“It’s easy to lose track of time here,” residents say, describing life among the Precambrian granite boulders and oaks an hour north of Tucson. Maybe it’s the history. The town of 3,500 in the northern reaches of the Catalina Mountains was once the mining camp of Albert Weldon, a Canadian prospector who came here in 1880 with his partners to look for gold and silver. Weldon named his first strike after the ship that brought him safely around stormy Cape Horn. He called it: The Oracle.
Driving north on Highway 77 toward Oracle, you’ll pass the turnoff for Biosphere 2, the masterpiece in self-sustaining artificial habitats—the kind we might build to survive on Mars. Originally dubbed the “White Elephant in the Desert,” the $200-million greenhouse was an integrated facility with five distinct biomes—a coral reef ocean and coastal fog desert, a mangrove wetland, rainforest, and grassland savannah—with living quarters and a farm, all enclosed in the largest airtight envelope ever created.
In 1991, the first mission crew of four men and four women entered Biosphere 2 and closed the airlock doors. For the next two years, the biospherians planted, raised, harvested, and cooked their own food, recycled their own waste, in what is arguably the most productive half-acre of farmland in history.
When Columbia University took over management, it refocused the science (like studying the effects of carbon dioxide on plants), and built classrooms and housing for visiting research students. Today, the University of Arizona uses Biosphere 2 to study issues like global climate change. Tours begin at 9:30 a.m. each day and last about an hour and a half.
Whether or not you choose to visit Biosphere 2, your first stop in town should be the Oracle Patio Café (270 W. American Ave.). Sit in the stone-walled courtyard and choose from among fresh soups, salads, and panini sandwiches. But be sure to try the coffee and a sundried tomato, green onion, and cheddar scone.
Friendly locals will fill you with stories about the area, and if you’re fortunate, you’ll bump into redheaded Sue Parra of Sue & Jerry’s Trading Post (1015 W. American Ave). She may share her tales of her four decades in Oracle while showing you her husband’s metal sculptures that decorate the café.
Chula’s Tortillas (405 E. American Ave.) is worth a stop, right across from the old Mountain View Hotel (now a Baptist Church) where a hundred years ago the aging, wig-wearing William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody deposited his disapproving wife while visiting his worthless Campo Bonito mines.
Cody also favored the nearby Triangle L Ranch (2805 N. Triangle Ranch Road), one of Baja Arizona’s earliest dude ranches. Mixed-media artist Sharon Holnback owns it today as a bed-and-breakfast and its metalworking studio and gift shop feature regional artists. In 2015, the ranch inaugurated its year-round, public art venue know as Triangle L Ranch Land, which features a six-acre sculpture park along the high-desert trails and an art gallery with rotating exhibitions in an historic adobe barn.
Pick up a green chile burro at Chula’s for lunch at Peppersauce Canyon and follow the East Mount Lemmon Highway into the oak-draped foothills. The old back road to Summerhaven swings past the American Flag Ranch, once a post office serving the tent town of Campo Bonito and the dozens of gold claims between here and Apache Peak. It’s Arizona’s oldest surviving territorial post office.
If you brought a metal detector, take the dirt track west to Campo Bonito under Apache Peak. Probe the drainages or climb the road to the mines where rocky debris spills onto the dry slopes. Sweep the tailings for nails, tin cans, and rusted bolts. You might get lucky. In 1880, while taking lunch to her husband, Gillette Young sat on one of these outcrops to catch her breath. She began picking at a vein of quartz with her hairpin when she noticed a dull yellow color. She gathered up a few pieces and carried them to her husband. It was the richest ore he’d ever seen. John Young named the claim—which would produce half a million dollars in gold—for his wife: Southern Belle.
These days, abandoned mine works dot the hillside like the nests of giant digger wasps. It’s all that’s left, save for the stories of Spanish treasure and intrigue. Like the one of Buffalo Bill Cody and how unscrupulous mine promoters duped the aging circus star into pouring his fortune down played-out mine shafts.
But if prospecting isn’t your thing, continue toward Peppersauce Canyon until you hear the screams.
“It’s more fun if you scream,” says Emily Goff, an owner of Arizona Zipline Adventures (35406 S. Mount Lemmon Road). She’s referring to pairs of adventurers in hardhats, making the last leg of their ecotour at 70 miles per hour on 1,500-foot Diamondback lines strung high over the mesquite and ocotillo.
Oracle’s newest attraction opened earlier this year, says Goff, a young member of one of the area’s longtime ranching families. The Peppersauce Station also offers a “Leap of Faith,” giant swing, low ropes, hiking trails, gold panning, and delicious food from their new restaurant.
Plan on a “moonlight zip” during a full moon. Goff will set you up with a headlamp and glow sticks for a wild ride across the silver landscape. Call ahead for reservations.
Complete your day in Oracle with a bone-out ribeye or charbroiled salmon at the historic (since 1938) Oracle Inn Steakhouse (305 E. American Ave.). The main dining room has a copper fireplace hood and booths draped in vintage red-velvet curtains where you can peruse a museum case of artifacts and lose yourself among news stories related to Buffalo Bill and the Mine with the Iron Door. Somewhere among the old maps, rusted picks, and gold pans, you might even find a clue to a treasure trove of Jesuit gold hidden in the nearby hills. ✜
Ken Lamberton is the author of six books, his most recent being Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State.