Just a six-hour drive (or two-hour flight) from San Diego, Tucson is perfect for a long weekend getaway, although one could easily spend a week here. For those of us who grew up with the concept of the desert as a cactus-filled landscape of reds and browns ringed with mountains, Tucson is that desert we all dreamed of growing up.
The city sits smack in the middle (and in one of the most scenic places) of the Sonoran Desert, which spans from Phoenix to the north through northern Mexico. At an elevation of over 2,000 feet, it remains slightly cooler than surrounding areas.
Mission San Xavier Del Bac
The history of Tucson began in 1692 when a Spanish missionary, Padre Eusebio Kino, established a Jesuit mission at a site 10 miles south of where downtown Tucson sits today. The mission was active until 1828, when the newly independent Mexican government expelled all Spanish priests. The mission was turned back over to the Catholic church in 1853 when the territory become American, and it's been an active parish church every since.
Today the mission is open seven days a week, except when services are ongoing. The site includes a small museum and gift shop.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park surrounds Tucson on both east and west, and preserves the largest known concentration of saguaro cactus in the world. These magnificent giants can grow up to 20 meters high and live up to 75 years, making them the redwoods of the cactus genus.
The west district of the park is the most visited, and in addition to the visitor’s center, there are extensive hiking trails and a Native American petroglyph site. The east side contains a larger wilderness area, but the trails are more geared for the backcountry enthusiast, not the casual hiker.
(The winter months, November–March, are a bit more preferable for hiking.)
Old Tucson Studios
For the nostalgic, Old Tucson is a movie studio turned theme park. The location has hosted a veritable who’s who of Western movies, from The Gunfight at the OK Corral to the Three Amigos.
Today the streets and faux shops are inhabited by a staff of re-enactors. The studio also hosts numerous musical shows and the obligatory gunfight.
The Biosphere 2
When you’ve had your fill of historical Tucson, head north 24 miles to Biosphere 2 for the opposite end of the spectrum.
The scientific facility was built in 1986 to study the building of self-contained, sustained environments for future space missions. Two long-term missions were held, both of which technically failed – but nonetheless much useful data was gained.
Today this must-see site is owned by the University of Arizona, which uses it to conduct various environmental experiments. The Biosphere's self-contained environments allow the scientists to control environmental inputs and play God in ways they couldn't in nature.
Hour-long guided tours are available to explore the main sights inside the Biosphere. Once you’ve completed the tour, explore the outside for as long as you want.
Just a short drive or plane ride from San Diego, Tucson makes an excellent winter/spring weekend getaway with a little something for every taste.