by Blake Herzog
Day trips are wonderful, and you may be taking more of them this year in lieu of longer jaunts. But they can be even better when there isn’t much driving required to hit a big change of pace.
Consider Tucson, about an hour’s drive from Casa Grande and 90 minutes from Maricopa. It has the attractions and amenities of a metro area of more than a million people with historic charm and natural beauty that’s hard to top anywhere.
And it’s not Phoenix. It isn’t covered by a web of freeways, so you actually get to see the city as you drive around. And what a city it is. Founded in 1775, it’s one of the oldest in the United States and hasn’t forgotten the multicultural history that’s melded into one of the most unique destinations of the Southwest.
A little bit urban, a little bit country but entirely its own beast as it rolls through the lush desert foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and other surrounding ranges, Tucson’s attractions and overall vibe warrants at least a day of your time — and it’s got the same glorious winter weather as here!
These are just a few of the Old Pueblo’s must-sees, as noted on www.visittucson.org
(Note: As of press time all these attractions are open with COVID-19-related restrictions in place.)
Saguaro National Park
Rincon Mountain (East) District: 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail / Tucson Mountain (West) District: 2700 N. Kinney Road / 520-733-5153 / www.nps.gov/sagu
The 143-square-mile park is split into two districts on either side of Tucson. It’s known as the largest home and protected area for the Sonoran Desert’s iconic saguaros, with the largest stands found in the west district. In addition to a broad expanse of desert, the east district features mountainous regions — some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level — where pine and coniferous forests form a canvas of greenery. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna, including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road / 520-883-1380 / www.desertmuseum.org
This place will turn your idea of a museum inside out. Guests will enjoy a quintessential Sonoran Desert experience that includes an unforgettable zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum, aquarium and art gallery. Explore 21 acres with 2 miles of walking trails. Highlights include Stingray Touch, the Hummingbird Aviary, Warden Aquarium and the Earth Sciences Center where guests descend into a replica limestone cave. Live presentations that showcase a variety of desert animals, including the seasonal Raptor Free Flights.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
1950 W. San Xavier Road / 520-294-2624 / www.sanxaviermission.org
Acclaimed as the finest example of mission architecture in the U.S., San Xavier is just southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Nation. This treasured building is almost as old as Tucson itself and the center of an active parish and is complemented by a gift/arts and crafts shop. Constructed of low-fire clay brick, stone and lime mortar, the entire structure is roofed with masonry vaults, making it unique among Spanish Colonial buildings within U. S. borders.
Pima Air & Space Museum
6000 E. Valencia Road / 520-574-0462 / www.pimaair.org
The Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world, featuring more than 350 historical aircraft from a Wright Flyer to a 787 Dreamliner. Sitting on 80 acres, the museum opened its doors to the public in May 1976. Over the past quarter-century, the museum has grown immensely and today encompasses six indoor exhibit hangars (three dedicated to World War II) with a total of 250,000 square feet of interior display space.
Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block Expansion
130 N. Main Ave, Tucson / 520-624-2333 / www.tucsonmuseumofart.org
Take a journey through art, history, and culture at the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. Located in the historic downtown, the museum features western, Latin American, and modern and contemporary art exhibitions as well as five historic houses that provide visitors with a unique look into Tucson’s past.
This year the museum opened its newest wing, the Kasser Family Wing of Latin American Art, and a renovated outdoor plaza and sculpture. The 6,000-square-foot wing features an open floor plan and five galleries with natural light, highlighting pre-Columbian works, modern and contemporary Latin American art including new acquisitions by Enrique Martínez Celaya and Monica Aissa Martinez, and Spanish Colonial art created in the 17th through 19th centuries.
5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road / 520-749-8700 / https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coronado/recarea/?recid=80532
Many locals call this their second home. Here you will find outstanding scenery that features steep rock cliffs and unique desert vegetation adjacent to riparian corridors. The wonders of the desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains are marvelous and accessible. You may get lucky and view a Gila monster, bobcat, Gambel’s quail, eastern collard lizard, gopher snake, and more. Due to winter snowmelt and summer storms, Sabino Creek flows almost year-round.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures
4455 E. Camp Lowell Drive / 520-881-0606 / www.theminitimemachine.org
Discover the magical world of miniatures at The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, where visitors are seemingly transported to different lands and times through the stories told by over 300 miniature houses and room boxes, expertly displayed in over 10,000 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibit space. The Museum’s permanent collection boasts antique dollhouses dating to 1742, contemporary fine-scale miniatures and enchanting collectibles. Frequent temporary exhibits, special programs and events mean there is always something new to see.
Current exhibits include 19th Century Ladies’ Fashion, Miniature Silver: The Helen Goodman Luria Collection and Miniature Military Figures by Joe Seibold.
311 E. Congress St. / 520-622-8848 / www.hotelcongress.com
This historic hotel is located in the heart of downtown Tucson’s East End, with 39 second-floor rooms that retain their timeless appeal with vintage radios and antique iron beds. A fully operational 1930s-era switchboard and the rumble of occasional trains contribute to the ambiance. Guests and visitors can enjoy the beautiful lobby, dine in the award-winning Cup Café, or enjoy a show at Club Congress. Congress Street and its vicinity serve as downtown’s cultural core, with the excitement of concrete-and-glass skyscrapers aligning with colorful barrio dwellings and preserved historic sites.