Tucson, AZ, is home to Saguaro National Park, in and of itself worth a visit. But there’s a lot more hiding there, like the world’s largest airplane boneyard. And Biosphere 2. And some pretty cool restaurants, mountain bike trails, and more. Here’s our list of a great way to spend 3-4 days exploring the area…with or without the kids!
Davis-Monthan AFB Airplane Boneyard
In the 1940s, Davis-Monthan AFB became the official home for the Air Force’s decommissioned aircraft. Low humidity, paltry rainfall and a ~2,380ft altitude makes it a perfect storage area. The planes won’t rust, so parts can be salvaged over the years. Some models can even be restored & put back into service. Over the years, more US Air Force planes came here, joined by aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps, NASA and the US Coast Guard.
A 90-minute bus tours are the only way civilians can see so many different fighter, bomber and cargo airplanes (and maybe a few old ICBMs) on display. Check out AirplaneBoneyards.com for more of the base’s history and links to tour schedules and booking. Make sure you plan ahead for this one.
Saguaro National Park – Rincon District
Next, head east toward Saguaro National Park East, the larger of its two park districts that sandwich Tucson. Drive through the park on the rolling, twisting road. There are pull outs at trail heads, letting you see the Saguaro cactus close up (but watch out for “jumping” Cholla cactus and the roadrunner ). The Saguaro typically grow to 40 feet tall, with a root diameter spanning 80-100ft. However, this could take TWO CENTURIES…they only grow ONE INCH in their first 10 years! By 70 years old, they might reach 6-1/2 feet…and 100 years before they grow their first arm! Which explains why they’re protected! They have a woody spine, but the outer flesh is pleated so it can expand as it stores more water. Flowers blossom in late spring & attract bats to help pollinate.
Riding road, gravel and mountain bikes
Not into hiking? Ride your road bike on the 7-mile paved loop, which will feel like a roller coaster. Which means there are a few hills, but as you can see from the photo above, you don’t have to be a “roadie” to enjoy the ride…
…but roadies will definitely get a good workout if they want one! We did a few laps, plus rode to and from the park from the hotel. Which, honestly, wasn’t ideal. The roads are kinda rough, and traffic can be rougher. Save the miles for the park and enjoy the ride and the scenery.
Or, if you’re up for a real challenge, climb the infamous Mt. Lemmon. Locals park at the Safeway (Tanque Verde Rd. and Catalina Hwy), then start the roughly 6,000 foot climb to the top. Not to 6,000 feet above sea level, but an actual 6,000+ feet of gain, with options to increase that to more than 8,000 if you go all the way to the peak. For more details, check out this site.
Or, head over to the western side of town and seek out the dirt roads looping in and out of the Saguaro Park’s Tucson Mountain District. Our route was only about 22.5 miles, but there were plenty of roads you could explore to add mileage. On all of the rides, keep your eyes out for Javelinas and Road Runners!
The mountain biking is excellent, too. We rode out from the JW Marriott resort and were on the trails in minutes. Most trails are well marked and easy to follow, in part thanks to signage donated by REI, but it still helps to download Trailforks or similar to your smartphone.
No matter where or what you ride, be sure to bring plenty of water. This is the desert, after all, and having more than you need is a smart move. And extra tubes and patch kits for your tires, because the other thing to be aware of are the cacti, which are everywhere on the side of the road and trail in all shapes, sizes and varieties!
Biosphere, Observatories, Food & More
When the days get too hot for outdoor activities (seriously, spring and fall are the times to visit for hiking and biking…summer can top 110ºF during the day), head north to tour the University of Arizona Biosphere2 and walk thru everything from rainforest to a coastal fog desert, and learn about the environmental research they’re doing there.
Or check out the Desert Museum, where they have live animal exhibits of all the local animals, including one with hawks that may do a “fly by” of your head! There’s also art, morning yoga and snacks, minerals and rocks, and tons of kids’ activities. Speaking of which, we always recommend nabbing a Junior Ranger packet from the National Parks visitors centers for your kids so they can learn about the area and collect their badge or patch!
After dark, head to one of the three observatories in the area to see the night sky. They’re located high on the mountains, above and well outside of the city light pollution. The dry air provides great viewing opportunities most nights. Kitt Peak is probably the best option, but it’s about 56 miles outside of town, so plan for travel time.
Hit Martins Comida Chingona for incredible Mexican food for lunch (their Instagram is way more interesting than their website). The owner is a real character, and the decor is worth poking around in the various rooms. It’s a sit down experience, but if you need a quick burrito on the way to the trails, our Uber driver recommended Viva Burrito, which is a local chain, is open 24/7, and is very affordable…and it did not disappoint!
Then check out Culinary Dropout for dinner, drinks & games – this place will blow your mind with its size, menu and collection of indoor yard games to entertain all ages!
For preplanning and a list of local events, try TucsonForBeginners.com and VisitTucson.org. The former has an average temps chart, and the latter is the official visitor’s bureau site. Tucson has a decent airport (TUS) served by the major U.S. airlines, plus Alaska, Allegiant, Frontier and Southwest, as well as Sun Country and Via Air. So you’ve got options. Now you’ve just gotta go!