To truly experience Tucson, you have to take advantage of all that this city has to offer. From rugged desert hikes to historic landmarks and unique cultural attractions, there is plenty to see and explore here. For tourists on the hunt for outdoor adventure and southwestern culture set among sunny skies, we’ve compiled a list of the top activities in Tucson that you can’t miss.
Saguaro National Park
If you are visiting Tucson, don’t pass up the chance to visit Saguaro National Park. The breathtaking Saguaro National Park, home to the iconic saguaro cactus, offers some incredible scenic drives, nature walks, and hikes with stunning views of the desert landscapes and wildlife.
The layout of the park is unlike any that we’ve visited because it has two distinct districts (east and west) that are divided by the city. If you only have time to visit one part of the park, we recommend Saguaro National Park West which boasts the highest concentration of Saguaro cacti in the world. The Saguaro towers up to 50 feet tall and can live for over two centuries.
After a stop at the visitor’s center, the scenic Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to start your exploration of the park. It is an unpaved, graded dirt road that offers scenic pullouts and hiking trailheads in a 6-mile loop. Some of the best trails for an overview of the park include:
- Valley View Overlook Trail – At just under 1 mile this easy trek offers a beautiful panoramic view from a small rise over the desert.
- Wild Dog Trail – Beginning at the same parking area as Valley View Overlook, this easy hike is just under two miles and is a great add-on if you want to spend a little more time winding through the desert landscape. As you progress along the path, you will encounter several interesting rock formations.
- Signal Hill Trail – This is another great out-and-back nature walk that comes in at just .3 miles. It’s a great opportunity to stretch your legs and walk through a sea of Saguaro and to see some petroglyphs.
- Cactus Wren Trail – Beginning at the same parking area as the Signal Hill Trail, this is a great add-on that would result in a total of a 3.9-mile loop. Along the way, hikers can expect to see several species of birds, including the namesake cactus wren. The trail is fairly easy, but the west half of the loop gets pretty sandy which can provide a bit more of a challenge.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Nature enthusiasts and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of desert ecosystems will find plenty to explore and learn at this world-renowned museum. With over 85 acres of Sonoran desert habitat and trails, the museum showcases the region’s rich biodiversity and cultural heritage. Part-zoo, part-desert botanical garden, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum has a range of interactive exhibits and live shows that showcase the essence of the desert’s ecosystem and its inhabitants. Our favorite live show is the Raptor Free Flight program, where you can see hawks, eagles, and falcons soaring overhead.
The Desert Loop Trail at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a 1/2-mile walking trail that winds its way through the museum’s outdoor exhibits. The trail offers visitors a chance to view and learn about the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. The trail is well-marked, and several interpretive signs along the way provide information about the plants and animals found in the area. Along the trail, you’ll encounter a wide variety of cacti, desert trees, and other vegetation. You’ll also get a chance to observe animals such as coyotes, javelinas, and tortoises.
If you’re interested in geology and the history of the Southwest, the Earth Sciences Center is not to be missed. Here, you can see stunning mineral specimens, learn about the geological processes that formed the Sonoran Desert, and explore the museum’s extensive collection of fossils.
The museum is also home to a world-class art gallery that showcases the work of regional artists. With rotating exhibitions that change throughout the year, there’s always something new to discover. From photography to sculpture to painting, the diverse collection of art at the museum reflects the beauty and diversity of the Sonoran Desert.
Old Tucson has been a popular spot for tourists for more than 80 years, offering a glimpse into the olden days of the West. With a wide variety of attractions, shows, and activities, Old Tucson is a fun-filled theme park for all ages. This article highlights what to see and do at Old Tucson.
It’s been a filming location for many Western movies and TV shows like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone, The Three Amigos, and many others. Today you can take a walking tour of the Movie Set Museum to learn about the history of the movie industry and see original sets, costumes, and props used in famous Western movies.
Old Tucson also offers several live shows that recreate the Wild West era including gunfights, stunt shows, and musical performances. Don’t miss the High Noon shootout and the Can Can show, which are some of the most popular shows in the park.
Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway
With its picturesque hairpin turns and stunning mountain views, the Mt. Lemmon or Sky Island Scenic Byway makes for an unforgettable 24-mile drive (each way). Beginning in the northeastern part of the city, this paved road will take you from the Sonoran Desert to the forested summit of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
At over 9,000 feet in elevation, Mount Lemmon is known as Babad Do’ag (or Frog Mountain) to
the Tohono O’odham, the Indigenous people of the area. On your drive up the mountain, you’ll encounter numerous scenic pull-outs, a visitor center, and trailheads to the over 250 miles of trails that weave across the Santa Catalina Mountain Range.
Due to the elevation, it provides a great way to beat the heat in Tucson. The temperature drops around 20 degrees from the base, so it is always a good idea to bring a jacket or sweater.
During the winter, you can ski or snowboard at Ski Valley on the summit. They operate their ski lift for scenic rides the rest of the year.
Catalina State Park
Another great option for nature lovers is Catalina State Park. It offers a plethora of outdoor activities, including hiking, birdwatching, camping, and more. Located on the northwestern side of the city, Catalina State Park boasts over 24 miles of hiking trails, accommodating hikers of all skill levels. Start with the easy 1-mile Catalina Nature Trail or the 1.3-mile Catalina Birding Trail that goes along the river part of the way.
For a more challenging hike with gorgeous mountain views, try the Romero Canyon Trail to the Romero Pools. This 6.1-mile out-and-back hike climbs 1,318 feet in elevation so make sure you have plenty of water on hand and are acclimated to desert hiking. Also, be aware that if you go during the fall months, you won’t see much water at the pools.
Tucson Loop Bike Path
Tucson Loop Bike Path is one of the best ways to explore the natural beauty of Tucson while staying active. This 131-mile multi-use trail traverses the beautiful Sonoran Desert and is perfect for cycling, running, and walking. Most of the trail is flat and easy to navigate, making it a perfect option for those looking to get outside and move their bodies. It also links many cultural sites around the city providing you with an alternative means of travel.
San Xavier del Bac
This beautiful architectural masterpiece is about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. San Xavier del Bac, also known as the “White Dove of the Desert,” was a Spanish mission founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 to convert the O’odham people. Today, visitors can explore the history of the mission by touring the church, which boasts stunning Baroque architecture, and its surrounding grounds, which include the historic cemetery.
San Xavier del Bac is home to one of the finest collections of Spanish Colonial art in the country. Adorning the walls and ceilings of the church are original frescoes, which were painted in the 1700s by Native American artist, Juan Bautista de Anza. These murals tell the history of the area and the founding of the mission. Additionally, the mission houses a museum, which displays a collection of religious and cultural artifacts.
Pima Air and Space Musuem
As Air Force veterans, we visit every air and space museum we encounter on our travels. We really enjoyed Pima Air and Space Museum’s impressive collection of over 350 historical aircraft and spacecraft. We took the guided tram tour and then spent the rest of the time wandering around looking at a diverse range of aircraft, including military and vintage civilian planes. Some notable aircraft on display include the SR-71 Blackbird, a high-altitude reconnaissance plane that holds the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, and a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a massive bomber plane that was used during World War II. There’s also a lunar module and a replica of the Wright Brothers’ first successful airplane.
Where to Stay
Located in Tucson’s Oro Valley, the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Resort has been recognized for its award-winning golf and tennis facilities. The resort has 3 golf courses, 31 lighted tennis courts, and 4 swimming pools. Featuring stunning views of the resort’s 500 acres and the surrounding Santa Catalina Mountains, this is the place to stay if you want to relax in luxury while visiting the area.
Another great place to stay closer to the airport is the Tucson LazyDays KOA. It offers RV and tent sites, as well as deluxe southwest-inspired cabins so there is a place to stay for everyone. The campground also boasts a bar and grill, two swimming pools, and a fitness room.
Plan Your Trip Today
Tucson has plenty of fun, exciting, and amazing attractions to explore for tourists from all over the globe. These are just a few of the things to do and places to see that are not to be missed. Whether you’re into nature, art, history, food, or outdoor adventure, or just want to experience the city’s vibe, take time to enjoy some of the top picks listed above. Remember, by the time your trip ends, you’ll discover why Tucson is one of the fastest-selling tourist destinations globally and why it’s on everyone’s bucket list.
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