Tucson, AZ boasts 284 sunny days a year and with warm temperatures year round it is a great place to escape the winter. Tucson is in the heart of Saguaro (Sa-Wa-Ro) cactus country and there are so many ways to easily explore the unique desert scenery very close to the city. Surrounded by mountain ranges the city boasts twin national parks on its east and west sides as well as excellent state parks, museums and tourist attractions. With many opportunities for getting outside and enjoying the sunshine, it is a great place for travelers of all ages. Here are my top ten things to do in Tucson. Enjoy!
1. Take a Hike:
There are five mountain ranges surrounding the city of Tucson: the Santa Catalina, Tucson, Rincon, Santa Rita and Tortolita ranges. Each offers fantastic opportunities for exploring on foot. For a great, easy hike visit Sabino Canyon in the Catalinas. Sabino Canyon offers a paved road, (with bus to pick you up if you get tired!) restrooms along the way and wonderful scenery. You can start by taking the tram up the canyon (the trip is narrated by a ranger on the way up the canyon but not on the way down), and hiking down the paved path. If you enjoy getting off the pavement try the Telephone trail from the end of the Canyon back to the Visitor’s center. There are also many great hikes available on Mt. Lemmon, in Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain Park and Ventana Canyon. If you want a great hiking guide check out Betty Leavengood’s Tucson Hiking Guide. Be sure to be prepared with plenty of water, food, and cover from the sun. For strenuous hikes leave early in the morning and do not plan to go in the summer months as the heat is very dangerous.
2. Take a Scenic Drive:
The drive up Mt. Lemmon is spectacular and a must-see when visiting Tucson. The road (which ends up in the tiny town of Summerhaven) is 27 miles long and rises over 6,000 feet over the valley. The road is windy but very well maintained with lots of fantastic viewpoints, hiking trailheads, campgrounds. picnic areas and photo opportunities along the way. If you are short on time you can turn around at the Palisade Visitor Center as the views are less spectacular from the road after that point. If you continue to the end of the road you’ll find the tiny mountain town of Summerhaven, the Mt Lemmon Ski area and the Mt. Lemmon Skycenter (where you can sign up to take part in UA’s Skynight Stargazing program). There are two restaurants in Summerhaven but they are only open for lunch. Also good to note is that there is NO GAS on this road. Fill up before you head up the mountain. Saguaro (National Park) East also boasts a wonderful drive (the Cactus Forest Loop Drive) which offers beautiful views of the valley and the Rincon mountains as well as many types of cacti. Several trails of varying lengths and difficulties allow for further exploration of the park. This is also a wonderful road for biking.
3. Explore the Desert:
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is truly one of the jewels of Tucson. It has been built at a stunning location on the west side of Tucson and is a fantastic way to learn about the unique desert environment around Tucson. 80% of the museum is outside so you experience the flora and fauna of the desert in its natural surroundings. They have 16 botanical gardens and miles of trails to explore through different desert environments. They offer docent-led tours, live animal presentations a Walk-in Aviary and Hummingbird Aviary, a small Aquarium, and an Earth Science Center. You can view javelina, coyote, prairie dogs, deer, mountain lions, wolves, black bears, coati, bighorn sheep and more. There are also several restaurants onsite and many family programs. It will be hot and sunny at the museum so plan accordingly. In the summer months the museum offers “Cool Summer Nights” hours and the museum is open until 10pm.
4. Fly High:
With Tucson’s wide open spaces, dramatic mountain landscapes, unique vegetation and wildlife, and practically guaranteed sunshine, it is a fantastic place to fulfill your dream of taking a hot air balloon ride. Most balloon rides in Tucson depart at dawn and will take you over National Park land. You will have the chance to see animals in the wild, unaware of your presence. Every balloon ride is different but you can read about mine here.
5. Get Scientific:
For those of you with an interest in science there are some fantastic scientific attractions in Tucson. Biosphere 2, which is owned and operated by University of Arizona, is situated in a spectacular valley (some of the best views around can be had from here!) and the tour of the Biosphere offers an in-depth look into this huge scientific instrument. You also will learn about the original “Biosphereians”, the scientists who locked themselves in for two years conducting research, view the various habitats that have been simulated (including the B2 Ocean, Rainforest, and Desert) and of course the various experiments that are currently underway to better understand our natural world. The Pima Air and Space Museum is one of the world’s largest private aerospace museums. It has over 300 aircraft on display on its 80 exhibit acres. The exhibits (both indoor and outdoor) explore the history or air and space travel. The Titan Missile Museum is located about 20 miles south of Tucson. There you can see a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile still in its silo. This site is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987 and nowhere else in the world can visitors get this close to an intercontinental ballistic missile in its operational environment. Tours of the above-ground and underground installations around the missile are conducted daily.
6. Explore an Ancient Cave:Kartchner Caverns are located about an hour outside of Tucson and are an absolute must-see. The caverns were first discovered in 1974 but were kept secret in order to preserve the spectacular formations inside. The Caverns became a state park and were first opened to the public in 1999. They offer two tours: the Big Room and the Throne Room/Rotunda. Both are spectacular. The access to the caves is very easy, with paved walkways throughout. Inside you can see huge stalactites, and many unique cave formations. The cave is a ‘living cave’ and so the staff is rather strict about not touching the cave. Advanced reservations are absolutely required.
7. Visit Downtown Tucson:
If you drive through downtown Tucson you will be hard-pressed to find evidence of its roots as a Wild West outpost. Many of the historical structures were destroyed in development but with the right information and a bit of imagination you can start to see the way life used to be for early settlers and understand Tucson’s place in the history of the old west. I highly recommend taking a tour with Jane at Sentinel Carriage Co.. She has mined the locals for great stories about the area and will help you to envision the city the way it used to be. If you want to see the way Tucson is headed a fun way to do that is to take a walking/eating tour with Tucson Food Tours. They will take you to a variety of local businesses to sample their wares. In doing so you can begin to get a feel for what makes Tucson tick.
8. Immerse yourself in the Wild West:
Southern Arizona is rich with Old West history and it is easy to immerse yourself in the Wild West here. Many of the Wild West hotspots are very touristy but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth visiting (especially if you have kids). One of the fun places to get into the commercial side of the Wild West is by visiting Old Tucson. By its name you might think it’s a historical district or museum but in fact it is a Hollywood set. Old Tucson was built by Columbia Pictures in 1939 for the movie “Arizona” but quickly became known as “Hollywood in the Desert”. Over 300 movies and TV shows were filmed at Old Tucson (and more are still being filmed there today!) including classics like: The Lone Ranger, Gunfight at the OK Corral, 3:10 to Yuma, Rio Bravo, among many others. If you go be sure to take the guided walking tour (“Old Tucson Historic Tour”). Since there is basically no signage at Old Tucson the only way to know how various parts of the set were used is on the tour. The Tour happens only three times a day or so so you may want to call ahead to plan your visit. If you want to learn more about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s famous “Shootout at the OK Corral” you can head down to Tombstone, AZ. Tombstone is super-touristy but there is some great history to be found there still. For a look into the mining industry you can check out some of the ghost towns around Tombstone or head down to artsy/funky Bisbee, AZ to tour the Queen Mine.
9. Practice your Cowboy Skills:
Once you’ve learned all about cowboy history it is a ton of fun to try your hand at being one yourself. There are several fantastic ranches in and around Tucson that offer full vacation packages or day riding. Check out White Stallion Ranch. They have a huge herd of horses and can accommodate all abilities (including children as young as 5). They offer rides of various lengths and over a variety of terrain. Some rides end in wine and cheese, others in beer and Cheetos, as desired! You can also participate in “Team Penning” where you ride into a herd of cattle in the rodeo arena and work to separate out three cattle and move them into a pen. True cowboy work.
10. Watch the Sunset:
A Sonoran Desert sunset is something to be savored. The open land affords great sunset views from almost anywhere but if you get the chance head out to Gate’s Pass or Mt. Lemmon to truly celebrate the last beautiful warm rays of the day.