Tucson, Arizona is a mesmerizing Southwestern vacation destination. For anyone who appreciates the rare beauty of the desert, Tucson is one of the best places for exploring the exotic fauna and flora up close. Located within the Sonoran desert, Tucson is one of the few places in the world where you can awe at the stately Saguaro cactus. You will find no shortage of the iconic symbol of the Southwest in Tucson.

A number of fantastic hiking trails, most easy to moderate in intensity, will take you on a journey amongst these incredible towering plants. Tucson is a much more laid-back vacation destination in comparison to nearby Phoenix, and thus, the preferred choice if you are willing to sacrifice some entertainment, in exchange for top knotch mountain scenery and tranquility. Four gorgeous mountain ranges surround the city of Tucson. And thus, the recreational opportunities in Tucson are basically endless.

There’s much more to do outside of the natural wonders. For one, Tucson’s foodie scene continues to expand. The “23 best miles of Mexican food” can be found right here in Tucson. Shopping for handcrafted Southwestern specialities is also a must while in town. The art scene in Tucson continues to thrive, as well. The Fox theater is one of the most gorgeous in the country. Add in a handful of interesting museums, weekend art fairs, improv theaters, and art & theater lovers will also be pleasantly surprised.

Below is a sample 3 day itinerary for exploring this desert oasis. There is so much to do and see in “The Old Pueblo” that it would be near impossible to focus on everything. Therefore, this list exists only as a helpful guide to exploring some of the best-of-the-best this Southwestern gem has to offer!

Day 1 in The Old Pueblo

3:00pm – Check into the JW Marriott Starr Pass resort. There are lots of nice resorts basically everywhere you turn in Tucson. JW Marriott, although quite secluded, stands out for its’ breathtaking scenery, lush landscaping, top notch resort pool with lazy river, fabulous spa, and spectacular on-site hiking trail. If you are looking for serenity and extraordinary desert scenery, JW Marriott does not disappoint.

Stunning views along the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail in Tucson
Hiking at the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail at the JW Marriott Starr Pass resort

4:00pm – Enjoy some of the resort’s fantastic amenities. There is a Starbucks on-site with nice views if you need a caffeine boost. Other convenient amenities include several restaurants, bars, and an award winning golf course.

6:00pm – Because you are in such close proximity to downtown, you will want to check out some attractions and restaurants in the vicinity. A few good dining choices downtown include Caruso’s Italian, Cup Cafe, Maynard’s, and 47 Scott. If you feel like exploring a bit more, there are plenty of interesting things to do downtown. Check out 10 of my favorite downtown attractions.

Pictured here is an excellent lasagna dish from Caruso’s, the best mac and cheese in town at 47 Scott, delicious wood-fired pizza at Reilly’s, and a savory Baked Eggs dish at Maynard’s.

Pictured below are a few fun things to do downtown. From the left – old-fashioned pinball games at D&D, the gorgeous Fox Theater, The Tucson Museum of Art, and a mocha at Exo Roast (best coffee in town).

*If you arrive back before dusk, I would attempt to squeeze in a hike along the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail. This is one of Tucson’s most stunning trails. And hidden it is, as I have yet to see more than a few hikers on the trail at a time. Bobcats, on the other hand, are frequently sighted especially at dawn and dusk. At just over a mile long for the loop, it’s one of the few which is tolerable during the summer season.

8:00pm – Head back to the resort and relax for a bit. There are a number of bars and the pool stays open reasonably late. Stargazing is also a popular pastime, as Tucson is one of the best places in the country for doing so. Take advantage of the mild desert night temps! Whether stargazing, enjoying a drink poolside, or simply relaxing in the pool, there is much to do on-site!

Day 2 in The Old Pueblo

Sunrise hike along Tumanoc Hill in Tucson, AZ

Get up early to take advantage of the cooler desert morning air. Surprisingly, temps are quite mild in the early morning hours, even during the brutal summer season. Expect 70’s or so during the summer, and 50’s-60’s any other time of the year. Early morning is the time when you will want to plan any of your outdoor excursions.

7:00am – Start your day off with a wonderful breakfast at Seis Kitchen, the best Mexican restaurant in town. They serve amazing breakfast tacos and burritos. Bonus – they are located within the beautiful Mercado San Agustin shared use outdoor courtyard. While you are here, you can also enjoy a cup of locally roasted coffee from Presta.

The setting here is casual so feel free to wear your workout apparel – you will be in good company with local cyclists and hikers.

8:00am – After breakfast make your way over to Sabino Canyon, highly regarded as one of the Southwest’s best attractions. Alternative: if you are not up for a lengthy drive, consider hiking up Tumanoc Hill. Located just a few minutes from Mercado, it’s an awesome place for a great workout and wonderful views. It’s a toughy but a motivating journey to the scenic ending viewpoint!

On the left, a gorgeous viewpoint at Sabino. On the right, the breathaking vista after climbing Tumanoc Hill.

Sabino canyon is located within the beautiful Santa Catalina mountains. Numerous plants and animals call the canyon home. If you are lucky you may see a bobcat, gila monster, or coatimundi. And, pretty much guaranteed, you will see more cacti than you’ve ever seen before!

Hopefully you do not see one of these!

The prime attraction at Sabino Canyon is a picturesque 3.5 mile paved route, which was once used for tram tours. Unfortunately, the narrated tram rides are closed until further notice. On the bright side, you can walk the route and enjoy all the fabulous scenery minus all the congestion. Note: the way up is pretty steep, although you can turn around at any point if you tire.

A few views along the paved trail at Sabino

Walking path at Sabino Canyon
The steep climb up the paved trail.
Saguaro at Sabino Canyon in Tucson AZ
Hiking a trail at Sabino Canyon in Tucson AZ
Hiking one of the trails at Sabino – numerous trails are located throughout the park.

*Shorter interpretive nature trails exist. For those who prefer to explore the desert in a less challenging & more informative environment, this is the way to go.

Great views along the nature trail!

Noon – After subjecting yourself to the heat and busting your butt, you will probably be ready for lunch (in an air conditioned setting!). There are not a whole lot of restaurants in the immediate vicinity, as the canyon is isolated. Hence, I would pick something near your next attraction. The Mini Time Museum of Miniatures is a must-see while in town. Grab a quick bite in the area and then proceed on to this renowned attraction.

At the Mini Time Museum, you will be able to explore hundreds of intricate dollhouses. This hidden gem is frequently rated amongst the best museums in the country!

La Placita Cafe is a hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant. Other decent choices near the museum include Vero Amore (great wood-fired pizza), Oregano’s (excellent Arizona chain featuring Chicago style pizza), and Beyond Bread (delicious local Panera Bread-esque chain). After lunch treat yourself to the most delicious gelato at Frost. This local company started in Tucson, and has since expanded all over the country.

From the left, chimichanga at La Placita, woodfired pizzas at Vero Amore, all-you-can-eat marinara bowl at Oregano’s and a hummus sandwich with homemade tomato soup at Beyond Bread.

Do not leave Tucson without trying Frost gelato! The Dark chocolate pictured below is one of the best desserts you will ever try!

3:00pm – Head back to the resort and take some time to recover from your hike. The pool here is really great with a waterslide and a relaxing lazy river. The views are pretty fantastic as well. And, there’s a poolside dining area where you can order drinks and light snacks.

5:00pm – Head over to Saguaro National Park. This massive park is split into 2 sections, one on the East side of Tucson, the other on the West. The drive over to either is spectacular with wide open views of the desert. The Eastern section is a bit more scenic and much bigger, however, the West section is closer and better for sunset gazing. Plus, they have a great visitor’s center with an amazing overlook of the cacti. There are several super short trails here, as well as a scenic drive.

800 yr old pictographs at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ
800 year old petroglyphs along the Signal Hill trail.

Cacti Heaven!

Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona

Other popular attractions nearby the park include Old Tucson and the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. Both are often considered tourist traps, although the desert museum is nice if you would like to learn more about the unique desert ecosystem. Additionally, Gates Pass is an amazing place for a sunset. Really, no matter what, you cannot leave Tucson without visiting one of America’s most unusual and visually spectacular national parks!

To the left, one of many unique cactus gardens at the Sonoran Museum. To the right, the gorgeous Gates Pass overlook. Both of these attractions are conveniently on the same road as the National Park.

8:00pm – Head back to the resort and enjoy another relaxing night under the clear desert skies! Check the resort’s lineup of events. Typically, they have something interesting on the lineup no matter when your visit falls.

Day 3 in The Old Pueblo

6:00am – Get up early once again to take advantage of those beautiful dry, cool desert mornings. I recommend making the drive over to Oro Valley, a beautiful suburb about 20 minutes north of Tucson. The gorgeous Catalina mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this tranquil town. Catalina State Park is one of the best hiking spots in the area, and much cheaper & less crowded than the national park.

Catalina mountains in Oro Valley, Arizona

7:00am – Start your day with breakfast at First Watch, conveniently located just down the street from Catalina. This popular health conscious chain serves amazing food & coffee. They have a gorgeous shady patio facing the mountains. If you prefer to try out a local coffeeshop, Savaya is right across the street from Catalina. This wonderful local roaster serves excellent single origin coffees, and features a beautiful patio facing the mountains.

On the left, a delicious veggie skillet at First Watch. On the right, the gorgeous patio facing the Catalinas.

Savaya coffee in Tucson – a great setting both inside and out!

8:00am – Hike the Canyon Loop trail at Catalina State Park. This 2 mile loop is just long enough for a quality workout, yet not super exhausting. It’s a must to keep your hikes minimal during the hot summer season. You do not have to hike far to appreciate the serene desert beauty. You will still see plenty of Saguaro cacti and the mountain views here really cannot be beat.

On a budget? Consider the free Linda Vista trail located just down the street. This easy 1 mile stroll features scenery very similar to that found at Catalina.

Beautiful Saguaro cactus and mountain views from the Linda Vista trail in Oro Valley, AZ

9:00am – On your way back to the resort, stop by The Happy Saguaro. This locally owned Southwestern shop specializes in authentic Mexican pottery and crafts. I found myself coming back here time and time again during my years living in Tucson.

11:00am – Enjoy a quick lunch at the resort’s Signature Grill before leaving Tucson. If weather permits, the patio here is quite beautiful. Lunch includes a lineup of salads, sandwiches, and tacos. Also they are well known for their fry bread served alongside green chile hummus!

*Notes

This itinerary is based on a summer visit. While unbearably hot at times, the summer is still the best time to visit Tucson. First off, you get more time to explore as the sun sets later. Second, pricing at all resorts is much cheaper. And third, crowds are virtually non existent. If you get up early enough and focus on outdoor activities early on in the day, it’s a great time to visit.

My personal opinion is that no visit to Tucson would be complete without exploring the wonderful hiking trails. Nevertheless, there are ways to enjoy the majestic desert scenery without hiking. One option is to replace the trip to Sabino Canyon with a drive up Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway.

From cacti to pine trees within a half hour!

This gorgeous 30 mile road travels from the lower Saguaro studded desert up to the high altitude pine forests of Summerhaven. Gorgeous drive and perfect for the summer season as the temps at the top are at least 20 degrees cooler. Here you can also enjoy a scenic chairlift ride at Mt. Lemmon ski resort.

The Chairlift ride is a great way to soak in the high altitude scenery. Tip: Breakfast at the Iron Door includes 2 free lift rides!

A few helpful tips

  • Check the resort website for special offers. They frequently offer advance purchase deals and attractive amenity packages.
  • If saving is your primary goal, plan for a summer visit when resort prices are typically at their lowest.
  • Consider purchasing the Tucson Attractions passport. For just $22, you will receive discounted admission to many attractions. 2 for 1 deals are offered to various places of interest including the Tucson Museum of Art, Mini Time Museum, the Fox Theater, and many other places.
  • Be prepared for random monsoon storms during the summer. Fortunately, these intense storms are usually short lived and help to cool the air a bit.