Tucson’s population of 540,000 people is scattered across more than 200 square miles of sandy urban sprawl. If your goal is to hike or mountain bike the Santa Catalina Mountains, you’ll find it takes a bit of driving past fast-food joints and housing complexes to escape civilization. But keep heading north toward Oro Valley and on your way to the Catalinas you’ll find a delightful desert oasis tucked just off SR77, across the road from urban mainstays like Whole Foods and Starbucks. These sprawling, estate-like grounds are Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens and Galleries — a celebration of Sonoran Desert natural habitat, art, and culture.
Tohono Chul is a must-visit destination if you’re visiting Tucson, but before you imbibe one of the bistro’s famous prickly pear margaritas, there are a few things about the gardens you should know. Start your Tohono Chul visit by wandering the desert gardens and learning about the prickly pear cactus and its fruit — pink and purplish buttons that produce sweet, nearly neon-pink juice. They’re called tunas in Spanish and they’re in season in the summer through the fall months. A chilled prickly pear margarita is even more satisfying when you know a little bit about the colorful fruit — and after you’ve wandered the park in midday sun for an hour or so.
The story of Tohono Chul starts in the mid-1960s when its benefactors, geologist Richard Wilson and his wife Jean bought the property where the gardens are now located. Developers came calling throughout the 1970s, but the Wilsons wouldn’t sell. According to Tohono Chul’s archives, Jean said of her decision, “I don’t want to sell the land. I don’t want it cemented over. I want to preserve it.”
The pair established the nonprofit Foundation for the Preservation of Natural Areas in the early 1980s. Historical documents preserved by Tohono Chul record Jean explaining the couple’s mission: “We wanted to keep something natural in the middle of all the (surrounding) development so that people could come easily for a few hours and get out of the traffic and learn something at the same time.”
Both Jean and Richard have since passed away, but the legacy they created is thriving.
Today the park is supported by donations and nominal entry fees. Volunteer docents are available to guide you, or you can grab a park map and enjoy your own adventure.
What to know before you visit Tohono Chul
The words “tohono chul” mean “desert corner” and are from the language of the early Tohono O’odham people, hardy desert-dwellers renowned for their knowledge of Sonoran plants.
Today, the curated desert garden consists of 49 acres of trails and gardens that highlight the Arizona Upland subdivision of the Sonoran Desert — one of six distinct regions of North American desert and offering more varieties of trees, shrubs, cacti, and other succulent plants. Tohono’s collection consists mostly of plants native to the region or adapted to the American Southwest, including more than 150 species of shrubs and trees, 300 species of cacti and succulents, and 50 species of wildflowers.
The Santa Catalinas rising in the distance provide the perfect backdrop for the natural experience, although it’s important to note that Tohono’s location does more than provide a pleasant diversion for cityfolk. Wildlife have found a refuge within the gardens: Nearly 40 bird species make their permanent home here, and another 60 or so migrant species fly in and out seasonally. Other desert creatures often spotted here include jackrabbits, gila monsters and other lizards, bobcats, coyotes, and even gray foxes. Native tortoises even have their own preserve.
Just beyond the Sonoran Seasons Garden to the west is the Desert Palm Oasis, which is a careful recreation of a tropical forest found near the town of San Carlos, Mexico (six hours’ drive south of Tucson). Here, you’ll find towering tropical palm trees, including three species of fan palms. The oasis is a celebration of the Sonoran Desert’s diverse plant life.
What else to do at Tohono Chul
In addition to natural beauty everywhere you look, the park features sculptural art created by local artists, and the entire park is set up as an educational center. The Geology Wall illustrates the geologic history of the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Saguaro Discovery Trail explains both the natural history and cultural significance of the towering cactus.
More adventurous visitors will enjoy walking the Hallowell Desert View Trail. It’s only about a half-mile long, featuring the desert in its natural state. Along the trail are two shaded ramadas with drinking fountains, but this trail is not wheelchair accessible.
The area known as Cholla Forest features “jumping” cactus that, although it doesn’t really jump, has an uncanny ability to attach to your clothing (or skin) if you happen to brush against it. The cholla cactus’ stems are covered in barbed spines. The stems detach easily, so do be careful not to get pin-cushioned. Although if you do brave the Cholla Forest, chances are you’ll see birds including the cactus wren and curve-billed thrashers — they love building their nests in the cholla. Also keep an eye out for Gambel’s quail, and the ubiquitous desert roadrunner.
Where to eat at Tohono Chul
Once your desert wandering is done, you’ll feel like you’ve earned a prickly pear margarita or two (there’s also a nonalcoholic prickly pear lemonade), or a local draft beer. The Tohono Chul Garden Bistro offers indoor, air-conditioned dining, or you can enjoy the outdoor dining area, adjacent to the Hummingbird Garden, which features a variety of plants attractive to hummingbirds. While the hummingbirds feast on the nectar of honeysuckle, agave, and salvia, you can satisfy your hunger with a classic burger and fries, brunch fare such as waffles or an omelet, or try one of the Bistro’s Sonoran-inspired dishes.
And guess what? The prickly pear margaritas are “bottomless” when ordered with an entree.
The hummingbird show and the slow-going Sonoran vibe at Tohono Chul invites you to stay a while longer. Summers are long here. Hiking and mountain biking can wait.
Where: 366 Paseo del Norte, Tucson, AZ 85704