(Original Article)

Tucson: Two hours south and a world away

From The Sacramento Bee
Posted 03/09/2014 by Sam McManis

TUCSON -- Lost souls and doomed lovers make pilgrimages to a spot near the corner of South Main Avenue and West Cushing Street, not to pray for divine intervention, for there sure-as-shootin' is nothing holy about El Tiradito, but rather to wish upon a crumbling adobe monument devoted to what legend has it was an unrequited sinner.

Isn't that just so Tucson?


Among the saguaros

The Tucson area's real trails, the ones so popular with hikers, beckon in the Sonoran Desert mountains in every direction. In the east part of Saguaro National Park lie the Rincon Mountains and the well-used trails of Sabino Canyon. To the north is Picacho Peak and Catalina Park. But if you have only time for one trek, it's best to head west less than 30 minutes from downtown to do the 7.5-mile trip to the top of Wasson Peak in Saguaro National Park.

Because you're scaling a mountain, gaining 2,340 feet in altitude and summiting at 4,687 feet, it's not easy. But the views, both up-close of the giant saguaros and the desert valley below, make it worth it.

If you start from the Kings Canyon Trail head, and follow Kings Canyon to the Sweetwater Trail, you get all the rocky, technical parts out of the way in the 3-mile ascension. On the longer loop back on the Hugh Norris, Sendero Esperanza and Gould Mine trails, it's much smoother going and mostly gentle downhill to the car.

Once finished, drive back only a 10th of a mile to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, almost entirely outside featuring animals native to Southern Arizona you might not see on the trails (deer, kestrels, gray foxes) or don't want to see on the trails (mountain lions, black bears, rattlesnakes).

Make sure to time your visit to coincide with the 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. Raptor Free Flight demonstration, in which trainers unleash hawks, horned owls and falcons, who soar and swoop, sometimes within inches of visitors' heads, before perching on command and receiving a treat from the handler.

This is about as close to a raptor as you'll likely to get, but before the show most people didn't believe how close. When docent Jan Hollack warned parents not to put their little ones on their shoulders and for visitors to keep their cameras below the top of their head, people chuckled. Those chuckles turned to astonished gasps when a great horned owl or a Ferruginous hawk nearly clipped the tops of people's heads with Hitchcockian intent.

"One came right between us," said Massachusetts tourist Ron Zimmerman, forced to duck with wife Susan from a speedy prairie falcon. "At one point, it almost got part of my head. But I got some great photos. This is the second time this week we've been here, so I knew where to point."

Indeed, the smart tourist, in Phoenix for spring training or just a vacation, knows which way to point for good time. That would be south.

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