When it gets hot in southern Arizona, there’s an easy escape. All around are “sky islands,” which are mountains that pop up from the desert to reach cool air high up in the atmosphere. Some, like the Santa Catalina range just to the north of Tucson, are easily summited by car, and there are campsites dotted all over the National Forest lands.
Most of the campgrounds are tight for our 30-foot Airstream, but we’ve been wanting to use our tenting gear anyway. A couple of weeks ago we took the little Honda and scooted up the Mt Lemmon Highway to the General Hitchcock campground at 6000 feet elevation. This little campground has only about a dozen sites, all tucked into a small canyon and shaded by towering Ponderosa pine trees. It seems much farther from Tucson than it really is. On a day when the air was scorching the desert sand in Tucson, the camping at General Hitchcock was just fine at about 15 degrees cooler.
From any campground in the Santa Catalinas, you can find a hiking trail. From General Hitchcock the Green Mountain trail ascends 1.8 miles to a saddle near Guthrie Mountain, and along the way you can get a spectacular view all the way back to Tucson with the famous “Thimble” in between. The climb is occasionally steep. You have to go further than the saddle to get a summit view, but we were not hiking with the goal of bagging peak on that day. Our goal was just to get a hike in and then return to camp to set up for the evening.
Kids always seem to like tenting, and so do I. There are always things to do: setting up the tent, unpacking the bedrolls, fetching water, cooking, and all the other little simple tasks that kids can help with. In addition to the jobs, there are bugs and critters to discover, rocks to climb, and running around to be done. Everything’s an adventure in a forest campground like this one.
Adults have to remember how novel the tenting experience is for a kid. Sleeping outdoors! In a tent! With Mom & Dad right there, to talk to, and play checkers, and explain the strange night sounds. Nothing to fear, all the comforts a kid really needs, and plenty of opportunity to learn from each other. Even after three years of life in our Airstream, tent camping is still fresh and exciting for all of us. Personally, I like all the neat gear. It just tickles me to fire up my little camp stove and boil some water for dinner. Don’t know why, but it’s fun.
I left the rain fly off the tent so that we’d be able to see the stars. The chance of rain was absolutely zero. Because we were above the dust layer that often covers the low desert, we could see brilliant glowing of constellations all night through the trees. Owls hunted up above, and we could occasionally hear them hooting at each other. My ears got a little chilly when the overnight air cooled to about 50 degrees, but it was worth it for this night of fresh air and the rare experience of sleeping closer to the ground. I know most Airstreamers say that they bought their trailers so that they wouldn’t need to sleep on the ground anymore, but once in a while I still crave the simplicity of the experience.
Descending the mountain road again the next day, we passed through an elevation at which the saguaros were at the peak of their springtime bloom. I had forgotten that the saguaros were due to flower at this time of year. I suppose most people don’t know that they flower at all, seeing as how they are only found here in the lower Sonoran desert. Seeing the spring bloom is one of the little cues that tell us the seasons are changing. It’s not all just hot and dry here … even from day to day the scenery can change, as our little overnight trip to the Santa Catalinas has reminded us.