On the drive between Phoenix and Tucson you'll cross desert plains with views of the Superstitions, Picacho Peak, Santa Catalina Mountains, and other rugged ranges. Desert plants along the roadside sometimes bloom in blazes of bright color in spring. Several spots are worth a visit, whether you take the old Pinal Pioneer Parkway (AZ 79) or the speedier I-10.
Florence, one of the oldest white settlements in Arizona, dates back to the arrival of Levi Ruggles in 1866. Ruggles found a safe ford on the nearby Gila River and believed the valley suitable for farming. He laid out a town site that soon became a trade center and stage stop for surrounding army camps. Some people advocated Florence as the Arizona territorial capital, but the town had to settle for designation as the Pinal County seat. The first county courthouse went up in 1878, and is now open as McFarland State Historic Park. The second county courthouse, completed in 1891 with an ornate cupola, stands as Florence's chief landmark. Funds ran out before the clock could be installed in the cupola, so workers attached the hands at a permanent 11:44!
Not everybody comes to Florence by choice—the Arizona State Prison sits at the edge of town. Convicts completed the prison in 1909, replacing the territorial prison at Yuma. Inmates now number over 8,000—more than double the town's 3,800 inhabitants.
Florence has two museums and a large number of historic buildings—over 150 listed with the national register. Old porch-fronted shops line Main Street. You can pick up a guide at the visitor centers or at the museums.
Pinal County Historical Museum
This diverse collection portrays the area's long history. Native American pottery, baskets, and stone tools come from prehistoric and modern tribes of the area. An 1880 horse-drawn opera coach offers a taste of early pioneer elegance. Tools, mining gear, household items, and clothing exhibits portray the life of the early settlers. News clippings describe the tragic death of silent-screen hero Tom Mix, killed in a car accident nearby. Bullet aficionados will find hundreds of different types on display. Outdoor exhibits include farming and mining machinery, a blacksmith shop, and a homesteader shack.
The prison exhibits are sobering: hangman's nooses framing photos of their victims, a hanging board, gas-chamber chair, massive prison registers from Yuma and Florence, and the story of murderess Eva Dugan, hung and simultaneously decapitated in 1930. A research library has additional information on local history. The museum, 715 S. Main St., 520/868-4382, is open Sunday noon-4 p.m. and Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. except closed July 15-Aug. 31; donations are welcomed. Main Street Park has picnic tables across from the museum.
McFarland State Historic Park
Note: The park has reopened after an extended period of construction and stabilization.
This adobe building served as Pinal County's first courthouse, sheriff's office, and jail from 1878 to 1891, then functioned for 50 years as the county hospital. In 1883 an angry mob took two murder suspects from the jail and hung them in a corridor. Exhibits illustrate the lives and personalities of Florence's pioneers—describing the town's good guys and bad guys—and detail construction of the town's hospital and courthouse. Photos show the Florence POW camp through which 13,000 Italian and German prisoners passed in 1942-45. You'll also learn about Ernest McFarland (1894-1984), who began his political career in 1925 as Pinal county attorney, then rose to serve as U.S. senator, Arizona governor, and chief justice of the State Supreme Court. The park is near the north end of Main Street at Ruggles Street; 520/868-5216, http://azstateparks.com/Parks/MCFA/index.html, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Saturday. A city park just to the north offers shaded tables, playground, ball fields, and a pond.
Charles Poston explored and mined in what is now Arizona from 1853 to 1861, but his greatest achievement was successfully lobbying in Washington, D.C., for a territorial government in 1863. Poston went on to become the first superintendent of Indian affairs in Arizona and one of the first Arizona delegates to Congress. His congressional term finished, Poston traveled to India and became a fire worshipper. Upon returning to Arizona in 1878, he built a continuous fire—a sort of temple of the sun—atop a hill, naming it Parsee Hill. The flames died out several months later, ending a project that disbelievers mocked as "Poston's Folly." Today, Poston lies buried in a pyramid-shaped tomb on the summit of the hill, renamed Poston's Butte, northwest from Florence across the Gila River.
A trail—steep and with some loose rock—leads to the top. If you'd like some exercise and views, drive north a bit over a mile from downtown on AZ 79, cross the Gila River Bridge and continue 0.1 mile, turn left (near Milepost 136) 1.3 miles on the Hunt Highway, then turn right onto an unpaved road leading under the railroad tracks. Depending on your vehicle, you may wish to park here and walk. After the underpass, park on the left and walk half a mile (one way) on the track up the hillside; elevation gain is about 300 feet. It's possible to reach the summit with a 4WD vehicle, but the way is very bumpy.
This beautiful canyon attracts picnickers, hikers, and photographers. Desert plants, volcanic rock walls, and an intermittent stream make for delightful exploring. Loose sand and gravel can trap cars on the way, so it's best to have 4WD. From Florence, drive north on AZ 79 across the Gila River bridge and continue 0.3 mile, then turn right 14 miles on a dirt road (before the railroad tracks). On the way in you'll parallel the Gila River past fields, an orchard, and, at 9.4 miles, the Ashurst-Hayden Diversion Dam. The road curves northeast, crosses some washes (cars may have trouble here), and enters Box Canyon. Some drivers manage to get all the way through the canyon in another 13 miles and come out on AZ 79 or US 60 to the north, though this route requires difficult four-wheeling.
St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery
The main church and four chapels rise above beautifully landscaped gardens about 10 miles southeast of Florence. Since its founding in July 1995, the monastery has grown to about 40 monks who follow a rigorous schedule of work and prayer, including praying while working. Visitors interested in the monastery (520/868-3188, www.stanthonysmonastery.org) and its religion may drop by for a visit from 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Modest dress is important: men should wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, women need to have skirts well below the knees, long-sleeved shirts, and their head covered with a scarf; clothing may be available to borrow
Tom Mix Monument
October 12, 1940, was a sad day for fans of movie hero Tom Mix. Speeding north from Tucson in his big Cord, he lost control of the car and rolled over in a ditch, subsequently renamed Tom Mix Wash. A roadside monument, topped by a riderless horse, marks the spot, 17 miles south of Florence on AZ 79, between Mileposts 115 and 116. A rest area here has picnic tables.
The Tour of Historic Florence visits private and public buildings on the second weekend in February; you can walk or take a shuttle. Pinal County Fair brings fun and exhibits to the town of Casa Grande from the last Wednesday in March through the following Sunday. Fireworks go off for the July 4th Festivities. The Junior Parada on Thanksgiving weekend celebrates with a rodeo, parade, entertainment, and food.
The Prison Outlet (northeast corner of Butte Ave. and AZ 79, 520/868-3014, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri.-Mon., then daily in Dec.) sells arts and crafts produced by the inmates.
Accommodations and Campgrounds
On the east side of town at the junction of AZ 79 and AZ 287, Blue Mist Motel (40 S. Pinal Pkwy., 520/868-5875, $40 s, $55-65 d) has a pool. Taylor's Bed & Breakfast Inn (321 N. Bailey St., 520/868-3497, $55 d shared bath, $75 d private bath), in one of Florence's 19th-century buildings downtown, contains many antiques. The owner can arrange horseback and 4WD tours.
Rancho Sonora Inn & RV Park (5.2 miles south of town on AZ 79 at Milepost 128, 520/868-8000 or 800/205-6817, www.ranchosonora.com) offers a Southwestern atmosphere in the adobe buildings of a 1930's guest ranch. Courtyard rooms cost $89 d, one-bedroom cottages are $125 d, and two-bedroom cottages run $175 d, with lower prices in summer; amenities include a pool and hot tub. The pleasant campground has showers and a clubhouse, $18 tent, $22 RV w/hookups, also with lower rates off-season.
Desert Garden RV Park (five miles south on AZ 79, 520/868-3800 or 888/868-4888, www.desertgardensrvpark.com, $13-18 RV w/hookups) has an attractive desert setting amidst saguaro. Guests also enjoy a clubhouse, craft room, wood shop, exercise room, and planned wintertime activities. Long-terms sites are available too; reservations are recommended Dec. to March.
Old Pueblo Restaurant (505 S. Main St., 520/868-4784, daily except Mon. for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) offers American and Mexican food. L&B Inn (695 S. Main St., 520/868-9981, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, except no dinner on Sun.) has a similar menu plus a courtyard and waterfall in back. Tea & Coffee Emporium (110 N. Main St., 520/868-5748, Mon.-Sat. for lunch) is a teahouse in the Florence General Store. For Italian dining, try A&M Pizza (445 W. Hwy. 287, 520/868-0170, daily for lunch and dinner), which prepares pasta, chicken, and seafood dishes as well as pizza and subs.
Information and Services
Operated by the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce, Florence Visitors Center (291 Bailey St., P.O. Box 929, Florence, AZ 85132, 520/868-4496 or 866/977-4496, www.visitflorenceaz.com) offers lots of information on local history and sights as well as places farther afield in Arizona; some books are sold. The visitor center is in an 1890 brick commercial building one block east on Eighth Street from N. Main. Hours run 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat., Oct.-April, then 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. in summer.
One block south and east from the courthouse, the Pinal County Visitor Center (330 E. Butte Ave., P.O. Box 967, Florence, AZ 85132, 520/868-4331 or 800/557-4331, http://pinalcountyaz.gov) will also help you with local and state travel. It's open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. (closed Sat. in summer).
The post office is on N. Main Street across from the state park. Florence Community Library (520/868-9471) is open daily near the high school; turn off S. Main Street at the sign, one block south of the Pinal County Historical Museum.
Arizona's biggest and most perplexing prehistoric building contains 11 rooms and rises four stories above an earthen platform. An estimated 3,000 tons of mud went into the rectangular structure, whose walls range in thickness from 4.5 feet at the base to 1.8 feet near the top. Archaeologists don't know the purpose of Casa Grande, but some speculate that it was used for ceremonies or astronomical observations; certain holes in the walls appear to line up with the sun at the summer solstice and possibly with the moon during selected lunar events. Smaller structures and a wall surround the main building. Hohokam, who had farmed the Gila Valley since about 200-300 B.C., built Casa Grande around A.D. 1350. This is the only structure of its type still standing. By about 1450, after just a few generations of use, the Hohokam abandoned Casa Grande along with all their other villages. The Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino recorded the site in 1694, giving it the Spanish name for "great house."
At the monument's visitor center, exhibits introduce you to the Hohokam and their irrigation canals, farming tools, jewelry, and ball courts. You'll learn some of the various theories that account for their disappearance. Models show how the Great House may have looked. Rangers lead tours of Casa Grande, or you can set off on the self-guided trail. Signs identify cactus and other desert plants. The visitor center sells books on Arizona's tribes, settlers, and natural history.
The monument, 1100 Ruins Dr. (Coolidge, AZ 85228), 520/723-3172, is one mile north of downtown Coolidge off AZ 87. (These ruins shouldn't be confused with the modern town of Casa Grande, which is about 20 miles away.) It's open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission is $2 per person, maximum $4 per vehicle; www.nps.gov/cagr.
Two small museums encourage a detour east off the highway onto the quiet streets of this small town. Golden Era Museum, 520/723-5044, displays a collection of antique toys and trains open Sat.-Sun. at 297 W. Central Avenue. The Coolidge Museum, 520/723-3588, has historic exhibits open by appointment at 161 W. Harding Avenue. Travelers will find two motels on the north side of town and two adult RV parks on the south side along the main highway, AZ 87/Arizona Boulevard. The Coolidge Chamber of Commerce, 520/723-3009, offers local info Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. beside a city park at 320 W. Central Ave. (Coolidge, AZ 85228); www.coolidgeaz.org.
Blackwater Trading Post and Museum
Drop in to see fine Hohokam pottery, baskets by Tohono O'odham and Pima, and artifacts of other Southwestern tribes. You can shop for Native American jewelry and crafts. It's on the north side of AZ 87; head west 4.3 miles from the AZ 287-87 junction or, from I-10, you can go east 9 miles on AZ 387 and AZ 87; 520/723-5516. Open daily; donations welcome.
This cultural center on the Gila River Reservation makes a fine break from freeway driving. About 12,000 Pima and Maricopa live on the 387,000-acre reservation, which was founded in 1859. A museum displays artifacts of the tribes and interprets local history. Photo exhibits include Snaketown, a 200-acre Hohokam site, and the 1942-45 Gila River Internment Center that held Japanese-Americans. Crafts in the gift shop include pottery of Maricopa and New Mexican tribes, Tohono O'odham baskets, Hopi kachina dolls, and Navajo rugs. Jewelry, paintings, and prints come from many tribes. An inexpensive restaurant offers fry bread and some Mexican and American items daily for breakfast and lunch.
Outside, Heritage Park contains traditional structures of the Hohokam, Pima, Maricopa, Tohono O'odham, and Apache tribes; a booklet available at the gift shop describes each group. Gila Indian Center is open daily except some holidays 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; donations welcome; 480/963-3981. Native American craft demonstrations and performances take place during the Thanksgiving Celebration (weekend following Thanksgiving) and the Anniversary Celebration (third weekend in March). From I-10 Exit 175, go west half a mile on Casa Blanca Road; the exit is 26 miles southeast of Phoenix and 85 miles northwest of Tucson.
Once a small, sleepy agricultural town, Casa Grande has been discovered by winter visitors. Originally, no town was planned here. It was just a spot where the railway stopped laying tracks during the summer of 1879. Shipping agents then dropped off agricultural and mining supplies beside the track. When the tracks continued on to Yuma, people stayed and the town grew to a population of 500 by 1882, but the national mining slump in the 1890s caused Casa Grande to dwindle to just a mercantile store, a saloon, and two small businesses. Agriculture became the mainstay, with livestock, vegetables, alfalfa, wheat, barley, citrus, and cotton contributing to the local economy. Now, the town depends just as much on the winter visitors who patronize the resort, motels, and RV parks. Casa Grande's population has passed 26,000 and continues to grow.
Casa Grande Valley Historical Museum
The museum takes you back to the days of the early tribes and pioneers. You'll learn about area mining and view period living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. The collection and a gift shop are open Mon.-Sat. 1-5 p.m. from September 15 to May 15; $2 admission. The museum is downtown at 110 W. Florence Blvd. (behind a 1927 stone former church); 520/836-2223.
Casa Grande Art Museum
This small gallery offers a chance to enjoy paintings, sculpture, photographic displays, and ceramics as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Most work is for sale. Exhibits change about once a month. It's at 319 W. 3rd. St., one block south and east from the historical museum; 520/836-3377; call for days and hours; closed in summer.
The Francisco Grande Resort and Golf Resort (five miles west of downtown at 26000 Gila Bend Hwy., 520/836-6444 or 800/237-4238, www.franciscogrande.com) offers accommodations with an 18-hole golf course, pool, hot tub, tennis, and restaurant. Motels, restaurants, and many RV parks lie scattered around town and near I-10.
Information and Services
The friendly Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce (575 N. Marshall St., Casa Grande, AZ 85222, 520/836-2125 or 800/916-1515, www.casagrandechamber.org, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) has a central location; turn south from Florence Blvd. at the Dairy Queen.
Shoppers enjoy Outlets at Casa Grande (formerly Tanger Factory Outlet Center), which holds more than four dozen shops at I-10 Exit 198.
Casa Grande Regional Medical Center (1800 E. Florence Blvd., 520/426-6300, www.casagrandehospital.com) is the local hospital.
Note: the park will be closed for the Summer Season May 16th to Sept. 14th, 2011.
Picacho Peak has long served as a landmark for tribal groups, Spanish explorers, American frontiersmen, and modern-day motorists. Park visitors enjoy hiking, camping, and picnicking in this scenic area. Saguaro and other plants of the Sonoran Desert thrive on the rocky hillsides. Mexican gold poppies can blanket the hillsides in spring after a wet winter. Monuments near the flagpole commemorate the Battle of Picacho Pass (where I-10 now runs) and the building of a road by the Mormon Battalion. The Battle of Picacho Pass, on April 15, 1862, was the most significant conflict of the Civil War this far west. Confederate forces killed Lieutenant James Barrett, leader of the Union detachment, and two privates. Aware that Union reinforcements would soon arrive, the Confederates retreated back down the Butterfield Road to Tucson.
Civil War in the Southwest
This reenactment takes place on the second weekend in March. Infantry and cavalry fight three historic engagements to commemorate two battles that took place in New Mexico plus the Battle of Picacho Pass. Smoke spreads over the desert as the crack of rifles and roar of cannons echo off the hillsides. In calmer moments between the conflicts, you can visit the encampments of each side and see how the soldiers and civilians lived.
The park (520/466-3183,http://azstateparks.com/Parks/PIPE/index.html) offers trails, picnic areas, campgrounds with showers, and a dump station. Fees are $5 per vehicle for day use, $10 for camping in non-hookup sites, or $17 with water and electric hookups. No reservations are taken, but it's rare for all sites to fill. Groups can reserve picnic and camping areas. To get there, take I-10 Exit 219 (70 miles southeast of Phoenix and 41 miles northwest of Tucson) and follow signs a half mile.
Hunter Trail climbs 1,500 feet to the summit of 3,374-foot Picacho Peak, a tilted remnant of ancient lava flows. This rugged four-mile roundtrip requires four to five hours. (For a shorter but still strenuous hike, also with expansive views, take the Hunter Trail just as far as the saddle, a two-mile roundtrip of 1.5 hours.) Be careful on the backside where the trail crosses some loose rock; posts and cables provide handholds in the rougher spots. Sunset Vista Trail traverses the back of the peak in a 6.2-mile roundtrip to the summit; it has fewer hikers and a more secluded setting as I-10 is out of view most of the way. Good shoes, plenty of water, and sun protection will help make an enjoyable and successful climb on either of these trails. If you hike up one trail and down the other, you'll have to arrange a shuttle or walk the 2.2 miles between the two trailheads to get back to your car.
Calloway Trail is an easier climb to a low pass between Bugler's and Picacho peaks, 1.5 miles roundtrip, requiring an hour. A half-mile-loop nature trail introduces desert plants; you can begin from Memorial Plaza near the contact station or from the hookup campground. Rangers offer trail maps.
On to Phoenix to Yuma