Jaunt south offers lots to see – and cheap gas, too
Tired of rain and cold weather? In a rut, have itchy feet and feel like roaming? That1s how Dianne Marie and I felt during the December holiday season.
Add to that the hubbub and stress at that time of the year, and we decided to head south to seek warmer weather. Southern Arizona, and particularly the area around Tucson, seemed to fill the bill.
We left on Christmas Day to begin our scenic drive down U.S. Highway 395 along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. The snow pack was beautiful, and we crossed many mountain passes, admired Mono Lake and watched kids sledding down small hills.
Our first stop was Independence, a tiny town some 50 miles south of Bishop and the Inyo County seat, where we stayed at the Winnedumah Hotel. This is a historic inn built in 1927, which became very popular with Western movie stars such as Gary Cooper, Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers. A lot of their movies were shot in the nearby Alabama Hills.
The hotel is a two-story, cozy little place, particularly the lobby, filled with overstuffed chairs, a piano, board games and a reading area facing a huge fireplace. Fortunately, we had made reservations for dinner as well, a good thing since there are almost no other places to eat within many miles. They don1t usually serve any meals but breakfast, but made an exception since it was Christmas Day.
The next day we were on our way to Las Vegas, but first stopped for a visit to Manzanar, the infamous camp where many Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. We took a short, self-guided tour by car. The camp has been completely torn down, except for a guard shack at the entrance, a small sunken rock pool and a monument at the cemetery. However, Manzanar is now in the process of being restored as a national monument.
We spent another hour in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine and then drove through Death Valley. It was a pleasant drive<even on the cool side at this time of the year. Any thought of staying at the famous Furnace Creek Ranch was quickly put aside when we found that a room cost $270<that1s without breakfast!
Although we were not interested in visiting Las Vegas, we found the $43 room rate at the Silverton Hotel, just off the Strip, irresistible. But then we made up for it by splurging on an all-you-can-eat $30 seafood buffet at the Rio Casino Hotel.
We drove west of Las Vegas the next morning to Red Rock Canyon. This National Conservation Area is part of the Mojave Desert. It was a good place to stretch our legs on a short two-mile trail in the park, followed by a drive-through and picnic at the Willow Springs picnic area.
The whole park is a beautiful and picturesque area, with the prominent red rocks being the outstanding attraction for sightseers and rock climbers alike. Incidentally, they were proud to tell us that the memorial at the visitors center that was dedicated Sept. 21 to the victims of the 9/11 disaster was the first one to be put up in the entire nation.
We were soon on our way to Bullhead City, Ariz. (memorable only because of the incredibly low price of gasoline<85.9 cents per gallon!), Needles and Lake Havasu City.
Lake Havasu1s claim to fame is the original London Bridge, which was dismantled and shipped to this community quite a few years ago. Sadly, a complex of condos is now being put up right by the bridge, obstructing the view of the bridge from one side completely.
We continued on to Parker Dam, where newly put up concrete barriers again reminded us of 9/11, and Quartzsite, Ariz., before going straight through to Tucson. Quartzsite is such a unique desert community, we decided to revisit it on the way back (more about that later).
Tucson is located about 60 miles north of the Mexican border and is Arizona1s second largest city. The entire area proved to be a wonderful place to visit, particularly in the winter and spring. While folks in the rest of the country were wet and cold, we had nothing but sunshine and some high clouds, with daytime temperatures of around 70 degrees.
Our first visit was to Saguaro National Park West. There is a Saguaro National Park East as well, but it is smaller and not as popular, we were told. The park is part of the Sonoran Desert, which rivals Death Valley as the hottest and driest place in North America.
The most famous plant here is the saguaro cactus. It is the predominant natural feature, standing as tall as 50 feet and able to live more than 100 years. It would take another article just to describe this magnificent plant and its functions.
We saw a slide show at the visitors center and drove on to the nearby Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, where we spent the entire afternoon mostly outside. We were impressed by the fleet-footed mountain goats and heavyweight javelinas (they look like pigs, but aren1t).
The next day we were off to the old Mission San Xavier del Bac, 10 miles south of Tucson and located on an Indian reservation. It was Sunday and there were lots of people attending Mass.
The mission dates back to 1629 and is well worth visiting. It has been called the 3Sistine Chapel of North America.² As a treat, we bought fry bread, a dish prepared from flour, water, fried in oil and sprinkled with powdered sugar or other condiments.
Perhaps not as well known but interesting just the same was the nearby old Spanish Presidio dating back to 1774, formally known as Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Here we watched docents dressed in native costumes prepare native dishes and display their crops. In nearby Tubac itself, known as an artist colony, were lots of indoor and outdoor shops selling native crafts<a bit touristy, to be sure.
Walt Fraser lives in Grass Valley.
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