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Tucson, Arizona

Tucson, AZ, 12/00

Marta Rojas

We have made several spring trips to Tucson over the past 10 years. Living in Seattle, you usually yearn for some sun and warm weather in early spring. We went one year to Palm Springs. We liked Palm Springs but it just didn't click with us. A couple years later we went to Tucson and loved it.

We love Tucson in the spring because of the desert wildflowers and the great hiking opportunities. We enjoy visiting in March and April. We always manage to find something new to explore or visit on each trip. It also seems smaller than Phoenix which is too large and spread out. You can fly directly to Tucson or fly to Phoenix and drive 90 miles to Tucson. We frequently fly into Phoenix because we visit gardens either in Phoenix or on the way to Tucson. I recommend the drive east to Boyce Thompson Arboretum and Globe and then south through Oracle to Tucson.

Accommodations

Over the years, we have stayed at a variety of places from camping to motels to weekly rentals. You can find everything from the chain motel to luxury hotels and spas. Condos can be difficult to find and are often booked in advance for long periods.

Ghost Ranch Lodge, 801 West Miracle Mile, tel: 800-456-7565
www.ghostranchlodge.com
This is funky fun place to stay. It is an early motel that is now part of the Best Western Chain. It has a great cactus garden and nice landscaping. The motel rooms are located around the perimeter and there are a few cottages available around the cactus garden. The rooms are pretty standard with wood beamed ceiling. It has lots of available parking. Continental breakfast is included. It is centrally located just northwest of downtown and has good access to freeway.

The Suncatcher Bed and Breakfast, 105 N. Avenida Javelina, tel: 877-775-8355
www.thesuncatcher.com
This bed and breakfast is located on the far eastern edge of Tucson just steps from Saguaro National Park East. It is very quiet on a nicely landscaped lot. The B&B has new owners since we stayed. The previous owners have sent several emails announcing the change of ownership and it sounds like it will be a good transition. The main area is an open living room, bar, dining room. It is very cozy. In the afternoon, drinks are served at the bar and there is an opportunity to meet others and exchange tips. The breakfast was very good and they were able to easily accommodate vegetarians. This is a great place to for a getaway. The only item to keep in mind is it about 30 minute drive to downtown Tucson on 4 lane city arterial.

Adobe Desert Rentals
www.adobedesert.com
These rentals are really nice if you want peace and quiet and easy access to the desert. We rented a casita from Adobe Desert in 2000. The property we rented has been sold and is no longer available. We loved the experience. We rented the casita over the internet and Karen the manager was great to work with. Our Casita was a small standalone one-bedroom house that was on 33 acres along with the main house. You had access to the pool and hot tub. The property is about 30 minutes west from downtown in the desert area near Saguaro west and the Desert Museum. It was great location for hiking. We could get up early and drive a short distance to several hikes. We also saw a wide variety of birds and wildlife. You could just get up and walk out into the desert. But it may not be for everyone. If you expect to have a lot of services near by or onsite, this is not the place. But if you want the beauty and serenity of the desert, these are the rentals for you.

Best Western Inn & Suites Catalina, 6201 North Oracle Road, tel: 520-297-8111
oracle.innsuites.com
This is the standard suite motel provided by Best Western. It is located in North Tucson and convenient to hiking in the Catalinas and Sabino Canyon.

Casita Flecha Negra
See Pauline's review 409 of this 2bed/1bath adobe vacation rental house on the edge of Tucson.

Restaurants

We love Mexican cooking. There is a lot to choose from in Tucson and usually eat at several different Mexican restaurants. Arizona regional style is Sonoran. It is close to the style served in California where I grew up with a few unique specialties. Several restaurants in Tucson claim to have originated the Chimichanga which is a deep fried burrito. Enchiladas are typically rolled but in southern Arizona, you can find the flat enchilada. Instead of rolling the tortilla around the filling, tortillas are stacked and layered with cheese and red chile sauce. Carne Sec is also a local specialty that is used as a filling in several dishes. Beef is dried, shredded and then fried with spices. There are also several Mexican restaurants which specialize in seafood. The Gulf of California is actually close by and the shrimp is always fresh.

You can also find a wide variety of different cuisines and price ranges. Here are a few of the restaurants we have tried and liked.

Mariscos Chihuahua, 1009 N Grande Ave, tel: 520-623-3563
This is our all time favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson. We love seafood and that is their specialty. I always order the Shrimp Rancheras but we also like the Fish Culichi style which seafood in a green chile and cheese sauce. You can also find a wide variety of seafood cocktails, tacos and tostadas.

Cafe Poca Cosa, 88 E Broadway Blvd (Clarion Santa Rita Hotel), tel: 520-622-6400
This restaurant serves very creative and authentic Mexican dishes. It has been highlighted in Gourmet Magazine. The owner travels to Mexico to get ingredients and new recipes. Moles are a specialty. Everything is well done and different. Some of the dishes can be very spicy.

El Charro Mexican Cafe, 311 N Court Ave, tel: 520-622-1922
This is located in the Presido, this restaurant has a very nice ambience and good food. It serves Sonoran style Mexican food and carne sec is a specialty. It can be a little heavy on the meat choices. It is a nice place to have lunch and though service can be a bit slow. Don't forget to check out the wonderful gift shop next door.

Mi Nidito, 813 S 4TH Ave, tel: 520-622-5081
This restaurant frequently wins the "Best Sonoran-Style Mexican Restaurant" awards. It is very popular and expect to wait. They claim to have created the Chimichanga and they serve several different ones including dessert Chimichangas. I found the cooking a bit heavy but this is the place to go for Sonoran style Mexican dishes.

El Minuto Cafe, 354 S. Main Ave., tel: 520-882-4145
This is a good place to try Sonoran style Mexican food. I have had the flat enchiladas here.

La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill, 7090 N Oracle Road, tel: 520-531-1211
This may be a chain but it does wonderful food. This is an excellent choice for vegetarians with several different choices such as black bean tacos or grilled vegetarian burritos. I love the mahi-mahi tacos especially with the mango salsa. This is where we stop for lunch after hiking for quick food. It is in a strip mall so don't expect a lot of ambience. But if you are looking for tasty light tacos, this is the place to go.

Blue Willow Restaurant Bakery, 2616 N Campbell Ave, tel: 520-327-7577
This is a great place for breakfast. They have an open courtyard that is a nice place to relax over breakfast. I recommend the omelets, pancakes and huevos rancheros.

Raging Sage Coffee Roasters, 2458 N. Campbell Ave.
Need a java fix? This is the local roaster and they have several wonderful coffees. Pastries are also available.

Wildflower Grill, 7037 N. Oracle Rd., tel: 520-219-4230
If you are looking for more upscale dining, try Wildflower. This is a California style cooking and somewhat trendy. Good wine list and many wines by the glass.

Gardens

Tucson and the surrounding area have a surprising amount of gardens. Two of our favorites are actually outside of Tucson.

The outstanding Desert Botanical Garden is located in Phoenix. It is convenient to the airport and we often stop here before leaving Arizona.
www.dbg.org

Boyce Thompson Arboretum has an excellent cactus garden and a nice hike through the desert. It is located an hour east of Phoenix and 90 minutes north of Tucson. It is a nice day trip from Tucson and the road from Oracle takes you through the copper mines of Globe. If you are using Phoenix as your airport, you can make a stop at Boyce Thompson on the way to Tucson.
ag.arizona.edu

In Tucson, there is the Tucson Botanical Garden. This is an educational garden with several small specialty gardens.
www.tucsonbotanical.org

Tohono Chul Park is the place to see cactus. It has a nature trail through cactus and a wildflower garden. They have an excellent cafe and gift shop. Check their web site for special tours and events.
www.tohonochulpark.org

March and April are the month plant sales and private garden tours occur. Check at the Tucson Botanical Garden for information on the home tour.

Another unique tour is to visit a cactus nursery. Here you can see greenhouse upon greenhouse of cactus. B&B Cactus Farm, 11550 E. Speedway Blvd, is a fun nursery.

Hiking

Many people often are surprised to find out that there is great hiking in Arizona. The key is to understand the seasons of the desert. The prime hiking seasons are spring and fall. The weather is cooler. It is also nice to hike early in the morning before it has gotten too hot. Remember to always take adequate water, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses. I also find a lightweight cotton shirt helps to prevent sunburn. If you are worried about poisonous desert creatures, we have yet to see our first snake. We use hiking sticks and try to be aware of what is ahead on the trail. We also watch when climbing around on rocks or venturing off the trail. Remember, they are more afraid of you. Most of the area hiking books do have good information on hiking in the desert.

Tucson is not at sea level but is at 2,500ft altitude. Within 25 miles of the edge of town, you can be at 9,000ft at the top of Mt. Lemmon, high point of the Santa Catalina Mountains. These mountains start at the northern border of Tucson and their canyons provide many interesting hiking opportunities. To the east, are the Rincons. These are wilder and more remote. To the west are the Tucson Mountains. Farther south towards the Mexican border are the Santa Ritas where Mt Wrightson is located. These are all easy day hikes from Tucson. If you have camping gear, you can also hike through the stone formations at Chiricahua National Monument or remote desert at Organ Pipe National Monument.

Hiking Books

Tucson Hiking Guide (2nd Edition) by Betty Leavengood Pruett Publishing Company 1997. This is probably the definitive guide to hiking in Tucson. It is organized by mountain range area. It includes very good descriptions for getting to the trailheads, a topographic map of the trail route and a pretty good description of the trail. The trails are rated as to their difficulty. You can also learn a lot about the history of the region from the trail description.

Hiking Arizona's Cactus Country, A Falcon Guide by Erik Molvar 1995 (note: 2nd edition has been published 2000). This guide covers the whole southern Arizona region ranging from the Chiricahuas on the New Mexico border, Tucson, to Organ Pipe in the west. It is also broken out by mountain range. The descriptions to the trail head is good but I do not particularly like the maps or trail information. But it is one of the best references to this southern area.

Arizona Trails, by David Mazel Wilderness Press 1989 (note: republished as Southern Arizona Trails 1997). This includes hikes in the Superstition Range north of Tucson, the southeastern ranges of Chiricahua, Santa Rita and the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains near Tucson. The previous book did not have great instructions on getting to the trailheads and did not have listings of the hikes broken out by difficulty. It did have great topographical maps of the region and good information on the hikes. Based on the table of content at Amazon, the newer edition may still have the trailhead information listed at the beginning which I find difficult to use.

100 Hikes in Arizona, The Mountaineers, by Scott S. Warren 1994 (note: republished as 100 Classic Hikes in Arizona 2000). This was our first hiking book for Arizona. It includes hikes throughout Arizona not just the southern region. It is a good reference if you plan to visit Northern Arizona at the same time. Trail information is presented in the same style as other Mountaineers Guides. The other guides have more depth to the Tucson region and I would recommend them over this guide.

Also check out the on-line hiking guides.

The Sierra club has an excellent trail guide on line at arizona.sierraclub.org/trail_guide/.

Check out the hiking guide from the Arizona Daily Star newspaper.

If you need supplies, I highly recommend Summit Hut for hiking gear, clothing, maps and books. You can find the main store at 5045 E. Speedway (520) 325-1554 or on line at www.summithut.com.

Favorite Hikes

Hugh Norris Trail, Tucson, AZ, photo by Marta

Hugh Norris Trail - This is located in Saguaro National Park West and is a moderate hike. It goes as far as the top of Wasson Peak (10miles RT) where you have wonderful views to the east of Tucson. Or you can just hike to the ridge through the Saguaros and wildflowers for views to the west. I particularly like this hike in the late afternoon as the sun is setting. There is great light on the desert and rocks.

King Canyon Trail - There are two approaches to the top of Wasson. The second is via the Kings Canyon Trail which starts near the desert museum. This is shorter (7 miles RT) but steeper. We did this early in the morning and found wonderful wildflowers all along the trail.

Saguaro National Park East - There are lots of intersecting trails in the lower section of Saguaro East. You can access many of them from the end of several of the main Tucson streets such as Speedway or Broadway. They are wonderful places to wander in the early morning or late evening. These are also good trails to use if you are staying near by and want an early morning run. Cactus Forest is a good one and the beginning of Douglas Spring Trail at the end of Speedway is nice in the early morning.

Pima Canyon Trail - This is a popular trail that has easy access and is easy for the first 3 miles. There are good views back over Tucson and the mountains to the west.

Seven Falls Sabino Canyon - This is accessed by taking the Bear Canyon Tram at Sabino Canyon. The trail is easy/moderate and climbs up through the forests of saguaro crossing Sabino Creek several times before climbing up to a set of pools and waterfalls.

Romero Canyon - This is located in Santa Catalina State Park north of Tucson. We usually hike the first three miles to the pools. It is starts out flat and then climbs with views of the west. I love the color of the rocks in this region.

Farther Away

Heart of the Rocks, Chiricahua National Monument - This is a spectacular area to hike. You descend down through interesting geological formations. They have names like Balanced Rock, Duck on a Rock and Camel's Head. There is a free shuttle that will take you to high trailheads and you can hike one way back through the canyons to the visitor's center. We visited in April and it was actually cold at the high trail head. The trees are very interesting since there is a wide variety of oak, pines and cypress in the park. There is also a lot of unique bird life in this region. One of the famous birding regions is just outside the national monument at Cave Creek. For more information on the park: www.nps.gov

Estes Canyon - Bull Pasture - Organ Pipe National Monument - This is a moderate hike of 4 miles which hikes through organ pipe cactus. It is accessed on the Ajo Mountain Drive which is a wonderful 21 mile gravel road drive through the park. For more information on the park: www.nps.gov

Other Things To Do

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ, Pauline Kenny, 12/2000

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Rd.
www.desertmuseum.org
This is a wonderful museum to become familiar with the cycles and life in desert. I love the hummingbird exhibit. Ocotillo Cafe is a wonderful restaurant which is a great place lunch or Sunday Brunch. Reservations are recommended for the restaurant.

South to the Border Missionaries first visited the area in the 1600's. San Xavier del Bac is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the US. It is open for visits from 9-5. Across from the church are several shops run by the members of the Tohono O'odham tribe.

Farther south on I-19 is Tubac, site of the first European settlement in Arizona. Today it is an artist community with several craft and art stores. Near by is Tumacacoria National Historic Park.

Nogales is the Mexico border town and a popular day trip.

Wildflowers at Pichaco, Tucson, AZ, photo by Marta Rojas

Picacho Peak State Park - Driving along I10 between Phoenix and Tucson you can see it for miles. The peak is a major landmark. It is also a Mecca for wildflower lovers in mid-February and March. The slopes are often blanketed in fields of golden California poppies and blue lupines. These are so showy they are know to cause traffic jams on weekends during the peak bloom seasons. There are a wide variety of trails within the park and camping is available. Also historically, it is the site of a Civil War battle in April 1862.

Wildflower Drives - The desert is wonderful when it blooms. There can be carpets of gold, blue and pink across the floor of the desert. But the magic of the desert blooms is also dependent upon the amount of rain that happens starting in October. If there is a steady adequate rainfall, it can be spectacular. But if the rains do not occur, nothing will bloom. Temperature in January and February will also affect it. Typically, the blooms will occur sometime between late February and mid March. Cactus blooms much later in late May. The area around Oracle and Florence are both very good spots for wildflower drives. The drive to Kits Peak is also very good especially later in the season since it slightly higher in elevation.

A good resource is the desert in bloom web pages at the Desert Museum web site.
www.desertmuseum.org/programs/flw_blooming.html

Kartchner Caverns - I have not yet visited this state park but it is high on my list to do in the future. These Caverns opened 1999 and reservations are required for the tour.

Bird Watching - Southeastern Arizona is one of the premier birding areas in the nation. It is the top range of several tropical birds such as Elegant Trogon. The hummingbirds arrive mid-April and there are several hot spots such as Ramsey Canyon, Madera Canyon and Cave Creek. A good resource is the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
www.sabo.org.

Cactus League Baseball Major League Baseball holds spring training in Arizona. Three teams, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Colorado Rockies, have their spring camp in Tucson. The Tucson Electric Stadium is a great place to watch a game. Spring training happens in March and it was pretty easy to get tickets when we went a couple of years ago. This web site has more information on getting tickets.
www.tucsonbaseball.com

Fourth Avenue Street Fair - Do you love an opportunity to view and purchase crafts? This street fair is for you. There are usually over 400 arts and craft booths at these fair attracting vendors from throughout the west coast. It happens around the third week in March. For the latest information see:
www.fourthavenue.org

Mariachi Festival - We have never attended this but it is another item on our list to attend one day. It happens every year in April. This sounds very popular and I'm not certain how easy it is to get tickets. For more information see www.tucsonmariachi.org

Resources

Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau - This is a good source for general tourist information. They also have a great tourist brochure.
www.visittucson.org

Tucson Weekly - Local alternative newspaper. Good resource for local favorites especially the archives for the Best of Tucson poll.
www.tucsonweekly.com


Marta Rojas lives in the Pacific Northwest.

© Marta Rojas, 2004

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