A Southern Arizona Road Trip

A road trip is just what we needed on a long weekend, with school being out on Friday. Since it is mid-November, almost winter, we opted for a Southern Arizona trip.

On a normal year this is the time when things finally cool down in the desert. On a normal year.  However. This year is still a bit too warm.  Next week is Thanksgiving. And we are still hot.  We had the air conditioning on a few days ago.  Yeah. Life in the desert.

Saguaro National Monument, AZ

Still.  It is only in the eighties, and mornings and nights are pleasant.  A Southern Arizona road trip seemed like a great idea. We haven’t been passed Tucson in years. And I wanted to take my youngest child to Kartchner Caverns. She’s never been there.  The older two visited on school trips years ago.

First we figured, as usual, let’s go! Then we looked up the site – fortunately – and realized that we needed reservations. Since it is such a popular destination, we had to do it well in advance. We did make a reservation for sometime next month.

As luck would have it, someone canceled and we ended up with reservations for both tours in the same day, this past Sunday. Lucky us! Of course, we took the opportunity and made a three-day-weekend road trip out of it.

First Stop: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Our first stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  And of course, we were hot. Still, the museum is spectacular, a combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one.

Despite the heat, we had a great time.  And heat is relative.  It wasn’t in the 100s, only the high eighties.

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion.  I remembered them having more than one, but that was many years ago. I might have been mistaken.  We caught a presentation of a ranger with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, sat in the shade watching hummingbirds flutter around us, walked through an aquarium, through an underground exhibit, under water through a riparian habitat, and even through a cave.  We were going to see the real deal at the end of the trip, but this was a nice little preview.

Road Trip Stop 2: Saguaro National Monument

Since we were basically in Saguaro National Monument already, we decided to stop at the visitor center, and maybe even take a short hike. We did stop and enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, but we felt too hot for a hike.  We live in the desert, after all, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through the land of cacti.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaro cacti in one place anywhere else.  It was nice to enjoy the view of it, then drive through it for a while.

Unplanned Stops: Apple Annie’s Country Store and the Amerind Museum

We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see.  But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum.  We originally planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, however, after a fw minutes of debate, we decided to take a side trip the next morning and visit the Amerind Museum, as soon as it opens.  It is the place where they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquime in Mexico, not far from the border, and we knew this.

We have been in Paquime (Casas Grandes) more than fifteen years ago, and we thought it would be great to see some artifacts from the site. So we changed the plan for the next day, and decided to visit the museum before heading to the Chiricahua National Monument.

Since it opened at 10am, we had some time on our hands, and stopped at Apple Annie’s, where we bought a delicious loaf of apple bread and spent some time enjoying a country store. (We are city slickers, don’t get to see many of them often).

Apple Annie's Country Store

We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach the Amerind Museum, and it did seem like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a nice desert location though.

Amerind Museum - Door of the Art Exhibit

It didn’t have as many artifacts as we hoped for, but it was still pretty good.  They have other Native American exhibits worth a look, and it is well organized. As bonus, we got to even visit an art exhibit on the premises – all Native American art, of course.  In one of the first rooms we entered, I noticed the name on the painting as Ed Kabotie. I didn’t know he was an artist, too. We’ve seen him perform multiple times in Flagstaff with his reggae band.

4. Chiricahua National Monument

One of the highlights of the trip, Chiricahua National Monument is a beautiful place, and, being higher in the mountains, we finally felt cool enough to enjoy a few hikes.

Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road.  We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, with breathtaking views all around, then stopped at Massai point and hiked a little more.  It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, in the forest, for a short time as well.

Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in the mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day.  I was looking out for them, but I guess fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.

The Main Destination of This Road Trip: Kartchner Caverns

The highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our last destination. Save the best for last. Well, that and we could only get the reservations for Sunday.

I heard and read a lot about these caves.  Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget.  No, it wasn’t my first time in a cave.  We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, growing up around he Carpathians.  But this cave is truly magnificent.

Again, we left the best for last.  Our second tour was the Throne Room, with Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular, we would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns in this room that the cave’s first explorers called Xanadu.  Why did they call it that? Well, read the poem and you’ll guess.  Then definitely go see the room.

The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room.  I am not sure which one I like better overall.  As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch.  Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry.  Staying under ground without food for a long time, all they will think about is going to be food.  Though no matter if you’re hungry or not, the formations called bacon, indeed look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).

No photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside.  You can look on their website for some great ones.