Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tucson zoo home to animals from around the world

Children's play area
If you’re traveling with children, a visit to the Reid Park Zoo will make their day. The zoo has about 500 animals, including birds and reptiles, that are housed in settings as close to their native habitat as you can find in southwest Arizona.

The zoo is home to animals from around the world, from Africa to Asia to South America. Offerings include feeding a giraffe (an extra fee), a children’s African-themed play area, and an interactive area at the conservation learning center. Other activities to come in closer contact with the animals change on a daily basis.
Snack time
The zoo, founded in 1965, is involved in several wildlife conservation and breeding programs. Visitors may see lion cubs at play; the birth of a baby elephant is anticipated with eagerness when we were there.

The Tucson zoo is not the best zoo in the world, nor is it the worst.  It is what it is. A nice small zoo that gives locals the opportunity to see animals from other parts of the world. It's a small zoo as zoos go, and its animals appear to be well cared for. The zoo has plenty of benches where visitors can rest from all the walking; unfortunately, most of the benches face away from the animals. Also, on the day we were there, dirty windows and glass panels prevented visitors from being able to see the animals clearly. Aside from this, the zoo is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

 The zoo is located at 3400 Zoo Court, just off 22nd. Go early, though, especially during the hot summer months. We arrived 45 minutes after the zoo opened to find the main parking lot was almost full.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Old locomotive stars at Tucson nuseun

Wheel of Locomotive #1673
The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum is a small museum located at the former Southern Pacific Railroad depot in central Tucson.

The star of the museum is Locomotive #1673 that was built in New York in 1900. It was converted from burning coal to oil in 1906, and put into service by Southern Pacific Railroad. It racked up about a million miles hauling freight, mostly in the southern Arizona region.

The locomotive also starred in the movie Oklahoma when it was made in 1954, as well as in Tucson’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Southern Pacific in Arizona in 1955.  The locomotive was given to the City of Tucson following the celebration.

China used in dining cars
Today it has been cosmetically restored and inside a chain link fence on depot grounds.  The gate is locked, but if you ask at the museum, an attendant will unlock the gate so you can climb onto the engine. Today’s wannabe train engineers, he says, have it much cooler than the original men who drove the train. That’s because temperatures inside the cab could reach up to 150 degrees going down the tracks. This is why people always saw the engineers hanging out the side windows, he explains.

The museum proper is located in a small building known as the records building. It contains memorabilia, including china dishes used in dining cars and signal equipment. A miniature train circles the room from just below the ceiling.

The museum is open limited hours every day but Monday. Admission is free, though donations are suggested. It is located at 414 N. Toole Avenue. Parking is limited. The museum’s website says parking is free, but we only saw parking meters there.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tucson museum showcases international wildlife

Diorama about mountain animals
Visiting the International Wildlife Museum is almost like visiting a real zoo, only the animals aren’t alive any more. Many of them, however, are placed in dioramas that reflect their native habitat.

Located in rural Tucson, Arizona, the museum is home to more than 400 species of animals, birds and insects. The museum’s website notes that all the animals found inside the huge stone building were donated by such organizations as government agencies, zoos and wildlife rehab centers.

A walk through the museum begins with viewing some gorgeous butterfly specimens mounted under glass. There also are moths so large, it is unbelievable. There are animals from all over the world, even at least one that is no longer part of this world. That’s a HUGE woolly mammoth that roamed the earth thousands of years ago.
Interactive kiosks make learning fun
Interactive kiosks that test one’s knowledge of the animal world can be found inside the museum. Some of the exhibits may not be suitable for young children or anyone who is squeamish because they present realistic scenes of predators killing their dinner in the wild. Just walk swiftly by these dioramas to ones that show parent animals caring for their young.

The museum, founded in 1988, is affiliated with the Safari Club International Foundation. It is open daily and charges admission. It is located at 4800 W. Gates Pass Road in Tucson. The easiest way to get there is to take the Speedway exit off Interstate 10, and stay on Speedway, which eventually turns into Gates Pass Road.

Friday, August 15, 2014

National park honors iconic cactus

Saguaro National Park landscape
The Saguaro cactus stand tall and proud in this section of the Sonora Desert, reminding us of fir and pine trees in a forest.

Saguaro National Park was established in 1933 to protect and preserve these symbols of the American West as this cactus is found only in a small area of the desert that surrounds Tucson, Arizona. Tucson itself separates the national park. The west section is known as the Tucson Mountain District while the east park section is known as Rincon Mountain District.

View from the visitor center
The west district that we visited isn’t just desert, but also contains mountains more than 4,600 feet high. (Mountains more than 8.600 feet high can be found at Rincon.) Desert scrub and grass lands lie at the base of the mountains.

The Saguaro is the nation’s largest cactus and they’re visible almost as far as the eye can see. Other varieties of cactus, including the ocotillo, can be found there, though the Saguaro dominates the landscape. Its blossoms are the Arizona state flower.

Wild animals, including coyotes, desert tortoises and a variety of rattlesnakes, can be seen in the park.

The west section offers a five-mile gravel loop road giving visitors a glimpse of the park. There also are hiking trails, though walkers should be on the lookout for rattlesnakes during the hot months. Hikers also should be sure to carry lots of water with them.

Tucson Mountain visitor center
The park is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily, though hikers and bikers can use the park around the clock. Camping is not available. Both park sections have visitor centers that are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The Tucson Mountain District might be considered the poor man’s Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. That museum, located just a couple of miles away, charged admission of almost $20 per person per visit in 2014. The national park charges just $10 per vehicle for a weekly pass. The landscape isn’t that much different, though the desert museum several indoor exhibits in air-conditioned buildings.

The Tucson Mountain District can be reached by taking the Speedway exit off Interstate 10 in Tucson and heading south. Follow the signs to the desert museum, only keep going past the museum turnoff.

For more photos of the park, please see my Saguaro National Park slideshow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tombstone still fighting it out

Strictly for tourists: gunfight in today's Tucson

Tombstone, Arizona, may be “the town too tough to die,” but lots of gunslingers met their ends in street shootouts there.

Inside the Bird Cage
At one time, the local mortuary hauled an average of one gunslinger a day to Boothill cemetery. But Tombstone is most famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which is probably the most famous gunfight in the Old West. On October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, along with his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday, faced off against the Clanton gang whom they had been pursuing for months for attempted stage robbery and killing two men on the stage. By the time the 30-second shootout was over, Billy Clanton and Frank and two McLaury brothers lay dead; Ike Clanton and other outlaw had escaped. Morgan, Virgil and Doc were shot.

This gunfight is re-enacted daily for tourists in Tombstone today. A gunfight also is re-enacted daily on the streets of Old Tombstone. Again the marshal and his deputies are victorious, with only one outlaw left standing when the shootout is over.

Most of the buildings that were there in Tombstone’s heyday are still standing, though many have been restored. They house the usual assortment of gift and souvenir shops as well as restaurants that charge upwards of $10 for a hamburger. Shopkeepers wear period costumes, as do other townspeople, dance hall girls, lawmen and outlaws.  One man, who described himself as a vigilante, said he always wore his costume whenever he came to town.

Wyatt Earp's historic Tombstone
Tours of facilities are offered. The former mortuary does paranormal investigations, some involving Doc Holliday playing faro. The Bird Cage was a saloon, opera house, theatre and hotel. Visiting the saloon is free, but there’s a charge for guided tours beyond this point.

Tombstone began life as a mining town in 1877. By 1881, there were more than 14,000 people living there. It was a rough and tumble, lawless place. Virgil Earp served as the town marshal as well as a U.S. deputy marshal, with Wyatt Earp as one of his deputies.

A few months after the O.K. Corral shootout, Virgil was ambushed as he was leaving his office and suffered a gunshot wound that left one arm useless. Morgan Earp also was killed. Eventually the Earps left Tombstone.

Tombstone today is a major tourist attraction in this section of Arizona. Located about 75 miles southeast of Tucson, it is reached by taking the Benson exit off Interstate 10 and then following Highway 80 to Tombstone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A walk through the desert southwest

The Sonora Desert

The Sonora Desert Museum
Visiting Tucson without going to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is like going to Yuma but not visiting the Territorial Museum or to China without visiting the Great Wall.  The Sonora Desert Museum is one of those must-sees, without which your trip to Tucson would be incomplete.

Located about 15 miles south and west of Tucson on a scenic winding road through the mountains, the museum is a wonderful introduction to the desert southwest. It’s a botanical garden, natural history museum and zoo, all rolled into one.
It has buildings that house special exhibits such as an aquarium, and reptile, cat and hummingbird houses. But it is the two-mile walk through the desert that will captivate you. The outdoor museum covers 21 acres, and is home to 250 animal species and 1,200 varieties of plants. The views across the valley to the mountains beyond are nothing short of spectacular.
Sonora cactus
The museum is considered an international role model for presenting and interpreting nature in realistic exhibits. It was founded in 1952.

The Sonora Desert stretches from southern California through southern Arizona and into Baja California, about 200,000 acres in all. Most of the desert lies in Mexico. The desert is surprisingly green in the Tucson area, possibly because of nightly rains in the summer.
The museum has a live mountain lion and bear behind barriers, but mostly any small wildlife you come across will be running free. Several species of lizards about as do butterflies in a special butterfly garden.  Summer visitors will want to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, especially if they are stupid enough to go off the path, which is not allowed in the first place.
A path through desert greenery
The best way to see the museum is to walk at an easy pace. Summer visitors will want to carry bottled water with them. Don’t worry about running out if you drink too much. You can always refill the bottle with cold water at one of the numerous fountains located along the route. The museum also provides plenty of shaded seating areas where you can rest and enjoy the view.

The outdoor route is handicapped accessible, but be forewarned, most of the paths are dirt and gravel. Push wheelchairs are available on a first-come first serve basis; mobility scooters are available for rent.
Cacti grow tall in the desert
The museum is open 365 days a year. It is located at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson. The easiest way to get there is to take the Speedway exit off Interstate 10 and follow the signs through the mountains.

Admission was approximately $20 per adult in 2014. Visitors who have a Tucson Visitor Center attractions passport, which cost $18 in 2014 and is good for dozens of attractions in the Tucson area, can get one free admission with one paid admission.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Biosphere 2 is a unique experience

Outside of Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2 is a must-see for wannabe scientists who are interested in earth science.
The facility, located in Oracle, Arizona, is a research facility that explores how water interacts with the rest of nature. The glass-enclosed facility is divided into six regions, called biomes: desert, rainforest, savanna, ocean, marsh and thornscrub. Each region looks just as it would if you saw it in a natural outdoors setting. It is, in fact, a replica of the earth’s environment. The original intent was to see if humans could live on Mars or the moon.
Construction of Biosphere 2 – so named because scientists consider Earth to be Biosphere 1 – started in 1987 as a private venture. The University of Arizona acquired it in 2011 and uses it as a research facility.
Inside Biosphere 2
The facility made news back in 1991 when eight people went to live inside the biosphere to see if human life could be sustained in a closed environment. They grew their own crops. Water was recirculated throughout the system, with most of the electricity being provided by solar panels. The enclosed living experiment ended with a dispute over finances in September 1994.
Though its primary purpose remains a research facility, Biosphere 2 is open to the public daily for guided tours. The tours cover about a mile, both inside and outside the facility, and a total of 150 steps. The outside portion of the tours wheelchair-accessible, but people with mobility problems are not allowed inside the facility.
Admission to the facility costs $20 for adults in 2014. People who will be doing only the outside of the facility pay the same price as those who take the full tour. About 1,000 people a day visit Biosphere 2 in the winter months, about 150 daily during the summer.
Biosphere 2 is located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, a 30-mile drive north of Tucson on Highway 77. It is about a two-hour drive from Phoenix. To get there from Phoenix, take exit 185 off Interstate 10, then Highway 387 and pick up Highway 79 at Florence. Connect with Highway 77 at Oracle Junction and follow the signs.
- Photos by Jon Teal

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pancho Villa rides again!

Controversial Pancho Villa statue
A huge bronze statue of a rider and his horse in action stands peacefully in a downtown Tucson park. One would never guess the controversy that surrounded this serene scene.

The rider is Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary who some have called a Robin Hood because he distributed the wealth of rich Mexicans to that country’s poor. Others have described his actions as brutal, not heroic.

The statue stands in the 20 de Agosto Park, so named in honor of Tucson’s founding on August 20, 1775. It was a gift to the people of Arizona from the president of Mexico in 1981, but the gift sparked lawsuits and controversy from the beginning. It was not dedicated until the late 1980s.

A city near Phoenix rejected it, which is how it ended up in Tucson. The then-mayor of the city refused to attend the dedication, though a thousand other people did. Protests were held for the first couple of years on the dedication date because people did not think a person who killed Americans on American soil should be honored.

Pancho Villa was the first person since the War of 1812 with Great Britain to have invaded the United States and killed its citizens. Villa and his army crossed the border in southern Arizona where they killed residents of the border towns. However, he is most reviled for killing 18 Americans in a raid in Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916.

Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula in 1878, later adopting the name Francisco “Pancho” Villa. He was a general in the Mexican Revolution.

Controversy aside, the bronze statue is nothing but magnificent. It stands 14 feet tall and weighs seven tons.

The park is located at West Broadway and West Congress streets in Tucson’s city center.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Missile museum recalls Cold War

The "red safe"
Those of us who were growing up in the ‘60s can remember well how scary that time during the Cold War was. After all, at any time the Soviet Union could attack us and blow the United States off the world map.  We endured air raid warnings and being told we needed bomb shelters in our homes.

The Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, offers a chance to relive those years as well as remind younger generations what their elders went through.

Now a national historic landmark, this Titan missile site is the only one of the 54 sites remaining today. The sites, located across the United States, were on alert from 1963 to 1987. A Titan missile could be launched in 58 seconds, and could travel 6,300 miles in half an hour.

The main floor of the museum is filled with newspaper pages with headlines that shouted out news about the Cold War. There also is some equipment, such as a “red safe,” where the launch codes and keys were kept, on display.

This part of the museum is free. To see more, visitors will need to take a guided tour for which a fee is charged. The museum accepts the Tucson Passport for this tour. The tour takes visitors to the underground launch center where they’ll learn how the launch system works, as well as the safeguards used to prevent the unnecessary launching of the missile.  Visitors also be able to see a missile in its silo. The guided tour is handicap accessible, with an elevator to take mobility-challenged visitors up and down. 

The missile museum is located about 25 miles south of Tucson. Take Exit 69 (Duval Mine Road) off Interstate 19 and follow the signs. The museum is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Boothill: Tombstone's famous cemetery

The view from Boothill

Many towns in the Old West had cemeteries referred to as Boothill, but none are probably as famous as the Boothill cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona.

Poor George!
The cemetery is filled with gunslingers who met their end in Tombstone, including three members of the Clanton gang who died at the gunfight at OK Corral. Some of the dead were killed by Indians, while others are infants and children. Some of the tombstones are marked “unknown.” That’s because people frequently used aliases or didn’t carry identification like we do today.

Tombstone’s Boothill was basically used as a cemetery between 1878 and 1884, though some grave markers have dates of death several years after that.  About 300 people are believed to be buried at Boothill, but not all graves have markers. For example, the graves of Chinese are mostly set aside in a separate area in unmarked graves.

In its heyday, about one gunslinger a day was buried at Boothill, so named because the gunslingers died with their boots on.  You can get Boothill Graveyard, a booklet that lists details about who's buried here, at the gift shop.

The cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the desert below. It’s a gravel cemetery, with some trees and mostly cactus for decorations. The graves are covered with large stones.
Clanton gang members who died at the gunfight at OK Corral