Snowbirds, part one: Arizona

Posted Wednesday, March 7, 2012 in Features

Snowbirds, part one: Arizona

Green Valley housing, with Santa Rita Mountains in background.

by Gina Hamilton

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Every now and then, we have a winter in Maine like this winter, in which we wonder why the snowbirds go anywhere for the winter. Of course, last week's 24-hour blizzard reminded us why seniors tend to leave our summer-fair state in the winter, but there are other reasons, too.

"I figured out that the cost of oil every winter would just about cover the rent on a winter home somewhere warm," said Jean Anthony, a snowbird who spends her winters in Green Valley, Ariz., a few minutes south of Tucson. In addition to the high cost of staying warm in Maine, Anthony's health suffered from winter weather, which finally sent her packing ... at least from December to April.

Anthony spent a winter in Florida first, but said the traffic was outrageous. Several years ago, she rented an RV in Green Valley, and liked it so much that she eventually purchased a house elsewhere in the community.

Green Valley is a retirement community only. You have to be at least 55 to buy a property here, or to rent one. They have golf-cart lanes. It is startlingly silent. There are no schools, no playgrounds, no childcare centers, and the property taxes reflect that. A mile up the road is Sahuarita, which is a regular town with all these things. 

Well, no playgrounds, but 13 separate community recreation centers for a year-round population of only 10,000 (and twice that in the winter). That doesn't include the clubhouse or pool that you might have in your park or housing development, and most of the RV parks and housing developments have their own recreation center.  If you own a home in Green Valley, chances are it comes with a covenant that you must pay to belong to one of the town centers as well. The centers offer swimming pools, classes, day trips, tennis, and other activities. There are also a whole lot of golf courses in Green Valley. 

There is also a lot of volunteering going on here. Nearly everyone is active in some organization or another. 

Because it is so close to Tucson, residents spend a lot of time shopping and participating in the cultural aspects of the city. There is actually a lot to do outside of the insular community of Green Valley. 


Green Valley and Tucson lie in the Sonora Desert, a place that is unique, even among deserts. The Saguaro cactus is often the tallest plant around, except for the cottonwood trees, which abound in regions where there is running water at some point in the year. Saguaros need very little water, like their fellow cactuses, and can manage on what they get during the rainy season, which the locals call the Monsoons, but which are really what the rest of us would call a gentle summer storm. Gentle or not, these storms cause the washes to fill with raging torrents. Everywhere you see signs warning drivers not to travel into areas where there is water covering the road; people are killed every year by driving into what they believe to be shallow water. 

Animal life can be equally dangerous. In the Sonora, there are at least 10 varieties of poisonous snakes (and a lot of other snakes that aren't poisonous), scorpions, Gila monsters and other lizards, and spiders. Mammals include mountain lions, coyotes, and javelinas, a New World pig that can get vicious if it feels cornered or if it is protecting its young. There are also bobcats, packrats, and other smaller rodents.

Bird life is widely varied, from tiny hummingbirds to large raptors. Common are road runners (which don't beep at all). 

To see a lot of these critters close up without taking any chances, the Sonora Desert Museum, in the west of Tucson, is a great visit. The museum is open daily, and if you get there early, you can rent a scooter that allows you to see a lot more of the park than you might be able to do on foot. 

Just up the road is part of the Saguaro National Park, which has some gentle hikes and some not-so-gentle hikes, where you can see wildlife and plant life in its natural element. There are also cultural artifacts, such as Tohono D'odham petroglyphs. But the park is not Yellowstone ... except for the visitor center, it's very primitive. There are no lodges or hotels, no food service. Be prepared before you go with full water bottles and a snack. Always respect the desert.

Wild, wild West

If you want to see the old West, there is no better place to start than the Old Tucson Studio, also in west Tucson. This is where a goodly number of old western movies were made, and it is specifically connected to John Wayne, who made six films here. Today, most of the films are made at a closed studio farther out in the desert, and the place is largely a tourist attraction today, but many of the old facades are still in place, and it's a good place to spend a few hours, enjoy an old-fashioned barbecue and a beer, especially if you're a western fan.

If you want the genuine article, the region around Tuscon and Green Valley abounds with ghost towns, historic missions, and presidios. The best way, after painful experience, to find a ghost town is to go with someone who knows exactly where it is. Failing that, there are good maps and books available about the ghost towns. We visited a ghost ranch, one of the oldest working ranches in the state, which had been running horses and cattle until recently.  It is currently being renovated. Tumacacori, one of the earliest missions, is located just south of Green Valley on Highway 19, and is well worth a visit, as is the Presidio of Tubac, just north of that. 


Another fun experience is going to the Gaslight Theater, which is a vaudeville show in easternmost Tucson. Tucson abounds with so many galleries, art exhibits, and performing arts that it would be difficult to discuss them all, but there are art walks in the old part of Tucson that are well worth a visit. A whole town dedicated to the arts is Tubac, located between Green Valley and Tumacacori, and a visitor could easily spend an entire day there.


The region abounds with nighttime entertainment of a different sort. Southern Arizona is home to several large astronomical observatories, and quite a few astronomical societies, who offer their telescopes for regular star parties. If you can, visit Kitt Peak, home to the largest collection of telescopes in the world. Lights in the communities are dimmed by law to allow the observatories good night vision.


Green Valley and the Tucson area are home to many fine restaurants. Some of the best bargains can be had at the golf clubs, especially for lunch, where a full meal can be had for about $5. Mexican food is fresh and good (Mexico is only a few miles away), and the prices are uniformly reasonable, something that may appeal to seniors considering a retirement home.

The future

Southern Arizona's growing popularity, however, may well prove to be its undoing. The Sonora is, after all, a desert, and water is a growing problem. As more and more retirement homes are going up, and more and more golf courses require extensive water resources, there are many days when residents cannot water their plants or wash their cars already. It is a matter of time before more serious restrictions will have to be put into place, if the California experience is any guide. There is also a serious question about the destruction of the pristine habitat for sprawling housing developments. Housing developments are extending far beyond Tucson and Green Valley now, into what had been open range or open desert. 

As the senior population boom continues, however, look for more of them to join the yearly exodus to places where they don't have to shovel snow, or slog through slushy roads. Green Valley may well be the ticket for many.

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