Saguaro National Park © JP Bruce
Spending an extra couple of days in Tucson before or after the Summit? You should!
By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Marketing, Communications and Blog Coordinator
You’re registered for the 2023 Nature Photography Summit (you are, aren’t you?) and, if you’re like me, you’re either coming in early or staying a day or two after the conference to photograph nearby sites. You’re traveling all the way to Tucson, so why not add a day or two on to your trip to experience the Sonoran Desert in all its glory. There’s plenty to photograph on the grounds of the Westin La Paloma, site of the Summit, and at the field trip locations, but we also asked several of the Summit field trip leaders for their favorite local places.
Wood duck in Reid Park © JP Bruce
JP Bruce likes Saguaro National Park. There’s a Summit field trip going to the west side but there’s also a portion of the park on the east side of Tucson. Both parts have scenic roads and many trails, some accessible and others rugged. On the east side, he says, “one section of the loop road is eye level with the Saguaro blooms which is a difficult angle to obtain.” On the west side, the short hike to Signal Hill sets you up with petroglyphs on the rocks and the Tucson Mountains in the background. A great location if there are clouds in the sky towards sunset.
Bruce also likes to photograph in Reid Park in mid-town Tucson. “There are ponds that attract many birds. There is a rose garden for flower images and many paved sidewalks, so getting around is easy for all. If you’re interested, a zoo is also located there. Just remember to label zoo animals as captive.”
Site of an 1880s cavalry post, “Fort Lowell Park is place with much to offer. The main area has a small pond that does attract some birds. There are birds to be found in the trees all over. Some remnants of the old adobe fort remain if history interests you.”
There are a number of scenic trails in both the Catalina and Tucson Mountains. Some can be quite challenging, with large elevation gains. Others are more moderate. Check a trails app (like All Trails) for detailed information. For example, only a 15 minute drive from the hotel, the Linda Vista Trail is a moderate loop hike through the foothills with lots of cactus and striking views of the mountains in afternoon light.
Honeybee Canyon in Oro Valley has a nice loop trail that takes you through a canyon, up over hills with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and up the dry stream bed to a rock with some ancient petroglyphs. Great horned owls are sometimes seen around sunset and a variety of plant life, birds, lizards and other critters make their home here.
Monsoon storms over the Sonoita/Elgin plains and Whetstone mountains © Jeff Maltzman
Within a couple of hours drive
Near Patagonia (an hour or so from the Westin La Paloma), says Chris Wesselman, is the Elgin-Sonoita area. “Take the Upper Elgin Road off State Highway 82, and connect with Elgin Road to loop back to Sonoita, and maybe have lunch or dinner at the Copper Brothel Brewery. Get some close views of old ranches and new vineyards. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a thunderstorm (unlikely in May), it’s a great area for beginners’ storm photography.”
The Patagonia area is a haven for birds, with popular locations like the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Paton Center for Hummingbirds and Patagonia Lake State Park.
If you liked Elgin and are interested for more, “consider driving down to Parker Canyon Lake, which is so close to the International Border, that your cell phone may say Bienvenidos a México. It’s a pretty lake with some wildlife, boats for rent, and more.”
Another outing could be to Ramsey Canyon, above Sierra Vista, about 90 minutes south of La Paloma. It’s a lovely area run by Nature Conservancy. There is also Carr Canyon and the Nature Conservancy site along the San Pedro River area.
Henry Johnson’s website, mtlemmonazimages.com contains a lot of information about photography in southern Arizona. He likes Madera Canyon, about 50 miles and 1 hour south of Tucson. He wrote about Madera Canyon in an article on his blog. He also wrote about bird photography in both San Pedro and Madera an a different article.
Jeff Maltzman likes Cochise Stronghold, especially the west side, in the Dragoon Mountains (about 2 hours away). “This is a really cool area with exposed granitic outcrops and what I lovingly call “crazy rocks.” It’s a great place to play with shapes and forms.”
A little farther out are the Chiricahua Mountains and Chiricahua National Monument. “There’s both an east and west side of the mountains. The west side is a bit closer to Tucson and contains the national monument. Also known for its very cool rock formations, these are different from those in the Dragoons. Instead of granite, these are rhyolite formations, volcanic tuff that has jointed and cracked, eroded over time into really cool columns. The east side, near the town of Portal, contains Cave Creek Canyon, a beautiful area with wonderful hiking and several creeks.”
The Chiricahua’s and Portal are some of Henry Johnson’s favorite locations, too. In fact he is helping to lead a Camera Club Tucson trek there in late April. “The location is great for birds, landscapes, and when there is a new moon, dark skies. I have been there a number of times, and blogged on the trips.” See his article on birds in the Portal area. Note that Portal is about 150 miles from Tucson, east and south, and not far from the New Mexico border. It is about a 3 hour drive from Tucson. There are nice places to stay in the area, and campgrounds.
About two and a half hours southwest of La Paloma is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a rugged, primitive area known for vast stands of Organ Pipe Cactus and distant mountains. It’s right on the U.S. – Mexico border and it’s not unusual to see evidence of migrants hiking through.
Hoodoos in Chiricahua National Monument © Jeff Maltzman
A balancing rock in Chiricahua National Monument with Earth’s shadow just before sunrise. © Jeff Maltzman
Arizona’s official state nickname is the Grand Canyon State and that’s a place everyone should experience at least once in their lives. It’s a good six hours north of La Paloma but worth it! Along the way, stop and see the red rocks of Sedona, the granite dells around Watson Lake in Prescott, mountain meadows in Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks, Sunset Crater, or the nearby ruins of a 900 year old Native American pueblo at Wupatki National Monument. Keep going to the northeast and you’ll hit Monument Valley Tribal Park and Navajo National Monument.
You can get your Route 66 fix following the legendary road east to Winslow, Arizona, pose on a corner, and head over to the Petrified Forest National Park or Meteor Crater.
A little east of Phoenix, the Lost Dutchman State Park and the Superstition Mountains have trails through the desert to rugged formations like Weaver’s Needle. And, if you ask nicely, one of the local photographers might tell you where to find wild horses along the Salt River.
As you can see, there’s no shortage to places to photograph, so plan on staying an extra day or two and take full advantage of your time in Arizona.
Cactus fruit attract a variety of diners in Saguaro National Park. © JP Bruce
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He serves as NANPA’s Interim Marketing and Communications Coordinator and manages NANPA’s blog. He can be found online at frankgallagherphotography.com or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.