I left my suitcase at the door of our West Tucson Airbnb and walked out onto the back patio to watch the sun slip behind the Tucson Mountains. The shades of red and orange on the undersides of a couple of clouds stood out in the pale blue sky. This was exactly what we were looking for when we left a cold grey Chicago nine hours ago.
But then I heard a rustling from the far edge of the patio. A good-sized boar, a wild pig, walked out from between two bushes and walked across the backyard. Then another one. They stopped, turned to look at me, and then kept walking. More kept coming – another six followed the leaders, walking the same path across the backyard, stopping to sniff at a little tree. A quick Google search told me they weren’t wild pigs but javelinas, a New World relative of the pig. They range from southern Arizona all the way down to Argentina in social groups called “squadrons”. Our squad looked comfortable here, like they were taking their usual end-of-day stroll back to wherever they bed down to stay safe from mountain lions. A couple of them came back to check on us the next morning, reminding us to keep the patio door closed.
To see a video of the javelina visitation and more, check out my Tucson Instagram Story on the TravelCommons Instagram Page
As I mentioned in the last podcast, our plans for this trip were all about outside activities so any last-minute COVID closures or restrictions didn’t strand us in our Airbnb, aimlessly flipping through TV channels. Since Tucson is surrounded by five small-ish mountain ranges, we focused on hiking.
Saguaro National Park is split into two physically separate areas, the Tucson Mountain District (TMD) on the west side of town near where we were staying, and across town to the east, the Rincon Mountain District (RMD). Our drive to the west district wound through the northern part of Tucson Mountain Park; two lanes twisting through gaps between the hilltops. The forecast said it would be the best weather of our stay, the highest temperatures and the lowest chance of rain, so we went for our biggest hike, an 8-mile loop that would take us to the top of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak.
We planned to park at the King Canyon Trailhead, but it was filled with construction equipment that had completely torn up the parking lot. We hung a quick U-turn and, ignoring the warning signs, parked across the street in the far corner of the Arizona-Sonoma Desert Museum. We cut through some brush, crossed the street, and found the start of the trail. It was sand and larger stones that climbed up from a dry wash. The Park Service has done a nice job of marking the trail, carving out steps on the steeper parts, and putting up signs at the trail intersections. I was glad, though, that I’d downloaded enough off-line Google Maps data so I could double-check the signs when my mobile connection dropped.
We walked up through what seemed the cactus version of a forest. The hills were full of all sorts of cacti: tall saguaro, low-to-the ground prickly pear and barrel, and twisted, tangled cholla. The top of Wasson Peak gave a panoramic view of the rocky hills that jutted straight up from the desert floor, and of Tucson sitting at the bottom of them.
Tucson Mountain Park is directly south of western part of Saguaro National Park. We walked 10 minutes from our Airbnb to the Starr Pass Trailhead. This hike was a 5½-mile loop around the valley floor, not as long nor as scenic as yesterday’s Saguaro hike, but more leisurely and certainly easier on the feet. We took a bit more time, looking up at the tall saguaro cactuses with all their different arm configurations, and then down at the barrel cactuses that were just beginning to show the light green shoots of new growth. There were more people using these trails; the level terrain made it popular with mountain bikers and runners. And here too, the trails were well-marked and well-maintained. It was a good afternoon’s hike.
Sabino Canyon Recreational Area was our last hiking spot. It’s across town, on the northeast side of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was much more crowded than Saguaro or Tucson Mountain, but I might not be making a fair comparison. At Sabino Canyon, we drove to the main visitors center to step off on our hike while our other hikes started at smaller, more remote trailheads. Here again, there was beautiful rugged desert scenery, looking up the mountains and down into the canyons. But the trails weren’t as well-marked as the other parks. We would lose the trail coming up out of a wash and then wander through cactus and javelina tracks trying to pick it up again. It was a pretty hike, but frustrating.
All the hiking freed up the caloric space we needed to get deep into Sonoran food, a style of Mexican cuisine that hasn’t yet broken out of its birthplace, in this case, Southern Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, the way that Tex-Mex, Baja, and Oaxacan cuisines have. Picking up the menus, I immediately saw some differences – it’s a burro, not a burrito; a caramelo, not a quesadilla; and tacos are garnished with chopped cabbage instead of the chopped cilantro and raw white onion that is the standard in Chicago. Beef, especially carne asada grilled over mesquite, is the default filling and it’s served in a thin flour tortilla that’s more like Chinese moo shu or Peking Duck wrappers than the thick flour tortillas you get with fajitas. Tucson Foodie and Andi Berlin, food writer at #ThisIsTucson, were my main guides to Sonoran food.
Ruiz Hot Dogs food truck was our first stop. I’d read a lot about the Sonoran hot dog and coming from Chicago, another town with its own unique twist on a hot dog, I had to give it a try. The Sonoran dog is a bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with chopped tomatoes and onions, pinto beans, mayonnaise, mustard, and salsa verde, served in a slightly sweet split-top bun with a grilled yellow pepper on the side. We ate ours on the hood of our rental car. It was great and a bargain at $3. (1140 S 6th Ave at W 22nd St)
El Taco Rustico was next on our list for tacos – more specifically, quesabirras and cabrito (goat) tacos. We tried the quesabirras first. They’re crispy tacos filled with beef birra (juicy stewed beef) and melted cheese, served with a little styrofoam cup of broth, a sort of “Mexican a jus,” for dipping. The broth, with a deep roasted dried chile flavor, pulled everything together. What the quesabirras didn’t soak up, we drank like a chaser from a styrofoam shot glass. Next were tacos. We had cabrito and pollo asado (grilled chicken) tacos, and they were a revelation. The taste of the meat, the mesquite smoke on the grilled chicken and the tang of the goat, punched through the condiments and the tortilla. That this made such an impression on us is a credit to Chef Juan Almanza but also a sad commentary on how the meat at too many taco joints is just an underseasoned carrier for the salsa and garnish. (2281 N Oracle Rd)
Tacos Apson was our last stop, down in South Tucson across the street from a high school, and the best stop. We smelled the mesquite coming off the grill when we opened the car door. We walked up to the window and ordered two burros, carne asada and haas, which is a mix of asada, cheese, and roasted green chiles. Then scanning the menu, I added a couple costillas tacos, grilled beef ribs. Back at the Airbnb, I cut burros in half. The thin flour tortilla was wrapped around nothing but the meat; none of typical burrito fillings, no rice or beans or lettuce or crema. There was nothing to mask the mesquite on the carne asada or the beef ribs, and the cheese and green chile in the haas burro accentuated rather than overwhelmed the beef. (3501 S 12th Ave)
I can’t hike and eat Mexican food without beer. Tucson isn’t on anyone’s list of top beer cities, but I found a couple of solid microbreweries to recommend.
1912 Brewing Company is in a strip of nondescript light industrial buildings just west of I-10, a quick 5-minute drive from El Taco Rustico. They have 20 taps and turn out good beer over a wider variety of styles than most places – goses, saisons, and some German styles in addition to the usual IPAs. (2045 N Forbes Blvd, Ste 105)
Pueblo Vida Brewing Company is in downtown Tucson. After navigating one-way streets and dodging street car, we found parking and walked over to the taproom only to find that the taproom was still closed due to COVID restrictions. But they were selling cans from a walk-up window. We had a nice chat with the woman helping us and bought a mixed 4-pack to go with our Tacos Apson take-away – a Vietnamese-inspired rice lager, a couple of hazy IPAs made with local Sonoran white wheat, and what I was most excited for, a black IPA. They were the best beers of the trip. (115 E Broadway Blvd)
- Travel and Lodging
- We flew Southwest Airline to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) from Chicago Midway (MDW). Prices and flight selection were much better than flying into Tucson (TUS).
- We rented a car from Hertz at PHX and drove the 115 miles down I-10 to Tucson. It was an easy drive that took us an hour and 40 minutes. PHX is on the south side of Phoenix right by I-10, so we didn’t hit any Phoenix traffic on the drive.
- Our Airbnb was a one-bedroom time-share suite at Starr Pass Golf Suites. It was a nice resort though we didn’t get around to using any of the amenities (pool, golf course, restaurant). We’re glad we stayed out near the Tucson Mountains rather than a downtown hotel. Tucson isn’t that big, so we weren’t more than 25 minutes from anywhere we wanted to be.
- Sonoran Food
- Craft Beer