Sounds of Silence

Avoid the crowds by heading to Oracle's new, little-known state park.

If your out-of-town visitors have been with you long enough that you'd really like to tell them where to go, here's a novel thought: Oracle State Park, 40 miles north of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, near the community of Oracle. It's new -opened in October with grand-opening ceremonies slated for spring 2002- still uncrowded, and has put out the welcome mat to attract visitors.

It's one of the largest parks in the southern region of the state, encompassing 4,000 acres of oak-grassland and riparian woodland with splashes of Oracle granite, the same type of rock found in the well-known Cochise Stronghold. Elevation ranges from 3,500 to 4,500 feet. "This is a unique transition area between the valley floors, the floodplain of the San Pedro River and the pine forests atop the Catalinas," says park manager Jerry Ravert.

Arizona State Parks Department has been in charge of the property since 1986, when the 100-year-old Kannally Ranch and land comprising the former Oracle Wildlife Refuge area were donated by Defenders of Wildlife. The park started out as an environmental education center and continues that function today. "We offer a half-hour trail hike adventure for grades 1-3, relating to how animals use their senses to find food, water and shelter," says Ravert. "For the older kids we have a program dealing with plant and animal communities, how they interact and how people come into that picture."

People like Clovis Man came into that picture in the distant past, 10,000 years ago. It's also believed the Hohokam resided in the grassy plain and used the adjacent woodlands for hunting some 600-800 years ago. Nowadays people enter the location at several different points and for several different reasons.

For beginning hikers, the half-mile Bellota Trail Loop or the mile-long Windy Ridge Trail Loop are good places to start. More seasoned trekkers will want to check out the Nature Trail Loop (1.2 miles) that joins the Arizona Trail and includes a wildlife viewing site. A seven-mile section of the Arizona Trail, which will eventually run from Mexico to Utah, passes through the park with trailheads off American Avenue and American Flag Corral. The trail is multi-use and is open to bicyclists and horseback riders.

Abundant wildlife resources are a draw for animal lovers and the bird-watching crowd. "You name it and we see it here," says Ravert, who lives in one of the wooden/adobe structures that were part of the original ranch. "When the park closes and the gates are locked, I have javelina rooting outside, mule deer quietly passing by, coyotes howling in the canyons and birds all over the place. All you hear out here are animals and silence, a quiet that can be deafening."

The Kannally Ranch House, a Mediterranean Revival-style structure built in 1929, is a focal point for historically minded visitors. Terraces are wrapped in bougainvillea and a tree-lined patio leads visitors into the dining room area, which serves as park headquarters. To appreciate the solidity of an edifice built with 18-inch-thick adobe bricks, sit in the heart of the house, a massive great room with an adjacent terrace that offers a magnificent view. Imagine yourself a homesteading cattle baron whose herds, numbering over 1,100 head, roamed nearly 50,000 acres of property through the town of San Manuel and extending to the San Pedro River.

"This place is a unique area," says Ravert. "We have a lot to offer, we're not crowded, we have pretty scenery, great hiking trails and huge oak trees in our picnic areas. We're a good alternative to a traditional trip up Mount Lemmon."