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Tucson

PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 6, 2001
A vertical slice of Tucson
Three perfect days in Arizona's high-desert domain

By Lisa Costantino

Daybreak in the desert: Subtle shades and textures reward those who explore at dawn.
Tucson rises from the parched floor of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Unlike Phoenix to the north, Tucson forgoes expending precious water on greenery and embraces its arid setting. Within a ring of desert mountains, Native American and Mexican cultures meld with Old West heritage like a well-blended margarita.

There's much that blooms in this desert oasis, and biodiversity is as prevalent here as the cultural kind. Towering cottonwoods rain golden leaves in fall and high peaks sparkle with winter snow. Come springtime, grasslands roll like green seas and the earth explodes with wildflowers. National parks and conservation areas preserve riparian corridors and cactus forests, while wildlife refuges shelter pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and such peculiar creatures as the coatimundi and the javelina.

Venture further and you'll find Tucson's extraordinary natural beauty doesn't end at the surface: Below the earth you can explore caverns of exquisite limestone formations, and above it all stretches a big desert sky that shimmers with stars and bears closer inspection.
 
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Day 1: Underground movement
The numerous caves and caverns within the Arizona desert are nature's answer to the blistering heat that often engulfs the surface. Think of them as geological air-conditioning. When the sun's at its zenith, you don't have to waste precious time in your climate-controlled hotel room. Get out and get under.

Subterranean sensation
The cool environs of Kartchner Caverns State Park are currently southeastern Arizona's hottest attraction. About an hour's drive east of Tucson, this immense limestone pocket in the Whetstone


You'll be awed by the cave's stalagmites and stalactites.


Mountains remains a pleasant (though humid) 68° F year-round. Speleologists have explored only a fraction of this living cave system, where water dripping from the surface is still creating intricate calcite formations. Take the hour-long tour into the main chambers and you'll be awed by the multihued walls, glistening stalagmites, dangling stalactites, and delicate calcite tubes called soda straws. 9 miles south of Benson. Entrance: $10 per car; tours: $14 for adults, $6 for kids ages 7–13, children 6 and younger free. Advance reservations required. Tel. +1 (520) 586-2283. http://www.pr.state.az.us/parkhtml/kartchner.html

The largely unexplored labyrinth within Colossal Cave Mountain Park is as dry and dormant as Kartchner is wet and alive. Its denizens have included Hohokam families and train robbers on the lam, but today only the resident bat population enjoys the 70° F surroundings. A 50-minute tour skirts the bats and focuses instead on the fantastical formations with evocative names such as the Kingdom of the Elves and the Silent Waterfall. Unlike Kartchner, the tour descends 363 steps, making it inaccessible to wheelchairs and somewhat challenging to claustrophobes. 17 miles southeast of Tucson in Vail. Entrance: $3 per car; tours: $7.50 for adults, $4 for kids ages 6–12, children 5 and younger free. Tel. +1 (520) 647-7275. http://www.colossalcave.com/welcome.html

Sunken secret
One-hour tours of the underground Titan Missile Silo Museum let you see the United States' largest ICBM.
Twenty-five miles due south of Tucson is an entirely different kind of underground showcase. At the Titan Missile Museum, you'll descend below ground not for bizarre formations of nature, but for a sobering glimpse of one of humankind's darkest creations. This is the only one of the 54 original Titan II missile sites that was not dismantled in the 1980s, and the only place where you can see one of these nuclear warheads that lurked beneath the earth during the Cold War. A one-hour tour takes you through the launch control center and into the silo containing the largest ICBM developed in the United States (deactivated but otherwise intact). The simulated countdown will set your hair on end. 1580 W. Duval Mine Rd. in Sahuarita. Admission $7.50 for adults, $4 for kids ages 7–12, children 6 and younger free. Tel. +1 (520) 625-4759. http://www.pimaair.org/titan_01.htm

Day 2: Lost in the stars
The vast desert sky (protected by strict regulations regarding light pollution) makes the Tucson area prime for astronomers, professional and amateur alike. You'll find the highest concentration of optical telescopes on earth here, and with so many balmy nights, it's not surprising that Tucsonians are frequently out under the stars.

Flights of fancy
Start your second day of exploration at the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium on the University of Arizona campus, where you can bone up on skylore and take a virtual space flight in the


Kids dig the hands-on exhibits at the planetarium.


planetarium theater. Kids will dig the hands-on exhibits, the walk-through asteroid, and the Mineral Museum's collection of meteorites. If you can't make it out to the observatory at Kitt Peak, drop in here about an hour after sunset to scan the skies through the center's 16-inch telescope, and maybe take in a laser light show. Cherry Ave. & University Blvd. $5 for adults, $4 for children. Tel. +1 (520) 621-7827. http://www.flandrau.org/

Biosphere 2 was begun as a space-colony experiment; now it's a major tourist attraction.
Now that you know a little about space flight, hop in your rental car and head 40 miles north to the ersatz space colony Biosphere 2. Completed in 1991, this glass-walled, airlock-sealed microcosm of the earth's major biomes was originally intended to investigate possibilities of off-world colonization. The problematic experiment ended in turmoil, and the complex now serves as a facility for studying ecosystems and global climate change. Most structures are off-limits, but you can tour the human habitat and peek in all the windows. Off Highway 77 in Oracle. $12.95 for adults, $8.95 for kids ages 17–13, $6 for kids ages 6–12, children 5 and younger free. Tel. +1 (520) 896-6200. http://www.bio2.edu/

In peak form
If you've always yearned to gaze through a huge telescope, make reservations for the nightly observing program at Kitt Peak National Observatory, where 22 optical and two radio telescopes speckle the 6,875-foot mountain like gleaming temples. Arrive early to visit the world's largest solar telescope and the 4-meter-high Mayall telescope, from which you'll get a 360° view of the Sonora Desert. On the 3-hour program, learning to identify constellations and viewing them through high-power binoculars is just a prelude to the big event: Peer through the 16-inch reflecting telescope at such heavenly objects as the Wild Duck star cluster, the Great Orion Nebula, and the Ghost of Jupiter. 56 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'Odham reservation. Daily guided tours: $2 donation. Nightly observing program: $35 for adults, $25 for seniors and kids younger than 18. Tel. +1 (520) 318-8726. http://www.noao.edu/outreach/kpoutreach.html

Day 3: Fertile ground
Just because it's a desert doesn't mean things don't grow around Tucson. A day trip to the verdant San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area or the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (carpeted orange and yellow in spring) will illustrate that point. Have limited time? There's plenty of evidence right in town.

City cacti
Practical garden lore can be found in the city at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, an urban oasis showcasing desert plants in a cultural light. Wander through a barrio garden filled with shrines, a field of traditional Native American crops, a Southwestern herb garden, and popular non-native trees such as grapefruit and pomegranate. There's also a xeriscape demonstration garden, where you can pick up tips on plants that thrive in dry landscapes. 2150 N. Alvernon Way. $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $1 for kids ages 6–11, children 5 and younger free. Tel. +1 (520) 326-9686. http://www.tucsonbotanical.org/

You'll find both flora and fauna just on the outskirts of Tucson at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a wonderful arena for surveying the creatures of the desert and their natural habitats. You'll see scruffy javelinas among the palo verde trees in the uplands, mountain lions and long-legged Mexican wolves stalking the chaparral of the mountain woodlands, and spiny-tailed iguanas and river otters along the streams and ponds of the riparian corridor. Stroll through the grounds and watch hummingbirds and butterflies dart and flutter among the flowering prickly pear and ocotillo. 2021 N. Kinney Rd. $9.95 for adults, $1.75 for kids ages 6–12, children 5 and younger free. Tel. +1 (520) 883-1380. http://desertmuseum.org/

Sky-high xerophytes
Reserve the rest of your day for a journey through Saguaro National Park, which is divided into the Tucson Mountain District to the west and the Rincon Mountain District to the east. Rincon is closest to the


Giant saguaro cacti grow thick as forests in the park.


botanical gardens; both sections offer scenic drives through thick forests of giant saguaro, which in late spring produce clusters of white flowers. If the weather's agreeable, take a hike through towering stands of cacti on trails leading to petroglyphs and panoramic views. Stop at the visitor center before heading out—the desert harbors a few venomous critters you'll need to know about. Better yet, take a guided moonlight walk and bring your exploration of Tucson's natural beauty full circle. 15 miles from downtown. Tucson Mountain is off Kinney Road (free); Rincon is off Old Spanish Trail ($4 per vehicle). Tel. +1 (520) 733-5100. http://www.nps.gov/sagu/index.htm

Plan this trip: How to visit Tucson

Getting there
Season: There's no doubt about it: Tucson is hot, with summertime temperatures averaging a toasty 98° F. Summer also means monsoon season, when warm tropical air spreading north from Mexico produces spectacular thunderstorms and the potential for flash floods. Spring and fall daytime temps run a pleasant 80–84° F, with low humidity and cool nights. Winters average around 65° F and see little rain—great weather for hiking while the snakes are hibernating.

Getting around: You'll definitely need a rental car to see Tucson's natural wonders. Rent one with four-wheel drive if you plan to explore off-road. Tucson's Sun Tran public bus system is dependable for getting around the city, but it's not as extensive as in other metropolitan areas. You'll rarely see a taxi on the streets, so you'll have to call for a ride. Most of the major hotels operate shuttles to and from the airport.

Map: Two major highways serve Tucson, with I-10 sweeping in from the northwest corner of the city and I-19 starting in the center and heading south. Being laid out in a grid system, the city's central core is fairly easy to navigate. Get oriented with Expedia's interactive map of Tucson.

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Suggested reading
The following Web sites and books can help you make the most of your Tucson travels:

Web sites

  • Desert USA: An extensive guide to the American deserts, with articles on history, geology, zoology, recreation, attractions, and desert cities. Good coverage of the Tucson area. http://www.desertusa.com/index.html

  • Tucson Weekly: Alternative online magazine covering current events in Tucson, plus arts and entertainment, restaurant reviews, a Best of Tucson section, and really weird cartoons. http://tucsonweekly.com/tw/current/index.html
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