Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona, with over 541,811 residents. However, it seems small when compared to the population of Arizona’s capitol. Phoenix has a population of over 1, 500,000 people.  If you don’t know how to spell Tucson, you’re not alone.  The city ranks #2 on a list of the Top 10 Most Misspelled City Names.  The word Tucson means “black base” in Spanish and refers to the volcanic mountains on the west side of the city.

Incorporated in 1877, Tucson  is Arizona’s oldest city. Tucson and nineteen other Arizona cities were incorporated long before Arizona officially became a state in 1912. The city’s history began much earlier, as long as 4,000 years before, when Native Americans began farming in the area at the base of Sentinel Peak. At a height of 2,897 feet, the Peak provided the Spanish with a lookout point over the entire city when it was a part of New Spain. Today the Peak is known as “A” mountain for the A that was whitewashed onto the top by the 1915 University of Arizona football team.

Retirement communities abound in Tucson AZ.
Credit: Pravin.Premkumar

Snow and Monsoons in Tucson?

Arizona is often considered a flat state, however even the lowest point in the state, Yuma, stands at 70 feet above sea level.  Tucson has an elevation of 2,389 feet and is surrounded by no fewer than four mountain ranges.  They include:  the Santa Catalina, Santa Rita, Tucson and Rincon Mountains.  Mount Lemmon is the highest peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  At an elevation of 9,157 feet, it stands 6,000 feet above Tucson. A winding road, one of only 100 in the nation to be officially named as a National Scenic Byway, leads to the top.  It passes through several different climate zones, beginning in the Sonoran Desert and ending in cool pine forests. Temperatures at the top are as much as 30 degrees cooler than in the city of Tucson.   The summit is home to the southernmost ski resort in the United States.

Tucson averages 350 days of sunshine per year, with an average year round temperature of 83 degrees.  Between the months of May and September, the average high heats up between 90 and over 100 degrees.  While the average low temperature dips to only about 55, December’s low temperatures often  hover at 40 degrees. Unlike many areas of the country, Tucson has four seasons, the fifth is monsoon season each year from June 15th to September 30th each year. During this time, Tucson experiences extreme weather such as wind and dust storms, flash floods and lightning storms. The city often receives close to half of the annual rainfall total during monsoon season.

Night view of Tucson as seen from Sentinel Peak aka "A" Mountain.
Credit: by bill85704

Home to the Stanford University of the Southwest

Tucson is home to the state’s first university, the University of Arizona.  In 1885, residents were more interested in receiving $100,000 to serve as the location for a state insane asylum. Unfortunately, Phoenix was chosen for the insane asylum. To build a university,Tucson received only $25,000. The idea had little appeal for residents of Tucson at the time. Arizona was not a state, had only a few elementary schools and not one single high school.

The Legislature provided no land for a university site. A local Tucson businessman located some available land and convinced the owners (2 gamblers and the owner of a saloon) to donate the 40 acre parcel of desert to the University. Although construction began in 1887, the $25,000 didn’t go far and it took a long time for the city to receive the money to finish construction. The first classes were held October 1, 1891.  Two majors were offered - agriculture and mining.

The University of Arizona still uses the first building, known as Old Main, today. However, the campus has grown to include 180 buildings and offers degrees in 300 different fields. In 2009, the school received research grants totaling $530 million.

The College of Optical Science Building at the University of Arizona.
Credit: Drab Makyo

Planes, Military Secrets and A Mission

Many unique museums in Tucson offer experiences that are unique to the city.  One of the largest air and space museums in the world is located here. Visitors can see over 300 air and spacecraft from the United States and around the world at the Pima County Air and Space Museum. The museum is located on what is known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), also known as the "Boneyard," next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The aircraft collection includes planes highlighting over 100 years of aviation history. Many rare aircraft can be viewed including: a Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” and the only remaining Martin PBM-51 “Mariner”.

Experience a piece of Cold War era history by visiting the Titan Missile Museum located just outside Tucson. This former Titan II Missile Site offers the only opportunity for the public to see an actual Titan II missile. This National Historic Landmark was at one time a top secret military installation.  When the site was operational, it was one of 54 Titan II Missile sites which remained on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to protect the US against a nuclear attack from 1963 and 1987.

Another historical site, the Mission San Xavier del Bac is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The mission was completed in 1797 when Southern Arizona was still a part of New Spain. 200,000 visitors come each year to tour this National Historic Landmark which is considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

View of the now inactive Titan Missile in the silo.
Credit: jmuhles

A Uniquely Appealing Spot for a Visit or Retirement

A unique miniature museum, the Mini-Time Machine, hopes to transport visitors to a variety of eras through the stories and history which accompany the tiny pieces on display. The collection includes more than 275 miniature houses, room boxes and other items collected by the museum's founders. The Enchanted Realm includes woodland creatures, snow villages and fairy castles. The History Gallery includes one of the oldest miniature houses in the US, dating to 1775. The museum features antique and contemporary miniatures. Exploring the World showcases miniatures created by artisans from many other countries. Special tours for schools and miniature making classes are also offered.

Tucson is also home to The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which includes a zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden. Over 300 animal species and 1,200 kinds of plants, native to the Sonoran Desert occupy the museum’s 21 acres. The museum even  houses the first and only important dinosaur skeleton to be discovered in Southern Arizona. A unique cave on the property displays gems, minerals and fossils from the Sonoran Desert region. Almost 85% of the museum is located outside. Special tours are offered throughout the year.

Raptor Free Flight Experience with a Great Horned Owl at the Sonoran Desert Museum.
Credit: Svadilfari

By 1900, 7,531 people lived in the city. At about this time, the US Veterans Administration had begun construction on the present Veterans Hospital. Many veterans were gassed during World War I and needed respiratory therapy. They began coming to Tucson after the war, due to the clean, dry air.

Tucson's climate continues to make the city a popular retirement community. According to AARP, the city ranks second in the nation for the number of senior residents over the age of 75 and number of suburban, senior residents age 55 to 64. Even more people flock to the area for vacations and extended stays during the cold winter months in North America. Tucson, AZ's weather, natural beauty, educational opportunities and rich history offer a variety of experiences that can't be found anywhere else. You can learn more about popular retirement communities in Tucson and Phoenix by reading: Arizona Retirement Communities: Find Your Place in the Sun.

A view from Mount Lemmon.
Credit: Jake Wasdin
Mission San Xavier del Bac is being renovated to protect the integrity of this historic structure.
Credit: Ken Lund
The Saguaro Cactus Towers Over Most Other Desert Plants.
Credit: Ken Lund