On August 20, 1775, wowed by the “water, pasture and wood” along the east bank of the Santa Cruz River, Irishman Hugo O’Connor planted a Spanish flag on Native American soil and claimed it for God and king. Today the river is nearly always dry and the remnants of Colonel O’Connor’s garrison are partly covered by a parking garage, but much remains the same in the frontier outpost that burgeoned into the modern city of Tucson, Arizona. The area continues to be an ethnological mishmash, a rich blend of Mexican, traditional Western and Tohono O’odham Indian influences. And, as in O’Connor’s day, natural wonders—desert spiked with saguaro cactus, five mountain ranges that ring the city—entice travelers not just to visit but to stay.
“Will we be the great city . . . or just another place?” O’Connor asked. The case for the former is strong. Tucson has an average year-round temperature of 82 degrees and, if the tourism bureau is to be believed, a full 350 sunny days a year. It possesses the arts and culture of a college town (the palm-lined, red-brick campus of the University of Arizona lies just north of the city center). It also has the diversity of a major metropolitan area, with a population approaching one million and an energetic, resurgent downtown. What’s more, Tucson is a vacationers’ paradise, offering dozens of world-class spas, golf courses, restaurants and resorts.
Tucson doesn’t claim to be perfect. It sprawls, is strip-mall ridden and traffic beset. But unlike San Francisco or Los Angeles, for example, escape is easy. A 30-minute drive in any direction—and usually considerably less—transports you into expansive desert or craggy mountains. Nature, raw and prickly, is Tucson’s greatest asset.
TAKE A HIKE
Imagine a typical vacation day in Tucson: huevos rancheros and cafe con leche on a patio overlooking the city. Then, say, a round of golf on one of the area’s 25 renowned courses. Or maybe you’d rather mountain bike in nearby Tucson Mountain Park?
Should you choose to wander farther afield, the western half of one of Tucson’s most popular natural areas, Saguaro National Park (520-733-5158; nps.gov/sagu), is just 15 minutes away by car. Short paths like the Cactus Garden and Desert Discovery Trails introduce newcomers to the Sonoran Desert, a region that sprawls over southern Arizona, southeastern California and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. Only in the Sonoran Desert do the massive, multi-armed saguaro cactuses grow, reaching 50 feet tall, weighing up to seven tons and living more than 150 years. Other cactuses grow here too: Hikers can spot the tall, solitary spikes of agave; the flat green blades of prickly pear; whiplike snarls of ocotillo; and varieties shaped like barrels, hedgehogs, melting candles, fire hydrants and pincushions.
Reclusive animals live among these armored plants. See them at the renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd.; 520-883-2702; desertmuseum.org). Naturalistic, open-air habitats showcase a Southwestern Noah’s Ark: 1,300 species of native plants, 106 of mammals, 241 of birds and 483 of amphibians and reptiles, including the Gila monster—venomous, speckled and slow.
Immediately north of Tucson is one of the area’s least hyped but most beautiful preserves, Catalina State Park (520-628-5798; pr.state.az.us). Gigantic saguaros jut from ridgetops into the blue sky; hiking routes like the Romero Canyon Trail climb several thousand feet to vistas and natural pools in the Catalina Mountains. Equally worthwhile is Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, on the eastern outskirts of town, where a tram takes visitors several miles into a steep-sided gorge (520-749-2861; sabinocanyon.com). From here you can hike out as many miles as you like, admiring the tawny, swayback bluffs high above, then return to take the tram back.
Walking isn’t the only way to explore the parks. Tucson was recently named one of the country’s best biking cities by Bicycling magazine, which touted the 325 miles of marked lanes as well as extensive trails on surrounding public lands. Rent a road bike at Broadway Bicycles (140 S. Sarnoff Dr.; 520-296-7819; broadwaybicycles.com), follow Broadway east and take Old Spanish Trail to the eastern segment of Saguaro National Park (520-733-5153; nps.gov/sagu). Cactus Forest Loop Drive, completed in 1939, was just resurfaced; it’s a scenic, switchbacking loop through the foothills of the Rincon Mountains.
A less New West, more Wild West way to get around is on a guided half- or full-day trail ride with Arizona Horseback Experience (in Sonoita, 50 miles south of Tucson; 520-455-5696; horsebackexperience.com). While there are other stables closer to the city, none offers the same breadth of wide-open terrain—mountain forests of aspen, pine and fir; rolling, oak-shaded hills; and windswept grasslands straight out of Little House on the Prairie.
ESCAPE THE HEAT
When you need a break from the desert sun—even in September, the mercury can climb toward 100 degrees—take a few hours to visit a diverse trio of museums at the University of Arizona. The Arizona State Museum (1013 E. University Blvd.; 520-621-6302; statemuseum.arizona.edu) holds an impressive collection of Native American artifacts including a staggering 20,000 pieces of Southwestern Indian pottery. The University of Arizona Museum of Art (Park Ave. and Speedway Blvd.; 520-621-7567; artmuseum.arizona.edu), meanwhile, presents a modest but wideranging collection of 20th-century works, including paintings by Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Across the street, the Center for Creative Photography (520-621-7968; creativephotography.org) houses some 80,000 works by 2,000 photographers, and more 20th-century North American work than any other museum in the country. Schedule an appointment with an archivist to peruse the rich trove of images by Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Edward Weston, among others.
Tucson does commerce at least as well as art. The upscale—and openair—La Encantada mall (2905 E. Skyline Dr.; laencantadashopping center.com) has a BCBG, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and 50 other stores. The Fourth Avenue shopping district (Fourth Ave. between University Blvd. and 9th St.; fourthavenue.org) is more relaxed. Here vintage trolleys shuttle visitors between shops like Antigone Books, Toxic Ranch Records, the Food Conspiracy Cooperative and Smiley’s Ultimate Hookah Lounge. Between La Encantada and Fourth Avenue, you’ll have visited Tucson’s Beverly Hills and Tucson’s Haight-Ashbury. But to experience Tucson’s Tucson, the place to go is downtown. This part of the city has been reborn over the past several years, with the help of an ambitious redevelopment plan called Rio Nuevo.
WANDER AND WONDER
Stop at the city’s visitor center (Church St. and Broadway; 800-638-8350 or 520-624-1817; visittucson.org) for a guide to the Presidio Trail—a 2½-mile route, marked with a turquoise stripe on the sidewalk, that incorporates almost all the worthwhile sights downtown. Heading counterclockwise around the loop, you’ll cross Cushing Street to enter a sleepy neighborhood of brightly colored adobe houses fronted by flowering bushes and cactus gardens. This is the Barrio Histórico, the rustic (though steadily gentrifying) core of historic Mexican Tucson. Key stops include El Tiradito Shrine, called “the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground,” and St. Augustine Cathedral, a grand Spanish Colonial Revival church built in 1896.
Continue north on the walking tour, past the murals of Sixth Avenue, to reach the inimitable Hotel Congress (311 E. Congress St.; 800-722-8848 or 520-622-8848; hotelcongress.com). This 40-room hotel was used as a hideout by outlaw John Dillinger in the 1930s and still has vintage radios and antique iron beds; its Cup Café wins “Best of Tucson” polls for its casual, international fare. The hotel’s Club Congress hosts rock, alt-country, Latin and ska bands, as well as the occasional storytelling nights and drag queen revues. Across the street is another music spot, the Rialto Theatre (520-740-1000; rialtotheatre.com). Opened in 1920 and recently restored, this Art Deco theater is where nationally touring bands perform. Keep wandering until you reach Old Town Artisans (201 N. Court Ave.; 800-782-8072 or 520-623-6024; oldtown artisans.com), where potters, woodworkers, sculptors and jewelers sell their wares around a tree-shaded courtyard. You can relax here with a glass of cold lemonade or a beer, then finish the Presidio Trail tour at, naturally, the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson. This was where Colonel Hugo O’Connor originally set up shop to defend Spanish colonists from the surrounding Apache, and a restored portion of the 11-acre fort opened this year as a museum. Walking between the low adobe walls and peering into the model room where soldiers once slept, you can imagine frontier life circa 1780—and let your head spin contemplating how Tucson has grown.
HILTON TUCSON EL CONQUISTADOR GOLF
Just north of town, with 430 spacious guest
rooms, five well-regarded restaurants and
plenty of sports facilities, including horseback
riding on the resort’s 500 acres of high
desert. 10000 N. Oracle Rd.; 800-445-8667;
hiltonelconquistador.com; doubles from $179
This classic, Old Arizona hotel opened in 1930;
its 95 rooms sit on beautifully landscaped grounds
in the middle of Tucson. 2200 E. Elm St.; 800-
933-1093; arizonainn.com; doubles from $169
Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch A laid-back, 24-room
dude ranch; perfect for families.
8401 N. Scenic Dr.; 800-321-7018;
lazykbar.com; doubles from $250 (includes
meals and horseback-riding)
CAFÉ POCA COSA
Exceptional, groundbreaking Mexican cuisine
from chef Suzana Davila. Any of 26 moles may
appear on the chalkboard-scrawled menu,
which changes twice daily. 110 E. Pennington
St.; 520-622-6400; pocacosatucson.com;
dinner for two, $50*
Upscale Southwestern cuisine
like barbecued Oaxacan lamb and green
corn tamales from Janos Wilder, an
award-winning, French-trained chef.
Westin La Paloma Resort, 3770 E. Sunrise
Dr.; 520-615-6100; janos.com; dinner for
EL CHARRO CAFÉ
Try the house specialty
at this traditional Mexican spot: a
chimichanga filled with carne seca—beef
marinated in garlic, lime juice and spices,
sun-dried and grilled. 311 N. Court Ave.;
dinner for two, $50
An art-filled Southwestern restaurant
serving innovative regional dishes.
3500 E. Sunrise Dr.; 520-577-8100;
dineterracotta.com; dinner for two, $70
*Prices cover a three-course meal for two, not
including drinks, tax or tip.