Tucson Arizona was the one place in America I wanted to see, and travelling on the Sunset Limited from L.A. to New Orleans was the one journey I wanted to take. For my birthday, around New Years, my wishes came true. The Sunset Limited left L.A. in the evening heading towards the sunrise. To everyone’s surprise, the Amtrak train arrived into Tucson half an hour early at about 8am, and yes the sunrise was fantastic.
Tucson was kept alive by the railroads bringing more freight and tourists to the Sonoran Desert. The freight trains go through so often you can almost always hear them tooting their horns for the crossroads. Next to the train station is a Transportation museum complete with an old, huge steam engine. Tucson even had a passenger railway into Mexico, connecting up to the west end of the famous Copper Canyon railway line, something we were sad to decide against going. It was fairly hipster and surprisingly openly anti-trump for a usually republican state. We enjoyed good food, nice coffee and funky graffitti exploring the town easily on foot.
We spent five nights altogether in Tucson, three in a hotel as a birthday treat and two with a couchsurfer. Francis was a wonderful host, a current PhD student at the University of Arizona of which we were given a quick tour after picking up the best mac’n’cheese for dinner I’ve ever had. Thanks for taking us in!
After managing to walk, bus and uber around we finally rented a car for the last two days as it was super expensive New Years Eve and Day. It made everything so much easier, this is the land of cars after all and there simply wasn’t any public transport to the national parks. When we did get to the parks, we did a lot of walking amongst the cacti in the Sonoran Desert.
West and East Saguaro National Parks
These national parks were the main reason I wanted to visit Tucson. Here you can see the densest population of saguaro cacti in the world, these are the classic giant plants seen in western films. I had seen them two years ago when I went to Scottsdale, near Phoenix in Arizona, for an academic conference and I’ve wanted to see more ever since. I certainly saw more.
We visited West Saguaro when still carless. We grabbed an Uber to Picture Rocks Trailhead and took the trail heading south toward Sweetwater Trailhead for a couple of hours. It was a beautiful 20 something degree day. The path was mostly easily to follow, winding through the cacti and up and around small hills. We did get carried away walking down the dried up arroyo too far though and missed the small sign pointing in the right direction, even after being warned by two passing locals. These locals, Mike and Jeff, saved us at the other end. We got chatting and they offered us a lift back to town, they didn’t think an Uber would come out to fetch us! They gave us great tips for Tucson and our next stop, New Orleans.
For $15 per car, the Saguaro East Park has the Cactus Forest Drive which you can take your car around instead of go walking, in true American style. Given we’d been walking already for a few hours that morning we did just that. There were plenty of laybys with information plaques throughout the 8 mile loop.
Not a national park techincally but also on the east side of the city, with en entrance fee of $5. A very popular walking area, there were even volunteers at the entrance happy to give advice on which route is best to take given the many options. We went for a loop up the edge of the canyon and back down for a few hours. I’m not entirely sure why I love cacti so much, but there’s something amazing about walking around these giant prickly plants under the warm desert sun.
About an hour south of Tucson and on the edge of the Coronado Forest is Madera Canyon, old mining territory, and also only a $5 entrance fee. Recommended by Mike and Jeff, we took the Josephine Canyon trail up and got out the Japanese bear bell I’ve kept in my day bag for emergencies. Luckily we saw no bears, just amazing views through the pine trees, very different to the cactus littered scenery we’d spent most of our time in.
On the way back up to Tucson we stopped on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation to visit one of the oldest mission churches in the country, San Xavier Del Bac. A beautiful building in a style not common in Europe complete with a small museum inside. A massive bonus was the locals serving food outside the church, we tried the greasy but oh so delicious indian fry bread.