Road Trip USA: Across Texas to El Paso and Tucson

Everyone knows that Texas is big – really big! In fact it is about twice the size of Germany. But you only realise how big when you drive right across from east to west as we did on our Road Trip USA. We’d already driven nearly 400 miles across the state on the Houston and San Antonio sector of our journey, but El Paso on the western edge of Texas was still 550 miles away.

Saguaro National Park - East
Saguaro National Park, Tucson – Rincon Mountain District

The driving was much easier than in the UK or continental Europe. The Interstate Highway I-10 West was dual carriageway, with very few bends in the road, only the occasional road-works and a speed limit of 75 mph for most of the way.

Soon after setting off, the sat-nav showed 533 miles to the next junction! That must be a record for any road, anywhere. Fuel stations are sometimes few and far between, so we filled up when down to about 100 miles remaining.

Much of the journey was across the sparsely-populated, flat Texan plains, but the nearer we got to El Paso, the more varied the scenery with the first mountain ranges we’d seen since landing in Memphis a week earlier.

I toyed with the idea of crossing the border at El Paso into Mexico, but having watched a few episodes of Breaking Bad, I decided that the drug culture there and the chance of being kidnapped – we look like obvious, naïve tourists – made that a bad idea.

Interstate I-10 Approaching El Paso

So, after one night in El Paso and a trip up the Franklin Mountains to find the aerial tramway was closed, we headed off through New Mexico to Tucson.

Driving along, we noticed occasional large cacti at the side of the road and stopped to photograph them.

Little did we realise that in Tucson we would be surrounded by thousands and thousands of these massive saguaro cacti!

Union Pacific Sunset Route
Diversion along the Interstate Highway – The Union Pacific ‘Sunset Route’

Highlights of El Paso and Tucson

The journey itself was in many ways a highlight, passing through plains, plateaux, the Chihuahuan Desert and finally the foothills of the Franklin Mountains overlooking El Paso. A diversion was provided by the Southern Pacific ‘Sunset Route’ trains running parallel, some a mile long or more.

El Paso, Looking towards Mexico
El Paso, Looking towards Mexico

• Although the Wyler Aerial Tramway in the Franklin Mountains was closed for maintenance, there were panoramic views from the tramway station over El Paso, with Mexico and Sierra de Juárez mountains in the distance. The Loop 375 road up over the Franklin Mountains connected us back to the I-10 West.

• The Saguaro National Park in Tucson. This has two parts: East – Rincon Mountain District and West – Tucson Mountain District. These are separated by 30 miles and the one million residents of Tucson. The Park is named after the giant cacti, the saguaro, which can grow to over 40 feet tall and be over 200 years old. The entry fee for a car and all its passengers is $10 and that covers for both districts for seven days.

Flowering Barrel Cactus in Saguaro NP East
Flowering Barrel Cactus in Saguaro National Park East

East – Rincon Mountain District. The eight mile surfaced Cactus Forest Loop Drive offers great views of the Rincon Mountains as a backdrop to the cacti and other flora.

There are various short walks to bring you nearer to nature; however, one of the members of our party was not that keen (to put it mildly) on meeting rattle-snakes and scorpions, so we were careful where we ventured. Even so, STE Photo Editor John managed to acquire barbed cactus spines in his backside! A comb proved effective in removing them.

Got by Cactus Spines
Got by Cactus Spines

West – Tucson Mountain District. This district is the quieter and the less developed of the two, with an unsurfaced loop road with parking places affording great views over the Avra Valley to distant mountain ranges.

Saguaro National Park West - Tucson Mountain District
Saguaro National Park West – Tucson Mountain District

The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and the Old Tucson film studios are close by, but I decided my time would be better spent enjoying the magnificent open air scenery, particularly at sunset.

Tohono Chul Park. The mission of this botanic garden is “to enrich people’s lives by connecting them with the wonders of nature, art and culture in the Sonoran Desert region“. And that sums it up perfectly.

This small (37 acre), but well-tended park blends the local vegetation with striking art-works. Add a garden bistro serving excellent food plus refreshing prickly pear lemonade, and you have a pleasant, relaxing oasis amid the bustle of North Tucson.

Tohono Chul Park
Sculpture amid Cacti in the Tohono Chul Park

Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway. Who needs long distance road trips in the USA, when you can drive 27 miles from NE Tucson up Mt Lemmon and pass through several vegetation zones, from Lower Sonoran desert to Canadian forest, as you rise through 8,000 feet.

It is a good, well-paved road but I found I was being distracted as I drove along by the views and scenery, with something different revealed at every turn.

Accommodation in El Paso and Tucson

The Staybridge Suite El Paso Airport Area was the best hotel so far on our trip, with very large, well-furnished suites and well-presented breakfast and evening reception.

Prickly Pear Lemonade in Tohono Chul Bistro
Prickly Pear Lemonade in Tohono Chul Bistro

The rooms were rather smaller in the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Tucson, but it was a modern, smart hotel with friendly staff. It was also well situated for visiting the Saguaro National Park and for accessing the I-10.

For both hotels, discounts were given on their flexible rates for seniors 62+. See: Hotel Deals for Seniors.

Road Trip USA articles:

1. Memphis to Las Vegas via Houston – Planning This includes a route map.
2. Memphis the Rock & Roll City
3. New Orleans and Mardi Gras
4. Houston, Gulf Coast and San Antonio
5. Across Texas to El Paso and Tucson
6. Sedona, Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelley
7. Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon
8. The Final Fling – Route 66 to Las Vegas

Posted 3rd March 2015 by Steve Hanson, including photos by John and Anne Esser