Tucson: An Oasis In The Sonoran Desert

Tucson may be Arizona’s second smallest city—but it’s second to none when it comes to sunny scenery; adventurous outdoor experiences; world-renowned restaurants, and a vibrant, diverse cultural heritage that can be seen in every corner of this charming Southwest desert oasis. However, Tucson is so much more than a jewel in the heart of the Sonoran Desert; though the surrounding desert is an intrinsic part of its unique history. It’s a haven for outdoor adventurers everywhere who want to take a hike or grab their bike. It’s a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy fit for foodies everywhere. And, most importantly, it’s a thriving, bustling, and eclectic city with everything from museums that wow to unforgettable scenery—and everything in between.

Outdoor Adventurers For Every Traveler

It is perhaps only natural that thoughts of Southwest Arizona bring to mind vast, desert landscapes dotted with cacti and rugged, rocky fixtures that shape the surrounding area into something inhospitable, and even lifeless. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The desert in Southwest Arizona is an incredibly diverse region that is defined not only by its unique flora, but its imposing mountains that contain multitudes.

One such example of this diversity can be found at Saguaro National Park. Perhaps one of Tucson’s most well-known attractions, Saguaro is so much more than its namesake giant cactus forests that are famous icons of the American West. Home to the nation’s largest cacti, this unique National Park is one of the best ways to embrace Tucson’s famed desert beauty.

Saguaro National Park Photo Courtesy of Visit Arizona

The park consists of two districts: the Rincon Mountain District on the Eastside, and the Tucson Mountain District on the Westside. Both have scenic drives and opportunities for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, so visitors can choose one side and spend an afternoon, or stretch their visit over multiple days to get the most of this incredible park. The visitor’s center (in either district), is a great place to start, as it offers useful park information and is the starting point for many of the park’s scenic drives and hiking trails. Saguaro also has year-round first come first serve camping sites for those who want to spend a night (or two), sleeping under the desert stars.

Sabino Canyon is a popular spot to get outdoors and enjoy breathtaking scenery—and with a plethora of trails that range from paved, all-access options to rugged, more challenging treks ideal for the seasoned hiker, there’s something for everyone at this lovely canyon at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Sabino Canyon Photo Courtesy of Rumolay

Since private vehicles are prohibited to enter the canyon, visitors must access the area by either the Sabino Canyon Crawler or the Bear Canyon Shuttle, where they can enjoy an informative audio tour and get off at any of the stops along the way to explore the canyon’s multitude of trails. The Recreation Area has over 30 miles of trails where visitors can enjoy the unique desert vegetation and native wildlife, including over 400 species of birds, and animals like bobcats and Gila monsters. But that’s not all—Sabino Canyon is part of the Coronado National Forest, which offers opportunities for water sports, fishing, horse riding, and OHV riding for those who want a little extra adventure on their trip. There are also numerous picnic areas throughout Sabino Canyon for those who want to pack a lunch and soak up the surroundings.

The fun doesn’t stop at the Tucson city limits—there are plenty of other outdoor gems to explore in the surrounding areas, such as Madera Canyon, a great spot for wildlife enthusiasts (especially birders); and Catalina State Park, a haven for hikers, bikers, and riders everywhere. Both are less than 30 miles from Tucson and offer great additional outdoor activities for those who want to stretch their legs outside the city. No matter where you travel—there are a number of activities both in and around Tucson for beautiful desert scenery with majestic mountain backdrops; diverse wildlife; and outdoor activities for the intrepid traveler looking for both scenic beauty and adventure.

Madera Canyon Photo Courtesy of Jordan Small

Experience Tucson’s Rich History, Culture, and Heritage

Arizona’s history stretches back thousands of years—long before it became the 48th state admitted to the Union in 1912. For thousands of years, many indigenous cultures made their homes throughout its many diverse landscapes; many of which gave rise to the unique cultural heritage the state knows today. Currently, 22 sovereign American Indian communities reside in Arizona, contributing their rich history; art and architecture; spiritual heritage; and more to the area.

And Tucson is no exception. From the many outdoor parks and botanical gardens throughout the city, to its museums that offer the best of the Southwest, Tucson’s rich heritage is evident in the city’s diverse attractions that reflect both its historic past and its vibrant, exciting present.

The Sonoran Desert is an intrinsic part of the city of Tucson and its surroundings. Covering approximately 100,000 square miles across Arizona, California, the Baja California Peninsula, and Sonora Mexico, it is a wildly diverse environment that is known for being lush by desert standards. The desert is divided into sections, and Tucson is the only major city located in the Arizona Upland part of the Sonoran. Therefore, any visit to Tucson would be incomplete without a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—the gateway to the wonderful world of this Great American Desert.


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a self-described fusion experience—zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium. Devoted to preservation, education, and interactional experiences that highlight the area’s diverse ecosystems through its accessible geological, plant, and animal collections, the museum has been a bastion for ecological education and conservation since its founding in 1952.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Photo Courtesy of Visit Tucson

Tucson is adept at blending outdoor scenery with historic landscapes that offer unique perspectives into the area’s culture. one such example is Tohono Chul—lush botanical gardens that perfectly incorporate the distinctive desert scenery into a must-visit destination complete with its own art galleries, iconic scenery, outdoor retreats, and Southwestern Bistro. The Tucson Botanical Gardens are another popular spot for those wanting to experience an oasis in the middle of the desert. Filled with carefully cultivated specialty gardens and tropical butterflies from around the world, the Tucson Botanical Gardens are a great example of the region’s complex natural diversity.

But Tucson’s history isn’t limited to the great outdoors; there are plenty of other attractions for those who want to experience the city’s history beyond the desert. The Pima Air and Space Museum is ideal for those who want to escape the desert heat—and experience the museum’s approximately 400 historic aircraft, all located within six indoor exhibit hangars. A haven for art lovers everywhere and a window into many of the Southwest’s native cultures, The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum consists of six permanent collections that trace the area’s history through original art, in addition to rotating exhibitions and original works available for purchase. Lovers of the weird and wonderful will appreciate The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, dedicated to preserving the world of miniatures through a sensory and interactive space focusing on education, history, and the magic of miniatures—where visitors can travel back in time through these fascinating tiny exhibits.

The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures Photo Courtesy of Visit Tucson

There is truly something for everyone in Tucson’s diverse museums and outdoor spaces. Other places of interest include The Franklin Auto Museum, a great place to check out classic autos; The Gaslight Theatre, a historic location that is a bastion for family-friendly entertainment; and the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic, lovingly restored mission that contains a church, mausoleum, and museum of its own. From history to culture, to specialty museums that explore the outdoors; take flight; and capture the world in miniature, Tucson has a rich array of attractions that embody the city’s spirit, heritage, and natural beauty.

A UNESCO City of Gastronomy With a Famous Food Scene

Tucson boasts one of the best restaurant scenes in the entire Southwest and is renowned for having some of the best Mexican food north of the border. Its delicious food is intrinsically linked with its proximity to Mexico and its influences; and can be found anywhere from its taco trucks to its downtown hotspots. With its reputation for top-notch Mexican cuisine that ranges from “fine to funky,” Tucson’s restaurant scene is as diverse as it is delicious.

Tucson’s claim to the “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” north of the border is aptly named because of its 23-mile section of the city containing the highest concentration of authentic Mexican eateries. From the area’s famous Sonoran hot dogs to soft tacos and empanadas bursting with authentic Mexican flavor; Tucson has it all—street vendors, sit-down eateries, and everything in between.

Photo Courtesy of El Guero Canelo

Eat like the locals do and begin a memorable Tucson food journey on 12th Avenue in South Tucson—a bustling Mexican-American neighborhood filled with something for every foodie. Start with a Sonoran hot dog: a local, bacon-wrapped classic usually topped with beans and a variety of condiments such as jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, and zesty mayo. El Guero Canelo is a popular spot with locations throughout Tucson. Known for its authentic Mexican fare and lively atmosphere, El Guero Canelo is the perfect spot to try a Sonoran-style dog.

Sonoran Style Hotdogs Photo Courtesy Kiki’s Sonoran Hot Dogs & Catering

Continue on 12th to sample some fresh favorites at El Merendero, known for its inventive takes on classic dishes—many of which highlight seafood from the Gulf. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, visitors can start their day with chilaquiles and end their day with distinctive house specialties like the Camaron Veracruzanos. Looking for a sweet treat? The delicious 12th Avenue stretch has that, too. Stop in at La Estrella Bakery, a family-owned Mexican bakery known for its house made, traditional treats—from pastries and cookies to tamales and donuts.

However, the restaurants on 12th Avenue aren’t the only ones worth checking out in this foodie paradise. Vegans and vegetarians will rejoice at the organic local offerings served at Tumerico, a hip, casual spot known for its jackfruit carnitas. A popular downtown spot since 2010, Boca Tacos is known for its classic combos of tequila and tacos—all accompanied by their famous salsa. Take in the best of Tucson while chilling on the outdoor patio and soaking up the vibes of Tucson’s historic Fourth Avenue; all while munching on house-made chips and sipping on craft beer from local fave Borderlands Brewing. For those searching for a more upscale experience, PY Steakhouse is a signature dining experience where steaks take center stage and the ambiance is second to none.

Borderlands Brewing Co. Photo Courtesy of Borderlands Brewing Co.

Tucson is known for its sunny climate and Southwest flair; where rich history, culture, and heritage mix with stunning landscapes and breathtaking desert scenery to create a diverse, vibrant city unafraid to embrace its past, while also embracing an eclectic present known for its hustle and bustle; epic food scene; and a myriad of local attractions. However, Tucson also has an eye toward the future. Though centered around a downtown that continues to reinvent itself in the heart of the city, Tucson remains a perfect blend of classic and contemporary vibes, all with a Southwestern twist all its own.

Venturing Out: Park 2 Park, Tucson: Ropes & Fears

Watch next: Behind the scenes extended moments from Venturing Out: Park 2 Park, Tucson: Ropes & Fears