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Border Cruising
The Border Plan: Caves, Crags, and Lunch in Mexico By Cliff Ransom

THE FIRST RULE OF DESERT TRAVEL: Watch where you sit. Nowhere is that more true than in Saguaro National Park (www.nps.gov/sagu), near Tucson, Arizona, named for its expansive, towering forests of the famous multipronged cactus. A seven-mile (11-kilometer) hike on the Douglas Spring, Three Tank, and Wildhorse Trails provides a perfect half-day (and sit-free) introduction. In the afternoon, head southeast to Kartchner Caverns to catch the 4:15 p.m. tour of the Big Room ($23; call +1 520 586 2283 to reserve a spot), a huge, otherworldly gallery newly opened to visitors. Camp 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the east at the free sites near the Isle of You climbing area on the margin of Cochise Stronghold, in Coronado National Forest (+1 520 364 3468).

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Map courtesy NG Maps

SPEAKING OF COCHISE, when the Apache chief holed up here to hide from the U.S. Army, he was probably too preoccupied to scale the granite domes. Too bad. Regionally, there's no better climbing spot than the Stronghold; Moby Dick, a six-pitch, 5.8 route on Whale Dome is a classic. Contact the Rocky Mountain Climbing School in Tucson (www.climbarizona.com) for information or to hire a guide ($190). Later, hop on State Route 80, skip the Wyatt Earp weirdness of Tombstone, and retire for the night to the '50s kitsch of the Shady Dell RV Park ($35 to $75; www.theshadydell.com) in Bisbee. Each trailer comes with period touches like leopard-print carpets and vintage 45s. Recommended: the 1949 Airstream.

THE QUIRKY COPPER-MINING TOWN OF BISBEE is seemingly peopled entirely by bikers, hippies, and artists; rub shoulders with them over breakfast at Main Street's Big Sky Cafe (+1 520 432 5025). On the way out of town, stop by the 900-foot-deep (30.5 meters) Lavender Pit mine, then motor 17 miles (23 kilometers) west to the birders' paradise of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (+1 520 439 6400), where more than 350 avian species have been spotted. Hike for a few hours before continuing west, past the red-peaked mountains outside of Patagonia, to camp at the Sycamore Canyon trailhead at mile 17 on Ruby Road in Coronado National Forest (+1 520 281 2296). Come prepared: Nighttime temperatures could hit the 30s; the next day, the mercury may well climb into the upper 60s.

FEW HIKES HAVE BRAGGING RIGHTS like Sycamore Canyon because few hikes wind five miles down a cottonwood-lined gorge to end at the U.S.-Mexico border. In February, the creek should fill Sycamore's shimmering pools. Tempting as it may be to hop the barbed wire, wait until later and cross legally from Nogales, Arizona, to Nogales, Sonora. (All you need is a driver's license.) The highlight of the visit is a late lunch at Restaurante La Roca, a Spanish colonial-style spot built into a cliff; it has the best carne asada that side of the border (+52 63131 20760). At the end of the day, cruise back to Tucson on I-19.

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February 2004

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