travel & recreation
Renowned for its ample supply of sunshine (350 days each year) and moderately warm climate during winter months, Tucson is not the sleepy desert town imagined by most people who haven't been there. It is a fast-growing city of nearly 700,000 people, and yet it has maintained the small-town atmosphere that endeared the community to the Spanish, then Mexican settlers, and in 1846 the Americans.
Europeans weren't the first people to live here; this portion of the Sonoran Desert was originally home to the Hohokam Indians, who farmed the area during the first century AD, and then was the homeland of the Pima and Sobaipuri tribes. For a short time, during the Civil War, the Confederate flag flew over Tucson before Arizona gained territorial status in 1863. Three historic districts -- all in the downtown area -- offer different viewpoints of the city's heritage.
Popular day-trips from Tucson include drives to the Tombstone/Bisbee area southeast of the city in Cochise County and south via I-19 to Nogales and the Mexican border.
From Phoenix: The city is 111 miles southeast of Phoenix via Interstate 10. A slightly longer but more scenic route involves driving east from Phoenix on U.S. Highway 60 and then turning south onto U.S. Hwy. 89 at Florence Junction. From Florence, the route is known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. This tour is featured in our scenic drives (page 194).
From Southern California and Yuma: Tucson is 184 miles southeast of Yuma (at the California border), via Interstate 8 and then Interstate 10. There is an alternate route that has the benefit of providing a tour of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For this drive, leave Interstate 8 at Gila Bend (exit 118) and head south on Arizona Route 85. This road continues south from the village of Why into Organ Pipe Cactus. Route 86 leads east from Why through the large Tohono O'Odham Indian reservation.
From El Paso: Head west on Interstate 10.
What to See and Do
Within a ten-square-block area are three historic districts that provide fine walking tours. The best place to start is the Convention and Visitors Bureau, at 130 S. Scott Ave. There are maps of the historic districts here, as well as material on other Tucson-area attractions. The information center is located in a 1928 building, originally the Thomas-Davis Clinic. Bordered by Pennington, Granada, and Speedway, the El Presidio District includes several original buildings from the Spanish colonial period, in addition to buildings constructed by the earliest European leaders of Tucson society. El Presidio Park was the site selected by Lt. Col. Hugo Oconor (actually Hugh O'Connor, an Irishman working for the Spanish Army) for the new frontier presidio, called Plaza de las Armas. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is in this park. North of the park is La Casa Cordova, one of the oldest buildings in the city. It has been restored as a Mexican heritage museum.
The exhibits in the Tucson Museum of Art include pre-Columbian artifacts, Spanish colonial art and furniture, and modern works. Around the corner on Main Street is the Janos Restaurant. This buildings called the Stevens Home, and the Fish House (the El Presidio Gallery) at 120 N. Main are two more early homes. The Steinfeld House, at 300 N. Main, is a brick/stucco Spanish mission&endash;style home and a fine example of a Tucson mansion from the turn of the century.
The Barrio Historic District, south of Cushing St. and the Tucson Convention Center, includes the Cushing Street Bar and Restaurant, named for Army hero Howard Cushing. The building combines the original Joseph Ferrin home and country store, built in the 1880s. The shrine at the corner of Simpson and Main Streets is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
There are two art centers located in the adjacent Armory Park Historic District. The Temple of Music and Art was built in 1927 as a stage and movie theater and is now the home of the Arizona Theater Company. It includes a main theater, cabaret, gallery, and restaurant. It's located at 330 S. Scott St.
The Tucson Children's Museum (200 S. Sixth Ave.) is a 1901 structure that was the Andrew Carnegie Library. As with several other buildings in the area (including the Steinfeld House), it was designed by architect Henry Trost. El Fronterizo, at 471 S. Stone Ave., was the printing plant for the Spanish language newspaper founded in 1878 by Carlos Y. Velasco.
There are two buildings lying outside the official historic districts that nonetheless are fascinating to history buffs. The old Southern Pacific Railway Depot (419 Congress St.) is now a Carlos Murphy's restaurant. The State Building is across the street at 416 Congress, a striking pink adobe building with an inlaid tile mosaic.
Parks and Gardens
For a city lying on the flat southern desert, Tucson has an amazing variety of natural places that offer superb outdoor rambles. Nearby mountain ranges and hills provide scenic beauty and a habitat for cacti and other desert plants. Man-made gardens in the city range from commercial cactus farms to the city's botanical garden.
Saguaro National Park -- East
The finest stands of the saguaro cactus in Arizona are found in the two sections of Saguaro National Park, lying beyond the eastern and western edges of the city. The larger (and older) portion is located east of town at the end of Old Spanish Trail in the Rincon Mountains. Cactus Forest Drive, an 8-mile loop road, winds through an extensive saguaro forest. The loop begins near the park visitor center and leads in a clockwise direction. A sideroad leads off the loop route to a picnic area at Mica View.
For those who wish to have a walk through the saguaro, a trail leads from the north side of the loop (past the Mica View road) to the visitor center. Nearby, there is the shorter Desert Ecology Trail, which offers a self-guided introduction to desert life. A second picnic area is located on the Javalina sideroad.
The park is perfect for longer hikes, with more than 75 miles of trails leading through the desert and mountain landscape. Several longer hiking trails climb into the mountains, where the landscape changes from desert scrub and grassland to oak and pine woodlands and&emdash;at the top&emdash;to a mixed evergreen forest.
Backcountry camping is permitted, but only at designated campsites, and permits must be obtained at the visitor center in advance of an overnight trip. Ranger-led programs are offered during winter months. There is a shop with books and park guides for sale, and a slide show about the saguaro, the Sonoran Desert and its wildlife.
Saguaro National Park -- West
This portion of the national park is located next to Tucson Mountain Park on Kinney Road, in the vicinity of the Old Tucson Studios (theme park) and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The easiest way to get to Saguaro West is to take Speedway Blvd. from downtown Tucson. The road crosses the Tucson Mountains, after becoming Gates Pass Blvd. Turn right onto Kinney Blvd. and the park is two minutes' drive from the intersection. Another route into Tucson Mountain Park leads from southern Tucson via Ajo Way (Highway 86) and Kinney Road.
The Red Hills Information Center is open daily, offering guided walks during winter months, as well as books and brochures on the park attractions. The 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive passes through a magnificent forest of saguaro, interspersed with other cacti and desert bushes. This unpaved road begins 1/2 mile from the information center and leads in a counter clockwise direction (although portions of the road have two-way traffic). Near the beginning of the route is the Sus picnic area.
The Valley View Trail provides a 3/4-mile (one way) walk to a viewpoint where the Avra Valley stretches before you. The loop road continues until it meets Golden Gate Road near Apache Peak. Turn left and you'll soon see a sign for the Signal Hill Picnic Area. This area was used by the prehistoric Hohokam people -- probably the ancestors of the Papago Indians. Their petroglyphs are found on rocks near the picnic area. The loop drive continues via Kinney Road, returning to the starting point with the visitor center another two miles on.
Desert animals are often seen, even in the vicinity of the visitor center. Park wildlife includes the abundant kangaroo rat, gopher and coachwhip snakes, the diamondback, javalina (the collared peccary), and varieties of birds including quail, Gila woodpeckers which live in the saguaro, and thrasher. There are two desert garden areas with interpretive trails close to the visitor center, and longer trails lead into the foothills, where there are several old mine sites, and higher up the mountainsides. Camping is not permitted in this section of the monument.
Sentinel Peak Park
The finest panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains are seen from several viewpoints on top of the peak called A Mountain for the whitewashed "A" provided by students at the University of Arizona. To see the views (superb day or night), drive 2 miles west of the city on Congress Street and take Sentinel Peak Road. The road loops around the mountain.
Tucson Mountain Park
Much of the Tucson Mountains is included in this county park, which features stands of saguaro and other desert plants. There are picnic areas, hiking and riding trails, and a campground. The park is 8 miles west of the downtown district via Speedway Blvd. There is no entrance fee. The park is reached by taking Speedway Blvd. west from Tucson, north of the downtown district. From the south end of the city, take State Route 86 west from Interstate 19 and turn north into the park.
Inside Tucson Mountain Park is one of the finest wildlife museums in the country, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. More than 200 species of desert animals and birds are housed in realistic settings, and the museum includes pathways that connect botanical gardens filled with desert plants. There's a fine picnic area sheltered with ramadas, in addition to a snack bar and gift shop. For information, call (520) 883-2702.
Old Tucson, a Wild West theme park also used by many studios for filming movies, TV series and commercials, burned to the ground in a spectacular night time fire in April 1995. The false-fronted streets of Old Tucson has long been a favorite family attraction, and is just as attractive to tourists today than it was before the fire morer than 10 years ago.
Coronado National Forest
This superb area of forest-clad mountains sits northeast of the city, offering several recreation areas that include campgrounds. Narrow Sabino Canyon has a marvelous display of desert vegetation beside a creek that cascades down the hills of the Catalina Mountains. A day can easily be spent in the canyon; to get there, take Tanque Verde Road from the city and turn onto Sabino Canyon Road. Visitors park next to the visitor center. From here, you walk, cycle, or ride a horse into the canyon, or take the shuttle train, for which a fee is charged. There are picnic areas and swimming places along the 4-mile paved roadway. There's also a trail that leads for about 12 miles to the top of Mount Lemmon.
There's an exciting driving tour available in this same area, leading to and through the Mt. Lemmon Recreation Area. A paved road climbs the Catalina Mountains to the 9,000-foot level, through a range of ecological regions -- from cactus scrubland to mixed conifer forest. There are turnouts near the top that offer fine views of the basin and city. There are picnic areas, campgrounds, and hiking trails along the route, and skiing during winter months. This is said to be the most southerly ski area in the U.S., although the folks at Cloudcroft may object. To get there, drive east from the city on Broadway Blvd. and take Catalina Highway.
Tohono Chul Park
Nine miles north of the city, at Ina and Oracle Roads, the park has displays of several hundred varieties of desert plants, with nature trails winding through the demonstration gardens. There are galleries, a cafe, and a gift shop. For information, call (520) 742-6455.
Tucson Botanical Gardens
Located at 2150 North Alvernon Way, the botanical park features a Tucson-area garden, tropical greenhouse, and displays of iris, herbs, and wildflowers, as well as North American vegetables. There's an admission fee and the gardens are open daily from 8:30 am to 4 pm (520-326-9255).
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There are several deluxe RV parks near Tucson, including the Cactus Country RV Resort, 16 miles southeast of town via I-10 and Houghton Rd (exit 275). The resort has 260 sites with full hookups, a dump station, laundry, propane, pool, and whirlpool.
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