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Tucson

Arizona‘s second-largest city feels more like a small town one enriched by its deep Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Old West roots than a city with over 500,000 people. In a part of the world where everything seems new and buildings more than 50 years old are viewed as historic places, Tucson is an exception. Its history dates back to A. D. 100, when the Hohokam Indians first settled in the fertile farming valley.

Today, Tucson is a bustling center of business as well as a kicked-back university and resort town offering travellers history, culture, shopping and the great outdoors.

Visitors should not miss the nearby mission San Xavier del Bac, a masterpiece of Spanish architecture set in the Tohon O’odham Reservation or Saguaro National Park with the world’s highest concentration of saguaro cactus. Tucson also serves as a great base for day trips to the mountains, deserts, canyons and dusty cowboy towns around southern Arizona: Among the area’s myriad attractions are the old mining towns of Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas and Ajo (which deserve overnight stays); Cochise’s Stronghold; the ominous, towering rock formations of Chiricahua National Monument; and the lively shops and restaurants in Nogales, across the Mexican border.

Desert Park Tuscon

Introduction

Tucson, known locally as the Old Pueblo, is a fast-growing metropolitan area of more than 725,000 people. Its culture blends the best of contemporary shopping, dining and art with historic influences of centuries-old civilizations. The city is surrounded by majestic desert, verdant canyons and rugged mountains, all beneath an endless expanse of some of the bluest sky you’ve ever seen.

Founded by the Spanish in 1775, Tucson is built on the site of a much older Native American village. The city’s name comes from the Pima Indian word chukeson, which means “spring at the base of Black Mountain,” a reference to Sentinel Pealaska, now known simply as “A Mountain.” From 1867 to 1877, Tucson was the territorial capital of Arizona, but eventually the capital was moved to Phoenix. Consequently, Tucson did not develop as quickly as Phoenix and holds fast to its Hispanic and Western heritage.

Despite its position as Arizona‘s second city, Tucson supports an active cultural life, with symphony, ballet, opera and theater companies and many festivals celebrating aspects of local life. However, it’s the city’s natural surroundings that set Tucson apart.

Four mountain ranges ring the city and in those mountains and their foothills are giant saguaro cacti, an oasis, one of the finest zoos in the world, a ski area and miles of hiking and horseback-riding trails.

Understandably, the Tucson lifestyle is oriented toward the outdoors. History, culture and nature are the major attractions, but with its mild, sunny climate and mountain vistas, Tucson is a natural for resorts. The city may not yet have as many world-class resorts as the Valley of the Sun, but the ones in Tucson definitely boast the finer views.

Although the metropolitan area covers nearly 500 square miles, it isn’t hard to get your bearings in the Tucson valley. In the morning, the sun rises from behind the Rincon Mountains to the east, flooding the valley with light. The Tortolita Mountains shelter the northwest, while the Santa Catalina Mountains flank the north and northeast borders of the city, silent guardians opposite the Santa Rita Mountains rising to the south and southeast.

In the late evening, the Tucson Mountains to the west are silhouetted against legendary sunsets of brilliant red, orange, purple and pink. Between them all stands Tucson‘s Sentinel Pealaska, from which you can look out over the city and trace its three major waterways: The Santa Cruz, the Rillito and the Pantano. These washes and riverbeds are usually dry until the summer monsoon season, when thunderstorms in and around the city can fill them to the banks within minutes.

Melding Hispanic, Anglo and Native American roots, Tucson is a city with a strong sense of identity, aware of its desert setting, confident in its style. Back in the days of urban renewal, Tucson‘s citizens turned back the bulldozers and managed to preserve at least some of the city’s old Mexican character. Likewise, today, in the face of the sort of sprawl that has turned Phoenix into something like another Los Angeles, advocates for controlled growth are fighting hard to preserve both Tucson‘s desert environment and the city’s unique character.

In a part of the world where everything seems new and buildings more than 50 years old are viewed as historic places, Tucson is an exception; it’s history dates back to A. D. 100, when the Hohokam Indians first settled in the fertile farming valley. Today, Tucson is a bustling center of business as well as a kicked-back university and resort town offering travelers history, culture, shopping and the great outdoors. Visitors should not miss the nearby mission San Xavier del Bac, a masterpiece of Spanish architecture set in the Tohon O’odham Reservation, or Saguaro National Park with the world’s highest concentration of saguaro cactus.

Tucson also serves as a great base for day trips to the mountains, deserts, canyons and dusty cowboy towns around southern Arizona: Among the area’s myriad attractions are the old mining towns of Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas and Ajo (which deserve overnight stays); Cochise’s Stronghold; the ominous, towering rock formations of Chiricahua National Monument; and the lively shops and restaurants in Nogales, across the Mexican border.

History & Culture

In the first century, a tribe of Indians farmed this region, taking advantage of the natural irrigation of the rivers that cut through the land. Then, inexplicably, they disappeared, giving them the name we know them by today Hohokam or “The Vanished Ones.”

Later the Hohokam was replaced by Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes. It was the Pima who named what we now call Sentinel Peak “Stjukshon,” meaning, roughly, “spring at the foot of a black mountain.” From its height, Italian Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who served as a missionary for the Spanish church, first surveyed the flowing Santa Cruz River in 1694.

Still, it was nearly a century later before Tucson was founded. The Irishman Hugh O’Connor, founded Tucson on Aug. 20, 1775. A walled presidio provided refuge for travelers and residents and was soon nicknamed the “Old Pueblo,” an endearment still used for the city today.

Spain‘s claim to Tucson ended when Mexico gained independence in 1821 and Tucson became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. It has remained U. S. territory ever since, except for a brief period when Confederate soldiers seized the city during the Civil War.

In 1867, the Old Pueblo was named capital of the newly formed Arizona Territory, but the capital was moved north to Phoenix before Arizona became a state in 1912. Undaunted, Tucsonans thrived and eventually established another prestigious state institution, the University of Arizona.

Attractions

El Presidio Historic District
Named for the Spanish military garrison that once stood on this site, the neighborhood is bounded by Alameda Street on the south, Main Avenue on the west, Franklin Street on the north and Church Avenue on the east. El Presidio was the city’s most affluent neighborhood in the 1880’s and many large homes from that period have been restored and now house restaurants, arts-and-crafts galleries and a bed-and-breakfast inn. The Tucson Museum of Art anchors the neighborhood.

Barrio Historic District
Another 19th century neighborhood, the Barrio District is bounded on the north by Cushing Street, on the west by the railroad tracks, on the south by 18th Street and on the east by Stone Avenue. The Barrio District is characterized by Sonoran-style adobe row houses that directly abut the street with no yards, a style typical in Mexican towns. Although a few restaurants and art galleries dot the neighborhood, most restored buildings serve as offices. This is still a borderline neighborhood where restoration is a slow, ongoing process, so try to avoid it late at night.

Sabino Canyon - Tuscon

Armory Park Historic District
Bounded by 12th Street on the north, Stone Avenue on the west, 19th Street on the south and Second Avenue and Third Avenue on the east, the Armory Park neighborhood was Tucson‘s first historic district. Today this area is undergoing a renaissance but isn’t yet an entirely safe place to wander after dark.

Downtown Arts District
This neighborhood encompasses a bit of the Armory District, a bit of El Presidio District and the stretch of Congress Street and Broadway Boulevard west of Toole Avenue. Although the area is home to several galleries, nightclubs and hip cafes, as of 1999, it had lost a lot of its best businesses and was struggling to survive as an arts district.

Fourth Avenue
Running from University Boulevard in the north to Ninth Street in the south, Fourth Avenue is Tucson‘s hippest shopping district (although a little run-down and not tending upward as one would expect). Businesses cater to University of Arizona students with boutiques selling ethnic clothing and shops offering handcrafted items from around the world. Twice a year, in spring and late fall, the street is closed to traffic for a colorful street fair. With plenty of bars and restaurants, this street sees a lot of after-dark foot traffic that keeps it pretty safe.

The Foothills
Encompassing a huge area of northern Tucson, the foothills contain the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Elegant shopping plazas, modern malls, world-class resorts, golf courses and expensive residential neighborhoods are surrounded by hilly desert at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Recreation

The city of Tucson is unique in that the surrounding area offers excellent desert riding with the added challenges and benefits of riding at high elevation. There are a number of top-notch bike shops in town that sponsor some tough area racers. They also hold some great races and weekend rides.

The University of Arizona, in Tucson, contributes to the young population of mountain bikers who are keeping the sport growing in the area. The city itself is a lively, progressive spot with a love for music (particularly the blues), the arts and good food.

The desert and mountains, as well as a lively, outdoors-oriented population, combine to make Tucson one of the most agreeable cities I found. Give this town and its surroundings some time and you won’t be disappointed.

Once again heat, sun intensity and aridity are factors that need to be figured into any desert outing. Each of these factors needs to be carefully considered and constantly evaluated, to avoid sunstroke, dehydration, heatstroke and heat exhaustion. Any one of these heat-related conditions is serious and can become fatal if immediate action is not taken.

Even though you may be riding in cooler temperatures at a higher elevation, dehydration and sunstroke are still real and present dangers. Riding at higher elevations also throws in the extra challenge of trying to equip yourself for rapid temperature change. Storm buildups are born off the higher, moister slopes of these mountains and this is where they hit first and hardest. A thunderhead may be growing over the ridge out of sight and the next thing you know the temperature has dropped 20 degrees and it is starting to hail.

If thunderstorms are anywhere in the forecast, do yourself a favor and carry a thin layer of clothing for warmth and a weatherproof shell. They may seem un-necessary as you are dripping sweat in 90 degree heat on your way up, but you’ll be wearing a big smile if it’s cool and rainy on the way down and you’ve come prepared. I like a lightweight, long-sleeve polyester underwear top for warmth. Most long-sleeve bike jerseys are a combination of polyester and lycra and will work fine. Avoid cotton, for it will sop up moisture like a sponge and help to lower your body temperature, especially on the ride down. A long-sleeve cotton shirt is just what you want on the desert floor, but not in the mountains.

The Santa Catalinas and Rincon Mountains receive the majority of recreation traffic in this area, while the Tortolita, Santa Rita and Sierrita Mountains are further out of the way and are less traveled. Watch out for car traffic on some of the dirt roads, like Reddington Road or the Mt. Lemmon Road from Oracle. All services are available in Tucson.

In The Area

Colossal Cave Mountain Park

It seems nearly every cave in the Southwest has its legends of bandits and buried loot and Colossal Cave is no exception. A tour through this dry cavern, which isn’t exactly colossal, but still pretty impressive, combines a bit of Western lore with a bit of geography for an experience that both kids and adults enjoy. Not surprisingly for this desert location, this is a dry cave, which means that the stalactites, stalagmites and other formations are no longer actively growing.

The 45-minute tour of the cave covers about half a mile and the temperature is a comfortable 70 to 72 F. 22 miles east of Tucson in Vail. Phone: 520-647-7275. Open: Mar 16-Sept 15 Mon-Sat 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Sun and holidays 8:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.; Sept 16-Mar 15 Mon-Sat 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Sun and holidays 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.. Take Old Spanish Trail southeast from east Tucson or take Interstate 10 and get off at the Vail exit.

Sabino Canyon
Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Coronado National Forest, Sabino Canyon is a desert oasis that has attracted people and animals for thousands of years. Today this is by far the most spectacular and accessible corner of the desert in the Tucson area, containing not only impressive desert scenery, but hiking trails and a stream as well. These days it is the chance to splash and swim in the canyon’s waterfalls and pools that attracts most visitors.

However, for those who prefer just to gaze at the beauty of crystal-clear water flowing through a rocky canyon guarded by saguaro cacti, there’s a narrated tram ride through the lower canyon at frequent intervals through the day.

There are also many trails and picnic tables. Moonlight tram rides take place three times each month between April and December (but not July or August). The Bear Canyon tram is used by hikers heading to the picturesque Seven Falls, which are at the end of a 2.6-mile hiking trail. Bring at least 1 quart of water per person if you plan to do any hiking here. 5900 N. Sabino Canyon Road. Phone 520-749-2861 or 520-749-2327 for moonlight reservations. Open: Park, daily dawn-dusk.

Saguaro National Park
The saguaro cactus has been called the monarch of the desert and is the quintessential symbol of the American desert. Coyotes, foxes, squirrels, javelinas and the region’s Tohono O’odham Indians all eat the sweet fruit of the saguaro. Since 1933 the two sections of Saguaro National Park have protected the saguaro and all the other inhabitants of this part of the Sonoran Desert.

The west section is the more popular both because of its proximity to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios and because there are more impressive stands of saguaros in this section of the park. In the area near the Red Hills Information Center is a water hole that attracts wild animals, which you’re most likely to see at dawn, dusk, or night. The east section of the park contains an older area of forest at the foot of the Rincon Mountains. This section is popular with hikers because most of it has no roads.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The name “museum” is misleading; this delightful site is a beautifully planned zoo. In this microcosm of a desert environment, hummingbirds, cactus wrens, rattlesnakes, scorpions, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs all busy themselves in natural habitats ingeniously planned to allow the visitor to look on without disturbing them. 2021 N. Kinney Road., tel. 520-883-2702. $8.95. Open Mar.-Sept., daily 7:30-6; Oct.-Feb., daily 8:30-5. Last ticket sales 1 hr before closing.

Biosphere 2
The miniature world created within Biosphere includes tropical rain forest, savanna, desert, thorn scrub, marsh, ocean and agricultural areas, including almost 4,000 plant and animal species. Guided walking tours, which last about two hours, don’t enter the sealed sphere, but a film and cut-away model explain the project and visitors are able to look inside through observation areas. AZ 77, mile marker 96.5, tel. 520/896-6200 or 800/828-2462. Open daily 9-5; guided tours 9-4 (every hr on the hr).

Center for Creative Photography
Ansel Adams conceived the idea of this museum; it houses a superb collection of his work and that of many other major 20th-century photographers, including Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. University of Arizona, 1030 N. Olive Road. Phone 520-621-7968. Admission free. Open weekdays 11-5, Sun. noon-5.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
The oldest Catholic church in the United States still serving the community for which it was built, San Xavier was constructed out of native materials by Franciscan missionaries between 1777 and 1797. Today it is owned by the Tohon O’odham Indian tribe. The beauty of the mission, with elements of Spanish, Baroque and mudejar (Spanish Islamic) architectural styles, is highlighted by the stark landscape against which it is set. On Sunday and religious holidays, there’s often a mariachi band. San Xavier Road., 9 miles southwest of Tucson on Interstate 19. Phone 520-294-2624.

Saguaro National Park West
This is the smaller (24,000 acres) and most visited section of the national park that flanks Tucson – its eastern and western portions are divided by the city. Together the sections are home to the world’s largest concentration of the huge saguaro cactus, which is native to the Sonoran Desert and known for its towering height (often 50 feet). Before you venture into the desert, it’s worth stopping in at the impressive visitor center. Kinney Road. Phone 520-733-5158. Admission free. Visitor center open daily 8:30-5; park roads 6 AM-sunset.

Titan Missile Museum
During the Cold War, Tucson was ringed by 18 Titan II missiles. Of the total 54 such missiles that existed in the U. S., the only one that was left intact when the Salt II treaty with the Soviet Union was signed has been turned into this rather sobering museum. Guided tours take visitors down into the command post where a ground crew of four lived. Among the fascinating sights is a 114 foot, 165-ton, two-stage liquid-fuel rocket. Now empty, it originally held a nuclear payload with 214 times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. 1580 W. Duval Mine Road. Phone 520-791-2929. $6. Open Nov.-Apr., daily 9-5; May-Oct., Wed.-Sun. 9-5 (last tour at 4).

When To Go

The best time to visit Tucson is from October through April. At this time of year, Tucson enjoys mild weather and plenty of cultural events. Autumn is the best time to visit, weather-wise, though early Spring has all the best festivals.

Those hardy souls who brave a visit in summer can witness the mercury riding above 100 degrees F for weeks on end, commonly climbing well over 110 degrees F in midsummer. Late Summer is also monsoon season, when late afternoon thunderstorms blast the area and flash flooding becomes a concern for hikers.

During the hottest spells, nobody does much of anything during daylight hours.


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