First of all, Happy New Year!
Don’t you love it? All the “newness” in the air, resolutions already forgotten, the days getting a little bit longer, opportunity for change. On the other hand, some things will never change, like me and my love for road trips!
When traveling in the United States, it isn’t all that often that I visit places I’ve never been to. But the southeastern corner of Arizona is one of those places. Or, more accurately, was. Think Tombstone and Bisbee, Chiricahua National Monument, and both sides of Saguaro National Park. I’ll confess to driving through at least one of the Saguaros long ago, but this time I got some pretty fantastic hiking in. In my quest to trek in all sixty of the National Parks in America, (probably more by the time I complete them all!) Saguaro was number twenty-eight. Closing in on halfway. Woot!
While many gather ’round the Christmas tree in familiar surroundings, I’m usually at least a couple thousand miles from home, more if possible, and if I can be in a foreign country, even better. For me, the name of the game is ESCAPE CHRISTMAS, and southern Arizona worked beautifully.
I wasn’t sure how good it would be to go to Tombstone when everything was closed for the holiday, but it turned out to be quite magical, when the fact that the town is a money pit and tourist trap is taken into consideration. Being there with just a few other souls wandering the empty, dusty streets with no particular place to go and all the time in the world to get there, gave me the sense that I was experiencing the desert hamlet as it used to be on a quiet day in its heyday.
The Boot Hill Graveyard, the OK Corral, Tombstone Courthouse, and Wyatt Earp House were all locked up tight– and all require a fee to get in. No fake gunfights were echoing through the air on Christmas. Instead, I could hear the wind blow, like the moaning of ghosts of old Tombstone. I donned my Santa hat and took me-style snapshots in the harsh Arizona sun, the stiff breeze threatening to pull the red felt cap off my head, and requiring a light jacket. No, this is not one-season Arizona territory, but I still ended up with a sunburn on my nose worthy of Rudolph.
While Tombstone is flat, Bisbee, about twenty-five miles down SR 80, is one of those attractive, artist-infested hill towns, like Jerome and Chloride to the north, that Arizona is so talented at creating. Another near-deserted venue, Bisbee reeked slightly of snobbery.
It’s still worth a walk around to see some interesting graffiti and restored buildings, but tread carefully: the roads and the sidewalks seem to be one in some places, or at least it’s not entirely clear which is which. A handful of times I found myself in the middle of streets with motorists approaching, and they weren’t all that pleased to have to stop for me. Bisbee is as hilly as it looks, so if you’re looking for an easy walk this isn’t it. And if you want a good shot of it from above, about the only place to get it is from SR 80 on the way in or out of town.
A mile out of Bisbee is the enormous Queen Mine, also closed on Christmas, though tours are available the rest of the year. The defunct copper mine, closed since 1975, is impressive enough to resemble a miniature Grand Canyon. A viewing area offers an overlook, but is surrounded by a fence. It’s also windy as all get-out, so good luck getting pictures with a cell phone or small camera, or if you have long hair and don’t want it in the shot! SR 80 continues south into Douglas, the last town before the border with Mexico.
That was my first day in southern Arizona.
I planned on hiking at Chiricahua National Monument the next day, but the weather was so cold and windy with occasional piercing raindrops, that I had to rearrange my plan. Staying in the pleasant Quality Inn in Benson, which offers a free hot breakfast, I decided to google “Things to Do in Benson, Arizona,” and came up with the moving idea to visit a local donkey rescue. Forever Home Donkey Rescue is owned and operated by a delightful couple named John and Tish. Located ten miles from Benson proper on a road so far out of the loop that huge, staring cows share the lanes with motorized vehicles, the rescue has twenty-six adorable and friendly donkeys at this writing. John was so kind as to give me a full tour, even providing vittles to hand-feed the cuties. Later, I was invited into John and Tish’s beautiful Sante Fe style home. I left feeling like I was part of the family. Interested in visiting? Call first so they know you’re coming.
I made it to Chiricahua National Monument the following day. I’m not a fan of winter, but ended up hiking in the finest of snowy conditions that can be imagined: fifty degrees, with a a few fresh inches on the ground, sparkling trees dripping with ice melting in the warm sun, startling blue sky, incredible scenery.
This shot was taken on the Heart of Rocks Loop. I set out to do the Big Loop, but because of a trail closure due to the snow, had to modify my hike. I was hardly disappointed. I had to use the Lower Rhyolite Trail, which would have added three miles to an already 9.5 mile hike, but this trail was so satisfying, I had to let that plan go and just enjoy what was in front of me. Best decision I made the whole trip. Pressure off to finish a twelve miler in the snow on one of the shortest days of the year, I took pictures to my heart’s content. The way I look at it, now I have a reason to go back to this remote and unspoiled park. Gotta hike the whole loop next time! Side note: Chiricahua has no fee, is open 24/7/365, and other than the visitors center (and bathrooms) being closed for the government shutdown, it was business as usual here.
The last big event of my road trip was Saguaro National Park, named for the often immense cactus that dominate the landscapes. This was the one that I had concerns about due to the government shutdown, but the park was open. Like Chiricahua, you had to be creative about finding a bathroom. But any hiker knows how to do that pretty easily.
Saguaro has two units: Saguaro East and West, on either side of Tucson, Arizona. I much preferred the West Unit, though the weather may have had something to do with that. The East Unit is at a higher elevation, and at least for me, the desert vegetation was much denser and more interesting. But the West Unit begins north of the stunning Tucson Mountain Park, and the Hugh Norris Trail is here. Don’t miss this one. It’s not on the list of suggested hikes on the park website, so I almost did. All told, it’s a long trail, but to get from the trail head to the ridge from the short Bajada Loop Drive is only about two and a half miles round trip. If you’re anything like me and seek out the best lunchtime view you can find to make your Facebook friends envious, this one is definitely for you. Miles and miles of cactus, mountains, and sky. Trifecta! Sigh.
A warning: very little parking is available for any of the trails in the park. But if you figured out how to pee, you’ll figure out how to park, too.
From here it was back to Phoenix to fly home.
Really nice way to spend winter vacation from school.
Really nice to be done with Christmas for yet another year.