Our first day in Tucson was a travel bonanza. In the morning we drove Gates Pass Road, and in the afternoon Ruth & I ascended Mount Lemmon on the other side of the city. Gates Pass Road offers significantly great views of the valley containing the west section of Saguaro National Park with Kitt Peak visible in the distance and Old Tucson in the middle. I did not know that this winding road existed until a local who loves it told me about it. I hope she doesn’t regret sharing the information with me.
Gates Pass Road’s top elevation is close to 3,200 feet. This marvel of a road is entirely in the Tucson Mountains west of the city. To get there we took Speedway, one of Tucson’s main thoroughfares, and found West Anklam Road and Mountain Garden Estates, an upscale community, to access it. The entire road is a feast of saguaro cacti. They cover many vistas in what has become Tucson Mountain Park. There are only a couple of places to get out of your car and walk about. These spots are very popular with locals some of whom are not thrilled that you have found this beauteous spot that they love in a gorgeous mountain pass very close to Tucson.
This road has an interesting history. A saloon keeper by the name of Thomas Gates was looking for a shortcut over the mountains in 1883. He cleared and graded this winding road that now bears his name for $1000. He went on to become a prison superintendent.
There are lots of signs in this mountain park, and don’t be surprised if you encounter a javelina or roadrunner. One sign is about desert adaptations to the Sonoran Desert and reports about animal adjustments to seasonal demands. Plants adapt too in a place where something is always blooming during the cooler months. In our case it was Brittlebush, a frost sensitive plant found on dry, rocky hillsides. Many of the humans who frequent this park are fit oldsters in young bike attire and young bikers similarly dressed. Both groups have 3 trail choices.
Tucson Mountain Park is Pima County’s largest and most visited where humans can sometimes see some of the 230 vertebrate animal species that live here, or at least they hope to.
The road that Gates built is narrow and winding, and according to Wiki 3000 cars use it each day. Some call it dangerous. I call it worth the risk.
My favorite outdoor experience while in Arizona recently was visiting the Sonoran Desert National Monument. It is far less developed than many other National Monuments. In fact, Ruth and I took Interstate 8 that crosses it between I-10 and Yuma and didn’t see a single sign for it. Since it was created in 2001, we expected to be made aware of it. When we got to Gila Bend, we knew we had crossed a large portion of its 496,000+ acres, so I went into a motel to find out where we could access Highway 238, the only other highway that crosses it. Highway 238 had a sign and much to offer the traveler.
Both routes offer a good look at an undisturbed Sonoran Desert landscape, but 238 was far richer and more fun. We had been told that this National Monument contains an extensive saguaro forest, but our map didn’t tell us where it was and we did not see it even though we saw lots of saguaros. This large National Monument also has 3 mountain ranges–Maricopa, Sand Tank, and Table Top. All of the literature we saw about it warned us not to visit the portion south of I-8 that contains the Table Top and Sand Tank Mountains. Our map, for example, told us to expect “…frequent border smuggling activity” there and suggested we lock any unattended vehicle and pay attention to our surroundings if we ventured into it. We didn’t. Because of its troubles and military involvement, those who visit the Table Tops are told to get a permit and watch a safety video.
The Sonoran Desert National Monument has 4 hiking trails totaling 26 miles and 3 wilderness areas. Solitude and star-gazing are assured if you overnight. It contains much flora and fauna. the fauna includes mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and our map chillingly warned us not to put our hands and feet in brush or under rocks and boulders. Less dangerous denizens include the Sonoran Desert tortoise and many small birds.
Highway 238 is also called Maricopa Road and parallels a railroad line. Maricopa Road is described by one source as “little traveled” and we found that to be the case. Other roads in this monument are dirt and recommended for only 4 WD. We saw lots of Foothill Palo Verde trees along this route. Many were blooming with bright yellow flowers. We also saw sand dunes and one roadside shrine. The more impressive ones known as capillitas, these are a common social phenomenon in Southern Arizona. This one was especially well-tended.
After crossing the lonely Sonoran landscape, it was a bit of a shock to be in the surprisingly large town of Maricopa, AZ. More than 43,000 people live here.
Some towns as disparate as Harlingen, TX and Vernon, BC have decided that the way to attract outsiders is to paint and promote a bunch of local murals. The 29 murals in Vernon are history based and about the town. They are interesting to see, oriented toward local happenings, and make Vernon unique. The largest city I know about that has decided to have a bunch of artists paint murals to promote itself is Tucson, AZ. Seeing murals was one reason for Ruth & me going there. Accessing them was neither easy or possible now.
Even though they are out-of-doors, the murals are scattered all over a city with many ongoing construction projects blocking access to them, and they have grown to more than one-thousand. Many of them fortunately exist in downtown Tucson. The ones that I saw were professionally sophisticated and reflective of this city’s culture. This project, however, has become very eclectic and diverse. I saw murals that basically had animal subjects, showed bikes in motion or other forms of transportation, or featured singing stars not normally associated with the local scene. In one hour downtown on a Sunday morning I walked several blocks and saw many murals, sometimes 3 or more in one circled block. This was possible only because Ruth drove and dropped me off to take the photos that accompany this essay. Because parking is difficult downtown (parking meters and garages don’t allow short-term use) this mural seeing would not be possible to do easily until social conditions improve. I saw one tour online that involved seeing 23 of them during a 3 mile walk. Ruth & I wanted to take a tour, but in our limited time with no easy access, we didn’t know which tour to take and had no one to ask. COVID and the border mess nearby has basically shut down this entire city when it comes to seeing any indoor attractions.
There are many sites online about these murals that lead to more questions than answers with no one to ask. Many murals are clearly by professional artists and are signed and perhaps copyrighted. Several tour websites remind visitors to bring cameras, but what are the consequences of taking pictures of the work of living artists? How do you keep folks with cell phones from taking pictures of murals and sharing the photos? How do the artists preserve and refresh their work? These very inventive depictions are vivid and everywhere in Tucson. We found a few of the ones we wanted to see behind walls, or access required entering what appeared to be private parking lots. If you want to sample this huge project, proceed with caution and plan to take and book a tour before even going to Tucson.
It’s also very hard to learn the history of this community endeavor. Apparently it started way back in 1964 when artist Ted DeGrazia completed a 96-square-foot mural. In 2018 an interested committee asked for and accepted mural proposals from artists. Most of the ones accepted are seen downtown, but murals are clearly now all over Tucson. We finally gave up on seeing our favorites and headed for Mount Lemmon.
We had to entertain ourselves with opened, outdoor attractions in Arizona. As a result Ruth and I traveled north to a well, a castle, and an important National Monument with an unusual name shortly after we arrived in Phoenix. The National Monument called Tuzigoot (pronounced too zee goot) had just restarted its lecture series atop the structure after 2 years, so we benefited from Brian’s knowledge of the area. Dedicated naturalist Ruth received a book about Arizona trees from him.
The large well is a detached unit of the Montezuma Castle complex. The Aztec Emperor not known as a serious traveler surely never saw it. Eleven miles from Montezuma Castle, a fine cliff dwelling, the well and castle were probably named by pioneers who stocked the natural lake with fish that perhaps poisoned those who caught and ate them. All 3 units are also well-visited bird sanctuaries, especially the well that contains arsenic. Birders have spotted the chipping sparrow and the largely orange rufous hummingbird among the hundreds of bird species that drink from this well. The fish that were once stocked in it fed on leeches. The natural lake that forms from underground springs, not nearby Beaver Creek, also attracts mud turtles.
The well is next to the creek but not filled by it. Its water flows through vents at the well’s bottom every day at about 74 degrees. No one apparently knows exactly how much water flows upward into this well because one estimate I found was 1 1/2 million gallons, another was 6 million gallons, and the top estimate was 15 million gallons. What is not disputed is the fact that this was a reliable water source in the desert even in times of drought for the people who settled near it. This valley’s annual rain and rare snowfall rarely exceeds 13 inches per year. And settle they did, in great numbers. The most important native American group to live in this area were the Sinagua people who lived here for centuries and watered crops with this water source via ditches. People have always settled here in the Verde Valley because it provided plentiful food sources and a year-round water supply from many creeks, rivers like the Verde, and this well that may have poisoned the Sinaguas over time with its arsenic and caused the survivors to leave the area.
The Mongollon Rim that crosses much of Arizona is visible to the north of Montezuma Well. These 3 attractions are about 95 miles north of Phoenix. The well and castle are very close to I-17, but Tuzigoot is further inland, giving travelers a chance to see the old town of Clarkdale on their way to it. Thanks to Brian, I now know that the classic old mining town of Jerome, AZ is visible from atop the Tuzigoot structure.
Ruth & I visited Phoenix and Tucson during the past week despite the border crisis and COVID shutdowns that are impacting the area. Both cities have been especially affected by these awful social disruptions. Most indoor attractions in and near both cities are shut down and are likely to remain so until at least next September. We could not even see and get help in the relatively new Visitors’ Center in the historic Pima County Courthouse in Tucson because it is currently closed. The people of both cities are putting on brave faces covered by masks through all of this, but this is a difficult time to visit. Luckily, both cities are outdoor activity seeking places and most outdoor venues around and near both cities were open and busy.
For example, the drive up Mount Lemmon has reopened, and we spent most of an entire day enjoying the experience of sharing its road to the summit with bikers, hikers, and other motorists. Despite fires, Mount Lemmon is still a marvel. A true sky island in the desert, Mount Lemmon soars to 9,157 feet in the shadow of Tucson and shelters many animals that can’t survive in the Sonoran Desert that surrounds it. One wonders, for example, how bears made it to live in the pine forests atop this mountain. Drivers do not get much beyond 8,000 feet during the drive up the 2-lane highway to Summerhaven, its mountaintop community with a new hotel near a ski valley. When we began at Mount Lemmon’s base, the temperature was in the 90s but the air was quickly cooler as we ascended this 26 mile long highway. We know because we made frequent stops to admire the flowering saguaros, ocotillo cacti, and palo verde trees. Mount Lemmon, which has several canyons including Sabino, sits in the Coronado National Forest. Tucson barely gets 11 inches of rain each year while the residents of Summerhaven get almost 3 times as much moisture. We saw snow patches near their town.
Mount Lemmon experienced major fires in 2003 and 2020. Ruth and I saw evidence of the more recent fire in several places. There are frequent pull-over spots all along this highway, and Ruth and I enjoyed almost all of them. One offered dramatic views of Thimble Peak. Another, the Windy Point Vista, meant seeing a host of hoodoos. Tucson is framed by 5 mountain ranges. One of them is the Santa Catalina Mountains that Mount Lemmon is part of. Lemmon is, in fact, the Santa Catalina’s highest peak.
Despite the Bighorn Fire of 2020, the Mount Lemmon Hotel opened in Summerhaven in early April, 2021. Its most distinctive feature is 17 casitas, approximately 400 feet of hotel living space in stand alone buildings. Ironically this new guest facility replaces the Alpine Lodge that burned in the major Alpine Fire in 2003. That forest fire destroyed 84,000+ acres and more than 300 homes and businesses.
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