Tag Archives: Tucson Arizona

The Cactus Speared Cact-I

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Prickly pears are just one of many cactus species ready to spear you

There’s only one rule—besides carrying enough water—about hiking in the southwest American desert: Don’t fall.

The reason isn’t so much to avoid landing on unyielding rock as it is about impaling yourself on razor-sharp spines of the cacti that infest places like the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona.

Actually, forget about falling. You don’t even want to brush against or accidentally grab any of these thorny bastards, which are all too happy to abandon their desert homeland to hitchhike on your clothing or, all too often, your flesh.

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You don’t have to step off the trail to get attacked

Let me count the many species of cactus set to make your life miserable. There’s the majestic saguaro, whose multiple arms are not recommended for hugging. There’s the aptly named jumping cholla, whose stems easily break off and attach to the poor sucker who merely grazes them. There’s the ironically named teddy bear cholla, which is not so cuddly. There’s the barrel cactus, the hedgehog cactus, the fishhook cactus, the half dozen species of prickly pear.

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Not so cuddly teddy bear cactus

Have I forgotten any? The spindly ocotillo, with its gorgeous red flower tips, is technically not a cactus, but try telling that to anyone who accidentally embraces its many spines.

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Don’t reach too close to that ocotillo

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Hey, is that saguaro giving me the finger?

I was properly wary about colliding with any of the cacti that line the fine desert hiking trails around Tucson, and had successfully avoided any contact through most of two hiking-intensive visits to the southern Arizona city. But all it takes is a moment’s inattention to learn a severe lesson.

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Don’t get distracted by fruit or flower

I didn’t actually fall into a cactus. I was just descending a little rock step, focused on my footing, when I brushed against a prickly pear. There was no sharp pain, just a twinge not unlike a mild sliver. The problem was getting the barbs out, which you want to do  immediately, before they really start bothering you.

The thing about prickly pears is not the obvious long spines. It’s the tiny, fuzzy orange things called glochids that are the problem. As in the dozens of these little spears that launched themselves through my shirt, sticking me like a pincushion.

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It’s not the obvious long spines of the prickly pear you have to worry about

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It’s the little, fuzzy orange glochids that do the most damage

Luckily, I had a companion with sharp eyes and a nifty pair of of Uncle Bill’s tweezers. She spent a good five minutes plucking all the tiny spines out. And then, a short distance down the trail, another few minutes getting the ones she’d missed, the ones irritatingly still stuck to shirt and skin. We were still finding stray soldiers an hour later.

It wasn’t my only close encounter with glochids on our November trip. One day, I, found a few stuck mysteriously in the top of my head, despite wearing a hat and not falling on my noggin. Good thing I’m bald up there.

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The up-close saguaro spines have a lulling, geometric pattern to them


Best of Tucson on a spring road trip

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Descending the lovely Blackett’s Ridge trail, with the sprawl of Tucson behind

Many western Canadians, desperate to escape the ever-lingering vestiges of winter, often take spring road trips to U.S. hot spots like Palm Springs or Scottsdale or Moab. But after recently spending 10 early-April days in Tucson, I’d like to recommend the southern Arizona city as a worthy springtime destination for outdoor activities.

Sure, the temperatures can creep into the 30s Celsius (90s F), though the desert nights cool off remarkably. The trick is starting your hike, bike ride or other outdoor activity as close to sunrise as you can manage, get in a few hours of exercise and then spend the rest of the day more idly in the shade or air-conditioned comfort. Once the sun sets, you can re-emerge in the glorious night-time air for, say, a shirt-sleeve patio drink/dinner or outdoors concert.

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The trick to springtime Tucson hiking is staying out of the mid-day sun

You’ll definitely need a car to get around Tucson, which in that great western tradition of embracing sprawl, spreads in all its low-density glory to the very edges of a broad valley. Sneeze when you’re passing through Tucson’s downtown and you might miss it. (On the other hand, Tucson has long been a pioneer in fighting light pollution so as to preserve the night skies for area observatories.)

All this means is it takes awhile to drive anywhere, especially with traffic lights that leisurely go through their cycles. But the traffic never gets L.A. or Phoenix hellish, though it really shouldn’t given the city proper has a population of just 530,000 (1 million metro).

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Typical Tucson commercial street

On to the activities. I’m not a cyclist, but an amazing number of road bikers either live in Tucson or make dedicated trips to the city. They range from racers here for serious winter training to those seeking more leisurely rides along the tremendous 100-plus-mile Tucson Loop, which winds through the city.

The real test piece is the 26-mile-mile grind up Mount Lemmon, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet. Followed by a blazingly fast descent (average 4.3% grade), which obviously delights roadsters but would scare the road-rash bejesus out of me.

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Three of a bunch of people cycling the steep highway up Mount Lemmon

But we’re here for the hiking, and it’s wonderful in spring. There are hundreds of miles of trails scattered around the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, highlighted by the two chunks of Saguaro National Park that bookend the city. The trails go up ridges, follow washes and explore valley flats.

It’s principally Sonoran Desert hiking, featuring a wonderful foursome: the magnificent Saguaro (suh-wahr-owe) cactus, the orange-tipped, whip-like ocotillo and various forms of cholla and prickly pear cactus. Just don’t stumble onto them or accidentally grab their nettlesome thorns, or you’ll be like the dog that challenged the porcupine. Many of these species come into magnificent bloom in early spring, though the saguaro waits till May or June.

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Looking over the I-10 from the steep hike up Picacho Peak

But what about the food, Marathon Mouth? Of course, being this close to the border, there’s a good selection of Mexican cuisine, including the Tucson classic Sonoran hot dog, best served by parking-lot vendors. There’s also some great coffee roasters and a few fabulous microbreweries.

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Tucson’s famed Sonoran hot dog is better than anything you’ll find at a ballpark… and a lot cheaper, too

I’ve selected some favourite eats and drinks in my best-of-Tucson list below, with individual reviews coming in the weeks ahead.

Best museum: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Mountain Park, 2021 North Kinney Road

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A giant agave (I believe) and saguaro at the fabulous Desert Museum

Best tour: Boneyard bus tour of mothballed war planes, Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 East Valencia Road

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One of hundreds of mothballed war planes seen on the Boneyard bus tour

Best dawn hike: Blackett’s Ridge, Sabino Canyon

Best two-ecosystem hike: Agua Caliente Hill, eastern edge of Tucson

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Tucson’s Agua Client trail climbs above the cacti into treed grasslands

Best road cycle: Mount Lemmon

Best city pathways: Tucson Loop

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Cycling more than 100 miles of paved pathways on the Tucson Loop

Best through streets masquerading as country roads: Orange Grove and River Road

Best current events publication: Zocalo

Best local grocery: Bashas’

Best sunset view with a beer: overflow parking lot Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Best farmers’ market: Rillito Park (Sundays)

Best live music venue: La Cocina, 201 North Court Avenue


Downtown’s La Cocina is the perfect shirt-sleeved nighttime place for a brew and bluegrass

Food and Drink

 Best breakfast (also best restaurant): 5 Points Market, 756 South Stone Avenue

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5 Points Market is my #1 Tucson pick for best breakfast and lunch

Best coffee: Yellow Brick (3220 South Dodge Boulevard) and Presta (2502 North 1 Avenue) a tie, with the latter getting bonus points for cool factor

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Presta Coffee Roasters is cutting-edge cool, with great java to boot

Best lengua tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, 2618 6 Avenue

Best Sonoran hot dog: Ruiz, 1140 South 6 Avenue

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Parking-lot Ruiz serves up great, cheap Sonoran hot dogs

Best sandwich/deli: Roma Imports, 627 South Vine Avenue

Best craft brewery: Iron John’s Brewing Company, 245 South Plumer Avenue

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The tasting room at microbrewer Iron John’s is the place to sample Tucson’s best beer

Best beer selection: Plaza Liquors & Fine Wine (2642 North Campbell Avenue), with honourable mention to Whole Foods (three Tucson locations)

Road-trip Dining in Tucson, Arizona

Saguro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

Saguaro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

For a city of 500,000, Tucson is relatively easy to get around for road trippers. The downtown is compact, and the funky, independent shops are mostly found along 4th Avenue, near the 27,000-student University of Arizona. Only the spectacular Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are away from the city core. From a food perspective, I’ve kept things simple, mostly focusing on some fine places along 6th Avenue (exit 261 off Highway 10) and parts nearby.

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

Let’s wake up with a couple of first-class coffee roasters. *EXO Roast Co. is a great mix of old and new. The old starts with maybe the nicest refurbished brick place I’ve been in (see photo); it’s just a great spot to sip a brew. The roaster is gas fired, and there’s an actual turntable spinning Gunfighter Ballads by Marty Robbins. “We want to keep things as old fashioned as possible,” says co-owner Amy Smith. But then there’s the new, including one of those smartphone credit card readers and a row of newfangled ceramic filters for making handcrafted pour-over coffees. Ultimately, what matters is the quality of the brew, and my Bolivian pour over is pungent yet full of subtle flavours. Amy hands me a to-go bag of Ethiopian Sidano to keep the memories lingering on my tongue when I’m long down the road.

EXO Roast Co.
403 North 6 Avenue
Tuesday to Saturday 7 am-6 pm, Sunday-Monday 7 am-3 pm
Exo Roast on Urbanspoon

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

At *Cafe Aqui, it’s all about the coffee, as indeed it should be. Other than a small couch and a couple of chairs, the unadorned space is dominated by an 11-pound-capacity roaster that produces small batches of premium beans. From an espresso machine in the back, co-owner Sarah pulls me an excellent Americano, leaning toward the darker, full-bodied roast I prefer. While most of Cafe Aqui’s production is destined for local restaurants and the like, it’s nice to be able to get a casual, first-class brew from the two people doing the roasting.

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Cafe Aqui
1317 South 6 Avenue
Wednesday to Friday 8:30 am-5 pm, weekends 10 am-4 pm, with sometimes “erratic” summer hours

“It’s a Tucson tradition,” says Oliver from Cafe Aqui. “You have to try a Sonoran hot dog.” “What kind should I order?” I ask. “There’s only one kind. Just ask for everything on it, and add some salsa and guacamole from a little cooler.” So I trudge a block in the warm Tucson sun to Ricos Hot Dogs (1150 South 6 Avenue) a little, award-winning outdoor stand in a gravel parking lot. A minute or so after I faithfully place my order, the cook has everything nicely grilled—bacon-wrapped dog, onions—and covered in sauce, with a charred jalapeño on the side. The fine, toasted bun really brings everything together. In no time, this $2.50 treat is down my gullet, a perfect mid-afternoon snack (order two if you want a more filling lunch) and something quite different than the dogs I’m used to. As a bonus, my server, Jesus, offers me some of his outside lunch, a Mexican shrimp cocktail.
La Baguette Parisienne on Urbanspoon

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot, from Ricos

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot dog, from Ricos

*Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop that churns out some of the best and most affordable Mexican street food you’ll find in southern Arizona. Perfect. I get a succulent fish taco and take the plunge on a lengua one. It would almost be easier if I didn’t know lengua means “tongue” in English, but the chunks of meat are surprisingly moist and tender. Who knows, barbacoa (cow’s head) could be next. I order both tacos ($3.75 total) on thick corn tortillas, which add a flavourful, crumbly texture to the mix. Maybe a knife and fork would be better than the three-napkin, hands-on approach. Nah. A fellow customer explains what a couple of popular items are: a large jug full of a coffee-and-cream coloured liquid on the counter is horchata, (a rice-based drink with cinnamon) and big plastic cups, which keep being pulled from the fridge, contain slices of fresh fruit.

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

... like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

… like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

Taqueria Pico de Gallo
2618 South 6 Avenue
Monday to Thursday and Sunday 8 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 am-10 pm
Taqueria Pico de Gallo on Urbanspoon

It’s full-fledged spring in Tucson, so what could be better on a balmy, shirt-sleeve evening than quaffing a frothy red Irish ale in an outdoor garden? *La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina may be near the heart of downtown, but it feels like a pastoral retreat miles removed. Under the wide spread of a magnificent Arizona silver-leaf oak (“I don’t know what we’d do without it,” says the owner) bedecked with tiny white lights, maybe a hundred people are sipping drinks and munching on meals while listening to a tight, five-piece bluegrass band. It’s a mix of very young and old, and everyone in between. On nights like this, I’d consider moving to this climate.

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina's garden on a warm spring evening?

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina’s garden on a warm spring evening?

La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina
201 North Court Avenue
Opens daily at 11 am, except 10 am Saturday, and closes late except for mid-afternoon Sunday and Monday
La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina on Urbanspoon

The problem, for me, with most pancakes, waffles and French toast is they’re stuffed and layered with syrups, compotes, sweet creams and even sugary whipped cream. So it’s a distinct pleasure at *Mother Hubbard Cafe to order a savoury green-corn waffle, with corn and red onion sprinkled inside, a swirl of roasted green chile on top and sugar-free syrup or jelly on the side. Bonus points for offering Cafe Aqui coffee, also available in a four-cup French press pot. Mother Hubbard’s (“Contemporary Native American Comfort Food”) features a lot of gluten-free foods and a wide range of red and green chiles, prepared in house and explained in detail on the menu.

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

Mother Hubbard Cafe
14 West Grant Road
Monday to Saturday 6 am-2 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
Mother Hubbard's Cafe on Urbanspoon

I’ve had a lot of chile and meat on this road trip. It’s time to switch gears and go vegetarian at Cafe Desta. To add a further twist, let’s make it Ethiopian, which uses complex spice mixes to create unique flavours. There are various meat options, but I’m using a steal-of-a-deal lunch special for $9 to choose three excellent vegetarian dishes. They range from a spicy red lentil to wilted collard greens to curried cabbage, potatoes and carrots. What makes Ethiopian cuisine unique is its use of a crepe-like, slightly sour injera bread. You break off a piece of the spongy bread and use it to grab hunks of the stewy dishes, which are then popped in your mouth. I miscalculate the amount the injera I need, and end up with food on my plate and nothing to eat it with. The kind owner spots my dilemma and quickly brings over another basket of injera. Either way, it’s finger-licking good. Not surprisingly, their coffee only uses Ethiopian beans.

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Cafe Desta
758 South Stone Avenue
Daily 11 am-9 pm
Cafe Desta on Urbanspoon

It’s mid-Saturday morning at La Baguette Parisienne, and there’s a line stretching to the door. Regulars are there for big flat French cookies, turnovers, croissants and a wide range of fresh-baked breads, including braided baguettes, cranberry walnut and miche. A sign in front of the treats reads “Do not reach over the glass.” It’s all I can do to obey.

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

La Baguette Parisienne
7851 East Broadway Boulevard
Weekdays 7:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 7:30 am-3 pm, Sunday 7:30 am-1 pm
La Baguette Parisienne on Urbanspoon