March 17th we arrived at Gilbert Ray Campground (Tucson Mountain Park) for Six nights; situated a few miles from the Western section of Saguaro National Park. It was our first time to stay here and was recommended a few years ago by our RV friends Betty and Duane. We finally made a point to stay here. It’s a no frills Pima County Park with 30amp electric hookups. (No water or sewer hookups and no campground showers) But it is so worth the tradeoff because it is nestled in among the teddy bear cholla, saguaros and every other type of prickly bush you can imagine. Totally beautiful here. The sunrise and sunsets are the most colorful. Coyotes run through the park serenading campers by night and boldly strut in front of camper in the middle of the day. Because it sits on a bluff you have the silhouettes of the saguaros framing the colorful sky at sunset. Gilbert Ray does not accept reservations but you could call ahead to see if they are sold out or not on the day you intend to arrive. Our next favorite park to stay in is in the nearby Drexel Heights area called Desert Trails. We stayed in in A Loop space #64 which gave us a great view of the valley as well as the western side of the Tucson mountains.
It’s only a few miles to either the Desert Museum which is a must see attraction. I purchased a membership last year and enjoyed spending some time there almost every day this trip. It’s a nice place to walk in the morning along their trails. Colorful desert flowers bloom along the trails as different species of birds chatter and buzz around the cactus.
Here is another Saguaro that is Crested.. check out the post from Congress to learn more about these unusual Saguaros.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Saguaro West – Tucson Mountain District has many hiking trails and roads that loop through the beautiful saguaro forests. April is a better time to see some of the blooming cacti but nevertheless it’s worth seeing anytime. We hiked up a short trail to see the petroglyphs by the Hohokum people that were likely carved when they inhabited this area between 900 – 1450 AD. The rock art shown here is located at the Signal Hill Picnic area. Take the hike to see these well preserved drawings.
We set aside one whole day to drive to MADERA CANYON, a popular area for migrating birds about 25 miles southeast of Tucson. In fact this area is considered the Third best birding area in the US. Fifteen species of hummingbirds, Elegant Trogon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Flame-colored Tanager, 36 species of wood warblers, and over 256 species of birds have been documented here. Unfortunately, we visited this area just a little too early in the season. The birds are just beginning to arrive. I’ll put it on the “to do list” for the next time we can visit this area. Here are a few photos from the valley grasslands looking up into the Madera Canyon. It’s the beginning of Hummingbird migration. There are many already arriving here in this area. Check out the Santa Rita Lodge for sightings of many birds. They have feeders and the few local residents in this canyon also have feeders so the birds have extra handouts in addition to the foliage that they like here.
BUENOS AIRES NWR
Next stop was BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. We picked up a couple of Bar B Q sandwiches from BK OUTLAW BBQ in Amado. They are hidden in a small building behind the general store. All their meat is smoked in the big smoker in the parking lot and we can recommend this little place. Its 20 miles from there to the Refuge. After you pass through the town of Arivaca you will soon see the first entrance to the refuge. There are several pleasant picnic areas at the parking lot area. The mile and a half hike through that part of the refuge is beautiful even with the lack of rain to fill the Marsh areas. We saw many birds; gray hawks, kestrels, and songbirds. As we drove the 12 miles through the refuge we saw coyote and pronghorns. There are many mounds out in the sparse grasslands which belong to the local kangaroo rats. The kangaroo rat is almost perfectly adapted to life in the desert. They can survive without ever drinking any water, getting needed moisture from their seed diet. They have excellent hearing and can even detect the silent sound of an owl approaching. Their large back legs enable them to jump up to 9 feet in one jump in order to escape predators.
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge provides 117,107 acres of habitat for threatened and endangered plants and animals. The refuge was established in 1985.
Over 320 species of birds have been recorded at Buenos Aires NWR. Pronghorn, mule deer, coyote, and javelina are some of the mammals frequently seen along refuge roads. Mountain lion, coatimundi, ring-tailed cats, and badger are present, but more secretive. Desert tortoise and gila monsters thrive a short distance from water-dependant amphibians and a myriad of cactus grow within a stone’s throw of watercress. In addition to the masked bobwhite quail, Buenos Aires NWR protects habitat for seven other endangered species – Pima pineapple cactus, Kearney bluestar, Peregrine Falcon, Southwest Willow Flycatcher, Gila topminnow, Chiricahua leopard frog, and jaguar.
It’s been a very dry winter in Arizona and this area really shows that. I’m hopeful that when the monsoon season arrives in summer the marshes will return to normal and provide the needed environment for all the wildlife.
Back to Gilbert Ray Campground:
As we were driving along Mile Wide Road just south of our camp I observed a Great Horned Owl in a tree. There were only a few leaves on the tree, but so many branches all around I could’t get a clear shot of her. Here are the best of the shots taken from the jeep. We came out the next evening and she was still in the same tree but still too shrouded with branches.
In a little town just about 5 miles from Gilbert Ray campground I think is called Drexel Heights. Not much in the town maybe I would call it a village. There is a general store, gas station, hardware store, a donut shop and a Mexican restaurant. Last year we tried the restaurant called Los Nopales on Kinney Road. It was very good so we went back again this trip. Not once but 3 times. They have excellent Tamales, Enchiladas and Chili Relleno enchilada style. Mark also said the Fish Taco was really good. It’s a hole in the wall place a little hard to find but be sure to stop there if you are camping in this area.
Speaking of good restaurants! Have you been to TODD’S Restaurant yet? It’s a chef owned restaurant and it is Amazing. This was our second time here. Last time was 2 years ago when we were camped at Doc’s Diamond J’s RV park a few miles away. Breakfast is the BEST!!! Go there! Get the Eggs Benedict, OR the “Not So Benedict”, and the homemade Corned beef hash with eggs and share them between two of you. You will Not be disappointed, Oh did I mention the Waffles, and the Order it your way Omelets? OMG, just read the (pdf) Menu and go there. On the way out, pick up a bottle of Todd’s Chipotle Prickly Pear BBQ sauce! This is a family operated business with awesome food and service. Pilots can park out back and there is room for trucks and RVs to park as well. It’s located at historical Ryan field.
What makes Ryan Field a special place for me is This field is where my father received his primary flight training in a Ryan PT-22 aircraft prior to entering into WWII as a bomber pilot in an A-20 and A26 in Italy.
Today we leave for Kartchner State Park near Benson, Arizona. We will be there to tour the caves.