Translated into English, the Spanish word after which the town is named means walnuts. It’s anybody’s guess why they chose that name, but it’s probably because of the walnut trees that are found in the area, mostly on the fields of commercial growers.
The town of Nogales is just a stone’s throw across the border from a Mexican town with the same name.
Though the town has plenty of restaurants, trading posts, and galleries, a big part of the local economy is its placement as a trans-shipment point for truckloads of goods passing from Mexico into the United States, much of which is fresh produce.
Below are 15 things to do in Nogales.
1. Santa Cruz County Courthouse
By southern Arizona’s historical standards, the Santa Cruz County Courthouse – which was completed in 1904 – is pretty darn new.
It was built to last using locally quarried stone, giving it a unique and robust look.
The historic building is located on Morley Avenue downtown, and is one of the most prominent of the town’s landmarks.
Though its days as a courthouse are long since gone, it continues to demonstrate its usefulness, now housing town and county government offices and a small museum that’s worth checking out too.
Historic downtown Nogales is as close to the old west as you’re ever likely to get.
2. Hilltop Art Gallery
Founded in 1968, Hilltop Art Gallery in Nogales is the quaint town’s oldest, and home to a collection of art second to none.
Most of the exhibited works and activities are focused on the cultures of the U.S. and Mexico, which are intertwined in regions like southern Arizona and the other southwestern states.
Supported by the Chamber of Commerce, Historical society and charitable donations, the gallery’s main aim is education through art, history and cultural awareness.
Chockfull of arts and crafts of every description, most of the items are truly one of a kind, and buying them will be a great way to support the gallery.
3. Pimeria Alta History Museum
Conveniently located on Grand Avenue in downtown Nogales on Grand, the Pimeria Alta History Museum is just a block or so north of the Mexican border, and is easily recognized by its unique clock tower.
The building that now houses the museum was once a jail, and the town’s center of government.
The museum is full of artifacts, memorabilia and photographs pertaining to the history of Nogales, Santa Cruz County and the neighboring towns and population of Mexico that are so inextricably linked culturally and economically.
The museum hosts special events throughout the year, so check out their website to see what’s on the calendar.
4. Get Some New Boots
Admittedly, cowboy boots aren’t for everyone.
I had a pair made out of vinyl when I was eight, but that’s the last time I’ve worn any.
Since the ‘40s, the Paul Bond Boot Company has been handcrafting leather boots in Nogales, so it’s no surprise that the street they’re on is named after them.
They’re still family owned, and the same quality that has gone into their boots for 70 years hasn’t changed.
Custom boots made in a huge selection of materials and designs are available, and they aren’t cheap, so prepare to max out that credit card.
Check out their website for pictures and prices.
5. Tour the Queen Mine
Located on Dart Road in nearby Bisbee, Arizona, Queen Mine was operated by the Phelps Dodge Company until 1985, when it was closed.
At one time, the mine had one of the highest concentrations of copper in its ore than any other copper mine in the area.
The tours are given by retired mine employees and at less than 20 bucks are a good bargain.
If donning a hardhat and descending more than a thousand feet into the dark mine sounds like fun, head to Bisbee.
You’ll get a real sense of what the brave miners had to endure to make a living.
6. Old Presidio Traders
Located in historic Tubac, Old Presidio Traders is another family owned business that’s been operating since 1982.
The post features many Native American items from all over the state, including baskets, Kachina dolls, jewelry, rugs, and pottery.
Click on the ‘catalog’ feature on their website, to see clear pictures of the items for sale.
Each product has a description describing what it is, the materials that were used, which Native American group made it, and how much it costs.
If you’d prefer to see their showroom in person, it’s open every day, so swing by.
Plan on checking out the town of Tubac too if you’ve got the time.
7. Ruby Ghost Town
There’s nothing cooler than a ghost town in the middle of the desert, and Arizona is full of them.
Located in the once-was town of Ruby, Arizona, Ruby Ghost Town is a relic from Arizona’s booming mining past, which largely ended in a big bust.
The rugged prospectors and miners who once scoured the surrounding hills for gold and silver, upped and left nearly a century ago, when their way of life was no longer sustainable.
The town is near the Coronado National Forest area, and includes an abandoned schoolhouse, hardware store, and even a playground.
It’s quirky, eerie, and quintessentially Arizonan.
8. Sacred Heart Church
Due to its proximity to its Catholic majority neighbor Mexico, the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Church in Nogales is one of many in Santa Cruz County.
The historic church was founded in the late 19th century, and the building which now stands was completed in 1928, though it has been recently refurbished.
It’s a stunning example of mission-style architecture, but also has other elements including cedar pews and stark, white plaster walls.
There are English and Spanish services if you’d like to attend, and the church is associated with a local Catholic school, so check out their website for visiting hours and worship service times.
9. Arizona Folklore Preserve
If you knew that Arizona had an Official State Balladeer, and that his name was Dolan Ellis, then you’re already way ahead of the game.
Located in the town of Hereford, not far from Sierra Vista, The Arizona Folklore Preserve’s name says it all.
They’ve been preserving Arizona’s music and folklore since 1996 on their 15-acre plot in Ramsey Canyon.
Sporting a modern and intimate theater, the preserve hosts guests throughout the year, and the founder also performs monthly.
Check their calendar of events for schedule and prices.
It’s one of those genuine Arizona gems that shouldn’t be missed.
10. Jacob Isaacson Pioneer Settler
Nearly 150 years ago a Jewish immigrant from Russia moved to the land on which Nogales now stands, and founded a town that bore his name from 1880 to 1883.
Sensing that his fortunes weren’t gaining traction like he thought they would, Isaacson upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles in 1883, at which time the post office changed the name of the town to what it is now, Nogales.
Now, near Sacred Heart Church, between North Arroyo Boulevard and North Grand Avenue, a small monument to the town’s founder rests in relative obscurity.
It’s an easy walk from downtown, and one of those great photo-ops you shouldn’t pass up.
11. Fred L. Whipple Observatory
Owned by the esteemed Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Fred L. Whipple Observatory is the largest of its kind in the region.
Located near Amado on Mount Hopkins, the area is premier landscape for an observatory due to its distance from any population centers capable of flooding the night sky with errant light.
The observatory was named after a famous astronomer who was its director for many years.
The observatory uses cutting edge techniques to peer into the night sky, and there is a visitor’s center and museum as well, which are great places to cool off and learn lots of fascinating things about our galaxy.
12. Kartchner Caverns State Park
With nearly 2 ½ miles of subterranean caves, Kartchner Caverns State Park is a unique way to see the area’s amazing geology from a totally different perspective.
Located near Benson, Arizona, the caverns were discovered by local spelunkers in 1974 who immediately realized the importance of their find, and contacted the state to ensure they were protected.
The cavern’s stalactites and stalagmites are still growing slowly, and since it’s now a state park they can be visited most days of the year, though the schedule changes with the seasons, so check out their website for hours and admission fees.
13. Take Some Golf Lessons
If you remember the aforementioned bit about Arizona’s wealth of top-notch golf courses, then perhaps a lesson or two is in order before you hit those links.
With so much to do in Nogales, it may be hard to find the time, but you may be surprised what an hour or two with a golf professional will do for your game.
Located on South Camino Del Sol in Madera Canyon, John Jacobs Golf School has been around for almost 40 years and is staffed with experienced instructors who know the best way to improve your game, without over-complicating things.
14. Sonoita Vineyards Winery
Though not yet reaching the level of California’s Napa Valley or the Bordeaux region of France, Arizona is a budding market for craft wines that are steadily gaining their own reputation for quality and drinkability.
Located in Elgin, Arizona, Sonoita Vineyards produces quite a few wines with lots of distinct characteristics.
There’s a tasting room and gift shop which are open daily, according to their website.
The views from the winery include scenic, grapevine strewn hills, distant mountains and that uniquely blue Arizona sky.
The winery is located on Arizona Highway 83, not far from Tucson.
15. Tin Shed Theatre
With its intimate venue that seats just 100 people, the Tin Shed Theatre is known for the performances it hosts by dancers, artists, and groups from around the world.
The shed opened in 1999 with a Halloween production called Spooky House.
Ever since, the theatre’s events have included Indian dancers, a few productions from local elementary school children, and an Aussie folk singer, to name a few.
The theatre is located in the town of Patagonia which is worth a look too, so consider arriving a little early and taking a few hours to see the town before your show starts.