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Hiking and Eating Across Tucson

One of Arizona’s best writers offers advice on where to get outside and where to head in after.

by Roger Naylor

Let me introduce my book.

Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers is my dream book. It’s actually a love letter to Arizona, disguised as a hiking and dining guide. Here’s the idea: Spend a morning hiking miles on a beautiful trail and afterwards grab a juicy burger or other delicacy. That’s my favorite day of all. Here are a few snippets from the book to get you started on some great days of your own.

“You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.” - Charles Kuralt

Bear Canyon

The official name is Bear Canyon but most know it as Seven Falls Trail because as improbable as it seems, that’s your destination. Anytime you can find a seven-tiered waterfall in the desert, make the journey. The trail starts off wide and flat and parallels the road. Once the pavement ends, the footpath begins a gentle climb beside a stream that can turn feisty after a storm. There are multiple creek crossings entering the canyon.

One winter I was hiking here and it started raining hard. While the defile isn’t narrow, it’s never a good idea to be on a canyon floor with the potential for rising waters. I scrambled up a rocky wall and found an alcove to wait out the weather. Then an amazing thing happened. The rain vaporized and fog filled the canyon, wafting below me in tufted clouds. It was eerily quiet as I was engulfed in a glossy sheen of buttermilk and woodsmoke. For several minutes I couldn’t see cactus, rock or sky. Nothing existed beyond this swirling wispy wall of satin. It was not my typical desert hike.      

After the last stream crossing the trail clambers up the south canyon wall in a couple of languid switchbacks. You round a corner and see the falls slicing a sharp passageway down the cliff. The waterfall is most pronounced in spring and after summer monsoons. But even when the falls are parched you’ll find wide pools of clear water, a mirage-like oasis tucked away in the folds of the desert. It’s like finding a sapphire in the couch cushions. Makes you wonder what other bits of magic lurk in the outback.         

 

Pat’s Drive-In

1202 W Niagara St

(520) 624-0891

There’s a siren song to this little fry-hole I can’t resist. These burgers are ridiculously addictive but are small enough I can justify them as appetizers. Most of Pat’s patrons aren’t even there for burgers. They come for the sloppy chili dogs and fresh-cut fries served in paper sacks.

A few picnic tables provide seating indoors and out but it’s mostly a drive-up, a grab-‘em-and-go kind of place. Burgers are slender patties topped with mustard, chopped onions and lettuce. Decades fall away at each bite. These beauties taste like burgers grilled at lunch counters, pool halls and five and dimes before the homogenization of America. These are burgers of a simpler time and place. They’re the burgers of my youth. 

You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.

Hugh Norris

Unlike some summit hikes that become head-bowed, foot-plodding slogs, the Hugh Norris Trail qualifies as an airy jaunt that keeps your noggin on a swivel while you gawk at one sweeping view after another. There are a few steep pitches but that only sweetens the deal. It makes you feel like you earn the expansive vistas, among the best in Tucson in my opinion.

Set in Saguaro National Park, the trail carves a route through the classic Sonoran landscape to the top of 4,687-foot-high Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains. Named for a Tohono O’odham police chief, the trail starts on a cactus-studded bajada as it switchbacks upwards to snag a rocky ridgeline. From there the trail angles towards Wasson, hugging first one side of the high shoulder and then the other, alternating the views.

Don’t expect a comforting forest canopy atop the high slopes. The Tucsons never gain enough elevation to shake off the heat and cactus. It’s a desert hike bottom to top and shade is as thin and unreliable as an undertaker’s smile. I sit atop the summit, a rocky knob with wraparound views as the sun pokes a spicy finger in my chest.    

This is an elegant landscape, all stone, and spine, lumbering mountains and belligerent light. In the clear stillness, I can hear the desert growling at me. Or maybe purring. Either way, I’m good. 

 

El Guero Canelo

elguerocanelo.com

three locations in Tucson

 

I rue the day I ate my first Sonoran hot dog because it’s a specific and persistent craving that can’t be satisfied by anything else. The Sonoran hot dog is the saguaro cactus of wieners. It is the closest thing Arizona has to an official hot dog. The messy concoction is a treasure trove of flavors but the essence is the bacon-wrapped hot dog. And for the record, ‘bacon-wrapped’ may be the most wonderful hyphenate ever created. Opened in 1993, El Guero Canelo was one of the first to introduce Sonorans to Tucson.

The dog is a special kind of sin, swaddled in bacon and grilled, fusing the meats into a smoky flavor bomb. It’s tucked into a soft boat of a bun, fluffier than the traditional bolillo. Keeping the dog company are whole pinto beans, diced tomatoes, grilled and fresh onions, mustard, mayo and jalapeno sauce. El Guero Canelo has multiple locations but I usually visit the one on Oracle (2480 N. Oracle Road, (520) 882-8977).

 

Canyon Loop

Catalina State Park covers 5,500 acres in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. And Canyon Loop dishes up some of the best the park has to offer in a short, easy-to-access package.

There’s a quick climb from the creek to a meadow lined with mesquite and saguaro, framed by a dramatic backdrop of mountain views. I stumbled onto my favorite part of the hike a few hundred yards down the trail. On the right, at the path’s edge is a mesquite tree with a purple prickly pear cactus growing out of the trunk.

I’ve seen cactus growing out of rocks, upside down from ledge bottoms and on the roofs of houses but seeing one three feet off the ground growing from a tree is a new one. I can never tell if cacti are fiercely determined or more laid back than Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Is this all part of some relentless drive to survive? Or maybe it’s more like, “Dude, here’s a thimbleful of dirt. Might as well sink some roots.” Either way, this tree cactus is my new hero as it hitches a slow ride to the sky. Go, man, go!

Reaching the end of the meadow the trail drops via a series of railroad tie-steps back to the wash. The second half of the trail follows the stream lined by sycamore, oak and hackberry, with big saguaro ambling down the slope as if pondering a swim.

 

Sullivan’s Eatery & Creamery

6444 N Oracle Rd

(520) 297-9974

When you think ice cream parlor you usually flash back to a ‘50s soda fountain. So you’d be off by a couple of decades at Sullivan’s, which is more of a ‘70s family-style ice cream scoopery. It’s a comfortable place and they are serious about their grub. Burgers are ground fresh daily at Dickman’s Deli, in the same shopping plaza.

The one-third pound patties are charbroiled to customer specs and served with sliced tomato, leaf lettuce and pickle on a sesame seed bun. A range of toppings are available but don’t overload the thing so you have no room for dessert. They often run specials pairing a burger, drink and ice cream. Wait a sec…burger, drink and ice cream? If I ever have a date with the gallows, I think I just came up with the menu for my last meal.

 

“Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers” is for sale at local bookstores, online and at visitors centers.

 

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