The Magnificent Seven… Or Maybe Eight
My personal highlights from a wonderful stay in Arizona
From a very early age, the word ‚Tucson‘ for me was synonymous with a land full of wonders. This place was so far away that people talked in this strange language, English, which I liked the sound of because it was spoken by people that I loved dearly. Apparently, Tucson was so warm that houses had swimming pools, and cacti grew in the garden because it was in the middle of the desert. The desert was inhabited by rattlesnakes, and also large spiders. One of the spiders was called George as it was practically a member of the household. Eeek.
My early education involved Ernie and lots of stories about Tucson
A mere toddler then, I frequently heard my uncle and aunt, who is American, talk about Arizona, the place where they had met while my uncle was on a school exchange. Matching Arizona to the place where Westerns were filmed, I believed my aunt to be a veritable Indian due to her dark long hair, tan and beautiful turquoise jewellery. The place came to life through their stories, which I soaked up.
About 40 years later, I’ve finally visited Arizona and stayed near Tucson with my uncle and aunt. I have now seen the places that had long since taken shape in my mind, places my mother and grandparents had visited before me. I have taken in the endless stretches of Saguaro (the tree-like cactus unique to the Sonoran desert), marvelled at the Santa Catalina Mountains, and drove past the lovely house with the swimming pool - it is currently on the market again and has been refurbished beyond recognition, much to my poor aunt’s dismay… George, of course, had long made his eight-legged exit.
What remains is this beautiful landscape, with wildlife in abundance (only the resident roadrunner stayed in hiding during my visit), and the kindness of the people. Some of them I’d already known from the stories, like my aunt’s legendary sister and her husband. I was so glad to finally meet them!
Made it! View of the Santa Catalina Mountains and cacti in the garden
Two weeks went by much too fast, and while we didn’t go as far as the Grand Canyon, we did a lot of exploring in, err… the ‚proximity‘ (in other words: only three hours driving one way, not six…). Here are my favourite spots, should you be in the area and have a chance to check them out:
1. Old Tucson
Old Tucson looks like a cliché Wild West town and is where the movies were made. Or indeed, still are made! When we visited what has been the backdrop to a whole load of Westerns ever since 1939 and, most famously, many John Wayne and some Clint Eastwood flicks, filming was in full swing - all top secret, of course. Even though some of the areas were not accessible and we had missed the Stunt Show, we were able to soak up that movie atmosphere, complete with Saloon, Town Hall, Church and Stables. Most importantly, we were treated to the riveting performance by a historian in costume who brought to life the days when cows were driven across the country in large treks. Yee-haw!
2. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Barely a five-minute drive away from Old Tucson is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum - an absolute must when you want to learn more about this unique area and its rich flora and fauna. It’s great to combine with Old Tucson, although you can easily spend a whole day exploring the different zones of what is actually more like a crossover between zoo, museum and botanical garden, beautifully laid out with various areas arranged by themes. This is mostly outdoors, so make sure to wear sunglasses and a hat, and bring a water bottle, which you can refill free of charge at the various water stations in the park. And with just above 30 degrees Celsius and humidity below 10%, you’ll be doing that a lot…
Prairie Dogs at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
At the museum great care is taken to present plants and animals in their natural habitat, with just about the right amount of explanation. This allows you to target the subjects that interest you most, be it pollination, archaeology and minerals, or life under ground (yes, that includes spiders), or reptiles or… The raptor free flight certainly was a highlight, with the beautiful birds coming really close and soaring right above people’s heads - a truly moving experience.
A Harris Hawk close up
The hummingbirds’ aviary is not to be missed either as it gives visitors a chance to see these cute little fellows close up, and they are not a bit shy. None of the animals are, to be honest, so I finally got a chance to make eye contact with a roadrunner. Wile E. Coyote was there as well, but in a different area as part of the Desert Trail and with no access to any ACME goods…
3. Wasson Peak
King Canyon Trail in the Saguaro National Park starts just up the road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and takes you up to Wasson Peak (1.429m), the highest you can get in the Tucson Mountains. The roughly 12km-long loop trail was a lesson in not underestimating the desert heat and bringing enough water when you hike - approximately half a litre per hour, maybe more. And don't forget salty snacks!
Always bring enough water when hiking in Arizona!
There are all sorts of stingy and prickly things on either side of the trail, but one thing there is not - shade. With one exception: One saguaro became my friend for holding up its arms for me to cool off. It’s moments like these you heartily agree that these amazing, well-protected plants, which grow their first arm only when at least 75 years old, are very sacred. The Tohono O'odham native tribe - their name translating to 'People of the Desert’ - believe that the saguaros were once their ancestors.
King Canyon Trail
The hike up to Wasson Peak might be exhausting, but you are rewarded with the most awesome view of the plains below
4. Tubac with Tumacácori
Lovers of art and antiques should visit Tubac, a small and very old village located not far from the Mexican border. It was founded by the Spanish in 1752 as a presidio (fort). There are loads of galleries and nice little shops with pottery and all things decorative. If you are a fan of tiles and colourful items for your home, Mexican Style, this is the place to go. If hungry, stop by at Elvira’s, which is also nicely decorated and serves Mexican food to die for.
Colourful squirrels - why not!
While there, be sure to also visit Tumacácori nearby, a site belonging to the National Park Service. This amazing place in the Santa Cruz River Valley allows you to go back to the days when the Spanish first came to America, preaching to the native O’odham people while never safe from Apache attacks. Jesuits were followed by Franciscan missionaries, who built the church which can still be seen today.
The old mission church of Tumacácori
The church was never finished, but it was impressive to look at none the less, complete with cemetery, a museum and a lovely garden where bees and hummingbirds enjoyed the blossoms of the many flowers and trees by the fountain. A nice elderly Mexican lady demonstrated the making of traditional tortilla, served with hot chili sauce. Very! hot chili sauce.
Traditional tortilla making
On the way back, you can also visit San Xavier del Bac, called the ‚White Dove of the Desert’ (built 1783-1797). This impressive mission church is where the priests withdrew to when Tumacácori was abandoned.
San Xavier del Bac
Maybe some practical advice to round this off: There’s Border Patrol operating on the road and making inspections when you head back to Tucson. So, even though you’re not leaving the US, be sure to bring your passport!
5. Biosphere 2
I remember the day back in 1991 when I was watching TV and heard about eight scientists who moved into a space that was to be sealed off for several years. They were going to produce their own food and sustain themselves completely independent from the world outside. Maybe this would be necessary one day? Maybe when mankind had finally destroyed the Earth and had to migrate to other planets? This was the stuff of Science Fiction…
Biosphere 2 is well worth a visit
The mission had to be given up a couple of years after and was often ridiculed and called a failure. I think it only proved how important it is to preserve our own atmosphere and planet and was delighted to find out that Biosphere 2, which is the name of the place, still exists. Located near Oracle, today it is a research facility belonging to the University of Arizona. The place is well worth visiting, complete with 90-minute guided tour.
The habitat's 'lung' that prevented the dome from exploding or imploding - air and temperature at work
While you can visit the former habitat of the scientists, there is so much more to see and learn as this is all about studying ecosystems under controlled conditions. They have replicated all the various climate zones of our planet, from the desert to the ocean, and there is loads of research going on that is all about sustainability and healthy environments.
Working on a sustainable way of cultivating plants - with the help of recycled water and... fish
6. Sabino Canyon
This place sounded lovely from when I first read about it, but when I learned that my grandparents had visited it in 1979, I wanted to go even more. Sabino Canyon is located in the Santa Catalina Mountains. There is a tram that takes visitors up along either Sabino Creek or to Bear Canyon. This costs extra (most parks charge for a pass, and this one is no exception), but it is well worth the admission fee.
The tram is a great way to go up to the top of Sabino Canyon. Information on the sights is provided along the way.
There are nine stops along the Sabino-Creek tour, many of them with picnic areas or spots to relax, and you can re-board as many times as you want during the day between stops 1 and 9. Various trails go off the main road and can be explored. From personal experience, I recommend the Phoneline Trail, rounded off by popping into the Visitor Centre, which includes an exhibition and a film on the area, and the obligatory souvenir shop.
Sabino Canyon just above stop #9. Ready to go hiking!
7. Chiricahua National Monument
This was without doubt the highlight of my stay. Going east on the I-10, with the legendary town of Tombstone as well as Colossal Cave and Kartchner Caverns signposted on the way, you finally get to Chiricahua National Monument, one of the most recommended visits also in the guide books. This site is absolutely fascinating and - as a bonus - free of charge to visit. Doing the Big Loop from the parking lot near Echo Canyon (round about 14km) was one of the most impressive hikes I have ever done. Make sure you do this clockwise; it is easier because of elevation.
'Wonderland of Rocks': Chiricahua National Monument
The trail starting out with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and then eventually leading through forest, you suddenly enter 'The Land of the Standing Up Rocks', as Chiricahua is called in the brochure you get from the Visitor Centre. Strange shapes and formations that you would think would collapse any moment are simply breathtaking, and just when you think you have seen it all, you turn a corner and are confronted with a sight that is all fresh and astonishing.
Many of the formations have names. This one is 'Big Balanced Rock'.
The trail never gets boring. It takes you down, then up again into the 'Heart of Rocks', where you are right in the middle of these impressive formations. Then back round, through a Creek at the bottom and gently up again. The scent of pines, a refreshing breeze - I think we picked a perfect spring day for this. As with all hikes in Arizona, mind where you put your hands and feet, as snakes might be resting just under the piece of rock that you have chosen to sit on. Apply sunscreen and wear a hat. It makes a big difference.
Doing the 'Big Loop' at Chiricahua, the view keeps changing on every turn
8. Claire’s Cafe
This must be a hidden gem on Oracle Road near Saddlebrooke. Claire's Cafe is a typical American Diner, yet different as it is lacking the cliché counter and plastic chairs you always get to see in films. Instead, you find an art gallery with loads of pictures up on the wall. The menu offers everything the heart desires, from pancakes to salads, burgers, Mexican food, omelettes, fresh fruit and… well, whatever, really. Most importantly: You get that legendary coffee refill - and it is delicious. Served with a smile. I just loved it there. Not just because it has been my family’s favourite for years…
Claire's Cafe - I'd go more often if I could...
I need to round this off with a little extra… simply because it made us laugh a lot and turned into an ongoing joke throughout our stay once we had discovered this little 'Saturday Night Life' clip triggered by a conversation about kids ordering doll houses and what not… Voice controlled gadgets. Well… I DON’T KNOW ABOUT THAT!
Oh! And before I forget! Turns out that there is Indian blood in my aunt’s ancestry after all, a fact that she unearthed doing thorough research and reconstructing her family tree!