An interesting thing about Tucson is the apparent lack of non-age restricted RV parks in close proximity to the city itself. And, if you want to boondock? Well, the options are even more limited (there is a small piece of BLM land to the SW of the city but some fellow nomads have told us it's very crowded and a casino in the Drexel Heights area that offers free overnight stays). Since the city covers something like 236 square miles it can take a long time (and a lot of fuel) to drive one end to other. And, as luck would have it we wanted to check out some things in both the western and north eastern sides, naturally. So what did we do? We split our visit into two separate stops.
We stayed a week, which is the maximum allowable time, at Gilbert Ray Campground on the west side of Tucson. This is an exceptionally beautiful park in the middle of the Tucson Mountain Park near Saguaro National Park (west). It has electrical hookups (30amp), an onsite dump station, potable water stations and amazing views for just $20 per night. I'm not sure if there's a "bad" site but I'd definitely recommend trying to get on the outer ring simply to have to entire desert as your backyard.
The view out of our bedroom window (at Gilbert Ray Campground).
There are several other advantages, besides being absolutely gorgeous, to staying at Gilbert Ray:
1) You're in the heart of Tucson Mountain Park giving you access to a multitude of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.Yep, that's right. You don't need to pack up the car and drive all over the place to find trails...just step outside your door and go. Here's a link to the trail map.
2) Old Tucson Studio is within walking distance (about 1.3 miles one way). At the very least, it's a quick drive and the parking lot has plenty of RV parking (not overnight!!). More than 300 western movies, TV shows and commercials were filmed here and it makes for a fun afternoon. We didn't visit the studio this time around but we did our first year on the road. You can read about our first foray into the Tucson area here.
3) The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is just a few miles down the road and is a treasure trove of information on the diversity and importance of desert life. It's a walking experience so be prepared and wear comfortable shoes (for walking on slopes, gravel and dirt) and layers as it can get pretty warm out, even in early spring. From their website:
The mission of the Arizona-Sonora Desert
Museum is to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by
fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.
The Desert Museum is ranked on TripAdvisor.com as one of the Top 10
Museums in the country and the #1 Tucson attraction. Unlike most
museums, about 85% of the experience is outdoors!
The 98 acre Desert Museum is a fusion experience: zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium.
21 interpreted acres with two miles of walking paths through various desert habitats
230 animal species
1,200 types of plants — 56,000 individual specimens
One of the world's most comprehensive regional mineral collections
There's an amazing hummingbird aviary where I spent most of my time (and took the most photos).
A tiny, tiny nest.
This wasn't even a display. These guys live here because they like it. =)
Party in the frog pool!
Yep, another hummingbird.
A gorgeous, healthy coyote. One of my favorite animals.
4) Easy access to Saguaro National Park West. Since the national park is broken up in two distinct districts, separated by the city of Tucson and it's 1 million residents, it can take easily 45-60 minutes to travel between them. If you want to give yourself enough time to explore each area the best bet (in our opinion) is to stay in both areas in the RV rather than commute back and forth (we stayed at the Pima County Fairgrounds while visiting Saguaro East in early 2013). If you want to know what each district has to offer check out this link.
5) Proximity to Downtown Tucson. Although only about 12 miles away, it can take 30 or more minutes to get to downtown from Gilbert Ray Campground. That's still not too bad considering the alternatives but it did keep us from venturing into the city too much during our stay. And that was fine by us since part of the "problem" with visiting large cities, especially after being in small towns, is the propensity to shop for all.the.things. Yes, it's sometimes still a battle. Having gone weeks, or even months, without favorite foods, drinks and people watching we have to watch out for triggers that trick us into wanting to purchase lots of things. It's a double edged sword really because we often do need to stock up on some things that are hard to find on the road (like specialty pet foods, bulk foods, certain ingredients for cleaning supplies and homemade bath products) and big cities usually have everything we need...and more. Still, it's nice to be somewhat close to the conveniences we might need, like coffee!
Needless to say, we truly enjoyed our week at Gilbert Ray and especially loved being able to explore the Tucson Mountain Park area. Every night there were stunning sunsets and, on the mornings I awoke early enough, there were equally lovely sunrises. We also had the good fortune of meet both Kerri of @asolojourner and Tim of @van_tramp who were staying in C Loop. They blog at Tales from a Van-Tramp Couple.
A few notes about Gilbert Ray Campgound:
They do not accept reservations. Every site is strictly first come, first serve which is part of the reason for the 7 day maximum stay. So far, everyone we've spoken to has been able to just drive in on their desired date and snag a site. However, you may want to have a back-up plan just in case.
The campground is very pet friendly (on leashes) but it's also surrounded by many cacti including jumping cholla (aka Teddy Bear Cholla). These are extremely sneaky cacti that will shed their joints at the slightest brush of skin or fur. And, their spines are not only barbed but they go every which-a-way. The worst thing you can do if you or your pet get one stuck on you is to try to pull it off with your fingers. We learned from some national park rangers that the best method is to use a plastic comb to "flick" the joint off. Here's a little video showing the method of extraction. My advice, be sure you always have a comb with you on your hikes and even when just walking around the campground (or wherever these cholla might be found). We now have combs in both of our first aid kits.