Aside from the conspicuous and obvious lounging in the sun poolside (remember your SPF 40, especially from 10AM to 3PM—sunburn can take place as quickly as 20 minutes here), Tucson’s most appealing facets are its location in the Sonoran Desert and its status as a center for Southwest and Indian art. Play golf, sure; sunbathe, absolutely; dine on handmade tamales, yes; but don’t neglect to include a desert hike and a visit to one of the city’s fine museums and galleries.
The world’s leading institution devoted to study and appreciation of the Sonoran Desert hugs a slope on the west side of the Tucson Mountains. This huge outdoor nature park offers a complete look at the desert whose name it bears, but more than that it urges visitors to appreciate and protect it. Visitors stroll numerous paths past enclosures holding javelinas, bobcats, mountain lions, desert tortoises and many other Sonoran denizens. Especially popular are the frequent raptor shows, which run from October to April, the walk-through, hummingbird enclosure, and the chance to see Gila monsters and rattlesnakes, rarely spotted in the wild. This is one of the finest natural history facilities in the world, and one of our favorites.
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As much a monument to scientific novelty as anything else, this once-famed sealed dome was the site of an early 1990s experiment in contained life support. Remember the internecine jealousies and fractious disputes? Like a “Real Housewives” show, only with loftier goals. Visitors today can contemplate both the transitory nature of scientific experiment and the much-expanded facility’s (now 7.2 million cubic feet under glass) current incarnation as a research center, operated by the University of Arizona. Among the scientific studies conducted here are closed-loop biology, the health and evolution of contained environments, and how they relate to the first biosphere, earth itself.
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Old planes dot unused tarmacs throughout Southern Arizona—the desert climate is perfect for preservation of industrial artifacts—but this museum is here more as a result of nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and the region’s longstanding status as a military aerospace center. The 300 aircraft here represent the largest non-governmental collection anywhere, and they include such gems as a World War II B-29, a Blackbird spy plane, JFK’s Air Force One plane, and many old commercial craft sent here to “retire.” It’s not for those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of old planes, though.
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Devoted to understanding the way human culture melds with the Arizona desert, this fine facility is both an anthropological and natural history center. Notable exhibits include the world’s largest collection of Southwest Native pottery; a marvelous exhibit of folklore masks from northern Mexico; and a haunting collection of photographs depicting pre-Columbian architecture around the Southwest. Housed in a distinctly non-Sonoran brick building on the far west of the university campus, the museum’s centerpiece is a large exhibit, “Paths of Life,” depicting the lifestyles of 10 indigenous peoples of the Southwest, from the local Tohono O’odham to Yaqui, Apache and Hopi.
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One of the most familiar “Western” towns in the world is actually a movie set that represents 19th century Tucson. Purists may justifiably frown at the manufactured nature of the dusty streets, boardwalk sidewalks, swinging door saloons and such, but there’s something ironically memorable about standing in the spot where Wyatt Earp gunned down Billy Clanton … No, wait, that was Kurt Russell blasting fake rounds at Thomas Haden Church. Gunfight re-enactments take place Thursdays through Monday (they’re also offered in the real Tombstone, about an hour and a half away to the southeast, also highly scripted), and other offerings range from studio tours to John Wayne documentaries to carousel rides.
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With the Tucson suburbs creeping ever outward, and Phoenix having swallowed almost all the Valley of the Sun, this two-unit park was upgraded from national monument status in 1994. Visitors can learn about the natural history of the Sonoran Desert at either the east or west section in the visitor center, but more worthy is a stroll along the paths that lead past the namesake saguaros, along dry washes with mesquite, acacia and paloverde trees, keeping your eyes open for rattlesnakes, javelinas, the shy Gila monsters and the ebullient hummingbirds that live here. The east (Rincon) side climbs up to the pine zone of its mountain home, but the west park is entirely desert. Interpretive trails guide visitors to understand the unique nature of the Sonoran Desert at both park segments.
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Carved by erosion into the south flank of the Santa Catalinas, Tucson’s favorite mountain retreat is a miles-long canyon descending from the pine-clad heights of Thimble Peak to the valley floor. The lower elevations of the canyon are prime Sonoran Desert habitat, with majestic saguaros, hummingbirds buzzing around ocotillo blossoms, javelinas scratching the ground for food, bobcats prowling the underbrush, prickly pears in bloom in spring. Cottonwoods take over as you climb, and energetic hikers who reach the upper elevations find ponderosa pine and aspen. Much of the year cool water flows in the ravines, and heavy rains bring waterfalls to the canyon. Access to the canyon is restricted to foot, bicycle or the tram buses operated by Sabino Canyon Tours ($8); the Forest Service day-use fee is $5 per car.
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Focusing on art of Latin America and the American West , this facility provides a concise overview of the evolution of both genres—from the traditional retablos of rural Mexico to the vivid surrealism of today. Most of the museum is housed in a modern building, but the complex includes five historic homes representing Tucson’s past, including several 19th century homes reflecting various building styles of the period, such as an early 1800s adobe Sonoran row house.
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The glistening ivory façade of this 15th century mission is a Tucson icon—but its past is more than history, as this remains the oldest still-active Catholic church in the United States. The “White Dove of the Desert” occupies a sere site in the valley bottom south of Tucson proper, and its parish serves the native Tohono O’odham nation. A beautiful example of mission architecture (the current building dates from 1783), the church building is known for its sparkling white façade, the unfinished second bell tower, and the religious statuary and murals inside. It’s the oldest extant European structure in Arizona.
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Tucson’s mainstream art museum is built around three donated collections, embracing European and American classics. As such, it’s enjoyable but not especially notable for those who’ve visited New York, Washington DC or other major metro areas and their facilities. What does stand out is the huge altarwork from Spain’s Cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo by 15th century religious art masters—the spiritual and artistic forebear of the Mexican retablos (painted altar pieces) that are a key facet of Southwest Hispanic art. Donated by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the 26-panel retablo represents the height of this distinctive European art form.
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