We have already taken a look at the Petrified Forest and Tombstone, now let’s focus our sights on the Tucson area. Tucson has a true-to-its-roots southwestern feel with a laid back atmosphere. It is just large enough to give the interest of a city, but small enough to make being a visitor easy with plenty of parking and not too much traffic. Here are some of our favorite views of the city…
And please, let’s not forget the ridiculous food. We love Tex-Mex, Mexican, Latin American and any other variation on meat, beans, rice, lime, cilantro and some spice. We ate at el Charro Café, because it offers grass-fed meats and gluten-free options, and every single thing they served looked delectable. It also had a fun but true to Tucson laid back Mexican style atmosphere.
Enough with the modern, let’s take a look at some history. When we visited San Antonio, Texas, we reveled in the Spanish architecture at the Missions, and it was the first time I felt close to Spain since I lived there back in 2001. When we view a Mission from the outside, it is easy to think of them as somewhat drab ruins; but a closer view shows us the ornate details and we learn that at the time of use, the Missions were not drab exteriors, but instead painted in colorful tile-like patterns. We had already experienced the grandeur of these buildings in San Antonio, but even we were not prepared for what awaited us at Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Mission San Xavier was founded in 1692 by Father Kino. Kino traveled through the area visiting the Piman Indians. When he found the village of Wa:k (pronounced Bac) with its 800 residents, he chose that location for a Mission. Spanish colonial policy was to establish catholic Missions to convert the Indians, bring them into settled communities and make them Spanish citizens. The Piman groups followed seasonal migration that had roots in the Hohokam culture (ancient Puebloans). The migration allowed these people to survive in the harsh desert environment for centuries, but the Mission mindset was one of stability and settlement. Through the Missions, the Spanish brought a new language, daily structure, livestock, crops, religion and ideas. For the building of the Missions, they brought Spanish designers to ensure their artistic quality, and the Indians provided much of the labor. While all the Missions show an ornateness and European style not too common in the United States; Mission San Xavier provides a whole new level of beauty to admire. At the very first glance, we know we are seeing something special…
Can you imagine being an Indian, living in a temporary wickiup in the desert with only the bare necessities of life, walking into this building?
After the Spanish lost their claim to the area, Mission San Xavier fell under Mexican rule before eventually becoming a part of U.S. territory through the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 and finally part of Arizona when it achieved statehood in 1912. Through those years, the Mission was abandoned and fell into serious disrepair and defacement. The Mission has since gone through a major restoration project to become what visitors may see today. This Mission is in use, but it may be toured for free. There is a museum and a gift shop as well as a video on the extensive restoration project. The parking lot also has Indian vendors, mainly selling fry bread. Here is my sister in the museum (they came to visit us and even stayed on Aunt Glady!)…
An interesting point to note about Saguaro National Park is that it is actually broken into two separate areas on opposite sides of Tucson. This separation is solely due to the fact that the land was acquired at different times by the park system. Both portions of the park have visitor centers, hiking trails and picnic tables; however, there is no camping in the park and backpacking is permitted by permit only. Saguaro East is known as the Rincon Mountain District. Saguaro West is named the Tucson Mountain District, and this is the part of the park we visited. We first stopped at the visitor center and walked the paved trail there to learn about the cactus species and other native plants. Then we drove the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, which is near the entrance to the park. We stopped at two of the trails along the way for the opportunity to hike among the saguaros.
While we did not do any extensive hiking in Saguaro N.P., we did enjoy just spending some time getting a closer view of the saguaros. Our experience of this portion of the park was that it was almost empty. We saw very few other people. Instead, we were able to peacefully enjoy the presence of the saguaros and the desert animals. In the U.S., saguaros are only found in southern Arizona. They grow very slowly and may be only a foot tall at the age of 15 years. At around 30 years they begin to flower and produce fruit. The flowers are white, the fruit is red. Through this process, they produce tens of thousands of seeds per year. The native Indians relied on their fruit as a food source, and some continue that tradition of collecting and preparing the saguaro fruit annually. Once the saguaros are around the age of 75, they start to sprout arms. Some saguaros are known to live over 150 years and grow to 50 feet. I can remember watching a nature show at some point with footage of saguaros as they took on water. Their roots can soak up as much as 200 gallons from just one rainfall, enough to last them an entire year. The footage was played in fast motion, and I remember watching the large totems swell and expand in size to hold all of the additional water. Fascinating plants. It was memorable sight when I saw one for the first time.
A saguaro in bloom and one gone to seed…
And that wraps up our daytrip in the Tucson area, next up…Phoenix, Superstition Mountains, Sonoran Desert and more!
Fun Facts & Tips:
- Saguaro does take the America the Beautiful pass.
- Mission San Xavier was FREE – just be sure to check their website to make sure they are not closed for mass or an event.
- Tucson was very easy to get around even in our Dodge Ram 2500, and parking was free where we visited.
- Saguaro N.P. is also home to the gila monster. Unfortunately, we did not see one, but not for a lack of looking.
- The saguaro bloom is the state flower of Arizona!