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Exploring the Valley of Gold

Uncover Treasure in Oro Valley, Arizona

By Eric Swedlund

It’s easy to notice the natural charms that frame Oro Valley—the towering, rocky majesty of Pusch Ridge to the east impresses me first; the lush green swath cut through the desert by the Cañada del Oro wash impresses me next. Over a weekend, the rest of the town blows me away.

Hiking, golfing and cycling top the column of physical activities in this Sonoran Desert community, but prevalent options for patio drinks and dining make outdoor leisure time a priority as well. A world-class resort, shopping, Old West history and a year-round slate of community activities and entertainment keep things lively in this family-oriented town.

Past is present

I’m here visiting family. They offered insider tips to me, and I’m passing them along. Oro Valley 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.

My aunt Kathy told me that German immigrant 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 I happen to arrive for the 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

I check out the nearby Catalina State Park—a recommendation from my uncle Jim—nestled into the foothills of Pusch Ridge on the western edge of the Catalina Mountains, with 5,500 acres of canyons, streams and a network of trails. From high, rocky outcroppings to low-lying creek beds, I wander in its dramatic setting, 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 like myself, I discover that Catalina State Park holds guided bird walks, hiking tours focused on geology and wildlife, and nature programs for kids and kids at heart, and more.

Next visit, I think I’ll check out a different hiking spot, the easy trail from Honey Bee Canyon Park to Honey Bee Village, a preserved Hohokam village dating to 450 AD and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the region.

 

Next visit, I think I’ll check out a different hiking spot, the easy trail from Honey Bee Canyon Park to Honey Bee Village, a preserved Hohokam village dating to 450 AD and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the region.

For more energetic pursuits, there’s the Oro Valley Community & Recreation Center, a year-round fitness destination with a host of activities and classes. The fitness addicts who are my retired aunt and uncle frequently take classes here, and tell me they feel the good kind of burn here. Of course, we can’t forget about the expansive sports fields, running trails, party ramadas (served as the perfect spot for our family reunion last year), grills and horseshoe pits at Cañada del Oro Riverfront Park.

If I’d brought my bicycle, I could access the riverside trails here, tying into Oro Valley’s extensive system of bicycle trails and paths that connect to the regional Loop. 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—a fact that my uncle Jim is particularly proud of as a bicyclist—so visitors can bike through the entire town with ease. The vehicle-free CDO trail along the banks of the wash offers a peaceful ride through nature, while 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, like my aunt Kathy, Oro Valley is certainly the place to set your tee, whether at the town’s top-rated resort, El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort or at Golf Club at Vistoso. Both are public and both offer excellent greens. But, today, I’m skipping golf in favor of some time relaxing at El Conquistador’s newly renovated pool. There’s also tennis and horseback riding on site and, take it from me, the resort’s pool is the perfect vantage point for taking in a legendary Southern Arizona sunset.

For epicurean delights

During my visit, my aunt and uncle weren’t shy about sharing the town’s best bites. 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.

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