TUCSON — It was wet, dark, eerie, and alive. We had walked through a series of airtight doors and narrow passages into the Big Room, home to one of the world’s most extensive formations of “moonmilk.” The massive, gooey, white shapes hugged the cave walls.
“I think it’s moving,” whispered a young boy on the guided cave tour with his parents.
“Eeow! It looks like bumpy cream cheese!” another girl remarked, and then screamed when a drop of milky water trickled on her head. No worries, the guide assured her; the “cave kiss” is good luck.
We were visiting Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona, a remarkable limestone cave, crisscrossed by more than two miles of underground passages. The Big Room is the newest section of the cave that’s open to tourists, and it’s only open during the winter months, when the more than 1,000 bats that live in the cave during the summer leave their roosts.
Exploring the caverns was just one of the must-do activities on our recent visit to Tucson. This laid-back Old West city, surrounded by five mountain ranges, was often the last-stop for retirees and old folks. Today, with a growing influx of ethnic groups and students, and a surge of improvements, the city, still called the Old Pueblo, sports a more youthful vibe. Nowadays, the Old Pueblo is a lively place, and a great base for family-friendly fun.
We arrived with a jam-packed schedule of things to see and do. Our first stop was Old Tucson, the historic center of town, where we did a quick walk along the Presidio Trail. The self-guided path led us to several notable sites, including remnants of the old adobe fortress that once marked the settlement borders. Also along the trail were sculptures, historic homes, and Old Town Artisans, a colorful cluster of art shops and galleries. It was interesting enough as a first stop, but to see the best of Tucson, you need to get out of downtown. Our next stop: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
“He almost touched me!” someone in the small group of visitors yelled as a large great horned owl swooped by, landing on a branch just a few feet away. The owl bobbed its head and screeched as it surveyed the surroundings. Next, a prairie falcon, with fast-beating, flared wings flew low, just above our heads, snatching a piece of food the trainer threw in the air. The popular Raptor Free Flight show at the museum features completely untethered raptors, coming so close that we ducked our heads as they flew by. It’s one of three live animal shows at the largely open-air museum. Spread across 21 acres of desert terrain, the museum includes 16 gardens, 1,200 native plant species, and 230 native mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds. We gawked at slithering rattlesnakes, lizards, and spiders in the Reptile Hall; walked among towering saguaro cactus plants (the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where the giant saguaro cactus grows); and hiked the hot Desert Loop Trail, where we heard the hidden javelinas grunting and saw coyotes and lizards in barely-visible, naturalistic enclosures.
We could have stayed longer, but just up the road was the Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, where we went next. The park is divided into two districts; the Mountain District lies west of downtown Tucson, and the Rincon District lies east, with about 30 miles in between them. We stopped in the Red Hills Visitors Center to learn how Native Americans use the saguaro cactus plants, and to pick up trail maps and descriptions. The park has more than 165 miles of hiking trails. With time (and sunlight) running out, we opted to hike the short Valley View Overlook Trail, which the park ranger assured us offered the best “bang for your buck.” We followed the easy 0.4-mile (one-way) to the top of a ridge, where we had stunning views of the Avra Valley, framed by mountains. The odd-shaped Picacho Peak, jutting 1,500 feet from the desert floor, was awash in glowing red hues from the setting sun. We ended the day at the El Charro Café, sharing spicy burros and chimichangas.
One of the more popular outdoor places is the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest, about 15 miles northeast of downtown. We spent one morning there, exploring the unique desert oasis, with a stream, pools, and waterfalls (best during the wetter winter months), surrounded by tall saguaro and prickly pear cacti and paloverde trees. We hopped on a tram for a narrated, 45-minute trip into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, crossing Sabino Creek over nine stone bridges, and then hiked the route back down to the visitors center. A tough decision came next: Stay in the canyon — hiking the Seven Falls trail would be a fine choice — or head to Kartchner Caverns.
The caverns were discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, a couple of young guys who were hiking in the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains. It took years of fund-raising and red tape before the park and upper caves opened in 1999. Today two tours into the pristine and thriving caverns are offered. On the Rotunda-Throne tour, available year-round, you’ll follow the discoverers’ original trail, see 45,000-year-old bat guano, and learn how a tiny trickle of water helped to create the cavern. The Throne Room, full of colorful formations such as bright white helictites and calcite, orange bacon, and rare quartz needles, is also home to the longest soda straw formation in the country (21 feet 2 inches) and to 58-foot-tall Kubla Khan, the tallest column in Arizona. The nearly two-hour Big Room tour, available from mid-October to mid-April, led us into a massive room, with a kaleidoscope of otherworldly formations: Turnip shields hung from the ceiling, creepy stalagmites rose from the floor, and pasty moonmilk clung to the walls. The bright sun and dry heat were welcome after our time below, as was the quick dip in the pool back at our hotel.
There was no way we wanted to leave Tucson without experiencing a little of its Old West culture; after all this was cowboy country. On our final day, we opted for a late afternoon horseback ride in east Saguaro National Park. Trotting along dusty paths in the high desert valley, flanked with cacti and in the shadows of the Tucson mountain ranges, we rode off into the sunset.