No question about it, the Grand Canyon is magnificent - it is, after all, one of the world's natural wonders. It's entirely in Arizona, too. But there's much more to Arizona than the Canyon and the layer-cake rocks of the northern third of the Copper State: down in the southern part of the state the land is sun-blasted and dry, and the cactus grow taller than the average suburban ranch house. This is the land that puts the "desert" in the desert southwest.

The Arizona Desert

Only in Arizona: the Saguaro Cactus
Credit: John Williams / National Park Service

A classic Arizona sunset silhouettes a saguaro cactus.

The three counties that make up the southeastern corner of the state - Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz Counties - cover an area larger than nine U. S. states. They have a population of some 1.2 million people, about half of whom live in Tucson and its suburbs. The rest of the people are spread out over more than 16,000 square miles of desert valleys and rugged mountain ranges; a land dotted with cattle tanks and mining adits. Most of the cities and towns came into being as mining camps and ranching communities.

Visitors to Southeastern Arizona will find plenty of diversions, both indoors and out. Whether you're taking a day trip (or weekend outing) from Tucson, you're camping, or you've found overnight lodging in one of the towns, Southeastern Arizona has something for everyone; like these five day trips.


The Copper Queen Hotel, Bisbee
Credit: a rancid amoeba /

Besides serving a killer breakfast, the Copper Queen is the oldest continuously-operating hotel in Arizona.

Cochise County's seat, the once-boomed and now busted town of Bisbee[1] has spent the past two decades reinventing itself as an artist community and weekend destination. Less than a two-hour drive from Tucson, the old mining town sits high in the Mule Mountains, its houses and stores cantilevered into the sides of two steep gulches. Bisbee was at one time the largest city in the USA without door-to-door mail delivery, since many houses can only be reached by climbing fifty to one hundred steps from the closest street!

Plan your day in Bisbee to include shopping at the antique stores and artisans along Main Street, or perhaps visit the local watering holes up Brewery Gulch. If you're there early enough in the day or you stay overnight, make certain to catch breakfast at the historic Copper Queen Hotel, which dates back to 1902. For lunch, you might try a locally-flavored Pizza at the Screaming Banshee or grab a beer and a burger at the Old Bisbee Brewing Company. Besides the Copper Queen, Bisbee offers a wealth of bed and breakfast lodging, and plenty of rental houses for longer stays.


Bisbee street scene
Credit: redspotted /

Houses in Bisbee are cantilevered into the steep hillsides like this one, and often can only be reached by climbing tens of steps from the street.

If you stay for long in Bisbee, be prepared to walk: the city's streets are narrow and twisting and stick-shift-nightmare hilly. Most cars belonging to residents have scrapes on all four corners from encounters with walls and other vehicles. As for walking, it can be taxing (or exhilarating): each year the city hosts 1,000 Steps[2]; a five-kilometer race through the streets that takes participants up more than 1000 steps along its course. After a day of walking in Bisbee, you'll be happy to find a comfortable bed!

source cornellrocky / wikimedia commonsCredit: redspotted / flickr.comFor an interesting look at Bisbee's boom days, take the tour of the Lavender Pit[3]. The huge (900 feet deep, 300 acres) hole south of town was once a mountain, named Sacramento Hill.

The rich ore hauled out of the open-pit copper mine kept Bisbee booming from 1950 until it was closed by Phelps-Dodge Coopper Company in 1974.

Public tours operate five times daily, seven days per week. The mine's name, by the way, has nothing to do with the color of the rocks: it was named for the bossman of Phelps-Dodge, Harold Lavender.

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For a flavor of life in Southeastern Arizona, especially Bisbee, mystery readers should try the Joanna Brady series by J. A. Jance. This fifteen-book set is half cozy, half police procedural; featuring the life and crimes of Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady. Brady's the mother of two and a native of Bisbee. The most recent two Brady books are Judgment Call (2012) and Fire and Ice (2009). In the latter, Brady shares the spotlight with another Jance character, J. P. Beaumont - a Seattle homicide detective.

Chiricahua National Monument

Wonderland of Rocks
Credit: zereshk / wikimedia commons

These fascinating rhyolite hoodoos can be found in Chiricahua's Wonderland of Rocks.

The Chiricahua Mountains in the far southeastern corner of the state are home to a National Monument[4] that celebrates the beauty of this geological wonder. The giant pile of volcanic rocks formed 25-35 million years ago as this corner of the continent slowly pulled apart. The remnants of the last major eruption are preserved within the Chiricahua Mountains in its famous Wonderland of Rocks.

The Monument is about 120 miles east of Tucson, and the visitor center near Elfrida can be reached via Interstate 10 and Arizona 186, from Willcox. Those with high clearance vehicles can also reach the main tourist areas of the monument from the east via a seasonal road from Portal, Arizona (check with monument personnel to determine the condition of the road).

There is camping and picnicking in the monument, as well as ranger-guided and self-guided tours. A favorite tourist attraction is the eight-mile paved scenic drive with views of the many hoodoos; column-shaped erosional features in the reddish-purple rhyolite. Hikers will find some twenty miles of trails, with access to the Chiricahua Wilderness on the north slopes of Bonita Canyon.

Supplies are available in Willcox or the Douglas-Bisbee area, where there are groceries and other shopping. The pickings are slim within the Monument itself. Make certain your camera batteries are charged and you have plenty of space left in memory!

The Town Too Tough to Die

Tombstone's main street
Credit: Ken Thomas / wikimedia commons

Catch a re-enactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral on any day in old Tombstone.

"The Town too Tough to Die"[5] started out as a silver mining camp, reaching a population estimated at 14,000 before the silver mines went bust in the mid-1880s. The population today is about 1500 people, most of whom depend on the steady stream of tourists who come to stroll the streets where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once jangled their spurs.

Today, visitors can sit on benches along the main street and watch locals dressed in period costumes swagger down the streets, take a tour, catch an old-timey burlesque show, or - the pièce de résistance - view a re-enactment of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There are also local bars and restaurants, and a summertime visit isn't complete without a couple of dips of ice cream on a sugar cone.

Willcox, Dragoon and Cochise

Sandhill Cranes over the Willcox Playa
Credit: detritus /

Willcox, a small town along Interstate 10, has grown over the past decades from an influx of retirees and people escaping the frozen tundra of the north. The town is the former home of Tanya Tucker and the birthplace of "The Arizona Cowboy," Rex Allen. A major street through the town is named in Allen's honor, and the locals also operate a Rex Allen Museum[6].

Csource wilson44681, wikimedia commonsCredit: detritus / flickr.comochise and Dragoon have been less fortunate; Cochise is down to about 50 residents and Dragoon even fewer as the two mining camps have essentially "gone ghost." Dragoon takes its name from the Dragoon Mountains, on whose northern slope the town is situated. The Amerind Foundation, a Native American museum and research facility, is located on the outskirts of Dragoon near Texas Canyon (not to mention the quintessential "brown-and-yellow-sight tourist trap,  The Thing) on Interstate 10. The village of Cochise is named, as is the county, for the famous Apache Indian chief. He is believed to be buried deep in a rocky canyon on the east side of the Dragoons, in the area known as Cochise Stronghold.

South of Interstate 10 in the Sulfur Springs Valley visitors will find the Willcox Playa[7]. The Playa, a great dry lake bed, is a favorite site for birdwatching. Sandhill Cranes are among several species that overwinter on the playa and surrounding plains before heading out in spring.

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The Border Towns

Nogales, Arizona - New Mexico
Credit: charles harker / wikimedia commons

You can cross the border into Mexico at three different spots in southeastern Arizona, including Nogales - here shown split by the international border fence.

There are three border crossings in southeastern Arizona: Douglas, Arizona - Agua Prieta, Sonora; Naco, Arizona - Naco, Sonora; and Nogales, Arizona - Nogales, Sonora. The Nogales crossing is the largest and closest to Tucson, at seventy miles down Interstate 19. If you're planning to travel into Mexico, especially headed east, the Naco crossing is the quietest. If cheap tequila or Kahlua or a souvenir serape are your goal, head for Nogales[8].

Just remember that you now need proof of citizenship to cross the border: an ordinary driver's license no longer suffices. You need a passport, PassCard, enhanced driver's license, or other documentation verified by the federal government. If you plan to drive into Mexico, make arrangements for the proper insurance.

Texas Canyon

Texas Canyon, Arizona
Credit: zereshk / wikimedia commons

No, it's not Texas: it's Arizona.

There's More

Southeastern Arizona is full of sites within an easy drive of Tucson and other cities. Consider Fort Bowie and Tumacacori National Historic Sites, Coronado National Memorial, and millions of acres in the Coronado National Forest. There are also the charming towns of Sonoita and Patagonia, multiple ghost towns, and the forgettable Sierra Vista. 

Just get out of town and see the landscape!