Summer Arrives: The Santa Catalina and Tucson Mountains

Looking toward the Tucson Mountains from Mount Lemmon

Our trip reached its apogee – the furthest distance from home – at White Tank Mountain. Now we turned around and started slowly heading back home, stopping first at one of our favorite places from last year’s Odyssey: Catalina State Park in Tucson AZ.

What’s great about Catalina SP is its proximity to the Santa Catalina mountain range; in the campground you are right up against its foothills. This closeness even has an effect on the local weather. Cold air from the top of the mountain falls to the valley, especially at night, resulting in temperatures that can be ten degrees cooler than the “official” reading at the airport. That made for sunrise temperatures around 45 degrees, but heating up in just a few hours to the mid 60s.

Free refrigeration

The second thing we like about Catalina is its proximity to civilization. While I normally like to feel far removed from urban noise and traffic in our RV, in Catalina you still feel like you’re in nature, but big box shopping malls are found just outside the campground entrance. We took advantage of this by catching a matinee of La La Land in a nearby cinema, and meeting our Beverly Shores friends Jean and Lionel at El Charro restaurant (sorry no pics).

Massive crowds for La La Land matinee

The third advantage of Catalina is that its geography – mountains and water from snowmelt – means birds are plentiful, and guided bird walks are organized three times a week. During these walks we saw many of the usual suspects, but also two pairs of nesting Great Horned Owls (they get started early on building their families so that the hatchlings can dine on the springtime proliferation of desert pack rats – yum!), and a few new ones for me, including Cooper’s Hawk, Western Bluebird, and the stunning Broad-billed Hummingbird.

Still more birding

Papa standing guard – while asleep

During our stay at Catalina, Maureen flew to San Francisco for a few days to continue catching up with more of her friends from The American College of Psychiatrists, who were having another industry meeting, and other friends she had made while living in Berkeley 11 years ago.

After dropping her off at the airport, I continued south to Madera Canyon, a National Forest area on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Well known as a birding hot spot for the same reasons as Catalina SP, I was looking forward to seeing what the fuss was all about. The small lodges along the canyon put out bird feeders, attracting typical local birds (and birders), but nothing too exciting was happening when I was there.

The riveting excitement that is birding

So I drove to the end of the canyon road at 5000’ elevation and decided to jump on the Old Baldy / Carrie Nation trail. I climbed to 6400’, huffing and puffing in the heat and thin air, but there was a nice reward – along the way I saw the gorgeous Painted Redstart, at the top there was an interesting abandoned mine, and on the way down I saw Bridled Titmouse – two new birds for me – so it was a day well spent. I looked for the elusive Elegant Trogon, but word was that they hadn’t yet arrived this year; maybe next time.

Abandoned mine

Otherwise, while Maureen was gone I played bachelor, including for some reason watching reruns of old Indiana Jones movies. This was the first time we had been out of each other’s sight since Thanksgiving, and while it was good to take a break, I have a newfound appreciation for all the work she does to keep our house on wheels running smoothly, and I was happy to see her again when she came back.

Catalina SP is on the north side of Tucson. After 10 days there we moved to Gilbert Ray Campground on the west side, in the Tucson Mountains. Gilbert Ray is another favorite from last year, and while it is a bit more primitive (electric hookup only), it is inexpensive and has great views of the Sonoran landscape and mountains.

Back amongst the saguaros at Gilbert Ray

While here we took in a few local hikes and did laundry, but also made several somewhat touristy outings. First, worth a mention was Tucson Tamale. I’m not a tamale aficionado, but these were delicious, and served with pride and care. Check it out if you’re in Tucson.

Gourmet tamales!

Next, I had been researching Mount Lemmon (more on that later), on which there are telescopes run by the University of Arizona. That led me to reading (isn’t hypertext one of the top inventions of the 20th century?) about the UofA’s Mirror Lab, where they make the enormous pieces of precision glass that are used as the primary optics in the world’s largest telescopes. The lab provides daily tours and there was a spot available, so on a whim, I signed up.


Back in the classroom and geeking out

For this former electrical engineer, it was geek heaven to hear a presentation about “how it’s made” and then watch the actual process and equipment. Here it is in a nutshell: a gigantic ceramic honeycomb mold is made (about 25’ across), some very fancy and pure chunks of glass are placed on top of the mold, the mold is covered with a metal dome and strapped in place with huge steel bands, the inside is heated to a 2130F (that’s very, very hot), and the whole massive contraption is spun like a record at 5 rpm. The glass melts into the mold, and as Isaac Newton first predicted, it assumes a parabolic shape – just what is needed for a telescope mirror. Then it is slowly cooled; in fact it takes 3 months to cool completely to room temperature!

World’s largest piece of glass

But this is just the beginning; while the resulting shape is close to parabolic, it is not precise enough for the required optics. So a painstaking process of measuring, polishing, measuring, and polishing goes on for more months until the largest inaccuracy in the height of the glass is just 18nm. That’s about the size of a virus. Put another way, if the mirror were the size of the United States, the largest bump would be about half an inch high. And as you might imagine, the equipment to do this work and move the glass around is not something you get at Home Depot.

Fancy grinder

Obviously this process is not cheap or fast, but the University of Arizona has developed a unique specialty in it. The weather, mountain ranges, and relatively low light pollution in southern Arizona mean it has a high concentration of research telescopes, and the university has taken advantage of this opportunity. Currently it is working on the fourth mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, and if funding materializes it will be working on the other three. This tour was a reminder to me that, while hikes and nature are awesome, I should remember to see some of the manmade things you can see nowhere else along our journey.

Model of the Giant Magellan Telescope

The next attraction we visited was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We had last visited this museum about 13 years ago, so it was time for an update. A combination botanical garden and zoo, this institution provides a comprehensive and detailed overview of the diverse and sometimes bizarre plants and animals that call this region home. The plants and trails are well marked, with informative exhibits.

Beautiful and bizarre desert plants

But the highlight was the Raptor Free-Flight demonstration. In this twice-daily show, the audience stands in a row about 50’ long and birds of prey fly literally at head-top level above you (it’s not unusual to feel a wing touch your head or shoulder) as they move from perch to perch where handlers have placed meat.

Ready for raptors

It was fascinating to see the variation in their hunting behavior and their beauty up close. We saw Great Horned Owl, Chihuahuan Raven (not actually a raptor), Ferruginous Hawk, Gray Hawk, Screech Hawk and Peregrine Falcon, but the most mesmerizing species was the Harris’s Hawk. These raptors hunt as a team, with a clearly defined hierarchy and roles. While it’s possible to see them in the wild, they aren’t typically found in the Tucson area, so this was a special treat.

Screech Owl

Great Horned Owl

Ferruginous Hawk

Peregrine Falcon going WHOOOOOSH!

Gray Hawk

Harris’s Hawk

Mountain Lion is not amused

Our final fun thing while at Gilbert Ray was to head up to the top of Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Santa Catalina range at 9157’. Named after the first woman who explored it, Mount Lemmon provides a cool respite from the summer-like temperatures we have started to experience down in the valley. The day we went it was 93F in our campground, but a delightful 70 on top of the mountain.

Another geeky thing I found out about was the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour, an audio app that provides a narrated guide to the changes in geology and ecosystems as you ascend from cactus desert to grassland, then woodland, and finally pine forest in the space of an hour. It’s timed perfectly so that you see what is being discussed out your window as you drive.

At the top there is a ski area (it closed only two weeks ago and there is still some snow on the hillside) with a rustic restaurant, serving sandwiches, chili and amazing homemade fruit pies. I ordered the “mountain berry crumble”, which has blueberry, blackberry, strawberry and raspberry. Oink. And nearby, two new birds! (For those keeping score, Yellow-eyed Junco and Steller’s Jay.)

Lunch with sun and snow

We also visited the small town of Summerhaven found near the summit. A forest fire (arson, sadly, was implicated) burned most of the town in 2003 along with thousands of surrounding acres. The town appears to be mostly rebuilt now, consisting largely of cabins that provide free cooling from the blast furnace Tucson heat. If we lived near here, I would definitely see the attraction of having a place there. As we rolled back down the hill toward Tucson, intoxicated by the vanilla and butterscotch scent of Ponderosa pine, I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice if we had homes by the lake, in the desert and in the mountains?” And then I realized, with our home on wheels, we already do!