Off the Beaten Path: Southeast Arizona
It turns out that in southern Arizona, good things come in small packages
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
FOR ASTRONOMER CRAIG NANCE, an average workday might include a 90-minute drive to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) atop the Pinaleno Mountains of southeast Arizona. “The skies above Mt. Graham are among the most clear and dark in North America,” explained the director of the telescope array on the 3,220-metre mountain. “You can see it from anywhere around here – it looks like a giant sugar cube.”
Twice a week, observatory docents lead tours to the world’s largest, 16-storey optical telescope. Visitors – from all points on the astronomy geek continuum – can get a quick schooling at Discovery Park, the observatory’s base level educational centre in Safford. In astronomy it’s all about high, dark and accessible – but even if you can’t make it to the top you can immerse yourself in Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein without the daylong, ear-popping trek.
IT TURNS OUT THAT IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA, good things come in small packages. The big cities – Tucson, Phoenix – are well known, but spots like Tubac, Bisbee and Safford fly under the radar and are often overlooked. We were drawn to Safford by the Salsa Trail, a medley of a dozen spicy eateries that set our tastebuds ablaze. The small mining town is also home to the first-rate LBT telescope and the world-class collection of thousands of arrowheads, bowls and vessels and katsina figures at the Mills Collection housed at Eastern Arizona College.
When hankering for a fix of the outdoors, this part of the state didn’t disappoint. It was supposed to be a one-hour whistle-stop at Chiricahua National Monument, an otherworldly landscape of balanced rocks and pinnacles surging out of the straw-coloured grasslands. Instead, we planted our camping roots and stayed in the protected wilderness under some of the darkest and starriest skies of our travels. A hike along the remote Echo Loop filled up a full digital camera card.
A 90-minute drive west was one of those zip-by places that deserves full brakes. The humid, underground world of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, straws and bacon formations is perfectly preserved at Kartchner Caverns State Park. The caverns were discovered by two college students in 1974, who kept it secret until the late 1980s. The magnificent Throne Room – named after mythical Kubla Khan’s Xanadu – could be a film set taken from Lord of the Rings.
Close to Sierra Vista, we followed the birders to the banks of the river at the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area. We took Rigby for a light hike along the trails and into the cottonwood trees where the hummingbirds, one of 60-plus bird species, whistled past us en route to the feeders at the visitor centre. April and May are prime birding season when the Friends of San Pedro organize walking and history tours.
THE SOUTHEAST DELIVERS A FIX FOR CULTURE VULTURES across the spectrum from quirky to elegant. The old copper mining town of hilly Bisbee exudes a counterculture ethic that amuses and delights. Bumper stickers and posters with a general “live and let live” vibe permeate the galleries and shops that feature the work of local artisans. The Queen Mine Tour really brought home the reality of working underground in the early 20th century.
Tubac, very close to the Mexican border, is chi-chi gone upscale with an adult dose of unorthodox. This cultural hotspot of adobe style buildings attracts snowbirds by the hundreds and is home to more than 120 “get away from it all” artists, gallery owners and small clothing and jewellery makers – aged but not dispirited hippies who want nothing more than to share their warmth, art and friendship. The little town is a joy to walk around in, as is the Tubac Presidio (or Spanish fort), its historical anchor. After all, a local innkeeper told us, life is uncertain and we ought to wrestle the good out of every moment. “At the end of it all,” he demurred, “it’s either fade to black or meet the dude.”
ALL THE PRACTICAL DETAILS:
- Our favourite stops along the Salsa Trail were tiny El Mesquite Taqueria where owner Jesus Cabrera roasts his green chiles over fragrant mesquite wood, El Coronado on Safford’s Main Street where locals line up for the tasty huevos rancheros, the frosty house margaritas at La Paloma, flaming hot jalapeno salsa at El Charro and a slice of housemade margarita cake at Manor House.
- Elvira’s in Tubac has been rated one of the state’s top eateries. With nine margaritas on the drink list, a menu of Mexican standards and eye-popping décor, it’s the perfect way to enjoy a warm Arizona evening.
- Bonita Campground at Chiricahua National Monument may be basic – no hook-ups or showers – but it does have deliciously dark skies and a taste of true wilderness.
- A 30-minute drive from Tucson, the Butterfield RV Resort in Benson makes a good base for exploring. The spotless resort is geared towards larger, long-stay units but they do offer a unique astronomy program at their small observatory.
- Luxury seekers can’t do better than the Tubac Golf Resort. The backdrop of golf greens, Western bar and restaurant overlooking a huge stand of cottonwoods may look familiar – it was the site for Kevin Costner’s hit film, Tin Cup.
Safe travel tips:
- Large stretches of the state are open range. Collide with a Black Angus heifer at top speeds and the cow usually wins.
- Run out of gas and it may be a long wait for AAA. The website Gas Buddy was our gas purchasing friend.
Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).