the Arizona border the winds died down and the temperature started to drop noticeably as we gained elevation and climbed into the mountains.

Dust storm warnings on I-10
Dust storm warnings on I-10
Driving into a dust cloud
Driving into a dust cloud
I spotted a car coming the opposite direction on the interstate and its windshield was piled high with something white. My first thought was sand…it must have driven through the sand storm too, but then it dawned on me that the white clumps were snow. Within minutes we were in the middle of a full blown blizzard, with thick clumps of snowflakes flying all around us. Snow is something that is relegated to the far northern states and the East Coast in my mind. Snow is not something that happens in the desert, amidst cacti. It was a really mind boggling experience to say the least. Thankfully Skyler is an amazing driver and he navigated us safely through the storm and into the campground. What was supposed to have taken us just three short hours to drive ended up taking us over five hours, but hey, we arrived safely.

Tucson, surrounded by mountains
Tucson, surrounded by mountains
In Tucson our main point of interest was the Saguaro National Park, so when picking a campground we chose one that was located just minutes from the park. The Gilbert Ray CG is a popular campground in the Tucson area and is heavily used during the winter months by all the folks migrating south for warmer weather. We saw the most diverse collection of license plates in this park, ranging from all the territories of Canada, and all the northern states between Washington and Maine. We got parked at our campsite with a great view of the Tucson Mountains and settled in for the night. Later that night we heard coyotes yapping in the desert darkness. Sometimes it sounded like they were within a hundred feet of our campsite. Chloe and Sammy would perk up and listen to their howls, confused by the foreign doggie language that I imagine the coyotes use. When we took them on their evening walk, both Chloe and Sammy took turns responding to the coyotes, but I don’t think the coyotes took much notice.

Sunset in the Sonoran desert
Sunset in the Sonoran desert
In the morning we were anxious to get out and explore the Sonoran desert and see the famous saguaro cactus. The campground we picked lies right in the middle of the Tucson Mountain State Park and offered easy access to lots of hiking and biking trails. Unfortunately, dogs were not allowed on the trails, but it’s definitely for their own good. Cactus needles were everywhere, littering the ground, and one small misstep would mean hundreds of cactus spines lost in their fur and lodged in their paws.

That morning we hiked the Brown Mountain trail that took us in a loop over the Brown Mountain and then back along the base of the mountain on the desert floor. Hiking in the desert was somewhat of a first for us and it was quite an amazing experience. The saguaro cacti, the epitome of the Arizona cactus, were EVERYWHERE around us. We walked through groves of them, as well as many other interesting types of cactus. Barrel cacti, prickly pear cacti and hedgehog cacti all fought for floor space and sometimes crowded so close onto the trail that if we weren’t careful we’d find ourselves in a painful situation.

Hiking the Brown Mountain trail in the Tucson Mountains
Hiking the Brown Mountain trail in the Tucson Mountains
Saguaro forest!
Saguaro forest!
Huge barrel cacti in the Sonoran desert
Sky and huge barrel cacti
Huge Saguaro, little me
Huge Saguaro, little me
In fact, the next day when Skyler went mountain biking on these same trails, he looked away for one second and ended up knee deep in a bed of cacti. A fellow hiker had to use PLIERS to extract the needles that were lodged in Sky’s leg. Ouch! I went running on the trails while he was biking, and had better luck. My only run in with the cacti was when I stepped off the trail to take a picture and one jumped out and bit me (no, I swear...It jumped.)

We spent four nights in the park. On Saturday afternoon we drove over the Gates Pass to Tucson. We picked up a downtown map from the visitors center and set off to follow the Presidio Trail around town. The Presidio Trail is a painted blue line that takes visitors on a self-guided walking tour by Tucson’s main attractions. We passed by City Hall, the old Tucson Fort and the St. Augustine Cathedral. The downtown was surprisingly deserted for a Saturday afternoon and we saw very few people while walking around. We ended our tour with a stop at the El Charro CafĂ©, touted as the “Nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family”. While the location and appearance of the restaurant were not much to write home about, the food was absolutely amazing. We split the chicken fajita platter, which came with a huge skillet of grilled chicken breast and a massive platter of beans, rice and other sides. NUM!

Tucson downtown mural
Tucson downtown
Tucson City Hall
City Hall
St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, AZ
St. Augustine Cathedral
Walking around Tucson
Walking around Tucson
On our last morning in Tucson we finally got around to visiting the Saguaro National Park. Since we have the National Parks Pass we didn't need to pay the $6 admission fee into the park. We drove the off-road Bajada Loop through saguaro desert landscape, hoping to see something even more amazing than what we’d seen the past few days. BUT, what we found is that what you can see for free at the Tucson Mountain State Park is no worse than what you have to pay to see at the National Park. The saguaro cacti are impressive all by themselves and there are whole forests of them all through the mountains that surround Tucson. If you are short on cash, save yourself the expense and just visit the state park.

To see more pictures of Tucson and the Sonoran Desert, click here.

Happy cacti needle picking,

M.

P.S. If you are visiting Tucson in a large vehicle, or plan to pull a trailer to the Gilbert Ray campground, DO NOT go through the Tucson Mountains on Gates Pass Road. This road has barely enough space for two lanes, absolutely no shoulder and steep drop offs into the canyon. Plan to take Kinney Road if coming from the South or Sandario Road from the north.

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