August 16, 2006 - Thunder booms over Tucson, announcing a mighty downpour. In late summer, the otherwise parched earth briefly knows abundance. Critters abandon their burrows to soak in the spectacle, and human minds drift to the outdoors.
Isn't it time for a daytrip?
The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, set in the Superstition Mountains, offers a good destination for reveling in green. The riparian park, replete with a creek and lake, waits at the end of a 90-mile drive on scenic back roads.
On the first leg of the journey, the familiar state Route 79 to Oracle meets up with Pinal Pioneer Parkway, the road everyone took to get to Phoenix back in the old days. Yellow-orange wildflowers line the road, birds soar overhead and a monument near mile marker 116 celebrates the life of silent-film star Tom Mix, who died there in a crash in 1940.
Past the historic towns of Florence and Coolidge (home of the 12th-century Casa Grande ruins), the drive offers a winding climb into the foothills of the Superstitions on Gila Pinal Scenic Road in the Tonto National Forest. That drive leads right to the arboretum.
Plan to arrive at the park in the cooler hours of the morning and drive into the town of Superior for lunch. The drive back to Tucson offers several worthwhile sightseeing spots.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
If the monsoons find you lusting for water, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a good place to find it in abundance.
The park, affiliated with the University of Arizona, features Ayer Lake, a reservoir teeming with water birds, dragonflies and fish. Queen Creek flows through the park much of the year, nourishing the plant life along its bed.
A 1.5-mile path in the park takes visitors on a tour of desert plants from around the world, including highly fragrant Eucalyptus trees and a bizarre boojum tree, which looks just like something straight from the mind of Dr. Seuss.
The trail passes through imposing honeycomb-like rock formations and under abundant shade trees. It ends at a demonstration garden with private shaded nooks fragrant with herbs and cooled by babbling water fountains.
Admission costs $7.50 for adults, $3 for children ages 5 to 12, and is free for children 4 and younger. Summer hours are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
World's Smallest Museum
After a walk through the gardens, drive into Superior for lunch at the Buckboard City CafïÂ¿½.
Murals of the Old West cover the wall, reminding customers of the days when cowboys frequented lively taverns and children wore bonnets. One wall displays a real harness, and a long shelf holds memorabilia including kitschy signs and old pop bottles.
The cafïÂ¿½ serves basic home-style fare - loaded omelets and burgers with toasted buns. But watch out: It closes at 2 p.m.
Next to the cafïÂ¿½ sits the World's Smallest Museum, which may be small, but it's impossible to miss.
The eye-catching building takes up so little space that when you step into the front door you're already at the exit. A narrow floor rug provides the illusion of forward movement, though, and glass cases to the right and left teem with artifacts celebrating ordinary life.
The museum plays up its placement on U.S. Route 60, the name almost given to the famous first passageway from the east to west coast: Route 66.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
It's no secret that the town of Florence owes its livelihood to prisons. The ample barbed wire visible from the highway illustrates this point, and one look at the exhibit of hanging nooses in the Pinal County Historical Museum brings it home. (The museum closes during the summer.)
But a closer look reveals that Florence has nearly 140 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. A slow drive through town reveals a wealth of homes with historic markers, some of which are in the center of town on Bailey Street.
It's worth a drive through on the way back to Tucson.
Casa Grande ruins
Once in Florence, follow the signs to the Casa Grande ruins in Coolidge, and you'll stumble upon an odd sight: an ancient adobe structure standing tall under what looks like a gigantic picnic shelter.
The structure comprises the bulk of the remains of a Hohokam Indian community dating back to about 1150. Casa Grande means "big house."
In the parking lot, haunting Native American flute music emanates from speakers, preparing visitors in spirit for the question pervading the sight: What happened to the Hohokam?
A 20-minute video speaks of this unsolved mystery, and a museum of artifacts and three-dimensional renderings of dwellings prepares visitors for a walk outside amidst the mysterious ruins.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and free for those 15 and younger.
After the tour, if your stomach wants dinner, Florence offers a selection of dining options with local flavor, as does Catalina, down the road.