On the list of sunsets everyone should see at least once, there should be a spot for the Sonoran Desert. Late on winter days, the light burns golden on the Santa Catalina Mountains above Tucson, then slowly fades, silhouetting the very symbol of the Southwest—the saguaro cactus—against the horizon.
Saguaro silhouettes. Photo by Fred Hood/Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
No matter how many Westerns you’ve seen, you’re probably not ready for the impression a saguaro makes. They are, first of all, enormous, often standing 40 feet tall and bearing multiple arms. And they are far more numerous than you may think. Thousands of them, most over a century old, cover the plains and hillsides around Arizona’s second-largest city. When you stand among them in a place like Saguaro National Park, staring at an army of needly arms raised skyward, you can feel the spirit of the Southwest surging through you. Midwesterners who flock here in winter, however, might simply think of the sensation as “finally being warm.”
Tucson’s sunny skies and 68-degree average high in February offer the perfect winter escape. Northerners homesick for snow find their powder (and the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley) in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of town. But most visitors enjoy the mountains as backdrops to afternoon hikes, rounds of golf (Tucson has more than 20 courses) and dinners at the high-end resorts in the foothills on the edge of town. The Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa provides a particularly close sense of the desert because most of its grounds display saguaro and other native plants along the paths to the spa, tennis court and riding stables. More cultivated flora at the Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul gardens give an energetic jolt to Midwestern visitors eager for a dose of midwinter color.
Photo courtesy of the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa.
Forty-four miles south on Interstate-19, the local color comes from artwork—and the artists themselves—in tiny Tubac, which feels like equal parts movie set and art show. The paintings, pots and Native American rugs sold in low adobe buildings are tempting. But even art sometimes can’t top simply relaxing under a log-frame veranda and taking in the Arizona sun.
5 more stops
1 Get a close-up view of cacti and wildlife in either the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum or Saguaro National Park. Both make excellent first-day outings to help you understand the area you’re about to enjoy.
Saguaro National Park West. Photo by David Jewell/Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
2 In the heart of Tucson, the Arizona Inn’s bungalow-style lodging takes you back to a more glamorous era. The luxurious Sunday brunch lets you dine like the 1930s movie stars who once relaxed on manicured grass by the pool.
Brunch at the Arizona Inn. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Inn.
3 History buffs love the Pima Air and Space Museum, where dozens of planes, including jaw-droppingly huge transport jets, are on display in the open air. Tram tours ($7) visit the “aircraft graveyard” nearby.
4 February’s La Fiesta de los Vaqueros brings big-time rodeo and the world’s longest nonmotorized parade. Also in February, the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase packs the city with thousands of rock hounds.
5 For some of the best views in town, grab drinks at the Westin La Paloma Resort’s Azul restaurant (set near the Santa Catalina Mountains) or dinner at the Westward Look’s Gold restaurant (overlooking the lights of Tucson).
To plan your trip: (800) 638-8350; visittucson.org