The park is split into two sections, one on each side of the city. Both are fairly easily accessible from I-10, although they’re not right near the interstate. The Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side is so beautiful & pristine that I kept forgetting I wasn’t in a botanical garden. It has an 8-mile loop that’s drivable and plenty of trails for those who want to explore on foot. I enjoyed the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that leaves from the Javelina Picnic Area. It goes way up into the mountains, although I didn’t take it all that far. At one point I came across a box where they wanted me to register my presence there, so I filled out my name and then realized they wanted to know what time I left and what time I came back. I was so afraid that I’d forget to write down when I came back by and they’d be all in a tizzy thinking I went up in there and died or something that I filled in a time I thought I might come back and rendered the whole thing moot.
The Tuscon Mountain District on the western side borders county-run Tuscon Mountain Park. The landscape here is totally different, with more rolling mountains and interesting rock formations. There are miles of trails and roads, however a large stretch of Golden Gate Road is not well maintained and requires a high clearance vehicle. A 1/4 mile trail at the signal hill picnic area leads up to series of ancient Hohokam petroglyphs on the rocks. I always think ancient artwork is so interesting, even if nobody has any idea what it means. It looked to me to be mostly authentic, although there were a couple bits that I thought had been carved more recently by vandals. I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do that. “Bob loves Jill 2002!” Guess what? Nobody cares.
Of course its namesake saguaro cacti are all over both halves of the park, along with tons of other cool looking plants. I have to wonder how anybody ever made it through these places before there were roads given that everything seems to have giant murderous thorns.
Highways 82 & 83 run through the desert from Vail to Nogales, passing many ranches and a couple of small towns along the way. Just don’t make a wrong turn at the end & accidentally end up in Mexico. There are a lot of dirt side roads leading off to various things, including probably some ghost towns, but be careful: signs at the turn offs warn of drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Tuscon is just back up I-19, including a trip through a border patrol checkpoint complete with drug dogs so don’t have anything illegal in the car. The vast majority of the road signs all the way back to Tuscon express distances in kilometers, so it’s a little harder to keep track of locations.
On the way back to Tuscon I-19 passes right by the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, a decommissioned Cold War era nuclear missile silo that still houses its Titan II rocket. They offer 1-hour tours ($9.50) through the command center, including discussions of the crew’s daily life, a simulated launch, and a look at the rocket itself. Other types of tours are also available a few times a month, check their website for details. I went on the basic tour and found it very interesting. Our guide, Ed, was very knowledgeable. He showed us the technology involved in running the place, the various security procedures and steps involved in crew changes, and walked us through the launch sequence. Given that the base operated from 1963 to 1982 their tech seems downright ancient now, and I’m always fascinated by the way complex things operated in a time before computers ran it all. Punch tape targeting systems, thumb wheel code entry, no electronic screens anywhere, it’s completely nuts. The other weird thing is that the whole place is set on shock absorbers. Everywhere you look there’s huge springs on the walls and along the walkways. Ed said one time they got a bunch of people to push on one wall of the command center and they actually got the room to move.
Prints from the Saguaro National Park infrared series are now available for purchase here.