Picture Perfect Hiking, Nomadic Gatherings and Biosphere 2 ~ Catalina State Park, AZ

{Dates of Visit Feb 23 - Mar 5, 2015}
Our site in Campground A in Catalina State Park.
Creating friendships on the road has been an unexpected benefit to maintaining even a small social media presence. We created this blog shortly before we hit the road and then decided to link it to a Facebook page so that friends and family could follow our adventures (or not) while allowing us to keep our regular Facebook accounts more personal. Not long after we hit the road, Instagram became a popular place to post "real time" photos and short captions that enabled followers to know what we're up to right now...and we could stalk follow other nomads as well. About a year into our adventures we became part of a small beta group for the pre-launch of RVillage forging strong friendships with other beta members. We continue to meet fellow nomads now and again through RVillage.

Because of these various social media sites, we ended up at Catalina State Park in NW Tuscon last spring. After meeting Christine and Brent of  Horton's Travel in Bend, Oregon and Jim and Julie of Imperfect Destiny in Albuquerque, New Mexico we'd gotten word that they were all going to be at Catalina State Park and booked a spot ourselves. Little did we know that this would end up being a pretty large gathering of nomads and travel bloggers!

But first, the park....

As we approached the Catalina State Park from the south we were in pretty deep traffic, passed a multitude of big box stores and fancy, suburban neighborhoods. It was hard to believe that there was a state park worth anything based on the surroundings. We made the right hand turn, directly across from a huge shopping center with In n' Out Burger and Dick's Sporting Goods, and entered a different world.

This Vermilion Flycatcher visited us a few times at our camp site.
Although just a few miles from both Super Walmart and Whole Foods, Catalina State Park is an oasis...but in the desert sense...filled with wildlife, great views, amazing (and sharp) plant life and lots of hiking trails (several of which are pet friendly). From the park website:
"Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons and streams invites camping, picnicking and bird watching — more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area."
It was by chance, and a late reservation request, that we ended up staying in the non-electric section of Campground A, which would have been ideal had it not been for a shade tree, a low winter sun, a few cloudy days and not being able to align ourselves properly for maximum sun exposure. Combined with our being newbies with our solar, we ended up having to run our generator several times during our stay. We'd fare much better now that we can better manage our power needs but if we needed electricity I'd opt for Campground A (the electric side) before I'd choose Campground B simply because they are more natural looking compared to the"RV resort" layout of B.

The scenery was amazing even, or maybe especially, when the storm clouds rolled in.
Snack time at Romero Pools.
Either way, trail access is pretty much right outside of your door...and there are some spectacular trails here. There are easy strolls and massive elevation gain hikes, hikes to natural pools and nature hikes that will help you identify wildlife tracks and the many cacti and trees in the area. The scenery is so fantastic that I hiked every single morning...and most afternoons as well. Easy strolls (although the sand can get deep) include the Bridle Trail, Birding Trail, Nature Trail and Canyon Trail. A slightly more challenging trail (but still easy enough) is the 50 Year Trail. And more difficult trails include Romero Pools and up to Romero Pass (no dogs on these trails). You can download a trail guide here and a birding guide here.

Desert Sparrow
Verdin (helping himself to our hummingbird nectar).
I would highly recommend getting reservations in an actual campsite and not in overflow if at all possible. Overflow is a benefit the park doesn't have to offer but does so in an attempt to accommodate those who want to squeak in for one reason or another but didn't snag a reservation in time. It almost always sucks...no matter where you are...and the overflow here (aka Ringtail Loop) is hit or miss. Several friends who stayed in this section loved it while others had not-so-good experiences that negatively tainted their perception of the entire park. Tip: the showers in Campground A suck. But the ones in overflow and in Campground B are great. None of them are that far away and it's worth the tiny bit of effort to go to the good ones and, if it keeps you from being grumpy (or dirty) go use the good showers!!!

Our top choice for all things outdoorsy.
As you know by the first paragraph of this post, there are a ton of shopping and restaurant options in the immediate area. We took advantage of our close proximity (less than 6 miles) to our very favorite outdoor adventure store, Summit Hut, to get some annual clothing shopping done. One of the casualties of a *sorta*  minimalist lifestyle is how much wear and tear our wardrobe endures. Wearing the same things day after day and washing them frequently (you're welcome) means that they tend to wear out. Over the years we've become much better at choosing shoes and clothing that last longer, hold up to daily usage and wash easily. Summit Hut employees are experts in their field and can help in all areas of outdoor adventure from clothing choices, carabiners and tents to custom fitting hiking boots (they have crock pots in the back for heating and reshaping boots...seriously).

Catalina State Park is a Winter Haven for Fellow Nomads:

Just a handful of fellow nomads and bloggers we met at Catalina State Park.
We first met Beth and Taylor of The Learning Banks at Savaya Coffee Market in Tucson and our friendship blossomed (since this meeting we've caravanned throughout Alaska and spent weeks of boondocking together in the Arizona desert). Good news is, they still like us...I think. From there, our nomadic tribe grew and grew and grew. While at Catalina we met Brian and Leigh of Aluminarium (creators of Campendium), Shannon and Dave of 2 Wander Away, Kate and Iain of The Scenic Route and reconnected with Robin and Jeremy of Live, Breathe, Move, Brent and Christine of Horton's Travel, Jim and Julie of Imperfect Destiny and our good friend Su even came and spent the night on our couch. For this reason, Catalina State Park will always hold a special place in our hearts.

From left to right, Taylor and Beth (The Learning Banks), yours truly,Jeremy and Robin (Live, Breathe, Move), Su (our nomadic friend who we met in Cedar Key and part of the RVillage beta group). We're at Lovin' Spoonful, a vegan friendly restaurant near Catalina SP.
Other incredible adventures in the area:

We climbed high enough on Phoneline Trail to get above this Red Tail Hawk!
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area: At first we poo-poo'd on going to Sabino because it cost extra ($5 for parking and $10 per adult for the shuttle) and we felt like we were already in a pretty gorgeous area with hiking trails. But our friends convinced us that it would be worth it. So, we packed a lunch and headed over to see what all the hubbub was about. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. We decided to take the shuttle to the last stop in the park and then hike the Phoneline Trail all the way back down. It was incredible and we wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Tip: Check out the many nature programs offered here...there's garnet panning, wildflower identification, geology hike and a junior ranger program to name a few. 

Here are just a few photos from our hike:

Panning for garnets.
Fairy Dusters...
Biosphere 2: Located a few miles north in Oracle, Arizona is an amazing man-made structure meant to simulate life on Biosphere 1 (Earth) in a hermetically sealed system. The idea, conceived by a tight knit group of philanthropic outside thinkers from Synergia Ranch (which was kinda like a commune of theater, dance and environmental supporters), was to build a truly self-sustaining Earth system that might one day be used on Mars. There were two human experiments where members lived in Biosphere 2, funded completely by private money. Nothing and no one was allowed to enter or exit the structure in order to fulfill their objective...to see if life and environment would balance itself out without outside influences. The experiments met with mixed reviews. It's now part of the University of Arizona and is being used to test the effects of Global Warming on Earth.

It'd take too long to explain the utter amazement I felt in touring Biosphere 2. There are seven ecosystems within it's walls including an ocean, a rain forest, a desert and a whole lot of "things" that make it work (things that make the rain forest rain and the desert arid and "lungs" that keep the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide). My favorite section, which is not part of the paid tour, is the self-guided tour through the old living quarters where the Biospherians lived for 2 years. I'm currently reading The Human Experiment by Jane Poynter, one of the members of the 2 year experiment. I so wish I had read it before we visited. Instead, I may have to just go again. Tip: I often see Groupons available for the Biosphere 2 Tour. These are usually two-for-one tickets or discounts for a group of 4. Totally worth a quick Google search!

This area of Tucson pretty much changed my opinion of the city completely. It had never really been on my list of "cool" places until now. In closing, I'll leave you with a little collection of photos I like to call "Everything in the Desert is Trying to Kill Me"...

Prickly Pear
Verde Tree
Fish Hook Cactus
Hmmm, maybe a barrel cactus?
White Thorned Acacia (I think).
Hidden thorns...
Small but still painful!
Pretty, but ouch.
A friend we found on our outdoor carpet.

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