Robert Gates was a typical Southwestern frontier entrepreneur: He did a little mining, a little ranching, a bit of saloon keeping, some homesteading. In 1883, in order to connect his Avra Valley mine with his other interests in Tucson, he set about building a precipitous route over the Tucson Mountains, and in the process set the stage for local officials, about 50 years later, to establish one of the largest public parks of its kind in the nation. Thus we have the 37-square-mile Sonoran Desert preserve called Tucson Mountain Park (Gates Pass to Kinney Rd., daily sunrise–sunset, free).
The 20,000 acres of wild desert features one of the largest saguaro forests in the world, and has something like 62 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking.The 20,000 acres of wild desert features one of the largest saguaro forests in the world, and has something like 62 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. The park has a rifle and pistol range, and three large picnic areas with grills, ramadas, and picnic tables; also within park boundaries is the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. If all these activities seem a bit sweaty and active for your taste, at least make it to the top of the road named for the man who conquered the comparatively short Tucson Mountains at Gates Pass. You can drive to the pass and park at a large lot with bathrooms and a ramada and two little stacked-rock huts decorated inside with eons of graffiti.
There are short trails out to a promontory from which you can see the whole sweeping expanse of the desert below. It’s one of the best views in Arizona—a state that has no shortage of sweeping views. If you want to stay the night at the park, the Gilbert Ray Campground (8451 W. McCain Loop, off Kinney Rd., 520/883-4200, $10–20) has sites with RV hookups and picnic tables, plus restrooms and a dumping station.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Tucson.