If you’re the outdoorsy type, Tucson is a great place to visit, especially during the cooler months. Here’s my list of what to see and where to go.
HIKING AND BIKING
The famous crested Saguaro of Sabino Canyon. Photo by Dennis Newman
Absolutely the best place in Tucson for hiking. A beautiful desert landscape at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Lots of trails ranging from easy to difficult. Six miles of paved roads if you want to stroll. Hop on the tram to ride to one of the many picnic areas, view points and trailheads.
All this makes Sabino Canyon a popular place, especially during cool months and on weekends. Finding a parking spot may be a problem. Don’t try sneaking in without paying the entrance fee. They will ticket you. I’ve seen them do it. Besides, the 7-day and annual passes are the best deals around. You can use them anywhere in the Coronado National Forest which includes Mt. Lemmon and Madera Canyon (more on those places later). The tram costs extra and reservations are a good idea.
To my fellow sitters, pets are not allowed here.
TIP: Ride the tram to the top of the main road and walk the four miles back to the visitor center.
The majestic Saguaro cacti at sunset. Public domain image.
The east and west units of Saguaro National Park are on opposite ends of Tucson metro. This is not your amazing vista park like the Grand Canyon. Here you get a more intimate experience with the Sonoran Desert. The east unit has a nice paved scenic drive that’s shared with bicycles. The west unit is all dirt roads. Lots of good hiking in both places.
TIP: The “g” in Saguaro is pronounced like in “h”. Think sah-WHAR-roe. If you use the hard “g” around locals it’ll drive us crazy and we’ll correct you. Sorry, we can’t help ourselves.
A portion of the 130 miles of trails that make up The Loop. Photo from Pima County
Hop your bike, lace up your walking shoes and explore The Loop, more than 130 miles of paved trails set aside for bikers, pedestrians, and (don’t forget we’re talking about Tucson here) horse riders. The best thing about The Loop is that most of the trails follow the major washes (dry river beds) and avoid roads. You can ride or walk all day long without ever dealing with traffic.
The more popular segments go right by restaurants, bars, shopping, groceries and two farmer’s markets. On the more remote sections you may feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
TIP: The Loop can get busy. Some segments have a parallel dirt path which I suggest walking to avoid congestion. The Rules Of The Road: bikers yield to peds and everyone yields to horses.
The drive up Mt. Lemmon near the Seven Cataracts overlook. Photo by Dennis Newman
The hour-long drive up the Mt. Lemmon highway takes you through several climate zones until you come to a beautiful forest of Ponderosa Pine at the top. At 9,100 feet Mt. Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalinas. Along the way, you’ll get some great vistas, beautiful campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and tall rocky pillars called hoodoos. Near the summit is the small town of Summerhaven with a general store and a couple of restaurants.
Mt. Lemmon is especially popular in summer because temps at the top are 25F degrees cooler than in the city. When the temps hit 105F in Tucson they’re a perfect 80F up on the mountain. In the winter it snows and Ski Valley (a short drive up from Summerhaven) is the southernmost ski resort in the country. Parking is limited here and can be hard to find on summer weekends.
Unfortunately, the Santa Catalinas are still recovering from a devastating wildfire two years ago. You can’t avoid seeing charred trees and other burnt vegetation.
Hiking In The Desert
No matter the time of year, always bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and good hiking shoes or boots before you venture out in the desert. You’ll become dehydrated faster than you think. Many of the trails around here take you right into wilderness areas with no cell phone coverage. If you get into trouble it may take a while to get help. We live near Sabino Canyon and we always know a hiker is in trouble when the helicopters fly over our house.
One of the things that drew us to Tucson was the birds. We see all sorts of birds that we can’t see anywhere else in the country. Southern Arizona is the very tip of the northern range for birds more commonly seen in Mexico and Central America. This is where birds like the Elegant Trogon and Eared Quetzal “go north for the summer.” Add to that some of our full-time residents like the Cactus Wren or the Curved Bill Thrasher. Southern AZ is also a hotspot for several types of hummingbirds.
A male Elegant Trogon. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The list of birdwatching sites is endless. Here are my favorites.
South of Tucson near the town of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is part of the Santa Rita Mountains and the Coronado National Forest. Two inns, the Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Kubo have large feeding stations that attract all sorts of birds. Both places are open to the public. If you come here, please leave a tip. Feeding birds is expensive. Madera Canyon is also one of the best places to see the Elegant Trogon.
One weird thing: Madera Canyon is off of Interstate 19, the main highway from Tucson to Mexico. I-19 is the only road in the country where the signs give you distances in kilometers instead of miles. This dates back to the 1970s when we briefly considered converting to the metric system. I-19 was an early adapter. Every so often the state tries to change the signs to display miles but the locals push back. Good thing the speed signs are in MPH.
Located in Patagonia, an hour plus drive from Tucson, the Paton Center is THE place to watching hummingbirds in Southern Arizona. The center is the legacy of the Paton family who loved hummingbirds so much, they put up a dozen or so feeders around their yard and invited the public to watch. These day the center is run by Tucson Audubon which added more feeders and opened up new sections of the property to birdwatchers.
One Cool Thing: The drive from I-10 to Patagonia is one of the most scenic roads in Arizona. Heading south, the elevation rises and the landscape changes from desert to hilly grasslands. This is where the deer and the antelope play. The towns of Sonoita and Elgin are one of the premier wine regions in the state.
TIP: Tucson Audubon has a great local guide book, Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. It lists all the best birding sites, what species you can expect to see (according to the season) and details on how to get there.
The mural outside Epic Rides. Art by Joe Pagac.
I’ve lived all over the country and I can’t think of another city that’s as mural crazy as Tucson. The local paper keeps track and at last word, there were more than 100 murals spread all over the city.
The imagination and beauty of these public works of art never cease to amaze me. Where else are you going to see a coyote playing the guitar?
WHERE AIRPLANES GO TO DIE
Hundreds of military aircraft, dating back to WWII, are stored at The Boneyard. Photo from Wikimedia Commons,
I have to admit, I was a little creeped out the first time I saw The Boneyard. Driving south on Kolb Road near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were hundreds, maybe thousands of old airplanes wrapped in white and lined up like eerie tombstones.
Tucson’s low humidity and low rainfall makes it the perfect place to preserve military aircraft where they can be used for spare parts and possibly be put back into action.
Officially known as the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), locals call it The Boneyard.
Last I heard The Boneyard was closed to the public, but you can still many of the planes along Kolb Road.
Inside one of the hangars at the Pima Air and Space Museum. Photo from Visit Tucson.
The closest thing to touring The Boneyard is the Pima Air and Space Museum. More than 400 historic aircraft are on display in six large hangers and 80 acres of land. Here you’ll see one of the Wright Flyers, a 787 Dreamliner, and one of the most famous spy jets in history, the SR-71 Blackbird.
During the Cold War, the Titan II missiles were hidden in underground bunkers to protect them from a first strike nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Photo from Titan Missile Museum.
If the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union was your idea of a good time, then you have to see the Titan Missile Museum near the town of Sahuarita.
The museum is a converted underground launch site, complete with a decommissioned missile. From 1963 to 1987, there were 54 Titan II sites scattered across the country. This is the only one that remains. Seriously it’s a fascinating look at a scary time in history.
WHERE THE WEST WAS FILMED
Once upon a time, Tucson was a major filming destination for movies and television, especially westerns. Classics like Rio Lobo, 3:10 To Yuma, and The Gunfight At The OK Corral were filmed here, or partly filmed here. Some important non-westerns were filmed here too, such as Lilies Of The Field and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
That was decades ago. Hollywood moved on to other locations with better incentives. Arizona just passed new tax credits in an attempt to lure back some of that business, but until then you can enjoy seeing the places that played such a big role in movie history.
Old Tucson Studios
The Grand Palace Hotel set at Old Tucson Studios. Photo from Pima County.
When we came here a few years back, Old Tucson Studios was part guided tour and part theme park. It closed during the pandemic and the folks that ran it for many years rode off into the sunset. It reopens in October of 2022 under new management.
When it reopens, I assume you’ll be able to see some of the old sets and locales of some of your favorite westerns. But weirdly enough, there’s no information on the website, Facebook, or Instagram.
Main Street at the Mescal Movie Set. Photo by Dennis Newman
When I toured Old Tucson I heard of this mysterious second location, east of town, more of closed set than a theme park. The guides whispered to me that some of the movies which claimed to be filmed in Old Tucson were actually filmed there. Being the nosey type, I just had to find out more.
My search took me to the Mescal Movie near the town of Benson. Mescal was once part of Old Tucson. Local investors bought the place during the pandemic and had just opened it to the public when we visited in August of 2021.
We had a blast, looking at the old sets for movies like Tombstone, The Quick And The Dead, and The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean. I’ll admit, I haven’t seen all these moves, but it was still fun and our guide was terrific.
Mescal Studios is on a limited schedule for the summer but plans to resume daytime tours in October.
Side Note: Tom Mix was the most famous movie cowboy of the silent film era. Appearing in almost 300 movies, the guy practically created the strong quiet type that came to define the role. The guy was friends with Wyatt Earp!
Not long after he retired from the movies, Mix was northbound out of Tucson on what is now Highway 79. He drove over a washed-out bridge, into a gully and died at the scene. 18 miles south of the town of Florence a small plaque marks the occasion and memorializes his career.
The array of telescopes of Kitt Peak. Photo from Kitt Peak Observatory.
The thing about observatories is that they’re not heated or cooled. Kitt Peak is almost 7,000 feet high and Mt. Lemmon is about 9,000 feet. If you come here for a nighttime program during the cool months it’s going to be cold. Dress for winter. I’m not kidding. During summer, night skies are often obscured by clouds and rain. Check on cancellation policies before booking.
Unfortunately, Kitt Peak is closed to the public because of Covid-19, but is offering programs you can take remotely. Mt. Lemmon has resumed its nightly program but you’ll have to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Many of the super large mirrors used by observatories around the world are produced right here in Tucson at the University of Arizona. And by large I mean 27 feet across. It takes years to make one of these. The Carris Mirror Lab is currently closed. Repeat after me, Covid-19. But when it reopens you’ll be able to see mirrors in various stages of production.
When you step out of your house sit at night and wonder why the neighborhood seems so dark, it’s not your imagination. Pima County is a pioneer in the Dark Skies movement to reduce nighttime light pollution. Lots of neighborhoods have no streetlights. I don’t know which came first, the Dark Skies or the observatories. But it’s a great way to help our friendly neighborhood scientists see better at night.
Biosphere 2. Public domain photo.
In the 90s, an oil billionaire from Texas and a performance artist from New Mexico thought it would be a great idea to build a space habitat in the Arizona desert. Called Biosphere 2 (the Earth is Biosphere 1), the idea was to create a closed ecological system where inhabitants would grow their own food, compost the waste, and recycle their own water and oxygen. If we could do this on Earth, maybe we could do this on the Moon or Mars.
The hype behind this project was incredible. I worked in television news at the time and I still remember when the eight volunteers, all dressed up in Star Trek like uniforms, entered Biosphere 2 and locked themselves inside. They remained there for two years.
Things went south quickly. First, they ran low on food, then they ran low on oxygen. The only reason no one died from this debacle is that they cheated. Oxygen and food were smuggled in. The organizers tried in vain to maintain the facade of a successful experiment but eventually, the truth came out.
Fast forward a few decades and today Biosphere 2 is a totally legit research facility run by the University of Arizona. How do Rain Forests process methane gas? What happens to coral reefs as the oceans warm? How do landscapes evolve from barren rock to living soils teeming with microbes and plants? This place is big enough for scientists to create these environments, run experiments on them, and see what happens.
Thankfully, Biosphere 2 is open for tours. They strongly recommend buying tickets ahead of time. Located just south of the town of Oracle, Biosphere 2 is about 45 minutes from downtown Tucson.
Is this the last word on everything to do in Tucson? Nope. This is, however, a list of the places that have impressed me the most, including some you may not find on a typical tourist guide.