Gilbert Ray Campground
Nights: 17 (plus 3 over at Snyder Hill BLM)
It seems everyone raves about Gilbert Ray Campground in Tucson Mountain Park and we can see why. Since Saguaro NP doesn’t have any campgrounds of it’s own, this park seems to be the spot to stay and it really feels like a national park with it’s sweeping views of the mountains and desert landscape. With the Tucson Mountains between you and the city it feels more remote than the 20 minute drive to town. And since it borders the national park you are in a great spot for exploring.
When we arrived there were only a handful of other campers occupying the 140 sites nicely spaced among the saguaro, barrel cactus and palo verde trees. Sitting beside our trailer soaking in the desert views and sunny 75 degree weather felt so peaceful. Just what we had been racing toward!
The only thing we didn’t like at Gilbert Ray was their 7 day stay limit. But in testament to how much we loved the park we left for a few days and came back. Those few days were spent at Snyder Hill, a Bureau of Land Management boondocking site. Most BLM sites are far out in nature, but this one is best described as an abandoned lot on the outskirts of town. If you frame your view just right the hill is picturesque, but the rest of it is scrub land devoid of cacti, littered with broken glass, rutted from rain runoff, and fairly crowded with campers running generators and weekend ATVers. There were a few nice spots, but we didn’t want to drive through the dust and ruts to get to them so we settled in the main clearing and made the best of it by spending our days in town doing laundry and grocery shopping. We couldn’t wait to get back to Gilbert Ray!
After seeing other campers with the hoods of their trucks open and lights strung beneath, we finally asked someone what was up. Apparently pack rats are common here in the desert and they will climb into your engine and chew up the wiring and insulation. The lights and raised hood deter them. So off to the store we went to get more lights.
This was our first Christmas on the road. We were not sure how we would feel, but it turned out alright. We decorated the trailer by stringing lights inside and out, hung our stockings in the window, and even got a tiny tree with lights. On Christmas day we FaceTimed with family, which was almost like being there, and took a walk through the campground enjoying the views. Then we cooked a nice turkey dinner, opened a bottle of wine and enjoyed cheesecake for dessert. It was probably our most relaxed Christmas ever. And yes, I am wearing flip flops in those pics! 🙂
Tucson Mountain Park has a network of trails. We hiked Brown Mountain, which starts just across from the campground entrance. It was a nice climb to a great view of the surrounding desert landscape. I kept stopping to marvel at the cacti. When we got to the top of the first hill, the trail went down a bit and then up the next peak. With no map we weren’t sure exactly how the trail went. We debated heading back the way we came but we knew there was a loop back through the desert floor so we decided to press on. We could see a trail far below, but when we came down the hill we never found the turn off and ended up in the picnic area. After wandering a bit we headed through a wash and the scrub brush in the direction we knew the trail should be and found a faint path that led to the main trail. Thank goodness we ran into another hiker who advised us that the way he had come led back up the mountain. We were getting tired and didn’t want to climb anymore so off we headed in the other direction to skirt around the base of the hills. Back at the campground we were thankful that we carry around our own hot shower and ice cold drinks!
Another day we ventured to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just up the road. It was crowded with visitors who didn’t seem deterred by the steep $20 per person entry fee. (Note: if you’re going to be seeing other attractions in the area you can purchase a Passport Savings Book that gives you 2 for 1 entrance.) Seems everyone who had family visiting for the holidays was taking them out to see the sights. This place is a little bit gardens, a little bit aquarium, a little bit aviary, and a big bit zoo that left us feeling sorry for the animals in the small enclosures. We did get to see a Gila Monster, but most of the animals were hiding from the mid-day sun. My favorite part was the cactus garden. Every turn held a new weird variety at which to marvel. The aquarium held creatures from the desert rivers and the Sea of Cortez into which they drain. The fossorial garden eels were the coolest, rising straight up out of the sand like long blades of grass and swaying in the water until a fish swam by and they instantly shrunk back disappearing into the sand.
We ended up spending 3 weeks here just outside Tucson and still couldn’t get enough of the desert views.
If you are ever this way a few recommendations. Have breakfast or lunch at the Coyote Pause cafe, just outside the entrance to Tucson Mountain park. It’s delicious. For grocery shopping, the closest stores to the park leave something to be desired, but the brand new Fry’s on W. Valencia Road is worth the extra drive. We also ended up driving 30 minutes across town to do laundry at Mike’s Just Like Home Coin Laundry. The other places we found were dirty and broken down. On Wednesdays Mike’s has a $1 wash deal. Even without it, it was one of the cheaper places we have done laundry.