Tucson, Arizona, and its environs present a full plate of attractions that can be enjoyed by lovers of history, culture, and desert life.
By Doreen Daily, F157939
The American Indians called the place Stjukshon — “springs at the foot of the black hill.” The word sounded like “Tucson,” and thus became the name of the Arizona city that grew there.
Tucson resides in a high desert valley at an elevation of 2,584 feet above sea level. Yet it once was the floor of an ancient inland sea. Sand and cacti abound in a colorful basin surrounded by four mountain ranges: the Santa Catalinas to the north; the Rincons to the east; the Santa Ritas to the south; and the Tucsons to the west. One also could argue that the Tortolitas, or “little turtles” bound the city’s northwest corner. Regardless, all the mountains have character. The Santa Catalinas are shaped like a sleeping dragon; the Rincons have three peaks forming a “corner”; the Santa Ritas reach almost to Mexico; and the jagged peaks of the Tucsons separate the main part of the city from Old Tucson and the mountain section of Saguaro National Monument.
Spanish settlers built the Tucson presidio (walled fort) in 1776, when the Revolutionary War was raging in the Colonies. In 1821 Mexico took possession of the area from Spain, and it remained so until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, when it became part of the Arizona Territory. Tucson soon was a vital urban center, first as a stagecoach stop; then as the site of the Arizona Territorial Capital (from 1867 to 1877); and later as a railroad stop. It was the largest city in Arizona until 1920, when Phoenix took on those honors.
Travelers from well-watered parts of the world may at first think that Tucson’s climate is too hostile for any creature to survive, but nothing is further from the truth. Not only is Tucson a large city (its population is nearly at the half-million mark), but the area teems with flora and fauna. Its climate is at its most pleasant in the spring and fall, but even from May through September, when temperatures reach the 90s (and above), the lack of humidity generally makes the heat bearable.
So, consider visiting the following sites of interest in and around Tucson. Motorhome access and parking space are available at all of these locations except where noted.
One only has to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to learn just how hospitable the desert can be. This is not just a museum and popular tourist attraction, but a world-renowned zoo, a natural history museum, and a botanical garden all rolled into one. Started in 1952 as a non-profit project, this 21-acre facility is located in a magnificent setting with great desert and mountain views.
Start your adventure in the reptile-invertebrate house, a dark, humid place that is home to desert scorpions, Gila monsters, collared lizards, and other crawly things. Docents stationed throughout the museum provide directions and answer questions about the different species. Expansive areas outside are devoted to larger animals — a black bear, Mexican wolves, javelinas, and desert bighorn sheep. Cat Canyon is home to many species, including pumas, kit foxes, ocelots, margays, jaguarundis, and mountain lions — all close enough to count the whiskers. An underwater exhibit, a hummingbird aviary, and a walk-in aviary also vie for visitors’ attention.
The museum is located west of Tucson at 2021 N. Kinney Road; phone (520) 883-2702 for information, or visit www.desertmuseum.org.
Nature’s creatures — in the form of fine art, sculpture, and taxidermy — are also the focus at one of Tucson’s newest attractions, the International Wildlife Museum. Young and old alike will wonder at the vast and varied collections of wildlife (more than 400 different species of mammals, birds, and insects from around the world) housed in a striking, castlelike edifice. It’s an unusual combination of a gallery and a museum that offers a learning experience for all. Wildlife films are shown in the museum’s theater each hour, and a restaurant resembling a Mexican cantina features buffalo burgers.
The museum is located at 4800 W. Gates Pass Road; phone (520) 629-0100 or visit www.thewildlifemuseum.org for more information.
Seventy-five years of growth and careful planning (and planting) have produced one of Arizona’s most beautiful oases. Located in the heart of Tucson at 2150 N. Alvernon Way, the Tucson Botanical Gardens started life in 1964 at the home of Harrison Yocum, whose gardens boasted a fine collection of cacti and palms. By the early 1970s, fellow Tucsonian Bernice Porter, who along with her late husband, Rutger, had established the Desert Gardens Nursery in the 1930s, was looking for a way to preserve their family home and legacy of loving plants and wildlife. In 1974 the Porters’ residence became the perfect new home for the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
In the Backyard Bird Garden, each plant has been specially selected to attract a specific bird. Volunteers give talks on gardening and making compost. An authentic Tohono O’odham Indian roundhouse and the Children’s Discovery Garden round out the adventure. The house serves as a visitors center; the gift shop operates in what was once the family dining room.
The Tucson Botanical Gardens is in a location that does not provide room for motorhome parking; so, consider taking public transportation or driving your towed car to the facility. The gardens is open daily; phone (520) 326-9686 for more information or visit www.tucsonbotanical.org
Yet more nature awaits on the outskirts of town. Madera Canyon is a lovely spot to hike amid many specimens of birds and flowers. Located in the Santa Rita Mountains approximately 40 miles south of Tucson, Madera Canyon is a lush, green home to more than 240 species of birds. Be warned, however, that you should not take a motorhome longer than 28 feet to this park; it’s best to visit in your towed car. Phone (520) 281-2296 for more information.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is only 12 miles northeast of town. Desert birds are a typical sight in the cool canyon, for they enjoy it as much, or more, than you will. Evidence has been found confirming that huge Columbian mammoths roamed this beautiful canyon 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. From approximately A.D. 1100 to 1300, Hohokam Indian tribes built irrigation dams to utilize the water in Sabino Creek. In the 19th century, soldiers from Fort Lowell rode their horses to the tumbling waters. The water still flows today, yet the creek dries up in summer — another reason to visit in spring.
During the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps workers built nine stone bridges and almost four miles of roadway up the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. A variety of birds, deer, and other animals have made their home here in the lovely, verdant niche of the desert.
People like the canyon, too; in fact, so much so that a restriction on private vehicles on the park road has been imposed. But, not to worry. Park your vehicle and join others on a narrated open-air tram as it traverses the canyon floor and crosses the creek over the stone bridges. The smart way to go (if you don’t like walking uphill) is to take the tram to the end of the line and then walk downhill to the mouth of the canyon. If you tire, you can reboard the tram at any of nine stops along the way. Eight of the stops offer rest rooms; two have drinking water.
Visitors to Sabino Canyon pay a day pass fee as well as a fee to ride the shuttle. The canyon is reached from I-10 south of the city by taking exit 270, Kolb Road, north to Tanque Verde Road, east to Sabino Canyon Road, then north to the park entrance. For more park information, contact the Santa Catalina Ranger District at (520) 749-8700. For shuttle reservations and information about the “full moon” shuttle, phone the shuttle provider at (520) 749-2861.
When you’re ready for some Old West entertainment, pay a visit to Old Tucson Studios, a combination theme park, showcase, and entertainment complex. This re-created 1880s Western town traces its roots to 1939, when Columbia Pictures built the setting for a film called Arizona on the site. More than 100 films and dozens of TV episodes have been shot at this location throughout the years, including four John Wayne movies and scenes from the “Little House On The Prairie” television series. Visitors can experience action-filled stunt shows and saloon musicals; ride on a train, stagecoach, mine car, and more; view exhibits; and enjoy fun shopping. In addition, special concerts and festivals take place at Old Tucson throughout the year.
Old Tucson Studios is located at 201 S. Kinney Road and is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. For more information, phone (520) 883-0100 or visit www.oldtucson.com.
Traveling through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona has always been a delight to nature lovers. The desert teems with life that boggles the mind of those who come from less-hostile climes. Red-tailed hawks perch high on ironwoods only to swoop down to capture a cottontail or squirrel. Phainopeplas sit on the frail branches of creosote bushes or in other desert scrub until they spot an insect they can gulp while in flight. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers peck holes in giant multi-armed saguaros. Javelinas nibble on succulent prickly pear, and kangaroo rats gobble up seeds on the floor of the backcountry. More than 53 species of mammals live in the Sonoran Desert. Forty-three species of reptiles and 278 different kinds of feathered friends also thrive in the heat of the desert Southwest. Add to this lively group approximately 550 species of vascular plants, four kinds of amphibians, and one type of fish and you realize you are surrounded by a mini-biosphere. No wonder scientists chose this area for Biosphere 2. This experimental world located north of Tucson was built beginning in 1984. From 1991 to 1993, eight people lived inside this giant, glass-enclosed research facility.
The site is now managed by Columbia University and called the Columbia University Biosphere 2 Center. It’s still the largest glass-enclosed laboratory in the world. The public is welcome to visit, and guided tours are available for a fee. Restaurants, shops, and a hotel and conference center are also situated on the grounds. Biosphere 2 Center is 30 minutes north of Tucson in the town of Oracle; phone (520) 896-6200 or visit www.bio2.edu for more information.
You only have to look upward on a clear night to understand the reasons for a drive to the Tohono O’odam Indian reservation, 60 miles southwest of Tucson, where Kitt peak rises majestically more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor. The Quinlan Mountains are crowned with a number of sparkling white buildings. They include the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which takes advantage of the area’s crystal-clear weather and turbulence-free atmosphere. So far, 22 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes have been installed on the mountain.
The drive up to the observatory is an exciting part of the experience, during which small waterfalls, craggy boulders, lush vegetation, and dramatic panoramas are revealed at every turn. A huge petroglyph created by Hohokams nearly 800 years ago provides an endearing memorial to the ancients. But because of the road’s many narrow turns, unless your motorhome is 28 feet in length or shorter, this is a drive that should be made in a towed car.
The visitors center is full of exhibits. A separate exhibit gallery at the National Solar Observatory, also on Kitt Peak, allows visitors to inspect the largest solar telescope in the world. Docent-led tours are offered three times each day. Self-guided tours also are available; simply pick up a map and walk amidst the gigantic telescopes. Keep in mind that astronomers sleep during the day, so observe the “Quiet, please” signs.
Up to 20 visitors each evening can participate in nightly stargazing programs. For reservations or more information about the observatories, phone (520) 318-8726 or (520) 318-8200 (recorded information), or visit www.noao.edu/kpno.
Not too long ago, 54 Titan II missile silos at sites in Kansas, Arkansas, and Arizona were fully operational. From the early 1960s until the mid-1980s, each of these three locations had 18 missiles that were maintained and at the ready to retaliate against any foreign attack. Travel 25 miles south of Tucson on Interstate 19 to the town of Sahuarita and the Titan Missile Museum to relive this and other aspects of the Cold War.
Highly trained men once sat in boredom in the bowels of 146-foot concrete silos for 24 hours at a stretch. The liquid-fueled Titan II missiles were the largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) ever developed by the United States. They were kept loaded with propellants and nuclear warheads in their hardened underground silos, prepared to be launched within one minute from the time an order was received. Fortunately, that order never came, and all the sites were deactivated by August 1984. In May 1986 the U.S. Air Force turned this site over to be used as a museum, and the remaining silos were destroyed.
This site was named a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and tours are so popular that visitor reservations are recommended. You can see the actual launch control center and even push the launch button, plus watch demonstrations of monitoring and countdown procedures. Tours last one hour and begin on the half-hour, with the last tour at 4:00 p.m.; walking shoes are required. The museum is open daily from November 1 through April 30, and Wednesday through Sunday from May 1 to October 31. For tour reservations and more information, phone (520) 625-7736 or visit www.pimaair.org/titan_01.htm
On your way back north after your visit to the missile museum, be sure to stop at the exquisite Mission Xavier del Bac, located off I-19 on San Xavier Road. Even if you’ve been to this church before, you may not have seen the restored version of the artwork inside, for the work was completed in 1997.
The church’s whitewashed walls glisten in the desert sun, a sight that provides the reason why it is affectionately known as the “White Dove of the Desert.” The mission was completed in 1797 by local Indians under the tutelage of Franciscan priests. Its style is a blend of Byzantine, Moorish, and Mexican designs that merge into a uniquely comfortable and inviting structure. The cruciform interior holds 200-year-old hand-hewn pews and “windows” that were painted onto the plastered walls. Bright colors adorn religious statuary. Outside the 200-year-old sanctuary is the gift shop filled with religious items and crafts made by local parishioners. One of the most popular things for visitors to do is climb the Hill of the Cross to the Grotto of Lourdes, where milagros (devotional objects) are left by the praying faithful. From there, a magnificent valley view can be gleaned as well.
The church is open daily between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. excluding Christmas and Easter Sunday. Because San Xavier is an active parish, it is closed to visitors during religious services. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. For more information, phone (520) 294-2624.
From Mission San Xavier, travel north to Interstate 10 and turn southeast, then take the Valencia Road exit to see one of the United States’ largest and most complete collections of vintage and contemporary aircraft at the Pima Air and Space Museum. The museum is adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and is run by a private, non-profit foundation that depends on a host of volunteers. They care for and restore a huge collection of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and rockets. More than 250 aircraft are on display. You enter the building by walking under a massive Sikorsky helicopter, which makes you feel no bigger than an ant. Upon entering, you are given a description of the various hangars and outdoor displays so that you can see the museum at your own pace.
The Pima Air and Space Museum is open daily. For more information, phone (520) 574-0462 or visit www.pimaair.org.
The museum also offers tours of the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base next door, officially known as the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC). This is a collection of erstwhile planes, including craft that flew over Japan and Germany during World War II, as well as more recent models. Up to $10 billion in obsolete, scrapped aircraft, including B-29s, B-36s, and the only XB19 in existence can be viewed at AMARC; several private aircraft scrapyards contain additional models. Surplus and retired aircraft from all branches of the military are stored here because of the ideal climate. Aircraft transferred to this facility are stripped for spare parts and eventually scrapped, but some of the transport aircraft, such as the older C-130s, are made available to other federal agencies for nonmilitary purposes such as fire fighting.
If you do not mind driving a bit farther south of town on I-19 (approximately 40 miles), you’ll be rewarded by Tumacacori National Historic Park. It marks the place where a Jesuit priest named Father Eusebio Kino said Mass for the Pima Indians under a brush shelter in 1691. A breathtakingly beautiful mission church was constructed on the site from 1800 to 1822, but was never completed. Today visitors can tour this grand architectural specimen and the museum that holds relics from the time of Spanish and Mexican ownership. Phone (520) 398-2341 for more information, or visit www.desertusa.com/tum/
Five miles north of Tumacacori is Tubac, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2002. Many artists now make their home in Tubac, where the first permanent Spanish settlement was built in what is now Arizona, in 1752. At Tubac Presidio State Historic Park you can see the original foundation, walls, and plaza floor of that first fort, as well as an 1800s schoolhouse and 1900s social hall. Phone (520) 398-2252 or visit www.pr.state.az.us/parkhtml/tubac.html/ for more information.
Tucson has so much more to offer that it is impossible to mention it all in the limited space of this story. You will want to see the Fort Lowell museum (520-885-3832) and the old Spanish church just west of it. Saguaro National Park also is a must-see (520-733-5153). Other places of note include the Flandrau Science Center on the University of Arizona downtown campus (no motorhome parking available; phone 520-621-7827); and Catalina State Park (520-628-5798) and Tohono Chul Park (limited parking; 520-742-6455), both north of downtown and reached via Oracle Road. Art lovers will not want to miss De Grazia’s Mission in the Sun (no motorhome parking available; 520-299-9192), an unusual chapel built by Tucson artist Ted De Grazia, located near a gallery full of his work.
By now you should be convinced to allow plenty of time to spend in the Old Pueblo, because you’ll likely fall in love with it. The area known as the “springs at the foot of the black hill” is full of sunshine, saguaros, and Spanish influences.
Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau
100 S. Church Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85701
Numerous RV parks are located in the Tucson area. The Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) provides a visitors guide that contains campground information. Area campgrounds also are listed on the Tucson CVB Web site. Click on “Places to Stay” and then on “RV & Mobile Home Parks.”
Other campground information resources include campground directories and FMCA’s “Business Service Directory,” most recently printed in the January 2002 issue of FMC.