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Best Urban Hike

Santa Cruz And Rillito Rivers

STAFF PICK: On a rainy day, start your hike in the driveway of someone who lives in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains or the Catalinas. Or just about any small rise on the outskirts of the basin will do. Follow the first trickle down to the next trickle and then the next, until your stream joins a desert stream. Be sure to float stick-boats, splash with stone-bombs, step into little pools. If you hike far enough, following the rain runoff, you'll eventually wind up at the Santa Cruz or the Rillito.

On a morning in July, when the rain started falling about 4 a.m., we headed out around 8 a.m. to follow the flow on the west side. In less than a quarter-mile of chasing rivulets, we found ourselves at a sizable stream. Wading into the sandy bottom, we were drunk with the scent of wet creosote. We dodged overhanging palo verde branches, hopped over boulders and found quiet nooks at which to contemplate this spot where the desert meets the city. The urban flotsam is intriguing. (We left the worn, stuffed rabbit and rubber ball where we found them.) Occasionally we saw the homeowners on whose land we were traversing along with the wash, but we were gone before they could figure us out. We didn't make it to the river--at least, not on foot. Our stomachs longed for breakfast, so we headed home to change out of soggy clothes. After a brief meal, we jumped in the jalopy and headed for the Santa Cruz, which was roaring with standing waves and floating debris by noon. While the swallow nests tucked under bridges seemed largely empty, birds torpedoed about, making a cacophony in the trees, wild in amazement at the transformed landscape. We walked briskly along the river trail a mile or two, then back to the car to head north to where the Santa Cruz and Rillito join forces. The finishing touch on the day was a last trip to the river in the early evening, to see that the once-swollen waters had shrunk to barely a dribble.

CLUE IN: 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue to Guilin is about six miles round-trip. Leave your car at the trailhead: the parking lot of the bank at 22nd Street and South Fifth Avenue. Walk north on Fifth Avenue through the Armory Park Historic District. Cut over to the Fourth Avenue underpass, continuing to the North Fourth Avenue business district. After Sixth Street, head over to the University of Arizona main gate via the West University Historic District. Walk east on the UA mall, making sure to slowly circumambulate the upstairs porch of Old Main, one of the most soothing architectural experiences in the state. Continue east along the grassy mall, crossing Campbell Avenue into the Sam Hughes Neighborhood.

After crossing Tucson Boulevard, you can detour a little to the north and enjoy a walk through Himmel Park, or you can keep to the tree-lined streets of Sam Hughes. Once you get to Country Club Road, detour around to the parking lot north of the Benedictine Sanctuary of Perpetual Adoration and enter the garden. The grounds are closed to the public, but if you go during daylight hours (and maintain a respectful silence), you might not be asked to leave. This is an enchanting garden of old citrus trees, palms and cactus, with a lovely tile shrine to the Virgin. Along the east fence, there's a little gate where you can let yourself out. Head east to Camino Miramonte, and turn north (left). In a few blocks you'll come to Speedway Boulevard and Guilin restaurant. Eat something delicious, turn around, and walk back. (Of course, if you're spent you can always plan for a cab or bus from busy Speedway Boulevard).

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