Most people think of the Grand Canyon when anyone mentions Arizona. Sure, the Canyon is one of the world's natural wonders, but there is far more to the Copper State than that one corner. The entire southern two-thirds of the state has completely different topography, flora and fauna from the area around Flagstaff and the "big ditch."
Take the southeastern corner of the state, most of which lies in two counties: Cochise and Pima. At 9188 square miles, Pima County is nearly the size of New Hampshire; when combined with Cochise and "little" Santa Cruz Counties, the three have an area about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont together. The sparsely-populated land is dotted with mountain ranges and communities ranging from tiny, abandoned mining camps to Tucson's half million people.
Looking east over the city of Tucson from a vantage point in the Tucson Mountains.
Tucson (which could be the most frequently misspelled city name in the US) is the cultural and business center of Southeastern Arizona. The Old Pueblo, as the city calls itself, offers a wide variety of lodging and dining opportunities, and is a popular wintering site for "snowbirds." These are visitors, mainly retirees from the Midwest and Great Plains, who arrive after Thanksgiving and then hustle back north before "the ice melts on the Santa Cruz" -- that's a local joke about the first 100-degree day of Summer. The city isn't just for snowbirds, however, it also boasts plenty of young people. Due to the large student populations of University of Arizona and Pima Community College, Tucson has plenty of attractions for the young as well.
City visitors can shop to their heart's content and when they get hungry, can expect a range from budget eateries to five-star dining - and not everyone eats early-bird specials! The local specialty cuisine is Sonoran Mexican food, which is distinct from the dishes you'll find in neighboring New Mexico and California (and worlds different from TexMex).
Locals orient themselves in Tucson by gazing at the horizon. A massive mountain range wraps around the north and east sides of the city. To the north, you'll see the great, whitish ledges of the Santa Catalina Mountains. East of town, a lower, darker range connects to the Catalinas: these are the Rincon Mountains. A rocky, rugged range called the Tucson Mountains lies to the west. One peak bears a prominent white letter A on the side facing downtown; this peak is officially Sentinel Peak, but locals (understandably) call it A Mountain. South of town in the distance lie the Santa Rita Mountains; and you can spot other isolated ranges on the horizon depending on your elevation and elevation. If you ever become disoriented in Tucson, just remember: white ledges to the north, a big A to the west.
With Tucson as a base, a southeast Arizona traveler can find historic, scientific and cultural attractions within a few minutes' drive. Let's check out some of the local sites where you can spend a few hours - or a few days.
University of Arizona Campus
Stately Old Main, with its broad porches at the west end of the quad, is the oldest building on the University of Arizona Campus.
Established in 1885, the U of A is one of Arizona's three major universities (along with Arizona State University in Tempe and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff). The campus occupies a 380-acre (154 hectare) plot just two miles (3 km) or so from downtown Tucson, where it is surrounded by neighborhoods and plenty of services that cater to the 37,000 students. Arizona originally established the state's A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) university in Tucson. Besides top-flight agriculture and engineering schools, the University also offers medical and law schools and colleges of pharmacy and architecture.
The campus, a cool oasis that's the oldest continually-maintained green space in Arizona, features rows of palm trees amid many low brick buildings and manicured green lawns. Visitors can stop at the UA visitor center to arrange a guided tour, or grab a map and visit some of the university's many sights. The "artsy" visitor will get some culture at the Center for Creative Photography or the University of Arizona Museum of Art. If you're more inclined to nature, consider the Campus Arboretum or the Mineral Museum, which is associated with the Flandrau Science Center Planetarium (another must-see). History buffs will get off on the Arizona State Museum, and for the sports-minded there's the Jim Click Hall of Champions that chronicles great moments in Wildcat sports history.
You might also take the time to travel a few miles north of town to the University's Biosphere 2 (on Oracle Road), where you can get a feeling for what it's like to be in a fishbowl. Volunteers lived in this "world under glass" for up to two years to evaluate the sustainability of a sealed environment. The facility now conducts research on ecology and man's interaction with the environment. Public tours are given daily.
The University of Arizona Visitor Center is at 811 N. Euclid Avenue, Tucson, near the west gate of the University. Biosphere 2 is between mileposts 96 and 97 on Arizona 77, west of the town of Oracle on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
A ferruginous hawk welcomes visitors to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.
The area of Tucson is within the Sonoran Desert, a unique ecology that's due, in part, to the region's dual "rainy" seasons: mid-winter and the late-summer chubascos or "monsoon season." The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which lies in a valley to the west of the Tucson Mountains, was established to foster "love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert." ASDM accomplishes this mission by introducing visitors to the plants of the Sonoran Desert - from ocotillo to saguaro, mammillaria to palo verde - by way of a gorgeous botanical garden. The plant displays are just half of what visitors see as they stroll the grounds, however: ASDM is also a zoological garden displaying the fauna of this fascinating desert, including nocturnal animals that even longtime residents of the city rarely see. Feast your eyes on everything from tarantulas to Mexican wolves; javelinas to gila monsters. ASDM posters of the desert's big cats have long been favorites in the gift shop.
And last, but not least, there's the ASDM's natural history center; which exhibits a wide variety of gem and mineral specimens from the Sonoran Desert plus collections of fossils found in the region. The museum's vertebrate paleontology collection recently added the first significant dinosaur skeleton found in southern Arizona.
Saguaro National Park
The Grand-Daddy Saguaro is the largest known Saguaro cactus.
The saguaro, sometimes called "the friendly cactus" because its big arms appear to be waving "Hello," is the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. Regardless of what TexMex restaurants in Detroit and Atlanta print on their menus, the Saguaro cactus only grows in a relatively small area of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. The National Park Service preserves two of the finest saguaro "forests" near Tucson, in Saguaro National Park.
The park's two districts straddle the city: Saquaro East lies at the foot of the Rincon Mountains on Old Spanish Trail, while Saguaro West sits on the slopes of the Tucson Mountains, immediately north of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Both districts are open to pedestrians and cyclists 24/7 except Christmas Day; and motorized vehicles may enter between sunrise and sunset. The park offers hiking, biking and picnicking; both districts have nature trails, scenic drives and self-guided tours.
The only camping available is backcountry sites in the Rincon (East) district and the Rincon Wilderness area. Food and other supplies are available outside the park boundaries. Restaurants, groceries, lodging and shopping are all within a few miles of both park districts; which are surprisingly close to urban amenities.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
The "White Dove of the Desert" is the oldest building in Arizona constructed by Europeans.
The White Dove of the Desert stands on the site of a mission established by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692. The Spanish Colonial church is the oldest structure in Arizona built by Europeans. Construction on the building took nine years, and finished in 1792.
Father Kino established the mission to minister to the Tohono O'odham people in the village of Wa:k. Descendants of those Native Americans still live in the region; most on the Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) Reservation that covers almost three million acres of desert landscape west of Tucson.
Admission to the church is free, as is admission to the Mission's museum. Donations are gladly accepted, especially as the Mission is undergoing restoration to repair damage caused by water seepage in the late 20th Century.
The Mission is some nine miles (15 km) south of downtown Tucson; exit I-19 at San Xavier Road and proceed west.
Going to Mount Lemmon
The Catalina Highway climbs 6,000 feet from Tucson to the top of Mount Lemmon.
When the summer temperatures rise past 100 °F (38 °C) on the desert floor, Tucsonans in the know head for Mount Lemmon. At 9,171 feet, Mt. Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the range immediately north of the city. The crest can be reached via the 27-mile-long Catalina Highway, which climbs some 6,000 feet from its starting point in northeast Tucson to near the top. This elevation difference of more than a mile often means a temperature difference of 30°F between the peak and the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
First-time visitors might be surprised to find a ski lift operating at the top of the mountain. Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley is the southernmost ski area operating in North America, with a tow rope and two lifts, one of which operates year-round to give summer visitors access to the top. The resort claims to receive 180 inches of snow per year, on average.
Visitors to the peak can grab a beer and a burger in the cluster of cabins called Summerhaven; or picnic at sites in the surrounding Coronado National Forest. Many visitors make the trek to the top of the Catalinas for a Star Party at the Mount Lemmon Observatory, one of several astronomical sites in Southern Arizona (see also Kitt Peak Solar Observatory and Mt. Wrightson). The stars appear nightly, and the view is spectacular!
There's plenty more to do in Tucson, such as drive the perimeter of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to look at the mothballed planes, watch an amazing dry thunderstorm over the Tucson Mountains in August, or bicycle the banks of Rillito Wash with a stop at Fort Lowell. And that doesn't include day trips into the surrounding mountain ranges to hike or visit ghost towns: Tucson is a fun place indeed!