“The military calls it a ‘force multiplier’…that’s what business aircraft have been for FedEx. ”
Tucsonans are generally too polite to say this, but they consider their city to be the anti-Phoenix.
Oh, Tucson has some sprawl, but nothing like the acre-a-day gobbling of the desert that marked Phoenix during the real estate boom that was. And sure, Tucson is hot for half the year-though if it's 107 in Phoenix on a July day, it's probably only around 101 in Tucson. And as outsiders never grow tired of marveling, it is in fact a dry heat. Plus, for the other six months of the year, Tucson is still usually gloriously mild. And it has an average of 350 days of sunshine a year.
The most remarkable difference between Phoenix and Tucson, however, is the ambiance. One is frenetic; the other laid-back. One has endless expanses of exotic lawn, the other has a preference for native desert landscape. Phoenix has nationally known cultural attractions, major-league baseball and NFL football. Tucson has a quieter cultural scene, rich with its entrenched Spanish heritage, and minor-league baseball. Phoenix is Orange County minus the ocean; Tucson is a very large Santa Fe. Phoenix is abuzz with traffic, and pedestrians beware. Tucsonans complain about traffic, all right, but it's nothing like the congestion in Phoenix. A few Tucson intersections have two sets of pedestrian-crossing pushbuttons on the poles-one at waist-level for walkers and another, a few feet higher, for those on horseback.
The first thing you'll notice about Tucson is the endless blue sky. The city and its suburbs lie on a high desert plain (about 2,500 feet in elevation) bordered by mountain ranges, notably the Catalinas and the Rincon, which loom over the northern and eastern boundaries, respectively. The second noticeable thing about Tucson is the profusion of giant saguaro, the towering cacti with uplifted arms that are the icon of the American West. Tucson is bracketed on its east and west sides by the bifurcated Saguaro National Park, a monument to those magnificent cacti and the desert landscape.
The best introduction to the saguaro and splendor of other desert cacti and wildlife is Cactus Forest Drive, which winds through the Rincon foothills in the eastern section of Saguaro National Park. The loop takes about a half-hour by car, though you'll be tempted to spend more time to stop at overlooks and take in the scenery.
A must-see in Tucson is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the other side of town, abutting the western section of Saguaro National Park. It's a wonderful indoor-outdoor zoo, museum and botanical garden, and among the critters on view (or just hanging around, in some cases) are rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, raptors, coyote and, of course, the most peculiar beasts of the Sonoran desert, javelinas, properly known as collared peccaries. They are gnarly, bristle-haired, tusked critters that can weigh well over 50 pounds and look like wild pigs, but are not. (They're believed to be distantly related to hippopotami.) Javalinas aren't usually aggressive, but if you see one or a small herd wandering in the desert scrub, don't approach them, as they'll bite if they feel threatened, and their teeth are sharp enough to easily tear into their favorite snack, prickly pear cacti.
Don't miss Sabino Canyon, a spectacular recreation area in the Catalina foothills on the northern edge of town. It's one of the great local spots for mountain hiking and picnicking, especially when you have only a few hours of leisure time. There's a well-marked nature trail and narrated tram rides operate throughout the day on a 45-minute trail through the towering rock formations.
Tucson, of course, is one of the landmarks of the Old West, and an Old West feeling still pervades the city, where a cowboy hat is considered sensible attire, not an affectation. In February, you can attend the festive annual Tucson Rodeo Days, which kick off with a parade featuring hundreds of horse-drawn floats and buggies, as well as mariachi bands, marching bands and dancers. The rodeo itself takes place over a week at the Rodeo Grounds.
Though the city's days as a location for cowboy movies are long in the past, Old Tucson Studios is a popular tourist spot. It's a theme park on the west side of town with a movie-location set (it once was a movie location set) and attractions that include gunfight reenactments. If you have a spare day, however, you'd be well advised to visit the far more authentic town of Tombstone, a leisurely drive through the desert about 70 miles southeast of Tucson.
In Tombstone, which calls itself "the Town Too Tough to Die," a horse-drawn stagecoach rattles along wide, unpaved Allen Street, past restored period buildings. These are now mostly tourist shops, but be sure to stop in at the original Bird Cage Theatre, a gaudy emporium that served as a combined gambling hall, theater, opera house and brothel during Tombstone's boom days as a mining and cowboy R&R center in the last quarter of the 19th century. Back then, The New York Times referred to the Bird Cage as the "wickedest spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast."
Just down the street is the O.K. Corral, by the site of the legendary 1881 gunfight that involved nine men, including the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday on one side and the Clanton and McLaury brothers on the other. The extreme proximity of the gunfighters, whose positions are marked on the site, and the fact that only three died, prompts speculation about how much drink might have been consumed before the hostilities commenced. Be that as it may, cowboys in authentic getup soberly reenact the gunfight throughout the day.
After its cowboy era faded by the start of the 20th century and the railroad came to town, Tucson grew as a recreational and therapeutic center, its sunny, dry desert clime widely promoted back east as the ideal recuperative spot for those afflicted with tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. By World War II, military and general aviation became important in Tucson, which is still home to the sprawling Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Aviation aficionados should be sure to take a walking tour of the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the world's largest aviation museums. It has five hangars with well-curated exhibits and aircraft and artifacts from the history of U.S. aviation, as well as a vast outdoor expanse that features 275 aircraft and even several spacecraft.
Among the aircraft on display (and you're welcome to touch them) are military fighters, bombers, tankers, transports and reconnaissance craft, including a line of monster B-52 bombers; President Kennedy's backup Air Force One, the interior of which is open to the public; and President Eisenhower's triple-tailed Lockheed Constellation.
Try to work in a drive to the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a complex housing the world's largest collection of space telescopes and observatories atop a mountain in the isolated desert about 55 miles southwest of Tucson. Tours leave regularly from the visitors' center, and there is a popular night program at the observatory. Over the years, the city of Tucson-encouraged by scientists at Kitt Peak working with local officials and the business community-has become the national leader in urban initiatives to re-engineer nighttime street and building lighting to reduce ambient light. As a result, the skies here look at least as glorious at nighttime as they do during the day.
Traveler Fast Facts
HISTORY: Built on ancient Indian settlements along what is now mostly a dry river floodplain, Tucson was the site of a Jesuit mission in 1700, became part of Mexico in the 1820s, and in 1863 became the capital of the Arizona Territory. It grew rapidly after Arizona achieved statehood in 1912 (becoming the last of the contiguous 48 states to join the union) and now has a city population of about 540,000.
AMBIANCE: Tucson maintains a balance among elements of the Old West, the old 20th century Arizona and the cosmopolitanism associated with a big college town. (The city is home to the University of Arizona, with about 34,000 students.) Two cultural heads-ups: At shop entrances and elsewhere, men actually hold doors for other men. And the town is a Mecca for bicyclists headed into the hills. Drive with them in mind.
FLYING IN: Tucson International Airport has a 24-hour tower; its longest runway is 10,996 feet. FBOs include Atlantic Aviation (800-889-0593), Bombardier Aerospace (520-746-5234), Million Air (800-360-5746), Premier Aviation 800-274-8451), Tucson Executive Terminal (800-758-1874), Tucson Jet Center (520-746-1411) and Velocity Air (520-434-0440). Ryan Field is 12 miles west of the city; its longest runway is 5,500 feet. Tucson Airport Authority (520-883-2921) provides FBO services. For more information, visit www.tucsonairports.com.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS: The Arizona Inn (B+) in the middle of town is the most famous and historic hotel. You'll find several world-class resorts in the northern foothills, including Loews Ventana Canyon (A) and the Westin La Paloma (A-). Near Saguaro National Park, the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch (B-) is popular for corporate meetings and retreats.
FOOD: Vivace (A+; 520-795-7221) is widely regarded as southern Arizona's best Italian restaurant and the restaurant at the Arizona Inn (A-; 800-933-1093) is a jewel. Not as formal or pricey, Kingfisher Bar & Grill (B; 520-323-7739) specializes in fish. Debates are constant about the best tortillas in town, but St. Mary's Mexican Food (B-; 520-884-1629), a hole-in-the-wall lunch joint, often comes out on top. Tucson's local specialty is the belly-blasting Sonoran hot dog, swaddled in bacon and garnished with beans and taco condiments. With two locations, El Guero Canelo (B, 520-295-9005, 520-882-8977) is one of the favorites.
ACTIVITIES: You can hike, bike and explore the magnificent Sonoran desert year-round. In addition, the resorts in the Catalina foothills offer a good selection of championship golf courses. And from mid-December through late March, there's skiing on 21 runs with two chair lifts, an hour's drive away at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley (C) near the 9,100-foot summit of the tallest peak overlooking the city (call for conditions, 520-576-1321). Major-league baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks do spring training at Tucson Electric Park (B). Another major-league team, the Colorado Rockies, train at vintage Hi Corbett Field (B+) but will move their spring training to Phoenix after 2010.