Visited: December 5th -12th, 2016.
For me, Arizona is one of the most incredible states in the US. I love the harsh and crazy environment of the desert. I’m a panoramic view kind of guy and ever since we hit the Chihuahuan desert coming across Texas, I have not been able to get rid of the smile on my face. I absolutely love the wide open spaces, mountains and diversity of the desert. Even during the heat of the summer, there is just something awe-inspiring looking out across the desert to the mountains and noticing how eerily quiet it is on a windless day. There are so many things in the desert including animals, reptiles, insects and plants that can cause a tremendous amount of pain if you don’t spot them in time. Seems like just about every plant you hike past has thorns, some, like the Agave, can even rip through pants (learned the hard way). The smell of the creosote bush in the air after a rain storm is unbelievably refreshing. Hard to explain, but once you experience the desert, you will know what I mean.
Having come to the desert in the peak heat of the summer, I know that the “dry” heat is still oppressive. Arizona has advantages for the full-time traveler to easily and quickly travel to higher altitudes to get relief. Flagstaff north of Phoenix and the Coronado Forest just outside of Tucson are wonderful places to get relief after spending days down in the desert. While northern Arizona gets most of the hype with the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Flagstaff, southern Arizona has a lot to offer, especially during the cooler winter months. This season we visited the Catalina State Park and the Coronado National Forest outside of Tucson, the Sonoran National Monument south of Phoenix and the Organ Pipe National Monument, in the southwest along the Mexican border.
Tucson might be the place we decide to call home one day. We love the abundance of year-round outdoor activities from hiking, biking and even snow skiing on Mt. Lemon. The city is much smaller than Phoenix and is set in a rolling desert filled with Saguaro cactus. The town is extremely bicycle friendly and offers everything a mass consumer might need. Since I hope never to get into the buying and hanging onto stuff mode again, having great parks, nice unique restaurants, fresh groceries and a great cultural experiences, Tucson just might be our jumping off point down the road.
After moving constantly the previous week, we wanted a low maintenance stay near some good hiking, so we decided to stay at the Catalina State Park just north of Tucson for 5 days.
This was early December, not quite snow bird season, so finding a spot was pretty easy. If you plan to come after January, make sure you get your reservation in months ahead of time. Of course, if you get your rig set up for boondocking, then you can visit any time you want. There are a few nice areas to boondock nearby.
Arizona doesn’t have the cheapest campgrounds, but they sure know how to do it right. They definitely pump the money back into the campgrounds and the other park facilities. This can not be said for all states we have visited. The city has started to move out towards the park, so even though you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere while you are in the park, there is shopping, a movie theater and yes even a Walmart less than two miles from the campground. It is a great place to get away from it all, yet get it all back in less than 10 minutes.
We came for the hiking and like any other area of the country, if you hike out more than a mile, you will have the whole wilderness to yourself. We decided to hike the Romero Canyon Trail that would take us to the Romero Pools and then continue on up to Romero Pass. We tried to make it to Romero Pass, which is 6 miles out and around 3,500 foot elevation gain. The trail takes off right out of the park into the Coronado National Forest and heads up the western slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trail is real easy for the first mile, but then becomes much more difficult. I was surprised to find we actually had to hike about 2 miles to get out there completely by ourselves! For the next 4 miles up the mountain we only ran into one other hiker. I say we tried to make it to Romero pass, because we came up short. I always set a time frame or water supply threshold, that once we hit it, it’s time to turn around. The trail was very steep and we underestimated the amount of time and water it would take to make it up to the peak and back. Against my better judgement, we did push the time by 30 minutes. We never did find the peak and could not tell if we were even close. We had crossed the altitude where the pine forest started and with the other dense vegetation blocking our view, we couldn’t see the top and didn’t know for sure we were even on the right trail. Based on time, I felt we should have been there. We didn’t have our Garmen that day to keep track, but I suspect our pace was way slower than we thought due to the altitude and steep grade. We simply didn’t go enough distance. Always disappointing to come up short, but I would rather be safe than sorry and I know we will be back to tackle it another day.
The hike starts out at around 2,500 feet altitude it what is called the Lower Sonoran Zone. Here you experience typical desert fauna, including the cholla, octillo and the prickly pear cactus. But most impressive, you hike through an incredible stand of giant Saguaro cactus.
When you realize how slow the Saguro’s grow, it becomes even more impressive. A Saguaro may not shoot out it’s first arm until it is 90 years old. Somewhere around 4,000 feet altitude, you realize that the Saguaro are gone. You know you are still in Arizona, but now it is starting to look like you could be in the Colorado mountains enjoying some early fall weather.
In early December, the leaves on the trees had turned color and it smelled like fall in the woods back home in Michigan. Hiking higher, you enter the Upper Sonoran Zone and Ponderosa Pine trees start to show up. The diversity out here is incredible.
Feeling pretty toasted after our hike, we spent the next day taking care of business. Since we were only a couple of miles from mass consumerism, we took the day to do laundry, get some groceries and try out a highly rated tamale shop!!!
The next day we headed up to Mt Lemmon. We were only an 8 mile, very steep hike up to Mt. Lemmon from our campground, but we decided to do the 44 mile drive around and up to the top. Even though I prefer to hike to check out an area, I have to admit the drive up the very scenic Mt. Lemmon highway is pretty awesome.
We went from 75 deg weather down in Tucson to snow on top of Mt. Lemmon 30 minutes later. The geological points of interest along the way are very cool. All the way up, you get treated to a variety of panoramic views of Tucson and the surrounding desert, each view seemingly better than the previous view.
The first cool area, has these incredible rock formations called Hoodoos that you wonder how in the world they remain upright.
Did I say that Tucson is an incredible place yet?
Once you run out of road, you can take the ski lift up to the top of the mountain. Since we are still working on improving our diet, we decided to hike up the closed road to get there to burn a few more calories. Also, working for something is always much more rewarding. The snow on the trail was a little too deep for the what we brought to hike with, so we stuck to road to reach the top.
Once you get to the top, its a few short hikes to view 360 degrees around the mountain.
A fire had torched the south side of the mountain, making for an eerie view of Tucson.
Biosphere 2 in Oracle can seen on the north side. Hard to make out details without binoculars.
Forever trying to improve myself, my real goal for going to the top of Mt. Lemmon was to see if I could figure out where I went wrong on the trail to Romero Pass. I think we were real close.
We can see ourselves calling Tucson home some day…unless of course we hit it big, then it will only be our wintering home. Tucson is just an all around great place to be for our lifestyle. Check it out.