We’d wanted to visit Tucson for years, since we first heard about the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase in the early 90s. Steve was making beaded necklaces and we were collecting turquoise and other gems like crazy. Tucson became a dream, but we never got there. When we were setting up an Arizona trip last fall we knew we had to spend a few days in the southern Arizona city and started doing some research. Our time there would be limited so we had to be selective about what we visited. We came up with a list things to do in Tucson and managed to get most of them in. We want to go back and do the rest. Here are the not-to-miss Tucson sites we made it to.
Things to do in Tucson
Tohono Chul Park
We’d heard about Tohono Chul Park, whose slogan is “Where nature, art and culture connect,” from a few Arizona travel bloggers. We knew it was a must-see on our visit. Because it’s located at the northern end of the city, and was on our way from Phoenix, it was our first Tucson stop. On our way to the ticket booth I encountered two of my favorite things in life: butterflies and hummingbirds. A lot of them! If you know me well, you may know that I can spend hours watching either of these magnificent flying creatures. I could have stayed right there for hours, but we wanted to see the rest of the gardens.
Tohono Chul means “Desert Corner” in the language of the Tohono O’odham people, descendants of the Hohokam who lived in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. This seasonally changing botanical garden is a quiet spot. Even though we were there on a Sunday and the weather was lovely, it wasn’t crowded; we enjoyed strolling through the various environments, stopping to observe and photograph the beauty of this desert oasis. Gardens to visit include the Sin Agua Garden (without water), a haven for plants that thrive in desert environments; the Children’s Garden, where children can explore “private spaces and hidden surprises” on their own; the Penstemon Garden which attracts hummingbirds and the Hummingbird Garden planted with salvia, desert honeysuckle, desert willow and many other flute-shaped flowers perfect for their long beaks to access. While some species of hummingbirds have taken up year-round residence, some are only at the park seasonally.
Other gardens are the Sonoran Seasons Garden, the new Desert Palm Oasis which is now home to “several species of native palms (brahea, sabal and Washingtonia) usually found in isolated oases in narrow canyons along the coast of the Sea of Cortez near Guaymas,” and the Demonstration Garden, a place where home gardeners can get ideas for their own desert gardens. There’s also an art museum which focuses on “artworks and artifacts representative of the Nature, Art, and Culture of the Sonoran Desert Region, ranging from basketry and fiber arts to sculptural works and paintings.” There are also short term exhibitions featuring art that meets their geological criteria.
While we didn’t get to the Tohono Chul Garden Bistro, we’ve heard from friends that it’s a great place for breakfast, lunch, brunch or afternoon tea. Next time!
We stopped while watching butterflies to chat with a local woman who says she visits all the time. Tucsonans love this treasure and we can understand why. If we get back to Tucson, we’ll visit Tohono Chul again.
Exploring the Congress Street District
We wanted to meet up with Tucson writer and blogger Vera Marie Badertscher whom we’d met in Santa Fe when she was promoting her book on Navajo painter, Quincy Tahoma. We set a time for the evening we arrived. Vera suggested meeting at Proper, a downtown restaurant with an interesting Happy Hour menu. We won’t tell you about the great food as Proper closed this summer. It was on Congress Street, an interesting area with vintage buildings including the Congress Hotel, dating to 1919 and the historic Rialto Theater built a year later. In the growing dusk after we left Vera we discovered the restored Southern Pacific Railroad station, on Toole Avenue. Built in 1907, the city took the station over in 1998 and restored to its 1941 Spanish Colonial Revival incarnation. Two historic trolleys, Old Pueblo Trolley and Sun Link stop at the restored depot.
The next morning, after a tour of the historic Arizona Inn where we were staying, we took off for a half-day trip.
Mission San Xavier del Bac
We love Spanish Colonial churches and when I read about Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, I knew we had to visit. The historic mission (the oldest European building still standing in Arizona) is located on Tohono O’odham lands south of Tucson. The mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 but the current church dates to 1797. It’s a beautiful structure. We parked in the lot and two things caught my eye: the ornate baroque church reminiscent of churches we’d seen in Mexico and the stark three bell tower on the mortuary chapel just to the west of the church. The mission’s website has interesting historical and architectural information about the church and is worth reading.
Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico have Spanish Colonial era churches, but they reflect the adobe architecture that is preponderant here. We were struck by the European style reflected in San Xavier’s design. The interior of the church is stunning. There is a towering alter adorned with vividly-colored retablos and santos (carvings of saints) in spaced nichos as well as a frescoed ceiling. It’s spectacular!
There was a tour in progress and we attached ourselves to it for a while. The docent, well versed in the church’s history, and was really interesting. Sadly, we didn’t have time to do the entire 45-minute tour. We’ll definitely make time for this on our next visit to Tucson as both of us are very interested in Spanish Colonial history. The free tours, offered Monday through Saturday mornings on the half-hour (check their website for the schedule). Before you leave check out the gift shop. The Tohono O’odham are known for their basketry. I left with a lovely split-stitch basket. And, if you’re hungry, don’t leave without trying the fry bread from one of the vendors in the parking lot. We headed off to our next stop, Saguaro National Park.
An unexpected stop- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
We’re big believers in serendipity and stop when something unexpected but potentially wonderful pops up on our travels. On our way to Saguaro National Park I spotted the sign for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM). It seemed worth checking out. We had no idea that an outdoor environment encompassing a variety of ecosystems was waiting for us.
I was able, with no notice, to connect with Jessica Bright, the museum’s Event Specialist, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic young woman. She told me a bit about the museum. According to Bright, ASDM is a regionally focused museum founded in 1952. “We interpret the Sonoran Desert and all the different biotic communities you find within that,” she explained. These include mountain woodlands, desert grasslands, regional rivers and riparian corridors, the Sea of Cortez (ska the Gulf of California). The Sonoran Desert starts in southern Arizona and extends into southern California and central Mexico. Different elevations and differing rainfall create diverse landscapes and ecosystems within the desert. Plant diversity goes from desert cacti to tropical deciduous forest areas. ASDM works to recreate these. According to Price, it’s mostly an “outdoor museum.” Eighty-five percent of the museum’s 21 developed acres (they own a total of 98) are “outdoors and alive.” She calls the site “a fusion between a zoo, a botanical garden and a natural history museum.” Besides the wild outdoor areas there is a theater where they host live animal presentations, there’s an aquarium area and an art institute and gallery. The aquarium is divided into two areas: the front contains fresh water tanks with endangered and endemic species found in the Colorado and other area rivers; the back tanks are filled with salt water and house species found in the Sea of Cortez.
The outdoor area has a variety of plant and animal exhibits designed around the biotic communities. For example, in the mountain woodlands area visitors will find evergreen oak trees, pines as well as other conifers and native plants found in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Fauna you can spot if you’re lucky include mountain lions, Mexican gray wolves, black bear, deer, turkeys and thick-billed parrots. Description of each area are on the museum’s website. Besides the primary exhibit areas, the museum has a variety of gardens. You’ll find all this information both on the website and on the map you’ll get when you buy your tickets. The website also has information on the daily animal presentations. These include a raptor show; a herpetology show featuring snakes and lizards and Fur, Fangs and Feathers which features keepers working with a variety of Sonoran Desert fauna. Daily docent tours are also offered.
The two things that really caught my attention were hummingbirds and butterflies. There is a hummingbird aviary and I spent a bit of time there observing these almost always moving creatures. I also spent some time trying to photograph Monarch butterflies in one of the gardens, which is a certified way station for these beautiful orange fliers on their annual migrations to and from Mexico. I could have stayed there all afternoon.
Allow at least a minimum of two hours for your visit to ASDM; Price says four is better. The museum offer a variety of dining options from regional Southwestern cuisine at Ocotillo Café, casual food options at Ironwood Terraces, “a multi-station” food court, a coffee bar and a snack shop. You can also bring a picnic lunch. There’s a small picnic area outside the entrance area. You aren’t allowed to bring food inside the museum.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is divided into two geographical sections, thirty-four miles apart. Rincon Mountain District is on the east side of the city and the Tucson Mountain District is on the west. We visited the western one. A few saguaro facts: these cacti are found in southwestern Arizona and in the northwestern part of Sonora, Mexico. You may see a few in the southeastern California. These giants can live to 200 years old and grow to 60 feet tall. They can weigh over 4,000 pounds.
We found the Tucson Mountain area very frustrating. There was a shortage of helpful signage and while we found a parking area, we didn’t locate the visitors’ center. We would have had a way better visit if we’d found it! I later discovered that there are petroglyphs at the site that are accessed from the Signal Hill Trail. We love these rock carvings and would have loved to have seen them. As we saw saguaros all around Tucson and we didn’t want to hike in the 100 degree heat, there wasn’t much for us to do here.
West vs. East
The west offers more saguaros (there’s a forest of them) and its lower elevation creates a more desert-like environment. The eastern part of the park is more “high desert” than desert. We’re told it offers great mountain views. The Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved road you can bike or drive, offers views of the Rincon Mountains. It’s also a popular spot to view the sunset. Mostly, the eastern part of the park is unpaved and is more for hiking and backcountry camping. A walk along the one-mile Freeman Homestead Trail will give you a glimpse of what desert homesteading was like. Our advice: unless you’re looking for a place to hike through the giant saguaro cacti, want to experience the Cactus Forest Loop Drive or are looking for a great sunset viewing spot, skip Saguaro National Park.
Tired and hungry after a full day we left Saguaro National Park in search of the fabled Sonoran hot dog. It was a great end to an interesting day.
The one that got away
The one thing we missed in this area that we’d wanted to see was Tumacácori National Historical Park. It’s the site of the oldest mission in Arizona founded in 1691. If you’re a fan of mission churches, from January to March the Park Service runs a tour to two other mission ruins. It takes place on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 9 to 1. There is an additional charge above the park entrance fee and reservations must be made in advance.
What are your favorite things to do in Tucson?
Thanks to A Traveler’s Library for the use of their photo of Tumacácori Mission.
Thanks to Tohono Chul and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for extending free admission to us. Their generosity was appreciated. All opinions are our own. We always get in free to National Parks’ sites with our Senior Pass. We paid a onetime charge of $10 for it. It was the best $10 we ever spent!