We traveled east into Arizona on I-8, dropping south for a few days at one of our favorite places, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We volunteered here in 2007, so it holds a special place in our hearts. Apparently, the rains were really good last November and December, because this desert is very green and lush this spring. The Visitor Center has a new exhibit on the five “Seasons of the Sonoran Desert” explaining how rain – little as it may be – coming in two seasons (winter and “second summer” or “monsoon”) makes the vegetation here so rich. This display is really beautifully done and informative. Some improvements have been made to the campground, too. The restrooms have been remodeled to have showers – still no RV hookups, though, which is perfectly fine with us. We did the strenuous 3.6-mile hike up to Bull Pasture and back through Estes Canyon. The wildflowers were glorious, especially in Estes Canyon. And the great, stone “longhorn” is still there, larger than life.
We continued east to Tucson to see our son and do “big city” stuff. While we were there, the three of us took a daytrip to Kitt Peak National Observatory. This 200-acre site is located high above the Sonoran Desert on the Tohono O’odham Nation about an hour and a half west of Tucson. The site presently has 25 optical and two radio telescopes, the largest collection of astronomical telescopes in the world. Three guided tours (along with a self-guided walking tour) are offered: 1) the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope; 2) the 2.1-meter telescope; and 3) the Mayall 4-meter telescope. We signed up for all three tours.
The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope was the first observatory on the mountain, completed in 1962. Our excellent guide gave us some history of how this public collection of observatories was established in 1958 and how the solar observatory was designed and built. Then we walked to the observatory itself and crammed into a little viewing space where we could look up a couple hundred feet to the three telescope mirrors themselves, down through the 300’ tube to the bottom mirror, and back to secondary mirrors right in front of us. These secondary mirrors reflect the sun’s pictures to a lab underneath the solar telescope where the astronomers work. The astronomer working when we arrived, a veteran of some 50 years on the observatory from its inception, invited us into the Observing Room to see what the astronomers see.
At the 2.1-meter stellar observatory, built in 1964, we learned about how the telescope is moved and aimed and how digital cameras have become essential to the study of the stars. As it turned out, the third tour didn’t come off as planned. The elevator to take us up ten stories into the 4-meter Mayall telescope was broken, so the tour was not able to go there. Instead, we walked up to the 4-meter telescope to see the beautiful views from the ground.
Another daytrip with Jon Jr. took us to Patagonia Lake State Park, where we had volunteered for the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in 2006 and 2008. When we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were delighted to see several of the wonderful volunteers we had worked with in those years. Gradually, through the hard work of those folks and other volunteers, the programs are being restored from the drastic cuts caused by the state’s budget shortfalls in recent years. Here again, improvements have been made to the campground; all sites now have water and electric hookups, more sites have paved pads, and retaining walls have been built giving the campground a much tidier look. We had an enjoyable picnic beside the lake then walked the Birding Trail looking for our favorite bird, the Elegant Trogon, but we were not fortunate enough to see him this day.
From Tucson, we moved about thirty miles north to Catalina State Park for a visit with Jon’s brother and stepmother, who live nearby in Saddlebrooke. The day we moved, the weather was atrocious. A winter storm warning was in affect with snow above 3000’, but we got rain, wind, hail, sleet, sun – just about everything in bursts. When we got to Catalina, though, the clouds and sun over the Santa Catalina Mountains were really dramatic. We went for a walk after dinner and got beautiful shots as the sun was setting behind us, including a marvelous, many-armed saguaro along the trail.