Golfing and trekking in Tucson: A good walk meets a good walk spoiled

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

More and more Tucson golfers are turning into Tucson hikers, a logical combination in a vacation area with more than 50 golf courses, plus epic desert and mountain hiking trails. Resorts such as JW Marriott Starr Pass and Loews Ventana Canyon now cater to guests who golf and hike.

Dan Maloney - Tucson hiking guide
Tucson hiking guru Dan Maloney shows off desert vegetation and argues about the impact of golf.
Dan Maloney - Tucson hiking guideOld Giant Saguaro CactusStarr Pass golf courseCactus at Starr Pass golf course
If you go

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A hiking guide in Tucson Mountain Park knows to always bring along a pair of tweezers.

How else are you going to remove cacti pins from the flesh of inexperienced desert tourists?

"If you have someone in the desert who hasn't been in the desert before, you're pretty much guaranteed they're going to come out with something sticking out of their skin," Southwest Trekking guide Dan Maloney says.

Someone backs into a cactus. Someone else snags a sleeve on a jumping cholla (a particularly nasty number with needles that burrow into the skin and drag more sticklers along with it). It happens. It hurts.

And Maloney breaks out the tweezers.

This isn't some exotic excursion for adventure travelers but a simple hour-long walk steps from the streets and fancy golf resorts of increasingly cosmopolitan Tucson, a golf spot that matches a good walk and Mark Twain's good walk spoiled like no other U.S. destination.

Greater Tucson boasts more than 50 trails and hundreds of miles of hiking possibilities. There are also about 50 golf courses in and around this city of a half million about two hours from Phoenix.

"You won't find this many great golf courses and this many chances to get into nature anywhere else," local Brendan Acker said. "For a city of this size, it's amazing."

In the mountains flanking Tucson, golfers with high-tech graphite shafts meet hikers with high-tech Gore-tex boots. Not always happily.

"I'm not a fan of golf courses because they use so much water, which is a really precious resource in the desert," says Maloney, the hiking guide. "Plus they bring in so many people. Every time a golf course gets built, it seems like a community of second homes goes up around it.

"They've changed some of the natural habitat too. There's no reason for Tucson to have mosquitoes except for the standing water from the golf courses."

Oh one thing ... Maloney golfs.

He lives in Tucson. What'd you expect?

"We had to go to Thailand for my wife to golf," Maloney says. "She said, 'Well, Thailand has plenty of water. I'll golf there.'"

Maloney shrugs. It's not easy for a naturalist to hold onto his principles when there all these showcase course designs from celebrity golf architects like Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio.

Cacti on the golf course

One thing hikers and golfers can agree on is Tucson's natural beauty. Whether you prefer your towering, 175-year-old saguaro cacti on a deserted mountainside or along a nice risk-reward par 4, Tucson is one of the last little big cities where you can see this type of nature up close.

Local officials are so conscious of retaining that sense of natural wonderland that they regulate the brightness of the street lights and numbers so as not to dim the allure of the stars popping out of the black, black night sky.

"The first time I drove up here I was struck by how dark it was," says Ryan Littman, a chef who relocated from Palm Desert, California and has lived around the country. "It gives you the sense of being in this remote spot, but there's all this stuff to do around here."

Much of it walking or spoiling a good walk with some sweet swings. "How many golfers actually walk anyway?" Maloney asks. Okay, maybe a good walk turned into a good cart ride with fancy sticks.

Then again, more and more Tucson golf vacationers are turning into Tucson hikers.

"A number of golfers staying here take one of our hikes," says John Adams, general manager of the JW Marriott Starr Pass, which abuts Tucson Mountain Park. "It goes together with the general trend of people taking care of themselves these days."

The resort offers complimentary guided hikes every morning at 7 and sunset hikes three nights a week. It also has 27 holes of Arnold Palmer golf that weaves amid striking desert vegetation and creatures.

"Watch out for the rattlesnakes!" golf-club member Monique Berger cheerfully shouts whenever someone in her foursome hits a wayward shot that required retrieving the ball from the desert.

It's no joke either. Starr Pass gets a few snake-bit golfers every year - as in requiring anti-venom, not cursed with a bad bounce off the tee. And you thought hikers had it rough with the jumping cacti?

By pitching wedge or hiking boot

Whether they like it or not, hikers and golfers seem destined to share Tucson -- at times closely -- for a good long time.

Some of the best hiking trails go right up to the snazziest golf resorts. On the other end of town from Starr Pass, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort sits right at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, with two Fazio courses and hiking trails that have been recognized by The New York Times.

"I hike with my husband in the morning when it's not too hot," Chicago visitor Kelly Delaney says, smiling. "Then we golf in the afternoon when the rates go down a little."

It's Tucson. You can do both while being faithful to your true passion.

"You're not going to see this type of vegetation out on the golf course," Maloney says, pointing to the vast desert around a rocky trial.

Then again, you're not going to get a birdie going against that jumping cholla.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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