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The Best of Tucson in 3 Days

The following 3-day itinerary is meant to guide you to the very best of Tucson—the essential Old Pueblo experience. You’ll need your own car, a camera, a hat, a comfortable pair of walking shoes, and, of course, water.

front view of San Xavier del Bac church in Tucson
The church of San Xavier del Bac. Photo © Michael A. Barrios.

Day 1

Try to get an early start for sightseeing, especially during the hot months, when you only have a few hours before the weather gets unbearable. If you’re an early riser, I’d suggest heading downtown to the St. Augustine Cathedral before 7am. You can stand across the street and watch as the rising sun lights up the Spanish revival cathedral, and the tall, skinny imported palm trees cast their shaggy shadows against the glowing building. It’s a perfect Southwestern scene.

Then head downtown to the Hotel Congress, have a big breakfast at the Cup Café, and take a look around the historic old hotel.

Hop in the car and head west from downtown into Tucson Mountain Park, stopping to enjoy the view of the desert below at Gates Pass.

Spend a few hours exploring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just down the hill.

Next, head back over the Tucson Mountains to downtown and stroll, shop, and eat a late lunch or early dinner on 4th Avenue and nearby Main Gate Square. If you have it in you, barhop around Congress Street, 4th Avenue, and Main Gate Square, taking in a few bands at The Hut and Club Congress along the way.

A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park
A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Tim Hull.

Day 2

Drive to midtown for a filling greasy-spoon breakfast at Frank’s/Francisco’s. On your way back downtown, stop by the Arizona Inn and have a look around the lush grounds.

Then drive to the El Presidio district downtown and explore the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block and Presidio San Agustín del Tucson for a few hours.

For lunch, go to El Charro Café, right near the museum, or to Cafe Poca Cosa, a short walk away, before taking a short drive south on I-19 and checking out San Xavier del Bac.

In the late afternoon, drive into the foothills to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and take a tram ride up into the canyon or hike one of the trails.

As the sun dips behind the Santa Catalina Mountains, head on over to Grill at Hacienda del Sol for drinks and appetizers (or dinner) on the patio overlooking the city.

people hiking through desert landscape in Sabino Canyon
The Seven Falls Trail is a popular hike in Sabino Canyon. Photo © Tim Hull.

Day 3

Depending on your personal inclinations, tour the Kartchner Caverns near Benson or head north up the Sky Island Highway into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Both trips are scenic and fun and take about two hours of driving time round-trip; it just depends on whether you prefer sweeping mountain views or otherworldly underground sights.

If you’re headed up to the mountains, stop at the Mother Hubbard Café for a big breakfast. If you take a trip to the caverns, stop afterward at the Horseshoe Café in Benson for lunch. Either way you go, you’ll likely get back to town in the late afternoon if you get an early start.

Once back downtown, head to Old Town Artisans to have a few drinks in the lush courtyard and check out the shops. For your final dinner in Tucson, go to Mi Nidito.

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Cycling Tucson in Winter

It’s wintertime in the desert, and the fashion here in Tucson is all about form-fitting lycra shorts and bike helmets. Everywhere you look there’s a serious gang of roadies kitted out and gliding across the desert on bikes that cost more than your first car.

A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Tim Hull.
A cyclist riding in Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Tim Hull.

While professional and elite cyclists flock to Tucson for the mild temps and mostly cloudless blue skies when it’s freezing elsewhere, they also come for the pain and the anguish. This rugged Sonoran Desert valley, hemmed in by towering mountains and jagged hills, is an ideal proving-ground for those looking to show off their roadworthiness.

Tucson is home to a renowned group-ride called the “The Shoot Out.” According to a profile in Bicycling, you might find yourself riding next to a well-known pro—at least for a few seconds. Organized by Fairwheel Bikes, the sixty-mile ride makes a loop of Tucson’s desert edges every Saturday morning (check the website for current start times), passing by the world-famous Mission San Xavier del Bac and through the copper mining districts south of the city. But this is no leisurely tour of the region’s popular sights. The succinct warning on Fairwheel’s website says it all: “Expect a very large group, 100+ riders and very fast pace.” For those not yet prepared for pro-level intensity, a slower group leaves 15 minutes before the main pack.

If you’re more comfortable riding in small groups than you are jostling in the peloton, the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association organizes rides for cyclists of all levels and even hosts overnight cycling trips around southern Arizona. And of course you can always ride on your own, a lone road warrior, fighting the urge to stop and kick back in the winter sunshine.

Regardless of your riding preferences, make sure you try at least one of these popular winter rides through Tucson’s beautiful and unique desert landscape.

West of the City

The paved roads of Tucson Mountain Park (8451 West McCain Loop, 520/724-5000) pass by rocky mountains studded with tall and many-armed saguaros. Rides here usually end with a punishing climb up over Gates Pass, but the sweeping view of the desert at the top makes up for the pain in your legs. With a bit of repetition, it’s easy to put together a 50+ mile ride here.

Tucson’s Eastern Edge

Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District (3693 S Old Spanish Rd., 520/733-5153, $5 weekly pass for cyclists) features the popular Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved loop through an enchanting saguaro forest with plenty of inclines.

The Loop

With more than a 100 miles completed, Tucson’s ambitious bike route known as The Loop is the place to be for cyclists of all stripes. The path leads around the greater city, touching its furthest neighborhoods, and is generally smooth and easy. The route connects many of the city’s parks and follows the valley’s mostly dry rivers and washes.

Mount Lemmon

While the relatively warm weather brings serious cyclists to Tucson in the winter months, they come in the summer for Mount Lemmon. Mount Lemmon’s peak looks over Tucson from about 10,000 feet above it all, and a twisting paved road winds all the way from the desert to the tall pines and the ski run at the top. It’s about 56 miles round trip, with a fairly steady grade, and turns into a roller-coaster ride on the way down. The mountain’s upper regions are about 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor, making this training ride more popular during the summer. Though it can get a bit nippy at times, if it’s not covered in snow the road to Mount Lemmon makes a great winter ride as well. Visit the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association website for group ride information.

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The Best Shopping in Tucson

Tubac is an artist’s colony and shopping village with more than 100 shops and galleries.
Tubac is an artist’s colony and shopping village with more than 100 shops and galleries. Photo © Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire, licensed Creative Commons Attribution and ShareAlike.

David Puddy asked it on the television show Seinfeld: “What can you get at the Gap in Rome that you can’t get at the Gap on 5th Avenue?” Use this as your mantra while shopping in Tucson and Southern Arizona. The Old Pueblo has all the chains, more so than most midsize cities. But if you spend your time at the Gap you’re going to miss a unique shopping experience—a chance to find that treasure that has eluded you, to return home with an authentic artifact.

You’ll find merchants with Mexican imports, folk arts, Western Americana, and Indian jewelry; boutiques with clothes you’ll find nowhere else; and galleries featuring the work of artists from Tucson and the rest of the world. Take a short drive south to Tubac—an artist’s village that caters to, or better yet exists for, the discriminating treasure hunter—then on across the border to Nogales, Sonora, and you’ll find items you never knew you had to have. A brief scenic journey east and you’re among the antiques stores and artisan boutiques of old-town Bisbee. Fear not: Shopping in Southern Arizona isn’t just for the moneyed. There are finds for everyone, and for every budget.

If you’re looking for that truly Southwestern gift or souvenir to take home, there are many places to find such items. Some of the most popular items that just scream “Tucson” are the many Day of the Dead calaveras available throughout the borderlands; and, of course, anything with the beloved visage of the Virgin of Guadalupe will remind you of your time in the desert every time you look at it. There are also many antiques and resale stores here stocked with the former possessions of all those retirees who came to the desert to live out their final days in free and easy style.

The Best Shopping in Tucson

  • Best Bookstore: Book lovers can’t miss Bookmans, a popular Southern Arizona chain with an amazing inventory and used books at less than half the original price.
  • Best Music Store: The East Speedway Boulevard location of Zia Record Exchange is stocked full with an eclectic mixture of brand-new and gently used CDs, often for prices similar to, if not below, the big national chains.
  • Best Thrift Store: “Vintage clothing for New Bohemians” is how the founder of Buffalo Exchange describes her first store, a popular Tucson original that spawned a nationwide chain.
  • Best Shopping District: With over 100 mostly locally owned stores, restaurants, boutiques, bars, clubs, and coffeehouses, the treelined 4th Avenue district downtown is the perfect place to shop, eat, and drink the day away.
  • Best Upscale Shopping: Tucson’s answer to the famous high-end shopping mecca of Scottsdale, La Encantada is an elegant outdoor mall in the foothills, offering all the most posh chains and a few local boutiques as well.
  • Best Antiques: Prepare to spend hours in the Speedway Antiques District, where the best of the handful of antiques shops is Copper Country Antiques, a huge antiques warehouse with Western- and Southwestern-themed treasures and much, much more.
  • Best Place to Buy Folk Art: Arizona’s first settlement, Tubac is now an artist’s colony and shopping village with more than 100 shops and galleries, many of them selling Mexican and South American imports.
  • Best Gifts from the Desert: Take a piece of the Sonoran Desert home with you from Native Seeds/SEARCH, where you’ll find unique items from and about the desert, including videos, books, crafts, and heirloom seeds.
  • Best Native American Arts: The oldest Native American arts shop in Tucson, Bahti Indian Arts sells some of the finest examples of Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo textiles, kachinas, jewelry, basketry, pottery, paintings, and sculptures in the region.

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Tucson Area Casinos

A four-story hotel surrounds a small patio with a fire at the Desert Diamond Casino.
The Desert Diamond Casinos offer excellent accommodations and restaurants. Photo © Tohono O’odham Gaming.

Near Tucson are three casinos owned and operated by Native American tribes, and all of them offer slots, poker, blackjack, and plenty of other games of chance to separate you from your money. Though it’s not exactly Vegas, the “Indian casinos,” as most locals call them, are generally clean and fun places to spend your time.

The completely rebuilt Desert Diamond Casino & Hotel (7350 S. Nogales Hwy., 520/294-7777 or 866/332-9467) has excellent accommodations and several restaurants onsite—including a steak house and Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet. The hotel-casino, operated by the Tohono O’odham, also has the Monsoon Nightclub, which brings in a mixed crowd of dancing revelers that skews a bit older than other dance clubs in town.

About 20 miles south of downtown Tucson, along I-19, the O’odham operate a second Desert Diamond Casino (520/294-7777) near the small bedroom town of Sahuarita and just a hop and a skip to the retirement community of Green Valley. As such, you’re likely to see a few retirees hanging around the blackjack tables, poker tournaments, and slots spending their Social Security checks. The New American cuisine served at the elegant Agave Restaurant (Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–7 p.m.) is always tasty, and the all-you-can-eat buffet is delicious, fresh, and stocked with more food than anybody needs. There’s also a constant stream of talent moving through the Diamond Entertainment Center, an intimate concert theater that has hosted top-name acts like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

A Mediterranean-influenced funland with poker, slots, bingo, blackjack, and keno, Casino del Sol (5655 W. Valencia Rd., 800/344-9435) is operated by the Pascua Yaqui. About 17 miles southwest of downtown Tucson, the casino offers delicious high-end continental cuisine at Bellissimo (daily 5–11 p.m.) and live music in the Paradise Bar and Lounge. Check the website for the schedule of bands playing at the intimate Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater, which welcomes national touring acts, many of them stars from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

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Climate Change and Environmental Issues in Tucson

Angled late-afternoon sunlight hits the colorful buildings of Tucson's downtown.
Downtown Tucson viewed from Sentinel Peak. Photo © Bill Morrow, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

With its delicate and finely balanced biomes and some of the most dramatic and exotic scenery on earth, Arizona has over the generations been a haven, a laboratory, and a rallying point for environmentalists and ecologists. One of the biggest threats to the state’s extremely varied ecosystems is growth; much of the desert has been paved over and crowded with homes, while the upland forests host droves of overbuilt homes just waiting for a wildfire to burn them to their foundations. There are no signs that this trend is going to let up any time soon, either.

[pullquote align=”right”]The constant influx of people has led over the years to environmental problems far beyond the mere pavement of desert and clearing of forests.[/pullquote]The constant influx of people has led over the years to environmental problems far beyond the mere pavement of desert and clearing of forests. Growth and the state’s founding impetus to glean profit from the land have led to the overpumping of groundwater and the damming and taming of most of the state’s rivers. This has altered the green riverways so completely that many species of native fish are now as good as gone, and nonnative plants line the mostly dry riverbeds, crowding out native riverine flora like cottonwoods and willows.

Climate change, scientists say, is likely to increase the state’s environmental woes, and, coupled with an ongoing drought that has been more or less eating away at the state for over a decade, may lead to shortages on the Colorado River, water from which the vast majority of urban Arizonans, including Tucsonans, depend. Some scientists have recently predicted that Lake Mead may dry up by 2025, while others believe the current human culture in Arizona may, one day in the future, suffer the same collapse as did the Anasazi, the Hohokam, and other complex societies who have tried to make a go of it here, leaving behind the ruins of their rise and fall but not much else.

Is It Getting Even Hotter in Tucson?

According to at least one University of Arizona researcher, people have made it hotter in Tucson than it already was—and it was already the hottest desert in North America before we arrived en masse after World War II to begin changing the wilderness into car-centric, fossil fuel–dependent cities and suburbs.

UA professor emeritus William Sellers, in a chapter on the state’s climate in Natural Environments of Arizona, finds that the state’s “minimum temperature averaged significantly higher during the 1953–2002 period than it did prior to the early 1940s.” This is proof, Sellers writes, of the urban heat island effect, through which nighttime temperatures (which in other less-paved-over deserts tend to drop significantly, offering a cooling respite to the land while the sun is down) stay rather high because the heat is stored in buildings and asphalt.

Indeed, Sellers finds that the average minimum temperature in the Phoenix area has increased by nearly seven degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1960s, while the average maximum temperature has gone up only about two degrees Fahrenheit in that time. Apparently we love the heat so much we never want it to cool down. Additionally, Sellers writes, average nighttime temperatures in the state’s deserts were significantly lower prior to the 1940s than they are today. Temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit were recorded along washes in the Tucson area, and in 1937 Tucson’s temperatures were below normal every day for a month. “The most likely cause for most of the increase in the average temperature in Arizona since the early 1940s is the rapid expansion in the population and the industrial development that occurred in the area during and following World War II,” Sellers concludes.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.

Shopping for Authentic Native American Art in Tucson

A colorful woven basket by a Navajo artisan.
A colorful woven basket by a Navajo artisan. Photo © Quinn Dombrowski, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Despite being hundreds of miles from the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in northeastern Arizona, Tucson has long been known as a center for Native American arts. One of the finest, and now the oldest, dealers of Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo arts in Tucson is Mark Bahti, owner of Bahti Indian Arts (4330 N. Campbell Ave., Ste. 72, 520/577-0290). In his small shop, Bahti sells several very useful books and guides on identifying and collecting Native American arts, including his own recent book Silver + Stone: Profiles of American Indian Jewelers. Bahti is currently in the process of researching a similar book on Native American pottery artists.

[pullquote align=”right”]Because it’s made by Native Americans, many people approach this art with a lot of preconceived notions; especially prevalent are notions about authenticity and tradition.[/pullquote]It’s often difficult to know what is authentic Native American art and what isn’t. This has been a problem from the very beginning, but if you learn a bit about the history of the art form, you’ll likely conclude that words like authenticity are pretty slippery when it comes to this kind of art. According to Bahti’s book, it was during the golden age of Southwestern tourism that the authenticity of Indian jewelry became an issue.

The artists were, of course, encouraged to create work specifically for tourists, who flocked to the reservations and pueblos on the Fred Harvey Indian Detours. Bahti writes that these pieces were often lightweight, with “horses, tipis, arrows, thunderbirds… designed to fit the tourist notion of what Indian jewelry was ‘supposed’ to look like.” But, as Bahti points out, what was Indian jewelry actually “supposed to look like?” Nobody could really say, and they still can’t.

By the 1920s, manufactured copies of Indian arts were being made outside the Southwest and then shipped in to be sold as authentic, spurring the native artists to join together in co-ops and guilds, many of which are still in operation and still training new artists. The 1970s brought about a boom in the market for Pueblo and Navajo jewelry, and today there is a really diffuse sense of what is traditional and what is innovative, and innovation— the artist responding not only to tradition but to the world around him or her—can be seen everywhere at Indian markets around the Southwest, including February’s popular Indian Arts Fair at the University of Arizona’s Arizona State Museum.

Because it’s made by Native Americans, many people approach this art with a lot of preconceived notions; especially prevalent are notions about authenticity and tradition. Some people expect every Indian artist and artisan to be adhering to some ancient set of guidelines set down before real time began, a method that washes each squash-blossom necklace and kachina carving with some undeniable spiritual patina. Like most artistic movements, however, the provenance of the Southwestern Indian arts and crafts tradition is far more complex.

Think of these artists as working within similar confines as did painters and sculptors of the Western European tradition before and during the Renaissance. Such artists were bound more often than not to paint and sculpt imagery from the Bible or Greek and Roman mythology, and they could count on their public immediately recognizing the scenes and characters they depicted. However, within this rather narrow tradition, there existed astonishing variety.

Authenticity is a particular concern if you’re looking to purchase a katsina doll. Only dolls made by the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians are real katsinas, while those made by the Navajo and other tribes are intended for the tourist trade and will not hold their value. The general rule, unfortunately, is that if a doll is inexpensive, it’s probably a fake.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.

The Tucson Mountain Park and Gates Pass Scenic Overlook

A rocky hillside studded with saguaro cacti.
Tucson Mountain Park. Photo © Leland Jackson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Robert Gates was a typical Southwestern frontier entrepreneur: He did a little mining, a little ranching, a bit of saloon keeping, some homesteading. In 1883, in order to connect his Avra Valley mine with his other interests in Tucson, he set about building a precipitous route over the Tucson Mountains, and in the process set the stage for local officials, about 50 years later, to establish one of the largest public parks of its kind in the nation. Thus we have the 37-square-mile Sonoran Desert preserve called Tucson Mountain Park (Gates Pass to Kinney Rd., daily sunrise–sunset, free).

[pullquote align=”right”]The 20,000 acres of wild desert features one of the largest saguaro forests in the world, and has something like 62 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking.[/pullquote]The 20,000 acres of wild desert features one of the largest saguaro forests in the world, and has something like 62 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. The park has a rifle and pistol range, and three large picnic areas with grills, ramadas, and picnic tables; also within park boundaries is the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. If all these activities seem a bit sweaty and active for your taste, at least make it to the top of the road named for the man who conquered the comparatively short Tucson Mountains at Gates Pass. You can drive to the pass and park at a large lot with bathrooms and a ramada and two little stacked-rock huts decorated inside with eons of graffiti.

There are short trails out to a promontory from which you can see the whole sweeping expanse of the desert below. It’s one of the best views in Arizona—a state that has no shortage of sweeping views. If you want to stay the night at the park, the Gilbert Ray Campground (8451 W. McCain Loop, off Kinney Rd., 520/883-4200, $10–20) has sites with RV hookups and picnic tables, plus restrooms and a dumping station.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Tucson.

Horseback Riding in Tucson

The horse has been an integral part of daily life in Tucson and Southern Arizona since the Spanish introduced the beast to the Southwest back in the 1500s. The new, useful animal transformed the lives and cultures of the native peoples here virtually overnight, and still today there is a distinct subculture of “horse people” in the Old Pueblo whose lives are dedicated to the care and enjoyment of the equestrian kind. There are quite a few such people who will rent you a usually friendly, docile horse and guide you and your new friend deep into the desert on trails once traversed by conquistadores, cowboys, and Indians.

The sun goes down in the desert with Saguaro cactus silhouetted in the foreground.
Experience sunset in the desert. Photo © Joerg Hackemann/123rf.

[pullquote align=”right”]Spring rides are the best, obviously, especially when the desert’s in bloom.[/pullquote]Most places require that kids be at least six years old to ride, and most have a 230-pound maximum weight limit, but call ahead to make sure. Spring rides are the best, obviously, especially when the desert’s in bloom. Summer is different—go early in the morning or book one of the fun evening or nighttime rides many places offer. Always wear long pants and closed-toed shoes, and always bring a hat, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be the cowboy type.

Pantano Riding Stables

About 13 miles southeast of town, out in the shaggy cactus-and-scrub desert not far from Saguaro National Park East, the friendly folks at Pantano Riding Stables (4450 S. Houghton Rd., 520/298-8980, Winter daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., summer daily 8 a.m.–noon and 4–6:30 p.m., $35 for 1 hour, $45 for 1.5 hours, $65 for 2 hours, $50 for sunset ride) will take you out and make you feel like a real cowboy. Along with the usual one- to two-hour trail rides, they offer a fun “campfire ride” where you can dine under the stars as if you’re working some kind of roundup. The desert out this way is beautiful and thick, and if you go when the cacti are blooming you are in for a spectacular show. It’s a good idea to call ahead for a reservation.

Pusch Ridge Riding Stables

In the northwest foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, about 20 miles northwest of town near Catalina State Park, Pusch Ridge Riding Stables (13700 N. Oracle Rd., 520/825-1664, Daily 8 a.m.–4 p.m., $40 one hour, $60 two hours, $50 sunset ride) go out on fun desertland trail rides every hour on the hour 8 a.m.–3 p.m. every day. During the busy spring season, rides typically include about 6–8 riders and a guide. The “moonlight rides” here are particularly enchanting, making one feel a bit like an outlaw on the run. These last 1.5 hours and cost $60 per person with a minimum of four riders. They also offer half-day ($100 pp) and full-day ($160 pp) rides, and private rides ($85 per hour). Call ahead for reservations, especially on the weekends.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.

Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A hawk with white chest feathers perches on the dried remnants of a tree.
A Ferruginous Hawk perches at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Photo © B.D., licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

A big part of the fun of a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., 520/883-2702, Mar.–May and Sept.–Feb. daily 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m., June–Aug. Sun.–Fri. 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m., adults $14.50, children 6–12 $5) is the getting there. Driving west out of Tucson over dramatic Gates Pass, you’ll see thousands of sentinel-like saguaros standing tall on the hot, rocky ground below, surrounded by pipe cleaner–like ocotillo and fuzzy cholla, creosote, and prickly pear. But the saguaro forests of Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park West, both of which surround the Desert Museum, are only one of several distinctive desert life zones you’ll see and learn about at this world-famous museum and zoo, where native mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and arthropods live in displays mimicking their open-desert habitats.

[pullquote align=”right”]This is the best place to learn about both the general structure and the minute details of the surrounding desert, and probably your only realistic chance to see all of the unique creatures that call it home.[/pullquote]This is the best place to learn about both the general structure and the minute details of the surrounding desert, and probably your only realistic chance to see all of the unique creatures that call it home. Easy trails wind through the beautiful 21-acre preserve, passing exhibits on semidesert grasslands and mountain woodlands similar to those surrounding and growing on the Sonoran Desert’s high mountain ranges. The Desert Loop Trail leads through a lowland scrub and cactus landscape with javelina and coyote. In Cat Canyon, a bespeckled ocelot sleeps in the shade and a bobcat lounges on the rocks. A mountain lion can be seen close up through a viewing window, and a black bear strolls along a man-made stream and sleeps on a rock promontory. There are also rare Mexican wolves, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, and adorable prairie dogs with which to commune. A riparian habitat has beavers and otters, water lovers that were once abundant in the Southwest. There’s a desert garden exhibit, a cactus and succulent garden, and a butterfly and wildflower display. There are also displays on desert fish, dunes, and a walk-in aviary that holds dozens of native birds. Docents are scattered throughout the complex to help with questions and give presentations on special topics.

All this, plus a restaurant, snack bars, and a gift shop that sells excellent Pueblo and Tohono O’odham crafts make the Desert Museum Tucson’s very best attraction. If you’re planning on doing any exploring in the desert, do so after a trip to the Desert Museum, where you’ll get a comprehensive mini-course in desert ecology.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.

Discover Tucson: A True Southwestern Experience

View along the cactus-studded front of the mission with a smaller outbuilding with three bells visible.
San Xavier del Bac (the “white dove of the desert”) is one of the nation’s finest remaining examples of mission architecture. hoto © Daniel Ramirez, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Over the past two centuries, Tucson has grown from an adobe-hut village on the far edge of the Spanish frontier into a major Sunbelt city, and yet through all that time and change the Old Pueblo has held on to the disparate cultural ingredients that have made it one of North America’s most unique destinations.

[pullquote align=”right”]In Tucson, visitors will find the true Southwestern experience, one that is neither encased under glass nor petrified through architectural uniformity; the Southwestern lifestyle is lived, not merely marketed.[/pullquote]In Tucson, visitors will find the true Southwestern experience, one that is neither encased under glass nor petrified through architectural uniformity; the Southwestern lifestyle is lived, not merely marketed. And what is this lifestyle? It involves a dedication to cultural mixing and a concentration on an active life lived outdoors on the saguaro-lined trails of the desert. This lifestyle is casual and laidback, with flip-flops and shorts sufficing for dinner-wear, and a friendly margarita-and-sunshine-inspired smile sufficing for a general greeting.

If you’re looking for extreme pampering, holistic poolside navel-gazing, brisk hikes into the cactus foothills, and horseback rides along ancient trails, there are numerous world-famous resorts at which to stay and play. If you’re longing for physical proof of the myths of the Old West, you’ll find it in many of the city’s museums and historic buildings. If you want to experience the Sonoran Desert, one of the continent’s most exotic natural landscapes, you’ll find it within a short drive of your hotel. This Old Pueblo is bustling with life, the Southwestern life—one lived just a bit off center, a bit slower, with a mild sunburn and a big happy smile.

Where to Go in Tucson


The downtown area is where Tucson began and where its heart still beats today—although downtown usually becomes a bit deserted after 5 p.m. on Friday. History is everywhere here, and it’s the only truly pedestrian-friendly section of the city.

University District

The University District has 4th Avenue—the city’s bohemian-chic enclave—sometimes called a smaller version of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. It’s busy here most hours of the day with a mix of University of Arizona students and hipsters.


Tucson’s midtown neighborhood is where most of the Old Pueblo’s real-life living takes place. The Fort Lowell Museum in the northern part of this district preserves the artifacts of the military’s role in Tucson, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens are the best place to learn about the unique local flora that thrives on aridity. The small but prestigious Reid Park Zoo is a must for families.

The Foothills

The foothills area features artist Ted DeGrazia’s romantic DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun and renowned architect Josias Joesler’s imprint on Tucson. And at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, the desert meets the mountains and a cool-water creek rushes down from the peaks to create one of the state’s most beautiful and popular desert riparian areas.

West Side and the Tucson Mountains

This rugged desert land, west of central Tucson, is where you’ll find Tucson’s premier attraction, the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Here you’ll see mountain lions and black bears lounging on warm rocks, and watch baby bighorn sheep negotiating the man-made cliff sides. But before you even reach the museum, you’ll rise and descend over spectacular Gates Pass, looking down across a sweeping saguaro-dotted landscape.

East Side and the Rincon Valley

The top draw here is Saguaro National Park East, the park’s largest and oldest section. You can walk, bike, or drive through a thick saguaro forest, one of the best and most accessible portions of the Sonoran Desert and the very best place to learn about and witness the desert’s fauna and flora. Head east from the park to tour Colossal Cave Mountain Park, where Old West outlaws used to hide out.

South Side

The South Side holds one of Tucson’s top sights, San Xavier del Bac (the “white dove of the desert”), one of the nation’s finest remaining examples of mission architecture. Lovers of Mexican food in all its varieties will want to return to the small incorporated city of South Tucson again and again, for it is here that you’ll find the region’s best enchiladas, tamales, and carne asada.

Greater Tucson

Greater Tucson includes the forested heights of the Santa Catalina range, whose highest peak, Mount Lemmon, reaches above 9,000 feet and holds the nation’s southernmost ski run. The mountains feature such a different ecosystem that the trip along the twisting Sky Island Scenic Byway is like driving from Mexico to Canada in about an hour. To the south is the lush Santa Cruz Valley, where you can learn all about the nuclear missiles that once ringed the city.

When to Go to Tucson

The Tucson calendar can be divided into just three seasons: spring, summer, and second spring. In January, the average high is about 64°F. February is the Old Pueblo’s so-called “golden month,” with an average daily high of 70°F. At least three major events—the Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase, the Fiesta de los Vaqueros, and the Accenture Match Play golf tournament—have the hotels booked solid during this time. Unless you’re coming to town for one of these popular events, I’d recommend staying away from town in February, despite the near-perfect weather.

In March, the average high is about 73°F, and in April, Tucson and Southern Arizona is a paradise, with an average daily high of 81°F.

The high season, during which prices are highest and tourists are everywhere, runs from February to the end of April. This is the first spring, and it is the most popular time of the year. You need to plan ahead and get a reservation if you’re coming to town during this time. The spring months also feature the multicolored bloom of all the desert’s cacti, trees, and wildflowers.

It’s very hot in the desert in the summer (often over 105°F), but it’s perfect in the mountains, and in July and August Tusconans can usually count on near-daily late-afternoon thunderstorms.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tucson.