The Great Western Loop 2018 - Days 2-3

Day 2 – Chandler, AZ to Coronado National Forest, Tucson

Total miles: 449

We were not the spry, spring chicks this morning that we usually consider ourselves to be. We dawdled along like old farts, tripping over our own feet and each others. It was hard to get going and then it dawned on us … we didn’t have to get going if we didn’t feel like it. Immediately, we overcame our inertia and got a move-on. Funny, how that works, huh?

The intention was to drive the 115 miles to Tucson, find a campsite and hang out. Shortly after we were on the highway however, we saw a sign for Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. Screeee-ch … change of plans ... David took the exit and we drove ~15 miles out of the way to Coolidge, AZ to visit this rather obscure national monument. It was worth the detour and the two hour visit.

 The builders of Case Grande used holes in the walls of the building to align with the sun and the moon to mark important events like the solstices and the equinoxes.

The builders of Case Grande used holes in the walls of the building to align with the sun and the moon to mark important events like the solstices and the equinoxes.

We learned about the Sonoran Desert people and their culture. ‘One of the largest prehistoric structures ever built in North America, its purpose remains a mystery. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancient people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450 C.E.’

 Great horned owl owlets were in residence at the Casa Grande ruins.

Great horned owl owlets were in residence at the Casa Grande ruins.

As we walked through the ruins, David spotted a posted notice advising visitors that a pair of great horned owlets were in residence in the Casa Grande. We spotted them briefly and though our vantage point wasn’t the best, we did manage to capture a glimpse.

 A Saguaro cactus forest on the steep, winding drive up the Mount Lemmon Scenic Highway.

A Saguaro cactus forest on the steep, winding drive up the Mount Lemmon Scenic Highway.

We finally made it to Tucson by late afternoon. We opted for a campsite in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado National Forest. FYI … The Coronado National Forest covers 1.78 million acres of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. (WOW!) The Molino Basin campground was perfect for us. The site was on the level. The views were beautiful and our nearest neighbor could barely be seen. The 4000’ altitude insured we’d be cool at night. All for $5/night. Climbing the Catalina Highway aka Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway to the campground was beautiful in its own right, a wonderful prerequisite to the upcoming days of exploring the Sonoran Desert and the Tucson area.

As an aside … Blue is doing well. Though he’s carrying much more weight, his mileage is still 22.9 mpg. The ride is much quieter than we anticipated although the new headboard which is secured with a bungee cord while driving clanks a bit on occasion … something to be addressed. We’ve found a few things already that we find annoying, but the rule this week is ‘no projects!’.

 Rose Canyon Lake walk

Rose Canyon Lake walk

Day 3 – Rose Canyon Lake & Mount Lemmon

We awoke to a bird on Blue’s roof. No, not a mocking bird, but he definitely had a particularly loud song. We weren’t sure what species it was ... perhaps an oriole? All we saw was a medium-sized, bright yellow belly, dancing and singing on the exhaust fan above our heads!

We planned to take it easy for the day … coffee, a leisurely camp breakfast (read that yogurt and a bowl of Crispix) and maybe some hiking. We spread out a tablecloth on the concrete picnic table to mark out spot, paid our daily camp fee and headed up the Mount Lemmon Byway to see what we could see. Rose Canyon Lake sits at ~7,000’ and offered a short, but pleasant hike around the lake.

We were reminded frequently that this is bear and mountain lion country. We saw a few mule deer and some horse droppings, but nothing more ferocious (and we’re not complaining.)

 Mount Lemmon scenic vista

Mount Lemmon scenic vista

We continued up the road to the top of Mount Lemmon, stopping at turn-offs and vistas along the way. In 1881, John and Sara Lemmon, honeymooners and botanists, climbed the highest peak in the Catalinas ... 9,157 feet. Their guide, a local rancher, named the mountain in Sara Lemmon's honor as the first woman to climb the peak.

We watched the temperature drop from 70F to 50F as we gained altitude. By the time we reached the near-summit parking area and decided to explore a bit, we needed long-sleeved shirts.

The Sky Center observatory was unfortunately closed, but we got a gander of what we missed. Evidently, the astronomy programs offered here are outstanding.

 Sky Center Observatory at the top of Mount Lemmon.

Sky Center Observatory at the top of Mount Lemmon.

We returned to our campsite near 6pm. The sun sets here around 6:30pm, so we prepared a quick dinner and toasted the sunset. During the next couple of days, we're planning to visit the Saguaro National Park. Come on along with us. We promise you won't be bothered by the heat.

We’ve decided to call this trip the Great Western Loop 2018. Click here to join us on the next leg as we visit some supersized cacti.