Category Archives: Outdoor Adventures

Our fun trips to Arizona’s wilderness, and beyond.

Ventana Cave, Window to the Past

Thanks to a tour hosted by Old Pueblo Archaeology I finally had the chance to visit a place I’d long desired to see: Ventana Cave. Twenty (gasp) years ago while attending the University of Arizona I studied the archaeological excavation of the site. It featured prominently in my coursework as it contained evidence of human activity going back 10,000 years.

Looking Up at Ventana Cave

That length of continuous history at one site in the US is rare and it is the only one in southern Arizona. I suppose my professors might have also emphasized it since the dig was under the auspices of Emil Haury, famed archaeologist and early head of our department.

There are a few misconceptions I should dispel before going further. First, it is not a cave, it is technically a large rock shelter located in the side of a volcanic hill. Second, it was never used for long-term habitation, in other words, it was never permanently occupied. Third, the spot is still in use today by Tohono O’odham and migrants.

Why has this spot been so popular with native peoples for thousands and thousands of years? You know what they say in real estate; location, location, location. That was as true back then as it is today and Ventana Cave had everything you could ask for: a commanding view of the valley below and a small spring which is the only permanent water source for miles. Based on the evidence archaeologists believe the site was used as a seasonal camp for hunting and gathering.

Across the Valley

When the excavation began in 1941 Haury had no idea the accumulated layers were 23 feet deep or that they would span such a vast amount of time. The top layer was littered with detritus from contemporary Tohono O’odhams while the bottommost layer contained the remains of Pleistocene megafauna. They uncovered extinct species such as bison, dire wolf, tapir, giant ground sloth, and early horse.

Ventana Cave was clearly an important location for the walls are covered in pictographs (which are rare in southern Arizona), there are a dozen bedrock mortars, and 1585 projectile points were found along with 39 burials, ten of them infants. Of those inhumations, three were associated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BCE) while the rest date to the Hohokam period (200-1450 CE).

The variety of pictographs also denote the passage of time; from the dots and lines of the Early Archaic period, to the humanoid figures of the Hohokam, to the riders on horseback which can date no early than the the mid 1500s.

Black Figures, Horse and Rider on Painted White Background

Two of the burials were especially interesting. An infant was found with well-preserved feces which were carefully examined. The child’s last meal contained mesquite meal, saguaro seeds, and cholla pollen. Since cholla blooms in the late spring they were able to determine the time of year the child died.

Also unique was Burial 9, a middle-aged male. He was wearing a cotton breech cloth, a rabbit fur belt, a wooden nose plug, shell earrings, a fur robe, and a human hair wig. Next to him was a skin quiver with arrows, creosote branches, a cactus needle, four bone awls, and two Archaic projectile points tied with string. In other words, he was not your average Joe.

To assuage any worries, all the human remains and associated burial items have been turned over to the Tohono O’odham who have reinterred them in a special cemetery set aside for the ancients.

Bone Fragments, Pottery Shard, Lithics

Which brings up a question that Haury was unable to answer and still has yet to be definitively answered, Were the Hohokam the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham? The archaeological record is unclear. The tribe doesn’t know; some elders say no citing oral history, while younger O’odham say yes. Modern techniques such as DNA testing could solve the puzzle but the tribe (like most Native American groups) will not give permission since the test would destroy part of a skeleton and that would be sacrilegious.

Archaeologists are still studying the Ventana Cave artifacts in hopes of answering that question and many others. It is a fascinating place!

Creosote Bloom

Just June

Can we say hot? Every single day in June was over 100 degrees with a few extra special days in the 110s. On top of that the humidity started to rise. Now I know that has to happen before our summer monsoons can start but that knowledge hardly makes it more bearable. Especially since we still rely on an evaporative cooler (aka swamp cooler) to control the temps in our house. Swamps work fantastic in hot and dry conditions but their efficacy declines drastically as the humidity rises.

Biosphere 2

Escaping from the heat was on our minds as we headed north towards Oracle to tour Biosphere 2 (B2). It was a first visit for both of us which is rather silly when you consider that we’ve lived nearby for all these years. B2 was a privately funded experiment designed to replicate Earth systems with an eye toward space colonization. Completed in 1991 the 3.14-acre enclosed structure contained five artificially created biomes (rainforest, desert, grassland, ocean, and wetland), an agricultural area, and crew living quarters.

In late 1991 eight researchers (Biospherians) were sealed inside the airtight, glass-domed enclosure with their tools and a few animals. The experiment was designed to last for two years with the intent of survival in a self-contained system. In theory, the Biospherians would live off the food they grew and would optimize their atmosphere by altering the amount of foliage grown.

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Mild May

We very much appreciated May’s mild temperatures, Tucson did not officially reach 100 degrees until the first day of June. We even received a few drops of rain early in the month. Our garden really took off. The watermelon and cucumbers set on fruit and their vines draped over the sides of the raised beds.

We kept up the pace of projects around the yard, knowing that summer’s heat would soon be upon us. We finally applied the finish stucco coat to our BBQ area. It took all day and we were bushed afterward but we’re happy with the results. Now we just need to buy a grill…

It can be rather hard to get any work done around here since the Sonoran Desert critters are so active and we enjoy watching them. Especially as they flit, hop, run, slither, dash, and mosey through our yard. Desert Spiny Lizards and Mourning Doves are mating. Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Great Horned Owls are frantically feeding nestlings while Gambel’s Quails herd their broods. Young Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, Harris’ Antelope Ground Squirrels, and Desert Cottontails are out exploring and playing.

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Array of disc golf equipment (half are friend Josh's).

Array of disc golf equipment (half are friend Josh’s)—Santa Cruz Disc Golf Course, Tucson.

Cañada del Oro Trail Adventure

I’ve been thinking about this one particular canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains for 15–20 years. Wondering what mysteries and beauty were held high up in the headwaters of the Cañada del Oro (often shortened to just CDO), a major watershed in the northwest Tucson basin.

About time to go tackle it, eh? Turns out it was also high on the list for good friend and fellow outdoor adventurer Charles.

We set out very early Saturday morning and hiked about 9 hours: 7am to 4pm, covering almost 21 miles down from atop Mt Lemmon to the end of Lago del Oro near Saddlebrooke. (Huge thanks to our ladies for the dropoff and pickup.)

It was wonderful! Water, water, water. Did I mention water? We were both blown away by how wet the canyon was; it continued to flow on its northward bend even after we joined the Charouleau Gap road.

For all the beautiful evidence see Charles’s great set of 26 photos from our adventure and his full route profile via GPS (elevation, mileage, etc).

Hat tip to Sirena Dufault for her thorough report about this exact route—very helpful in our planning.

Family-filled March

After one last winter storm the second weekend of the month, March was warm and dry. Plants frozen back began to bud out, even some I thought for sure were goners put out new leaves. Resilient little buggers. Our Spring wildflower show wasn’t spectacular but it wasn’t half bad. Spring Wildflowers, Scorpionweed and California Poppy Our yard had a lot less diversity but Scorpionweeds bloomed in large numbers dotted with a few California poppies. The gold discs glowing amongst a bed of purple was quite stunning. A small native bunch grass carpeted our yard; it looked lush and inviting. We enlisted a cadre of desert cottontails to help with the “mowing.”

Lance’s parents were the first to try out our new al fresco dining area created by the back porch extension. The weather cooperated nicely and our luncheon was a success. After the construction work ended Lance and I were finally able to tackle completing our backyard landscaping plan. Out here it makes sense to get as much done as possible before the searing summer heat.

We were excited to finally plant seeds in our raised beds. We have been pleasantly surprised by the success of our smaller garden this winter; lettuce, cilantro, carrots, garlic, and onions sailed through undaunted by the cold temperatures. The morning after every freezing night I would peek out the kitchen window at the frost covered ground and say, “Well, there goes our garden.” Thankfully, I was wrong every single time. We haven’t purchased lettuce in months!

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February, Anything But Boring

After settling back into our normal routine we made a trip to our local Humane Society. We had finally decided to adopt another cat. It took us a while to make that decision after losing Rookie. The three of us—Lance, Bailey, and myself—had settled into a calm, mellow routine in the past three months. Lance and I were on the fence about adopting another cat and until February, we’d been too busy to do much about it. (For the record, Bailey was adamantly against it.)


Ironically, the impetus for the adoption came from Bailey. In the past few months he’d gained three pounds. Quite a difference for a cat that has weighed 12 pounds his entire adult life. Clearly Bailey needed someone to play with; someone to chase around (or to chase him). Our parameters: young male, not a kitten, but not much over a year old.

A scrawny but healthy orange and white tabby fit the bill. Bailey was the opposite of thrilled when we returned with the kitty that night. To his credit the new guy wasn’t much phased by Bailey’s attitude. Kitty is bowlegged in the front and tends to slouch which makes his legs look really short. We thought of calling him our Cowboy Corgi Kitty but that was too much of a mouthful so we named him Keaton.

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Busy January

When the weather allows we like to start the New Year off by hitting the trail. The weather in Tucson usually obliges and this year was no different. It was a bit on the cool side but sunny as the five of us set out (Lance’s parents: Tom and Libby, and sister Cammy). Our chosen route through Catalina Regional Park was not the most adventurous but it proved very interesting as we were soon surrounded by wildlife. Desert Cottontails darted through the underbrush, flocks of birds chirped from all sides, and Coyotes shared our trail.

Snow on the Catalinas

We picnicked next to an old pond that a group of volunteers help keep clear and clean. The location proved to be quite popular with our avian friends: a Black Phoebe hunted from the ledge of the bird blind, a Cooper’s Hawk glided in, a Curve-billed Thrasher churned through the leaf litter, a House Wren noisily scolded us, Lesser Goldfinches trilled, Red-tailed Hawks rode thermals, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted in the branches above.

Our return trip was full of flocks of Lawrence’s Goldfinches and Chipping and Red-winged Sparrows. We also glimpsed a Northern Harrier as it coursed low over the open field. To cap it all off we spotted a Great Horned Owl high up in a tall pine tree. Our outing ended back at Lance’s parent’s house where we relaxed and capped the day off with a yummy dessert, homemade by Lance’s mom. What a lovely way to start the New Year!

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