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Great American Drives

Whitney Lawson The Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Photo: Whitney Lawson

Phoenix to Tubac, Arizona

Outward-bound, between desert and forest

Distance 157 miles
Driving Time 2.5 hours

The Appeal

South of Tucson, the 9,500-foot Santa Rita Mountains rise like islands out of a flat, sea-like desert. At a Forest Service park in Madera Canyon, Oregon-like woods are crisscrossed with hiking and biking trails of all levels. Come evening, canyon visitors retreat to the arts-and-crafts town of Tubac, situated in a beautiful desert valley with a stream running through it.

Driving Tips

Unfortunately, there aren’t any smart shortcuts out of Phoenix’s sprawl. But just beyond the city limits is the moon-like Sonoran Desert, with roadside blooms of yellow prickly pear. Things get truly interesting after you pass through Tucson, switch to I-19, and start gaining altitude. En route to Madera Canyon Recreational Park, the curving strip of hot blacktop will start to rise and fall like a wild roller coaster, moving between desert and forest and finally tundra at the summit—all within a 2,000-foot ascent.

Take it Outside

The 13-mile-long Elephant Head Trail, which begins near the top of Madera Canyon, can be a bruiser—you’re bicycling past barrel cactus at peak speed—but the views are unmatched. There’s paved road on both ends of the course, so bicyclists can be dropped off and picked up easily. Tucson-based Sol Journeys will meet you at the I-19 trailhead for a guided daylong ride with picnic lunch, yoga wind-down, and a half-hour post-biking massage (www.soljourneys.com; custom trips from $175 per person). For hikers—and birders—the Bog Springs-Kent Spring Loop, a 4.3-mile trek through dense woods linking several different fern-laced springs, will not disappoint. More than 15 species of hummingbirds, as well as the Trogon—a large parrot-like bird from Mexico—take shelter here.

Where to Eat

The Mexican border lies just 23 miles south of Tubac, so it’s no wonder that tacos, enchiladas, and margaritas are popular. Wisdom’s Cafe (1931 E. Frontage Rd., Box 25; 520/398-2397; lunch for two $35), a lovable dive, has been serving tasty beef enchiladas for more than 60 years. For the area’s most sophisticated Mexican food, Dos Silos (520/398-3737; dinner for two $55), on the grounds of the Tubac Golf Resort, prepares dishes such as chicken mole and corn casserole.

Overnight Option

The 68-room Tubac Golf Resort (1 Otero Rd.; 520/398-2211; www.tubacgolfresort.com; doubles from $179), set on a 500-acre historic ranch, is within walking distance of the Anza trail, a lazy path following the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River (www.nps.gov/juba). For a more intimate stay, check into the Tubac Secret Garden Inn (13 Placita de Anza; 520/398-9371; www.tubacsecretgarden.com; doubles from $125), a bed-and-breakfast run by the welcoming Leila Pearsall, who serves fresh cinnamon rolls at breakfast. The classic Southwest interior—terra-cotta Saltillo tiles on the floor, white adobe walls—give you the sense that you’re in an old western.

—Brad Wetzler


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