By the end of February, we decided to leave Apache Junction, and head for Tucson. We had made reservations at Catalina State park near Oro Valley for two nights on March 2nd and 3rd; March 1st we would be in the overflow area of the park. We had made a day trip in the Jeep to Tucson during February, and stopped at Beyond Bread in Oro Valley for lunch. It’s a popular retirement community just north of Tucson; it’s Safeway parking lot (visible from the restaurant) is famous for being the site where Gabriel Gifford and others were shot only a few years ago. Joan had read online that Catalina State Park was one of the top attractions in Arizona so we wanted to stay there; fortunately for us they had an opening. This park is so popular that it is difficult to find a site during the winter months.
We got up early the morning of March 1st, as rain was forecast for most of the day. We had just finished packing up at 6:30am when the rain and wind started. We stopped at the McDonalds in Apache Junction for breakfast, then hooked up the Jeep as the rain had stopped by then. We headed for Oro Valley, and the rain started again with wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour. Fortunately, by the time we arrived at Catalina State Park, the rain had stopped. We spent 3 days at this park, going into Tucson a couple of times, and also took a Jeep ride through the mountain ranges in this area. Our favorite ride was to Mount Lemmon on top of one of the Catalina Mountains; there was a ski lodge between 8000 and 9000 square feet. From 60’s and desert scenery at the bottom of this mountain, we progressed through high desert, and finally to pine trees and snow at the summit. Unfortunately neither one of us had thought to bring along a jacket. We ate lunch at the lodge, and warmed up over hot soup and fresh cornbread.
Catalina State Park is a campers dream. Roads throughout the park are paved. Sites are level in both Loop A and B. The bathrooms/showers were the best we have seen anywhere; better than those in the high dollars campground resorts with ceramic tile and various spacious private showers. And they were kept sparkling clean. The views in the park were magnificent; the sunrise and sunset over the mountains bathed the scenery in golds and pinks, and we appreciated the grass and trees which we hadn’t seen for some time.
One of the more popular trails in the park is an easy walk into the desert, where you can see some remnants of walls from Indian homes centuries old. Smoke enjoyed watching the ground squirrels poking out of their holes, the many variety of birds, and going for walks outside each day.
Too soon, we had to leave Catalina State Park; our site had already been reserved again. We had made reservations at a county park adjacent to the Western Section of Saguaro National Park; Gilbert Ray Campground. It was part of Mountain Park, and we had to take the back way into the campground at Gates Pass-the main entrance-was limited to vehicles under 24,000 lb.
Gilbert Ray campground is unique; the sites follow the desert topography and curve around inside the park. Our site was along the back side, with direct access to the desert. The roads were paved, there were plenty of bathrooms (some primitive) but no showers. As we were staying for only 3 days, and had an electric site, this wasn’t a problem for us. We attended a Starlight Party our second night there; several volunteers brought telescopes and pointed out stars and planets we were able to see, as well as identify constellations. In the middle of the desert, away from light contamination of the night sky we were awed by how many stars we could see.
While staying at Gilbert Ray, we visited the west section of Saguaro National Park, the Arizona Desert Museum, and Old Tucson which was the site used to film many western movies and TV series since 1939. All of these attractions were only minutes away from the campground. The weather was beautiful during our time here, in the 60’s and 70’s during the daytime, down to the 50’s at night. Just perfect for enjoying the outdoors.
We took a side trip to the Xavier du Lac Mission Basilica, which is close to Tucson. This is a mission church which is still open for services. It has been undergoing a thorough renovation. This church is over 200 years old, and has extensive grounds, along with a school.