Holidays in Tucson: Kitt Peak, Catalina and Picacho

It’s not camping, it’s living! But sometimes it’s camping too

We left SKP Saguaro and headed to one of our favorite parks, Gilbert Ray Campground in the Tucson Mountains, just west of Tucson. We had timed our arrival for Sunday, on the assumption that weekenders would be checking out and we would have lots of spaces to choose from. We were a bit stunned when we pulled up to the office and it was locked, with a sign saying “Closed for the Summer”. Summer? It was December 10! Guess they have a different idea of summer in Tucson.

We grabbed the self-pay form and headed into the campground, which was practically empty! We asked around and found out that it doesn’t really get busy there until mid-January. I guess some snowbirders and winter vacationers wait until after Christmas to head south. We selected a quiet site at the end of the loop and settled in.

A quiet site

What we like about Gilbert Ray is that it is completely surrounded by desert and mountains, with almost no signs of humanity, with the exception of nearby Old Tucson – an Old West movie set-styled entertainment center, with regularly scheduled shootouts. Fortunately, it’s only open on weekends, so after a few minutes of (fake) gunshots on Sunday afternoon, peace reigned for the remainder of our stay.

The highlight of the week for me was a visit to Kitt Peak, once the most important center for astronomy in the United States. It’s still an important site, but the cutting edge science is moving increasingly to Chile and Hawaii. In those places the air is thinner and more stable (higher up), the skies are darker (farther from urban light pollution), and the investment is (relatively) welcome. Kitt Peak is built on land leased from the Tahona O’odham tribal government, and any new telescope requires the approval of the tribe. While the observatory provides many jobs to the Tahona O’odham, I got the impression from my tour guide that the tribe would rather the mountain revert back to its native state. Interestingly, the Mauna Kea observatory in Maui has similar issues. Wild places favorable for telescopes also happen to be often on land sacred to native peoples. So that’s another factor limiting future development.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

Operated by a group of universities in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, Kitt Peak is home to 22 optical telescopes, a solar telescope, and two radio telescopes clustered on a mountain ridge southwest of Tucson. Kitt Peak was initially selected because it was high (but not too high), and close to a major city with tradespeople, transportation and a university (but not too close), and reasonably dark skies. Back in the day, the Mayall 4-Meter telescope was once one of the largest telescopes in the world (in astronomy, bigger is definitely better). Once the infrastructure for the big telescope was put in, other universities wanted to jump on the wagon.

The Mayall and its smaller siblings

The solar telescope is particularly unique, with about two-thirds of it located underground. The observatory has been used to study sunspots in detail and understand the chemistry of the Sun. I found the construction photographs fascinating. They essentially excavated the side of the mountain, buried the telescope, and covered it back up.

McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope

Built in 1962, the equipment that operates the mirrors hasn’t really been updated since then, although the instruments that do the actual observing of course have. But I love the very analog and early-digital days feel of this kind of stuff, straight out of the Apollo space era. This magnificent instrument has reached the end of its useful life, however. Funding for research ran out at the end of 2017, so it will be mothballed. These days, cutting edge solar research is better done with satellites. The march of technology is inexorable, but I’d say they got their money’s worth out of this thing.

Vintage electronics

I signed up for tours of three observatories: the Solar Telescope (just me and the tour guide), the 2.1-meter telescope, and the 4-meter Mayall. They’re essentially just big dumb hunks of precision mirrored glass that gather lots of light, held in place with enormous iron claws to move them around precisely, and a few fancy sensors on the business end. They don’t appear to do much, but they’re unique, huge, and enable scientific discoveries. So that makes them pretty cool.

Other science geeks on tour

Walking around by myself during the lunch break, I met a young professor from the University of Wisconsin and briefly discussed his research with him. He’s doing a survey of stars that would be good candidates for finding exoplanets that will be subsequently studied by a satellite telescope. Since satellite telescope time is even more precious than terrestrial instruments, this pre-sorting lets them make best use of this scarce resource. It was fun to get a firsthand, very casual insight to what’s going on up there.

Returning back to Gilbert Ray that evening, about 40 miles away, at sunset with binoculars I could clearly see the big telescopes silhouetted against the sky. It gave me an appreciation for not only how large they are, but how far you can see in the desert. A few minutes later the stars came out, and having spent a day learning more about them, I had a newfound appreciation for how small and insignificant we are.

Kitt Peak from Gilbert Ray – in the center the Solar Telescope is very apparent

During the rest of the week we went on two guided bird walks set up by Pima County. The first one (at Colossal Cave) was pretty much a bust. It was cold and windy, and the birds were hunkered down. We had to work to get 15 species. The second, at Agua Caliente Park, was much more fruitful. Nothing new for me, but it was fun to see Plumbeous Vireo, Ring-Necked Duck, Redhead and Vermillion Flycatcher.

Agua Caliente birding

I also got my small windshield crack repaired. Glass America advertises that they will come to you, and indeed they did – even in a campground. You can see a little blemish where the crack was, but it was much less of a hassle than getting the whole windshield replaced, even though insurance would have covered it. Since we have all kinds of cameras and other smart gizmos attached to the windshield, they would need to be recalibrated at a dealership after replacement. Who needs that?

Service at your campsite

Our other outing was to the touristy little town of Tubac, about an hour south of Tucson. It’s filled with boutiques and pottery shops, but also a very nice little restaurant. There’s also some history there, with the ruins and museum of the Presidio that was the Spanish explorer De Anza’s outpost. It was a fun way to spend a day doing something a little different.

Some light birding on the De Anza trail

Moving on from Gilbert Ray after six days, we headed up the back roads to Catalina State Park, currently tied for our favorite place to stay. We were lucky to score two solid weeks here. There’s always plenty to do, including thrice-weekly guided bird walks and diverse hiking trails. And just outside the front entrance is Oracle Road, with pretty much any kind of retail experience you’d need. Yet it is quiet and feels remote. The best of both worlds.

Lots to do

We were able to catch up with our friends Jim and Donna who live in the Phoenix area, but were vacationing in Tucson for the holidays. We went to high school with them and have stayed in touch through the years. They dropped by the campground and we had a nice chat. Long-time (not old!) friends are the best.

Catching up with Jim and Donna

We also saw our (relatively) new friends Jean and Lionel from back home in Beverly Shores, Indiana, where they (and we) spend summers. They have a winter place in Oro Valley, just outside of Catalina State Park. We had dinner with them at El Charro, and again at their home. Jean said she would make something “very simple”, but I was impressed with the delicious and healthy meal she served of pasta with Patagonian shrimp and a nutrition-packed salad.

Jean in the kitchen – I need to step up my cooking game

We enjoyed swapping news from back home, local birding news (Jean is an accomplished birder), and meeting their dog Scout, who is perennially optimistic that you will feed him something from your plate. Alice the cat also made an appearance, but was disappointed there was no shrimp for her.

Scout hoping for a handout

Of course we also hit the trails, when there weren’t bowl games on (which wasn’t often).

Pick a trail, any trail

Maureen misses Christmas with family and friends, so this year I decided to kick up the celebration a notch. I made a pork roast, bought some Prosecco, Christmas cookies and pumpkin pie, and put the Christmas music channel on the satellite dish. It wasn’t the same as going over the river and through the woods, but made for a special day.

Roast beast for Christmas

After two weeks at Catalina we headed up the road about 35 miles to the redundantly named¬†Picacho Peak State Park¬†(“Picacho” means “Peak”, so it’s “Peak Peak State Park”.) There’s not much going on in Picacho. The sites are electric-only, so we were in mild water conservation mode. And it’s just off I-10, so road noise is apparent. But it’s a generally peaceful waypoint on the way up to the Phoenix area.

Picacho Peak in the background

The one exception to the quiet was the day we arrived, New Year’s Eve Eve. The park was full, and people were a bit rowdy. But that was OK. On New Year’s Eve itself someone whooped “Happy New Year!” at 10 pm (must have been watching the Dick Clark Special from NewYork) and that was it. We were in bed shortly after. The next day the park started emptying out and we had it practically to ourselves. It’s funny how weekends and holidays in a campground have an entirely different vibe than other times.

We did some light mountaineering of the hill behind our campsite on two different days, but our big accomplishment was hiking Picacho Peak itself (well, just up to the “saddle”, but that’s still about 1000′ up a pretty steep slope). I figured we weren’t getting any younger, so there was no time like the present.

Hiking Picacho Peak

We made it safely up and back, but confirmed it wasn’t as easy as it would have been when we were first married. Still, I’m proud of the achievement. It wouldn’t be an Odyssey without a little bit of adventure!