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A trip to Tucson country: from the desert bloom at Saguaro National Park to conquistadors at Coronado, southeastern Arizona offers a diversity of landscapes and history. Here are five national park units that should not be missed on any week-long trip to the area.

Funky and fun, Tucson, Arizona's rich natural and anthropological history reflects a diverse heritage primed for discovery. Though less cosmopolitan than Phoenix, Tucson ambles in a way that seems more appropriate to the old West and southern Arizona.

The scenery surrounding the city is outstanding, and its weather, legendary. Tucson rests in the midst of four mountain ranges: the Santa Catalinas to the North, the Rincons to the East, the Santa Ritas to the South, and the Tucsons to the West.

In the wintertime, visitors might be treated to one of the rare storms that blanket the higher elevations with snow. If you happen to be in Tucson on such a day, head to the foothills for a hike from the arid desert into a forest of snow-covered cacti.

Spring is also an excellent time to visit Tucson and tour the region's national parks. In March, depending on the winter rains and snowfall, wildflowers begin to reveal themselves. Gold poppy, desert marigold, globe mallows, penstemon, verbena, larkspur, and desert lupine cover the desert in a cornucopia of color. If you're more interested in flowering cacti, April and May are the best months to visit, when saguaros, various cholla, prickly pear, pincushions, hedgehogs, and claret cups bloom during these months and occasionally into June.

Tucson boasts a long history of human habitation and functions as a good jumping off point for visitors interested in learning about the history of southeastern Arizona. Tucson provided shelter for various people: the ancient Hohokam, more modern Pimas, Spanish explorers and missionaries, and later settlers.

A week-long vacation could be spent exploring Tucson. However, for a more expansive and inspiring immersion, visitors should step out of the city and into the areas national parks.

Saguaro National Park

Because of its proximity to downtown Tucson, Saguaro National Park should be a first stop for visitors to the southeastern Arizona parks. The park protects thousands of acres of desert plants and wildlife, including stands of its namesake, the saguaro cactus. Called the "monarch of the Sonoran Desert," the saguaro exhibits fascinating adaptations to the tough desert environment.

Ancient and modern American Indians used parts of the saguaro for food, ceremony, and shelter. Evidence of the Hohokam, or "those who have vanished," appears in petroglyphs in the park's western section. Visit Signal Hill to see some examples. For hiking options, both the East and West districts offer many excellent trails of moderate to difficult challenge. Those interested in the backcountry experience should head to Saguaro East, which features many trails in the Rincon Mountains.

For more information on the park, visit www.nps.gov/sagu/index.htm or call 520-733-5158.

Tumacacori National Historical Park

Tucson's next nearest national park unit, Tumacacori National Historical Park, relates the history of Spanish missionaries in the "New World." Originally founded as the Mission San Cayetano de Tumacacori (later changed to San Jose de Tumacacori) by the legendary Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino in January 1691, the mission was created to convert the local Pima Indians to Christianity.

In 1767, the Spanish King Charles III banished the Jesuits, for political reasons, from Spain and all of her colonies worldwide, including the Pimeria Alta. The Franciscan order took over the area and, circa 1800, Fray Narciso Gutierrez began working with masons and Indian and Spanish laborers on a church at Tumacacori to replace the previous Jesuit structure. However, because of warfare and the mission's relative poverty, the church would not be completed until the 1820s.

Park visitors can marvel at what remains of the 1800s structure and imagine the struggles that the early missionaries faced. On your way from Tucson, be sure to visit the impressive San Xavier del Bac mission. Called the "White Dove of the Desert," San Xavier del Bac was the third mission of Arizona. It became the principal mission at the beginning of the 19th century. For more information about Tumacacori National Historical Park, visit www.nps.gov/tuma/ or call 520-398-2341.

Coronado National Memorial

Another park that tells the story of the early Spanish exploration of the American Southwest, Coronado National Memorial marks the countryside where explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado first led his detachment into Arizona in 1540 during the search for the fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola." Although the cities were said to be "large ... with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emeralds and turquoise," the expedition never found any wealth in the modest pueblos of the region. Rather, the explorers discovered hardship and encountered indigenous peoples of the Southwest. The unsuccessful journey terminated, after reaching the Great Plains of Kansas. Coronado would later face judgment for, his improper treatment of the Indians on his return to Mexico in 1542.

Many stories surround the expedition: from Spanish explorers, to Franciscan priests, to a Plains Indian that Coronado's people called "The Turk," who was determined to lead the expedition to the Plains where, it was hoped by the beleaguered Indians, the Spanish would perish. Visitors can hike the short Coronado Peak Trail at Montezuma Pass for an expansive view of the San Rafael Valley (looking west), and the San Pedro Valley in Mexico.

From that location, visitors can imagine the legion of Spaniards, with their coats of mail and shiny helmets, searching for gold and fame and finding dust and iniquity.

For more information on the park, visit www.nps.gov/coro/ or call 520-366-5515.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Continuing the tour east from Tucson and into more modern times, Fort Bowie National Historic Site chronicles the battles between the U.S. government and the Apache Indians. Fort Bowie was originally constructed in 1862 to secure safe passage through the pass and access to Apache Spring, what the Spanish called "Puerto del Dado" (the "Pass of Chance"). The fort provides a look at a complicated affair in U.S.-American Indian relations.

In 1861, a band of Apaches raided a ranch and kidnapped the son of a Mexican woman living on the ranch. The settler, John Ward, wrongly claimed that the Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise, and his men were responsible and demanded that something be done. Second Lt. George Bascom entered Apache Pass and invited Cochise into his tent, and informed the Chiricahua leader that they would hold him hostage until the boy and the settler's stock were returned. Offended by Bascom's implications, Cochise knifed his way through the tent and escaped. Cochise began warring on U.S. soldiers and settlers in the area. Between 1862 and 1886, soldiers from Fort Bowie campaigned against Apaches, first led by Cochise and then by the famous Gcronimo.

Unlike most national park units, Fort Bowie can be accessed only by a 1.5-mile hiking trail. The hike makes the discovery of the ruins of the Butterfield Stage Station and the fort rewarding and provides visitors with an opportunity to experience the beauty of the areas high desert. When traveling during the warmer months, remember to bring a lot of water and sunscreen.

For information on the park, visit www.nps.gov/fobo/ or call 520-847-2500.

Chiricahua National Monument

The final stop on the tour of the southeastern Arizona parks, Chiricahna National Monument provides an excellent setting for understanding the human history of the region as well as immersing yourself the area's interesting natural environment. Named after the Chiricahua Apaches, who called it the "Land of Standing Up Rocks" (English translation), the monument's most dramatic characteristic is its hoodoos, spires, columns, and balanced rocks formed from volcanic eruptions and erosion millions of years ago.

One of the areas "sky islands," the park's ecosystem is much different from the surrounding low desert. Abounding in trees, plants, and wild/flowers and receiving more precipitation than the desert, the Chiricahua Mountains boast a diversity of plant and animal life. Lucky visitors can spy rare animals, including coatimundis and peccaries (also called javelinas), and colorful birds.

Because of their fruitfulness and relatively moderate climate, the Chiricahuas provided a haven for the Apaches and later pioneers. Among the early settlers were Swedish immigrants Nell and Emma Erickson and the Stafford family. A daughter of the Ericksons, Lillian, and her husband Ed Riggs, turned the homestead into a guest ranch in the 1920s. Lillian dubbed it Faraway Ranch, because it was so "godawful far away from everything." It was largely through the work of Lillian and Ed that the area first received attention and was later designated a national monument.

Visitors can explore Faraway Ranch, Stafford Cabin, and the more than 17 miles of trails in the park. A campground is open all year on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information on the park, visit www.nps. gov/chir/or call 520-824-3560.

Bill Updike is a writer living in Washington, D.C., who formerly Lived for a time in Tucson.

Birding in Southeastern Arizona

In addition to its natural splendor and anthropological intricacies, southeastern Arizona is famous for its birds. Saguaro National Park boasts Many birds, including Gila woodpecker, gilded flicker, cactus wren, phainopepla, and elf and screech owls. Observant visitors might see hummingbirds, acorn woodpeckers, gray-breasted jays, spotted towhees, painted redstarts, white-winged doves, and Montezuma quails at Coronado National Memorial. Because of its proximity to the Mexican Sierra Madres, Chiricahua National Monument also has many unusual birds, such as the hepatic tanager, red-faced warbler, and the outstanding elegant trogon.

Outside of the national parks are a number of wonderful birding sites. Some local favorites include Agua Caliente Park, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiticahuas, The Nature Conservancy-run Patagonia-Sonoita Creek and Ramsey Canyon preserves, and the Willcox Playa. For a more Extensive list of the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail, visit www.seazbirding.com.
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Author:Updike, Bill
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1617
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