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Snowbirds in Tucson - part 2 of our first winter in the pop up camper

We continue to explore the cactus, mountains, food and disc golf of Tucson, Arizona

Snowbirds in Tucson - part 2 of our first winter in the pop up camper

Posted January 03, 2017 by Bailey Mareu

In December 2015, we found ourselves in Tucson, a place we knew nothing about except the weather was much warmer than the frozen midwest. Part one - about the rv park where we stayed and food and beer we drank - is here.

More to do and see

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, which has historically had a good men’s basketball team. Wouldn’t it be fun to see some college hoops, we thought? Coincidentally, just a few days later, UA was scheduled to play Mizzou - once KU’s biggest rival before they left the Big 12. Tickets were just $10 so we decided to go (parking ended up costing more than the tickets). Arizona’s McKale Center is a really nice facility and we had a great time - especially since UA beat Mizzou ;)

Afterwards, we got pizza and drinks at Grimaldi’s Pizza where they cook the pizza in stone ovens. It was great and we were surprised to find out they had a location in Olathe, too (if you’re in KC/Kansas, check it out - really delicious pizza!)

There's really a lot to do in Tucson no matter your interests. We didn’t hit up the desert museum or the airplane graveyard and there is tons more hiking we could have done. When we decided to travel to Tucson (completely skipping New Mexico), we really knew nothing about it except the low temperatures were in our range of comfort. We were surprised to see mountains every direction we drove.  

Tucson is in a valley that intersects several mountain ranges and the Sonoran desert. The Sonoran desert is identifiable by saguaros - the impossibly large cactus that are seen all over Tucson - and is commemorated by the Saguaro National Park. There are two districts - the east district's entrance just 10 minutes from our RV park. There we took the auto tour, stopping at awesome views, taking pictures of ourselves looking tiny next to saguaros. We also took a 4 1/2 mile hike. The trails in this part of the park are awesome because they’re are lots of intersecting trails allowing you to do a short loop or go for something much longer. This part of the park is also mostly flat - some small hills but you’re not in the mountains so definitely doable for most people. 

The next weekend, we went to the west district which was about 45 minutes from our RV park, on the west side of Tucson. The landscape was a hillier but still full of saguaros. We stopped by the visitors center (picking up more stamps for our National Parks passport) and stopped for lunch after traveling on the 4 wheel only road.

Cactus - including the saguaros - was one of our favorite parts of Tucson. Growing up in the midwest, the landscape in Tucson was just nothing we were used to so we were endlessly entertained by anything we could learn about cacti. In addition to saguaros, there were agave, prickly pair, cholla, and barrel cactuses. Once we have more living space (stationary or mobile!), we plan on having a little cactus to remind us of our time in Tucson!

North of Tucson are the Santa Catalina mountains and home of Mount Lemmon. Late one day we started to drive into the mountains but didn’t make it all the way to Mt. Lemmon before the sun was setting. We did witness an amazing sunset from one of the road pullouts before heading back to the valley. We decided to make it to finally make it to Mt. Lemmon on Christmas Day. We weren’t the only ones with this idea - it seemed half of Tucson was also making the awesome drive to Mount Lemmon for the chance to play in the snow. At more than 8,000 feet, it was about 30 degrees colder at the top in Summerhaven - a small town high in the mountains. It was Christmas so everything was closed but it would be a great retreat in the summer when temps in Tucson are 100 degrees or more. I would also love to steal away to in the winter and spend days and days by a fireplace in a tiny cabin. 

During our last weekend in Tucson, we visited two historical religious sites. The first was San Xavier del Bac Mission and Tumacacori. Both sites have histories dating back to before the U.S. existed. Both locations went from being in territories owned by Spain, then Mexico, and finally the U.S. San Xavier del Bac also still has regular church services. Tumacacori, a national monument, earned us more stamps in our passport.

Disc golf

We really loved our time in Tucson but there was one thing that we weren't thrilled with: the disc golf courses. We are, admittedly, spoiled with our options in Lawrence and Kansas City. We played three courses in Tucson. The Marana Disc Golf course used to be a great course that was well-played (even by some pros) that was taken over by its environment because of disruption from construction: enough dirt was removed when building a highway that the area is now flooded regularly. The pond was small while we were there so we were able to play some of the usually-flooded baskets.  It was quite the adventure but we couldn’t quite work out the revised course path that the locals now play since much of the original course is unplayable. I think we stopped playing after hole 13. (The revised course utilizes each basket a couple times but we couldn’t find most of the makeshift teeboxes.)

Another course we played was Groves Park. While it looks like a 9 hole course (just 9 baskets) there are multiple teeboxes (or markers in the ground) and after you play 9 holes you turn around and play it in reverse. A unique solution to a small course problem but kind of a pain if there were more than several groups playing.

We had heard from several people that we should try the Santa Cruz River Park course near downtown Tucson. It was full 18-hole course but the layout was tight, some farways overlapped and it was totally flat (hello, desert). The course design did take advantage of trees that were there and the holes weren’t as short as the Groves Park course though I still don’t think any were over 400 feet. The people we chatted with while playing were definitely nice and helpful though - as were most people in Tucson!

Another visit

Overall, we really enjoyed Tucson. It’s a smaller Kansas City but with some of the funkiness of Lawrence. We are here again for this winter and have joked that if were were ever able to afford a second home we would definitely need a home in the desert.

Even in winter, on days that reached 70, the temperature would drop quickly as the sun lowered in the sky. We were told by many at the RV park that it was pretty cool for December and we saw several nights below freezing while most nights were in the mid-30s to lower 40s. One rainy day, the Saguaro National Park Instagram account posted that they were seeing snow much lower in the Rincon mountains than they normally do. It was warmer than Kansas, but a cooler than normal winter for Arizona and a bit chilly at times in the camper.

Have you ever been to Tucson? Is there anything we missed doing that we should since we are here again this year?