Tucson can be found in the hot, dry desert of Arizona. It is the second largest city in this vast state that lies near the border with Mexico in the southern United States. This desert city really is where Mexico and the U.S. collide head on, and their shared history has left an intriguing trail of culture, historic ruins, frontier settlements and abandoned ghost towns that are just waiting to be explored.
The Sonora Desert that surrounds Tucson is an incredible setting to experience, with beautiful National Parks to hike, high mountain ranges to climb, canyons to traverse, and a labyrinth of underground caves to be discovered by adventurous, outdoorsy travelers.
The desert itself is a raw and unforgettable experience, with immense areas of cacti to explore, vast areas of sandy wilderness stretching to the horizon, and a history unlike anywhere else in the United States.
It’s a different world outside of Tucson, but the best part is it’s all accessible on day trips from the city.
1. Saguaro West National Park
Tucson is a city surrounded by National Parks just calling out to outdoor adventurers.
The closest to the city is Saguaro National Park, which is split into two sections covering the east and west areas of Tucson.
The west park is only 15 miles from the center of the city, but a world away from the city life.
There are huge tracts of cacti covering vast areas of land.
This is a cactus species unique to and only found in the Sonora desert of Arizona.
The Saguaro West National Park protects the Tucson Mountains as well as the desert, and it’s a wild place of surreal and contrasting scenery.
2. Saguaro East National Park
To the east of Tucson, 20 miles from the city center, is the Saguaro East National Park.
Like the western side, this is a desert area covered in the distinctive cacti that can only be found in this part of the world.
The Rincon Mountains – the eastern part of the mountain ranges surrounding Tucson – are protected here, and there are miles upon miles of desert walks just a short drive from the city.
Spend a few hours exploring the landscape, or if you can handle the heat of the desert, there are even opportunities for multi-day hiking and camping trips.
3. Kartchner Caverns
The Kartchner Caverns State Park is an absolutely spectacular day trip from Tucson.
The site of one of the longest Stalactites in the world, there are endlessly twisting and turning underground caverns and caves hidden beneath the ground here.
The Kartchner Caverns are extensive, but surprisingly they were only discovered in 1974, as from above ground there is little clue of what is waiting under the surface of the desert.
The only way to experience this underground phenomenon is to descend into the dark caverns.
4. Colossal Cave Mountain Park
If the Karchtner Caverns leave you wanting more, then in the same region, 20 miles south of Tucson, lies the aptly named Colossal Cave.
This vast underground cavern contains three and a half miles of passages, that have been discovered to date, there are likely many more miles still waiting to be found in the cool, darkness – and the constant 21 degree Celcius (70 degrees Fahrenheit ), year round temperature will make this a welcome respite from the scorching surface temperatures of the desert.
5. Sabino Canyon
North of Tucson, in the Santa Catalina Mountain Range, is the Sabino Canyon.
This spectacular area is home to waterfalls, creeks and even rare mountain lions.
There are challenging hikes and simple strolls through the canyon, while those who don’t fancy walking can take a tram ride through the canyon itself, to the upper reaches away from Tucson.
A tram ride is a delightful way to experience the natural beauty of this area from the comfort and safety of your seat, and makes exploring the wilderness rather easy and accessible for everyone.
Tubac was one of the first Spanish settlements in what would eventually become Arizona.
This desert town was established in 1752, and the ruins of the original Spanish fort can still be seen.
Abandoned over the years, destroyed by Apaches, and eventually resettled again as an art haven, this small town attracts artists from around the world, who display their work on the streets and in the multitude of shops and galleries that have been established and continue to expand in Tubac.
It’s an unexpected and colorful place to visit in the otherwise dry and monochrome desert.
Tumacacori is another historically significant town that lies remotely in the deserts surrounding Tucson.
The location of one of the first Spanish Missions in the area, this old Mission was built in the 17th Century.
Its ruins are a must-see in order to gain an understanding of the history and the diverse meeting of cultures from Europe and the Americas that collided here and shaped the future of Tucson and Arizona.
Exploring the history of the region wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Tombstone.
This ominously named town was established in 1879 by silver miners seeking their fortunes on the frontier of the United States.
It became known for its rough, wild west characters and is where the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral occurred.
Its fortunes boomed for years, but eventually declined as the mines did.
The population then shrank until Tombstone was almost a ghost town.
Thanks to tourism, the town has seen a resurgence in fortunes recently, with people travelling here to see an authentic piece of preserved wild west heritage on the old frontier.
Ruby is another of the many ghost towns that litter the harsh deserts near Tucson.
The town was originally the site of many profitable mines in the 1900’s, but fortunes changed and the town was abandoned when the mines began to decline in the 1930’s.
While there are literally hundreds of ghost towns just like this in Arizona, Ruby is perhaps the best preserved of them all, with more ruins to explore than any other abandoned site in the state.
See for yourself an empty wild west street right out of the movies, complete with tumbleweed rolling through the dust.
Ninety miles and a solid, long, day trip south of Tucson is the small city of Bisbee.
Like other towns and cities in the desert here, Bisbee’s history also has its roots in the mines and gold rush of the wild west days.
Bisbee saw its own highs and lows, but rather than being abandoned when the mining booms ended, the city cleverly focused on tourism to restore its economy.
Today, Bisbee is a thriving center of arts, culture and history, offering a small city escape from the larger Tucson.
11. Mount Lemmon
In the scorching summer months, Mount Lemmon is the ideal place to escape the heat of Tucson.
Although this mountain retreat is just one hour’s drive away from the city, it is perched high up in the Santa Catalina Mountains.
There are walking trails, mountain cabins and surprisingly, in winter there is also a ski resort.
It might be in the middle of a desert, but Mount Lemmon is still high enough at 2,700 meters to experience snowfall.
12. Sonoita Wine Trail
The Sonoita Wine Trail lies in the south east of Arizona, and is the perfect place for those looking to try new and refreshing wines in a spectacular, mountainous environment.
If you really want to enjoy the day here, while partaking in some truly delicious wines, plenty of companies offer tours to the cellars along this wine trail from Tucson, allowing you to enjoy more than just a passing taste test of these local wines.
13. Chiricahua National Monument
Also in the south eastern area of the state is Chiricahua National Monument.
This protected area is further afield than other outdoor areas around Tucson, but its very remoteness is the real attraction.
The park is famous for its bizarre balancing rocks; huge boulders which literally balance precariously on top of one another; and for its huge stone columns which, although they are entirely a natural phenomenon, look as if they have been intricately hand carved over centuries.
14. Patagonia Lake
Most day trips from Tucson will take you out into the scorching climate and arid landscape of the vast Sonora desert or the equally dry and generally hot climes of the surrounding mountain ranges.
There’s little water out there, and for those in search of something refreshing and aquatic to see outside of the city, the best option is a visit to Patagonia Lake.
South east of the city, it’s a huge contrast to the surrounding land; a real oasis in the desert.
Patagonia Lake is two and a half miles long, offering plenty of opportunities for fishing and water sports.
There’s even a beach, which offers a refreshing break from the desert.
Just a two hour drive from Tucson is Phoenix, the state capital of Arizona.
This huge metropolis is one of the largest cities in the United States, and one of the hottest – with desert-like temperatures usually exceeding that of the higher altitude Tucson.
For those who prefer the quieter life of smaller Tucson, it’s easy enough to head up north and explore Phoenix on a long day trip, returning to the relative peace and cooler climate of Tucson in the evening.