A February 2002 trip
to Tucson by Gwilym Owen
Quote: To anyone from outside of the US, Tucson is an almost unheard of city. I myself was only in Tucson to pick up a hire car and avoid an interstate drop-off fee, when I got here I immediately wished I had a lot longer to explore this wonderful region!
A laid back university city with a heavy outdoors orientation that blends its Native American, Colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Western heritage into a modern and sophisticated package. It also boasts a symphony, theatre company, opera, and a ballet.
Tucson is a perfect place for a winter holiday, as evidenced by the many ‘Snowbird’ holidaymakers that flock here to escape the harsh northern winters. Almost guaranteed blue skies and clement weather hovering in the twenties Celsius is the norm during this time of year.
As for attractions, Tucson has spectacular natural features such as the Sonoran Desert, the Sabino Canyon, Mt. Lemmon and the Catalinas, and the world famous Kartchner Caverns. Man made features that can be visited include museums, planetariums, missions, western film studios, missile bases, golf courses, and the southernmost skifield of Continental US.
Come and enjoy - you won't be disappointed as there's more than enough to do here for at least a couple of weeks!
From Tucson it is possible to travel further afield on day trips to the fairly near attractions of Tombstone, Biosphere 2, and the Mexican border town of Nogales.
Tucson is also home to many shows throughout the year, including the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show every February, which is the world’s largest show of its kind.
Check out Visit Tucson for a full run down on all the fabulous sites and attractions in this ‘gem’ of a destination!
We came in by Greyhound to get a hire car at the airport to avoid interstate drop-off fees. With Alamo at the time, they had a deal where you could pick up and drop off anywhere in Arizona, Nevada, and California for a one way fee.
Avoid driving in Tucson around rush hour if possible as the city appears to suffer from pretty bad traffic jams pretty much across the whole place, and sitting in the dry heat (even winter) is not my idea of fun!
If you are doing a driving holiday, it is possible to get to the Grand Canyon in the north of the state in a day’s driving.
Think of it as a 21-acre enclave of the Sonoran Desert that has been set up almost as a ''living museum'' with about two miles of pathways passing through a small zoo made up mostly of animals that have been rescued from certain death, including pumas, prairie dogs, also beaver, river otter and desert fish in an underwater exhibit. There is also a Hummingbird Aviary and the area''s best display of cacti and succulent plants to feast your eyes on. There are over 1,300 kinds of plants and 300 species of animals in total.
The museum also has a fantastic permanent collection of locally-occurring minerals, which is all the more impressive due to its narrow focus. These are situated in a cave which is atmospherically lit to add to the wonder of the exhibits on show.
For relaxation from the heat, or for a spot of refuelling you can enjoy an espresso at Phoebe’s Coffee Bar on the verandah, or go the whole hog at Ironwood Terraces Restaurant.
If you want to see the full glory of the flora, fauna, and geology of the Sonoran Desert in one place there can be no better place than this museum!
Check out the Desert Museum website for more info!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 8, 2002
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 North Kinney Road
Tucson, Arizona 85743
Attraction | "Saguaro National Park - West"
These huge cacti are fascinating, especially their complex relationships with other desert life. The cacti provide their sweet fruit to hungry animals and also provide homes to a variety of birds, such as the Harris’ hawk, Gila woodpecker and the tiny elf owl. Despite their seeming invulnerability, the saguaro require other desert plants for their very survival during the first few years, needing the shade and protection of a nurse plant such as the palo verde tree. With an average life span of 150 years, a mature saguaro may grow to a height of 50 feet and weigh over 10 tons.
Red Hills visitor centre, near the entrance is very informative with a large diorama depicting the natives species, and a viewing platform that allows you to see ‘Sensitive Resource Area’ of the park. Stop here for maps, information, and suggestions about the scenic drives, bird watching, photography, hiking, and participating in guided walks. There is also a bookstore with a great selection of books on the Sonoran Desert and the Southwest. Numerous guided walks are also offered.
My favorite sight was Signal Hill, which has ancient Native American pictoglyphs at its summit.
The Park is open daily, 7:00am to sunset. Visitor centers are open daily, 8:30am to 5:00pm and the best time to visit is winter when the weather is very pleasant with mild, warm days averaging 19 degrees Celsius. Summers can be extremely hot with daytime temperatures exceeding 41 degrees Celsius, even in the shade. Always wear a hat and use sunscreen while hiking and drink plenty of water. If driving, carry extra water and remember to leave windows slighty open to prevent the glass from shattering.
Check out the Saguaro National Park website for further details.
Saguaro National Park
3693 South Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, Arizona 85730
Since seeing the film Silent Running years ago and the news about eight people who were sealed into B2C for 2 years as an experiment in self-sufficiency for a potential manned mission to Mars, I have always been fascinated about seeing this place.
Covering an area of 3.1 acres, B2C is one of the largest living laboratories of the world and truly a feat of engineering. The nearest parallel I can think of is the equally impressive Eden Project in Cornwall. The glass and metal outer shell contains seven different climatic regions, or biomes, where scientists of Columbia University use the latest technology to experiment on Earth systems on a grand scale.
There is a General Admission walking tour around the outside of Biosphere 2 lasting for 1 1/2 hours at $12.95 for adults - but the real draw is the "World of Discovery" Under the Glass interior tour for an extra $10!
This second tour has only recently opened and I can understand in hindsight how people would have felt a little hard done by not being able to get inside the building...
This guided tour was fantastic as you enter through the compact ‘crew’ living quarters and find out about the history of the ‘manned’ experiment including such anecdotes as the fact that it took them two weeks to grow enough beans for a cup of coffee each!!! A trail winds through five of the seven B2C wilderness ecosystems including the ‘ocean’. One of my favourite parts was the tour of the huge pressurised atmospheric system that acted like a pair of giant lungs to keep the air inside Biosphere 2 breathable.
At the end of the tour there is a small display on humankind’s effects on the planet and how we can stop destroying our environment, which is very thought provoking as even as an individual you can do much to conserve the planet’s resources. There is also an excellent underground aquarium that has an entire glass wall looking into the Ocean biome of Biosphere 2 and a shop with lots of fun educational materials aimed at kids.
Currently there are several large scale experiments being run on the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere for which B2C is a perfect lab as it can be completely sealed from the outside world.
Check out the excellent website for further information on this fantastic attraction!
Directions: The Biosphere 2 Center turnoff is located on Highway 77 at mile marker 96.5, approximately 30 minutes north of Tucson.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 12, 2004
32540 S Biosphere Rd
Tucson, Arizona 85623
The journey to the Airport would have been nondescript enough, were it not for having to pass through Tucson’s southern suburbs where many Native Americans appeared to live in the worst poverty I had seen anywhere in the US up until that point (This would be surpassed during our trip through the Navajo Reservation a few days later on!).
Next was finding accommodation for a night using our trusty Motel Coupons booklet - the well placed Knights Inn off I-10, just outside of the Downtown area for just $25 for the night. After a quick freshen up, we were ready to hit the road out west making a bee-line for the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the western portion of the Saguaro National Park - if you want to capture the true essence of the Tucson area and its landscape then these two attractions do so in a fantastic manner!
After our trip out west it was time for a big meal and we ended up at the Kettle Restaurant at the foot of Sentinel Peak, which did gigantic steaks. Suitably refuelled, it was now time to turn in before starting on our action packed journey up towards the Grand Canyon the next day.
Our main objective for the next day was visiting the unique Biosphere 2 complex at Oracle AZ, which attempted to recreate conditions on Earth for 8 people in a huge hermetically sealed series of greenhouses back in the early nineties, and somewhere that had always grabbed my imagination since I had found out about it.
To reach the Biosphere about 70kms away we travelled north along state highway 79, which for some reason was choked with traffic jams on that particular day, and then onto state highway 77. We were able to take the newly opened "Under the Glass" tour, which was a literally access all areas tour of the Biosphere, and for me a truly amazing experience!
By the time we finished the tour it was getting late and we had a whole state to cover by getting to Flagstaff to be in position for the next leg of our journey across America.
This meant reaching state highway 79 again and heading north towards Phoenix via Florence and route 60. Again we were slowed to a crawl as we contrived to enter Phoenix during the evening rush hour, turn north onto state highway 101 at Tempe we passed Scotsdale, casting despairing glances as aficionados of Frank Lloyd Wright at the signs for Taliesin West - but knowing full well that it would be closed and we had no time in our tight schedule.
Heading north on I-17 out of Phoenix the early spring light rapidly gave way to the darkness of the night and the spectacular scenery of the road was stolen from us in its velvety blackness. However this disappointment was not to last for long as in the night we were treated to the amazing spectacle of the night sky with the amazing clarity of the air creating a fantastic canvas of more stars than I think I have ever seen before!
With some disappointment we bypassed Sedona before reaching Flagstaff late in the night and finding from our coupon book an Econo Lodge for $40 on Lucky Lane, an area with many motels just off I-40.
We would definitely sleep well that night!