(330 miles round-trip from Phoenix)
All hail the saguaro—a plant that can weigh up to eight tons and live more than 150 years, and thrives in the harsh light of the Sonoran Desert. It’s the de facto icon of southern Arizona, a parched and prickly region of acacia, mesquite, and cacti, complete with the odd rattlesnake. Yet you’ll also find mountains, sometimes even snow; a vibrant culinary scene; and hiking trails that lead to sacred tribal lands and centuries-old Spanish missions. This isn’t your average desert adventure.
Lay of the Land
Phoenix and Tucson may be less than two hours away from each other, but their souls couldn’t be more different. Head south from Phoenix on Interstate 10, and the manicured lawns and transplanted palms soon give way to open desert plains. • North of Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains provide a cool break from the blazing summer heat. Take the winding, scenic highway to the top of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon and the resort village of Summerhaven , where the Mt. Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop sells sinful slabs of homemade fudge (locals swear by the cookie-dough variety). • Just outside Tucson, Saguaro National Park gives the ultimate overview of this ecosystem—green paloverde trees, purple cacti, and fuzzy teddy-bear cholla, not to mention cartoonish road-runners and piglike javelinas. Despite its seemingly ubiquitous presence on Arizona license plates and postcards, there’s nothing like the real thing: a live encounter with a giant saguaro. • In downtown Tucson , the desert disappears for a spell amid historic districts with good secondhand shops and an Art Deco movie palace. The vintage-style Hotel Congress has a hopping performance space and a stellar breakfast spot, plus bragging rights from its role in the 1934 capture of John Dillinger. • Follow I-19 out of the city to the bird-watching town of Amado , where you can lose yourself in the cottonwood forest and check out the world-famous telescope on nearby Mount Hopkins. • The drive ends in the blossoming arts town of Tubac , with a hike to the missions at Tumacácori National Historical Park —a mere 15 minutes from the Mexican border.
Phoenix to Tucson: 116 miles
Tucson to Amado: 43 miles
Amado to Tubac: 13 miles