It is an odd sight: a 30-foot saguaro cactus, probably close to 200 years old, by the edge of a strip mall. One has to wonder what else the tree-like cactus has grown with aside from a drugstore, taco bar and thrift shop.
Then again, with the town of Tombstone, famous for its gun battle at the O.K. Corral, just about an hour’s drive southeast, it isn’t that tough to imagine the thrill-seekers of the day—Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and their ilk—running wild on dusty streets thanks to Hollywood’s many iterations of the goings-on in this neck of the woods.
But Tucson is even older than the Western lore and saguaro cacti that are ubiquitous in and around this city. Some 12,000 years ago, Tucson was a Native American village called “Stukshon,” meaning “springs from the foot of the black hill.” It is the convergence of the spirituality and sense of heritage of the Old West with the beauty and opportunity for adventure in today’s Tucson that beckons visitors to this city.
That diversity also extends to the land itself. Though surrounded by desert, the area has seven of the world's nine “life zones,” including grasslands and alpine forest. A testament to its wide variety of ecosystems, Tucson has an elevation range from roughly 2,000 to 9,000 feet.
There’s plenty to do in Tucson, set along the banks of the Santa Cruz River and bordered by the Sonoran Desert and the Catalina Mountains. On the following pages you’ll find a sampling of the Old and New West to enjoy in and around this engaging city.
Where to Visit a 1990s Landmark & Study the Earth
A little more than 27 years ago, eight scientists shuttered themselves in a giant research lab in the middle of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. They spent two years isolated in a self-contained environment that included farmland, chickens, herb gardens and a miniature ocean with tilapia for food sources. The scientists aimed to study the Earth’s ecosystems, which were recreated under a huge glass-and-metal structure that from the outside resembled a shopping center.
The experiment at the time drew bad press. It was seen as pseudo-science in some quarters, while the temporary departure of one injured scientist for treatment drew scorn. Further, the project was plagued with a series of setbacks, including falling oxygen levels and the need for the researchers to eat emergency rations to supplement their home-grown food.
But the project lives on today as Biosphere 2, under the auspices of Arizona University. Rather than a hermetically sealed petri dish, however, researchers—and tourists—can pretty much come and go. Knowing that only a select few were once privy to this giant lab in Oracle, about a 20-mile drive north of Tucson, brings with a visit a sense of privilege. And seeing some of the sites where today’s research is unfolding makes for a fascinating way to spend a few hours.
The 7.2-million-square-foot space includes five tropical biomes: a rainforest, ocean, mangrove, savannah and desert.
In one area where rich black dirt lays one meter deep on a 10-degree slope, researchers are studying how water flows from mountains to rivers and, separately, how the rate of global warming is affected by peppering soil with basalt. The Biosphere 2 dirt made up of basaltic tephra, or crushed volcanic rock, lies in what is essentially a terrarium about the size of a basketball court. The space used to be farmland for the original Biosphere residents but was left unused by the time the University of Arizona renewed experiments in the building.
The entire landscape, in a hot and muggy room, rests on scales. Some 1,800 electronic probes are stuck in the soil. Overhead sprinklers mimic rain, which falls from a drizzle to the scale of a monsoon.
With the equipment, researchers create massive, three-dimensional models as water moves through the landscape. Scientists learn how long it takes water to flow, what percentage is stored in the soil and how much evaporates, explains Aaron Sparks Bugaj, a research specialist focusing on the Biosphere 2 LEO Project, for Landscape Evolution Observatory.
“These are important questions because they tell us things about the water that ends up in our groundwater drinking supplies down in the Tucson basin,” Bugaj says.
More recently, Biosphere 2 researchers have been learning through its hilly landscape ways to possibly help stave off global warming. The basalt comprising its black soil may in fact help take carbon dioxide that many scientists say is responsible for global warming and move it from the atmosphere to within the surface below.
The next step is to test varying intensities of rainfall to see levels that most effectively sequester, or segregate, carbon in the soil, Bugaj explains. “That might help us say something like, ‘Let’s add basalt in this climate and region of the world to promote the most sequestration,’ as opposed to adding basalt to a place where it may not be as effective,” he says.
In the meantime, Biosphere 2 officials are stepping up their study of the impact of warming on the world’s oceans. They are replacing decades-old infrastructure beneath its million-gallon ocean habitat to study coral and other ocean life.
“We’ll be putting corals back in here, doing different trials and identifying which species are more resistant to this increase in temperature,” says Kate Morgan, Biosphere 2 manager of Marine Systems. “When we identify the corals that are more resistant, we’re going to selectively breed them to make what we’re calling a ‘super coral.’”
Scientists elsewhere, notably the Gates Coral Lab in Hawaii, are doing similar work. “This is an opportunity for us to scale it up in here,” Morgan says. “The really neat thing about this ocean
Visitors can view the living spaces of the eight original Biosphere residents but can’t touch them. A kitchen area where the scientists grew a tabletop herb garden is cordoned off, and bedrooms, including one with the original artwork of one researcher, are behind walls and plastic viewing windows. To learn more, visit biosphere2.org.
Where to Hike & Bike
At nearly 92,000 acres, and divided into two districts, the Rincon Mountain District to the east and the Tucson Mountain District to the west, Saguaro National Park has diverse hiking and biking trails that will let you immerse yourself in the stunning scenery of the Sonoran Desert.
The beginner, in search of spectacular scenic views and such wildlife as great horned owls, and the hardcore athlete, focused on a grueling workout, will each find trails to satisfy. The Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. The Tucson Mountain District is mostly lower in elevation with a thicker saguaro forest.
For relatively shorter hikes, the still strenuous Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (offering great sunset viewing) is the main route into backcountry camping in Saguaro East, while the King Canyon trail—an old mining road—leads to other trails and gets you to Wasson Peak, at 4,687 feet, the highest peak in Saguaro West. For a longer hike in Saguaro East, head to Manning Camp, 16 miles one way and 4,000 feet up.
Indeed, higher ground comes quickly, particularly when hiking Saguaro National Park’s wilderness areas for backcountry camping. An overnight trip into Saguaro's rugged wilderness can take you from 3,000 feet elevation to over 8,000 feet in about 15 miles.
Your adventurous spirit may want to take you unguided into Saguaro National Park, but don’t overlook the rich menu of programs with park naturalists. Recent programs in the Rincon Mountain District, for example, shed light on uses of desert plants for food, medicine, clothing and shelter. In other programs, park naturalists examine a recently discovered plant species or lead hikers to the Loma Verde Copper Mine historic site.
For bikers, the park’s scenic loop drives are popular. The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District is an 8-mile paved loop, while the Bajada Loop Drive in the Tucson Mountain District is a 6-mile gravel loop. Admission for bikers is $5; night riding is allowed, but your bike must have a headlight and rear reflector.
Hikers and bikers, be safe in the heat—if you’re looking to visit during the summer, when lodging rates are lower than during the winter, note that summers around Saguaro National Park can mean many consecutive days of temperatures above 100°F.
For more information about the Rincon Mountain District, call its visitor center at 520-733-5153; for the Tucson Mountain District Visitor Center, call 520-733-5158.
Where to Stay
To stay at Tanque Verde Ranch on the edge of Saguaro National Park is to be immersed in rustic luxury. Steps from our comfortable, tasteful, Western-themed room, we encounter a saguaro-studded hillside, the Rincon Mountains in the distance, offering a spectacular site both in the early morning sun and bathed in orange at sundown.
Tanque Verde Ranch offers a full activity menu, but the centerpiece is clearly its corral and the myriad horsemanship classes and equine outings offered. We connected with these magnificent animals in several settings, including a long, scenic morning breakfast ride to the ranch’s Old Homestead for signature blueberry pancakes and other tasty goodies prepared cowboy style: outdoors.
We savored the majesty of the terrain unfolding before us at Tanque Verde. And its skilled horse wranglers strike a welcome balance of safety consciousness and the freedom riders are given to bond with their horses as they traverse a changing landscape.
Later, after navigating barrels and cones, we walked, trotted and loped the perimeter of a pen as we learned to assert more control during our ride, skills we took home.
Those who’d rather trade hoofs for wheels can mountain bike the picturesque environs. Or, if you want to combine hiking with education, Tanque Verde offers classes in desert photography and medicinal plants, among others. Or simply relax by the property’s serene pool, in its tranquil spa or with a yoga class.
A hearty yee-haw! for the property’s superb culinary expertise: a lunch buffet full of seasonal vegetables; dinners of chili-honey glazed salmon; an engaging Cowboy Cookout, with ample dishes served under mesquite trees with string lights, all set to a guitar-slinging duo singing Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash. Visit tanqueverderanch.com.
The luxury Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, set against the stunning backdrop of the Catalina Mountains, is a masterful blend of comfort and natural beauty. The hotel was built to preserve the surrounding splendor, an effort that had Architectural Digest calling the property “the first environmentally conceived resort in North America.”
The resort, opened in 1984, was designed and built so that the 3,500 saguaro cacti on property were kept standing and animal habitats left intact. Moreover, owner Jonathan Tisch had builders change construction plans in the final stages to include a waterfall created by a monsoon and to avoid destroying an old saguaro. The waterfall and habitats can be seen on the resort’s Window Walk nature hike.
We found that kind of attention to detail—and to nature—on display elsewhere around the property. Its peaceful spa, for example, offers several treatments showing it is attuned to its environment and local Native American history. It was tough to choose between the Aloe Vera and Blue Corn Healer treatment and the Red Clay Sacred Ritual, but we opted for being cocooned in the latter’s warm Sedona red clay and desert salt lotion. Glimmering in the sun behind the building, a pool only for spa guests extended the serene mood brought on by the exquisite treatment.
A stargazing session that night and a tennis workshop the next morning were led by well-informed experts. Tennis pro Terry Gibson was methodical and showed endless patience, encouraging this novice to work on his serve and return post-lesson with a ball machine. Being enveloped by the peaceful desert quickly washed away any game-related frustration. Visit loewshotels.com/ventana-canyon.
Where to Feed Goats & Ostriches
The Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch en route to Tucson is a kitschy but cool petting zoo of sorts with a unique collection of animals that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere around the US.
You’ll be disappointed if you’re a thrill-seeker and the appeal is the prospect of jousting with ostriches and their potentially lethal two-toed feet. The ostriches, like the other animals here, are safely fenced or penned in, though not so high that you can’t hand-feed them.
Animal lovers will relish getting close to some fascinating creatures at this three-generation-family-owned and operated ranch, in Picacho, between Phoenix and Tucson. There’s a good bit of anthropomorphism—the applying of human characteristics to animals—at the pen of the miniature Sicilian donkeys, who bare huge sets of choppers as they amusingly seem to giggle and laugh to earn the food pellets you buy at the entrance.
One of the oddest Rube Goldberg type setups we’ve seen is the “Goat Penthouse,” where Boer goats are perched in a pen the height of two basketball poles as visitors place food pellets on a conveyor belt leading up to the animals. The goats appear on the ground as well, in another pen with their heads sticking out of holes as they eagerly await a feeding, as the ranch’s “Hole in the Wall Gang.”
Ostriches were the sole attraction when the place opened in 1999, but now Nigerian dwarf goats, fallow deer, Pekin ducks, rabbits and stingrays also make their home at the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
Our favorites were probably the smallest of the ranch’s creatures: colorful rainbow lorikeets that fearlessly land on you to perch and drink nectar from a cup you hold.
After feeding the animals, you can shop in the store on the way out and pick up ostrich feather dusters, ostrich eggs and ostrich oil—the latter an apparent favorite of the Egyptians and Romans 3,000 years ago for its omega essential fats and healing and beautifying qualities. Visit roostercogburn.com.
Adventure, Thrills & REM Sleep—20 Stories Underground
The Southwest is so stunningly beautiful and historically rich, you can spin around blindfolded, stop and follow your nose, and you’ll end up somewhere remarkable. One of our favorite stops as we crisscrossed the region was the Grand Canyon Caverns, about five hours north of Tucson. Its location along Route 66, and the big plastic dinosaur out front, hints at some of the kitsch you might find on the property. But the privately-owned Grand Canyon Caverns is so much more.
Grand Canyon Caverns is at once an adventure park and artifact-rich exhibition hall—220 feet below ground. And you can spend the night—the main “room” is fitted with all the furnishings of a comfortable hotel room, and then some. It just happens to be 65 million years old.
There’s plenty to get thrill-seekers excited without an overnight stay. The most challenging and exhilarating way to visit the caverns is via its Wild Tour, a three-hour excursion from the entrance to the newest cave found on the property in 2014, a large room full of crystal structures. The tour is tough enough for owners to carefully vet visitors who sign on for athleticism; only 70% of them make it in and out.
Visitors who don’t complete the strenuous challenge get put on a less vigorous tour, says owner John McEnulty, who bought the caverns and surrounding property in 2002. “We don’t hurt anybody’s feelings,” McEnulty says. “They just don’t get the grand prize”—the satisfaction of completing the tougher cavern circuit.
An Explorer Tour takes the adventure-minded into seven of some 300 side rooms off the main cavern area, each with its own identity and beauty. At several swirling rock configurations formed by water flow over the millennia, visitors can rappel down with a guide to about 300 feet below the surface level. The first of the rooms that owners opened features a translucent white selenite dome and quartz walls. “It’s like being in an ice palace somewhere in a whiteout blizzard, but filled with diamonds,” McEnulty says.
It was not diamonds but gold that Walter Peck, a young woodcutter, thought he discovered when he explored the cavern in 1927. Peck was on his way to a poker game when he stumbled and nearly fell into a large, funnel-shaped hole, which he and friends returned to the next morning. The gold that Peck thought he had found turned out to be sparkles of minerals with far less value.
McEnulty turned the site of Peck’s misfortune into a lucrative tourist attraction, with the overnight stay—and a grotto restaurant with dirty dishes raised by pulley—a major draw. Overnight guests in the main cave, about 200 by 400 feet with a 70-foot ceiling, have included rocker Ozzy Osborne and actress Hayden Panettiere.
Grand Canyon Caverns has also attracted the producers of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures,” whose hosts explore locations where paranormal activity has been reported. McEnulty asserts his staff does nothing to embellish whatever errant sounds or visions guests encounter. Nervous? You can sleep in the pitch black in the soundless cavern or opt to have some light. You can also contact an overnight guide residing 200 feet up near the elevator that brings you in and out of the cavern, which sleeps six.
We braved the night, albeit with some low-key light, though we heard that an earlier visitor spent the night in bed on her elbows and with eyes wide open. Grand Canyon Caverns also offers a ghost walk at 5 p.m. each day, complete with ghost meters.
“We don’t trick it up,” McEnulty says. “We make no effort to do anything artificial.”
Grand Canyon Caverns, filled with an odd collection of fascinating relics, is a living museum—but one in which visitors are welcome to step onto the other side of the red velvet rope and immerse themselves among the exhibits. Just off the sleeping area, there’s auditorium seating with the original 1928 seats from the American Film Institute. You’ll encounter a well-preserved mummified bobcat from the 1860s. (The atmospheric conditions in the dry caverns are the same as in the pyramids of Luxor, Egypt, McEnulty says, and he expects the bobcat to remain in good condition for years to come.)
A 15-foot tall, 1,500-pound replica of a North American ground sloth is on the spot where the real creature’s bones were found; the original animal’s remains were donated to a grateful University of Arizona, which made and offered the replica in return.
Besides the caverns, the property touts four lodging types: motel rooms, a three-bedroom house, an RV park and a campground. McEnulty makes several capital improvements each year, and this year is adding a sizable zipline.
The property is amidst a forest, with trees as old as 150 years, unlike surrounding areas where trees have been cut down to make room for ranchland. Indeed, Grand Canyon Cavern’s eco-friendly owners have created a safe haven for wildlife, with elk, deer, antelope and other animals packing the property during hunting season, McEnulty says. For more information, visit gccaverns.com.
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