The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse of the 4 major deserts found within the US. Surprisingly, a diverse range of plants and animals thrive in the harsh conditions. The Sonoran Desert is the wettest desert on Earth due to the strong summer monsoon season.
The resulting lushness of the desert is a rarity amongst others, and therefore, hiking within the Sonoran really is quite an unusual & mesmerizing experience. The iconic symbol of the Southwest, the grand Saguaro cactus, is only found in Southern Arizona and portions of California and Mexico, so taking advantage of being outdoors in this rare landscape is definitely a must during your time here.
Tucson is the more overlooked of the 2 major cities of the Sonoran Desert. While most tourists make their way to Phoenix for the posh resorts, spring training games, or simply as a starting point for exploring the state’s diverse natural wonders, Tucson tends to get passed over. While the Tucson metro area is much smaller, it also is more laid-back for anyone seeking more of a peaceful vacation in the desert.
Additionally, Tucson is a better choice for those who love the outdoors as the hiking trails are more stunning & easily accessible, desert plant life is more abundant, and the mountain vistas are more grandiose. From exploring the country’s most unique national park, to enjoying authentic Mexican fare, to shopping for handmade native products, there is a bit of something to do for everyone in Tucson.
Below I have organized a list of what I believe to be the 10 best things to do in Tucson.
Catalina State Park
One of the best places to hike within the metro area is Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, a suburb just north of Tucson. The dramatic Santa Catalina mountains provide a stunning backdrop for all the hikes. Majestic tall Saguaro cacti surround you in every single direction – over 5000 to be exact. Hiking ranges from an easy 1 mile nature stroll to an intense all day adventure on the Romero Canyon trail where you will encounter a number of seasonal swimming holes.
If hiking isn’t your thing, horseback riding and mountain biking are also popular here and due to the lack of crowds, either activity is enjoyable. Bird-watching and picnicking are yet more options for those who prefer to keep it relaxed while still basking in the dry Arizona sunshine.
Admission is just 7 bucks per car, making Catalina a nice alternative for anyone looking for a budget friendly alternative to Saguaro National Park.
Mini Time Museum of Miniatures
Tucson isn’t exactly a museum hotspot, however, there is one interesting museum that you will want to place near the top of your to-do list. At the Mini Time Museum of Miniatures, over 400 intricate miniature pieces are displayed through various antique and modern dollhouses. The amount of detail put into each work truly is an artistic achievement like no other. The patience these artists have to create such realistic detailing in these miniature pieces is simply astonishing.
Three distinct sections comprise the museum, each offering their own unique theme with gorgeous miniature pieces reflective of each. The History section features miniature collections inspired by the 17th-20th century. The Enchantment Realm features fantasy themed miniatures including various folklore legends. The Exploring the World exhibit, featuring collections inspired from around the world, is by far the most mesmerizing of the 3.
You will also find one of the oldest miniature houses in the US on display here – one that dates back to 1775!
Saguaro National park
Saguaro National Park is one of the most interesting national parks to visit, primarily due to the fact that it is home to thousands upon thousands of mesmerizing Saguaro cacti and other forms of desert plant life that you will not find anywhere else in the world. The gorgeous Saguaro cactus is native to the Sonoran Desert, and thus, only found in Southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
24 different species of cactus can be found throughout Saguaro National Park. It is such an amazing experience seeing these unusual plants up close. Tucson is home to the largest Saguaro species. Saguaros can weigh up to 6 tons and grow up to 50 feet! Their life span is really long with some living up to 250 years! The park is so massive that it is split into 2 different sections. One section offers better mountain vistas, while the other is best for those wanting to see as many cacti as possible. Fortunately, your ticket includes admission to both parks for 7 days.
Both parks offer numerous hiking trails of varying distance & difficulty, a scenic loop drive, and ongoing programs. The Rincon Mountain District is my preferred park as they have a really nice scenic paved drive and the trails here are all well marked & maintained. Plus, they have a really nice visitor’s center and ongoing specialty events where you can learn all sorts of unique things including how to harvest water from a cactus!
The Tucson Mountain district on the other hand is nearby a number of other touristy attractions like Old Tucson, so you can combine a few to save yourself the hassle of driving around Tucson (it’s not fun with all the stop lights!).
Obviously, taking weather into consideration should be the major factor in planning your trip. Spring or winter is the best time weather-wise to ensure that you avoid the 100+ daytime heat. However, you must be aware that it is extremely dry during the winter months, so bring plenty of extra water to avoid serious dehydration.
Mercado San Agustin
The Mercado is a public open-air marketplace just outside of downtown Tucson. This great little gathering area features a number of restaurants, authentic Mexican bakeries, a wonderful coffee shop, and a few local shops.
Seis Kitchen serves up the most delicious breakfast tacos and burritos you will find anywhere in the city. Presta Coffee Roasters is a wonderful local coffee shop. La Estrella is a really popular bakery which serves up the best authentic Mexican pastries in town. Agustin Kitchen is a classy French restaurant which uses locally sourced ingredients for all their dishes.
Mercado in general is just a great place to enjoy a leisurely brunch or meet up with friends or exercise groups. The vibe is casual and relaxing with a beautiful shared old-world style courtyard amongst the businesses. It’s heavily treed so perfect for the hot summer season. Many cyclists and hikers swing by for a nice hearty breakfast at Mercado before hitting nearby trails like Tumanoc Hill. It’s definitely the best place in the city for coffee and brunch in a beautiful atmosphere.
On going events include farmer’s markets and special antique markets.
Bowen Hidden Canyon trail
The Bowen Hidden Canyon trail is an easy 2 mile loop within Tucson Mountain Park, a huge 20,000 acre park which is home to 62 miles of trails. The trail begins at the beautiful JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort. Even if you are not staying at this resort, it is absolutely worth making the trek out here for this quiet picturesque trail.
Surprisingly, this amazing trail sees very little foot traffic. The scenery is absolutely beautiful and wildlife is plentiful. Be on the lookout for bobcats early in the morning -we have seen several crossing the road! The peacefulness and solitude you will experience on this trail really sets it apart from most of the others in the Tucson area. There are lots of Saguaro and nice overviews of the mountains the entire trek.
The drive over is beautiful too with towering cacti covered mountains in the distance. The trail is short and moderately easy, and thus, anyone of basic physical ability should be able to complete this one. Be aware -there is no shade, so this one is best suited for the summer season. Another bonus of choosing this trail is that it is just 10 minutes away from Mercado San Agustin, so you can treat yourself to a great breakfast prior to your hike.
The Fox Theater
The gorgeous Fox Theater stands out as the shining centerpiece of downtown Tucson, and thus, is known as the “Crown Jewel.” This building is on the National Historic Register due to its’ impressive Southwestern Art Deco design. This historic theater opened back in 1930 and continues on to this day as a place where the community can attend various events and enjoy screenings of classic films. The holiday season is the best time to plan your visit as they always screen wonderful classics like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.
If you are seeking something fun to do in the downtown Tucson area, the Fox Theater should definitely top your list. Breakfast at Maynards at the historic train depot or at Cup Cafe inside the historic Hotel Congress are 2 great options to consider before your visit to the theater.
Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway/Hiking in the Pines
Take a drive up the gorgeous Catalina Highway, also known as the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway, is a must-do for anyone wanting to really take in the diverse scenery found throughout southern Arizona. This 30 mile drive begins just outside the city and travels thousands of feet in elevation, taking you through a variety of landscapes, from the Saguaro studded desert up into the towering ponderosa pine forests.
Mt Lemmon is known as a Sky Island, of which there are numerous in the states of Arizona and New Mexico. A sky island is basically an isolated mountain which is surrounded by lower elevated areas consisting of dramatically different natural ecosystems. When you arrive at the top of the road you will reach a small community called Summerhaven.
Here you will find numerous hiking trails, a scenic ski chairlift ride in the summer, and a handful of restaurants. A bit of foliage in the fall and snow (there is a seasonal ski resort) in the winter means you can enjoy some seasonal activities no matter when you plan your visit.
The great thing about Mt Lemmon is that the summer temperatures are typically about 20 degrees lower due to the drastic difference in elevation (2000 in Tucson vs 8000 at the base), so if you need a break from the intense Tucson summertime heat, a trip to Mt Lemmon is definitely the way to go. In terms of summer hiking options, the trails of Mt Lemmon are definitely the most attractive this time of year.
Tumanoc Hill is the local’s favorite in terms of easily accessible trails located right in the city. This beautiful piece of land is owned by the University of Arizona’s Science department. Tumanoc Hill is a great choice for anyone looking for a challenge.
The steep 1.5 mile climb, which involves a 700 foot elevation climb, really works your entire body. Fortunately, for your effort you will be rewarded with magnificent views of the city and surrounding mountains, not to mention a sense of accomplishment in completing such a difficult task.
Beautiful saguaros and other forms of desert plant life line the paved trail. The path is wide and accommodates the big crowds that are drawn here every day for the intense beauty. The trail gets much steeper at the halfway point and many choose to stop here. I recommend challenging yourself to complete the entire walk – the views are even more gorgeous at the top! Although a water fountain is located at the halfway point, I recommend bringing a full bottle to refill at this point due to the super dry climate.
This trail is conveniently located near downtown so you can stop at the wonderful Mercado San Agustin and fill up on a hearty breakfast at Seis before your workout.
B and B Cactus Garden
B and B Cactus Farm is a really unique place to visit in Tucson, especially if you are interested in seeing a huge variety of cacti plants. This beautiful 2 acre garden is home to the most diverse variety of cacti plants you could ever imagine. The owners have been in business for 30 years and are very knowledgeable about anything cacti related. They can answer any question you may possibly have, plus they give you a handy little printout of instructions detailing the care of your new plant.
There are so many different species of cacti available here, including rare varieties you may never have seen before. Cacti of all different sizes, at all different price points are available. They also have a nice selection of colorful pottery pieces on-site. They take care to package every plant perfectly and can even ship your purchase to your home so you do not have to try to cram it into your suitcase!
Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
The Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state of Arizona. This combination zoo, botanical gardens, aquarium, and history museum, is a nice place for those who want to enjoy the beautiful outdoors and also learn more about the history of the Sonoran Desert. The 100 acre museum nicely integrates both a zoo & botanical area in with the natural landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
While the botanical gardens are nice enough, regular hikers like myself likely will not find the scenery all that impressive as you can see the same plants on the trails around the metro in a much more natural setting, with the advantage of spending less money. For new visitors, the gardens are a nice introduction to the variety of plant species native to the Sonoran Desert.
There are 2 miles of walking paths through diverse desert habitats and lots of wildlife to see including mountain lions and bobcats. The aquarium is very nice considering it’s not the primary focus. Also, the extensive mineral collection in the Earth Sciences Center is pretty impressive.
Other fun things to do
Here are a few additional attractions to check out if you have extra time
Sabino Canyon – Sabino Canyon is a nice choice for any non-hikers who still want to enjoy the beautiful desert scenery. The hiking trails are much nicer at Catalina, Saguaro, and various other free trails throughout town. The benefit of visiting Sabino is taking the narrated 3 mile tram ride, in which you will learn all about the desert ecosystem and maybe even see some wildlife along the way (we saw rattlesnakes and a coati). The ride is relaxing and educational, and therefore, great for tourists who wish to take it easy on vacation.
Reid Park Zoo – Tucson’s zoo is pretty small at just 24 acres, although nicely landscaped and pretty affordable compared to most zoos. It’s worth a look if you are going to be in town for a while and are looking for more to do, however, the attractions mentioned above are definitely more worthy of your time. Be sure to visit adjacent Reid Park, a beautiful community park featuring several ponds, a seasonal rose garden, and a pretty walking path.
Rillito River bike path/Heirloom Farmer’s market – The Rillito River Path is a paved 12 mile recreational path which is also part of a series of connected trails (over 100 miles) throughout the city of Tucson known as “The Loop.” This trail is very flat and fast and really popular with all types of athletes including joggers, walkers, and bikers. It’s a great place to escape the suburban congestion and get in a fresh workout in the natural surroundings.
Additionally, every Sunday a huge Farmer’s Market is held at Rillitio River Park. Local farmers selling fresh produce and dairy products as well as beauty products are all on-site. Combining a relaxing walk/ride on the path with a visit to the market is the perfect healthy Sunday activity.
Linda Vista trail – This is a great little local trail in Oro Valley in a most unexpected location, right next to an apartment complex. This gorgeous loop trail is just short of a mile and features spectacular views of the Catalina Mountains. It’s also one of the top places in town to see wildlife, with frequent bobcat sightings. If you are looking for a quick easy trail with beautiful natural surroundings, it doesn’t get much better than the Linda Vista trail. And best part of all, it’s completely free to park here!
If you are looking for even more to do, here are my 10 favorite daytrips from Tucson