I’m standing beneath an ocotillo-thatched ramada enjoying a brief reprieve from the desert’s shimmering heat when a feathery blur catches my eye. Could it be?
Jiggling a handful of dried tepary beans, our guide tells us stories of the ancient Hohokam people who cultivated Tucson’s arid land nearly 2,000 years ago. The beans are just one of the heirloom crops grown at the Mission Garden, a living interpretation of the Sonoran desert’s deep agricultural heritage. Still, I’m distracted. Risking rudeness, I step away from the lesson in search of the blur. I have a feeling I know what it was and hope to get a better look at the elusive critter.
We leave the shady refuge of the ramada, kicking up small clouds of red dust as we walk along the garden paths. Beside a cluster of quince trees, I see my feathered friend again and let out a small squeal as he skitters past our group into a patch of hook-shaped brown pods called devil’s claw.
“I think that was a roadrunner!” I say, walk-running after the crested blur for the second time. For a girl born and raised on the East Coast, spotting a real, live roadrunner — one who wasn’t trying to outsmart an explosives-happy coyote — would be a serious thrill.
“Oh that’s just Kevin,” said our guide, unfazed by the roadrunner’s appearance yet clearly bemused by my excitement. “There should be some little Kevins around here somewhere, too.”
The nimble bird wasn’t the only aspect of the Sonoran desert that delighted me. On a hike through Sabino Canyon the day before I found myself photographing every cactus I encountered — paddle-shaped prickly pears, furry teddy-bear cholla, soaring saguaro — wondering whether desert-dwellers visiting the Atlantic coast for the first time were similarly intrigued by crashing waves and evergreens.
As the first place in the U.S. designated a UNESCO World Heritage City of Gastronomy, Tucson distinguishes itself through its rich, native foodways and storied agricultural past. But beyond its edible wonders, Tucson has blossomed in other ways recently. A massive downtown revitalization, which hit its stride in 2014 with the launch of the SunLink Streetcar, includes new restaurants, the renovation of historic theaters, a vibrant arts community, and a handful of stylish hotels.
Pairing that urban renaissance with Tucson’s surrounding natural beauty means visitors find themselves enveloped in vibrant desert magic from the moment they arrive. Tucson never has a problem getting people to come back — it’s motivating them to come in the first place that poses the challenge. Now that the Southwest’s most happening hub is on your travel radar, here are 10 not-to-miss spots for your next trip.