North America

Tucson Arizona: The Southwest for Real

Photo credit: Arizona Office of Tourism

If you are looking for a genuine USA old west experience, Tucson, Arizona is the place to be.

Tucson is still often referred to as “The Old Pueblo”.

Located in the Southwest United States, in Southern Arizona, Tucson is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in North America. After serving as a Spanish and Mexican outpost, and then as the territorial capital for both the US and Confederate governments, Tucson (pronounced too-sawn) has grown into a modern metropolis without entirely sacrificing its historic quarters.

Tucson has always been a crossroads. The city’s history is ancient, with evidence of human occupation stretching back 10,000 years.

Today, Tucson is still a crossroads, with European, Native American, Mexican, and Asian cultures bumping into one another, in sometimes conflicting and sometimes compatible — but always interesting — ways.

Hohokam Indians lived and farmed here for 4,000 years before Spanish missionaries and soldiers arrived in the late 1600s. In the 1700s, these “newcomers” established the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson and the Mission San Xavier del Bac – the two most  iconic and historic structures in the region. “The Old Pueblo,” as the adobe-walled Tucson Presidio became known, is Tucson’s nickname to this day. 

Tucson officially was founded on August 20, 1776 – an event celebrated annually at Tucson’s birthday party, La Fiesta de San Agustín. Though once part of Mexico, Tucson officially became part of the United States in 1854. Soon after, cattle ranchers, settlers, miners, and Apache Indians began to clash, thus beginning the Wild West era of 1860-1880. With the Southern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in 1880, Tucson’s multicultural roots grew as new residents adopted customs of the Tohono O’odham Indians and Mexicans living here. In 1877, the city was incorporated, making Tucson the oldest incorporated city in Arizona.

Tucson is now the second-largest city in Arizona after the state capital Phoenix.

Photo credit: Arizona Office of Tourism/Larry D. Fellows

Boasting an average 350 sunny days a year and warm dry air, Tucson’s climate is ideal for year-round outdoor recreation. Summer days can get quite warm and are ideal for exploring the city’s excellent spas, shopping, museums, and art galleries. Summer’s cooler early mornings and late evenings temp one to dine outdoors and take part in a wealth of activities like hiking, and horseback riding and certainly golf.

It comes to mind that Tucson could also be nicknamed “naturally Arizona”.

The area just begs to be explored. Tucson is set in a Sonoran Desert valley surrounded by five mountain ranges. A trip from the 2,389-foot valley floor to the 9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon summit along the Catalina Highway-Sky Island National Scenic Byway traverses seven of the world’s nine life zones – it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada. Tucson is bordered on all sides by natural areas, including the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, and Saguaro National Park (land of the rare, giant saguaro cactus).

If you have “been there, done that” then you really should consider spending a few days here. There’s more to see and do than perhaps you imagine. And your experience here can be measured from the rustic to the sophisticated.

Tucson offers one-of-a-kind experiences for visitors interested in the “unusual” outdoors and nature, heritage and culture, arts and attractions and original Southwest-inspired dining. With lodging at hotels, resorts, spas, guest ranches, and bed and breakfasts available to satisfy all budgets and preferences, you are in for a treat.

Here are just some of the highlights to occupy your days …

Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, are the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small area of the United States, are protected in Saguaro National Park, on the edge of Tucson. Saguaro National Park has two districts. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West of Tucson. The Saguaro Wilderness Area of 71,400 acres was added in 1975. Saguaro National Park was created from these areas in 1994 and currently encompasses 91,327 acres in its two districts. The Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. The Western Tucson Mountain District is generally lower in elevation with a denser saguaro forest.

Photo credit: Arizona Office of Tourism/Todd Brenneman

The Sabino Canyon is a spectacular desert canyon cut into the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. A tram (for a fee) will take you 9 stops into the Canyon; and a separate tram will take you into Bear Canyon and to the trailhead of the popular Seven Falls Trail.

Tohono Chul Park “Tohono chul” means “desert corner” in the Tohono O’Odham’s language. There are extensive botanical exhibits explaining the native plants, and a wonderful plant-sale area in which to purchase plants for your own garden. Many kinds of desert birds frequent the area.

Tucson Botanical Gardens is a beautiful oasis in the heart of Tucson. Dating to the 1920s, the earliest buildings on the property were constructed of adobe bricks made on site. The Botanical Gardens is a place of beauty, inspiration and education about the natural world.

You should also take some time to explore Kartchner Caverns State Park. The State Park, opened in 1999, and is one of Arizona’s newest wonders. Kartchner Caverns is a stunning limestone cave system considered one of the top ten in the world. Discovered in 1974 by explorers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, and not revealed until 1988, the opportunity existed to preserve the caverns in near-pristine condition.

And while you are here, don’t miss these three fascinating sites, which one does not have the opportunity to visit “every day.”

Kitt Peak National Observatory is one hour southwest of Tucson. A “don’t miss” for the astronomy buff, there are several astronomical telescopes plus a large solar telescope. Tours are available.

Pima Air & Space Museum features some 250 historic aircraft. A separate tour, also booked at the museum, can be arranged to see the Aerospace Maintenance and Regentation Center (AMARC, aka the “Boneyard”) tour to see 4200+ stored aircraft.

The Titan Missile Museum, just south of Tucson, preserves a Cold-War-era underground silo housing an unarmed Titan-II ICBM. Part of a larger field of such silos, this was one of the places from which nuclear war on the Soviet Union would have been waged.

If you are contemplating visiting Tucson, you have, by now, taken note that the city and the environs are both a stark contrast and most unusual place to visit. to visit. So why not!? Sunshine, the great outdoors, arts and culture, the spa life, the nightlife … you may, while you are here for the first time, just begin planning your second return trip!

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