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Sometimes the best adventures are right in your backyard. Lucky for us, our backyard is filled with sweeping vistas, ancient petroglyphs and the largest cactus in North America.
Once you cross over the I-10 freeway heading west, the grid system gives way to small roads that swerve through red rocks and a forest of giant cactus. Just a few minutes outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park West is an iconic desert landscape that attracts visitors from all over the world.
The 25,000-acre park has an extensive network of hiking trails that'll take up most of your day if you want it to. But then you'd miss out on so many iconic Tucson spots. We spent a day wandering through Saguaro National Park and its surrounding areas to find destinations that appeal to both tourists and locals.
Here's what we did during our day of adventuring.
We had a dreamy desert breakfast and Cat Mountain Station
This charming western diner is as colorful as it is kitschy, serving breakfast staples with a desert twist. We opted for huevos rancheros served atop a tamale pie. But they also have something called Coyote Hash, which you can get with house-made corned beef or vegetarian style.
The real stunner for us were the mesquite pancakes made from ground mesquite beans native to the Sonoran desert. These pancakes were mixed with half mesquite flour and half regular flour, making them fluffy with a subtle earthy sweetness. If you're a fan of buckwheat pancakes, you're going to want to try this topped with lots of maple syrup.
Coyote Pause Cafe is part of a larger shopping center created by Buffalo Exchange owner Kerstin Block. Cat Mountain Station has food, shopping and even a boutique lodge all situated in the middle of the desert. The whole place is inspired by its surroundings, like a little Southwest oasis.
After breakfast we checked out the Buffalo Trading Post, a retail space in the shopping center of the grounds. Much like a Buffalo Exchange, the shop sells unique used clothing items and offers credit to customers looking to sell their stuff. But unlike your regular Buffalo Exchange, this place is more "trendy adult meets the Wild West" and offers a mix of new and used home goods.
Pam Cathey, the general manager of the property, also took us around to some of Cat Mountain Station's other attractions. Near the eco-friendly Cat Mountain Lodge is Spencer's Observatory, where you can sign up to look at the stars through several high-power telescopes. There's also a mystical rock labyrinth in the a shape of a turtle.
The landscaping here was pretty true to the desert, and we spent several minutes ooh-ing and aah-ing over a yucca plant. The site's landscaper told us this chaparral yucca only blooms once before dying. You go girl!
Right across the street is the Cat Mountain Roadside Inn, a colorful bed and breakfast that's inspired by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Oaxaca and vintage traveling.
Foxes and crested saguaros at the Desert Museum
In addition to all the hiking trails and monuments, this area actually has two major tourist attractions: Old Tucson theme park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We only had enough time for one, so we skipped the gunfights at the Wild West town and opted for the serenity of the Desert Museum.
If you’ve never been, the museum is like a cross between a zoo and a botanical garden, with an emphasis on local plants and animals. The 98-acre park houses more than 200 animal species and 1,200 varieties of plants from our region, as well as an art gallery and a massive collection of minerals.
We met with Emily Kornmuller, a trainer at the park who showed us how the team holds "enrichment" sessions to make the animals’ daily lives better. She entered the Gray Fox exhibit and tossed a ball around with it for a bit, then sprinkled some seasoning onto the ground.
The animal smelled the foreign scent and was able to mark its territory by rubbing up against it. Then the fox picked up a dead mouse it had been hiding and wagged it around a bit. Watching this scene, we were struck by how doglike these animals really are.
We also got to check out a newish exhibit the Desert Museum is building about boojum trees, a bizarre succulent found across Baja California and on a small area of the Sonoran coastline. The museum plans to bring in 18 of these spiny stick trees by this fall. Some people say they look like upside-down carrots, but we think they’re straight from a fantasy world.
This margarita is a Desert Museum secret. You can sip them inside the fine dining restaurant Ocotillo Cafe, but they’ll also give you one to-go. We got a blue agave and a prickly pear, which was made with Three Amigos Reposado and prickly pear syrup from Cheri’s Desert Harvest, $9. The margs made our trip to see the prairie dogs extra fun.
If you go: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum / 2021 North Kinney Road / Open daily, October-February: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., March-September: 7:30 to 5 p.m. / General admission: $21.95, Arizona-Sonora resident admission: $16.95, find more pricing information here / 520-883-2702 / desertmuseum.org
Make your way into Saguaro National Park
After an interesting morning it was finally time to enter the grounds of Saguaro National Park West. While the landscape looks the same, the Desert Museum is actually located inside the county-owned Tucson Mountain Park. Saguaro West split off from the Mountain Park and became part of Saguaro National Monument in 1961, following a debate about mining rights. (Here's a map!)
Today, Saguaro National Park includes two separate stretches of land on the east and west sides of Tucson. The west side is almost 25,000 acres and includes popular hiking trails like the Hugh Norris Trail leading to Wasson Peak. Grab some information at the Red Hills Visitor Center on Kinney Road before you head further into the park. This is also where you pay your park fee, which is $20 per vehicle.
Once in the park, we headed over to the iconic Signal Hill petroglyph site. You may have seen the image of this spiral on various postcards or calendars that evoke the Southwest. It’s one of the more than 200 images that have been etched into the boulders here.
The images were created by the native Hohokam between 450 to 1450 AD, according to the Saguaro National Park website. Most of them are at the top of the 40-foot hill, an easy walk from the nearby parking lot. We saw a variety of images including wheels, suns and animal figures. While the exact meaning of the images is not known, researchers say they could be used to tell stories, commemorate events or even be used to track the seasons.
It’s easy to see why the Hohokam would have been attracted to this spot. It’s absolutely beautiful, and offers stunning views of the desert plains below.
We wrapped up our day by heading back into Tucson Mountain Park in search of a sunset. Every day around dusk, Tucsonans gather at a popular overlook at the top of Gates Pass Road. Rather than hiking, most people are climbing around the steep hills trying to find the perfect spot to watch the sun go down.
Gates Pass is known for its majestic cliffs covered in saguaros, which capture the light and give it an amber hue. The best part about watching the sunset here is that any spot's a good spot.
While we were there we saw people we knew, two couples taking engagement photos and random people we never met who took photos of us. It's an unofficial community event that happens every day, in the desert.