The food is delicious. The access to natural beauty is even better.
Originally posted in The New York Times
The change, and how quickly it came, took me by surprise. One minute we were in the heart of Tucson, Ariz., among the restaurants, coffee shops and businesses you’d expect in a metro area of more than a million people. Scarcely 15 minutes later it was as if we were hundreds of miles from civilization. Surrounded by the muted bronze and sage colors of the desert, my cousin Melanie Kuhlman (and her three children) and I took in the silence, the desert brush and towering saguaro cactuses that stretched 20 or 30 feet into the air. One of the best things about Tucson, I discovered, is how easy it is to leave Tucson. That’s not a knock against the city — I mean it in the most complimentary way possible.
The Old Pueblo, as the city is sometimes called, is a special place. Unlike many major urban centers, whose bragging rights are that you don’t have to leave the city limits to find what you want, Tucson is a place that encourages you to explore. Yes, there is beautiful public art throughout, as well as a Unesco-recognized culinary scene. But within easy access are breathtaking mountainscapes, desert kitsch and outstanding wildlife-viewing opportunities. Tucson is worth a visit for any traveler, regardless of means, but I’m happy to say I kept well within my modest budget when I visited last month.
“It’s a city that doesn’t feel as big as it is,” said my uncle Brian, an avid outdoorsman and decades-long resident (and Melanie’s dad). Melanie compared the city to Phoenix, just two hours away: “We preserve our natural desert landscape,” she said. “If you look around Phoenix, there are a lot of lawns. People have …” She paused. “Grass.”
The civic predilection toward conservation was apparent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just 10 miles outside the city ($21.95 admission for adults, $8.95 for kids ages 3 to 12). The museum, which encompasses nearly 100 acres, aims to challenge the traditional concept of what a museum can be by creating a mutually symbiotic relationship with the surrounding desert. Founded in 1952, it’s a bit of everything rolled into one: a zoo, a botanical garden and a place to hike — 85 percent of the museum is outdoors.
It happens to be a great place to take kids but is fun for all, regardless of age. I walked around the grounds with my cousin and her young ones, enjoying the surprisingly lush and diverse species of desert flora: saguaros, brittlebush and the teddy bear cholla cactus, which looks cuddly but is deceptively prickly. (Don’t touch it. Seriously.) We saw wolves, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and even a mountain lion in different enclosures.
While west of the city, I hiked a bit in Saguaro National Park. That is where I really came to appreciate the giant saguaros and understand why they’re called the guardians of the desert. They’re massive, green columnar structures with multiple arms and sharp spines, able to grow as tall as 50 or 60 feet. They look like what a child might produce if you asked for a drawing of a cactus.
More great hiking opportunities await in the northeastern outskirts of the city at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area ($5 for a day pass). I went out one morning with Melanie, her husband, Erik, and their kids, and trekked along Upper Sabino Canyon road, forging into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness and intertwining with the Sabino Creek. We passed mesquite trees with their long, tentacle-like roots as well as creosote bushes, which give off a distinct, earthy desert smell after a rain. A trolley will take you up the length of the road ($10 for adults) but we hiked the length of it, and back, a distance of about 7.5 miles.
Of course, there’s plenty to do within the city, too. I was lucky enough to be in town at the same time as the Tucson Rodeo, an annual tradition that began in 1925. After paying $25 for a bleacher ticket, I took in some barrel racing, in which competitors on horses run a timed course around a series of barrels — then noticed the crowd grow eager with anticipation as the bull riding began.
“And there’s the Copenhagen smile,” said one of the announcers, referring to the lopsided cheeks of someone working on a plug of chewing tobacco. One by one, the riders came out, and one by one, they fell. A bull named Mr. Hot Shot tossed his rider like a rag doll in about two seconds; a rider named Chance Strong had a little more luck, lasting nearly four seconds on a bull named Atomic Drop. To garnish a score, though, a rider must last a full eight seconds. Finally, Nate Perry from Elk City, Okla., was up to the challenge — to whoops from the crowd, he lasted the full eight and was awarded a score of 86.5.
I’ve somehow managed to not talk about the food in Tucson yet — unforgivable, given the sheer volume and quality of its Sonoran-influenced cuisine. Southern Arizona has a style of Mexican food all its own, one distinguishing characteristic being the use of homemade flour tortillas. The flour tortilla, unfairly maligned by some, is elevated to an art form in Tucson: a stretchy, chewy, yielding halo that goes perfectly with both tacos and burritos.
Get your fix at Tania’s Flour Tortillas and Mexican Food, a modest restaurant in the Drexel Heights area west of the airport. My plate of carne asada was excellent — juicy and smoky — and came with rice and refried beans ($9.89). The best part, though, were the tortillas — two big ones about 18 inches in diameter that clearly had just come freshly off the grill.
Also close to the airport is Aqui Con El Nene (there’s another location in north Tucson), a brick-and-mortar that specializes in a taco yaqui ($5.50), a type of taco I didn’t even know I needed in my life. Take a chile relleno stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, beef and bacon, and lay it flat on two tortillas next to some charred spring onions and you’ve practically got a meal. I didn’t stop there, though: The man behind the counter recommended the birria, a kind of spiced meat stew usually made with goat or beef. It was a good recommendation. The spicy bowl brimming with soup and fat was the color of magma, and the shredded beef inside was fall-apart tender ($7 for a small bowl).
Another favorite was St. Mary’s Mexican Food, just west of the 10 Freeway, which specializes in traditional home-style Sonoran dishes. Behind the dusty orange edifice of St. Mary’s, which began as a small tamale and tortilla business in 1978, were some of the best burros (or burritos, as you may know them) and tamales I’ve had in ages. I had a nearly perfect bacon, egg and cheese burrito one morning ($4.60) packed into a beautifully pliant flour tortilla. I also got a couple of green corn tamales for the road ($2.25) — steamed in fresh green (rather than the usual tan) husks, these tamales were moist and flavorful.
Traditional family-style restaurants abound, too, if you’re in the mood for a full sit-down experience with colorful décor, roaming mariachis and tableside salsas. I had a great meal at Guadalajara Original Grill, which has live music and colorful murals to accompany its traditional dishes. Salsa made at your table by roving employees is fresh and spicy (or not, depending on what you ask for) and the food is satisfying — particularly the molcajete carnitas ($15.39), pork and vegetables in a tomato-based sauce served in a searing-hot bowl made from volcanic rock.
After getting a good handle on Tucson and its immediate environs, I decided to explore even farther out. I spent an entire day driving a big loop southeast of the city, stopping at different cities and towns along the way. My first destination? To do some birding, of course. Southern Arizona has some of the finest bird-watching opportunities in the country, and so I made the 100-mile drive to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area to witness an amazing annual spectacle: the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that winter there.
The majestic birds leave early in the morning to feed, then return late in the day. I arrived around 11 and took my spot among the other watchers. Things didn’t really pick up for another hour or so — but when it did, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. There was a far-off purring or growling noise on the horizon, with what looks to be a dark cloud. Suddenly, the cloud disappeared. Then reappeared. Finally, the cloud transformed into hundreds upon hundreds of sandhill cranes. The cranes, which share the area with cinnamon teals, northern shovelers and other birds, came in, wave after impressive wave, until thousands were milling around on the banks.
Just a half-hour west, the small town of Tombstone was the next logical stop. Known for its place in history as a late 19th-century boomtown because of the presence of local silver mines, Tombstone is most famous as the site of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Can you see the very location where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday stood? You certainly can ($6 admission). You can also visit the Boothill Graveyard ($3) where the victims of the shootout are buried. The stretch of Allen Street between 3rd and 6th Streets is blocked off to traffic, and it’s fun to walk around and observe the Wild West kitsch and street performers.
On my last day, I drove up the winding road leading to the top of Mount Lemmon, the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains, with a clear goal in mind: to catch a signature Southwest sunset. The drive up, while slow going, is fantastic. The views of the valley are wonderful, and it’s interesting to see the desert flora change as you get higher and higher (the omnipresent saguaros slowly disappear).
Finally, I reached Windy Point Lookout, and exited my car to the noticeably chillier (and yes, windier) weather. I hiked a few minutes out over the rocks until I’d found a quiet place with no other people in sight, just as the sun was beginning to disappear. Watching the prismatic canvas of blues and pinks slowly fade into dusk, the stereotype of “snowbirds” — people who spend their winters in Arizona — suddenly made perfect sense to me. The sandhill cranes really had it figured out.
Lucas Peterson is the Frugal Traveler columnist. He has written for GQ, Lucky Peach, Eater, LA Weekly and Food Republic. His video series for Eater, “Dining on a Dime,” is now in its 11th season. @FrugalTraveler