March 26-27, 2021
My mom and I decided that we were going to spend her spring break by exploring the National Parks in Arizona. After months of planning we were off and ready to head out west! We landed in Phoenix on March 25 in the evening and finally made it to a hotel (the first hotel that we went to didn’t have our reservation or any rooms despite our confirmation). The next morning we woke up early to go to pick up our Escape Campervan. If you are unfamiliar, Escape Campervan is a company that converts cargo vans into modified campers complete with mini cooler/fridge, coleman stove, and an area that converts into a bed which takes up most of the space in the car, they also have outrageous paint jobs. Once we beheld “Darwin,” or as I began calling it, the “Bug Mobile,” we got ourselves situated, picked up breakfast at In-and-Out Burger (a cheeseburger and fries for breakfast, which was really the only choice we could make!), and we were off to Tucson to go to our first stop, Saguaro National Park.
Upon arriving to the park we were immediately surrounded by a forest of saguaro cacti. We stopped by the visitor center and got all of the information on the hiking in the area and the maps of the park. Both my mom and I were incredibly tired after traveling the day before and adjusting to the new time zone, despite it being only 3 hours behind. Driving to the camping area was simple enough, our campground was in the Tucson Mountain State Park which borders the southern park of the western area of the National Park. We sat in windy quiet as we ate dinner and then decided where we would try to watch a sunset. Before we could leave camp though, I had the misfortune to stick my knuckle directly into a prickly pear cactus and, after picking the spikes out of my knuckles, felt like I had punch a wall my fingers throbbed so much.
Based on recommendations from a most reliable source, the internet, we made our way further into the state park and up the crest of part of the Gates Pass Rd to the first turn off with sweeping vistas of the valley below and the mountains far to the west.
Sunset was spectacular. It was a brisk, partly cloudy evening, the clouds only adding brilliant pinks and oranges to the sky as the sun began its slow descent behind the far distant mountains. After the sun had completely vanished on the horizon we made our way back to the giant bug mobile and there was a young hiker leaning against the vehicle who asked us if we might be able to drive him to a trailhead a few miles away as he underestimated how long the hike he was on was going to take and he would have to walk at least 4 miles in the dark to get back to his car, we obliged. I felt a mixture of satisfaction that we had helped this man get to his car and also a sense of dread at the prospect of having a stranger in my vehicle – thus confirming my suspicion that I could never drive for any type of rideshare service, though luckily, that was never a dream of mine, so I can feel comforted that a dream did not die when we dropped him off.
The first night in the campervan passed uneventfully and we were able to get up early the next morning to go to the east side of the park, which is on the opposite side of the city of Tucson. We started on the scenic loop on that side of the park and completed a short nature walk/hike through the Sonoran Desert and the Cacti Forest on the Mica View Trail. I was exceedingly careful not to get too close to any of the plants, still wary of any prickly pear cactus in my immediate vicinity.
We stopped at a few more overlooks along the way. The juxtaposition of seeing the vast expanse of the catci forest and the mountains with the city clearly visible just a few miles away was strange. This is not the first time I’ve seen a park so close to a city, I mean, Hot Springs National Park and Gateway Arch National Park are smack in the heart of their respective cities, but with the mountains and the vastness of the desert it was still an odd feeling. I felt that the city was encroaching on the wild places of the desert, but I also recognize that Tucson feels like part of the park as its ever present neighbor.
After completing the loop road we made a quick stop at the visitor center on the east side and bought the best salt water taffy I’ve yet to try, even if it was flavored from the traitorous prickly pear cactus that still had my fingers throbbing a day after my incident. We went back to the west side of the park and traveled the loop road there. Sadly for me, the loop road on the west side is fully unpaved, and I don’t do well on unpaved roads, for some reason I’m convinced that the car is going to break while it pitches and jumps wildly over the gravel terrain. I’m not sure how so many people can race over those roads with no concern for their tires. After having a picnic at a lovely picnic area, we took a nap in the camper van, an excellent bonus of taking your “tent” on the move with you!
We did one final nature trail, the Desert Discovery Trail, a nice short nature walk through more cacti. We went back up to Gates Pass Rd, but to a higher vantage point, so we could see the sunset once again and then we called it a night. I think had we more time or were we less tired, we might have made an attempt to try more of the extensive hiking trails and explore the park more thoroughly, but we were also looking forward to the next adventures awaiting us in Arizona.