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Spotlight: Tucson

Discover compelling urban charms in the Sonoran Desert

Nestled in the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by five sun-soaked mountain ranges, the surprising city of Tucson is a welcome change of pace from more hectic destinations like Phoenix, 115 miles to the northwest. With just over half-a-million residents, this is now the 32nd largest city in the country, and its selection of world-class dining, lodging, shopping and entertainment options reflect that.

When it comes to activities and entertainment, no matter where your interests lie or what you feel in the mood for on any given day, Tucson has a wide range of choices. From state-of-the-art science education centers and unique open-air museums to breathtaking natural environments and family-friendly attractions like Reid Park Zoo, this is the perfect place to set up camp. And with 360 days of annual sunshine each year, it doesn’t matter when you plan your visit.

Arizona Office of Tourism

Arizona Office of Tourism

The Call of the Wild

Start with the great outdoors. As impressive as the city of Tucson is, it’s no match for the landscapes surrounding it. The only problem you’ll face is narrowing down your choices. Saguaro National Park, Catalina State Park, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and Colossal Cave Mountain Park all sit within easy driving distance of the downtown core.

Nearby Mount Lemmon is an absolute must-visit. It’s the southernmost ski area in the country, so skiers and snowboarders will be in their element, but it’s the Mt Lemmon National Scenic Byway that’s the real attraction here. A drive from the valley floor to the 9,157-foot summit includes passing through seven of the world’s nine ecological environments—roughly the equivalent of driving from the punishing deserts of Mexico to the rocky forests of Canada—all in a short 27-mile stretch. The experience is breathtaking.

In a similar vein, Tucson is also home to Biosphere 2, an advanced science center that simulates the earth’s complete biosphere in a closed, controlled system. It was recently named by Time Life Books as one of the 50 Wonders of the World. Manmade oceans, rainforests, deserts and forests exist in a self-sufficient artificial environment. Guided tours are led by scientists who guide guests deep into the rich upper biomes and the complex technical underbelly of the project.

For families traveling with children, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Reid Park Zoo make for great day trips.

The former is a unique fusion of zoo, natural history museum, art gallery, aquarium and botanical garden. More than three-quarters of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is outdoors, so this is the perfect way to blend the experience with some open-air recreation. Two miles of walkable paths weave through more than 20 acres of Sonoran Desert habitats, showcasing 230 animal species and 1,200 types of plants.

Meanwhile, at the 24-acre Reid Park Zoo, visitors can not only view a range of exotic animals but also engage in a series of educational activities. Keeper chats, giraffe encounters, camel rides and the in-park zoo train are among the highlights.

Kids will also love Funtasticks Family Fun Park (home to laser-tag, go-karts, bumper boats and mini golf), the Children’s Museum (11,000 square feet of interactive exhibits) and Old Tucson (where gunfights of the Wild West are brought to life with fun live performances).

Arizona Office of Tourism

Arizona Office of Tourism

Art, Arizona Style

Of course, any rewarding stopover in Tucson means spending some time in the city itself. And that means a whirlwind of art.

Cited as a “mini-mecca for the arts” by the Wall Street Journal, Tucson has established itself as one of the nation’s leading arts and cultural heritage centers. The downtown core is home to 35 art galleries, more than 30 museums and 215 performance groups. If you’re an art lover, be sure to take in a show or two at famous Fox Theatre (a restored 1930’s era movie “palace”), a performance from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra (founded in 1929) and a guided docent-led tour through the Tucson Museum of Art.

When you’re done exploring for the day, settle in for a night for gourmet dining and relaxation. Home more than half-a-million people, this thriving modern city is packed with international cuisine options, mega-complex shopping centers and a host of world-class casinos.

From its stunning ring of mountain ranges to its robust industry of arts and entertainment, Tucson is a premier destination that finds itself all too often overlooked. For tourists seeking a place to escape and explore, that makes it just perfect. Full of big city amenities and home to great outdoor adventures, this bustling cityscape still feels more like a laid-back community than a major American city on the rise.

If exercise and relaxation occupy the top of your travel list, consider dropping into Oro Valley, just 30 minutes to the north of Tucson. Fitness buffs will enjoy the wide choices of world-class cycling, swimming, golf and hiking trails. Nearby Catalina State Park features an equestrian center along with lots of hiking opportunities. Every Saturday, the Oro Valley Farmers market sells locally grown fruits and veggies for travelers eager to stock their pantries.

Can’t get enough of the rugged desert country? Make a visit to Tucson Mountain Park, 20,000 acres of rugged landscape dotted with cactus and threaded with 62 miles of non-motorized shared-use trails. Located just 20 minutes to the west of the city, the park is one of the largest natural resource areas owned and managed by a local government in the United States, and visitors will find no end to the recreation opportunities in this stunning area. Enjoy breathtaking views at Gates Pass overlook, and then study the interpretive displays and historic structures. Picnic and wildlife-watching opportunities abound throughout the park, so pack a basket and set aside some time—it’s worth an afternoon or a day.

If you’d prefer to see the rugged Arizona wilderness without a tough hike, the Sabino Canyon Trail, northwest of town, is the answer. Ride on a comfortable tram for a 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. With nine stops, you’ll have lots of opportunities to take pictures of spectacular landscapes and local wildlife, including javelina, roadrunners, white-tailed deer and more. Evening rides are available.

For More Information

Tucson Visitor Center
Arizona Office of Tourism