Looking for a fun day trip in Southern Arizona? Look no further, because here I am rounding up 10 of our favorite trips that we’ve taken in our 1 ½ years of living in Tucson, AZ. Whether you live around here or are planning a trip through the area, here are a variety of ideas that anyone would enjoy!
1. Mt. Lemmon: Located on outskirts of Northeast Tucson, the Catalina Highway is an easy way to get out into the beautiful mountains and enjoy the beauty that the higher elevations have to offer. You can drive the entire 26 miles to the top of the mountain, or stop at any of the recreational areas on the way up. There are many scenic points that capture different views of both the Catalina Mountains and the land surrounding it. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just want to enjoy a short trail with great views, you will find plenty of options both along the drive up or at the top. Bring a picnic lunch with you, or enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants in Summerhaven, the small community at the top of the mountain. Or maybe just stop by the Cookie Cabin to grab a reward for a hike. When there is snow at the top, you can also enjoy Ski Valley, but take caution as some days the highway will be closed due to snow or ice on the road. In the hot summer months, escape from the heat in the city by driving up the mountain and enjoying the lower temperatures! They also offer rides on the ski lift during the summer for a small price.
2. Saguaro National Park: If you are visiting Tucson and want to visit a place that shows off the true beauty of the Sonoran Desert, then this is where you need to go! Take Speedway Blvd. West until it turns into Gates Pass, and follow it up and through the Tucson Mountains and all the way until it tees with Kinney. Stop at the Gates Pass Scenic Overlook on the North side of the road and enjoy the great views to the West (this happens to be a great place to watch the sun set!) There are many pull-offs along the road that have different trails you can hike.
When you reach Kinney Road, turn right (North) and pay a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This “museum” has been ranked in the top 10 museums in the country, and it’s not hard to see why – all of their exhibits feature live animals! It’s more expensive to visit than some of these other suggestions, but totally worth the tour. Come at either 10 or 2 to enjoy the raptor flight show, or at 12:15 stop to see the “Live and (sort of) on the Loose!” presentation. Both times that we attended the presentation, we got to enjoy seeing and learning about rattlesnakes and gila monsters. The museum also offers other special events that you can attend. We always love walking around the outdoor part and seeing the desert animals in their “habitats.” You can also enjoy a wide variety of well maintained desert plants and insects outside, or see the indoor exhibits with the fish, reptiles, and arachnids.
If you continue further down Kinney road, you’ll come to the West offices of Saguaro National Park. I have to admit, the extent of our visits here have been mostly to hike Wasson Peak, the highest in Tucson Mountain Park. It’s 7 miles round trip through the beautiful desert, and offers gorgeous views of both the city and the mountain ranges all around. While this land is rich in desert, that also means it is lacking in shade, and we don’t recommend attempting this hike in the heat of the summer. (When we hiked it in late February, we enjoyed seeing the desert in bloom.) If the long hike isn’t for you, you can still stop in at the Visitor’s center, view the film, take a shorter hike, and enjoy a picnic.
Saguaro National Park is actually split into 2 districts, the East and West sides. While we’ve spent a lot more time on the West side, there are also some hikes worth doing on the West side. You can read about our experiences hiking and exploring Saguaro National Park East Here.
3. Tombstone and Bisbee: Take a drive on Arizona Highway 80 and visit 2 of the most unique and quirky towns in the state. Exit the I-10 around Benson on highway 80 and drive 22 miles Southeast to Tombstone. Park in the lot next to the old Courthouse (which is now a state historic park!) and take a walk down the boardwalk of East Allen Street. While the town can come across as kitchy or touristy, if you know about the history that happened around this area, you will be excited at the great lengths they have gone to implement that into the tourist section. We’ve always had a great time chatting with the actors who dress up and walk around the town. While in this part of town, we’ve enjoyed eating at both Big Nose Kate’s and the Chuckwagon. If you’re traveling with pets, you should eat at the Chuckwagon because they are possibly the only dog-friendly place in town! Beyond walking down East Allen Street, both the Courthouse and the Boothill Cemetery are fun places to visit. The cemetery is free, the courthouse has a small admission fee per person.
If you continue down highway 80 from here, you will reach Bisbee in just 22 miles. Bisbee is known to have the best year-round climate. It was named the “Most alive city to retire in” and was runner up for the quirkiest town in the nation. While you’re there, you can visit the Copper Queen Mine, or if you walk into many of the shops you’ll find precious and interesting stones that were mined here. When we visited, we enjoyed walking around downtown Bisbee and visiting antique stores. We always eat in the Copper Queen Cafe, which is located inside the Copper Queen Hotel. (The quesadillas are delicious!)
|Photos taken from Kartchner Cavern’s Park website|
4. Kartchner Caverns State Park: This is one of those places that we enjoyed visiting in the middle of a hot Arizona summer. If you are into caves, than this attraction is a must see. The great lengths they have gone to to protect these caves and keep them in pristine condition is very admirable. There are 2 different tours that you can take: the Throne Room tour, and the Big Room tour. (The Big Room is only open mid-October through mid-April, while the Throne Room is always open.) The cave is located about 50 miles East of Tucson on the I-10. Along with the cave and visitor’s center and museum, you can enjoy camping or hiking out on the land. Please be aware beforehand that reservations are required, and that they have rules that you must abide by in order to keep the caves in excellent condition. The fees are around $20 per person. If it is too expensive or if you have young children, a different cave tour to consider would be Colossal Caves right on the Eastern outskirts of Tucson off of the I-10.
5. Kitt Peak National Observatory and Organ Pipe National Monument: If you’re up for taking a longer drive, then consider heading West on state highway 86. About 35 miles West of Tucson, you’ll come to the turn off for Kitt Peak National Observatory. Follow the road 10 miles up the mountain drive, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by telescopes – the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world, in fact! We found that this was a great place to explore in the heat of the summer, as the temperatures at the top of the mountain were much cooler. It’s open to the public from 9-4 daily, and they offer guided tours 3 times a day. When we went, we opted to tour it on our own and didn’t look into any stargazing tours, but if you’re interested in that you should visit their site: https://www.noao.edu/outreach/kpvc/. We also enjoyed getting unique views on all the mountain ranges surrounding us, including a close-up look at Babaquivari.
Now, it’s another 95 miles to get to Organ Pipe National Monument, and we can’t say those are the most interesting miles. Luckily, there’s a gas station near Why, AZ, so you shouldn’t have to bring a gas can for this road trip! If you can make the trip, do take some time to enjoy the beauty of the monument. It’s the only place in the US where you can find the Organ Pipe Cactus! (The only other place is right across the border in Mexico) Stop in the visitor’s center, walk through the museum, and enjoy the short film before going out and exploring the park. Now, we went on one of the first 100 degree days of the summer, and I wouldn’t recommend that if you want to make the most out of your trip! We still enjoyed doing a little hiking on one of their trails and enjoyed a picnic lunch – but when we were done, we stopped at the gas station on our way back to buy some well-deserved ice cream! 🙂
6. Road Trip down Interstate 19: Titan Missile Museum, Tubac Presidio, Tumacacori National Historic site, San Xavier Mission, the Pima Mine – all of these are interesting, educational, and unique places to visit while driving the 63 miles between Tucson and Nogales, AZ. Wait, are you confused by the roadside markers? Those aren’t miles, they’re kilometers! I-19 is unique among US interstates because it uses the metric system. That’s because it was constructed in the 70’s, when the US was considering making the switch to the metric system. That, of course, never went through, but the signs remain the same on this interstate. Now, some of these attractions, specifically the Pima Mine and Titan Missile Museum, require you to take guided tours and may require reservations in advance depending on the day. The San Xavier Mission is a gorgeous building and worth even a couple minutes to stop and take a look on the inside (be aware though that they still use it for mass!) They offer optional guided tours, but you can also just wander around on your own, just be respectful. Tubac Presidio State Park and Tumacacori National Historic Site are both open 9-5 and cost a small fee per person. You can tour both on your own, and Tumacacori also offers guided tours at select times. Check their websites for special events that may be going on in the area.
7. Madera Canyon: This portion of the Coronado National Forest has been our favorite for hiking around Tucson. While it’s located only 45 miles South of Tucson, you will feel like you’ve come much farther when you see the thick pine trees and the overall lack of desert plants. This mountain range is called the Santa Ritas, and Mt. Wrightson is the highest peak in the area, as well as the highest point of all the mountains around Tucson. Even though the elevation is much greater, this has been consistently an easier and more enjoyable hike than peak hikes you’ll find in the Catalina Mountains. That is because the trails are better maintained and used more often. The hike to Mt. Wrightson is 10 miles round trip, and steadily gains about 4000 feet of elevation from beginning to end. The views at the top are stunning, as they are unobstructed by any other peaks. If you’re newer to hiking, the recreational area offers several other hikes, such as the nature trail or the Bog Springs Trail loop. This is also a great place to enjoy a picnic or go camping. The fee to visit is $5 for the day, or $20 for a year long pass. Also, if you’re looking for a dog-friendly place to hike, then this is where you need to go!
8. The Biosphere II: If you’re looking for an interesting and education spot for a field trip or learning adventure, than this place is where you should go! Take Oracle Road North toward Oracle, AZ, and follow the signs to the Biosphere II. Here, they offer hour-long tours of this earth systems research facility, which is the largest closed system created. Inside of the glass walls, you’ll get to experience many different ecosystems, from the desert to a rainforest to the ocean. It was initially built for experimenting and they sent a group of people to live inside for 2 years (1991-1993). They started a second group in 1994, but ended it only 5 months later when they found that the people had to focus so much on producing food to have enough energy rather than conducting any sort of experiments. Now, it is owned by the University of Arizona and is open for visitors while they continue to run experiments. You can visit this museum and take one of their hour-long tours from 9:30-4 daily. Reservations not required for individuals or small groups, and admission fees vary from $13-20, with discounts for military and U of A students. After touring the Biosphere, we also enjoyed visiting the Butterfly Garden in Oracle.
9. Patagonia Lake State Park: Want to spend a day on the peaceful shores of a lake? Then Patagonia Lake is the perfect place to visit. Take exit 281 South on highway 83, and after 25 miles go West on highway 82. In just 13 miles, you’ll be at the gorgeous blue lake. There’s a $15 entrance fee for the day, but there’s plenty to do to make it worth it. You can either bring or rent a boat, or you can enjoy the lake by swimming or fishing. Campgrounds are available in the park, but it is quite popular so you’ll want to make your reservations online. We have enjoyed taking hikes around the lake during the times that we’ve visited. There are hiking trails in the park, as well as in the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area. This is also a popular area for bird watching, so keep yours eyes open for any interesting birds! Check their website for upcoming events at the park as well.
10. Chiricahua National Monument and Fort Bowie National Historic Site: The weekend we spent at Chiricahua National Monument will always be one of our favorite getaways during our time in Southern Arizona. It’s truly a hidden gem of Southeastern Arizona! Take a drive on I-10 for 90 miles East of Tucson, exit South on highway 191 in Wilcox, and drive 31 miles to the monument. This place is totally worth going out of your way for, and is the perfect place for a weekend getaway to a real “Wonderland of Rocks.” Here, you can enjoy the beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains by hiking on any of the park’s trails. They offer hikes of varying length and ability, so you’re sure to find one that’s right for you. Oh, and want to know another great thing? There’s no entrance fee to the park! And when we visited last summer, they waived the fee for camping as well, so we were able to take this trip for the price of one tank of gas. You can make campground reservations online by visiting this site. Take some time to enjoy all this park has to offer, you won’t regret it!
And while you’re out there, you should takes some more time to visit Fort Bowie National Historic Site. When leaving the monument, take highway 186 West for a couple miles and follow the signs to the site. Did you know that there were battles from the Civil War fought this far out West? It’s true – now you need to visit to learn about the history that went on here! This was a fort set up by the US Army against the Chiricahua Apaches. Visiting the site is free, however it requires you to take a 3 mile round trip loop hike, with the Visitor’s Center being about a mile and a half away. As you walk along the trail, you’ll see different structures and ruins along with plaques telling you what went on here. The visitor’s center is open from 8-4 (but that could change from season to season) and they recommend at least 2 hours for the hike and the museum. They offer different ranger-led programs as well – find more information about those on their website.
I hope this list was helpful to you. We’ve visited most of these places, as well as many others, so if you’re interested in reading about our adventures in Arizona, visit my Arizona Travel Index and read through our experiences at these places. Happy Travels!