In order to score a 14-day reservation at Catalina State Park in Tucson during the winter, one must possess monk-like patience, ninja-like reflexes, and an unwavering commitment to planning ahead. Failure to possess these qualities will leave one disappointed, as campsites at this gorgeous park are spoken for almost as soon as they become available. Is it worth it to be that committed to getting a spot at Catalina in winter? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Also yes. It’s one of the nicest state parks in the country and it’s located in one of the best cities to live in during the winter.
Not only does Tucson offer decent winter weather, but there’s an endless array of things to see and do. Whatever your interest, whether it be science, astronomy, hiking, history, live music, or wildlife, there’s something to do in Tucson. (For specific examples, check out this list of attractions included with the Tucson Attractions Passport.)
In addition to the Titan Missile Museum which I wrote about previously, here are a couple of the places we visited and enjoyed this winter…
The history of this facility, located in Oracle, Arizona, reads like a made-for-TV movie.
The complex was the brainchild of a somewhat eccentric scientist who sought to design and build a closed ecological system containing individual biomes – deserts, rainforests, oceans, etc. – for research. He wanted to know whether such a system could one day sustain human life in outer space. Originally opened in 1991, the complex was home to 8 scientists who lived inside the facility for two full years, growing all their own foods and engaging in research to see how human, animal, and plant life handled such a controlled environment. The parent company began a second version of the same experiment a couple years later, but terminated the project early.
Both ventures were beset with technical and biological problems, made worse by human conflict and power struggles. The entire project became something of a boondoggle, the experiments losing their scientific credibility and the whole project devolving into a drama-filled mess. Indeed, when I was reading up on the history of the facility, I ran into this on Wikipedia:
On April 1, 1994 a severe dispute within the management team led to the ousting of the on-site management by federal marshals serving a restraining order, and financier Ed Bass hired Stephen Bannon, manager of the Bannon & Co. investment banking team from Beverly Hills, California, to run Space Biospheres Ventures. Some biospherians and staff were concerned about Bannon, who had previously investigated cost overruns at the site. Two former Biosphere 2 crew members flew back to Arizona to protest the hire and broke into the compound to warn current crew members that Bannon and the new management would jeopardize their safety…
“On April 1, 1994, at approximately 10 AM … limousines arrived on the biosphere site … with two investment bankers hired by Mr. Bass … They arrived with a temporary restraining order to take over direct control of the project … With them were 6-8 police officers hired by the Bass organization … They immediately changed locks on the offices … All communication systems were changed (telephone and access codes), and [we] were prevented from receiving any data regarding safety, operations, and research of Biosphere 2.”
Reading this, I thought, “Wow! That’s all crazy. And funny that the guy’s name was Steve Bannon. It’s obviously not THAT Steve Bannon…”
Then I read how, eventually, there was a lawsuit in which Bannon admitted to having threatened to shove documents down the plaintiff’s “f*cking throat” and called her a “bimbo.”
And I thought,”Nope….Same guy!!”
Several years later, the property was taken taken over by Columbia University before they, too, walked away. The complex was in danger of being razed completely when the University of Arizona stepped in and took over management in 2011. UA has since been working to revitalize it and put it to good use.
Given the challenges of climate change, having a facility where scientists can completely individualize and control complex environmental factors affecting soil, water, and air, is incredibly powerful. It is truly a marvel to walk 100 feet in any direction and find yourself in a completely different ecological environment.
Interestingly, we learned that UA recently partnered with scientists who’ve been developing a type of coral that appears to be resistant to warming ocean temperatures. The scientists want to grow the coral in a controlled environment to see how it handles various temperatures and how it interacts with other life, before moving forward with larger experiments. (ie: “Let’s not accidentally create the Creature From the Black Lagoon.”)
We took a one hour tour of the facility which not only highlighted its history and current uses (they left out most of the drama), but also showed how the whole place works. Turns out, it’s quite an operation to maintain a desert, a savannah, a rainforest, and an ocean all within the same building. We were taken down to the bowels of the complex and got to see the various equipment that makes it all possible.
While it’s readily apparent that the complex has been neglected to some degree over the years, it was good to see scientific progress occurring inside. The University of Arizona is a world class organization and will, hopefully, continue to make the best use of the facility.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
The only thing more beautiful than the exterior of the San Xavier del Bac Mission…
is its interior:
The Spanish Colonial church, completed in 1797, is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The church is located on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation, it is run by Fransciscans, and its congregation is primarily made up of the native population.
Thousands of tourists and believers visit the church each year. On a bright, southern Arizona day, they can look forward to stunning views both inside and out.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
If you tell anyone you’re going to Tucson, they will tell you you HAVE to go to the Desert Museum and you MUST go to to the Raptor Free Flight. They are not wrong. The Desert Museum isn’t really a museum at all. It’s more of an outdoor garden/wildlife habitat/zoo kinda thing. It’s very large, well designed, and can easily keep you busy for hours. We checked out several of the gardens with Kevin’s parents while they were in town visiting, and attended the Raptor Free Flight. The Free Flight is an educational demonstration where staff teach guests about the birds of prey who are swooping over the crowd as they fly from one handler to another.
The Desert Museum certainly qualifies as one of those “if you only have one day to spend in Tucson, go here….” places.
The Mirror Lab
Speaking of the University of Arizona, we visited the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab which is located on campus. This lab is currently manufacturing 28-foot-wide glass mirrors for use in various next generation telescopes. These new telescopes will put everything that came before them to shame. For example, the Hubble Telescope is 100,000 times more powerful than the human eye. The Giant Magellan Telescope, which will utilize the mirrors being produced at this facility, will be 100 million times more powerful.
The challenge the scientists at the lab faced was how to build a huge mirror that was strong enough to not break, light enough that it could be moved, and accurate enough that it could collect the type of imagery sought. The folks at this lab pioneered a new way of building the mirrors, using a honeycomb shaped mold to build the glass, a spinning furnace to heat the glass and shape it, and then months of intense computerized polishing to ensure perfect surfacing.
Visitors can tour the lab to learn about its groundbreaking methodology. There is a classroom component to the tour and then a walk-through of the various facilities. We found the tour fascinating and highly recommend it.
Tohono Chul Garden
Tohono Chul is a 49 acre, private botanical garden and nature preserve located in the center of Tucson. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the various native plants that live in the Sonoran desert and to take in some of the beautiful scenery. The facility is host to a cafe, outdoor concerts, and a large greenhouse.
There are parts of the property that feel very much like an organized garden, while others are much more natural with easy trails meandering through. Sculptures and other artwork are scattered throughout the grounds, and the facility hosts numerous cultural exhibitions. It is a lovely place to spend an afternoon wandering around – which is exactly what I did with my friend, Julie!
When Kevin’s parents were in town, we took a drive up to the top of Mount Lemmon. This gorgeous road is notable for its epic and unforgettable change in scenery.
You start at the bottom surrounded by a sea of saguaro cacti…
But just 27 miles later, you find yourself surrounded by evergreens and snow…
The views from the top go on forever….
and provide a nice backdrop for family selfies….
There are hiking trails, ski trails, and restaurants on the mountain as well. Something for everyone…
Saguaro National Park
Speaking of awesome trails, there are two sections of Saguaro National Park, one on either side of the city of Tucson. I went for a hike with Mark and Joodie on the western side, up to the top of Wasson Peak. This particular trail is about 7 miles long and listed as ‘moderate.’ It provides beautiful views of the saguaro covered landscape (naturally), and endless mountain vistas from the peak.
It was a particularly beautiful hike on a particularly beautiful day and, unsurprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with Mark and Joodie (Kevin was having a lazy day and skipped out on the hike). If you only have time for one trail in the area, Wasson Peak is a good one to get a taste of the Sonoran Desert environment.
Even after spending two consecutive winters in Tucson, we know we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s available in this fun city. Between the endless opportunities to socialize and the limitless educational, historic, and scientific attractions that can be found all around, it is an ideal place to spend the winter, and we look forward to doing so again in the future.
Where we stayed:
Catalina State Park, Tucson, Arizona
Lazydays KOA, Tucson, Arizona
Pima County Fairgrounds, Tucson, Arizona