It’s impossible to travel any distance through the southwestern United States and not come across something of beauty or historic importance. Even though we’ve previously made three passes through the region, there are still some gaps in our coverage, so way back last summer we began planning a southwestern 2017 spring break outing. The target was eastern Arizona, specifically Saguaro and Petrified Forest National Parks. The route quickly expanded to include Canyon de Chelly National Monument and then we made a big leap to study the feasibility of including Death Valley National Park in California by way of Flagstaff, AZ and the Grand Canyon. What resulted was a 1,665-mile journey encompassing four national parks, three national monuments, three cities, four international dark sky parks, several breweries, lots of amazing food and a ton of laughs.
We began by flying from Chicago O’Hare to Tucson, Arizona. 4-time road trip partners Emily and Jake made their way to Tucson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa by way of Dallas/Fort Worth. With good luck and clear weather, we all landed within an hour on Thursday night. Both Tucson flights landed early and Nick and I even got a whole row to ourselves, when was the last time that happened? In even more transportation good fortune, the rate we received for our rental car through Hertz was so low ($7 a day for a full size car) that the girl at the counter said “How did you get this rate? I don’t even get a price that low with my 40% employee discount.” Our tip for getting good rental deals is to make a reservation whenever you see a decent price, but check back often to see if rates gave gone down. You’re not committed to anything since rental companies take only your contact info when you reserve online. When you find a lower rate, simply cancel your first reservation and start a new one. We’ve used the strategy with other car bookings and with other agencies, but this one was the best deal we’ve found.
Now rolling in our black Chevy Malibu we found some great late night food and drink at the Welcome Diner, a stylishly rehabbed mid-century lunch counter serving killer sandwiches and creative cocktails. Our dwelling for the next two nights was Lodge on the Desert, a historic property that hosted old western movie stars back in the day. Its mid-town location puts it in a quiet neighborhood and a short drive from downtown Tucson. The Lodge is arranged in groupings of hacienda-style buildings, separated by beautifully landscaped gardens. It was a great place to get the day started with complimentary breakfast in the restaurant and end it with a relaxing dip in the pool and hot tub.
Bright and early the morning after our arrival, we set out to explore Saguaro National Park. The park is made up of two separate units, one east and one west of Tucson. We began by driving about 40 minutes west to the Tucson Mountains unit. This is the smaller side of the park by area, but is more heavily forested with the eponymous giant saguaro cactus. After stopping by the visitor center, we drove Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, making stops to walk the Valley View Overlook trail and Signal Hill. These are short (less than a mile) trails, but they give a perfect introduction to the scenery and plant life found throughout the park. Temperatures in the 90s in early April meant we weren’t able to take a long, strenuous hike such as the Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak. In fact, Saguaro National Park has the opposite season we’re accustomed to, with busy times in the tolerably warm winter months and most attractions and programs closing down for the unbearable summer desert heat.
Plants here are adept at holding onto what little precipitation falls throughout the year, helping make the Sonoran desert the greenest in the world. Throughout the park, ground cover is made up of a fascinating variety of desert plants with charming names like ocotillo, prickly pear, teddy bear cholla, fishhook barrel and mesquite. Obviously saguaros are the real stars though, towering overhead in all directions and dwarfing anything else in the desert. They grow extremely slowly, averaging about a foot in height 15 years after sprouting, but they can ultimately achieve heights over 50 feet and weights over 16,000 pounds. Because they lack a ring structure like trees, nobody knows for sure the age of the oldest saguaros, but they are estimated to live about 150-200 years. They only start growing their signature branches after 70 years and some never form arms at all. The result is a surreal landscape with a wide variety of saguaro forms, some standing as single-trunk “spires” while others strike bizarre arm-waving poses.
Approaching lunch time, we found some tasty barbecue at Brother John’s Beer Bourbon and BBQ, and then headed east toward the Rincon Mountains district. One thing to keep in mind is that though Tucson is a mid-size city, it sprawls out over a huge area. It takes what feels like hours to cross the whole town on stop-and-go Speedway Boulevard, you’ll swear you’ve passed the same strip mall five times. Arriving at the Rincon Mountains Visitor Center, the eastern unit appears more mountainous and reaches higher elevations. It’s not quite as stunningly saguaro-filled at first impression, but it’s definitely beautiful. On a longer stay, camping in the high backcountry sites around Mica Mountain would be amazing, but it will have to wait until next time for us. We had just enough time to check out the Freeman Homestead Trail before we had to see a woman about some horses at Houston’s Horseback Rides. Conveniently located on Speedway Boulevard
right across from national park land, Houston’s has easy access to the network of trails in this portion of Saguaro. Upon arrival, we were introduced to our riding buddies for the next couple hours: Kilo (Neil), Beau (Nick), Remington (Emily), and Cinco (Jake). Guided by Jim, we rode single file through a wash and then into the heart of the saguaro forest. Jim pointed out plant and animal life and provided great geologic and cultural commentary about the area. Aside from two minor horse spookings (simmer down, Kilo), the ride went off without a hitch and allowed us to cover a lot of ground on the two-hour ride. When the heat keeps you from doing major hikes, let a big animal do the walking. We ambled a little bow-legged that evening into Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, where we enjoyed fantastic food and booze on the sidewalk patio. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip, with everyone loving the calamari appetizer (an early favorite to appear on our yearly “Best Of” list.)
Speaking of food, Tucson is designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, the first in the United States. Being located in an area where evidence of farming goes back more than 4,000 years means there is a rich lineage of innovative local cuisine. It is reflected today in the quality Southwestern and Mexican restaurants all over town. For a traditional Mexican lunch, we tried Guadalajara Original Grill where their table-side fresh salsa mashing was a highlight. In the Tucson beverage department, the most inventive drink I’ve had in a while was the “chai, coconut, bourbon and stout” beer press at Good Oak Bar on Congress Street. Think French press tea, except the ingredients are steeped in beer instead of water … amazing.
On our last morning in town, we took a break from the outdoors and dining to visit the Tucson Museum of Art. It fills a contemporary building with the largest exhibits, plus smaller historic buildings in the surrounding block. The western art collection is impressive and there was a great temporary exhibit on the use of body language in art in the main gallery. It was our last chance for some urban culture before setting off into the sparsely populated eastern and northern parts of Arizona.