With quirky eateries, jaw-dropping scenery and compelling hikes, southern Arizona has cemented its status as one of North America’s premier desert playgrounds. Throw yourself into cable climbs, railroad lookouts and cactus-laden back country trails — there is always another challenge awaiting hikers and mountain cyclists in the arid stretches of the Grand Canyon State. Travelers of all kinds know no boundaries when it comes to their enjoyment of this starkly beautiful land.
In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Tucson lies within striking distance of one of the state’s signature destinations. Saguaro National Park hosts this towering prickly plant, which can grow up to 70 feet high. Take auto and hiking tours of the majestic giants on both the east and west sides of town. After your foray through the land of succulents, why not satisfy that appetite for Mexican food at El Charro Café? Owners say the world’s first chimichanga was created here. You will have only exclamations of delight at the mouthwatering cuisine of this 97-year-old family-owned restaurant.
Drive 47 miles • 45 minutes
With several trails of varying degrees of difficulty, Picacho Peak offers stunning outdoor views for desert hikers. Two paths are steep and challenging, with “gloves” on the list of equipment to bring, as steel cables assist some climbers to the top of the 1,500 foot landmark. The peak is a magnet for sightseers in the spring, when Mexican poppies bloom on its slopes. During the annual Civil War in the Southwest celebration in March, battle reenactors stage the westernmost Civil War clash in Arizona at Picacho Pass, where 11 lives were lost as Union forces repelled Confederate invaders. Watch as an compelling chapter in American history comes to life.
3) Gila Bend
Drive 76 miles • 1 hour, 9 minutes
Before Interstate 8 and Arizona and State Route 85 formed a junction at this quirky desert town, Gila Bend served as a vital stopping point for stagecoaches and railroad lines. Today, train aficionados make tracks to the abandoned settlement of Shawmut, hiking up the 1-percent grade to spot oncoming engines ascending the Maricopa Mountains on one of the few single-track rails around. Transportation enthusiasts then head back to Gila Bend to enjoy a meal and lodging at the out-of-this-world Space Age Restaurant and Lodge, connecting past travel with the future.
Drive 115 miles • 1 hour, 44 minutes
In a hot, arid climate with the Colorado River running through, it’s no wonder that Yuma, Arizona has a record number of tubing devotees from April to October. Floaters who don’t drift in rubber innertubes can usually be found floating in more substantial boats within this desert oasis. From jetboats to kayaks, and paddleboats to personal watercraft, travelers choose their speed of enjoyment. And all this water has made Yuma home to many farm-to-table ventures, based on locally grown and irrigated crops. Grab a fresh meal here, knowing your food was harvested hours before it hit your plate.