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If you're going to spring training in Tucson, Arizona, be sure not to bypass this hideaway.

You've feel as if you've been taken back in time to when Tucson was nothing more than a sleepy little Western town smack dab in the middle of the desert.

TUCSON, Ariz. - - When people think of this growing desert city the first thing that usually comes to mind is lush and luxurious resorts that offer busy professionals the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of every day life. Resort visitors are pampered the world over and rightfully so. Getting pampered doesn't come cheap.

But Tucson has much more to offer than just great resorts and plenty of sunshine. In fact much of its beauty is in its surrounding mountains and parks that offer visitors a unique insight into the city's rich history, not to mention miles of breathtaking and unspoiled wilderness.

Tucson's most recognizable and most visited park is Saguaro National Park , which is so expansive that it actually consists of two districts, Saguaro West and the much larger Saguaro East.

Each area offers the explorer a different viewpoint alongside the Sonoran Desert timeline. Saguaro West features a variety of Sonoran Desert plants and animals including the park's namesake - the saguaro - set against the backdrop of the rugged Tuscon Mountains. Saguaro East on the other hand encompasses an aging saguaro forest at the foot of the Rincon Mountains.

The two areas, which are separated by the city of Tucson, are about 30 miles apart. Yet together they make up more than 90,000 acres that is the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. And no matter which area you choose to explore, the best time of year to do so is now.

During the winter and early spring high temperatures in Saguaro National Park are in the 60s and 70s, plenty comfortable for a good long hike through some rather rugged, but picturesque terrain.

That terrain starts and ends with the saguaro - that prickly cactus that has come to identify the American Southwest from movies to postcards. In Saguaro West, hike the 1.5-mile roundtrip Valley View Overlook Trail and be 'wowed' by the spectacular mountain and desert views and scenery as well as large saguaro forests that lie below you. On other peaks, the Oro Valley below you will amaze your eyes even more. But watch your step!

For the more bold at heart, take a rather lengthy hike in Saguaro East through the vast wilderness of the eye-opening Rincon Mountains and their graceful foothills. It's a part of the park few visitors experience because it's accessible only by foot or on horseback. You won't find many tourists 'round these parts! But that's the idea!

One of the beauties of Saguaro National Park is that you won't find many tourists period. Maybe that was the intent. It's as if this desert oasis is Tucson's best kept secret that no one's heard about. Even in the peak of visitor season, in the winter and early spring, you can find yourself along amongst the Sonoran Desert thinking you're so smart for finding such a hidden gem just outside an urban environment.

And you're not just viewing large cacti or getting a good exercise in. That would get old pretty quick. No, the other magic wonder of Saguaro National Park is the wide variety of plant and animal life that inhabit this pristine area. But you have to look quick and in the right places.

The two most frequent animals in the park are the Gila woodpecker and the gilded flicker, who build holes in the sand to avoid the desert heat. The competition for these holes can be quite fierce, with several other types of birds joining the party including western kingbirds, purple martins and screech owls, among other notables.

The desert is probably the last place you would imagine bumping into a jackrabbit but these quick animals are here indeed, though they're not jumping in any tiny bird holes. But get this: the jackrabbit radiates heat from its oversized ears!

Still if you really want to see some of the deserts most known creatures you'll need to venture out to the park at night or before dawn. That's when animals such as the western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise and Gila monster come out and play.

If you do decide to take in the nighttime in the Sonoran Desert be sure to bring along a flashlight or you're journey may turn rather unpleasant. We don't want you to become part of any Hardy Boys mystery. Save that for the Bermuda Triangle! Poisonous rattlesnakes, scorpions and Gila monsters show no mercy so remember to keep your hands off of rocks and other hidden areas.

Most of all bring your camera and have fun. And don't tell your friends where you went so the next time you come back they won't be there. Call it our little secret pact.

PARKS, PARKS AND MORE PARKS: South of Saguaro West lies Tucson Mountain Country Park, which has hiking and horse trails and a campground. Coronado National Forest adjoins much of the boundary of Saguaro East, offering campgrounds, hiking trails and picnic areas.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: On the Saguaro West trail there is no water available at most picnic areas or along most trails so be sure to bring some bottled water - at least a gallon - for your journey or you'll be major thirsty not to mention dehydrated.

OTHER HIDDEN GEMS: Mission San Xavier Del Bar, founded in 1692 and completed in 1797 by Spanish missionaries, lies just 10 miles south of the park off of Interstate 10. The unique Spanish architecture of this more than 200-year-old mission makes it well worth the visit, even if you're not religious at heart.

Copyright 2002