TUCSON, Ariz. — Our cold Napa winter brought the desire for somewhere warm and dry. Tucson had fit the bill some years earlier, so it was time to return. The convergence of our anniversary and family living in the area added to the choice.
It helps that easy and inexpensive nonstop flights from the Bay Area to Phoenix are frequent, and the rental car drive from the Phoenix airport to Tucson is usually only about two hours.
We arrived at the home of our son Andrew and daughter-in-law Gretchen in time to make it to McGraw’s Cantina on a knoll just high enough to see the lights of the city come on while enjoying dinner on a sheltered patio.
Tucson offers numerous attractions indoors and out. Three of them are easily accessed via Speedway Boulevard, west of the city, and they are completely diverse.
The first place we visited on Sunday morning was the International Wildlife Museum, housing an astounding indoor collection of preserved creatures from around the world in realistic settings.
Prior exploration had included a visit to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, which provides an almost entirely outside venue. An abundant choice of well maintained and signed trails, many of them wheelchair accessible, offer views of a variety of high desert flora including huge ancient saguaro cactus, along with wild animals in natural habitat, including cougar, wolf, bobcat and coyote, an assortment of reptiles, vivid hummingbirds in their own aviary, on down to the most minute spiders; with a distant southern view stretching to a row of peaks about 80 miles away in Mexico.
Another nearby attraction is Old Tucson, used decades ago for location shoots of western movies and TV shows and now operating as an Old West-style family theme park.
After visiting the wildlife museum in the morning, we took an easy drive back into the northwest corner of the city to the Tohano Chul Park with its galleries, botanical garden and an excellent restaurant under mature trees on this former estate donated by its late owners.
Beautiful Sabino Canyon just outside the northeast corner of the city is part of the Coronado National Forest. A nice lesson learned from the friendly gatekeeper was that our lifetime National Park pass worked in this facility and all other federal recreational sites. We shared this special place with many others representing four generations, hiking, running, biking and riding in strollers. A motorized shuttle makes frequent runs to the upper reaches of the canyon for those with time and energy to hike back down.
The Arizona Historical Society Museum downtown offers a thorough collection of Southern Arizona history and features an exhibit on the unsuccessful pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico by the U.S. Army, led by General John J. Pershing and assisted by then Lt. George S. Patton, in the years leading up to World War I.
We found authentic traditional Mexican food at the original El Charro restaurant in the old town. It has operated since 1922 on the same site, the oldest restaurant in the country continuously owned by the same family. While waiting for our dinner table at this always busy place, we strolled nearby to the site of the original Spanish Presidio, now an open courthouse plaza, with a painted outline on the ground of the original walls of the fort dating from 1775.
The clear, warm weather preserved our Monday plans to drive up almost to the summit of 9,100-foot Mount Lemmon, overlooking the region. We enjoyed a lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant, with its justly famous chili and cornbread. Flora changed more than once with the increased altitude as desert scrub gave way to giant saguaro and then evergreen trees. Snow from 6,000 feet up, still on the ground from a week-old storm, put to good use for several family snowball fights at the side of the road as we passed.
Delicious fudge in several flavors from the Mount Lemmon General Store in the hamlet of Summerhaven accompanied us on the trip back down the mountain.
The mountain excursion was snowed out on a previous trip, with the road closed halfway down to the valley floor. Plan B that time was a visit to Biosphere 2 north of the city for a fascinating learning experience.
The indoor facility was created in the 1970s as an enormous scientific test bed for humankind’s ability to create and thrive for extended periods in a completely encapsulated environment. The original funding to build and operate it was private; a two-year experiment with a group of eight men and women scientists living entirely indoors, growing and consuming their own food in the under glass envelope, which included seven distinct climate environments. The University of Arizona purchased the facility in 2011 and operates it for the purposes of continuing research and education.