Saguaro National Park, Colossal Cave
This Is A Gorgeous Time Of Year To Visit
April 15, 2015
This is a gorgeous time of year to visit Saguaro National Park. There are two different parts to this park: the Tucson District west of Tucson, and the rincon District which is just southeast of Tucson.
The rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park is easy to get to: Take the Old Spanish Trail from Tucson to the rincon Visitor Center. There is a loop drive through the western part of the rincon District that you should definitely investigate. You can ask for trail maps and information at the visitor center, buy some souvenirs, then follow the signs to the loop drive.
A Scenic Drive
This scenic drive is about eight miles but it will take you a while because you'll want to stop and look around and take photos. It's a combination one-way and two-way road, but trailers over 35 feet are not permitted.
We stopped at the first pull-out and we were lucky enough to run into a ranger who was tracking tortoises with an antenna. They tag the tortoises, then listen to beeps as they walk along with the antenna in order to find them and gather information on how far they travel, etc. He said that the tortoises spend a lot of their time underground.
Several Trailheads, Hikes
You can access several trailheads from this loop road and there are plenty of pull-outs and vistas. When we went in March, the wildflowers were just starting, and it was beautiful. The rincon Mountains are the backdrop, and you'll see why this area is called the Cactus Forest - saguaros abound.
If you have small kids or just want to sample a short hike and find out what the names of some of the native plants are, stop at the Desert Ecology Trail. It's almost perfectly flat, barely a quarter of a mile long, and paved all the way - totally wheelchair and stroller accessible, and a fun little hike. Plenty of signs tell you interesting facts about the area, and there are frequent benches.
There are several other easy trails in the rincon District. The Freeman Homestead Trail takes you one mile to an old desert homestead and has plenty of signs to give you information about the history and ecology of the area. It's an out and back trail. There are some moderate grades and they have wide rock stairs.
The Mica View Picnic Area Loop is a two-mile loop and it's the easiest loop in the park. There are many other awesome hikes and the entire area is just gorgeous, especially this time of year. No matter what the temperatures are, wear long sleeves, a hat, sunscreen, and take a lot of water with you. Also, boots are a good idea. When the weather starts to warm up, snakes begin to wander around. Don't forget your camera - the wildflowers and flowering cacti are amazing.
Colossal Cave County Park
We were heading to Sierra Vista, so after taking the Loop Drive we exited the Park and headed south on the Old Spanish Trail. A few miles down this road is the Colossal Cave County Park. It costs $5 per car to enter, and if you want to tour the cave, it's $13 for adults, $6.50 for ages 5-12, and kids 4 and under are free. They have military discounts.
The cave tour is worth the $13, and even if you are a bit afraid of caves, you'll probably like this one. It's spacious and airy, and just dark enough to be romantic and mysterious without being spooky. We had a bit of a wait before our tour, but there is a really cool little museum/gift shop that has all kinds of interesting things to look at and read. The place was built by the CCC and there is a lot of history there.
Inside The Cave
The cave itself was discovered by Solomon Lick in 1879. Our guide told us that old Solomon found a small hole (very small) and squeezed into it, dropping about 10 feet to the floor of the cave. The cave is enormous and the CCC widened many parts of it and built paths and stairs to make it easy to navigate. They also installed the lighting.
You'll see some of the equipment they used - the head lanterns and things. It's all amazing. I don't generally like being underground, but I really enjoyed this tour. It's always about 70 degrees inside the cave, and the tour is about a half mile. It took us just about 45 minutes and our guide was awesome. He told us all kinds of fun stories, showed us some great stuff that you can only see when the shadows are just right, and even managed to show us a bat. I highly recommend this tour!
If you're feeling much braver, there are other tours you can sign up for that are more intensive and will involve climbing and ladders and things. They include a buffet dinner and prices start at $70. You'll see parts of the cave that haven't been open to the public since the 50's.
The rest of the Colossal Cave Park is worth checking out, too. There is a big and unusual sundial where you can be the gnomon, a butterfly garden, tortoises, and lots of places to picnic and play.
On To Ramsey Canyon
Once we left that park we continued on to Sierra Vista, which is a good-sized town with lots of great hotels and restaurants. Our first visit near there was Ramsey Canyon, a world-famous birding area. Ramsey Canyon is a Nature Conservancy Preserve, and parking is limited to about 23 spaces. There is a $6 fee, $3 if you are a Cochise county resident or a Nature Conservancy member. Children under 16 are free, and admission is not charged on the first Saturday of every month. They have a wonderful little gift shop and information center with lots of bird lovers items and books. The trail starts at the back door of the shop and it is wonderful hike even if you don't like birding.
Trees, Birds, Deer And More
Ramsey Canyon is thickly forested with a variety of trees, and the trail follows the creek for the most part. It's like walking in paradise with the sound of the running water, the shade, and all the beautiful bird songs. There are a couple of little loops that take you to interesting places before returning to the main path. Take them all. We saw a pond, crossed little bridges, and investigated ruins and old abandoned buildings, and took tons of photos. Two little Coues deer came within 30 feet of us and didn't seem at all startled by us. It's a fantastic place.
Although most people call this trail the Ramsey Canyon Trail, it is actually the Hamburg Trail. For about the first mile you are on Nature Conservancy property, then the trail really starts to climb. The steeper areas have the typical trail stairs - wood holding back dirt, or stone.
The Climb Is Worth It
The climb is worth it - although you're heading away from the creek now, the forest is beautiful. When you reach the sign that tells you you're in the Miller Peak Wilderness, you're nearly to the overlook. Once you're there, you can see out over the canyon and it's beautiful.
If you keep going along the Hamburg Trail (and it's downhill from here), you'll reach the Brown Canyon trail in half a mile. We headed back to the Preserve once we reached this high point, and we thoroughly enjoyed the hike.
Since the Coronado Forest page says the Hamburg Trail is 2.8 miles and we were half a mile from the Brown Canyon Trail when we turned back, I'm saying that it's about 2.3 miles from the Ramsey Canyon info center to the lookout point. It's a lot of uphill, so be prepared. But the way back is all downhill!
We had many other adventures down Sierra Vista way, so I'll be telling you all about them in later issues. Meanwhile, if you want to visit Southern Arizona, there are many excellent places to stay whether you want to camp, take your RV, or stay in a hotel. It's beautiful country, so if you haven't been down there yet, plan to visit soon.