Picacho Peak kicked our butts!

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From the Tucson area we moved west, stopping at Casa Grande, AZ.  After arriving there, we did our usual investigation for places with good hiking.  We didn’t find anything in the immediate area, but we discovered that beautiful Picacho Peak, which we had admired from I-10 west of Tucson, is located within a state park about 33 miles from Casa Grande.

Picacho Peak

Picacho Peak as seen on I-10

This striking peak has been a navigational point for ground and air travelers for decades.  It rises 1500 feet from the desert floor and has several hiking trails of various difficulties.  At first, we weren’t sure we would try for the summit, as it was rated “difficult” and we are more into “moderate.”  It is recommended that hikers take gloves to assist with “holding onto the cables”.  Oh, that sounds interesting!

We parked at the Sunset Vista trailhead on the west end of the mountain and decided to check out the first couple of miles.  What a fantastic trek it was!  This trail was an easy walk with beautiful scenery on the south side of the mountain which got us warmed up for an attempt on the summit.  This is now one of Steve’s favorite hikes, with sweeping views of the mountain and 30+ miles of valleys all around.  Gorgeous!

Sunset Trail

Sunset Trail

A quick break to take in the view

A quick break halfway up the mountain to take in the view

After the first 2 miles, the trail became more difficult, and soon we were faced with either climbing steep rock faces using the steel cables, or turning onto the Hunter Trail to descend on the north side of the mountain.  We decided to give the cables a try and guage ourselves (me primarily).  It went OK, and as we continued along the climb got steeper with some narrow ledges actually fenced in to prevent folks from plummeting down several hundred feet.  We trudged on slowly and carefully until we reached the top.

After two and a half hours of tough climbing we were there.  We made it – whew!  We were richly rewarded with a sublime 360-degree view of the Sonoran Desert.  We took a break, soaked in the view and grabbed some lunch to renew our energy.

 Picacho Peak

Pose at the Peak

Picacho Peak summit

Southside view

After lunch we descended 1.5 miles via the strenuous Hunter Trail to its trailhead at a parking lot.  Since we had parked at the other end of the mountain, we needed to walk an additional 2 miles back to our car.  It was a long 7-mile day of walking and climbing, but we were surely glad we did it.

As we soaked our sore muscles in the spa (luckily our RV park had one), we were happy to have accomplished this challenging climb, and we’re looking forward to the next one!

Snowy Arizona? – Tucson

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Santa Catalina Mountains

Driving south from the Cave Creek area, we tucked ourselves in north of Tucson, the second-largest city in Arizona.  We thought it might get warmer as we headed south – wrong!  A cold front brought clouds and rain – even snow at the Santa Catalina mountains where we were parked.  For the first time during our travels we were faced with frozen water hoses as nighttime temperatures plummeted into the twenties.  When you think of Arizona, cold and snow rarely come to mind, but being winter it does get chilly here – especially at night.  However, we loved the view of the beautiful white mountains right outside our windows!

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park

Daytime temperatures were in the 50’s – plenty warm for us to go out and have some fun. Armed with recommendations from Dan H. (thanks, Dan!), we checked out some of the things to do in the Tucson area.  Here are a few we enjoyed:

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, nestled in the scenic Tucson Mountains, is the perfect place to get a good glimpse of what this beautiful desert is all about.  We walked through the open areas and were offered amazing views of the mountains dotted with Sagauro cacti, Palo Verde and many other desert plants.  Wandering through a living walled area, we found lots of information and close-up views detailing bobcats, prairie dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes and more.

Being from the west coast, this place gave us a good overall exposure to the diverse flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, and the ecosystem that thrives here.  A nice touch from the museum (although I would not call this a museum, per se) is the free SPF30 sunscreen and refrigerated water fountains along the trails.  This place is very well done and a must-see.

We hiked in Sabino Canyon, a spectacular desert canyon cut into the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  There were two tram tours, one appropriately called Sabino Canyon, a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8 mile tour into the foothills.  Then there was Bear Canyon, a non-narrated ride that took hikers to the trailhead of the Seven Falls. We purchased tickets and planned to take the Bear Canyon hike, but due to confusion by the tram driver we ended up getting on the Sabino Canyon tram instead.

On this tour our driver enthusiastically narrated some interesting facts about the vegetation and history of the canyon.  We got off at stop #9 and hiked up one of the trails to enjoy our lunch with a view overlooking the canyon.  Then, instead of re-boarding the tram we decided to walk back down the 3.8 miles to the visitors center.  We learned that we had actually gotten the better tour but paid for the cheaper one to Bear Canyon – not bad!

Sabino Canyon

Hiking on Phone Line Trail

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon lunch stop – wow!

Sabino Canyon

At the top of Eagle Mountain

The University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2dubbed “one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world”, was just up the road from our site at Catalina State Park.  We remembered the much publicized “Human Missions” experiments in the early 90’s, so we decided to check it out.  We toured what they call “wilderness Biomes” – building blocks of the biosphere; a tropical rain forest, savanna, coastal fog, desert, and a million-gallon ocean – all under one roof!

Our knowledgeable tour guide explained the history, research, and unprecedented science taking place inside this engineering marvel.  Despite all of that we still ended the tour as non-scientists.

If you are young enough to remember the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, you might remember the “Duck and Cover” exercises.  At the Titan Missile Museum, an underground tour relives a time when the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union was a reality.  The Titan II missile was capable of launching from its underground silo in 58 seconds and could deliver a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead to its target more than 5,500 miles away – in less than thirty minutes.

This is the only remaining Titan missile silo of the 54 that were constructed in the US.  It is very interesting to see and hear about life in the silos during the 22 years they were operational.  Steve had already been here once before with his pilot buddies but thought I would enjoy it as well.  And I did!

Titan Missile Museum

Underground control room

Titan Missile Museum

Titan II missile

Lastly, when you’re hungry and looking for authentic delicious southwestern food in the Tucson area, make the trip to El Charro Café.  Opened in 1922, this is reportedly the oldest continuously-operated, family-owned Mexican restaurant in the United States.  Don’t forget to try one of their yummy Margaritas.  Thanks Dan, this restaurant is at the top of our list!