When most people think of Arizona, they think of the Grand Canyon, and rightfully so. That being said, there is just as much beauty to be found in Southern Arizona, near Tucson. A few weeks ago, when Mike was still on break from nursing school, we hopped on a plane and spent the weekend exploring Tucson and gallivanting among the cacti in Saguaro National Park. We went in January and temperatures were moderate, in the low 60's... way better than the freezing temperatures in Minnesota!
I sure hope you get the chance to visit this part of Arizona and have put together the perfect weekend itinerary for those of you interested in how to spend your time and where to eat while you're in the area. As always, if you have any questions as you create your own vacation - you can connect with me on Instagram or filling out the contact form on my website, just click here.
Getting There: We found an amazing flight deal to/from Phoenix and decided to make the drive (about 2 hours each way) to Tucson. It wasn't unbearable, but it sure would've been nice to save some time and the stress of driving. If you can fly right into Tucson, I recommend it. On our way down, there was an accident on the other side of the road that had traffic backed up for a few miles... so just make sure you build in plenty of time to get back to Phoenix!
Getting Around: Tucson is VERY spread out and you'll definitely want a rental car for this trip. I've always found the best car rental prices through Expedia - they're up front about the TOTAL cost (including fees, taxes, etc.) and most reservations offer cancellation at any time without penalty.
We had booked a compact car from Enterprise through Expedia when we started planning this trip, but a few days before our trip, I noticed that prices had gone down significantly, so I just cancelled our previous rental reservation and booked us in an upgraded vehicle for less money. Yep, we had originally booked a mid-size car for close to $250 and I was able to switch to a mid-size SUV for less than $125. Heck yes!
Friday After driving down from Phoenix, we were hungry and craving a light lunch. My friends over at Ready & Roam had shared a post about Maynard's Market & Kitchen, so we decided to check it out. It's owned by the Hotel Congress across the street and has a lovely outdoor patio and great wine selection. Mike and I split the Cubano and Turkey sandwiches and shared a bottle of their White Wine of the Month, Sicalia, a 2015 Pinot Grigio. Each month, they have a bottle of red and a bottle of white that are available for $10 a bottle.
Our next stop was Saguaro National Park. The park has two districts separated by the city of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District is on the west side of town, while the Rincon Mountain District is located east of the city. Driving time between both parts is about an hour (33 miles). We started by exploring the Tucson Mountain District for the remainder of the afternoon.
A lot of other guides suggest a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, but upon arrival, there was an entire busload of kids arriving and we decided to skip it. I really don't feel like we missed out - and I'm glad we got to spend more time actually in the park.
Your first stop should be at the Red Hills Visitor Center as you enter from Kinney Road. Here, you can talk to a park ranger or attend a guided program, purchase your entrance fees (valid for 7 days), and see a 15 minute program called "Voices of the Desert". There's also the Cactus Garden Trail that will take you on short loop for some close-up views.
Continue north to the Bajada Loop Drive. This is an unpaved road, but you'll be fine without 4-wheel drive or a high clearance. Although it's only six miles long, it is lined with scenic pullouts, hiking trails, and picnic areas. We chose to hike two different trails:
The Valley View Overlook Trail
The Signal Hill Trail
After our hike, we headed into town to check into our hotel and refresh. We relaxed until about an hour before sunset and then returned to Gates Pass to watch the sunset. This is absolutely the best place to watch the sunset over the Sonoran Desert and Saguaro National Park. The whole ride back to dinner we debated if it was better than Santorini... if that gives you any indication of how incredible it was. This is a MUST DO when you're in Tucson.
One thing you'll want to make sure you bring with you on this vacation is a water bottle, as you can get dehydrated very quickly in the desert, even when it's not super hot!
For dinner tonight, we stopped into Mi Nidito. Be prepared for a wait - we waited almost two hours (worth it) - but know that you can order drinks and enjoy them inside or out on their patio waiting area. I opted for the chicken enchilada with green chile sauce and they were so flavorful. Mike is still talking about his chimichanga almost three weeks later: ** When someone asks about our trip? ** Mike: "We went to this unreal Mexican restaurant called Mi Nidito in Tucson and I'll never be the same."
Saturday We spent our second day on the eastern side of Tucson in the Rincon Mountan District of Saguaro National Park. We had opted to stay closer to town so we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel and then hit the road for a day of exploring.
The first thing I noticed was that this side of the park is much more rocky and rugged. Start your day at the visitor center to get your bearings and then jump back into your rental car and drive the eight-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive. This road twists and turns across a cactus forest. This is the only road through this side of Saguaro National Park, but there are plenty of hiking trails to keep you busy. We opted to do two hikes here:
Mica View Loop to Cactus Forest Loop (2 miles round trip): From the Mica View Picnic Area, head north on the Mica View Trail. At the Broadway trailhead, turn right onto Shantz trail, then a quick right onto the Cactus Forest Trail heading south. Return to Mica View Picnic Area by turning right on the Mica View Trail.
In all honesty, we got a liiiiittle lost on this one - make sure you keep your eye out for the trail signs so you know where to turn and always pack extra water!
Freeman Homestead Trail (1 mile loop): Turn toward Tanque Verde Ridge Picnic Area from Cactus Loop Drive. This is a really nice path that takes you down to the site of an old homestead foundation and there's interpretive signs about the history and plant life along the way.
We also stopped at a bunch of the pullouts and overlooks along the way. My favorite was Javelina Rocks (you'll see them about seven miles into your drive and there is a small parking lot for cars to park).
After finishing the Cactus Forest Loop Drive and all of our hiking, we decided to head back into town for lunch. Some friends of ours that went to school at the University of Arizona had recommended Lindy's on 4th and it was fabulous (thanks Jess & Ryan). Make sure you get extra Lindy Sauce for your burger!
We had worked up quite the thirst after hiking and lunch and I'm a big fan of finding some local craft breweries - so off we went to Crooked Tooth Brewing Company. They're known in the area for some pretty unusual beer recipes but they've got a great 18 Hour IPA too. They even serve their beer flights on a skateboard and also have a nice beer garden with a few lawn games in back.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon relaxing by our hotel's pool and talking about how fabulous this weekend as been. For dinner tonight, we headed back to Downtown Tucson and 4th Avenue to find a local dive bar that Ryan and Jess had also recommended. A few other options in the area are 47 Scott and Downtown Kitchen.
Sunday After an amazing weekend in Tucson, it's time to head home... but not before breakfast at The Little One and walking the Turquoise Trail. You can grab a map at the Tucson Visitors Center or the Presidio Museum (or click here to download a map). This is a really nice 2 1/2 mile loop that takes you through Downtown Tucson and highlights more than 30 historical structures/sites. Along the way, there are a number of artisan shops as well - perfect for getting some souvenirs!
This was the perfect way to end our amazing trip to Tucson. I can't believe it went so fast! I'm already looking forward to another visit - who wants to go with me? Any takers?
Stay | Hotels I had some IHG Rewards points to use up, so Mike and I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Tucson. Its central location made it easy to get to the different areas of town, but it really wasn't within walking distance of anything. I'd stay again, but I'd also looking into staying at either of these properties (depending on my plans for my visit): Hotel Congress | 311 East Congress Street, Tucson, AZ 85701 "A landmark hotel with urban charm and a story in every detail"
Perfectly situated within walking distance to all Downtown Tucson offers.
Timeless rooms with vintage radios, antique iron beds, and a fully operational 1930s-era switchboard.
No TV's in the guestrooms - they encourage you to enjoy the original ambiance!