Tucson has grown from its valley floor origins to the foothills of the four mountain ranges that surround it; the higher-value development spreads north to the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The 9,157-foot pinnacle of the Santa Catalinas, Mount Lemmon—the endpoint of a scenic highway—holds a small ski area that manages to open a few weeks each winter. The Santa Catalina foothills are the home of most, though not all, the metro area’s major resorts. Directions can be confusing here—Interstate 10, an east-west national thoroughfare, bisects the city, but in Tucson it heads almost directly north, toward Phoenix, before turning west again to Los Angeles. The Rillito River, which forms the north side of the valley-floor city, is usually a dry wash that only runs with water after heavy winter rains or summer monsoon downpours. Phoenix is two hours north along I-10; Tombstone, a popular attraction whose genuineness depends on how sophisticated your perspective is, lies about 90 minutes southeast. The Mexican border at Nogales is 45 minutes directly south of Tucson along Interstate 19, and Puerto Peñasco, a popular beach resort at the north end of the Gulf of California, is two hours beyond that.
You’d expect a neighborhood surrounding one of America’s leading universities to be a polyglot area of quiet residential streets where professors live, small-scale apartment blocks, pizza cafes and oddment shops—and this district a half-mile east-northeast of downtown is all that. It’s also the home of the Arizona Inn (see below), several fine museums on the university campus, the highly regarded University Medical Center, and the arena in which the once-mighty University of Arizona Wildcat basketball teams play. The west side of the district, called West University, is a historic area founded in the late 19th century as Tucson’s first “suburb.” It holds dozens of heritage adobe homes and California-style bungalows.
One of Tucson’s nearer suburbs comprises its own town of nearly 50,000 residents, tucked up against the west end of the Santa Catalina range. Here are major resort complexes, notably the El Conquistador Hilton, yet another golf and tennis mecca; fine dining restaurants such as McClintock’s (see below); a small high-tech industry; and the route for the annual Tour de Tucson bicycle race. Catalina State Park, the major public amenity, has horseback-riding trails, hiking trails in the Catalina foothills, and numerous trails through its 5,493 acres of Sonoran desert.
Tucked up against the Santa Catalina Mountains (the clearly visible residential development line is the National Forest boundary), this is the home of exclusive gated subdivisions, tony shopping malls, high-profile vacation resorts, and several of the best access points for hiking in the Sonoran foothills. Essentially the north side of Tucson (though largely outside the city limits), the area represents either an exquisite example of the way careful development can meld into the Sonoran Desert—inappropriate water-sucking lawns are verboten here—or an atrocious example of how unbridled development can ruin Sonoran Desert habitat. Drive through and decide for yourself. Along the way, you can measure the two opposing facets of Tucson by hiking the Pima Canyon or Ventana Canyon trails, and then wander the lovely, chic shops of La Encantada Mall (North Campbell Road and Skyline Drive), where lunch al fresco means diners sit beneath misting machines to fend off the climate of the desert.
A reconstruction of part of the original Presidio where Tucson got its start is the cornerstone of this historic neighborhood adjacent to the current downtown. The Presidio Park is at 115 N. Church Street, and the neighborhood trends north and west from there, with quiet streets lined by high-walled adobe compounds, most of them still residences. More than almost any other locale in Arizona, this neighborhood retains the look and feel of the 18th century Southwest, an experience that can otherwise be had only in parts of Santa Fe.