Thanks to my parents still living on eastern standard time, I woke up way too early in the morning to find them pretty much up and about. I think on average I woke up around 6 AM MST through the trip even while going to sleep around midnight or later. Not ideally when I like to start my day on vacation but it is pretty much to be expected when I travel with my parents especially in the western US.
Most Holiday Inns all provide breakfast so we grabbed some stuff from the continental breakfast and finished off the leftovers from the night before. We would be heading north later in the day and spending the night in Flagstaff so we had packed up and loaded everything on to the car after checking out. Our first stop which was pretty close to the hotel would in Saguaro National Park – West.
Saguaro National Park
Red Hill Visitor Center – 2700 N Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743
Rincon Mountain Visitor Center – 3693 S Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730
So Saguaro National Park is actually split into two locations. The West side is northwest of Tucson’s city center and the East side is to the east of the city center. Both sides have a loop drive. Since we were staying near the West side, I will talk about that side first.
Driving over to the west side, we actually drove through bits and pieces of the park but the main entrance to the loop drive is closer to where the Red Hill Visitor Center is though the visitor center is not directly at the entrance of the drive. For the West side, the national park fee is more on the honor system. I believe you are supposed to go the the visitor center first to pay the fee but since we had an lifetime national park pass, we drove straight in and took the Bajada Loop Drive:
Our first and honestly only stop was the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail itself is only 0.8 mile but we only walked maybe half that if even since the view while amazing, seemed to be mostly the same. On the trail you will see a ton of saguaro cacti which are the tall cacti, many with arms. There were also a lot of prickly pear cacti and others. Unfortunately, it was not blooming season which usually begins around the end of April. I’m sure it is even more impressive when all the cacti are blooming. As it was, it was probably still too cold and dry so we barely saw any blooms on the West side.
After our short walk, we drove the rest of the loop drive. The view was amazing but also fairly similar throughout (lots of cacti!) and we finished pretty quickly. We actually stopped at the visitor center (which was mostly closed) at the end of our visit to use the restrooms. However, while there we read interesting facts about the saguaro cacti. Apparently they do not start growing “arms” until they are about 75 years old and those with many “arms” are probably upwards of 175 to 200 years old! They can also grow as tall as a 4-floor building. It was pretty crazy to think so many of the cacti we saw were so old.
Leaving the Red Hill Visitor Center, we crossed Tucson, heading east to the East side. The East side also has a loop drive called the Cactus Forest Drive that does start at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center which if I remember correctly did have a fee booth when entering. (If you plan to visit a few places operated by the national park service, I really recommend buying an annual pass. It will be worth it with just a couple visits to the same or different parks.)
Since we just came from the West side, we just drove the loop drive and did not stop to walk any trails. Overall both the West and East side give you a great look at Sonoran Desert life but it is a fairly similar view all around. We did see one cactus that was already blooming on the East side. It was right next to the car path as if it were putting on a show for everyone passing by.
We finished the loops in both parks within a morning since we got an earlier start. That combined with it being low season, there were not a lot of cars. However, I will say that if you intend to go during a busier season, perhaps during blooming season, give yourself extra time and start early. Much of the loop drives are single car one-way paths so you can only go as fast as the car in front of you. Also, it did not seem like there was a lot of parking spots within the park for trails, only a few cars for each spot. We did not have any issues getting parking but if there were more people, you might be out of luck.
After looping around both sides of Saguaro National Park, we realized we were ahead of schedule. On the way to the East side of the park, we actually passed by Pima Air & Space Museum and an airplane boneyard just before reaching the park so we decided to head over there and look at some aircraft. We already had the museum as a possible stop if we had time but we had not realized how close it is to the East side of Saguaro National Park. If you have time, and have someone in your group interested in aircraft, I highly suggest stopping by.
Pima Air & Space Museum
6000 E Valencia Road, Tucson, AZ 85756
The museum is not really your typical museum. First off the outdoor “display” area is much much larger than the inside “display” area. Second, by display, I really just mean a bunch of retired aircraft (as in actual aircraft, not models). A lot, a lot, a lot of aircraft. Military fighter jets, stealth jets, helicopters, private aircraft, commercial aircraft, the whole shebang. And much like every other review will probably tell you, buy the tram tour ticket. As of March 2022, it’s $8 per person and completely worth it. You basically sit on a tram that is driven around the outdoor lot winding in and out of rows of aircraft with a guide actually telling you what types of aircraft they are, what they were used for and a lot of other information you probably do not know.
You do have to buy tram tickets at the ticket counter when buying admission tickets. A lot of people did not seem to realize that and would come to the waiting area thinking they could just hop on but you do need a ticket and you are assigned a time. We were lucky that it apparently was not as busy that day and were able to get on a tram about an hour and a half after entering the museum. In fact, we spend that time walking through the indoor areas and then getting food in their cafeteria since it was lunch hour (great onion rings!).
If you do end up booking the tram tour, do not wait until your tour time. I recommend going to the waiting area a little earlier as the previous tour finishes maybe 15-20 minutes before your tour and people will start getting on the tram. Obviously the outside seats are the best for photos so if you get on earlier, you are more likely to get seats on the outside of the row which is what we did. The first half of the tour was great and I learned a lot from the tour guide.
The second half of the tour, I was completely distracted and missed most of what the tour guide was saying because the nearby Air Force base had jets up in the air performing training maneuvers? Basically we saw an F-22 fighter jet and some other aircraft flying all over, spinning, diving, etc. It was really entertaining and the tour guide would try and pause the tour to let everyone watch the impromptu air show going on above but eventually had to continue on. However, most of us on the tour were just staring at the sky at that point.
After the tram tour, we also walked around a few of the separate exhibit areas in individual hangers by the outdoor “displays”. Something the museum used to do but no longer offered anymore (unrelated to COVID) was tours of the airplane boneyard nearby. When aircraft are retired or even just stored, they are usually sent to these “boneyards” or “graveyards” which are usually in desert areas since there is less humidity (and precipitation) which is better for aircraft storage. However, while you can no longer tour inside, you can drive along the outside edge and see lots and lots of aircraft from afar. If you drive from Pima to the East side of Saguaro National Park, you will pass by the boneyard.
After leaving Pima, the goal was to reach Flagstaff as we had reserved a hotel night there. However, we still had enough time to make a stop in Phoenix before continuing on to Flagstaff helping to break up the journey.
The stop we made in Phoenix was at the Desert Botanical Garden. Originally this was not really on our radar but I happened across an article a month or two before our trip talking about two Chihuly glass exhibits happening in Phoenix. One was at the Desert Botanical Garden and the other at Taliesin West which used to be the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright. My mom and I love seeing glass by Dave Chihuly so we really wanted to stop by one of the exhibits and since we also love visiting gardens, we decided to go to the Desert Botanical Garden.
We originally were not sure if we would stop by on the way north and when returning back south to go to the airport but since we had the time we stopped on the way up.
Desert Botanical Garden
1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, AZ 85008
The gardens say they required timed reservations but if they have availability they also sell tickets in person. Since we were unsure when we would visit, we did not make reservations ahead of time and instead just bought tickets when we got there. We went on a Sunday and were able to buy tickets but again it was not really blooming season though there were a lot more blooms here in the garden than at the national park in Tucson (it is a bit warmer in Phoenix than Tucson) so I am not sure if it is always easy to buy tickets at the gate.
After buying our tickets, we also got a map. On the map they also pointed out where all the glass sculptures or exhibits were. I think in total there were 12 or 13 points of interest for the Chihuly glass with one of them being an indoor exhibit with multiple pieces large and small. We followed the numbering of the exhibits as they listed them on the map as a guide as to how to walk around. The garden is not the largest I have been too but it also is not that small. There are a few different sections but also a main sort of looped path. There were a lot more examples of desert vegetation and more cacti and other plants in bloom though there were still many that had not yet starting blooming. It will probably look even more amazing in April or May with all the blooms plus the glass.
The Chihuly glass was impressive as always and I appreciated the indoor exhibition with different forms of glass than the outdoor sculptures. They do limit the number of people in the indoor exhibition but we had good timing and went straight in.
The garden itself is also part of a larger park called the Papago Park which includes other attractions such as a zoo but I will go into more detail about it in another post since we do end up returning to the area on our last day.
When we are done touring the botanical garden, we get back on the road. Driving to Flagstaff is about a 2.5 drive straight up the I-17 freeway. We eventually pulled into the Holiday Inn Express Flagstaff (parents really love IHG) only to find snowbanks and icicles!
The rooms here were a little older and the room smaller than the one we stayed at in Tucson. It was also strange that instead of a comforter or duvet, only a thinner blanket was provided considering it was below freezing at night. Literally the coldest place we stayed at provided the thinnest blanket. Obviously, we turned up the heater.
Since it was so cold, we elected to not go out to eat and instead just eat snacks we brought with us and attempted to buy food from the vending machines. It did not work out. Instead of a hot pocket we ended up with ice cream, go figure.
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