By Jill “MamaBug” Frier
It’s always surprising to hear how many Phoenicians have never spent time in Tucson. Just a short distance south of the Phoenix metropolitan area is a charming gem of southwestern sights to see. Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, but ASU fans shouldn’t let that stop them from enjoying the many fascinating places to see in Pima County. The hotels and resorts are plentiful, but our advice is do your research and look at the map to plan your trip. Tucson is much more than what you can see while driving down the highway, and the limited view from I-10 just doesn’t do it justice. Here are our favorite spots to visit while in Tucson.
Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
It’s a zoo. It’s a botanical garden. It’s a museum. It’s all of the above! The Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum is located in mountainous desert on the west side of Tucson, but still right down the road from both Old Tucson Studios and Saguaro National Park West. The museum provides visitors with gorgeous views of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna in a botanical garden type of setting. A stroll down the paved and unpaved trails takes you near enclosures that are home to various creatures native to the Sonoran Desert, from hummingbirds and butterflies, to javelinas, hawks, bears and mountain lions.
One of our favorite exhibits is the geological display, located in a mineshaft trail that takes you underground to see the wonders of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert under the surface. This state-of-the-art facility is a must-see if you are in Tucson – and worth planning a trip just to go there on the weekend.
Old Tucson Studios
Ever wonder where they made your favorite Western? It was probably right here in Old Tucson Studios. Located on the west side of Tucson, just down the road from the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, more than 400 movies have been produced at Old Tucson over the years – and they’re still going strong. With live entertainment, rides, tours and plenty to see, this is a great place to visit when you head to Tucson.
Saguaro National Park – East and West
Some of the most beautiful hiking spots in Arizona are found in Saguaro National Park West and East. The West part of the National Park is home to a fantastic display of petroglyphs, mountains and Saguaros. The East part of the park provides an entirely different view of the pristine Sonoran Desert, mountain ecosystems and desert wildlife. Everything the Sonoran Desert has to offer is available in two completely different parks, focused on the same purpose – preserving the mighty Sonoran Desert and the Saguaros that give the National Park its name.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Do you love fantastic caves and beautiful desert vistas? Then you’ll love visiting Kartchner Caverns State Park. It’s opening in 1999 makes it a somewhat recent addition to the Arizona State Park system. Located southeast of Tucson, near Saguaro National Park East, Kartchner Caverns State Park provides facilities for camping, hiking and of course touring the caverns. Be sure to book your cave tour tickets in advance because tours book up very quickly!
Pima Air and Space Museum
If you love aircrafts, space and the history of flight, then the Pima Air and Space Museum should be on your must-see bucket list. This museum is one of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world, featuring over 350 historical aircrafts from a Wright Flyer to a 787 Dreamliner. The museum, which opened in 1976, is located on 80 acres in the southeast part of Tucson, near Davis–Monthan Air Force Base.
The Pima Air and Space Museum houses six indoor exhibit hangars, three of which are dedicated specifically to World War II. Walking tours and museum ground Tram Tours are offered daily. The museum is also the exclusive operator for bus tours of the “Aircraft Boneyard,” a 2,600-acre U.S. military and government aircraft storage facility also located in Tucson. If you love aircrafts, be sure to plan a visit to the Pima Air and Space Museum. But give yourself plenty of time to explore – the museum is huge and there are hours worth of airplanes and historical displays to see!
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
If you are looking for a beautiful place to get outdoors for some hiking, biking or trail running, Sabino Canyon is home to a range of trekking opportunities from paved paths and easy trails, to more rugged mountainous terrain. Located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers visitors a chance to see one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Sabino Creek flows almost year around and the Sabino Canyon tram offers narrated, educational 45-minute tours every day. The tram route begins and ends at the Visitor’s Center, with stops at points along the road to drop off and pick up hikers at the various trailheads. This is a wonderful spot to get a flavor for the beautiful Tucson wilderness.
The Biosphere 2 is one of the most interesting and educational attractions we have visited in Arizona. One of the world’s most unique facilities, the Biosphere 2 is dedicated to the research and understanding of global scientific issues. The facility is a working laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and is a far-reaching provider of public education. The mission of Biosphere 2 is “to advance our understanding of the natural and man-made environment through unique experimentation, training of interdisciplinary scientists, science education and public outreach, and organization of meetings to address grand challenges that affect the quality of life and the understanding of our place in the universe.” This facility definitely does that – and it’s open to the public for tours.
Biosphere 2 is located north of Tucson, near Oracle, and you can reach it on the way into Tucson if you are traveling down AZ Highway 77 from Florence, AZ. There is really nothing like Biosphere 2. Make a point to stop and take a look the next time you head to Tucson – it’s worth the trip!
These are just a few of our favorite places to visit in Tucson, but there are many more spots worth seeing so take some time to stop and enjoy the desert scenery. And be sure to check out Ladybug’s Blog (www.LadybugsBlog.com) for more fun things to do with kids everywhere in Arizona!