We returned to Rincon East RV Park in Tucson so we could write the last blog and so we could go to the Pima Air Space Museum. We would have liked to go on the Boneyard tour (where they store the planes and parts no longer in use) as well but they changed the rules in November and now you need to apply 10 days in advance to get security clearance and we didn’t have that time window. As it was it still took us 6 hours to see the museum so not sure we could have actually fit in the boneyard tour anyway. We did see a lot of the boneyard areas on our drive back and forth to the RV park. If you are really into planes you might like to see all 164 photos we took at the museum but I’ve significantly segmented it down for the blog. They have over 300 aircraft on display at the museum and they have terrific tours done by volunteers on the grounds. We first saw the US Air Force Fighter jets and some of the Commercial/Civil aircraft and then we did the World War I and II Hangar tour. Next we had lunch and then did the Hangar 1 tour which covered aviation history. We followed this with a walk around the various areas they had outside and then did the 390th Museum which had the history of the B17 Bombers. Lastly we had a quick walk through of the Space Gallery before the museum was closing. This museum was well worth the visit if you like aircraft history and we even got a half price coupon for it through the AZ Weekend Rewards website;-)
Our next stop was Gilbert Ray Campground which is a county run campground in the Tucson Mountain Park. You can’t reserve in advance so it is first come first served. We got there for 11 am which was check out time and were able to get a site for 5 nights. They have 136 campsites and were full most of the nights that we were there. We spent the first afternoon figuring out our plan for the next several days. Tucson Mountain park is right beside Saguaro National Park West (aka Tucson Mountain District) and there was a possibility of another US Government shutdown (impacting NP’s) so we decided to go to the NP on our first day. We went to the Red Hills Visitor to see the displays and a movie about the importance of the Saguaro to the native people. The natives believe the Saguaros are the soles of their departed family, each one unique. At the end of the movie the screen went up, a curtain opened and you were looking through a massive set of windows at the beauty of the Saguaros, it took your breath away!
Then we attended a Ranger session all about the Mountain Lion (photos later when we visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum). Here are some fun facts about the Mountain Lion (aka Cougars, Puma, Panther) :
- Average weight for a male is 140 lbs. and a female is 90 lbs. and length is 7’ from tip to tail
- Life span in the wild is 8 to 12 years
- They are very adaptable and can make their home in deserts, swamps, grasslands, sub-alpine mountains, and tropical rainforests
- They are carnivores and eat deer, elk, turkey, rabbits, porcupines, and coyotes. They are “stealth” hunters, stalk the prey and can usually kill on the first bite.
- They can jump 30’ in distance, 18’ in height, and can reach speeds of 50 mph in a sprint
- Mountain Lions are elusive and reclusive, preferring to avoid contact with humans. They also avoid other cougars except during mating season.
- A single Mountain Lion requires 50-100 square miles to live and they are only found in 15 states now
We wanted to do the Bajada Loop drive next but the dirt road had some large dips so they recommended we not drive it with the RV. Instead we parked the RV at the Sus Picnic area and then road our MTB’s on the loop drive (8 KMS). The first half of the ride had a lot of uphill sections but then the second half was almost all downhill. The views of the mountains and Saguaros were spectacular and they seemed to have a lot more Saguaros than the East NP. We had lunch at Signal Hill and then went to see the 800 year old Petroglyphs (2 KM hike since we walked on to a viewpoint). Once back at the Sus picnic area we explored the CCC buildings and dam and hiked to another lookout point.
The following day we thought we would ride our MTB’s on the Brown Mountain Trail to King Canyon Trailhead and then do the hike to Wasson Peak (4687’). However it turned out that the MTB ride was a little too difficult. It was a really narrow single track trail and your legs and shoulders kept brushing up against cactus! On top of that, the rocks were also quite large so we bailed out on Ringtail Trail and went by the road for the rest of the way (9 KMS round trip). For the hike we were doing King Canyon trail to Wasson Peak and then returning via Hugh Norris, Sendero Esperanza, and Gould Mine trails for a total of 12.5 KMS with an elevation gain of 1839’. We hit record high temperatures that day of 84F so the climb was tough with the heat (very glad we had our poles and lots of water) but the views from Wasson Peak were well worth the climb. Another tiring but very rewarding day;-)
The following day we decided to rest our weary bodies and drive to Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tohono O’odham reserve. The road up the mountain was almost 20 KMS long with scary switchbacks and very steep drop offs all along the road until you reach 6875’ in elevation. This location was selected in 1957 as the first national observatory and in 1958 a lease was signed for 200 acres on top of the mountain with the Tohono O’odham people as long as the site was used for scientific research (no commercial ventures). Today Kitt Peak is home to the largest collection of astronomical telescopes including 25 optical and 2 radio telescopes. We had purchased an Tucson coupon book so Kitt Peak was half price. We got there in time to go on the 2.1 M telescope tour but that was a bust because the lights were off inside so we really couldn’t see the telescope (we circled back later and saw it). In the afternoon we attended the Mayall 4.1 M telescope tour and that was quite interesting. They used extremely thick concrete walls at the base of the telescope to support it’s 56 ton weight. For these older telescopes the glass is extremely thick (note the concrete replica with the mural in the photos) and that accounts for a large portion of the weight. In the newer telescopes they use an array of mirrors so they are far thinner. They had dormitories around the facility so we had to be quiet in the day time in case the researchers were sleeping before their night shifts. They had night time tours as well but we didn’t think we wanted to drive back down the road at night! They even make the night time tours cover their headlights for the first mile back down with a lead vehicle so it doesn’t impact any research going on. In between the tours we got to look through a solar telescope at the sun and saw sun spots and solar flares. A couple of interesting side notes, the triangular steel support structures for the outside of the 4.1 telescope tower were so long they couldn’t make the switchbacks up the road so they had to have a crane come along with them up the mountain road and lift them around the bends! Also the facility has a large catch basin system to collect any precipitation to store in two 500,000 gallon water tanks. Since this winter has had so little rain or snow one of the water tanks is completely empty. Normally they can collect enough each year for the whole year’s usage.
We had heard lots of good things about the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum so we spent our last day in the Tucson area at the Museum, we arrived around 9 am and didn’t leave until 5 pm, lots to see! It’s like a living museum where you walk through the desert and see the plants and wildlife native to the Sonoran Desert. Unfortunately it wasn’t so good for Sharon as she had put some drops in her one eye in the morning because it was dry but the drops irritated the eye so she was suffering all day. We first went to Cat Canyon and saw the Gray Fox and then headed to the Raptor free flight demonstration. In this demonstration they have Raptor birds fly back and forth right over top of the visitors heads, at times just inches away! The definition of a raptor is the following: they have 3 talons in front and one at the back to grab prey, their feathers are smooth on the edges for fast speed, they have bones around their eye sockets to protect them when they attack, and they also have curved beaks to rip prey apart. We saw Ravens (which aren’t technically Raptors), a Great Horned Owl, Harris’s Hawk, and a Ferruginous Hawk. The Raptors are really free to fly, the prior week one flew away and it was the big news story. However, life is good at the museum so it came home! After the Raptor show (which was spectacular) went to the Cave and Minerals area followed by the Feathers, Fangs, and Fur show in the theatre. In the afternoon we visited the Hummingbird Aviary, the cactus garden, the Bird Aviary, the Bighorn pen, the underwater viewing gallery, Cat Canyon again (saw the Bobcat), Javelina’s, Coyotes, Desert Grasslands, Mountain Woodlands where we saw the Mountain Lion and Mexican Gray Wolves, and lastly the Aquarium. You might ask why would they have an Aquarium but the Sonoran Desert extends on both sides of the Sea of Cortez so it was logically to have marine life from that sea. In general I’m not a big fan of zoos but in this Museum we got to see amazing plant life and several wildlife species that we could likely never see in the wild so it was well worth the visit.
That evening we had our best sunset of our time at Gilbert Ray Campground which seemed like a fitting way to close off our stay.