Tucson Area Adventures

March 17-24, 2019

Gilbert Ray Campground

This is a beautiful county campground west of Tucson. They don’t take reservations and fill quickly so people start lining up at 8:30 waiting for the office to open at 9:00. We enjoyed nice walkabouts, great conversations with other campers (we found another Phoenix Cruiser!) and it was a great base to explore the area.

Our campsite (hood up to discourage packrats)

There are desert hiking trails leaving right from the campground and we had beautiful sunsets, a gorgeous full moon on the mountains and just generally great views.

Sunset at Gilbert Ray campground

The hosts and other staff were friendly and helpful and the facilities were clean. The cost is $20/night for electric only – cash or check. You can only stay 7 out of every 14 days. There is more than an enough to do in the area so we booked the full seven and happily settled in. The Coyote Pause Cafe is about 15 minutes away and serves a very good breakfast and lunch… with margaritas if you want them.

Saguaro National Park

We hit both sections of Saguaro National Park (west: Tucson Mountain District and east: Rincon Mountain District).

Saguaro National Park – West Visitor Center

They both have a small visitor center, gift shop, video (different at each), and a loop drive. There are hiking trails and picnic areas. The biggest difference is that the east district is almost entirely wilderness – no roads. It also has huge elevation gains if you hike up into the Rincon Mountains. There you will encounter completely different flora and fauna (and trees – I miss trees).

Panorama of Saguaro Forest from Saguaro National Park Visitor Center

We were not up for back country backpacking so we spent a day at each location and stuffed in as many Ranger programs as we could. The programs were OK with those on the west being far better than those on the east. But after the excellent ones at Organ Pipe Cactus NM, they all seemed a little lacking both in content and enthusiasm. The fact we were learning the same things over and over probably didn’t help hold our interest. Our overall feeling was that if you are going to hit just one of these parks – Saguaro or Organ Pipe – go to Organ Pipe. They have lots of Saguaros as well as the Organ Pipe Cactus and Senita Cactus that you won’t find occurring naturally anywhere else in the US.

While both visitor centers were small they managed to pack in information about the geography, flora and fauna, and the inhabitants. Both also had short garden walks with some excellent examples of the native plants.

Soaptree Yucca

One exhibit showed how Tucson’s growth pushed up against both the east and west sections of the park. And it’s only going to get worse over the next 10 years.

Tucson’s Projected Growth by 2030

Pima Air and Space Museum

John went on his own while Holly worked on the blog so this is entirely his post.

Entrance road to Pima Air & Space Museum

As a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, most of the aircraft displayed here were donated by government agencies, corporations, or private individuals. And they have a lot of airplanes.


I think the coolest airplane in their collection is the B-36 Peacemaker. It is huge and is powered by six turboprop engines and four turbojet engines. What I didn’t know is that this bomber was initially conceived in 1941 before the US entered World War II. At that time there was concern that Great Britain might surrender to Germany and the US would need a bomber that could fly from the US to Europe, drop its bombs, and return.


Wonder Weapons of World War II

The museum exhibited a lesser known Nazi “wonder weapon”, the Fritz X radio guided bomb. The weapon was a standard armor piercing bomb with radio controlled tail fins and wings. After it was dropped the bombardier would visually guide the bomb to its target by radio control.

Fritz X radio guided bomb

The weapon’s biggest claim to fame was the sinking of the Italian battleship Roma in September 1943. Now the Italians were allied with the Germans so you may be wondering why the Nazis would attack one of their allies’ ships. When the Western allies invaded Italy, the Italian government collapsed, surrendered, and then turned around and declared war on Germany. The Germans were not too happy with that turn of events and set about dismantling the Italian armed forces. Hence the attack on the Roma.

Fortunately for the Western allies, they figured out fairly quickly how to jam the bomb’s radio guidance signals. That pretty much rendered the bomb useless as a “wonder weapon.”

Anyone who has read about World War II in the Pacific knows that late in the war Kamikaze pilots flew aircraft on one-way missions to attack American warships. Some of you may also know about the Okha (Cherry Blossom) guided anti-ship bomb. The 2,600 pound bomb and its pilot were dropped from a bomber. Once released the pilot would guide the bomb into an American warship. The first use of this weapon was during the American invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. Seven ships were hit and three were sunk.

Now what I didn’t know was that there also was a two-seat variant used as a trainer. The trainer was intended to give trainee pilots some experience in guiding the weapon. I guess that makes sense. Sort of.

Okha suicide bomb trainer

Lady Be Good

When I was a kid I was crazy about airplanes, especially World War II airplanes. I was fascinated by World War II and remember spending many lazy summer days reading books about the war.

As I got older I still loved the planes but became more interested in the stories behind them, about the men who flew in them.

The museum had an exhibit about a B-24 bomber named Lady Be Good by its crew. The bomber and crew were part of 376th Bombardment Group’s 514th Squadron flying out of Soluch, Libya in 1943. On April 4, 1943 the Lady Be Good and its nine crew members departed for a bombing mission over Naples, Italy. On the return trip the plane disappeared over the Libyan Desert.

Sixteen years later a BP oil exploration crew discovered the nearly intact Lady Be Good, but none of the crew, almost 450 miles southeast of Soluch. After searching thousands of square miles of desert, the remains of five crew members were found 78 miles northwest of the crash site. Shortly thereafter the remains of two more crewmen were found more than 100 miles from the bailout point. Another crewman was found 12 miles from the crash site. The last crewman was never found.

The pilot 1st Lt. William J. Hatton’s journal is what makes this story so poignant. His entry for April 4, 1943 reads

Naples – 28 planes – things pretty well mixed up – got lost returning, out of gas, jumped, landed in desert at 2:00 in morning, no one badly hurt, can’t find John, all others present.

His entry for April 6, 1943 reads

Rested at 11:30, sun very warm, no breeze, spent P.M. in hell, no planes, etc., rested until 5:00 P.M., walked & rested all nite; 15 min on, 5 off.

Their situation continues to deteriorate. His entry for April 8, 1943 reads

Hit sand dunes, very miserable, good wind but continuous blowing of sand, every [one] now very weak, thought Sam [tail gunner Samuel E. Adams] & Moore [assistant radio operator Vernon E. Moore] were all done. La Motte [radio operator Robert E. LaMotte] eyes are gone, every one else’s eyes are bad. Still going N.W.

Lady Be Good artifacts

Freedom One

Most Baby Boomers like me remember the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 to 1981. To me it marked the low point of American confidence and optimism that followed the end of the Vietnam War.

In July 1979 Iranian revolutionaries forced the American-backed Shah of Iran to flee the country. In October then-President Carter allowed the deposed Shah into the US for cancer treatment. The Iranians reacted by storming the US Embassy in Tehran and taking 66 hostages. Fourteen were eventually released. The remaining 52 were held for 444 days.

The hostages were freed on January 21, 1981 a few hours after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. A Boeing 707 aircraft flew to Tehran and brought the hostages home. On landing in the US the air traffic controller said, “Welcome home Freedom One.” The name stuck.

That aircraft is now displayed at the Pima Air & Space Museum.

Freedom One

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

EVERYONE said this is a must see. It is over $20 per person but we decided to give it a go.

Arizona-Sonora Desert entrance

This felt more like a zoo than a museum to us (and in fact they are part of the association of zoos – if we had renewed our National Zoo membership, we would have gotten in either half price or free). We enjoyed the day and saw all kinds of cool things BUT the map and activity/program schedule leave a bit to be desired. The schedule for the programs is on a display at the entrance and only showed through 11:00. The volunteer said it will scroll up as time passes so later in the day you can see what is coming up. He couldn’t guarantee that any of the programs would be repeated and many were scheduled for 10:00 so you pretty much had to pick one and be done. We only managed to hit one of their scheduled programs – Free Flight – and never made it back to the front to find out what else was going on. This irritated “Holly the scheduler and navigator” as it was hard to plan where we wanted to be and hard to find the “where” on the map once we had a plan… but we did enjoy the day.

We arrived when they opened at 7:30 and the outdoor animals were happy and frisky and visible. Later in the day they would be hiding from the heat.

Mule deer reaching for the best leaves

A few highlights of what we did besides walk around and enjoy all the gardens and exhibits:

  • Free Flight: this is run twice a day during the winter but switches to 10:00 am only after March 15 and stops altogether a few weeks later due to heat. You can settle above one of the animal houses or walk down the desert trail to a designated area. The keepers release birds that fly over the heads of the audience, back and forth to different dead tree perches where keepers pay them off with treats. Some of the birds fly so low that you can feel them pass overhead. We saw a Chihuahuan Raven, Grey Hawk, Great Horned Owl, and a whole family of Harris’s Hawks that take the free flying opportunity to fly far and wide in search of a quick bonus snack. These birds were displayed longer as the “hunters” had not returned. The keeper explained that if they put part of the family group away, the wandering hunters might return, realize they weren’t rejoining the family, and decide they may as well fly off and hunt some more. So they keep some near and the others return to the group before they are all called back to their aviary. These are really well trained birds. The narrator talked nonstop and told us about each bird or bird group. We learned that the Harris Hawks have a distinct hierarchy, hunt in packs, coordinate the hunt (with the lowest ranking member getting the job of hopping under the cactus to flush out the prey) and they share the kill. Pretty cool. They have a question and answer session after the flight. Here we learned that the keepers do not use audible signals because audience members might imitate them. The birds are trained to come where they are told and they get a treat. If someone in the audience was to call the birds and no treat (or not the right treat) was given, the birds could decide they weren’t going to follow that command anymore (no pay, no work, I’m going hunting).

Chihuahuan Raven


Grey Hawk


Harris’s Hawks


Great Horned Owl

  • Hummingbird Aviary: You can wander in, walk around, sit on benches and generally hang out with quite a few beautiful hummingbirds. We saw a lot flying free along the Museum trails and gardens but these are in captivity so you have a better chance of getting a good photo as they settle into their favorite perches or hover over the feeders.

Caption: Hummingbird in aviary

  • Walk in Aviary: This large aviary has a few dozen types of birds. They have a flip ring with bird ID cards that you can walk around with and try to identify the ones you see. We found a few… not all. We did get some nice shots of Gambel Quail and a Bobwhite.

Caption: Chuckwallas…SO CUUUUUTE!!!

  • Reptile, Invertebrate and Amphibian Hall: Here we checked out the Gila Monster, snakes, large salamanders, and those “cute” baby Chuckwallas in the photo above.

There are a few small gift shops around the park but their main shop is up front. You enter into what looks like a fancy store with beautiful jewelry, baskets, crystals and more. Once you pass through all these awesome gift items you find an alcove with books (John’s personal favorite) then a ramp down to the tourist type stuff; t-shirts, hats, stuffed critters, etc. I suspect they have something to tempt just about everyone.

The main food location is back in the park and you can choose food court style or a sit down restaurant. Other spots around the park have ice cream, snack foods, coffee, etc.

Note that many of the plants and cacti are NOT native to this area and some are not even native to the western hemisphere. But if you like cactus, gardens, animals and just generally learning and enjoying cool things, this is a must see. Go early! Take water bottles. Try to catch some of the programs and ENJOY!


This entry was posted in Campgrounds, Hiking, Museums, National Park, Science, Zoo and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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