Travel dates :: March 14 – 18, 2016
After a quick couple days in Las Cruces, New Mexico (and White Sands!) we headed west again. Our next stop was Tucson, Arizona.
We stayed at Gilbert Ray campground up in the Tucson Mountains. It’s a county-run park, first-come, first-serve (read: no reservations!) and was only $20 a night with electric hook-ups (not water or sewer). It was a BEAUTIFUL place to stay. Great hiking trails, clean restrooms, fantastic volunteer-led programs and close to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park. We’d stay here again in a heartbeat.
We almost always have water and electric hook-ups, so our first stop at Gilbert Ray campground was to fill up our fresh water tank so we’d have water for the five nights we were here. (Remember we got our fresh water tank repaired in Michigan? It’s still working like a champ!)
We got a spot on an inside loop. When we pick our own sites we try to go for outside loops – because they are generally bigger and then you don’t have another trailer behind you. But this one was nice and big, with lots of vegetation.
Our spot was close to the restrooms – which is great when you don’t have full hook-ups. I loved that the roads are paved – great for walking, biking and you don’t have a bunch of dust from vehicles driving along.
Here’s another angle of our campsite. Mountains on all sides – we loved it.
Our first morning at the park they had a volunteer-led hike through the desert to identify local plants and birds. We included this as part of our homeschooling for the day (read more about our homeschooling here) and we learned SO MUCH. In the photo above the volunteer is explaining about the Cholla cactus. This cactus looks all fuzzy and friendly but it has nasty barbs on it’s spikes making it latch on to any sort of clothing or skin that might brush up against it! You do not want to come into contact with a cholla!
Here a county park volunteer points out the flowers on the Ocotillo plant. Not a true cactus, the flowers on this plant are beautiful and appear in the spring, summer and sometimes the fall.
A close-up of the Ocotillo flower. Apparently the hummingbirds LOVE these flowers because their shape makes them perfect for their thin, pointy beaks. Isn’t it beautiful against that blue sky!?!
Along the hike one of the volunteers showed us the hard bird nest (also called a Saguaro boot) that is created inside the Saguaro cactus! It’s a hard shell of callus tissue inside the cactus as a way for the cactus to protect itself from the birds nesting inside. These holes are generally started by the Gila woodpecker and the Gilded Flicker which have beaks strong enough to break apart the rib tissue. A variety of local birds use the Saguaro cacti for nests – living inside these hardened shells. Native Americans of the Seri group used these saguaro boots to carry water! How interesting is that!?
And here the volunteer points out a Cactus Wren nest in a Cholla cactus. Do you see the small round hole within a nest inside the cactus? The state bird of Arizona, the Cactus Wren, create nests inside the prickly cholla cacti and Yucca plants!
Here’s another Cactus Wren nest in a Cholla cactus – isn’t it so interesting!? We had a wonderful time on the guided hike with the county park volunteers. They were so knowledgable and I felt like it was a great introduction to the desert for our kids (and for us!).
Gilbert Ray campground has an extensive trail system through the Tucson mountains and later in the week we would enjoy going on hikes without a volunteer guide.
Our second day in town we left EARLY in the morning and got to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum around 8:30 a.m.. It was going to be a 90+ degree day, so we wanted to get through the outdoor exhibits while it was still cool outside. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was just a 6 minute drive from our campground!
A BIG THANK YOU to a reader of ours, Pat M., who emailed us and offered us tickets to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It was SO very generous of her to give us two tickets and she even left them at the ticket office for us. THANK YOU Pat – you are the best! 🙂
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was pretty quiet when we arrived early in the day. This place is AMAZING. It’s a zoo, natural history museum, aquarium and botanical garden – all in one. If you go to Tucson you cannot miss it, really.
About 85% off the museum is outdoors – 21 interpreted acres with two miles of walking paths through desert habitats. It starts at the main building with breathtaking views of the area from an outlook.
Our favorite animal exhibit in the two mile loop was probably the javelinas! They look like pigs, but they aren’t (read more about them here). But we also saw coyotes and countless other species of desert animals and reptiles.
Many areas along the outside paths are covered with shade – which is nice and exhibits are beautifully done. Really. I think this is the roadrunner exhibit.
They had a LOT of exhibits that were catered to kids, which we always appreciate. This is part of the vulture exhibit – you can get an idea of their wingspan. Impressive, right!?!
Here the kids were “Paleontologist for a Day” . . . .
Isn’t this neat!?! The kids really enjoyed it.
And this is a peek into the Earth Sciences Center. My jaw dropped when I walked into this room. A progression of the earth over millions of years. This center had some very cool fossil and gemstone exhibits along with videos of earth from space.
And I especially loved the gardens. . . now is the perfect time to see these because things are beginning to bloom.
I could walk through the gardens for hours. . .here are some of my favorite photos. . .
Hadley stops to smell the flowers. I just love this.
Isn’t it glorious!?! I’m telling you – it’s an incredible place.
We ended our trip with a press penny souvenir. At just $0.51 cents each, these make great keepsakes for the kids! They put their pennies inside a Penny Press Passport book so they don’t lose them.
We also bought this awesome book from the gift shop National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States: Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah (Audubon Field Guide) which is a beautiful book and I recommend it if you’ll be in the area for an extended time. The gift shop at the museum is impressive.
The next day we went to Saguaro National Park just a short 10-minute drive from Gilbert Ray campground! The visitor’s center is great and we especially liked the video about the history of the area. The kids completed the Junior Ranger program and got their badges (read more about the Junior Ranger Program here).
From the Saguaro National Park Visitor’s Center we drove a short distance to go for a hike. We went on the Valley View Overlook Trail, a short 0.8 mile hike with beautiful views! There are a ton of hikes in the area.
It was a very easy walk – great for kids and the views were beautiful from the start. Again, I love seeing all the blooming flowers.
If you go hiking in this area make sure and pack plenty of water (more than you think you’ll need!). Plus wear close-toed shoes, sunglasses/hat and sunblock.
Our kids have CamelBak Kid’s Mini M.U.L.E. Hydration Packs and they use them everywhere. They are just the right size for a couple snacks and water.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had to be really brave hiking here – I’m scared to death of snakes. Scared mostly for my kids . . . but I keep asking locals, park rangers, county park volunteers – and they all say the snakes don’t want to see you anymore than you want to see them. We take proper precautions – like wearing close-toed shoes and we got the kids Sahara Convertible Pants from REI that I love. The kids always walk behind an adult on the trail and we are sticklers about staying on the trail. We’ve also talked in depth with our kids about reaching their hands into places they can’t see (under rocks or shrubs) and the same goes for toes.
We have been looking for snakes since Florida. . .and haven’t seen even one. So I’ll continue to be brave and cautious – but I won’t let my fear keep us from enjoying the beautiful outdoors here in the Southwest. . .
The view from the top was beautiful! There are a couple benches and an educational display about the desert view.
So that wrapped up our time in Tucson. We also hit up the local Tucson Costco, washed the truck, picked up some new hiking shoes for the kids at Nordstrom Rack and some new hiking sun hats at the local REI. But mostly we just enjoyed living in the Tucson Mountains for five days.
Have you been to Tucson before? Have you stayed at Gilbert Ray Campground? Have you visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum or Saguaro National Park? I’d love to hear your favorite things to do in Tucson!