A friend of mine told me she was thinking of taking a trip to Hawaii — or Tucson, Ariz. I’d never considered visiting a desert for any reason, let alone for fun. But the affordable hotels, pretty views and outdoor activities enticed her. Since my in-laws recently retired there, my husband and I decided to make the drive — it's 14 hours from Austin — to see what this Southwestern college town and retirement destination had to offer.
My first thought: It looks a lot like Florida — if you took away the water and traded palm trees for cactus. A beautiful difference between this Arizona city and the Sunshine State is that Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges. My favorite vacation spot is the Colorado Rockies, so this was a welcome view. It was hot, but it was a dry heat — as everyone in Tucson likes to tell you. And with an average of around 15 percent daytime humidity — compared to about 70 percent in Austin — at least I wasn’t drenched in sweat all day.
The best part of vacationing in a desert town is spending every evening eating outside. The day cools off as much as 30 degrees once the sun sets. While our dinners were void of mosquitos, they were dotted with howls from nearby dogs. Our in-laws speculated they were warning everyone about the coywolves — a wild coyote-wolf hybrid found throughout North America.
While we savored the evenings, we actively took advantage of the day. Whether you come alone or you bring the kids, there’s an activity for everyone.
If you like to explore a new town sans a car, the Loop is a 131-mile system of multi-use trails and paved paths that surrounds Tucson. Whether you’re on a bike, horse or traveling by foot, this family-friendly network lets you discover the metro Tucson area car-free.
If you want a more challenging bike outing, head up to Mount Lemmon. If you ride the whole way up — about a 5,641-feet climb — you’ll get views of the desert and the forest. My husband took advantage of the city’s mountain bike trails. The Golder Ranch trail system has some fun flowy sections that offer a look at mountain landscapes along the way. But make sure to steady your bike to avoid the cactus that line the path. My husband wasn’t so lucky.
If you prefer to exercise by foot, Tucson has ample hiking trails. For $7 per car, visitors can explore Catalina State Park. If you want a short hike, the Canyon Loop trail offers a 2.3-mile loop. For a longer trek, check out the Sutherland Trail. Pack plenty of water and snacks. It’s 9.1 miles one way.
Visit Biosphere 2
If you fondly remember the mid-'90s movie "Bio-Dome" — where Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin accidentally get locked inside a closed man-made ecosystem for a year — then stop by for a tour of Biosphere 2, now used by the University of Arizona as a research facility. The name is an ode to Earth, which they refer to as Biosphere 1.
A guided tour took us through the ecosystems housed on-site. Scientists have complete control of these systems, which allows them to experiment and test out solutions for environmental challenges that society might face in the future — like water and energy concerns, our guide told us. We strolled alongside a mature rainforest, an ocean, swamps home to mangrove trees, a tropical savanna grassland, a fog desert and desert hillslope grass-shrublands.
Unfortunately, we didn’t hear much about the controversial past of the original project on our tour. The facility is now used to “address grand challenges that affect the quality of life and the understanding of our place in the universe,” according to the Biosphere 2 website. But the original mission in the '90s, which some criticize as a failure, was an attempt at seeing if it was possible to sustain human and ecological life in a closed ecological system. Our guide did tell us that scientists in the first mission split into two factions, and animosity among the scientists continued long after.
What else can you do?
If planes are your thing, stop by the Pima Air & Space Museum to learn some aviation history. Nature lovers should visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to experience botanical gardens, a natural history museum, an aquarium and an art gallery. The museum also offers 21 acres with 2 miles of walking trails, where visitors can see a hummingbird aviary. If you’re a Wild West buff, the historical town of Tombstone is just a little over an hour away.
So no matter what you like to do, Tucson has a little bit for everyone. And if you go when it's hot, just make sure you book a hotel with a pool.
ALSO IN TRAVEL: Pumpkin patches to consider around the state