Tucson sits about 60 miles north of the Mexico boarder in Arizona between California and New Mexico. This area has been populated by native people for over 12,000 years. The first European settlement happened in 1700 when the Spanish Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino founded the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1700. The area later fell under Mexican rule after Mexican independence and was later purchased by the United States in the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Then after a period of confederacy and then statehood in 1912, the area had flown 5 flags in less than 100 years.
Tucson, Americanized to [TOO-san] from the spanish Tucsón [tuk-son] is derived from the O’odham: Cuk-Ṣon which means “at the base of the black hill” referring to Sentinel Mountain. City population is a little over 500k and is the second largest city in AZ.
I honestly didn’t know much about Tucson or Arizona generally. I had visited Phoenix for a work trip a couple of years earlier but never left downtown. From South Padre Island in Texas we had planned to travel to Joshua Tree, CA, a 6 day drive, but Christmas and New Years (and Katy’s birthday) lay in the middle, so we decided to pick a spot in between to break up the drive and have our holiday. At the time the area was lower in COVID cases than New Mexico or NW Texas and Tucson was conveniently located in the middle of Saguaro National Park. The weather was above freezing which saved us from having to winterize the Rialta and the town was pretty affordable compared to other cities including Phoenix.
We picked a 2 bedroom condo on the northeastern edge of the city in the Tanque Verde foothills neighborhood, decorated the AirBnB’s large plastic plant as a tree and made merry with other decorations and lights we bought in town.
As it turns out, we really liked Tucson. The natural areas and winter weather were perfect. I had never seen a real Saguara cactus, the kind you see in cartoons with a central trunk and a curved arm sticking out of each side. The wilderness was very beautiful and easy to access from the city in pretty much every direction from the city.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Only a 5-10 minute drive north from our condo we found a city run recreation area with lots of easy access trails and natural beauty. I enjoyed this area every bit as much as the national parks. Lots of locals used the area for daily exercise but it was still easy to find yourself completely alone without much effort. We hiked a loop trail through a dammed “lake” which was completely dry, and up a valley filled with yellow trees as if it was the height of fall (even though it was late December). We even ran into a large male coatimundi who looked something like a cross between a raccoon, a housecat, and a badger. I had never seen one before so I was a bit alarmed when it rushed up over the dry river embankment and under our feet searching for a handout.
Saguaro National Park (east)
Saguaro National Park, named after the iconic saguaro cactus, is actually split into two areas, one on the east side of the city, near where we stayed, and another further to the west on the other side of the mountains, a little less than an hour away.
Unlike many national parks, the residential neighborhoods came right up against the park boundaries and it was easy to see without its park designation in 1994, the area would have been quickly developed and the natural beauty lost forever.
The landscape here is very dry and dominated by a few types of desert plants, most notably the giant saguaro cactus which typically lives to about 200 years and only gets its first arm around age 75-100 years. Driving across the southwest, I saw none until just outside of the city and by the time we reached California, they had disappeared from the landscape. The largest saguaro cactus on record had grown to 78ft before it was toppled by a windstorm and regular specimens can weigh 3,200 to 4,800lbs when fully engorged with water. The columnar type cactus has an internal skeleton of long wooden ribs which give it surprising rigidity, you can sometimes see cactus skeletons standing eternally on the horizon, and their spines have a similar strength to steel, having been known to pierce the skull of longhorn sheep.
Other common desert friends include the fish-hook barrel cactus, green and purple prickly pears, and a variety of cholla including the chain-fruit, staghorn, and teddy bear chollas.
The eastern park includes a paved one-lane 8 mile loop road that winds through the low lands over steep and winding hills, and up into the mountains for great views. There are intermediate pull outs that allow you to park and explore the desert nearby. Honestly I found the density of actual saguaro were better in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.
Saguaro National Park (west)
To get to the west park we drove through town, past I-10 and through the Tucson Mountain Park pass and down into another valley. The western park is similar to the eastern park except its loop road was a bit shorter and was completely unpaved. It was drivable but was a little rough on the Rialta and offered less pullouts and primarily kept to the valley and wound around a central hill. After the eastern park and the recreational area, I can’t say there was much new about this region except a side road leading to a collection of petroglyphs that were pretty interesting. The highlight to me though was the pass in the mountain park which was beautiful.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission was the first European settlement in the region built in 1700 by Spanish Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino. The mission is still active today and sits on a native reservation 10 minutes south of downtown off of I-10. It’s worth a visit, but when we were there it closed at noon and we missed seeing the inside.
Tucson Mountain Park
Originally this mountain park was an afterthought on our way to the western portion of the Saguaro National Park but it turned out to be the highlight of the day. Local road construction on West Gates Pass RD was harrowing for a couple of miles early on but after, the road was a bit winding but easy to navigate, and lead upward to Gates Pass with beautiful mountains and structures and a breathtaking view of the valley below. We stopped for a bit and hiked around and then returned later for the sunset over the valley. Certainly a must-see for any visit. We drove the pass, then down to the national park, drove the loop, saw the petroglyphs, and had plenty of time to get back for sunset the same day.
Another nomadic Christmas.
Our first Christmas abroad we found ourselves in Romania and made the best of the holiday. This year we were in Tucson. The condo we rented had a large plastic plant that we decorated with lights and bows and a few ornaments we bought at target and we wrapped presents and played chiristmas movies and songs and made the best of our holiday on the road. I had previously wanted to go back to Seattle to see my daughter over the holiday but the thanksgiving covid spikes were happening everywhere and we couldn’t in good conscience make the journey. But all in all it worked out pretty well.