Daytrippin’ through the Desert: 10 incredible places in Southern Arizona
Tucson is a wonderful Southwestern city with so much to offer. Beautiful resorts, world-class golfing, amazing hiking, and some of the best Mexican food in the country, can all be enjoyed on any vacation to “the Old Pueblo.” However, if you are up for something a bit more adventurous, there are plenty of interesting sights within a short drive of the city.
Tucson is the perfect base for exploring all the wonders of Southern Arizona. So, hop in your car and get ready to embark on an adventure of a lifetime through the enchanting Sonoran Desert. As one of the most diverse and visually beautiful states in the country, a roadtrip through Southern Arizona is anything but boring.
Here are 10 fabulous natural & historical sites, all within an easy 1-2 hour drive of the city limits.
Daytrip 1: Chiricahua National Monument
- Distance from Tucson: 1 hour, 45 min.
- Location: E Bonita Canyon Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643. Hours: 8:30am-4:30pm.
- Admission is free!
- Tip: Visit outside of the hot summer season!
- More info on Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua, or “The Wonderland of Rocks” as it is aptly nicknamed, is the most worthwhile daytrip from Tucson. Chiricahua is a true underrated treasure – a magnificent natural wonderland where you can see ancient hoodoos and rock spires. A relatively unheard of park, this place remains incredibly quiet despite the immense beauty. Chiricahua is a place where you can forget about everything for a bit as you wander through the exoticness of the desert.
The unusual rock formations are said to be a result of a volcanic eruption 27 million years ago.
17 miles of hiking trails along with an 8 mile scenic drive lend to endless opportunity to explore. However, the park is so much more than just incredible scenery. Various plant and wildlife inhabit the area. Black bears are often sighted during the summer months. Also be on the lookout for the coatimundi, a relative of the racoon which frequents the Sonoran desert. As for the best intro hike, The Echo Canyons Grottos trail is a moderate 1 mile trek which offers a glimpse into the various rock formations. The 1/2 mile interpretative Masai Nature trail is another great choice for beginners.
A few of the extraordinary views from the trails…
Where to eat: Bring with a picnic lunch so you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings longer. Chiricahua is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet lunch in an incredible natural setting. As an alternative, check out one of these fantastic Tucson breakfast restaurants before hitting the road.
What to see along the way: The drive over to Chiricahua will take you through the small town of Benson, home to the historic “The Thing” roadside attraction. You can’t miss the hundreds of billboards along the way enticing you to see just what is “the thing.” For this quirky attraction, you will pay a buck to see a mystery sight. There’s also a really neat store on-site where you can purchase wacky Southwestern attractions.
Daytrip 2: Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
- Distance from Tucson: The drive starts about 20 min outside of the city (Take Tanque Verde Rd to Catalina Hwy).
- Tip: Save this one for the summer! This is one of the few Tucson area attractions which is actually better during the spring/summer season. Wintertime roads are often closed and summer offers the additional benefits of outdoor dining, comfortable 80 degree temps, & chairlift rides!
- More info on Mt Lemmon
Mt Lemmon is an incredible “Sky Island” which towers up 9157 feet. Sky island is the term given to an isolated mountain which is surrounded by lower elevated areas with completely different landscapes. Mt Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina range, receives over 200 inches of snow per year!
The 27 mile long Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is one of the most scenic drives in the Southwest. Starting at an altitude around 2000 feet and eventually topping out around 8000 feet, the change in both landscape and temperature is just incredible.
When you begin the drive, you are amongst fields of dazzling Saguaro cacti. Near the middle of the drive, you pass by exotic hoodoos as the mountain views become more enchanting. And, finally near the 8000 ft mark, you enter the beautiful lush green pine forests. However, an increase in greenery is not the only advantage here. The temperatures at the top are typically 20-30 degrees cooler than Tucson. As you can imagine, Mt Lemmon is pretty darn popular during Tucson’s relentless 100+ degree seemingly never ending summer season.
From cacti to pines in 30 minutes…Only in Arizona!
Once arriving at the base town of Summerhaven, numerous recreational activities abound. In the summer, take a picturesque chairlift ride at Mt Lemmon Ski Valley. In winter, consider snowshoeing or taking a ski lesson. When fall rolls around, you will be able to enjoy the only leaf peeping in the region, and the variety of foliage does not disappoint. Any time of year is great for enjoying the diversity of trails. Here are a few Mt Lemmon trails to incorporate into your plans.
The gorgeous Meadow trail offers a glimpse of green not found anywhere else in the vicinity.
A lovely autumn walk along the Aspen Draw trail…
A chairlift ride at the Ski resort…the most relaxing way to take in the gorgeous pine scenery!
Suggested itinerary: Brunch at the Iron Door restaurant (you will receive 2 free lift tickets), Chairlift ride at Mt Lemmon ski resort, Hike the Aspen Trail/Marshall Gulch Loop, enjoy a picnic in the park, treat yourself to a giant cookie topped with a scoop of ice cream at The Cookie Cabin.
Daytrip 3: Saguaro National Park
- Distance from Tucson: 30 minutes (West District), 1 hour (East district).
- Location: 2700 N Kinney Rd (West entrance), 3693 S Old Spanish Trl
- Tip: Visit both the East & West district as your admission includes access to both within a 7 day period.
- More info on Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is home to one of the highest concentrations of cacti in the world, thus making it the country’s most unusual and fascinating National Park. Tucson is home to the tallest and most diverse assortment of cacti anywhere. Saguaro National Park is a great starting point for exploring the multitude of exotic plant life which call the Sonoran Desert home.
The massive national park is split into 2 different sections which are located on opposite ends of the city. The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) district offers the better mountain views of the 2, plus an incredible paved drive. The Western (Tucson mountain district) is more rustic with an unpaved drive and a refreshing isolated setting which you do not get to experience all too often today. This park also has the added benefit of being located within close proximity to Old Tucson and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
As both parks differ in terms of scenery and feel, a visit to both is a must if you have the time. Also be on the lookout for special ranger programs – both parks offer a variety of educational programs throughout the year! If you have ever wanted to learn how to harvest water from a cactus, here’s your opportunity!
Where to eat: Saguaro Corners is a classic favorite located just outside of the East District. They offer all sorts of hearty carb heavy fare to refuel after your hike. The mac and cheese is awesome! Ask for a window seat so you can catch a glimpse of a javelina while you dine!
What to do nearby: If visiting SNP West, check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. If visiting SNP East, check out Agua Caliente Park.
Daytrip 4: Lowell Ghost town/Bisbee
- Distance from Tucson: 1 Hour, 30 min.
- Location: 92 miles southeast of Tucson
- More info on Bisbee
A block of abandoned buildings on historic Erie Street is about all that is left of Lowell, a former mining town near Bisbee, Arizona. Today Lowell is considered a ghost town, and thus, a must-see for any history lovers out there. Seeing all the old gas stations, stores, even an old theater and greyhound bus station from the 50’s really is a step back in time. It’s really fun to walk around imagining what life was like back then. A combination of closed down businesses, along with the barren desert give the area a creepy, eerie vibe. Not surprisingly, the area was used in filming Stephen King’s Desperation.
A look down Erie Street (more like Eerie Street!)…
A stroll around downtown Bisbee is also must while you are in the vicinity. Take a tour of the Copper Queen mine for starters. Then proceed on to the downtown where you will find eclectic coffeehouses, restaurants, galleries, museums, antique shops, and more. The architecture is beautiful and the vibe is artsy and eccentric. Consider taking a history tour or a specialty ghost tour.
Where to eat: Start your day off at the Bisbee Breakfast Club where you will be treated to delicious hearty fare and a fun 50’s style atmosphere. For dinner check out Screaming Banshee for delicious pizza and a fun artsy vibe. If you need a caffeinated boost, Bisbee Coffee Company is the place to go.
Daytrip 5: Tombstone
- Distance from Tucson: 1 Hour, 15 min
- Tip: Purchase combo trolley/gunfight tickets at Old Tombstone Western theme park to save yourself a few bucks. Also save this daytrip for the cooler season – basking in the sun during a gunfight show is miserable!
- More info on Tombstone
Tombstone, aka “The Town too tough to die,” is appropriately nicknamed as so as tourism has brought the area back to life. Tombstone was once a thriving boomtown with a population of 14,000+ in the mid 1880’s. At the time, it was one of the largest cities between St. Louis & San Francisco! By 1910, the population dwindled down to fewer than 700 residents. The city would have become a ghost town if not for being the Cochise County seat. Today, the town is anything but a ghost town with almost half a million tourists per year!
Tombstone is a memorable daytrip destination for any history buffs and fans of old western movies. The great thing about Tombstone is that it is so authentic – no sets here, just the real dusty streets which famous lawmen & gunslinging outlaws once walked upon. Most of the late 1800’s buildings are still standing. It’s a living piece of history where you can join the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday making your way down historic Allen Street.
As you walk down dusty Allen Street, you can almost picture yourself walking along the likes of Doc and Wyatt as old western scenes come to mind. Attend a live gunfight reenactment at the OK Corral, stop by for a drink at a real old time saloon, dress up in late 1800’s fashion, see real bullet holes at the bird cage theater…there’s much to do here for western fans. Above all, be sure to take a guided trolley tour where you will be taken on a narrated tour of the town’s most historic sights.
John Wayne stayed here!
Doc Holliday’s house according to the tour guide
Seeing a shootout will likely top your to-do list while visiting Tombstone. You will find numerous options including the famous OK Corral reenactment and the lively amusing gunfight at the Old Tombstone Western theme park. This is a great choice for anyone who wouldn’t mind a laugh along with an action packed show. The actors are super talented and have even worked as stunt doubles in various films.
Daytrip 6: Picacho Peak State Park
- Distance from Tucson: 45 min.
- Location: Exit 219 off of I-10 Picacho, AZ 85241
- Tip: Plan a picnic lunch – the setting is gorgeous!
- More info on Piacho Peak State Park
Although it sees little visitation compared to the more popular hiking hotspots, Picacho Peak is one of Southern Arizona’s hiking treasures. This gorgeous state park is located halfway in between Phoenix and Tucson, seeming popping up spontaneously amidst the surrounding nothingness. You really cannot miss picacho due to the dramatic statement it makes in a sea of flat surroundings. It really is an oasis in the middle of nowhere. The scenery here is really fabulous and the isolated surroundings really add to the desert enchantment.
A great place to enjoy thousands of cacti in an isolated setting!
Consider a refreshing nature walk along the Calloway trail. Nothing too difficult, so you can fully enjoy the exotic views of the Saguaro and other forms of desert cacti plant life without tiring out. Wonderful views of the mountains as well on this one! Picacho is a great place to get lost in nature and enjoy the serenity of the desert. If you are up for a real challenge, you can embark on the arduous climb up the Hunter Trail. Do not let the 2 mile distance fool you – this is a strenuous steep hike.
Picacho offers a scenic picnicking area so bring with a lunch to enjoy post-hike! There really is not a whole lot to do in the area (thus the basis of its’ appeal!), however, this is a great stop on the way to Phoenix/any other Southwestern destination.
Daytrip 7: Tubac
- Distance from Tucson: 45 min.
- Tip: Visit outside the summer season. It can easily top 105 here on a daily basis, which is much too uncomfortable, even for simply walking in between the shops.
- More info on Tubac
Tubac is a must-visit for anyone interesting in history and art. In fact, the city’s slogan is “where art and history meet.” Tubac Presidio, established in 1752, is the oldest European settlement in Arizona. Today, the city is known for its’ thriving arts scene.
First off, there are dozens of specialty shops here where you can shop for handcrafted items imported from Mexico. So many gorgeous pottery, jewelry, and arts and craft pieces. Literally you could spend all day browsing through these shops. Everything is so gorgeous and unique. Casa Maya de Mexico is one to check out for sure.
Second, the city is home to dozens of art galleries and a fantastic art museum. Tubac Center for the Arts is a great place to begin your adventure. K Newby Gallery and Sculpture Garden is the standout amongst the galleries so be sure to swing by. Seasonal art walks and a large art festival are just a few of the events to put on your to-do list. Additionally, The Tubac Festival of Arts, featuring over 200 artists from around the county, has been going strong for over 60 years.
Where to eat: Elvira’s is a pretty cool Southwestern restaurant known for its’ artsy glass blown ceiling. Try the Taquitos de Papa (Fried potato and cheese tacos!).
What to do along the way: Assuming you are coming from Tucson, you will come across Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is the oldest standing European structure in the state. Pretty cool place with amazing architecture, both inside and out. Self guided tours are available anytime mass/special event is not in session.
Daytrip 8: Catalina State Park
- Distance from Tucson: 20 min
- Location: 11570 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85737
- Admission: $7 per vehicle
- More info on Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park is located in Oro Valley, a beautiful suburb just north of Tucson. The dramatic Catalina mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this gorgeous desert town. Catalina State Park is the place to go if you are a hiker seeking the best views accessible via minimal effort. Several easy nature trails here take you past dozens of varieties of cacti species, including the most stately Saguaro.
What’s more – the mountain views here are the best in the region. Birdwatching and wildlife watching are also popular past times here. Don’t be surprised if you see a bobcat or javelina in the early morning hours. The best part of all is that this park is under visited, so you will more than likely get to enjoy this beauty all to yourself. Start out with a refreshing hike along the Nature trail, then move on to the Canyon Loop trail if you are up for a more intense (but still moderate) workout.
Where to eat: First Watch, a fantastic healthy breakfast chain, is located just down the street. Take a seat outside as the mountains views are stunning. Service is fantastic and the menu is fresh, healthy, and diverse. After breakfast grab a local cup of joe at Savaya coffee, conveniently located just across the road from Catalina.
Coffee with a view! The gorgeous Savaya coffeehouse
What to do nearby: Shop for handcrafted imported Mexican and Southwestern style goods at the Happy Saguaro. Enjoy browsing through glass blown art, amazing pottery pieces, and so much more!
Daytrip 9: Tucson Mountain Park
- Distance from Tucson: 40 minutes
- Location: 8451 W McCain Loop, Tucson, AZ 85735
- More info on the Arizona-Sonora Museum, Bowen Hidden Canyon trail
Tucson Mountain Park is a massive 20,000 acre space loaded with over 60 miles of trails to be enjoyed by hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. Even if the thought of exercising in the heat sounds brutal, you can opt to enjoy the scenic drive and multitude of attractions. The drive is so gorgeous and rustic with more varieties of cacti than you could ever possibly imagine. Gates Pass overlook is a mesmerizing place to enjoy the tremendous cacti and mountain scenery.
The dazzling silhouette of a cactus at sunset is what draws many to this area. The brilliant medley of colors showcased in a desert sunset is something you will not forget. Gates Pass is one of numerous sunset hotspots in Tucson.
A number of interesting attractions also lie within the vicinity. Old Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the International Wildlife Museum can all be enjoyed along the same route.
One of the best trails in Tucson Mountain Park is the Bowen Hidden Canyon trail at the secluded JW Marriott at Starr Pass resort. This relatively easy 2 mile trail features some of the most stunning views you will ever come across. As a bonus, it’s quiet all the time due to the semi hidden location. It’s more common to see deer, bobcat, and javelina rather than people!
The Arizona-Sonora Museum is a combo wildlife habitat, aquarium, and botanical garden. This is a really interesting place for first time visitors to the Sonoran Desert as you will learn so much about the history of the area and the desert ecosystem. Several introductory trails will take you past the native plant life. And, you will have the opportunity to observe animals in a setting reminiscent of their natural environment.
Old Tucson was used as a set for many of your favorite Western movies. Today, you can learn more about the movies filmed here, plus enjoy live shootouts and stunt shows, shop for Southwestern gifts, and take old time photos.
Daytrip 10: Sabino Canyon
- Distance from Tucson: 30 min
- Location: 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750
- Admission: $8 per person ($15 extra for the tram)
- More info on Sabino Canyon
Sabino Canyon is widely considered to be one of the top natural wonders of Arizona. With towering mountains, a diverse variety of cacti, bountiful wildlife, and beautiful canyons, Sabino has to be near the top of your Southern Arizona bucket list. A 45 minute narrated tram ride up the 3.8 mile paved drive is the best way to start your visit. You will learn more about the plants and animals that call the canyon home and enjoy the outstanding views without putting in any effort.
If you are up for a challenge, considering walking the entirety of tram road. This is a workout, yes, however, the views are extraordinary and the sense of accomplishment is like no other. On the bright side, the return trek is all downhill. As the park opens an hour before the tram rides start, it’s best to get your walk started before the crowds and heat hit!
Sabino also offers a number of hiking trails including a very popular (and hard) trek to a waterfall (Seven Falls). You will take a specialty tram up to the trailhead before beginning your desert trek. Take lots of water and snacks and do not even consider this one during the horrendously hot and monsoon-y summer season. As an alternative, the park offers a number of nature trails suited for hikers of all abilities. Though easy in comparison , these trails offer no shortage of terrific views of the mountains and cacti.
Check out my top things to do in Tucson for more standout attractions to add to your vacation itinerary.