Mary Henderson wanted to give one gift to the city she loved when she died: her home.

The stone-and-mortar home she built with her husband 50 years ago looks dated surrounded by larger, more modern homes off West Anklam Road, but it stands as a testament to the desert she loved so dearly.

Even after her death in 2002, she did not want her west-side property to be developed.

Instead, the home and the 22 acres it sat on were turned over to The Nature Conservancy and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the condition the parcel never would be developed.

It took more than a decade for local environmental groups, the Desert Museum and Pima County to come up with plans for a use befitting Henderson's dream.

The proposed Mary Henderson Desert Center and Trailhead will rehabilitate the historical residence, right down to the chicken coop, and build 8 1/2 miles of dirt trails connecting to Tucson Mountain Park as well as nearby Painted Hills properties.

The $2.25 million project to build the park, complete with a small museum, is expected to part of next year's county bond proposal.

Rafael Payan, director of the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation department, said the county was first approached by the Desert Museum about turning the area into a park.

"We were approached by the museum, telling us they had acquired the property from The Nature Conservancy," he said. "She (donated the property) because she did not want to see the desert being lost."

Both the conservancy and the Desert Museum lacked proper resources to rehabilitate the property, he said.

He had high praise for the museum staff, which last had control of the property before the county took it over.

"They really enjoyed the property, but it didn't feel like the best fit for them," he said. "They wanted to make sure Mary's wishes were honored."

The plans drawn up for the site are still in preliminary stages, and Payan said he wants to consult with nearby neighbors as the county maps out the proposed trails.

He said the owners of two adjoining properties have been receptive to allowing a section of the trails to pass through their land.

"The next step is to do some cleanup work. We don't want to haul away any historic material that we want to preserve," he said. "But there is bit of debris left behind."

Restoring the property, installing interpretive signs and building trails will move forward only if county voters approve the bond next year. Should that happen, Henderson, in her death, will have left behind a legacy for generations to explore.

On StarNet: View more photos of the Mary Henderson Desert Park site at

Did you know?

Mary Henderson was a conservation activist who came to Tucson with her husband in the late 1940s and made her home in the Tucson Mountains. She was actively involved with The Nature Conservancy and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She died in 2002, at the age of 88.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at or 573-4346.