Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon, named for botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, lies 45-miles north of Tucson and is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado National Forest. The story goes that Sara and her husband John honeymooned in these mountains in 1880, and with the aid of E.O. Stratton, they eventually scaled the tallest peak, which they named in her honor – one of the few mountains named for a woman.

Frequent winter storms occurring here between mid-December and April deposit up to 200 inches of snow annually, but with temperatures ranging from 20 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather is often mild enough to ski in a sweater and jeans. However, the ski slopes are not groomed, which makes even the mild terrain challenging.

The ski lift runs even during the off-season taking visitors for a scenic Sky Ride from about 8200 foot elevation, to the summit at 9100 feet, covering about a mile over a 30-minute ride. (The day we were there the wind was blowing pretty hard, so the lifts weren’t operating.) Besides the ski resort, at the peak of the mountain is the Mount Lemmon Steward Observatory. Housed here are telescopes used for astronomical research by organizations such as the Catalina Sky Survey, The Mount Lemmon Sky Center, and the University of Arizona Astronomy Camp program, making this a unique research and teaching destination.

If skiing isn’t your thing, traversing the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway to the top of the mountain (once the snow melts) is a drive not to be missed. The views alone along this 27-mile stretch of road make the drive well worth it, especially if you plan plenty of time for stopping in the multiple scenic viewpoints along the way.  Here you will find stunning views of hoodoos (stacked rock formations), canyons, mountains, desert landscapes, and as you get higher and higher, vegetation more typical of a mountain forest.

On the way down the mountain, Dan and I stopped at a few of the many hiking trails to get a little walking in, and to take in the scenery. We found wildflowers in bloom, busy bugs, nearly dry creek beds, and possibilities for future day hikes. It is easy to see why this area has been named one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Kartchner Caverns (Benson, Arizona)

When you look at the mountains and hills surrounding Tucson, there isn’t much to distinguish one peak from another and it’s hard to imagine that any one particular mountain is much different than the one next to it. The desert terrain is dry and scrubby, and the landscape has a tendency to blend together over countless miles, creating an illusion of sameness to the unaware.

Take for instance the caves in Kartchner Caverns State Park, located 9-miles south of the town of Benson. The caves here were so well hidden that it wasn’t until 1974 that two spelunkers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, through persistent caving expeditions, discovered a passageway through a sinkhole that led to a network of 2.5 miles of pristine caves. Because Tenen and Tufts were determined to protect the caves from vandalism, they didn’t share their discovery with anyone for 14 years. Eventually they ended up working with the Kartchner family (who owned the land where the caverns were discovered), and all agreed the best way to protect the caves was to work with Arizona State Parks, with the grand opening of the park finally occurring in 1999.

The cave has an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 99% humidity, much warmer and much more humid than previous caves Dan and I have toured (Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, both of which have average temperatures in the mid 50’s). During this tour we saw beautiful and unusual formations with descriptive names such as shields, totems, soda straws, brushite moonmilk, and birdsnest needle quartz, many of which have been growing continuously for tens of thousands of years. The Grand Finale was a light show, set to music, in the Throne Room, which centered on Kubla Khan, a striking 58-foot tall formation (the tallest and most massive column in Arizona).

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the cave, but I was able to find some images on the internet that I have posted here, along with the pictures we took outside the cave. In addition to the tour, we took the opportunity to explore the hiking path, gift shop, and small museum in the Visitor’s Center. This was a worthy visit and one I would recommend to anyone who finds easy cave exploration interesting. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tucson Bontanical Gardens - The Butterflies

Because there were so many butterfly pictures from our trip to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, I decided to give them their very own post! With species from over five continents, and coming in all colors of the rainbow, it was an enchanted visit inside the enclosed Butterfly Magic Pavilion. Butterflies were landing everywhere, staying on flowers long enough for Dan to get numerous close-up shots, and one even landed on my arm (although we weren’t lucky enough to get a photograph of that). I easily could have spent half the day here, just watching these gentle, beautiful creatures flitting to and fro.