Located in the heart of the southwest in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, you will find the vibrant city of Tucson. This cultural hub is surrounded by five minor ranges of mountains: the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Tortolita Mountains to the north, the Santa Rita Mountains to the south, the Rincon Mountains to the east, and the Tucson Mountains to the west. The diverse landscape varies from deep canyons, cacti-covered hills, seasonal riverbeds, and forested peaks surrounding the city, so there are sure to be stunning views in these easy day trips from Tucson.
History of this Southwestern Mecca
The city of Tucson lies on the ancestral lands of the Tohono O'odham. Despite the multiple intrusions and occupations of the Tohono O'odham ancestral lands by the Spanish, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Anglo Americans, and non-Tohono O'odham tribes, it is of great importance to acknowledge the Tohono O'odham as the original inhabitants of the region who have occupied these lands for thousands of years.
Tucson's name is derived from the Tohono O'odham word Cuk-Son, translating to "at the base of the black mountain." A city rich with many cultures and history, here you will find both the remnants of an ancient civilization such as sophisticated canal systems, petroglyphs, and earthen structures. You will also find impressive examples of Spanish colonial architecture like Mission San Xavier Del Bac, with neighborhoods filled with vibrant colorful homes showcasing the beauty of this unique city; a true gem just a two-hour drive south of the metropolis of Phoenix.
Day Trips From Tucson: 12 Amazing Ways to Spend a Blissful Desert Day in Tucson
Whether you're searching for a day trip filled with outdoor adventures, sunset horseback riding, mountain biking, or simply looking for a place to enjoy some local world-renowned fare after a day at museums and art galleries, this guide has you covered for fun things to do amongst the desert landscape.
12. Tucson Mountain Park and Gates Pass Scenic Overlook
Spend the day exploring Tucson Mountain Park, offering 62 miles of non-motorized shared-use trails for outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Gates Pass overlook includes interpretive displays and historic structures. If you're lucky you'll come across coyotes, javelinas, and various reptiles, and bird species. The historic movie studio of Old Tucson where the infamous movie Tombstone is located out here as well, an ode to the wild west.
11. Degrazia Gallery in the Sun
The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun celebrates both the life of Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia and his art. Established in 1950 by DeGrazia, the Gallery in the Sun is a Tucson tradition that is a favorite among visitors and local Tucsonans alike. DeGrazia and his work are characterized by their rebellious approach and passionate depiction of Southwestern life.
10. Catalina State Park
At Catalina State Park, you can hike, take a horseback ride, and bike on the trails, which boast an incredible backdrop of the Santa Catalina Mountains. There are a total of eight trails at the park, all varying in length and difficulty.
9. Tohono Chul & Tucson Botanical Gardens
Embrace the authentic beauty of the Sonoran Desert year-round at Tohono Chul, Tucson's charming crossroads of nature, art, and culture. Deemed "One of the World's Ten Best Botanical Gardens," Tohono Chul is an oasis to be experienced.
While you are at it, make sure to also visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens, a tranquil green paradise that strives to be recognized and respected as the best small public garden in America.
8. Reid Park Zoo
Spend the day in the heart of the city amongst the wildlife at Reid Park Zoo for some whole-family fun. This non-profit-led zoo features more than 500 animals. In addition to animal exhibits, the zoo also offers a carousel, a miniature train, a giraffe experience, a camel ride, an air-conditioned cafe, and a number of educational programs.
7. Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park's two sections are on either side of Tucson. In the western Tucson Mountain District, Signal Hill Trail leads to petroglyphs of the ancient Hohokam people. In the eastern Rincon Mountain District, Cactus Forest Drive is a scenic drive with striking views of the desert landscape and mountain ranges, and of course, the saguaro cactus. While you're on the eastern side, check out Colossal Cave located just 15 minutes east of Tucson, where you will find miles of underground cave systems to explore.
6. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
If you're lucky enough to be in Tucson after a heavy rainfall to experience streams and waterfalls running, Sabino Canyon is the place to be. Regardless, this area is a popular year-round hiking area full of breathtaking mountain views, desert flora, picnic spots perfect for day hikes, and a shuttle bus if you want to sit and take in the views instead of hiking one if it's 14 trails, Sabino Canyon is surely a local favorite.
5. Santa Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest
The Santa Catalina range towers above Tucson, illuminated in fiery shades of red and orange at sunset. The Catalinas offer many incredible hiking trails and vast views of the desert landscape and is close enough to the city so you can escape for a few hours or even all day. Our favorite hikes include:
Aspen Loop Hike
Looking to flee the heat of the desert? Take a stroll through a green tunnel of aspens and ferns. This trail showcases perennial water flow, some of the largest old-growth trees on the mountain, and stunning views of various mountain ranges encompassing the city below.
Seven Falls Hiking Trail
This full-day hike is well worth it and you will be rewarded at the end with seven consecutive cascading falls tucked within Bear Canyon. This local favorite has perennial flowing water, seven stream crossings on the way to the falls, and is best done in the early morning hours to take advantage of shade from the canyon walls. Reward yourself with a dip at the end!
4. Mt. Lemmon on the Lemmon Scenic Byway
This 27-mile stretch of highway to the top of Mt. Lemmon is also known as the sky islands at an elevation of 9,157 feet. Visiting is the biological equivalent of traveling from Mexico to the Canadian conifer forests! Passing through several contrasting ecosystems along the way, the drive boasts spectacular views of the Sonoran valley below as well as the surrounding mountain ranges. Along the drive, you will find many options for rock climbing, hiking, biking, and camping. Mount Lemmon is also home to the southernmost ski resort in the US - Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, which offers lift rides year-round.
3. Culinary & Culturally Rich Eats
Home to the highest concentration of Indigenous farms in the U.S., Tucson is the first city in the nation to receive designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson is home to many incredible eateries showcasing locally grown ingredients, some being ancient varieties first having been cultivated in the area 4,000 years ago. Discover a huge selection of UNESCO-certified restaurants that support the local food economy by sourcing from local farmers and businesses.
Three-fourths of the establishments serve traditional dishes from the Sonoran region or use heritage ingredients in creative new dishes while implementing eco-friendly practices. These restaurants are sprinkled throughout downtown Tucson and various barrios and we highly recommend supporting and trying authentic eats (and tacos!) while you are in town.
2. University of Arizona Campus Tour
Take a tour of the famous U of A campus, home of the Arizona Wildcats, with either a staff-led or self-guided tour of the property. University of Arizona's impressive sprawling campus is home to several museums, living laboratories (like the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill), world-class fine art, cultural attractions, nightlife, and historical buildings.
1. Tucson Museums
Enjoy one of the city's many museums ranging from southwestern art to desert wildlife viewing to unique collections only found in the Tucson area. Depending on your interests, choose from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Pima Air & Space Museum, Natural History Museum, Arizona State Museum, Children's Museum, Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, and the Tucson Museum of Art.
Wynn?" Weddell is a proud member of the Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) nation who spent many years living in the Pacific Northwest. She is on the team at Diversify Vanlife, a platform dedicated to amplifying BIPOC voices in outdoor spaces and advocating for environmental consciousness within the nomadic community. Instagram: @rainbowmountain_
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