Under the radar USA: Tucson is more than its cactus

Arizona is hot. But Tucson is literally (and figuratively) 10 degrees cooler than the capital of Phoenix. Although best visited in shoulder seasons or winter to avoid 100-plus-degree temperatures, Tucson is a remarkable place for hiking among the giant green saguaro cactus, dude ranching, clementine sunsets, and mountain biking. Here’s why:

A radiant orange and blue sunset paints the sky behind a row of tall, armed cactuses
The iconic saguaro cactus and stunning sunsets are just some of the beautiful sights of Tucson © tonda / Getty Images

Scope out the saguaro

Believe it or not, in some circles Saguaro National Park (pronounced “suh-wah-roe”) has taken the top ranking in lists of the best national parks. Although the towering green cacti might at first seem lifeless and boring, you’ll quickly change your mind while navigating through these very much alive and guardian-like plants, which can tower up to 50 feet tall and live more than 200 years. To fully appreciate these desert sentinels, you must walk among them — driving will not suffice. And the best place to do that is in the west side of the park, where the Saguaro cluster in greater, taller, and more concentrated numbers. You can’t go wrong with the short but stunning Valley Overlook Trail during sunrise or sunset. While there, be sure to drive to nearby Gates Pass Road for stunning views of the Saguaro-filled Tucson Mountains.

A man in a Chicago Cubs cap leads a line of dude ranch visitors on horses through scrubland and cactuses
Dude ranches like Tanque Verde provide a romanticized version of Western history to visitors. © Bill Fink / Chicago Tribune / Getty Images

Dude ranches and desert

Tucson is a hub for dude ranches, places that recreate the romantic idealization of Western tradition and history for paying visitors. Provided you don’t mind being labeled a tourist, you’ll have a wonderful time staying at or simply day-tripping to one. At Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, for example, you can romanticize the American West in purposely antique rooms while indulging in horseback riding, cowboy cookouts, and delightful hoedowns. Meanwhile, the desert fight for survival is on full display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is a 98-acre outdoor zoo, indoor aquarium, botanical garden, and natural history museum near the west entrance of Saguaro National Park. With two miles of designated trails, shade cover, and ice cream on site, it’s an enlightening way to soak in both Arizona and Tucson history.

Tucson, Arizona, downtown skyline with Sentinel Peak at dusk.
Sunsets don't get much prettier anywhere in the world than the deserts of Arizona © Sean Pavone / Getty Images

Salsas and sunsets

A mere 70 miles from the Mexican border, Tucson is heavily influenced by genuine Mexican cuisine with a slight American twist. At Boca Tacos, for example, you’ll get up to half a dozen salsas with your order to sample a wide variety of flavors in an al fresco setting. Of course, there’s plenty of Tex-Mex and traditional American foods in the area as well. Either way, Tucson is an exceptional destination for Southwestern cuisine. And you know those postcard photos of silhouetted cacti and palms in the foreground of a radiant pink-orange sky? That’s everyday life. Simply put, the sunsets here are amazing —right on par with the epic sunsets of South Africa. Only here, it comes in the old American west with all of its iconic trappings.

An overhead view of the desert shows dozens and dozens of abandoned airplanes in the desert near Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona
Davis–Monthan Air Force Base is closed to the public, but it's just one of several airplane boneyards near Tucson © Nearmap / Getty Images

Biking and boneyards

Whether you’re in the surrounding mountains or valleys of Tucson proper, the Sonoran Desert is a surprisingly great place to offroad bike. With more than 700 miles of designated trails, the terrain is as plentiful as the engrossing cacti. Avoid those bad boys at all costs, though — they straight-up hurt if you miss a turn. Like hiking, single-tracking through them is a lively experience. For a look at Tucson’s other famous transportation, seek out the largest collective of aircraft graveyards in the world. Although the government boneyards are closed to the public, you can get an impressive and up-close taste of the them at the Pima Air & Space Museum. And driving the southern streets of Tucson is an unimaginable experience—like something out of a dystopian novel.

A road turns through a snowy mountain setting, with evergreen trees on the sides of the road, near Tucson
Snow in the desert? Mount Lemmon is a diversion from the norm near Tucson © James Randklev / Getty Images

Tucson: Get away from it all

Like any good desert or Palm Springs-like resort, Sabino Canyon (on the northeast side of the city) is home to some wonderful oases for sun, spas, pools, and relaxation. At Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, for example, you’ll be impressed by the on-site amenities, golf, and views of greater Tucson. And when you want to get away from the scalding heat, it’s a whopping 30 degrees cooler at Mount Lemmon. You can even ski at America’s southernmost mountain resort in winter. At over 9,000 feet, Mount Lemmon enjoys over 200 inches of annual snowfall and is just over an hour’s drive from downtown Tucson. In summer, it is the ideal place to hike, camp, and stargaze and comes highly recommended by both tourists and locals alike.

Pro Tip: Tucson is a sprawling city with slow-speed roads and highways. In other words, if you’re traveling 10 miles by car, it will take you twice as many minutes (20) to arrive.

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