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Tucson: A Nature Lover’s Dream

Author: ParrotTalk
Date of Trip: November 2005

This was my first trip to Tucson, and it surely won’t be my last. I was looking for a warm destination with lots of beautiful, natural scenery and many opportunities to participate in outdoor activities. You will find this and more in Tucson, Arizona.

Upon approach into Tucson International Airport, you can already start to appreciate the desert landscape as you fly over the mountains and view the expansive desert below. For someone who is from the opposite side of the country, the desert landscape was a highlight of the trip. Each night they seem to have a gorgeous sunset, with the saguaro cacti silhouetted against the sky. For this trip, I stayed at two locations within Tucson: Tanque Verde Ranch on the east side and Westward Look Resort in the foothills. I really enjoyed my time at both properties, as the focus of the trip was different at each. During my stay at Tanque Verde, I participated in the many activities the ranch offers and spent most of my time riding, hiking, or biking. When I moved to the Westward Look, I changed the focus of my trip to sightseeing and was able to take in the Sonoran Desert Museum, Biosphere 2, Old Tucson Studios, and Sabino Canyon.

During the time I was in Tucson this November, the temperatures were in the 70 to 80s during the day but would drop to the low 50s/upper 40s at night. It is best to dress in layers, as you will definitely want a light jacket for early morning hours, but you may want short sleeves and shorts by mid-afternoon.

A rental car is really the best way to get around this area. I am from New England, so the western states always seem very spread out to me. Flying into Tucson International Airport and picking up a rental car is very easy. The airport is so small, so in order to pick up your car, all you need to do is walk across the terminal to the pick-up area–no shuttle bus needed! I also found driving around the area to be quite simple. If you just want to stay within the immediate Tucson area, it is not necessary to take the freeway, which is limited as to where it goes within Tucson. I found it much easier to just drive the city streets; the main roads are all laid out in a north/south or east/west grid pattern, so if you have a good map, it will be simple to follow. Traffic can be quite heavy, especially during rush hour. Due to the limitations of the freeway system, it seems that many people just drive the city streets to get where they are going.

Sonora Desert Museum

This is a smallish, but very well-done zoo. I loved how natural many of the enclosures were. This zoo/park focuses on animals and plants that you will find in the Sonoran Desert.

Biosphere 2

Overall, I enjoyed seeing the Biosphere and liked the drive up. At times I felt like the only car on the road. The tour itself of the Biosphere was a little dull for my taste. I was more interested in seeing the different habitats, how the people lived, etc., and the tour seemed to spend a lot of time talking about the complexities of the plumbing and HVAC systems. I realize that these are a big part of how it functioned, but it just didn’t interest me. I’m glad that I went and got to tour it, but if your time is limited and air systems are not a great interest to you, it might be a location to put off for another trip.

El Charro Cafe

The inside of the Court Street location has a definite historic flavor to it. In addition to the downtown original location, there are three others throughout the city. I thought the food was great. The menu is quite extensive. The enchilada section was an example. Not only do you get to choose the filling from about nine choices, but you also get to decide what type of sauce and cheese it gets topped with. Next door to the downtown location is a gift shop where you may purchase salsa, tamales, and other mementos of your visit to take home with you. I’m still enjoying the salsa I bought when I was there!

Guadalajara Grill

As soon as I drove up to the Guadalajara Grill, I knew I had come to the right place. It was quite early and it was already busy. They offer patio seating, but there was a wait so I decided to go inside for prompt seating. It is a very festive atmosphere with mariachis playing tableside. You are started off with salsa made tableside according to your taste (mild, medium, hot), and it was delicious. The rest of the meal was good too and served promptly. You will find that they offer what you would find in a typical mexican restaurant in the U.S.– salads, tacos, burritos, chimichangas, margaritas, and fried ice cream. I definitely plan to return here.

Old Pueblo Grille

Of the restaurants I went to in Tucson, this was my least favorite. I had chosen it on the basis of its Southwestern cuisine, and I had heard that it had a very pretty dining patio. The patio was indeed nice, with a small bubbling fountain and lights in the trees. The food and service was less impressive to me. When I arrived there were about 4-5 groups already seated on the patio, and I asked to be seated there as well. I was given a table and must have waited 15 minutes before I was able to flag down a waitress and ask if there was a waitress for my table.

Finally, the correct waitress arrived, and I gave my order of the trio of salsas and chips for an appetizer, Four Amigos enchilada platter, and one of the specialty margaritas. Thus began the wait for the food. Luckily, I was entertained by the management and waitstaff as they tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to light any of the “Mr. Propane” heating lamps on the patio. You would think none of them had ever seen one before– strange, since I assume these need to be lit most evenings as it gets cooler. Once my food finally arrived, it was merely okay–nothing special. Perhaps I was there on an off night, but the whole experience left me wishing I’d gone to one of the many other Southwestern or Mexican restaurants in Tucson.

Old Tucson Studios

Old Tucson Studios is what I would call a movie set turned theme park. Started in 1939 as the set for the film “Arizona”, Old Tucson Studios has seen the filming of many western themed movies and television shows including “Rio Bravo”, “El Dorado”, “Tombstone”, and episodes of “Little House on the Prairie”. Unfortunately, in 1995, a terrible fire destroyed a good part of the studios original buildings. While they have rebuilt, a lot of the history is gone forever. Now it seems the focus of the studios is more on the theme-park aspect.

One can view all of the actual buildings and facades. They all have plaques posted describing what was filmed at each building. Your admission also includes the viewing of several shows and tours. For example, there is a miniature railroad tour which takes you around the perimeter of the park, a park highlights tour which describes the film history and several stunt shows performed throughout the day. In addition, there are other activities such as a shooting gallery, haunted mine tour, and old-time carousel.

Sabino Canyon

This canyon in Coronado National Forest offers narrated tram tours on a 3.8-mile paved loop. There are nine stops along the way, and you may get on and off at will and hook up with one of the hiking trails if you wish. An unnarrated shuttle is also available to the Seven Falls trailhead.

The Tanque Verde Ranch

For the first 5 nights of my stay, I was at the Tanque Verde Ranch. This is a nice property on the east side of Tucson, abutting the Saguaro National Park. I had a standard room, which is adequate for 1 to 2 people. It had a nice Southwestern decor and patio chairs out front. The bathroom seemed a little outdated, but it was fine. During my stay, I was actually the only one in my building unit, as the other bathrooms in that building were being redone and mine was slated for the same after I left.

This ranch offers a wide range of activities, including hiking, mountain biking, nature walks, art classes, and, of course, horseback riding. Rides go out three times per day, and you can choose between walking or lope rides. To participate in the lope rides, you must first pass the ranch lope test, for which there are classes available if you don’t have much riding experience.

The food was excellent. Lunches are served buffet style in the dining room. There are several hot entrees and side dishes available, as well as a large salad bar and breads, cheese, etc. The best part was the huge pastry table offered each day at lunch with about 20 to 30 items. Dinners are waiter service and offer about 4 to 5 entrees. Several times a week, dinners are served as a cookout in the Cottonwood Grove. Breakfasts are a buffet, or you may order off a menu. For all meals, you may request a table for just your party or you may choose to join others at one of the group tables.

Westward Look Resort

Check-in was friendly and efficient. The lobby rooms were reminiscent of the Old West or a Mexican hacienda. They marked the building I was staying in on a map, and I set off to find it. I had a bit of trouble locating it, but once I did, I was impressed. I had reserved a standard posada room, and it was quite large. It was decorated in a dark terracotta color with a Mexican-style tile in the bathroom. I believe the hotel has three pools, but I only used the one closest to my room. I didn’t eat at either of the hotel’s two restaurants, The Gold Room or the Lookout Bar and Grille, but they looked nice. The hotel also offers tennis and horseback riding as well as having several nature paths around the property.

The desert setting is lovely, with lots of varieties of cacti. While there I saw a road runner, cottontail rabbits, and many quails. I didn’t see any rattlesnakes during my stay, but the people staying in the next building had one on their porch, which was promptly removed by ranch staff.

Tohono Chul Park

This little park is a jewel. The landscaping is beautiful with many different types of gardens to view. You are given a map upon admission and you may either circulate freely on your own, or take advantage of one of the guided tours. Tour topics vary but might include birds of the desert, basic desert ecology, or native plants. There is a lovely tea room on sight which seemed quite popular. I arrived at the park for it’s opening hour of 8am and was the only one there. By 9am, it was starting to fill in more. If you want a very peaceful experience, then I recommend going early- you may have the place to yourself.

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