A&A Exploring Tucson, Arizona & Saguaro National Park
End of Week #38
Verde Ranch RV Resort, Camp Verde AZ
Miles traveled since last week's post = 0
Total miles traveled to date = 6,909 with trailer
Howdy! It's another cloudless, sunny day here in Arizona. The temps have been trending around high 60's/low 70's during the day and high 30's/low 40's at night, but that sun sure does add an extra layer of warmth to the whole equation. I absolutely love being in this area, so close to Sedona, and only a short drive to Phoenix too. It's a great central place with a lot to explore in the surrounding area!
Our 9 month Nomadiversary is coming up THIS Friday, February 21st! This also happens to be the day my dad and stepmom are coming to visit us too! We have not seen them since the last week of July, I believe it was the day we closed on our townhouse. It will have been just about 7 months, which is the longest I've really gone without seeing any parent or family member, and we are more than excited to spend the weekend with them showing them all the amazing parts of Sedona and beyond.
This week we will just be doing more hanging out and more exploring. Today we went to the lost city of Jerome and checked out the historic Douglas Mansion and other areas of the past mining life that existed there. And on Wednesday we will go back to Sedona again for another hike!
As for today I wanted to share with you about our visit in Tucson earlier this month, and tell you all the reasons why it is now one of my new favorite areas in Arizona!
A&A Exploring Tucson, Arizona
This was both of our first times in Tucson, and it definitely won't be our last. Tucson was a much busier (& crowded) city than we expected, coming in with more than 500,000 people and more traffic than we have seen on our entire journey. But at the same time the city was vibrant and full of life and everything you could possibly need to thrive. (Including Costco and Trader Joe's!)
Not to mention, you really can't beat the warm winter temps, the abundance of huge cacti, palm trees, and other desert shrubs and trees. Tucson truly is a gem in Arizona!
I almost gave up on going to Tucson altogether, because I was having a really hard time finding a place for us to stay. Tucson was actually one of the first parts of Arizona we wanted to try to plan to stay for a month, since it was so far south and so much warmer, but most all of the RV campgrounds that would allow a monthly stay were a 55+ resort. Some of the places that weren't were more than triple what we have paid in the past for a month stay, and it was was seeming a bit out of reach to accomplish. But that's when I came across the Tucson Mountain Park, just when I was about to give up and reroute us, I found the Gilbert Ray Campground tucked away behind the mountains out of the city, and amongst the Saguaro giants.
Campground details: Multiple loops & over 100 sites. Only electric sites, with a water fill station, and an RV dump. $20 per night, no shower house, but modern, clean bathroom facilities.
The Gilbert Ray Campground will now go down as one of my favorite places we have stayed. Nestled right into the Sonoran Desert, just down the street from Saguaro National Park-West, and connected to so many trails to hike and explore. The campsites were large and spaced out, and despite having initial trouble backing into our site in the dark and cutting the corners to fit our 32 foot long beast in, it was a perfect place to set up. At night we could hear the coyotes howling, the stars shined bright, the full moon was rising over the mountains. And every sunset would paint the sky in colors that didn't even seem real to me, with Saguaro cactus silhouettes along the horizon.
Entrance: To enter Saguaro National Park it is $30 per vehicle, but is free if you have an Annual Park Pass.
History: People of the Hohokam culture first left their mark on the area that is now Saguaro National Park, leaving petroglyphs from 450 and 1450 CE. Today these 'desert people' still continue to harvest ripe Saguaro fruit and use it for all kinds of foods and drinks. In the early 1500's the Spanish explorers came to southern Arizona and sought riches and converts and eventually grew into modern Tucson.
I did not know this until we got to Tucson, but Saguaro National Park is broken up into two parks essentially, an east and a west - bordering each respective side of the city. It first became a National Park in 1994, after years of pressure from local conservations. The park now makes up the desert floors to mountain forests of Tucson, and houses a vast community of wildlife and different cacti and plant species. Here, below the Tucson Mountains, it is an ideal habitat for the Saguaros to grow so dense they are literally called Cactus Forests. They shelter themselves in "nurse trees" such as mesquite trees, ironwood, and palo verde trees, and can grow like 50 feet tall and live up to 175 years. The tallest they get can be about 75 FEET high.
"On the outskirts of Tucson, a small but vital part of the Sonoran Desert is preserved as Saguaro National Park. Here, the monarchs of the cactus world reach out to welcome you to this surprisingly lush and diverse land."
Saguaro cacti collect water through shallow roots, that extend about as far outward as the main truck is tall. They soak up the water in the trunk, and arms expand to allow for more storage too. Flowers appear on them in the summer months, feeding all kinds of animals they share the desert with. Some birds also call the Saguaro's home and nest inside of them! Typically Saguaro's die of old age, but lightning, freezing wind, and drought can also kill them. There have also been issues with invasive species like buffelgrass that increase the possibility of bush fires that can wipe out whole areas.
The National Park ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet in the Tucson Mountain District to more than 8,600 feet in the Rincon Mountain district. The huge range, along with sun and wind, and access to water, makes for a super diverse habitat for creatures of all kinds. Typical animals you can find here in the Sonoran Desert of Saguaro National Park include: gila monsters (lizards), desert tortoise (I had NO idea this was a thing!), javelina, white-nosed coati (basically a cute raccoon), freaking BLACK BEAR (like, what?!), mexican-spotted owls, diamondback rattlesnakes, woodpeckers, coyotes, fox, doves, bats, honey bees, and everything from desert shrubs to grasslands to pin-oak woodlands, to ponderosa pine forests to conifer-aspen forests too! The entire area is extremely lush and diverse and insanely beautiful.
Saguaro East - Rincon Mountain District: This side of the park had a formalized entrance gate and visitor center as you pull up. It also was entirely paved, but structured as a one way loop through a portion of the park. On the loop you could pull off to the side of the road for various hikes, or you could continue through the loop to the picnic area at the end. The loop drive was 8 miles and offered wonderful scenery of the park, the Saguaro's and the nearby Catalina Mountains. While we were here we stopped to complete a loop hike on the Loma Verde Trail to the Pink Hill Trail to the Squeeze Pen Trail. I believe it was about 4 miles through the lush Sonoran Desert, without much elevation change, but a lot of sun exposure. I can totally see how this hike would be very VERY hot in the summer!
Driving distance between the two sides of the park is about 33 miles, but will take you about 60 minutes.
Saguaro West - Tucson Mountain District: In my opinion, this side of the park was much more beautiful, scenic, had larger mountains and cacti, and offered far better views. But this side of the park was also mostly undeveloped and had a lot of dirt roads to get to various hikes. It was also much smaller, with a loop road that was only a few miles long, but didn't seem to connect us all the way around the loop, as we ended up running into a dead end. We were unable to get to the hike we originally planned to go on, but we did stop at some other shorter (& paved) overlook trails to get more views of the desert and the mountains. This part of the National Park was also only a few miles and less than 10 minutes from where we were camping at Gilbert Ray Campground, making it offly convenient to explore!
Although this was one of the smallest National Parks we have explored, it is also now one of my favorite. I just can't get over how this was DESERT, but it was so extremely lush and green. I imagine how beautiful it looks in the spring when all the cactus flowers bloom and it literally makes my heart melt inside.
The big Gem & Mineral Show was going on in Tucson while we were visiting there, something we did not know about until we had started searching for places to stay and ran into limited availability. The shows are broken up into many shows over the course of about a month or so, and it was honestly hard to understand what was what throughout it. There was also a lot of street vendors set up throughout the downtown portion of the city over the course of certain days and the vendors were free to attend, but some of the other shows had an admission fee.
As I really wasn't sure how to navigate the shows, but wanted to be sure to see some crystals while I was there, we took the afternoon one day to explore some street vendors downtown. It was a unique experience, featuring wholesale crystals, gems and fossils, and most of what we saw was hard to distinct if it was real or possibly fake too. Everything was at a wonderful value, especially if you were in the market to use for your home business or resell in another way, but nothing was labeled so you also need to know what you were looking for and how to tell if it was of real value to you. The vendors we encountered did not speak english well and were trying to do anything in their power to offer you a whole box of something to take home with you. We successfully walked through this area for about an hour and did not buy anything, but in the future I'd love to find some wholesale crystals for resale!
You can read more about the infamous Tucson Gem & Mineral Shows here.
There was a day we went to Saguaro National Park East, and finished our hike with much of the afternoon left to explore, and it came down to doing one of two different things. I had told Adam we could either drive up to the top of Mount Lemmon, as so many people had recommended to us, or we could head back to the Airplane Museum we saw from the side of the road while traveling to Saguaro that morning. As we had drove by Adam was getting giddy over what kinds of planes were there, and how big the museum appeared to be, so he of course said to me, "I think that we have seen a lot of really cool mountains, and we will see a lot more really cool mountains in the future, so...." we went to the Air & Space Museum instead!
This museum is one of the world's largest non-government funded aerospace museums in the country. The museum features a display of nearly 300 aircraft spread out over 80 acres on an area occupying 127 acres. It has also been the home to the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame since 1991. There were multiple hangers with aircraft inside and various outdoor sections of the park dedicated to different types of aircrafts. We payed for general admission entrance to the park but there are more in depth tours you can also pay for to see areas of the park that are even not included in general admission.
The last entrance to the park is at 3PM and they close at 5PM, with some of the hangers closing down before 4:30 PM. We used all of the 2 hours we were given, as we got there just about 3PM, and walked around exploring as much of the park as we could. Adam had our map in hand and he was more than enthusiastic to look at each and every plane and tell me all of the amazing random facts he already knew about them. He may have even said that if he lived in Tucson he would want to have an annual pass to this museum and would come here all the time to learn more new things about all of the planes. I think he even said he would want to give people tours of it too. ;)
You can read more about the Pima Air & Space Museum here.
We also got to visit with more people we knew while we were in Tucson! Our friends Julie & Roger, basically extended family, were staying in Tucson the same time we were and we spent the afternoon together hanging out and going for a walk with their dog King. We had not seen them since the summer, and it's such a nice and refreshing thing to see someone you know and that is familiar to you while you are on the road. I know it positively affects both Adam and I and just is a nice taste of comfort and "home" while being so far out here in the unknown and on our own.
If we had more time...
With this being our first time in Tucson, there was so much to see and explore and so much more that we didn't even have time for this go around. Tucson is a wonderful desert oasis city, with beautiful mountains surrounding every view of it. If we had more time (or more like when we go back!) here is a list of some additional things we will check out:
Mt. Lemmon (drive to the top): The highest point in the Catalina Mountains
Kitt Peak: Featuring the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a United States astronomical observatory located on the peak of the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert.
Hiking in Tucson Mountain Park, which offered miles of trails to explore around our campground.
Drive down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: A U.S. National Monument and biosphere reserve located in extreme southern Arizona that shares a border with the Mexican state of Sonora. The park is the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.
'Old Tucson': Located just down the road from where we stayed, an American movie studio and theme park.
There hasn't really been any part of Arizona that I have not yet enjoyed in some way, and Tucson will definitely be a high point on this overall list. It's not a question of if we will be back, it is only a question of when!
With my dad and step mom visiting, and the celebration of our 9 month nomadiversary, next week will be a 9 month update about us! I will share the things we do all weekend and any other life updates too.
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