Desert Not-So-Solitaire: Sublime Scenery and a Dash of Culture and History Spice Up a Weekend in Bustling, Sprawling Tucson. (Three-Day Weekend)

Article excerpt

Seasoned Tucsonans will tell you that exploring the city is like peeling back the layers of an onion: it reveals the cultural curvature of a city that has been shaped by its Native American and Hispanic origins and its dramatic natural setting.

Sometimes the layering is amusing but a bit stagy, as in the rattlesnakesculpture pedestrian bridge across Broadway Blvd. Sometimes it is surprising, such as an encounter with urban wildlife--coyotes trot through the city's network of arroyos. And occasionally it's simply sublime, like walking through a mountain canyon suddenly alive with the unlikely music of a seasonal stream.

A three-day Tucson weekend neatly divides into explorations of the mountains, desert, and city--though none of these is fully distinct from the other. That's the secret of the place: the way the layers all fit together.

Friday

Fuel up with a filling Gallic breakfast at Ghini's French Caffe (1803 E. Prince Rd.; 520/326-9095). Coralie Satta-Williams scrambles up her eggs with garlic and tomatoes.

Pack a picnic. On your way out of town, grab a fresh sandwich to go at Sausage Deli (2334 N. First Ave.; 520/623-8182).

Climb high. Ambitious hikers can squeeze several peaks and canyons into a day. Start at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area ($5; 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd.; 520/749-8700), where a shuttle ($6; 520/749-2327) takes you 3 3/4 miles into the canyon along a sycamore-shaded creek. The best desert day-hike in the region is on Blacketts Ridge Trail (moderate to strenuous; 6 miles round trip), which terminates on a rocky saddle looking 1,500 feet straight down into Sabino Canyon. Back at the trailhead, a separate, easy trek into Bear Canyon bags Seven Falls, but fickle waterfalls show only if there's been recent snow or rain in the Santa Catalinas.

Drive higher. The Catalina Highway through, Coronado National Forest (520/749-8700) leads 25 miles through six distinct biological zones to the snowy conifers and skiing at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley ($32 for all-day lift tickets; 520/576-1321) near the 9,157-foot cap of the Santa Catalina range.

Sunset cocktails. End the day in the Santa Catalina foothills with civilized drinks and haute cuisine at swank Loews Ventana Canyon Resort (7000 N Resort Dr.; 520/299-2020).

Saturday

Breakfast with downtown artists at The Grill (100 E. Congress St.; 520/623-7621), a 24-hour diner painted deep purple.

Sonoran totems. Drive out West Speedway Boulevard and Gates Pass Road at dawn to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park (2700 N. Kinney Rd.; 520/733-5158), where the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive winds through hills studded with the giant cactus. A short trek up Signal Hill reveals petroglyphs. For a moderately steep hike with great views, take the 3 1/2-mile Sendero Esperanza Trail.

Desert revealed. Enjoy lunch at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum ($9.95; 2021 N. Kinney; 520/883-2702) and spend the afternoon at this worldclass zoo, arboretum, and natural history museum dedicated to the Sonoran Desert.

View point. Time your drive back to town to crest Gates Pass (at the west end of W. …