Down with the desert: Tucson is a getaway for outdoor lovers and features a fast destination marathon.
Tucson —I never really thought much about vacationing in Arizona, other than the Grand Canyon, until a Facebook contest last year. After all, my bucket list was already full.
Tucson trip costs
$544: Roundtrip airfare to Tucson on Delta (via Atlanta), plus fees for one bag.
$251: Two nights at Hotel Congress, downtown Tucson.
$330: Two nights at Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort (marathon discount).
$180: One night at Casa Tierra Adobe Bed & Breakfast.
$95: Registration for the Holualoa Tucson Marathon.
$18: Entry fee to Biosphere 2.
$12: Entry fee to Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
$10: Pass to Saguaro National Park.
But Tucson, the city that got a black eye with the 2011 shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was beating out Charleston in Outside magazine’s “Best Town Ever” contest.
I was curious why and started reading endearing comments made by residents and other fans about the array of fun outdoor stuff to do there. It sounded like my kind of city: a desert version of Charleston or Arizona’s version of Austin.
The contest piqued my curiosity and, like many running geeks, I looked up Tucson’s annual marathon as a potential “destination race,” a runner’s excuse to visit a place and hang out a while, much like next weekend’s Charleston Marathon.
Running a marathon in a sun-drenched desert in December in Arizona’s centennial celebration of statehood sounded like a mini-adventure, so I booked my trip last spring and sketched out a loose itinerary.
My four-day blitz of Tucson started downtown with a stay at the historic Hotel Congress, built in 1919 to serve passengers of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the heyday of train travel.
Congress is a gem of a hotel, in part, because the owners and management have resisted modernizing too much. Rooms have cast-iron frame beds, rotary phones and no TVs.
Integral parts of the Hotel Congress are the Cup Cafe restaurant, Club Congress nightclub featuring live music, Cooper Hall reception venue and even a place to get a decent haircut, the Hive Hair Studio. All combine old-fashioned with a twist of funk.
The Hotel Congress even had a brush with history. In the winter of 1934, John Dillinger and his gang traveled to Tucson to lay low after a string of bank robberies back East. A fire broke out on the third floor, and after gang members asked firefighters to retrieve bags, filled with money and guns, the firefighters alerted local police and captured the gang.
My luck found me in down- town Tucson during its win- tertime Fourth Street Fair, which gave me an opportunity to blend in with the city’s mix of Latinos, tattooed youths, leathery hippies and snowbirds, and listen to several local music performances, including the Ballet Folklorico Xochitl de Tucson.
The hotel’s location also made it convenient for a pre-checkout morning stroll along the Presidio Trail, a marked urban trail highlighting historic and cultural buildings and sites in Tucson, known as “the Old Pueblo.” The Presidio, a fort that was destroyed in 1856, has been re-created and offers reminders that the East Coast has no corner on history.
To the mountaintop
After the tour, with the marathon facing me the next day, I needed to find a way to stay off my feet yet still immerse myself in southern Arizona.
And while I’ve never been into “taking a drive,” that’s exactly what I did, straight into the Santa Catalina Mountains, through four ecosystems and past the southernmost snow skiing destination in the United States to the summit of the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon.
The General Hitchcock Highway, also known as the Sky Island Scenic Byway, is an outdoor lover’s treasure chest with ample parking areas, trails, campsites and picnic areas.
Between the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley and the peak is the tiny mountain resort town of Summerhaven, an ideal place to stop to eat and use the restroom. The town amazingly still bears the scars of an aspen wildfire that torched two-thirds of its homes, more than 300, and nearly 85,000 acres in June 2003.
A short drive from Summerhaven is the peak of Mount Lemmon, which is home to the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, accessible only via reservation. The sunset drive back down was nice, to boot.
Before the sun would rise again, I’d be huddled with a bunch of runners in a bus headed to the starting line of the marathon. Primarily for convenience sake, I decided to stay at the marathon host hotel, the Hilton El Conquistador in Oro Valley, north of Tucson.
The hotel offered, in my opinion, a fair rate of $165 (taxes and fees included) for the predictable comforts of a Hilton. Trust me, you don’t want to be uncomfortable before or after a marathon.
For runners, the Holualoa Tucson Marathon is medium-size (1,053 finishers, not including half-marathoners) and a “fast course” with substantial portions before the critical final 10K being slight downhills. That said, those who got a little too aggressive and ran it too fast paid the price, especially with the slight uphill portions and growing headwinds in the final miles.
The event also features a half-marathon and marathon relays.
An unexpected benefit of staying at El Conquistador was the informal reunion of runners poolside all afternoon, soaking up both sunshine and the comforts of the pool, hot tub and “cold spa.”
It offered a chance for runners to chat and compare experiences at Tucson and other races.
Nature: Inside & out
My final full day started with a short trip north to Biosphere 2, now operated by the University of Arizona for Earth science research: energy, water use and agriculture.
As many will recall, Biosphere started as an experiment by eight researchers who basically locked themselves inside the high-tech mega-terrarium in 1990.
As the planet continues to strain under the pressure of man, Biosphere 2 is doing work to find better ways to live in harmony with the Earth while preserving a modern lifestyle and conveniences.
After a tour, I headed southwest for my final stop in this four-day blitz of Tucson: namely, Saguaro National Park. On my way, I had my best meal of the trip, a lunch at El Charro restaurant, a Tucson institution since 1922.
Sundown on Sonora
Tucson is bookended by a national park. Saguaro has east and west districts. I chose the latter because of its large stands of saguaro cactus and its proximity to Pima County’s Tucson Mountain Park, which turned out to be impressive in and of itself as I entered it through Gate’s Pass.
Because I was running out of time, I booked a room at a bed-and-breakfast inn, Casa Tierra Adobe, that was a half-mile from Saguaro and, frankly, was a bit of a challenge to find. Let me just say I’m glad I didn’t follow my instincts to exchange my Toyota RAV4 rental (an SUV I didn’t ask for) for an economy car.
I checked in, chatted with owner Dave Malmquist and, at his recommendation, dashed off for a quick sunset hike to Signal Hill, to see some petroglyphs, or rock art, created by the prehistoric Hohokam people.
As the deep dark of night came over the desert, I capped the day with a beer and meal at Los Nopales in nearby Tucson Estates and then worked my way back to Casa Tierra, managing to get lost only three times before finding the inn for an eerily quiet night.
While not much was happening at Casa Tierra that evening, it was nice to pop out into the middle of the cold desert with a piping hot cup of coffee to watch the sun rise and start my day.
Impressed with the mountain park, I headed back for a hike that proved too much for marathon-sore quads and calves. Humbled, I opted for Plan B, going to the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum, which is basically a native species zoo filled with mostly unreleasable animals.
My timing, once again, was lucky for the museum’s phenomenal raptor flying demonstration, featuring owls, hawks and falcons that call the Sonora home.