Xavier del Bac Church in Tucson, Arizona
Xavier del Bac Church in Tucson, Arizona

by Lee Foster

Dependable sunshine, spare desert images, and ethnic diversity make Tucson both a resort destination and a special place. The sunshine of winter here is legendary. Tucson is said to receive more sunlight than any other American city. The heat of summer is somewhat forgiving, but seasons other than summer are definitely preferable. Summers are the thunderstorm season, sometimes displaying brilliant pyrotechnics as lightning dazzles the area.

Located in a high desert valley and surrounded by four mountain ranges, all within a couple of hours drive, Tucson offers geographic diversity, ranging from the saguaro cactus forests in the Saguaro National Monument to the pine forests of the Coronado National Forest.

Part of the pleasure of Tucson , and Arizona generally, is that the Indian, Spanish-Mexican, and Anglo cultures blend, but don’t lose their identity in a cultural homogeneity. One seventh of the Indian population of the U.S. lives in Arizona , which means that one person in 20 in the state is Native American. The Navajo nation in the northeast corner of the state is the largest of 20 reservations in Arizona .

Aside from the Indian culture, which is present throughout Arizona , Tucson boasts an especially strong element of Spanish-Mexican heritage. About 16 per cent of Arizona ns are of Spanish-Mexican descent. Their presence affects language, architecture, food, and all cultural efforts, such as mu sic and festivals. The Mexican border at Nogales is not far away to the south.


The Tucson International Airport , 10 miles south of the city, hosts flights from major carriers, who arrive from all directions. Van and limousine services carry passengers the short distance into the city.

When driving to the area, the main artery is the I-10 through route, running northwest to southeast, passing along the Santa Cruz River . A traveler arriving from San Diego takes I-8 until the road joins I-10 north of Tucson . I-19 shoots south from Tucson to Nogales and the Mexican border.

When driving in Arizona , all the highway rest stops offer sobering information about dust storms. The main expert advice is to get good information, dispensed over local radio. If you get caught in a dust storm, wait it out rather than attempt to drive through it.

Tucson is fairly easy to get around in because the streets are laid out in a grid pattern north-south and east-west. The main street has the nostalgic pedal-to-the-metal name of Speedway Boulevard . Streets tend to change their names as they proceed, which makes map reading difficult. Tucson is so spread out and sprawling that it may rank as the American city with the most square feet of roadway and parking lot per capita. The 600,000 metro residents flourish in an area encompassing 500 square miles. A rental car is a necessity for the traveler who wants to get around efficiently.



Tucson and Arizona enjoy a human history with three main chapters: the long Indian era, the brief Spanish-Mexican dominance, then the U.S.-Anglo supremacy.

The Indian culture surrounding Tucson , both ancient and contemporary, is a major cultural pleasure. Archaeologists have traced early Indian habitations here back to 15,000 years ago. The Indians, in fact, gave the name to the city, with their “stukshon” translating roughly to Tucson and meaning “spring at the foot of the black hill,” referring to springs on the banks of the Santa Cruz River.

North of Tucson, the Hohokam and Anasazi Indians constructed irrigated farming villages on the Salt and Gila Rivers . If you drive north from Tucson to Phoenix , be sure to stop in at the Gila Indian Reservation Cultural Center to see recreated structures from all the Arizona Indian groups. Prior to reaching the Gila Reservation along I-10 you can turn east to see the Casa Grande, or Great House, a premier architectural legacy. Today a steel umbrella covers this mysterious large ruin, whose purpose is not entirely understood. The building may have functioned as a watchtower, religious temple, or astronomy observatory. The four-story structure indicates that a large population existed, based on the agricultural fecundity of the region. Stop in at the Great House and walk the area to learn of the Indian culture.

The legendary European who formed the modern cultural milieu around Tucson was a Spanish Jesuit, Eusebio Kino, who established the San Xavier Mission at the village of Bac , south of Tucson . Be sure to visit this mission, which is sometimes called the “White Dove of the Desert” because of its beauty and its white appearance. The Spanish mission architecture here is a notable example of church architecture in the Americas . Kino was not the first missionary in Arizona . That honor went to Fray Marcos de Niza, in 1539. But Kino was the first to start a sustained missionary effort, in 1692.

In the year 1700 Kino founded the Bac mission, only one of many missions that this capable executive inaugurated in Sonora , Mexico and in Arizona . Kino, an astronomer and a linguist, brought to the area the agricultural and cattle-raising base that transformed life here. Many of Kino’s missions in northern Mexico are intriguing to visit. His grave site in Magdalena , Mexico is a place of national pilgrimage. Within Tucson , the main Kino scholar, Charles Polzer, managed the Southwest Mission Research Center , where literature about the southwest culture is produced. Read Polzer’s KINO: HIS MISSIONS, HIS MONUMENTS to get the full story.

The white Mission San Xavier del Bac is a destination not to be missed. Though the site was designated by Kino in 1700, the current structure was built by Franciscans 1783-1797. Franciscans have maintained their priestly role here except for the period 1823-1911. This is the main Kino mission still active in serving a predominantly Indian com mu nity. Be sure to enter the ornate, rococo interior to witness the splendor of ornamentation. Within the church one can see the profound faith of the local Papago Indians, whose graveyard, adjacent to the church, is a moving exhibit of man’s effort to make some sense of life. Major Indian festivals occur here on October 3 and on December 2. On the Friday after Easter, a re-enactment ceremony celebrates the founding of the mission.

As the Spanish developed mining for silver in Sonora and sent some settlers into the Arizona area, the Indian population, understandably, became disturbed, with the Apache the most effective resistors. A garrison formed at the village of Tubac . A second walled presidio was built in Tucson . The city’s nickname, The Old Pueblo, refers to the walls of the presidio. Until the Civil War, life was precarious in Arizona , outside the major fortifications at Tucson and Tubac. The Apache successfully adapted the horse, a remnant of the earlier Spanish explorations, to their nomadic lifestyle. With the horse, the Apache raiding parties commanded a wide range of territory.

Tucson became a Mexican territory when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. Through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsen Purchase in 1854, Arizona joined the U.S. By 1857 an overland stage route passed through Tucson on the route from St. Louis to San Francisco . Tucson dominated Arizona life and was chosen as the capital of the Arizona Territory in 1867, but lost the title to Phoenix ten years later. As the 19th century proceeded, silver and copper mining became important.

In 1880 the Southern Pacific Railroad pushed through their tracks, bringing a lifeline of easy transportation to and from the region. Tucson remained the most populous city in Arizona until Phoenix surpassed it in the 1920s.

The dominant player in Tucson and Arizona history has been water rather than man. Drought weakened and destroyed the great Anasazi Indian cultures. Water will always remain the precarious resource in this desert. Tucson lives on fossil water, pumped from huge underground aquifers. The demand for water continues to drop the water table. In 1911 the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River gave Arizona its first dependable water supply. The damming of the Colorado , notably the Hoover Dam, provided the state with water recreation, electricity, and a dependable supply of precious water for drinking and agriculture. Tucson remains at the southern edge of this dramatic water story, but the prosperity of the area, such as lettuce growing near the Saguaro National Park , would not be possible without irrigation. The chain of reservoirs and dams in Arizona look like life-bestowing jewelry, when seen from the air, fully as beautiful as the squash blossom silver necklaces that glint in sunlight at Navajo or Hopi trading posts. Only a longer historical perspective will allow us to judge whether Tucson ‘s decision makers are living within their water resources.

The Mexican-Indian roots of Tucson ‘s long history permeate the life of the com mu nity and affect the traveler in at least one positive way: the proliferation of Mexican restaurants. El Adobe at 40 West Broadway is indeed an adobe house from 1868. In 1961 the place was declared a State Historic Site. The style of cooking here is Sonora , Mexican, noted for its shredded beef dishes. The sound of the Spanish language and the pueblo architecture, with pastel stucco walls and red tile roofs, are other motifs that inform the sensibility. Indian jewelry and pottery are mementos to collect on an Arizona trip.


In downtown Tucson , the main focus is El Presidio Park, a good place to linger for an outdoor lunch around the fountain, under the trees, gazing up at the ceramic dome of the County Courthouse . This area has the feel of a Spanish Mexican plaza, on a small scale, congenial to foot traffic.

Across the road is the Tucson Museum of Art, with its emphasis on modern art. You enter the mu seum and walk slowly downhill through the exhibits, ending at a mu seum store selling arts and crafts. The Tucson Museum of Art is at 140 Main Street .

Adjacent to the mu seum is Old Town Artisans ( 186 N. Meyer Ave ), a one-block adobe restoration with 150 local artists and artisans. This is a prime shopping site in Tucson for arts and crafts. At Old Town Artisans you’ll find Arizona and world crafts, ranging from paintings to leather, wood to ceramics. The courtyard cafe in Old Town is a friendly, relaxed, and shaded place for lunch or refreshments.

The blocks around the Old Town center were the historic presidio and early residential com mu nity of Tucson . Get a walking tour brochure from the Visitors Bureau. The area presents some charm for a walker, but the residences are private and suggest an interior world walled away from the public, in the Mexican manner. One historic house serves as a Mexican restaurant, El Charro, 311 North Court Ave. La Casa Cordova, another of the houses, is a Mexican heritage mu seum. The Edward Nye House contains many photographs of 19th century Tucson . During the winter season scheduled guided walking tours depart from the house of John Fremont in this historic downtown district.

Tucson ‘s University of Arizona adds vitality to the life of the com mu nity, both for the resident and the traveler. The 35,000 students at the school have a profound impact on the 600,000 people in the greater Tucson region. For the traveler, the Arizona Historical Society adjacent to the University and the Arizona State Museum offer valuable interpretation of what life has meant in Arizona.

Xavier del Bac Church in Tucson, Arizona
Xavier del Bac Church in Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona Historical Society (949 E. 2nd) includes a mu seum and a mining tunnel. A full panorama of Arizona history unfolds here with competent displays. Some lesser known stories, such as the world of the Colorado River steamers or the attempt to introduce camels into the desert for carrying mail, are told in pictures and descriptions. A re-created mining tunnel allows a tactile experience of the gold, silver, and copper-mining history of the state. Roles of the early Spanish explorers, the missionaries, and the fierce Apaches are illuminated.

The Arizona State Museum ( Park Avenue and University Boulevard ) describes the archaeology and ethnology of Arizona . Displays here of early human tools are particularly impressive, especially those from Ventana Cave , which was inhabited by a stone tool culture for a period of 10,000 years. Housed at the mu seum are the offices of the distinguished scholar of the southwest, Charles Polzer.

” Tucson is in a mortal struggle over its identity,” Polzer said to me. “I hope it will never lose its sense of placefulness. The southwest culture is so rich here. The problem is the people from outside who come into the com mu nity with massive building plans and no respect for the desert terrain, vegetation, and water limitations. Growth within the constraints of the deserts is possible, but it mu st be done sensitively. Eusebio Kino is a great model of a realist who brought positive growth and change, but didn’t destroy the carrying capacity of the area. He saw man’s role as that of steward.”

A mountain with a scenic view on the west side of Tucson also has a link with the University. Sentinel Park Peak , also known as A-Mountain because of the whitewashed university letter on it, offers an elevated view of the city looking east. From this vista, the surrounding mountains blush at sundown and the sky gradually fills with stars at night. Sentinel Peak is off Broadway, west of I-10 on Cuesta.

The annual festivals here capitalize on the weather and the local ethnic diversity. Winter golf tournaments and a February gem and mineral show, the world’s largest, draw thousands. A March rodeo and the March-April Tucson Festival celebrate the vaquero and the considerable artistic/ mu sical accomplishments of the area. After the heat of summer passes, the region celebrates with autumn horse shows. Horseback riding is easily arranged any time of the year for the traveler. A free paper, The Tucson Weekly, distributed at all hotels, lists the city’s entertainment attractions and restaurants, current for the period of your visit.

One of the distinguished artists of the Southwest, Ted De Grazia, built his Gallery in the Sun in the north Tucson area. Here you can see his paintings, ceramics, and bronze sculptures, plus a frescoed chapel that he constructed with the help of Yaqui Indians. Several of De Grazia’s story sequence paintings, which appeared as books, such as his Kino book, can be seen. Other works of the artist are displayed on a rotating basis. Following his death in 1982, the holdings became the De Grazia Foundation, administered by Jennifer Potter.

“De Grazia built his gallery and found the inspiration for his art from material in the Tucson region,” said Jennifer Potter. “His gallery building and grounds might be considered his greatest work. On the grounds you can see 33 species of plants from the desert. The saguaro cactus cross sections became the ceramic block forms for his floors. Straw in the adobe provided a texture for his walls. De Grazia hauled in the water himself to make the adobe walls from local clay. His art was inspired by the people of the Southwest, especially his friends, the Yaqui Indians. The Yaqui Indian deer dances became a symbol of celebration. People often ask why there are Christmas decorations on the palo verde tree. De Grazia used to answer by saying that every day was Christmas.”

The De Grazia Galley is at 6300 N. Swan Blvd , 1/8 mile south of Skyline Drive .

On the west side of the city, so close that they are main attractions rather than nearby trips, are three major Tucson pleasures: the Arizona -Sonora Desert Museum , The Saguaro National Park, and Old Tucson. (The Saguaro National Park also includes a unit on the east side of the city.) This cluster of attractions lies within or adjacent to Tucson Mountain Park , replete with hiking trails and camping spots in the desert.

The Arizona -Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the single most important resource in Tucson . Museum, zoo, and botanical garden are inadequate words to describe this living desert experience, 14 miles west, adjacent to the Tucson Mountain Park . At the Museum you experience live displays of some 200 species of animals and 300 species of plants from the Sonora , Arizona , and Baja desert regions. The displays amount to stunning examples of the natural environment and its denizens, from insects to bighorn sheep. Docents at the site may carry around a kestrel or a gopher snake to allow more close-up viewing. Added to these living displays are geology exhibits. One major exhibit is a Mountain Habitats Project, providing natural surroundings for mountain lions, black bears, and white-tailed deer. A half-day can easily be spent immersing yourself here in the wonders of the desert. At this mu seum you can begin to experience the many emotions and qualities of the desert, where heat has teeth, where sharp spines preserves life, and where husbanding a meager water supply is the preoccupation of all life forms. A large saguaro cactus will absorb 200 gallons of water after a summer thunderstorm. The introduction to the desert at this mu seum is a fitting prelude to the next Tucson offering, the Saguaro National Park .

The Saguaro National Park , which preserves a section of the Arizona -Sonora desert, consists of two sections. A westside unit, Tucson Mountain Unit, is 15 miles west of the city, near the Arizona -Sonora Desert Museum . The other section, the Rincon Mountain Unit, is 17 miles east of the city. The east side unit boasts a more ambitious interpretive center, but the west side also offers a small ranger station-interpretive center selling desert literature. On the east side you make an 8-mile one-way drive through a forest of saguaro cactus and other desert plants, namely palo verde, mesquite, and creosote. Beyond the 8-mile drive are many miles of hiking and backpacking country favored for winter outings. The west side unit contains a denser forest of large saguaro cactus. If you have time to see only one section, the west side offers the more dramatic portrait of the saguaros. (The most appealing drive is on the edge of the park along steep Gates Road as it winds through a cactus-studded mountain back to Tucson , with a marked View Point turnout.) Nature trails in both units encourage you to get out of your car and walk amidst the cactus. Among other cactus here are the ocotillo, with their red spindly blossoms, and the beavertail, a flatter oval cactus.

The dominant plant here, the saguaro cactus, exists only in the Arizona -Sonora region. Saguaros bloom in May-June with a white flower that is the Arizona state flower. The saguaro pushes its spiny arms to heights of 40 feet, living as long as 200 years. Indians ate the fruit, which forms after the flowering period, and steeped the fruit for a beverage.

Old Tucson is another attraction in the mountains west of the city. Designed to dazzle young people and intrigue the western movie buff, Old Tucson is both a working set for movie and TV production of westerns and an a mu sement park with a western theme. Built in 1929 as a location for the movie ARIZONA, this 340-acre site has provided the location for over 100 westerns. Realistic shoot-outs with a romantic law and order theme, barking medicine men selling elixirs, and stagecoach rides through the desert are some of the treats, plus shops selling western paraphernalia. You can watch, from afar, the making of western movies if they are in progress.

On the southern edge of Tucson lies a monument to man’s military ingenuity at designing aircraft. Besides some 3,000 mothballed airplanes, which can be seen for miles along Kolb Road, you’ll find the Pima Air Museum, with 130 representative types of aircraft from American air history. This unusual mu seum, associated with nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is at 6000 E. Valenica.

Within and around Tucson, the destination resort is a typical part of the travel picture. Golf, swimming, and tennis, are popular at these resorts. There are many modest accommodations in the area, but the upscale luxury resorts are a force in the tourism story. Two main examples are Loews Ventana Canyon and The Tucson National.

Loews Ventana Canyon wins high praise in the Tucson area for the manner in which the resort seems to arise organically from the Saguaro cactus forest in which it is set. The subdued manner of the resort, whose entrance is scarcely marked, is in keeping with the understated style. So unobtrusive are the low-lying buildings in the landscape that the resort does not seem to exist until you appear directly before it. As an index of the care that went into planning the resort, the entire building plans were redrawn at great expense to save one 200-year-old saguaro cactus on the grounds. A labeled nature trail winds through the back of the resort, allowing you to meditate on the desert plants and climb into the hills. Rooms are luxurious, as you would expect, and the setting is tranquil. Meals in the Ventana Restaurant are exquisite, whether you order an Eggs Benedict breakfast or a western steak dinner. Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is at 7,000 North Resort Drive. Near Ventana Canyon you can take a scenic tram ride up Sabina Canyon, with an excellent view and opportunities to see wildlife in the desert below.

The Tucson National Golf Club and Resort is another of the resorts. For years the Tucson National was a private country club hosting the annual Tucson Open. In later years the owners built an elaborate lodge and spa to cater to the affluent traveler, especially one with a golfing interest. The resort positions itself as different from other resorts because of its spa facility and its noted historic golf course. Tucson National is at 8300 North Club Drive.

Other resorts in this league are the Westin La Paloma and the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador.

A different type of vacation experience is available around Tucson at the guest ranches, where comfortable rather than luxurious accommodations are offered and where family ranching life, rather than a corporate resort environment, is the attraction. The best example of Tucson guest ranching is the historic Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, run by Bob Cote. The Tanque Verde Guest Ranch is on the east side of Tucson, adjacent to the Saguaro National Monument. Because of pejorative connotations to the word dude ranch, the acceptable modern term is guest ranch, which reflects less on the presumed city-slicker skills of the patron.

“The first time visitor to Tucson may be brought here by a travel agent who is familiar with the big resorts,” says Cote. “But we find that the visitor who explores may end up at a guest ranch the next time. The guest ranch offers an authentic American vacation ripe for a comeback. Horse back riding and a rural location are the main draws, though today’s guest ranches also offer the amenities of a resort, such as pools and tennis courts. We feel that the guest or dude ranch is an important Tucson symbol.”

The sprawling city of Tucson has swallowed up most of the guest ranches. However, those that remain are adjacent to large public lands so the mystique of the wide open spaces, so necessary for the guest ranch experience, is assured. A few more guest ranches flourish in southern Arizona within a two-hour drive from Tucson.


The mountain ranges in all directions from Tucson offer appealing drives and hiking destinations. North are the Santa Catalinas, east are the Rincons, south are the Santa Ritas, and west are the Tucsons. For example, Catalina State Park in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson is an inviting site for hiking, camping, and horse riding. The Coronado National Forest covers over 1.7 million acres of the region around Tucson in 12 scattered parcels. Within this forest, in winter, there is skiing 30 miles from Tucson at the Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the contiguous states.

East of Tucson, the Colossal Cave is a spelunkist adventure through a partially illuminated passageway. The cave is 20 miles from the city. Guided tours are available.

South of Tucson, an hour away, is Nogales, Mexico, preceded by the fertile pecan farms and new residential areas of Green Valley. An interesting day trip can be made by driving south from Tucson, taking in the San Xavier Mission, then stopping at nearby Tubac, once a major presidio, now an artist colony. At Tubac you’ll find an excellent small mu seum depicting early Arizona life in the uncertain 19th century, when Apache raids were mu ch feared.

Traveling farther, stop at mission Tumacacori, now a National Historical Park, before heading for the border. Tumacacori was built by the Franciscans in 1795 and was regularly besieged by the Apaches in the 19th century. Today a garden at the mission approximates the herbal plants used in the missionary period. The mission persists, architecturally stabilized, a legacy of Jesuit enterprise here in the 18th century. At the mission you may see a craftsperson at work, such as the skilled woodcarver, Alfonso Flores, known here and in Tubac for his ability to carve birds, especially roadrunners and owls, from mesquite wood that he gathers in the river washes.

At the border, park on the U.S. side before walking across. Stop in at the small mu seum celebrating Nogales, since the year 1000, at the corner of Grand Avenue and Crawford on the California side of the border. The building was once the city hall. This Pimeria Alta Historical Society mu seum contains an assortment of images and artifacts, from a photo of Pancho Villa getting on famously with General Pershing to a lithograph exhibit of plants from this desert region. The other building of interest on the U.S. side of the Nogales border is the silver-domed Santa Cruz County Courthouse, a short walk away. This courthouse is the oldest in Arizona . The main draws of Nogales are its genuine foreignness and its crafts shops. Nogales is a dusty, hustling little border town, replete with blanket sellers spreading out their wares in the sun and small Indian women, carrying their babies, pleading that you purchase dollar dolls.

Return to Tucson on a slightly more easterly route that takes you through Patagonia, with its celebrated small Museum of the Horse, and Sonoita, whose mountain location offers many pleasant vistas. Anne Stradling’s horse mu seum, begun in 1960, contains six rooms of horse-related artifacts, ranging from a Remington painting of Sioux warriors and their horses at a waterhole to bridles, bits, and shoes. The mu seum also displays a range of Arizona artifacts, such as Hohokam Indian burial pots filled with cremated bones. The high, grassy valleys, covered with mesquite trees, flanked by mountains of moderate size, make a pleasant alternative drive from Nogales to the I-10 turnoff near Tucson.

Tucson is also a major site for land-based astronomy. The facility is the Kitt Peak National Observatory, 56 miles southwest of Tucson in the Quinlan Mountains . The observatory includes a visitor center where films explain the research conducted by the 82-inch and 158-inch telescopes. This is also a pleasant picnic destination in the mountains. Admission is free.



The local information source is the Tucson Convention and Visitor Bureau, 130 South Scott Ave. , Tucson , AZ 85701 , 520/624-1817, www.visittucson.org. Ask for their self-guided walking tour and their Visitor Guide.

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is at 2021 North Kinney Road , Tucson , AZ 85743 , 520/883-1380.

Saguaro National Park information comes from: The Superintendent, Saguaro National Park , Route 8, Box 695 , Tucson , AZ 85730 .

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is at 7000 North Resort Drive , Tucson , AZ 85715 , 520/299-2020.

Tanque Verde Guest Ranch is at 14301 East Speedway Blvd , Tucson , AZ 85748 , 520/296-6275.

The De Grazia Gallery and Foundation is at 6300 N. Swan Road , Tucson , AZ 85743 , 520/299-9191.

The Arizona Historical Society is at 949 E. 2nd St , Tucson , AZ 85719 , 520/628-5774.

The Arizona State Museum is at University of Arizona , Tucson , AZ 85721 , 520/621-6302.

The overall Arizona state tourism information address is: Arizona Office of Tourism, 2702 North 3rd Street , Phoenix , AZ 85004 , 602/230-7733 or 800/842-8257 and 888/520-3434, web site http://www.arizonaguide.com.



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