Enjoying the RV Life Near Tucson
Our latest visit to Tucson, Arizona has taken us to a few well-known places, but mostly off the beaten path to some fabulous, lesser known destinations. If birding or nature photography are among your interests, add these to your checklist of must-see spots within about an hour’s drive of Tucson, some within the city, itself.
Windy Vista Point
This vantage point is not really a destination spot, but an enhanced pull-out along the Catalina Highway on the way up or back from Mt. Lemmon. Park the car and walk toward the tip of the peninsula, being careful not to get too close to the edge on either side. There’s plenty of flat, easy to navigate space between boulders, and the boulders themselves aren’t too difficult to climb to get an even better point of view.
Near the top of Mt. Lemmon you’ll find the small community of Summerhaven, aptly named because at 8,000 feet, it’s cool there year-round. Hot beverages and pizza are pricey at Mt Lemmon Cookie Cabin, but it’s a fun place to stop. The view from their open air patio is of attractive seasonal homes, mostly obscured by Ponderosa and Arizona Pines clinging to the mountainside. We didn’t manage to snap a photo of our visit there, but I did find one on Flickr:
The Empire Ranch has been a working ranch for 140 years, and still is to this day, but the ranch house and buildings haven’t been occupied for a long time. The house, dating from 1871, is partially furnished and open to the public. There is no fee to walk in and explore; the only request is that you close each door as you leave to keep the critters out. It’s not heated or lit by anything but natural light that flows through its windows.
The road through Empire Ranch is packed dirt, but easily traversed with an SUV, most of it easily traveled by any car if it’s dry. There was only one spot at the bottom of a heavily rutted wash crossing that might present a problem for a non-four wheel drive vehicle.
Bring your binoculars and camera along this route. You may see the Sonoran Pronghorn, known also as ‘prairie ghosts’ because they are so elusive. We spotted two small herds, one near the road, the other only as small shapes in the distance. Only 160 Sonoran Pronghorn exist in the wild in the USA. Of those, we may have seen 20. Besides their elusive nature, they’re supposedly the fastest land animal in North America.
After a few hours on the Empire Ranch property, a pleasant and tasty place for a coffee break is Gathering Grounds. Since I follow a strict gluten-free diet, it can be a challenge finding a restaurant that serves food that I can eat. But this one had one entire shelf of their pastry display dedicated to a variety of gluten free items. There were several cookie type bars to choose from, carrot cake, and Morning Glory muffins (with carrots, raisins, coconut – very tasty). Those without dietary restrictions have their choice of several pies, cookies, or cake. A lunch menu is also available. I had a delicious Chai Latte made with almond milk to go along with my muffin, and the guys had pie and coffee.
Patagonia is also the home of an Audubon birding sanctuary. The main property was closed for construction during our visit, but we walked around outside and spotted a variety of birds and several squirrels.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
We were met at the visitor center by a workamper, one of three couples who are exchanging their labor for a nice, full hookup campsite. There is a small fee, $6 per person. This is a beautiful area to hike among huge Cottonwood trees, but we saw most of the birds near the feeders right at the visitor center. We saw Anna’s hummingbirds, Vermillion Flycatchers, and Lesser Goldfinches. That said, we did spot a few deer and got a glimpse of a large owl on our walk along the trail.
Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon
The sun was just breaking over the mountains as we pulled into the parking lot at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. The air was crisp, and sunlight peeked through tall evergreen trees behind us as we stood ready with our cameras. Before us 14 or so birdfeeders (of all sizes and types) attracted everything from hummingbirds to wild turkeys. We saw Arizona Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, a pair of Summer Tanagers, a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a Loggerhead Shrike, sparrows, finches, and more.
This birder’s paradise is actually the side yard of a small gift shop. Step inside for a hot coffee, chocolate or tea to warm your bones. The owner had a nice selection of Santa Rita Lodge embroidered hats, printed t-shirts and sweatshirts, all featuring birds that visit the yard.
Agua Caliente Park
This 101 acre regional park features a large pond that is fed by hot springs. Agua Caliente literally means ‘hot waters.’ Huge Palm trees follow the ancient water route and surround the pond. It’s a picturesque spot for pictures of waterfowl at sunset. On our first visit, that’s as far as we got. We arrived late and the park closes at sunset.
We walked a nature trail on our second visit and happened across an interesting scene – a young woman about to be surprised with a proposal, then the proposal, then friends and family popping out from behind trees to congratulate the happy couple.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
No visit to the area would be complete without a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Plan on several hours to walk the paths, and learn about native vegetation and wildlife. Every morning and afternoon there’s an untethered “Raptor Free Flight” presentation, worth the price of admission alone. You can observe them from above or beneath in two separate viewing areas, but I highly recommend the lower of the two. Beautiful, powerful, birds of prey fly right overhead, so close that you can hear the whoosh of their wings as they pass by. They land mere feet in front of you on nearby branches and cacti, so you can get a good, close look at their features. On our last visit, a Barn Owl, Grey Hawk, and a family of five Harris Hawks were part of the presentation.
If you’re looking for a great place to stay while in the Tucson area, we have two recommendations. Voyager RV Resort is right on the edge of town and close to everything. Or there’s the SKP Saguaro Co-op in Benson, about 40 minutes out from Tucson. Follow the links to read our reviews of each park.
Of course, there’s much more to show and to say about Tucson, but that’s it for this post. It’s a great place to spend the winter, out of the cold, and with so much natural beauty and history to explore. If you’ve spent any time in Tucson, what’s your best recommendation for something you enjoyed on your visit?