5,000 desert plant species and more to explore at Catalina State Park

Nicole Underwood

By Nicole Underwood / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

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Serene landscape at Catalina State ParkCatalina State Park Facebook

(ORO VALLEY, AZ) - It’s easy to see that Arizona is a beautiful desert landscape to explore. This state in particular has unique plants, animals, insects, rock formations and ancient history you won’t find anywhere else in the world. If you are looking for more unique spaces to explore and discover this natural Sonoran Desert, add Catalina State Park on your list, located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson.

This gorgeous park is an memorable spot to sight see, stargaze and explore on foot or horseback; it is also famously home to nearly 5,000 saguaros, wildflowers and desert plants, as well as abundant wildlife and over 150 bird species. This significant number of bird species has designated the park as an “Important Birding Area (IBA)” by the Audubon Society, including significant species like the rufous-winged sparrow, yellow-billed cuckoo, and bell's vireo.

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Bird sighting at Catalina State ParkCatalina State Park Facebook

This particular mountain range contains the highest elevation point in the southern part of our state, reaching over 9,000 feet at the peak of Mount Lemmon. The Calatinas were originally called “Babad Do'ag” by the Tohono O'odham peoples, then later named the Catalinas in 1697 in honor of patron St. Catherine by Italian Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. According to Arizona State Parks, the history of the park between the 1920s until the 1940s is uncertain. This time period is when J.E. McAdams purchased 4,100 acres that he named Rancho Romero, believing certain parcels were owned by the Romero and Sutherland families.

Fast forward to recent history: In the early 1970s, preservation was favored over proposed development, and recreational facilities allowed this specific area to be maintained as a state park, shortly after a feasibility study proved it met certain requirements for that option to be proposed. At the December 10, 1973, meeting of the Parks Board, the Director presented the Board with additional written material and a verbal report concerning the status of the Rancho Romero project.

After considerable discussion on the desirability of acquiring Rancho Romero and adjacent properties, the Board, by majority, voted to go on record against the establishment of a State Park at Rancho Romero. It would take an additional 10 years, countless meetings and legislation, and millions of dollars, after a complicated series of land trades, leases, and land purchases went into effect. You can learn more about the details on this historic process on Arizona’s State Park website. Construction began in 1982 and by 1983, the park was then opened and dedicated by then Governor Bruce Babbitt for all to enjoy.

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Lovely landscape with Santa Catalina MountainsCatalinas State Park Facebook

While Catalina State Park is open all year, it’s always important to note being safe during the hot summer months. Because of this reason, it’s recommended to enjoy the park from October into early May, when daytime temperatures are enjoyable. During the summer, travelers also must be aware of monsoons and flash floods, which aren’t as common in other states.

Some key safety tips to note for any time of year include staying properly hydrated, wearing proper footwear, “hat” wear and breathable layers, and helpful gear like poles, a compass, GPS tracking and items like sunblock and insect repellent. Check out these helpful safety tips if you want to be the best prepared.

Got your gear and ready to explore? Here are some notable trails to traverse. Catalina State Park contains eight main trails with varied difficulty and distance. If you want to start easy, begin at the Romero Ruins Interpretive Trail, which is less than a mile and includes the remarkable remains from a Hohokam village that existed 1,500 years ago. The Nature Trail is another easier trail to enjoy wildlife and desert foliage, or transition to the Birding Trail, which crosses a seasonal wash and attracts species this area is known for.

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Desert wildlife at Catalina State ParkCatalina State Park Facebook

From there, folks have the options of the Bridle Trail for equestrian lovers, Canyon Loop Trail for a 2.5 mile excursion, or dive into advanced trekking on the 9-mile Sutherland Trail with higher elevation, the 7-mile Romero Canyon Trail home to the popular Romero Pools or famous 50-Year Trail that takes approximately 4 hours to hike. Many of these trails are dog friendly, but make sure to check before you travel. Plan to camp if you want to explore at your leisure, with overnight camping available at over 100 sites for only $5 to reserve a site and $15 per night fee for second vehicles.

Another fun aspect to this active part are other activities you can enjoy in addition to hiking. The park hosts a monthly “Music in the Mountains” concert series at 6:00 p.m., a series entertaining Southern Arizonans for over 15 years. Music reflects an eclectic lineup of genres from Latin, blues, folk and more. For a $7 parking fee, guests can enjoy the Cochise County All-Stars this July or return in August for jazz-inspired artist Rene Taylor.

Visit the park’s website for updates on upcoming concerts and events.

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