March is the most beautiful time of year to visit Tucson, Arizona. The cacti are beginning to bloom, the weather is warm but not yet oppressively hot (that will arrive by June,) and the mountains are the greenest they will be all year thanks to snowmelt running down from the peaks. It’s a gorgeous time to explore the desert and watch it come to life in a place that is overwhelmingly dry and brown the rest of the year. If you live in the Northeast, Tucson is the perfect refreshing escape from the gray, blustery days of late winter.
History of Tucson, Arizona
Tucson is actually one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in North America, cultivated by the Hohokam Indians for thousands of years. They were one of the first groups in North America to rely on extensive irrigation canals to supply water to their crops, irrigating up to 110,000 acres by 1300 AD. They were also famous for their highly advanced methods of crafting pottery, which was then traded throughout Arizona for other goods. Sadly, around 1350 the Hohokam population began to decline, and by 1450 most traces of the Hohokam disappear from archaeological records. A smaller native population known as the O’odham survived, however, and they still celebrate their heritage in Tucson today.
In the 1600s Spanish missionaries and soldiers arrived, bringing Catholicism and cultural erasure. The Spanish built Mission San Xavier del Bac, a gleaming church that springs up from the desert like a whitewashed adobe monolith, and Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, two of Tucson’s oldest iconic landmarks.
Tucson and much of Arizona was obtained by the United States from Mexico with the Gadsden purchase in 1854, and quickly entered into the “Old West” era. Settlers, cattle ranchers, miners, and Apache Indians all left their mark in skirmishes across the city.
About one hundred years later, Tucson became a boom town for filmmakers producing Westerns, and Old Tucson Studios played host to scads of recognizable films. The 1960s also brought Davis-Monthan Airforce base to town, leading to an influx of military folk, and the locals adopting a blasé attitude towards seeing A-10s and massive C-130s buzzing by at low altitudes.
People are often drawn to Tucson for its beautiful weather. Yes, it’s hot, but what they say about dry heat is accurate: it’s not nearly as oppressive as high humidity. And because Tucson averages 350 days of sunshine per year, it’s almost never a bad time to do something outdoors.
That said, it’s important to follow certain safety measures before embarking on any walks or outdoor excursions.
- Always — ALWAYS — carry water with you. Carry more than you think you’ll need. (And don’t forget to drink it!) Might as well carry sunblock, too.
- Wear sturdy footwear. Cacti needles and spines are strewn all along the desert floor and will stick into the soles and sides of your shoes (and through thin ones.)
- Many cacti reproduce by being “sticky;” they are designed to break off and attach to passing animals and unsuspecting humans who accidentally brush past too closely. Give every bush and cactus a wide berth if you don’t enjoy pulling tiny shards out of your backside.
- During monsoon season (Typically late July into August) a torrential downpour and lightning storms occur for an hour or so every afternoon. These storms are beautiful and refreshing, and release the smell of creosote into the air. They also commonly create flash floods, so beware.
- Finally, be conscious that wildlife is all around you, even if you don’t see it. Snakes and scorpions love to rest in shadowy spaces under rocks. In four years of playing in the desert I never got bitten, but that was because I was always careful about where I put my feet.
(North side of town)
Tucson is surrounded by different mountain ranges: The Tucson and Tortolita Mountains in the west, the Santa Catalinas in the north, the Santa Rita Mountains to the far south, and the Rincon Mountains to the east. Locals usually give cardinal directions whenever asked for assistance, because the mountains make it so easy to always know which direction you’re facing. So, like a true local that I used to be, I’m grouping my recommendations by where they are relative to downtown.
The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is a gorgeous drive that takes you up into the northern peaks via winding switchbacks with dozens of pull-offs to accommodate photographic opportunities. Fantastic views of the city are available all the way up until you reach the quaint little town of Summerhaven at the top. It’s the perfect way to escape the blazing heat of summer, as the elevation (more than 6,000 feet on the drive alone) creates a 30- to 40-degree temperature drop. You can download a free natural science audio tour produced by the University of Arizona College of Science and listen to it all the way up, or just enjoy the views in silence.
For those who prefer to get out of the air-conditioned car (you crazy fools, you) the best hikes are the Butterfly Trail, Sabino Waterfall, Spencer Canyon, and picnicking around Rose Canyon Lake. A ski lift also runs in the summer for the views, and in the winter a few ski trails open (if there’s enough snow, of course.)
(Northeast side of town)
Sabino Canyon is a personal favorite. Having lived in Tucson for several years, I learned it was the best place to hike and get to put my feet into some fresh water. Located at the base of the Santa Catalina mountains are “riparian corridors,” which is a fancy way of saying “places where water flows.” When you live in the desert, this becomes a true oasis for the senses. The trails are home to ample wildlife like snakes, gila monsters, bobcats, and javelinas, but you typically won’t encounter any unless you go around dawn. The area has over 30 miles of trails, but the best one by far is Seven Falls. An emission-free shuttle runs from the Visitor Center that you can take part of the way or enjoy a round trip without breaking a sweat.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
(West side of town)
On the western side of town is the only thing I ever tell people they have to see when visiting Tucson: The Desert Museum. Now, don’t make the mistake I did when I first moved there, and accidentally bring guests to the International Wildlife Museum, which is a haunting place filled with moth-eaten taxidermy and a front desk clerk reminiscent of the Crypt Keeper. No, instead drive through the narrow, rollercoaster-like passes to the other side of the Tortolita Mountains — an experience all in itself — to get a true feel for the majestic beauty of the Sonoran Desert and its native wildlife.
Museum is probably not even the right term for what you’ll experience; it’s more like a combination wildlife park, botanical conservatory, aquarium, and casual hiking trail. As you walk along the paved paths you will see extraordinary examples of native plants — such as the century agave, which stands over 30 feet tall when blooming. Plaques detailing names and facts are scattered discreetly amongst the gardens. Also interspersed throughout these gardens are well-designed animal habitats, where you can see roadrunners, ground squirrels, the cutest tiny burrowing owls you’ll ever see as well as reptiles and bigger animals such as javelinas and bobcats. They hold a Raptor Free Flight demonstration every morning at 10 am that can’t be missed, where they show how Harris’ hawks and other birds of prey hunt by asking them to swoop down over the heads of the gathered spectators.
Old Tucson Studios
Anyone who grew up watching Westerns needs to pay a visit to the recently-renovated Old Tucson Studios, an 1860s Wild West reenactment amusement park on the lots where many, many movies were filmed in the 1950s and ’60s. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, Winchester ‘73 (1950) with James Stewart, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) starring Kirk Douglas are just a few of the big names who filmed there. After a massive fire in 1995 that wiped out almost everything, the studios were rebuilt but were merely a shadow of their past greatness. They were closed in 2020, but just last year (2022) the studios reopened under new ownership that seems to have re-invigorated the iconic park. You can experience live-action cowboy gun fights, stunts, and even join a search for missing gold.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park
(East side of town)
In addition to taking a hike in Saguaro National Park — one of the best places to see giant saguaro cacti — you should also make time to visit Colossal Caves, just 20 minutes down the road. Colossal Caves Mountain Park offers guided tours of the cavern, as well as horseback riding tours and ample trails to explore. Their café and gift shop are also top-notch, so you can take care of souvenirs for everyone while you’re there.
The Pima Air and Space Museum & The Boneyard
(Southeastern side of Town)
Both aerospace nerds and the uninitiated alike will find the Boneyard — a massive outdoor repository of “retired” aircraft — fascinating. The unique weather conditions and geography of Tucson make it the perfect place to preserve planes for cannibalization or possible reuse, and literally thousands are parked there in neat little rows. Tours are usually run through the Pima Air and Space Museum, which is worth a visit on its own with six indoor (air-conditioned!) exhibit hangars, three of which are solely dedicated to WWII aircraft.
Downtown and Just Outside of Town
El Tiradito Shrine
Located in Barrio Viejo, or Tucson’s “old town,” is a little-known gem called El Tiradito: The Wishing Shrine. On Main Avenue between Cushing and Simpson Streets is a shrine that looks a bit like someone forgot to build a house around a gorgeous fireplace. Candles of all shapes and sizes — from tealights to candelabras — are scattered in a seemingly haphazard manner, and little scraps of paper can be seen shoved into every nook and cranny.
The legends vary (one reporter claims there are more than 20 versions of the story), but the basic gist concerns a love triangle where a man falls in love with his mother-in-law, and is murdered by his father-in-law in a jealous rage. The mourning bride of the killed man supposedly buried him at the stoop of her house, because he wasn’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground for his sins. And now, if you want to make a petition to the dead man’s ghost, you must bring a candle and light it. If it is still lit in the morning, your wish will come true.
Old Town Tucson
Old Town Tucson is an adorable historic block of shopping and dining built on the site of El Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, the fort built by the Spanish in 1775. My favorite thing to do was get sopapillas (puffed fried dough balls served with confectioners’ sugar and a drizzle of honey) at La Cocina and walk around all of the artisans’ stalls. The artwork is lovely (particularly the native jewelry) and the architecture is a marvel as well, with original ceilings made of saguaro cactus ribs and remnants of imported wallpaper.
San Xavier del Bac Mission
Located about 30 minutes from downtown Tucson, just to the west of Tucson International Airport, is the San Xavier del Bac Mission. If you love to tour old cathedrals when you visit places, this is one not to miss. The church is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona — it was completed in 1797, when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain — and as such the interior is absolutely filled with ornate golden statuary and mural paintings.
[*All photos courtesy of Gene Manner, who was wise enough to label and organize all of our Tucson memories.)
Other Articles You Might Enjoy
- Quick Getaways: Shenandoah Valley
- Quick Getaways: Cooperstown, New York
- Quick Getaways: Historic Boston, Massachusetts