How do I love thee? Let me count the ways (and also, the delicious tacos).
Tucson was an unexpected delight, and we ended up staying there four nights instead of our planned one. We did a lot of exploring, and a lot of working, and left Tucson wishing we could stay longer. It even had us both sheepishly professing that we could envision our beach, lake, and forest-loving selves living in the desert.
Catalina State Park
The campground at Catalina State Park was a huge part of why we loved Tucson so much — and the story of how we snagged a campsite there highlights a perfect blend of road trip naïveté and astonishing good luck.
It was February 28 — the peak of camping season in Arizona — yet it hadn’t even occurred to us that there might be no room in the inn. In fact, I only discovered that our target campground, Catalina State Park, was full because I was trying desperately to find somewhere else to stay. The escalation from $10/night camping in New Mexico to $30/night in Arizona was not sitting well with me. I quickly stopped complaining about the state park rates when I discovered the KOA and other private campground rates soared well north of $50/night.
We drove through the gates of the park, greeted by this fabulous view, and prepared to beg for nothing more than a spot in the parking lot. Apparently our desperation was evident, and we were pointed to what was inelegantly described as “the overflow lot.”
The Ringtail Campground is, in fact, a group camping area — but from January 15 – March 31 its sites are rented out individually for desperate travelers like ourselves. There are no hookups, and during the day the area hums with generators, but for $15 we snagged ourselves a perfectly respectable spot. In no time flat Ryan had a tarp shelter rigged to protect us from the desert sun, and we were in business.
Park staff warned us that it may be difficult to hold on to our spot; Ringtail Campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis so we’d need to be in the office bright and early to renew our spot if we wanted to stay longer. While we were lucky enough to keep our spot for four successive nights, we did witness more than one hapless soul being turned away.
Logistical wrangling aside, Catalina State Park stands out as one of the best campgrounds we’ve ever stayed at. The bathhouse was spacious, modern, and ridiculously clean. It even had an external wash station for cleaning dirty camp dishes. The location couldn’t have been more perfect — big enough to feel like you were definitely out in nature, but just minutes from restaurants and shopping. The views of the Catalina Mountains were heavenly, and there was a wide range of hiking trails beginning within the park itself.
Saguaro National Park
As if an amazing state park wasn’t enough, Tucson is also home to a one-of-a-kind national park: Saguaro National Park on the west side of town.
Having previously held little-to-no feelings on cacti, I was surprised by how gorgeous I found Saguaro NP — and it was one of Ryan’s favorite national parks to date.
Our first stop, as always, was the visitor’s center, where we purchased a number of national parks themed gear, including some new bumper stickers and a dri-fit shirt decorated with cacti for Ryan. (I told you he loves Saguaro!)
We also watched the orientation video, which was excellent. No spoilers, but there’s a little surprise at the end that will have you truly marveling at the beauty of the desert.
Having learned a great deal about the wildlife and geography we were about to experience, we set off into the park. We chose to do the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, a five mile loop with several options to stop and hike into the desert.
One place we opted to stop was the Signal Hill Trail, a short, quarter-mile hike with dozens of ancient petroglyphs over 800 years old.
We also stopped at the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area, with a charming stone hut set off the road.
We made our way up the path into the hut, where it was about 20 degrees cooler than in the desert sun. We had a lovely picnic lunch and even made a bird friend!
Saguaro National Park left us spellbound by the desert and wanting more! While we never encountered cacti quite like the ones we saw here, Saguaro set the stage for our love affair with desert landscapes that would only grow as we moved north through Arizona.
I had no idea what to expect from Tucson, but we found ourselves delightfully surprised. It was definitely unique, and a bit seedy in spots, but we loved the quirky vibe and friendly people.
We started our exploration with coffee from Maynards Market and Kitchen, then made our way north. Our first stop was Miller’s Surplus, where Ryan found himself in camping supply heaven. Next stop: Antigone Books, a zany, independent (and 100% solar-powered) bookstore.
After that we just wandered, enjoying the gorgeous day and taking in the varied architecture. We made a few stops along the way — chatting for a while with a friendly realtor who gave us the rundown on Tucson’s neighborhoods, sticking our head in the charming visitor’s center, and marveling at the gorgeous St Augustine Cathedral.
Of course we had to enjoy some Mexican food while we were there, and we had a fantastic dinner at Street Taco and Beer on Congress Street. The tacos were awesome and the sweet, fruit-flavored Mexican water was perfectly refreshing.
And that’s our take on Tucson, friends! Have you been? Do you love it or hate it?
Campground: Catalina State Park (Tucson, AZ)
- Tent/RV site, no hookups (Ringtail Campground — overflow)
- Cost: $15
- Pros: This was one of our favorite campgrounds of the trip. It was incredibly beautiful, nestled at the base of the Catalina mountains — but just minutes from Tucson and very near Saguaro National Park. The facilities were gorgeous, too — the (free) hot showers were among the nicest we’ve encountered at a campground, and there was an extremely helpful camp kitchen setup for washing dishes.
- Cons: All the pros of this gorgeous campground led it to be very crowded! We were lucky enough to be able to snag a spot in the overflow campground each of the five nights we ended up staying here, but we saw a few people be turned away. Also, the overflow lot is decidedly unfancy — just a big parking lot — although we personally were more than happy to be there because it was cheaper than the developed sites.