Take a tour Of Tucson and discover its lush flora, fauna and culture


November 08, 1992|By Candyce H. Stapen | Candyce H. Stapen,Contributing Writer

In Tucson, just after a rainfall, the desert smells like creosote and sage. Explore higher in the red rock mountains that ring the city, and the towering saguaros point the way into a landscape where jack rabbits and prairie dogs cool off in the shade of mesquite trees, javelinas leave tracks in the sand and the wind carries the scent of pine and the buzzing of bees.

Here the boulders reveal ancient petroglyphs, the age-old secrets of the Hohokam Indians, "the vanished ones" who disappeared by the mid-15th century, leaving behind rock designs and pottery shards.

Tucson's landscape is like that. The subtle shades and variations pull you into its legends and lore. In this town, you'll learn of cowboys, cactus, American Indian culture, as well as enjoy museums that are a gift to the eye.

Start your Southwest tour at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 14 miles west of the city. Part zoo and part botanical garden, the mostly outdoor facility displays more than 200 live animals and 1,000 species of plants. You find that far from being a boring or barren place, the Sonoran Desert features such differing habitats as grasslands, riparian (streamside) regions and mountainous areas.

Highlights to explore include a re-created limestone cave complete with mineral room -- children love the phosphorescent glow-in-the-dark quality of the gems -- and a Mexican oak pine woodland thick with hop brush, mesquite and mountain yucca, and home to black bear and mountain lions. The sleek cats here are cleverly placed in a rocky enclosure so that they stalk in easy view. Watching is facilitated by a glass wall that enables you to peek in on their cool and shady resting cove.

Take time to enjoy your self-guided tour, which is enhanced by docents and volunteers who allow you to touch snakes, handle minerals and get a good look at vultures. Kids will love gawking at the coati, ocelots, jaguarundi and as well as marveling at the myriad shapes of cactus and spotting the birds in the aviary, a soothing place to rest for awhile. The phone number is (602) 883-1380.

With your eyes and ears sharpened to the desert's variety, enjoy more of the real thing by driving through the Saguaro National Monument, whose western section abuts the desert museum. Seemingly hundreds of towering saguaro dot the landscape. These imposing cacti serve as the quintessential symbol of the Old West. Drive through here, and the land feels familiar. You can almost see the Apache braves riding down the red hills to be met by cavalry and cowboys.

There's a good reason for that. Old Tucson Studios is just a whoop and a holler away. Since 1939, when Columbia Pictures built the Western town as a set for "Arizona," this red rock and cactus country has served as the backdrop in scores of Hollywood movies and television Westerns. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Michael Landon and many other stars have moseyed down these dirt streets, which have appeared in classics such as "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and more contemporary shows such as "Little House on the Prairie."

It may sound hokey, but it's fun to watch the shootouts and stunt shows, take a stage coach ride and a spin on the antique carousel at Silverlake Park, the studio's amusement area. The phone numbeer is (602) 883-0100.

But to really understand the fascination with the local flora, fauna and bold red buttes, go into the desert with a jeep tour. These trips literally take you off the beaten path, over trails and up boulders into the Santa Catalina Mountains. The abundance and variety of the desert become apparent when you pass the feathery paloverde trees, prickly pear and cholla cacti as well as stands of saguaro of gigantic proportions.

Walk through cottonwood groves near underground water and Ponderosa pine trees near the mountain's peak. Your guide will lead short walks to observe ancient petroglyphs, or examine such finds as "fish hooks" on barrel cactus, the "straw" of the yucca and a fruit called "coyote melon." By reservation, Mountain View Transportation can arrange customized, overnight jeep trips that take you to Tombstone and other nearby attractions; (800) 594-9644.

Not all Tucson's legends are in the desert. On the University of Arizona campus in the city, the Center for Creative Photography offers visual treats of a different nature. By appointment, enjoy a private viewing of the original prints of such noted masters as Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Linda Connor and many others; (602) 621-7968.

Just outside town, the Pima Air and Space Museum features more than 180 vintage and contemporary aircraft. Even if you can't tell a Cessna Skymaster from a Lockheed Neptune or a Learjet, all of which are on display, you'll be impressed with these flight legends. Particularly interesting are the vintage World War II planes. Many people come to have their pictures taken next to planes they or their fathers once flew. You could spend all afternoon here, but count on at least two hours; (602) 574-9658.

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