Valley of Gold
Uncover Treasure in Oro Valley, Arizona
By Eric Swedlund
Natural beauty frames Oro Valley: the rocky majesty of towering Pusch Ridge; the green swath cutting through the hills by the Cañada del Oro Wash. In this Sonoran Desert community, hiking, golfing and cycling top the column of physical activities, but prevalent options for patio drinks and dining make outdoor leisure time a priority as well. A renowned resort, shopping plazas, Old West history and a year-round slate of community activities and entertainment keep things lively in this family-oriented town.
Past is present
Oro Valley ("oro" means "gold" in Spanish) draws its name from rumored gold deposits that drew prospectors in the second half of the 19th century, but it was actually ranching that dug the first foothold for settlers in the area.
A German immigrant named George Pusch arrived in 1874 and established his cattle ranch using a steam pump to provide water. Today, the 16-acre Steam Pump Ranch is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has become a time capsule attraction that offers a glimpse into life in the Arizona Territory long before statehood. Steam Pump Ranch hosts a farmers market every Saturday, and a free Second Saturday event, which includes tours, historic and cultural presentations, a concert series and activities for children.
Video: Oro Valley: It's In Our Nature
For outdoor adventure
Nearby Catalina State Park, nestled into the foothills of Pusch Ridge on the western edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains, has 5,500 acres of canyons, streams and a network of trails. From high, rocky outcroppings to low-lying creek beds, this dramatic setting is rich in both desert flora and fauna that includes large stands of saguaros blending with mesquite and palo verde trees. Popular with birders, equestrians, campers and hikers, Catalina State Park hosts guided bird walks, hiking tours focused on geology and wildlife, and nature programs for kids and kids at heart, and more.
For more energetic pursuits, Oro Valley Community & Recreation Center is a year-round fitness destination with a host of activities and classes, while Cañada del Oro Riverfront Park has expansive sports fields, running trails, ramandas with grills for parties and picnics, and horseshoe pits.
Bicyclists can access the riverside trails tied to Valley’s extensive system of bicycle trails and paths that connect to The Loop regional multiuse recreation trail. The town currently has 80 miles of bicycle paths, with more planned. It’s also one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country, so visitors can bike through the entire town with ease. The vehicle-free CDO Trail along the banks of the wash is popular with mountain bikers and offers a peaceful ride through nature. Oracle Road itself offers a heartier road cycling adventure, with 10 miles to the town of Catalina.
For those who find golfing the ultimate sport, Oro Valley is certainly the place to set your tee, especially at the town’s top-rated resort, El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort. There’s also tennis and horseback riding on site and, the resort’s pool has the perfect vantage point for taking in a legendary Southern Arizona sunset.
For epicurean delights
First-rate restaurants in Oro Valley range from classic staples of steak and seafood to fresh and local farm-to-table to creative Southwest fusion and innovative gastropubs, typically with patio seating to soak in the gorgeous views.
The hyperlocal Harvest Restaurant prepares its menu from scratch, purchasing solely from local vendors, giving the menu a fresh and seasonal focus that presents lunch and dinner plates only found in Oro Valley. From the selection of Arizona draft beers and craft cocktails to the menu of sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads, and more, Harvest prepares tasty meals to go along with its relaxed atmosphere. For lunch, I sip on a pint of Thunder Canyon Brewery’s Deep Canyon Amber (brewed just a few miles away) as I enjoy the smoked salmon grilled cheese. The flavors of house-smoked salmon and dill-Havarti cheese meld perfectly together on crisp multi-grain bread. I can taste why this is my aunt and uncle’s favorite lunch spot.
I visit Noble Hops for happy hour to enjoy Oro Valley’s top gastropub experience. Beer is king at Noble Hops, with more than 175 bottle options and a constantly updating draft list. The menu is expertly designed for food and beer pairings, including everything from light fare (I highly recommend the Bavarian pretzels with beer cheese sauce) to hearty plates (pork chops, rib eye steak, and bangers and mash) created to offer unparalleled flavors.
The previously mentioned El Conquistador’s exquisite Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails is just the taste bud-friendly experience I’m looking for in a dinner. Named for a Southwestern herb that adds a spicy yet earthy flavor to dishes, the restaurant draws on the culinary heritage of a region that has combined native traditions with Spanish influence and the Old West ranching history. Original and inspired, the menu includes favorites like green chili pork stew, bison burger, and smoky beef short ribs. The wine list, specialty cocktails, and impressive tequila collection are selected to complement the dishes, which is perfect for me.
Though they dreamt of gold, the Cañada del Oro’s early prospectors never did strike it rich. All that’s to be found here is natural beauty, recreation, and dining—treasures that I find to be just as enticing.