Reid Park Zoo
You'll meet wildlife from the far corners of the world here (Randolph Way, 520/791-4022 recording or 520/791-5064, www.reidparkzoo.org, Oct.-May: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, June-Sept.: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, $10.50 adults, $8.50 seniors 62+, $6.50 children 2-14). Landscaping and plants add beauty and provide a natural setting for the different habitats. Tigers from Asia prowl their territory just inside the entrance on the left. Beyond lie many of the famous African animals, such as a white rhino, a pair of lions, mandrills, giraffes, and zebras. A polar bear seems quite content as its insulating fur protects it from Tucson's heat, and there's a big swimming pool at hand (with an underwater viewing window). The South American loop winds through jungle foliage past piranhas, a spectacled bear, llamas, fat capybaras (world's largest rodent), sleek jaguars, long-limbed gibbons, and other wonderful creatures. Many of the zoo's birds, some in two walk-in aviaries, display spectacular plumage and colors. Zoo staff breed anteaters and other rare animals and participate in a species survival plan. Reid Park, which also has picnic and ball fields, lies 3.5 miles east of downtown. Turn north on Randolph Way at the light on 22nd St., midway between Country Club Road and Alvernon Way.
Pima Air & Space Museum
You'll experience dramatic advances in aviation technology at the nation's largest private collection (6000 E. Valencia Rd., 520/574-0462, www.pimaair.org, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with slightly shorter hours for some exhibits, $15.50 adults, $12.75 seniors 62 and older and active military, $9 ages 7-12); two-day admission tickets cost just a bit more. More than 300 historic aircraft—and extensive exhibits about the people who flew them—fill six large buildings and spread outside across the museum's more than 80 acres. The first hangar that you enter has a full-scale replica of the Wright brothers' 1903 Wright Flyer along with some unique planes and helicopters. A motion simulator "takes off" for exciting rides. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson flew on the VC-118A/DC-6A plane on display. A handful of civilian airliners are on display, but it's the military planes that will most impress you with their history, size, and diversity. Fighters show developments from World War II models to early jets, through the F-100 series, to some current models; there's also a lineup of MiGs. Huge transports, three B-52 bombers, many helicopters, and a speedy SR-71 Blackbird stand at rest. The Space Gallery traces the journey into outer space with full-size mockups of Robert Goddard's 1926 liquid-fuel rocket, an X-15, and Mercury and Apollo capsules along with models, rocket engines, planetary spacecraft, and a space video; school kids participate in space missions, which staff explain on free tours. The Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame next door recounts the contributions of state aviators; in the back you can marvel at the complexity of piston, jet, and rocket engines in "Thrust: the Engine Gallery." Famous aircraft of WW II fill three hangars, where you'll see gleaming B-24, B-26, and B-29 bombers, plus many other famous planes and a few early helicopters. The 390th Memorial Museum, home of the B-17G, displays photos of crews along with some of their stories; a diorama and video show aerial dramas.
Free walking tours take you around to some of the most famous exhibits. Tram tours ($6) provide a great introduction to the museum and save shoe leather. A gift shop sells aircraft models, books, and posters. There's also a snack bar. Researchers can make an appointment to use the library. The museum is about 12 miles southeast of downtown. Take I-10 southeast to Valencia Road Exit 267, then drive east two miles
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and AMARG Tours
Charles Lindbergh dedicated Davis-Monthan in 1927 as the country's first municipal airport. Crews of B-17 bombers and other aircraft trained here during World War II. Today, pilots learn to fly combat and electronic reconnaissance aircraft. A tenant at the base, AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Group), stores a staggering number of surplus planes—more than 5,000. The great variety of fighters, transports, and bombers extends across 2,600 acres. You can see them on scheduled bus tours ($7) that depart Mon.-Fri. from Pima Air & Space Museum; reservations are recommended in the cooler months.
Saguaro National Park East
Many huge saguaros grow here in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains, about 16 miles east of downtown. Just inside the park entrance, the visitor center (3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, 520/733-5153, www.nps.gov/sagu, 9a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $6/vehicle, $3 bicyclists or foot travelers) exhibits describe desert geology, ecology, flora, and fauna. A 15-minute program shown every half-hour illustrates the biotic communities of the park and the influence of the encroaching city. Naturalists offer special programs and walks, especially during the cooler months. Staff have books, maps, and hiking information. Outside, the Cactus Garden displays a variety of labeled desert plants.
Cactus Forest Drive, an eight-mile paved road open from 7 a.m. to sunset, begins near the visitor center and winds through the foothills of the Rincon Mountains with many fine views. After you've driven about 2.2 miles along this one-way route, you'll come to the turnoff for Mica View Picnic Area on the left. Another 0.3 mile past the turnoff, look for the Desert Ecology Trail. On this paved quarter-mile trail, you'll learn how plants and animals cope with the environment.
Freeman Homestead Nature Trail begins on the right, 200 yards down the spur road to Javelina Picnic Area. The trail makes a one-mile loop past huge saguaro and along a wash filled with mesquite; interpretive signs describe homesteading in the desert. Javelina Picnic Area has some shaded picnic tables.
Cactus Forest Trail System offers about 40 miles of interconnecting trails with many loop possibilities in the desert hills; ask for a trail brochure at the visitor center. Mountain bikers particularly enjoy the system's namesake, the 2.5-mile-one-way Cactus Forest Trail through the heart of the cactus forest between the north and south sides of the drive; it's wide and heavily used, shared by hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. Hiking trails north of Cactus Forest Drive follow gentle terrain and can be reached from several trailheads on the north side of the drive. For more rugged and scenic country, try the trails east of Garwood Trail. Douglas Spring Trailhead at the east end of Speedway Boulevard is the closest access point for this area. Bridal Wreath Falls is a good destination during runoff; follow Douglas Spring Trail 2.5 miles in, then turn right 0.3 mile at the sign to the falls. Hikers must keep to the trails if below an elevation of 4,500 feet to protect fragile desert soils and vegetation.
Backpackers can explore more of the park's 128 miles of trails. Tanque Verde Ridge Trail begins near the Javelina Picnic Area and climbs into the rugged Saguaro Wilderness of the Rincon Mountains. The trail continues with lots of ups and downs to Mica Mountain, at 8,666 feet the highest peak in the wilderness and 17.5 miles one way. Several other trailheads provide access to Mica Mountain, though hiking distances are also too far for day trips. Spring and autumn are the best seasons for a visit as the wilderness is especially dry and unforgiving in the heat of summer, and winter can bring snow. A permit ($6/site/night) from the visitor center is needed for backcountry camping, which is permitted only at designated sites. Carry water (one gallon per day) and topo maps.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Tour guides lead you deep underground to the large formations in this dry limestone cave (520/647-7275 cave tours or 520/647-7121 ranch, www.colossalcave.com, cave tours cost $7.50 adults, $4 children ages 6-10, there's also a park entry fee of $3/car, $2/motorcycle, or $1/bicycle). The park is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 6 p.m. Sun. and holidays) daily mid-Sept.-mid-March, then 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. Sun. and holidays) daily mid-March-mid-September. You'll learn about the cave's history and geology, but not where outlaws hid their $60,000 in gold! The tour covers a half-mile and requires a great deal of stair climbing—a total of 363 steps—at a leisurely pace. The cave stays a comfortable 70ºF year-round. Tours last 45-55 minutes and leave frequently; you can usually get in within a half hour. Ladder Tours operate some days by reservation; you'll don a hard hat and follow the guide to areas off the normal tour route. A snack bar and gift shop await outside the entrance. Civilian Conservation Corps workers laid the cave's flagstone pathways and constructed the buildings outside in the mid-1930s.
Other caves lie within the 2,400-acres park too. La Tetera, Spanish for "tea kettle" because of the plume of steam that first gave away its location, contained bones of extinct camels and horses. Further exploration revealed a large room filled with richly colored features and a dazzling crystal-covered floor, which blocked progress, as the discoverers didn't wish to trample it. The cave will be reserved for scientific research in the future, but you may see photos of it.
While in the park, you can visit La Posta Quemada, a working ranch that dates back to the 1870s. It offers a museum, hiking, horseback riding (520/647-3450), a research library, and a cafe. Exhibits illustrate the cave's formation, animals, and prehistoric artifacts. Historical displays relate the ranch's history. The park also offers picnic areas and a playground. You can camp one night only in the picnic areas at no extra charge, but you'll need to arrive in the park before closing time.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park lies 22 miles southeast of downtown Tucson. Take I-10 east to Vail-Wentworth Exit 279, then go seven miles north; or take the Old Spanish Trail to Saguaro National Monument East, then go 12 miles south.
The bumpy unpaved Redington Road offers a scenic "back door" to the eastern Tucson Valley. You'll enjoy panoramas of Tucson as the road winds up to the high-desert Redington Pass, which connects the Santa Catalinas and the Rincons; side roads lead to trailheads for the Arizona Trail and other paths into the mountain ranges.
From Tucson, head east on Tanque Verde Road; pavement runs out 2.7 miles past the Wentworth Road junction, then it's 9 miles to the pass via Redington Road. On the east side, the road gradually descends 17.5 miles from the pass into the San Pedro Valley, where you can turn north to San Manuel (17 miles) or south to Gammon's Gulch (30 miles) and Benson (42 miles) on partly paved roads.
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