I’ve already written about our hotel in the Tucson area – the Arizona Inn. I also wrote blogs about our “underwhelming” impression of the downtown area and our visit to the Titan Missile Museum.
All that’s left for me now is to tell you about two other attractions we visited in the area, and one other attraction that we checked out, but moved on.
On the day we headed south (of Tucson) to the Missile Museum, we stopped about halfway there to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac – a historic Spanish Catholic mission. It is a stunningly beautiful white structure with an ornately decorated entranceway.
The mission was founded in 1692 and is named after Francis Xavier, a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit Order. The original church was destroyed following a series of Apache attacks, and construction on a new church, the building that we visited, commenced in 1783.
The church is still actively served by Franciscans, who also minister to the Native community by which the church was built.
One of the things that struck us was how cool the interior of the church was, compared to the staggering Arizona heat outside. We were also amazed at the dazzling colours of the paintings, carvings, frescoes and statues, for when we have visited other older historic church buildings, they have often been dulled and faded by the ravages of time. That was certainly not the case at San Xavier.
Considered by many students of architecture to be the finest example of a Spanish Mission in the United States, it is a pilgrimage site for thousands who visit the church each year, many of them walking or arriving on horseback.
The mission, which also houses a museum, is open to the public daily, except when it is being used for church services.
The second attraction I want to tell you about is the Colossal Caves, part of Colossal Cave Mountain Park, located about 22 miles southeast of Tucson near the town of Vail.
The park includes a 134 year-old working ranch which is linked to the history of the “discovery” of the caves by Solomon Lick in 1879. Lick arrived in the area in the mid-1870’s and built the Mountain Springs Hotel and Stage Station. He discovered the entrance when searching for stray cows and began a series of explorations of what today is known as Colossal Cave. The Cave’s history however, dates back to around 900 AD, and at least four different bands of Indians are known to have used the caves before Lick arrived on the scene in the mid-1870’s.
The first significant excavation of the cave occurred in 1905, when a 75 foot tunnel was created in order to mine bat guano. Today, that tunnel serves as one of the openings for the six different species of bats that go in and out of the caves.
It wasn’t until 1917, that a professor from Arizona State University took surveying expeditions into the cave and created the first map, at the same time giving names to the formations and passageways. He found a number of Indian artifacts as well as two human skeletons.
The practice of running guided tours started 7 years later in 1924, when Frank Schmidt, who filed 2 mining claims on land occupied by the caves, began taking guests down into the caves. The “tours” were reserved for the most adventure-hardy guests, as they had to negotiate their way with ropes and lanterns through the unimproved passageways. Ten years later, in 1934, Schmidt relinquished his lease on the caves to the state of Arizona. Almost immediately the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) went to work creating trails, installing steps and lighting, and building handrails throughout the passageways.
As an aside, and as a further historical note, the CCC was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, a plan to put unemployed, unmarried 18-25 year old men to work during the depression. It was a remarkably successful initiative aimed at implementing a general natural resource conservation program in every state and territory. At almost every national historical site and attraction we visited during our 9 week road trip, we benefitted from the work these young men had done.
The 50 minute tour (cost of $13 each and well worth it), descended 75 steps and 40 feet below ground where we began our tour. They estimate that roughly 2 miles of passageways have been explored, and there is at least another 2 miles of unexplored areas where the connecting passages are too small to enter.
The temperature inside averages 70 degrees Fahrenheit all year-round and these caves are considered to be “dry”, meaning that all the formations are “dead” and do not grow.
The caves were formed by water depositing limestone, but this source has disappeared. It instead feeds the “active” nearby Arkenstone Cave that continues to grow formations. The Arkenstone Cave is not currently open to the public and is undergoing research and exploration.
For my fellow pop-culture lovers, the caves have been the setting for a number of mostly forgettable movies over the years, including Walt Disney’s, 1975 TV special “The Outlaw Cats of Colossal Caves” and a 1988 Sesame Street movie entitled “Sesame Street goes Western”.
Our guide, a woman in her early thirties claimed to have watched all 17 of them and said the absolute worst was the 1972 film entitled “Night of the Lepus”. I went on YouTube to check it out for myself. While I can’t speak for any of the other movies shot at the Colossal Caves, based on the first 15 minutes of the film (that’s all I could watch before Mary made me shut it off in disgust), it is a classic “B” Sci-Fi movie, and a real stinker to boot. The entire plot centres around a small town’s battle against thousands of mutated, carnivorous killer rabbits. In case you ever wondered what happened to DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy) in the years between Star Trek being cancelled, and then re-emerging as a series of big screen movies, he was one of the “stars” of “Night of the Lepus”.
The last attraction I want to tell you about is the Pima Air & Space Museum, which is a sister site to the Titan Missile Museum. It is located in the SE corner of Tucson, and is one of the world’s largest non-government funded aerospace museums. It is a massively sprawling facility encompassing 127 acres of land, and featuring close to 300 aircraft on display, covering commercial, military and civilian aviation.
The site includes five air-cooled hangers that are equivalent in size to more than four football fields. I’m not kidding when I say that this place is massive.
On our way there, we discussed the fact that we had already spent the better part of a day at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon when we went in search of Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”. We’ve also visited the Pacific Museum of Flight in Seattle on several occasions as well as our own Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.
While we both love history and enjoy looking at old planes, when we arrived at the Pima Air & Space Museum, it was readily apparent that we would need an entire day to do this museum justice.
We did stop in at the gift shop, for the mandatory addition to the pin collection, and we spoke with a couple of aviation veterans who enthusiastically told us about all the great things one could see and do at the Museum. Incidentally, the admission price is $15.50 per person and unless you want to wander on foot the 80 or so acres of planes parked in what they call “the Boneyard”, there is a $7 (per person) guided bus tour of the grounds.
This place is an aircraft lover’s Fantasy Island, truly a spectacular facility, but we were both interested in moving on. With Tombstone a little more than an hour’s drive away, we decided to point the Jeep eastward, and we started singing “On the Road Again, Just can’t wait to get on the Road Again”……