We’re at another state park. This time in Arizona. Unlike the previous state parks, this one is open for camping. Arizona has kept the state parks open during the pandemic deeming them an essential service. From what I’ve seen so far during my short time here is that Arizonians love this state parks. Because of the hot arid days, they start arriving at the crack of dawn to hike or bicycle on the many trails and paths throughout the park. We were told that the best time for outdoor activities is between 5:00AM and 10:00AM. We were lucky to have milder than normal temperatures when we arrived but that was soon to change.
Catalina State Park is located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in the town of Oro Valley, an incorporated suburb six miles north of Tucson, Arizona. It’s 5,500 acres in the foothills are covered with desert plants and provides a haven for wildlife. We saw coyotes, jackrabbits, ground squirrels and a variety of native birds during our stay. Although we didn’t spot any, there are bighorn sheep that live on the mountain. We had a fabulous site (A32) in the shadows of the mountain. We loved the majestic view from the camper window.
With several miles of hiking trails at Catalina State Park, grammi and I took advantage of some of the more well traveled ones. One morning we took a path appropriately named Nature Trail. Going up in the foothills from the parking lot we found ourself surrounded by giant saguaros. This was my first close look at those towering iconic cacti.
The park’s literature states there are over 5000 saguaros within its boundaries. Each saguaro was uniquely different. Some had arms bending toward the sky while some other’s had arms bending toward the ground. Some had lots of arms while some had no arms at all. Some seemingly extend their arms as if welcoming us to the desert while other seemed to express their displeasure with an obscene middle finger gesture. Grammi and I laughed and had so much fun as we shared what each one reminded us of.
One afternoon we hiked to the Romero Ruins. Spanning along the top of a quarter mile long ridge is evidence of an a ancient Hohokam village. The remains of old stone walls could be seen giving a sense of what once was. Signs posted along the trail help to educate and inform.
A third hike we took during our stay was the 1.2 mile Birding Trail. This trail crisscrosses the Canada del Oro Wash which has seasonal water flow but was completely dry for us. It went up and down the mesquite and scrub covered foothills where many of the park’s 150 species of birds call home.
Not far away, the Saguaro National Park is the only national park devoted to protecting a single plant species. President Herbert Hoover created the Saguaro National Monument in 1933 and in 1994 Congress made it a national park. It is split into two districts. The Rincon Mountain District lies east of Tucson and Tucson Mountain District lies to the west of Tucson.
During this time the park roads and trails where open to visitors but the visitor center was still closed during the current pandemic. We visited both districts but as they are separated by 45 mile of city traffic we did so on different days.
Our first visit was to the east district of Rincon Mountain where we drove on the Cactus Forest Drive. We took a side road to Mica View where we had a great view of the Mica Mountains. We also took a short hike along a path with hundreds of cacti of all kinds. The landscape is so strikingly alien to this Floridian who has rarely ventured west of the Mississippi.
On another day we went to the west district of Saguaro National Park. Even though the Red Hills Visitor Center was closed, we stopped to check out the natural exhibits and gardens. They have little signs placed in front of the cacti and other plants with the names of the many varieties we’ve been seeing.
We drove the Hohokam Road making me thankful for my four-wheel drive truck, not that I was worried we were going to get stuck but it made for an easier and smoother ride over the bumpy washboard dirt road.
We stopped at the Signal Hill picnic area for lunch. Finding a beautiful and unique place to picnic is becoming a new endeavor. Grammi likes to post a picture to her Facebook page with the caption “Today’s lunch spot”. This spot certainly fit the bill.
Looking down into the valley we saw a line of dust devils. Like little brown tornados, but much less destructive, they spun in unison while moving across the desert.
From the picnic area we took a short hike to Signal Hill, an elevated location higher than anything else nearby. Native Americans frequented this location. The long views across the desert was a perfect place to keep watch for hunting or for defense. There were dozens of petroglyphs carved on the rocks. According to the posted information, the ancient artwork was from the Hohokam period dating back to the 13th and 14th century. Mind-boggling to think how long it has survived the elements.
One day we drove the scenic byway to Mt. Lemmon. At an elevation of over 9,000 feet, it’s a popular destination for it’s cooler temperatures during the summer and for it’s ski slopes in the winter. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that the desert city of Tucson had a ski resort in it’s own backyard. Driving the 27 miles through four different climate zones, they say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada. Starting in the desert with all its majestic saguaro cacti going all the way up to the lush pine forest at the top.
Navigating the winding road was fun. Around every bend something new was revealed. From a seemingly infinite gallery of rock sculptures to thick stands of trees framed with wildflowers and a sign warning of bears. There were dozens of pull offs at vistas with expansive panoramic views. We stopped at several and chose one for our “lunch spot”. Near the top we took a ski lift ride. The temperature in the mid sixties was a refreshing break from the near 100 degree temperatures below. It was a good day.
On our final evening at Catalina State Park we had guests. Not the four-legged kind we’ve had in the recent past, I’m talking about real living, breathing people. Not since mid-March, before all the stay-in-place orders started, have we had any social contact with anyone. Grammi has a cousin that lives in Tucson. So cousin Starr and her family came for a visit. We ordered pizza and sat around chatting until the sun disappeared behind the mountains and a sliver of moon rose above. It was such a good time. It made us realize how much we miss being around family. With the pandemic I wonder if the world will ever be the same. The adventure shall continue though, as we are indeed having fun.
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Until next time…happy days and safe travels.