T Rex Museum
Kids have lots of hands-on exhibits and projects to explore as they learn about early life on our planet and that most famous of all dinosaurs—Tyrannosaurus Rex (1202 N. Main Ave., 520/792-2884, www.trexmuseum.org, noon-5 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat., $2 age 1 and up). You and your youngsters can feel casts of actual dinosaur skin, teeth, claws, eggs, and bones. Reconstructed T-Rex babies and an outline of a full-grown one show just how big they got! The displays begin with the earliest life forms on the sea floor and progress through the ages of dinosaurs, showing how they evolved. Projects along the way include puzzles, games, fossil digs, and an art corner. Gift shops sell fossils and dinosaur-related items. From Speedway Boulevard, turn north one block on Main Avenue, then turn right on Helen Street; entrance is on the left.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
You'll enjoy a visit to experience many different types of gardens, as well as to see beautiful flora (2150 N. Alvernon Way, 520/326-9686, www.tucsonbotanical.org, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, $5 adults, $2.50 children 6-12). The oldest areas have lush plantings of mostly Mediterranean and Asian species popular with Tucson gardeners in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As you progress through the gardens, you'll come across more modern types better suited for the region's arid climate. Collections include tropical plants in the greenhouse, a cactus and succulent garden, Tucson Basin natives, small trees for landscaping, and low-water-use ornamentals. Signs in the Backyard Bird Garden provide helpful tips on how to best attract birdlife. The Native American Crops Garden includes plants used by Tohono O'odham and other tribes for food, medicines, and basket making. Children have their own garden to explore, and they will also like the Sensory Garden that invites visitors to smell, touch, listen, look, or just be curious. A small art gallery near the entrance has changing exhibitions. Staff offer tours, workshops, and classes. Special events include spring and autumn plant sales. A gift shop sells books, seeds, food items, jewelry, and crafts. The gardens are about six miles northeast of downtown and just south of Grant Road.
Fort Lowell Museum
U.S. Army troops chasing troublesome Apache in the 1860s needed a base. So they built Camp Lowell on the outskirts of Tucson in 1866 and named it in honor of an officer killed in the Civil War. The camp moved to its present site in 1873 and became a fort in 1879. Patrolling, guarding, and offensive operations kept it a busy place during the Geronimo campaigns, which ended with the Apache leader's surrender in September 1886. With the Indian wars finally over, the army abandoned the fort in 1891.
The commanding officer's quarters and nearby kitchen building have been reconstructed as a museum (Fort Lowell Park, 2900 N. Craycroft Rd., 520/885-3832, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat., $3 adults, $2 students 12-18 and seniors 60+). Inside the quarters you'll find a period room, a model of the fort, army equipment, and many photos with the stories of officers, enlisted men, wives, children, and Apache scouts. The kitchen has some excavated artifacts and exhibits about life of the enlisted men. The adobe house across the street is an original officer's quarters. Martha Summerhayes stayed here in 1886 with her husband, a regimental quartermaster, and later wrote of her experiences in Vanished Arizona (see Suggested Reading). Currently the house is a private residence and closed to the public.
Signs with maps lead around the park to an equestrian statue and ruins of the adobe hospital and other buildings. In early February, La Reunión de El Fuerte presents cavalry drills, music, and self-guided tours to historic sites in Fort Lowell Park and the surrounding community, including places not normally open to the public. The museum, just south of the Craycroft Road-Fort Lowell Road junction, is about eight miles northeast of downtown. Fort Lowell Park (520/791-4873) also has picnicking, reservable ramadas, a playground, pool, and ball fields.
The Franklin Auto Museum
This unusual museum (1405 E. Kleindale Rd. off N. Vine Ave., 520/326-8038, http://www.franklinmuseum.org, mid-Oct. to Memorial Day: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat., $10 adults, $8 seniors 62+, $5 teens & students, free under 12) specializes in the Franklin, a luxury car produced from 1902 until the financial woes of the Depression ended work in 1934. Gleaming antique cars reveal the elegance and amazing engineering of a time gone by. Franklin innovations included air-cooled engines, the first auto assembly line for luxury cars, extensive use of die-cast aluminum parts to save weight and improve fuel efficiency, and one of the first starter/generators. The 20 or so Franklins here illustrate the evolution of the auto during these years. The cars still run and appear in regional auto shows. The museum is between E. Fort Lowell and E. Prince Roads, about two miles north of the University of Arizona.
De Grazia Gallery in the Sun
A work of art in itself, the adobe gallery (6300 N. Swan Rd., 520/299-9191 or 800/545-2185, www.degrazia.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, free) blends into the desert. You enter through a gate patterned after the one at Yuma Territorial Prison, then pass through a short mine tunnel.
Ettore "Ted" De Grazia, born in the Arizona mining district of Morenci, became fascinated at an early age by the desert colors and cultures of the Southwest. In a short video, he narrates the story of his life and work. He earned fame for his paintings, but created ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry and wrote books as well. Since his death in 1982, the gallery has continued as a museum. The many exhibit rooms illustrate his varied interests, themes, and techniques. A gift shop sells his prints, sculpture, and books.
De Grazia built Mission in the Sun, the adobe chapel outside to the west, as his first project on this site in the early 1950s. He dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. You can step inside to see the murals and seating illuminated by the open sky. Local artists display work nearby in the Little Gallery from November to April. From downtown, head east four miles on Broadway Boulevard to Swan Road, then turn north six miles; the gallery is on the right just before Skyline Drive.
Tohono Chul Park
You'll enjoy natural desert beauty at this 49-acre park (7366 N. Paseo del Norte, 520/742-6455, www.tohonochulpark.org, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, but 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. daily July-Aug., and you can stay until sunset, Exhibit House and greenhouse 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (8 a.m.- 3 p.m. July-Aug.), $8 adult, $5 seniors 62+, $3 students with valid ID, $2 kids 5-12, first Tues. free for everyone), whose name means Desert Corner in the Tohono O'odham language. Nature trails wind past about 1000 plant species from the Southwest and northern Mexico. Signs identify plants, describe life in the desert, and illustrate some of the many bird species that you may see. Javelina, desert tortoise, collared lizard, chuckwalla, ground squirrel, desert cottontail, and black-tailed jackrabbit also inhabit the park. Wildflower plots display dazzling colors in spring. The Hummingbird Garden, near the Tea Room, buzzes with activity when in bloom. Riparian areas have examples of water-loving plants and attract birds. The Demonstration Garden provides ideas for landscaping. You can learn how the Santa Catalina Mountains formed—and see rocks from more than two dozen geologic formations—at the Geology Wall. Crops in the Ethnobotanical Garden represent those used by Native peoples or European settlers for food, fiber, medicine, or dyes. Garden for Children encourages youngsters to explore the natural world; gift shops sell a booklet with additional projects and games. Art shows in the charming Exhibit House change every 6-8 weeks. A small gallery (closed Sun.) at the Desert Discovery Education Center exhibits Native American works. Staff lead a wide variety of tours, lectures, and concerts; call for times.
The Tea Room's (520/797-1222, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, but 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. July-Aug.) indoor and outdoor areas offer a pleasant place for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. You can picnic at one of the tables in the southeastern section of the park. Three museum shops sell handcrafts and books, including a guide to the park. The Greenhouse sells plants requiring little water.
From the junction of Ina and Oracle Roads in northwest Tucson, head west on Ina and turn north at the first stoplight. No pets, please.
Catalina State Park
In the western foothills of the Catalinas 14 miles north of downtown Tucson, this 5,500-acre park (11570 N. Oracle Rd./AZ 77, 520/628-5798, $6/vehicle for day use, http://azstateparks.com) offers picnicking, camping, birding, hiking, and horseback riding. All of the trails feature mountain views and a chance to see desert birds, other animals, and wildflowers. Staff lead guided hikes, bird walks, and wildflower walks October-April. Hikers can walk easy loops within the park, explore nearby canyons, or climb all the way to the top of Mt. Lemmon. The ranger station offers free trail maps of the park area and a bird list and sells detailed topo maps of the Catalinas.
The 0.75-mile Romero Ruin Interpretive Trail climbs a low ridge and makes a loop through a Hohokam village site and the ruins of Francisco Romero's mid-19th-century ranch. The one-mile Nature Trail loop has interpretive signs about desert life. The Birding Trail offers good opportunities for sightings on its one-mile loop. These first three loops are open to foot travel only, but the 2.3-mile Canyon Loop Trail can be used by hikers, cyclists, and equestrians.
Romero Canyon Trail and Sutherland Trail head east deep into the Catalinas. The trails narrow and steepen where they leave the state park and enter Pusch Ridge Wilderness and the Bighorn Sheep Management Area. At this point, cyclists and dogs—both prohibited in the Wilderness—have to turn back. The trails also become too rough for most equestrians. In spring, the creek in Romero Canyon and its tributary Montrose Canyon will be running and have small waterfalls. Natural pools along the lower part of the popular Romero Canyon Trail make good day-hike destinations. Montrose Pools lie a short, steep descent off Romero Canyon Trail just 1.1 miles up. Romero Pools, 2.8 miles one-way with a 900-foot elevation gain, can be deep enough for swimming. The Romero Canyon and Sutherland Trails meet the Mt. Lemmon Trail that leads to the summit (14 strenuous miles one-way) and other destinations. Sabino Canyon is about 17 strenuous miles away via Romero Canyon Trail and the 6,000-foot Romero Pass.
Equestrians especially like the Fifty-Year Trail, though hikers and mountain bikers enjoy it, too; the six-mile (one-way) trail heads northeast from the Equestrian Center across rolling foothills to connect with Sutherland and other trails in the National Forest. Hikers, equestrians, and experienced mountain bikers can do a challenging loop of about nine miles on Fifty-Year, a trail link, and Sutherland Trail.
The campground fee of $12 no hookups or $19 w/electric and water includes showers and a dump station. There's usually room, even in the busy January-April season, thanks to a recent campground expansion. Only groups can reserve areas. Your horse is welcome to stay at the Equestrian Center, in which case you would camp here. Special events include an Easter sunrise service and a Solar Expo in May.
You're welcome to take a peek into this unusual compound 30 miles north of Tucson and to learn how it has contributed toward understanding Biosphere 1—our planet Earth (520/838-6200, www.b2science.org, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas, grounds close about 5:30 p.m., $20 adults, $18 seniors 62 and over, $13 youth 6-12). Technicians keep watch over the computers, which operate the life-support system for the more than 3,000 species of plants and animals inhabiting the five "biomes" (self-sustaining communities of living organisms). The marvelous "space frame" architecture—no internal pillars are used—encloses tropical rainforest (the largest and highest section), desert, savanna, marsh, and a one-million-gallon ocean.
Construction began in 1986 as a daring experiment to determine if a sealed mini-world could sustain life over an extended period. On September 26, 1991, the first crew of Biospherians—four men and four women—stepped through an airlock to be sealed in for a two-year "voyage." They had to struggle at times, combating lower-than-expected crop yields and declining oxygen levels, but managed to complete their two years. Columbia University scientists, who had been invited to help solve the mystery of the low oxygen levels (caused by microorganisms in the soil), stepped in to manage Biosphere 2 from 1996 to 2003. Studies investigated the interaction of plants, carbon dioxide, water, and pests; the relationship between coral reefs and the atmosphere; and the effect of global warming on ecosystems. Now University of Arizona scientists conduct research on earth sciences, including the consequences of global climate change. No crews have been sealed inside since the first missions in 1991-94, but the option hasn't been ruled out for the future.
Begin at the visitor center, where you can view a short introductory video. Guided tours of about 75 minutes take you inside the amazing structure of Biosphere 2 itself—the world's largest greenhouse, up to 91 feet high and enclosing 3.15 acres. In the Biosphere 2 Habitat, you'll see the living and working quarters of the Biospherians—the well-equipped kitchen, dining room, an apartment, and computer center. Then you'll enter several of the biomes and enjoy a bird's-eye view of the ocean. Next the tour enters the bowels of Biosphere 2—the "Technosphere" where two acres of machinery provide the climate and rainfall for the plant and animal communities above. The tour route then follows an underground tunnel into one of the massive "lungs" designed to compensate for changing air pressures.
After the tour, you can explore additional areas on your own. The ocean-viewing gallery gives you a window into the underwater world of corals and tropical fish. Back at the Biosphere 2 Habitat, head downstairs into the old animal bay and some former recreation and work areas to see exhibits that interpret the facts and mysteries of the Earth's climate and how we're finding ways to counteract global warming and air pollution.
Biosphere 2 is about a 45-minute drive from Tucson or a two-hour drive from Phoenix. From Tucson, head north 25 miles on Oracle Road/AZ 79 to Oracle Junction, turn northeast 5.5 miles on AZ 77 to the sign (between Mileposts 96 and 97), then turn south 2.8 miles to visitor parking. The best route from the Phoenix area is via Florence and AZ 79 to Oracle Junction. Alternatively, you can take I-10 to the Ina Road Exit, go east on Ina Road to Oracle Road/AZ 79, then north to Oracle Junction. There's a snack bar and gift shop, but no facilities for picnics or pets.
This small town lies at an elevation of 4,514 feet in the northern foothills of the Catalinas, 37 miles from Tucson. American Avenue—the main road through Oracle—makes a loop off AZ 77; look for the sign "Business District."
Acadia Ranch Museum (825 Mt. Lemmon Rd., 520/896-9609, www.oraclehistoricalsociety.org) has some historic exhibits and a reading room in an 1880 adobe ranch house that later expanded to become a boardinghouse, then a sanitarium. It's usually open Saturdays 1-5 p.m. (except major holidays), possibly on Sundays, and by appointment. Look for it just south of Mt. Lemmon Road near American Avenue in the town center.
Residents celebrate Oracle Oaks Festival in April with a parade, car show, and carnival. Oracle also has a few places to stay, restaurants, and a library. Peppersauce Campground ($10, 520/749-8700, open year-round) in the Coronado National Forest is 8.4 miles southeast on Mt. Lemmon Road/Forest Road 38.
Oracle State Park, Center for Environmental Education
Note: Park is currently closed to the public for day use. It's open for special events and for group use by reservation; check http://azstateparks.com for the latest information.
Set on nearly 4,000 acres of rolling hills in the Santa Catalina foothills, this park (PO Box 700, Oracle, AZ 85623, 520/896-2425, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Christmas, $6/vehicle, $1/individual for nonmotorized travel) offers fine scenery and a chance to see wildlife. Picnic tables nestle under the oaks. About 15 miles of trails—including a seven-mile segment of the Arizona Trail—loop through oak woodlands, grasslands, chaparral, and picturesque granite boulders at elevations ranging from 3,500 to 4,500 feet. All of the trails offer panoramas of surrounding mountains and valleys as well. Three short hiking trails begin near the Kannally Ranch House: Nature Trail Loop (1.2 miles), Windy Ridge Trail Loop (0.9 mile), and Bellota Trail Loop (0.75 mile); these last two are foot travel only and are closed to pets. For the best views and a good workout, with some steep sections, take Granite Overlook Trail to the park's highest point—4622 feet with about a 200-foot elevation change; it's 1.2 miles roundtrip (out and back) or it can be done as a 1.8-mile loop; begin from Oak Woodland Area, the first picnic area on your right from the main entrance. These and other trails interconnect for loops of seven miles or more including the Arizona Trail segment. Mountain bikers can follow several trails for a variety of loops. Equestrians should use the Cherry Valley entrance on the west side of the park, at the start of a network of trails especially for them; there's also access to the Arizona Trail.
The park's 5 p.m. closing allows wildlife to have some time unhindered by human presence. Staff offer tours of the Mediterranean Revival-style Kannally Ranch House, built in 1929-33, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. and holidays. Groups can reserve a day-use area, rent the house for events, and arrange house tours.
From Tucson or Phoenix, drive to Oracle Junction, then follow AZ 77 northeast for nine miles (to just past Milepost 100), turn right 2.5 miles on American Avenue through Oracle's business district, turn right at the sign and follow Mt. Lemmon Road one mile, then make a left into the main park entrance; the park road ends 1.3 miles farther at the Kannally Ranch House and park office (staffed irregular hours). For the Cherry Valley entrance, stay on American Avenue for 3.5 miles, then turn right at the sign. If you're coming from Mammoth, follow American Avenue for 0.3 mile and turn left at the sign.
On to Santa Catalina Mountains