As regular readers of this blog may recall we usually travel to the south western states in winter. February is clearly an excellent time of year to visit the desert (at least in the northern hemisphere), but when I had the opportunity to go to Arizona for a June conference I jumped at the chance to spend a couple of days experiencing the summer heat.
The conference was to be held in Phoenix, but I had learned about Saguaro National Park and decided I needed to pay it a visit, so I arranged to drive down and spend a night in Tucson beforehand. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but ended up being quite pleasantly surprised – Tucson is a very low-rise city, with some attractive historic buildings and plenty of nice-looking restaurants and bars (I learned later that it was designated a world city of gastronomy by UNESCO in 2015).
Thanks to a 5 hour flight delay, my plans for an early morning start went awry, although if I’d known I’d be landing in Phoenix at 1:30am I suppose I could have driven straight down to the desert and saved myself the motel experience. Instead I opted for a little more sleep and hit the road mid-morning, arriving in Tucson around lunchtime. Consequently I decided to spend an hour or two amusing myself out of the afternoon heat in the Arizona History museum. This slightly dated collection of displays nevertheless does a great job describing the story of life in Arizona, from the earliest native Americans (archaeological evidence spanning 4000 years has been uncovered) through the miners and settlers who arrived in more recent times.
After exhausting the museum’s delights I found and checked into my hotel, the historic and charming Hotel Congress, then stumbled across an extremely tasty lunch at Diablo burger directly across the street (unplanned but thoroughly recommended!). The rest of the afternoon was spent reading in a shady courtyard at the hotel, before heading out for dinner at La Cocina. Tom had found this restaurant for me from online reviews, and it did not disappoint. Tasty south-western food was served in delightful open-air setting (there was an inside part as well, but the evening was cool and pleasant so sitting outside seemed the only sensible choice), to the accompaniment of some great live music. A prickly pear margarita completed the scene to perfection.
Next morning I set out bright and early in an attempt to beat the heat. Before visiting the saguaros I’d decided to take a look at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which seemed highly recommended online. Other than a minor quibble with the name – it’s a zoo and botanical garden, not a museum in the classic sense of the word – it’s an excellent place to visit and I was delighted that I did! I was also very pleased to be there early – enclosures featuring various animals and plants in their natural habitats are situated around meandering desert trails, and although plenty of shady structures and water fountains are available the heat was intense (29C when I arrived at 8:20am, and around 40C when I left two hours later).
Particular highlights included a walk-in aviary full of humming birds whizzing about (impossible to photograph, sadly!), and an actual mountain lion, but the views out across the desert were also spectacular.
The western section of Saguaro National Park is just up the road from the museum, and I appreciated their air-conditioned visitor centre very much. The main attraction of the park seems to be a number of hiking trails, and while I would love to come back in winter to experience them there was no way I was venturing too far out in the middle of a summer day. Instead I enjoyed the introductory film, and listened to ranger presentations about javelinas and the saguaro cactus (which, incidentally, is pronounced sa-wah-ro) in cool indoor comfort. Fun fact – saguaros grow extremely slowly, taking about 50 years to get to their minimum flowering height of around 6 feet, and probably a further 20 years from first flowering until they start to put out arms.
Fast forward a few days to the other side of the conference and another outdoor experience, this time to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Whilst we had been mainly protected from the heat inside the conference centre and associated hotels, Phoenix had been experiencing some epic temperatures, with highs around 120F / 49C. I joined a small group of fellow delegates for a visit to the botanical garden’s library and dinner in their excellent restaurant. We finally ventured out to look at the garden a little after 7pm, and my phone instantly overheated and died; I think the air temperature was around 110 F (43-44C) at that point. I was much happier than my phone, although sad that I was unable to use it to take pictures, and spent a very enjoyable hour wandering through the plants and watching the sun go down behind the buttes and saguaros on the horizon.
In addition to some fantastic cacti and other desert plants, I saw a number of different birds – notably a roadrunner (in a tree, unexpectedly), and some delightful little quails (Gambel’s quail, apparently). This was the last stop on my trip before the airport and my flight back east, and was a really lovely evening – another place I’d love to revisit at a more temperate time of year!