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Trip Report Tucson & the Sonoran Desert

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We're back from our Arizona trip. If you are interested in the trip details, read on:

When I was a little shaver (1st grade) Sunday dinners were held at the home of my mother's parents in the Chicago suburbs. In addition to dinner with the grandparents, these evenings meant one other thing: TV. We did not have a television at home but our grandparents had a black and white set in their library. In addition to a TV, the library featured quite a number of early color photographs taken by and of my grandparents when they visited one of their favorite places: Tucson, Arizona. Most of the photos were of them standing next to large cactus by the side of the road. My grandfather explained that the tall cactus were called Giant Saguaro and that the frames around the pictures themselves were made of the wood-like fibers in the cactus that made it possible for them to grow so tall. The idea of such a place sounded pretty exotic to me.

My wife had been to Tucson for business years ago but I had never been there. We put it on our list of places to see and the time was finally right. I must admit that our bike trip to Death Valley last year probably did a lot to spur us on to plan this trip.

The Sonoran desert covers about 120,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, as well as most of Baja California and the western half of the state of Sonora, Mexico. Tucson is one of the oldest towns in the United States and was originally a Pima Indian village called Stook-zone, meaning water or spring at the foot of black mountain. Hugo O'Conor established the Tucson Presidio in 1775. Spanish settlers arrived in the area in 1776. Tucson officially became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 and served as capital of the Arizona Territory from 1867 to 1877. Our mid-March trip meant that we saw the countryside just as it was beginning to green-up to prepare for the spring blooms. A few wildflowers were visible but the blooms will not really get going until April.

We flew into Tucson on a Tuesday and headed over to the area surrounding the University of Arizona. Locating a good bike shop in a university town is never difficult. Fair Wheel Bicycles rents and sells all manner of bikes and we had ourselves outfitted with a couple of mountain bikes made by Specialized in no time at all. Loading them into the back of our rented Chevy Equinox wasn't too easy but we did get them to fit (barely). We then made a quick stop to pick up some fruit and a case of bottled water. We planned to be on the go for most of our trip so we knew that hydration would be important.

It was about a twenty minute drive into the foothills of the Santa Catalina range north of Tucson to our hotel, Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort. This charming small hotel was a girls finishing school until sometime in the late 1920's when it was converted to a hotel. Our 2-room suite in a separate building overlooked a small valley. The foothills have been pretty thoroughly developed so don't let the name of the hotel fool you into thinking we were somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. Still, the view was nice and the many gardens and courtyards on the hotel grounds were wonderful. Gambel's quail quietly skittered among the cactus in a garden just outside our room and humming birds could be seen visiting the blossoms from time to time.

Food is never far from our minds and after getting settled at the hotel, we found Blanco - Tacos + Tequila a short drive away. I had a couple of great fish tacos & my wife had a taco salad. The views of the sunset were very nice and we lingered over wine and beer and wondered how our day of cycling on the following day would go. We hadn't been on bicycles since September. We'd planned a distance of about nine miles. We knew conditions would be warm and arid. We wondered if there would be hills.

On each of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we had breakfast at the hotel. Our waiter Joe gave us lots of great advice on daily activities. Saguaro National Park is divided into two major sections, one on the east side of Tucson (the Rincon Mountain District) and one on the west side (the Tucson Mountain District). The park encompasses one of the largest collections of saguaro cactus in the world. This tall, majestic plant is practically the symbol of the American southwest. As we drove through the park, it seemed like I had stepped into one of those photos on my grandparents' library wall. The Rincon Mountain District is higher in elevation (2,670 to 8,666 feet above sea level vs. 2,180 to 4,687) and a bit moister (12.3 annual inches of rainfall vs. 10.3 annual inches) than the Tucson Mountain District. Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way paved loop road that runs through the Rincon Mountain District. In addition to a few cars, the road is used by many cyclists and runners. We arrived, set up our bikes, applied sunscreen, made sure we had plenty of water, strapped on our helmets and hit the road. Death Valley is wonderfully stark with very few plants and wildlife that stays well hidden most of the time. The Sonoran Desert in Saguaro is crammed full of cactus and many other desert plants. Snow-capped Mt. Lemmon in the distance made it an even more scenic landscape. About three miles into our ride we started up a gentle incline that went on for more than a mile as we climbed 400 or so feet. I will admit to having to get off the bike at a particularly steep spot about three-quarters of the way up the incline but after a quick rest it was not too hard to get back on and make it to the top. Seeing this sort of scenery from a bike is a real treat.

On Wednesday afternoon we wanted to see the Tucson Mountain District in the western portion of Saguaro National Park. It was about a 40 minute drive from the hotel and seemed more remote than the Rincon area in the east. This part of the park seemed closer to the foot of the mountains and was definitely drier with a lower density of cactus growth. We hiked three separate trails here but our total hiking distance was less than two miles so it was not a challenging afternoon. Our legs were sore from our previous efforts so we were grateful for the shorter distances and more gentle terrain. We saw gila woodpeckers, desert cottontail rabbits and (from the car) we watched as a coyote crossed about 50 feet down the road in front of us.

We'd made reservations at the dining room at our hotel for dinner Wednesday night. I started with a skillet-seared Mexican cheese over a house-made focaccia bread with a pear compote and a strawberry-habanaro chutney with tamarind followed by a veal chop with house-made chorizo, Basmati rice, haricot verte, brazed Swiss chard and a saffron butter sauce. My wife enjoyed artichoke hearts with house-made lamb sausage followed by pecan spit-roasted Cornish game hen with toasted orzo, Tanque-verde garden greens and organic vegetables. For dessert we split Hacienda's signature chocolate cake with chocolate and caramel sauce and a scoop of locally made vanilla ice cream. I thought the meal was top-notch and while my wife did not give it the high marks I did, she enjoyed it as well.

Tucson boasts more than just Saguaro National Park. It is right on the edge of the Coronado National Forest. The signature hike in this area is the Bear Canyon trail up to the Seven Falls area. From the parking lot northeast of Tucson, take a brief tram ride up to the trail head. Over the first half mile you descend about 75 feet but for the next two and a half miles up the canyon you ascend about 650 feet, crossing the stream that runs in the bottom of the canyon no less than seven times. We were in hiking boots so it meant lots of taking boots off to wade across the stream. Water depths at the crossings ranged from one foot to a little over two feet. This was not a scene where we hopped from rock-to-rock, you had to take off your boots and wade. A word to the wise here: A pair of Keens or similar rubber vented hiking sandals would have been a much better selection of footwear. Some of the hiking was on kind of high canyon walls but my wife, who is not a fan of heights, did really well here. The waterfalls at the end of the trail were worth every step, out and back.

We hustled back to the hotel because we wanted to go into Tucson for dinner that evening and we had symphony tickets. Cafe Poca Cosa is located in downtown Tucson in an area that (I hope) is improving. It has sort of a modern vibe and is clearly popular with locals and tourists alike. The menu changes daily and is inspired by food from all over Mexico. I had the pulled pork and Pam had the chicken mole. Both plates came heaped with great salad greens and veggies. Rice, beans and corn tortillas were served as well. My wife said it was the best meal of the trip so far and I gave it high marks too. The Tucson Music Hall was not far away and we very much enjoyed the performance by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra (in its 81st season), the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. They performed Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms for Chorus and Orchestra and his "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide. After the intermission they performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. Well-exercised, well-fed and well-entertained, we fell into bed and slept like rocks.

45 miles south of Tucson you will find the town of Tubac, Arizona. In 1726 it was the site of the first European settlement in what is now Arizona. It is now a popular art colony. I can't say it's crammed with genuine native artists selling nothing but handmade items but it is a community with lots of pleasant side streets with shops that sell everything from furniture made of the locale mesquite wood to all manner of souvenirs. Don't simply stroll the central part of town taken up by a modern mall-type structure. Get out on the surrounding streets and see it all.

Friday afternoon we drove up Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalinas north of Tucson. At 9,157 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest peaks in the area and boasts the southernmost ski slope in the continental U.S. The community of Summerhaven at just over 8,000 feet is where the road essentially ends. By the time we got up there we noted two feet of snow on the ground, although the roads were clear. The temperature at the top was 43 degrees. There are any number of places to pull off the road and take pictures of the valley below. Unfortunately, the Mount Lemmon Cafe that used to be up there and we are told was a great place to stop, is now closed. Still, the drive was worth it to experience the climate change and the views.

We were ready for a relatively simple meal for dinner on our last night in town. Zinburger a little north of town was our choice and was it a winner. Try the kobe burger with cheddar and wild mushrooms along with a Corona beer or one of their wines. This may rank as one of the top burgers ever.

Saturday came all too soon and we headed back to the airport. We returned to the Chicago area and an inch or two of new snow. It is intriguing to realize that the giant cactus we saw begin life as a small plant whose seed, if it falls within the shade of another desert plant, sprouts into a plant almost too small to be easily seen by the unaided human eye and takes decades to grow into a mature cactus. The plants we saw were just tiny specs in the years my grandparents drove the same roads we just traveled.

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