The Mystical Desert Skies of Arizona
Birdwatching by day, stargazing into the galaxy by night — another world awaits in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
My 30-minute car ride from Tucson’s airport introduces me to southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert as I make my way to The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. “It’s a magical place,” my driver says, as I gaze out the window at majestic Saguaro cactuses dotting the landscape.
I arrive just as the sun is edging toward the horizon and check in to my room, a Canyon Suite, which overlooks the rugged mountains and towering cacti. I drop my bags and head to the lobby bar as a ritual sunset celebration awaits. I begin to understand just what my driver was talking about. A local Native American flutist plays a tribute to the region’s ancient history and culture as I watch the sun set and fill the sky with a changing light show of vibrant oranges, pinks and reds before melting into dark twilight hues. Night falls onto the desert.
I’m no early riser, though, the next morning I wake up to a dreamy desert sunrise. Its warm, golden glow casts a spell over me, spurring to get up and explore the beauty of this stunning paradise. This morning’s agenda is a guided birding hike with resident ranger Ron Brink. Southern Arizona is considered one of the best places for bird watching in the country, and wildlife enthusiasts are known to plan entire vacations to visit the area. It’s this moment that I realize how lucky I am to have all of this available at my fingertips for the weekend.
Ron isn’t just any Ranger. He’s kind of a celebrity around here — always wearing the biggest smile on his face when spotting the diverse wildlife that call Dove Mountain home. On the way to his clubhouse, I find him feeding greens to Wamba, a 50-pound desert tortoise — not to be confused with a turtle, he shares, as these tortoises don’t live in water.
Ron and I head over to Wild Burro Canyon Trail. It’s essentially the resort’s backyard and features several hiking trails at all different levels. Geared up with water, trail mix and binoculars, our bird-watching rendezvous begins. Of course, Ron’s knowledge goes far beyond birds. He calls out flora and fauna as they present themselves along the way, offering fascinating facts about how they create a vibrant eco-system. The juicy fruit of the jumping cholla cactus is “like okra meets a bell pepper with tons of vitamin C,” he says. It was used by Native Americans as a form of survival and to cure dry, parched mouth, I learn.
Ron switches gears and spots our first bird: a Pyrrhuloxia, a subspecies of the gorgeous, red Cardinal. He pulls out iPad from his pack and loads a helpful app to identify and “speak” to birds. He prompts me to scope out a tree in the horizon with binoculars. A curve-billed thrasher — which eat insects and plants — is perched on a branch, while a gorgeous Anna’s hummingbird buzzes by.
Ron has super power vision to spot the desert’s camouflaged wildlife. The mourning dove makes an appearance throughout our journey, and after observing several times, I feel like an expert and am able to identify it solely based on its call. We break out the app to attempt a conversation with the dove. Time passes by so quickly when you’re having fun. I part ways with Ron feeling truly inspired and enlightened.
It’s lunch time, and the resort’s signature buffalo tacos are calling my name. Confession: This is my second time enjoying them in less than 24 hours. While devouring the crispy, Indian fry bread-style tacos with buffalo meat, chipotle aioli and chili dust, an employee professes, “this is the best dish on the entire property.” My mouth full, I smile and heartily nod in agreement.
“We encourage guests to switch off and return to life,” Liam Doyle, the resort’s general manager tells me, as I put on a light jacket and head over to meet astrology aficionado Ben Loker. Stargazing cards left at turndown service each night offer a nice prelude to this sought-after Saturday night affair. Ben points out me Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky, through a telescope that he built. Next, he shows me a cosmic cluster of stars that resemble a psychedelic rainbow, which may be as far as 8,000 light years away. I’m completely mesmerized as I listen to him wax poetically about Jupiter and the other planets in our solar system. What an incredible way to end my magical journey. As I make my way back to my room under the starry firmament, I can’t help but dream about my next trip to this magical oasis.