Arizona may be the state loaded with the greatest treasure trove of natural sites. From the Organ Pipe National Monument, on the southern border with Mexico, to Antelope Canyon near its northern border with Utah, Monument Valley in the east and the Grand Canyon to the west, you do not have to go far to find a place to leave you in awe. Arizona will find its way into a number of our blogs as it’s a perfect place for a layover on national road trips as well. For this post, we’re going to focus on the Tucson and Phoenix areas in the south end of the state, with a touch of Sedona.
- Day 1 – Fly into Phoenix
- Day 2 – Several hours at the Desert Botanical Gardens; drive to Tucson; evening exploration of Saguaro National Park; stay in east Tucson
- Day 3 – East Saguaro National Park; Mt. Lemmon; stay in east Tucson
- Day 4 – East Saguaro National Park; visit Tombstone and Bisbee, AZ; stay in east Tucson
- Day 5 – West Saguaro National Park; visit “Old Tucson”; stay in west Tucson
- Day 6 – Drive to, explore, and stay in Sedona
- Day 7 – Explore Sedona; drive to Phoenix; fly out at night
This trip took place in the winter of 2013
After arriving in Phoenix late at night, we started early the next morning, and spent a half day at the Desert Botanical Gardens, one of the many highlights in the Phoenix area. The outdoor gardens gave an incredible overview of desert life – both plants and animals. Crowded as it was, we never felt like there were things we could not see or attend. Surrounded by cacti of all different shapes and sizes made for a perfect introduction to what we would be seeing throughout our week in southern AZ. The grounds were immaculate and the staff/ volunteers were more than willing to answer any questions. The highlight of our visit was a “Birds of Prey” show (though the website does not currently mention it), where hawks and owls swooped inches over our heads to the birders feeding them tidbits of carrion. This experience has inspired a love and fascination of birds ever since. If it is available, this is a CAN’T MISS experience, no matter the size of the crowds or additional cost.
The grounds themselves were fairly extensive, and almost everything was outdoors, perfect for the reasonable winter weather in Phoenix. Amongst the plant life, we also saw a range of wildlife, including javelina, little desert pigs which scampered about the sandy grounds. In all, these were amongst the most impressive gardens we have been to.
Subsequent visits to the Phoenix area have included lengthy stops at the Organ Pipe National Monument (2.5 hours away) and the Usery Mountain Regional Park, located on the outskirts of Phoenix. Both will be documented in other posts, but it should be noted that each was a worthwhile visit, though we’re partial to Organ Pipe, despite its distance.
The greater Tucson area may well be one of my favorite metro areas, and that does not even include the experiences one could have within the city itself. The surrounding area offers nearly unlimited opportunities, and a week’s stay simply scratches the surface on all there is to do if you enjoy nature and/or quirky “Wild West” history.
Our primary motivation for heading south to Tucson was to explore Saguaro National Park, a large park bisected by the city of Tucson – 1 part is east of the city, the other west, about an hour’s drive from one to the other. Known for being a home to large swaths of saguaro, the famous cactus and symbol of the southwest, it’s worth noting that both sides of the park are worth visiting. The main differences between the two sides are that the west is a bit more primitive – gravel roads, a few less pull-outs, but also a higher density of saguaro. The east side benefits from having its main loop paved, and has extensive pull-outs/ hiking trailheads. We started on the east side park, known as the Rincon Mountain District, and spent a total of about 1.5 days there.
The east side is made accessible by the 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive. From the drive are many hiking paths, of which we did many. None were too taxing – the ground is reasonably level and the limited inclines are moderate at worst. The serene hikes were some of the best we’ve been on; outside of Joshua Tree and Death Valley we had not yet spent extensive time in the desert.
In our time on the east side, we probably did 4-5 short (2 miles or less) hikes surrounded by sporadic saguaro cacti along with other desert life. Once on the drive, almost any of the trailheads posted are worth the time to walk amongst the giant cactus. We chose our hikes at random, and in the case of this park, it worked advantageously. For most of our time there we saw few other people – for being so close to a large city, we really felt the isolation of nature.
The west side of the park, known as the Tucson Mountain District, was a bit busier, but well worth the day we spent there. The saguaro are more abundant than on the east side, and though we drove through the majority of the park, most of our hiking time was spent on the trail spurs off of the unpaved Bajada Loop Drive. There were a few more inclines on the hikes here, but nothing too taxing. Like the east side, we chose hikes randomly and there were none which were disappointing.
2-3 full days, which included the commute between both sides the park, allowed us to do more than just scratch the surface. We absolutely loved Saguaro and would go back in a flash.
Day Trips from Tucson
Our extended time in Tucson allowed for a number of day, or half-day trips, that really added flavor to our trip.
First off was a journey to the historic wild-west town of Tombstone, AZ, located just over an hour from Tucson. Home of the infamous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone was the perfect blend of kitcsh and history. The older buildings, dusty dirt roads, and costumed performers/ employees made for one of the most enjoyable “wild-west” centered experiences we have had. Highlights of the excursion were the museum and gunfight reenactment at the O.K.Corral and the Bird Cage Theater Museum, an original building with an eerie vibe. Additionally, walks through the town while stopping in random shops to look or grab snacks, were fun as well – the atmosphere, though recreated, felt reasonably authentic. Tombstone should not be an after-thought, but a planned excursion if in the Tucson area.
30 minutes south of Tombstone is Bisbee, AZ, a historic mining town with a modern vibe. We had been excited to take a tour of the Copper Queen Mine, though it was sold out for the day we were there. Instead we settled for some outdoor pics of the enormous open-mine, along with strolls around the town. My hunch is if we had taken the time to plan ahead, Bisbee would have been a great place to stay for a day or two – if nothing else the surrounding area has many outdoor activities, and the small town of Bisbee provided many choices for food and drink amongst a charming historic setting, nestled in the shadows of the nearby mountains.
Three other excursions rounded out our time in the Tucson area. Speaking with locals, we received the suggestion to head up Mt. Lemmon, a summer escape to the local higher altitudes of the area. 30 miles, but multiple hours for a round trip ride, Mt. Lemmon was a snow-covered, pine forested area, providing unique vantage points of the desert below. This was a pleasant break from all of the hiking we had done, but due to the time of the day we had arrived, we didn’t spend much time up high, aside from looking down from a number of pull-outs along an occasionally white-knuckled drive.
A second, local, half-day trip was the time we spent at the Pima Air and Space Museum, located a short distance from the east side of Saguaro National Park. Pima was literally an aerospace graveyard, hosting a nearly exhaustive collection of any craft which has flown in the air – at least within 30 miles of the earth’s surface. With aircraft located both within enormous hangars and outside on extensive lots, we easily reached our 10,000 steps as we craned our necks upwards to see all of the unique and historical aircraft on the grounds. We’re not air/ space enthusiasts, but we certainly appreciated the time we spent here, even if it may have been a tad overwhelming. If you have a passion for flight, I cannot imagine there is a more complete collection of aircraft anywhere in the U.S.
Our final Tucson excursion led us to “Old Tucson“, an outdoor film set/ studio which has been used in over 400 “Wild West” films. Many buildings are set fixtures and visitors can walk amongst the grounds without guidance. Additionally, there is a train ride on the campus which rides out off the main grounds before making its way back through the film set area. Throughout the day actors reenact gun fights, and are seen walking the streets in costume. In all, this had a similar, though perhaps less historic, vibe to Tombstone. Both were worth visiting for us, but if we had to choose just one, Tombstone would be the winner.
In all honesty we did not spend much time in Tucson itself, outside of a few dinners, most notably some great Ethiopian food at Zemams. Perhaps we missed out on some key experiences in the town itself, but our time spent in the area was simply amazing.
North to Sedona
It feels that just about every trip we take to AZ includes at least a brief stop in Sedona. On this trip we decided to give ourselves a day and half, providing a change of scenery from the desert landscape to the red rock area. 3.5 hours from Tucson, and 2 hours from Phoenix, where we would be flying out of, was the right amount of time we were willing to drive for a lengthier excursion.
Sedona is both an amazing and fairly pricey place, known both for its quaint town as well as the surrounding formations colored a remarkable orange/ red. Plenty of hiking exists in the area, often in the shadows of the amazing red rocks. The rocks appear to have been dropped randomly within a 15 mile circumference, and we found ourselves driving to different sights seeing the formations, often taking 1-2 miles hikes at a time. One could easily spend a day exhausting many of the hikes in the area, and that is aside from horseback riding/ jeep rides offered in the area.
The downtown portion of Sedona offered extensive dining and snacking options. The walk through town, probably 1.5 hours non-stop, is refreshing for a tourist area. The shops are fun, the food is good and the weather has always been reasonably pleasant. This was the second of three times we have been to Sedona. It is well worth a day trip, and if you like a more relaxing pace, one could easily make a staycation of a week here.
There’s much more to write about when it comes to Arizona – just 45 minutes north of Sedona is Flagstaff, which is the gateway to Grand Canyon country and historic Rt. 66, both of which will be covered in future posts. Without a doubt, Arizona, and any part of it for that matter, is well worth taking the time to travel to. Tucson and its surrounding areas may be the ideal starting point.