Brief History of Tohono Chul

The story of Tohono Chul begins in 1966 when its benefactors, Richard and Jean Wilson, started piecing together patches of the desert that would form its core – ultimately owning 37 acres. In 1968 they purchased the section containing the hacienda-style “West House” known today as the Tohono Chul Garden Bistro (formerly the Tea Room). The Wilsons lived in this house for eight years.

It was during the 1970s that the couple was approached several times by developers seeking to purchase the land for commercial development. They always refused. Jean Wilson told them, “I don’t want to sell the land. I don’t want it cemented over. I want to preserve it.” In fact, when Pima County condemned a strip along the southern boundary of the property in order to widen Ina Road, Dick Wilson demanded that they move every saguaro and replant it on their adjacent property.

After opening the Haunted Bookshop in 1979 on Northern Avenue, the eastern boundary of the site, the Wilsons began planning their next project – a park. “At first, we just went out and put down some lime to make a path and marked the names of some of the plants and bushes, but then it started to snowball.” The path gradually grew into a loop trail meandering a half-mile into the surrounding desert. In 1980, they received a citation from the Tucson Audubon Society for saving the desert green space and opening it to the public.

Tohono Chul was formally dedicated on April 19, 1985. “We wanted to keep something natural in the middle of all the (surrounding) development so that people could come easily for a few hours and get out of the traffic and learn something at the same time. It’s probably contrary to what most people would do, but we feel it’s really important for people to have something like this.” An additional 11-acre parcel abutting the property on the north was added in 1995 and the closing of the Haunted Bookshop in 1997 added the final acre, making a total of 49.

At Tohono Chul’s dedication ceremony, Richard and Jean Wilson expressed their vision:
We dedicate this place to those who come here, who, we hope, will not only admire and find comfort in the natural beauty of the area, but will achieve greater appreciation of the ways of conserving all our precious desert region and obtain a greater understanding of the people native to these areas.
For a more detailed history and a trail-by-trail description of Tohono Chul, Download “the Official Visitors Guide” (PDF file)