By Chris McBeath

Fall and Spring are great times to travel to Arizona. The snowbirds are roosting in home nests so tee-off times are easy to book; temperatures aren’t scorching the asphalt; and fashion savvy sales are a great way to gear up for a season north of the 49th. Best of all are the travel deals, especially in and around Tucson, the upstart rival to high-brow Phoenix and Scottsdale. These ten picks will show you why.


Tucson’s high desert is both graveyard and warehouse for many a winged wonder. More than 5,000 U.S. military aircraft lie on 2,600 acres (1052 ha) of sun-hardened sand: warthogs (the only plane with a fire-proof plutonium cockpit), choppers, Migs, Fire Fighters, Transporters and more. Where else are you going to see B51 bombers, their wings, bodies and tails carved apart like broken insects? Parts are left lying around just long enough for Russian satellites to verify their death. An eye-opener even if militia isn’t your bag.


Shoppers who like to venture beyond the Malls should head for this tiny strip of revamped warehouses. There’s a great selection of Mexicana merchandise from hand blown glass to silver-smithed mirrors and frames, as well as one-of-kind household items. Stock changes frequently and prices make shipping affordable. At Colonial Frontiers, you’ll even find Amazon masks and other artsy artifacts from South America as well as trinkets, silks and ornamental boxes from the Far East.


Sandy tornadoes are commonplace, rising unexpectedly in misty spirals that sweep across the highway. Keep your eye on the road. Equally hypnotic are the billowing black clouds that travel the landscape, dumping their load so hard the rains are almost horizontal. Then there are the night skies against which lightening flashes and forks through ever-changing cloud formations, striking the horizon with jagged clarity and white washing the mountains for a blink of an eye. They rival the best of any pyrotechnic display.


Saguaro National Park is only place where these signature cacti grow in profusion. A national treasure, saguaro can live more than 200 years and attain heights of 30 to 40 feet. Sometimes more. Bring your camera in May and June to catch its blossom, the State’s flower, and watch for roadside stalls selling cacti delights such as Prickly Pear jam and lemonade. Cacti confused? Head for the B&B Cactus Farm featuring rows of rainbow, devils fingers, cholla, beaver tails, organ pipes, yuccas, staghorns and more.


Tucson’s underground labyrinths provide cool respite from the desert sun. Colossal Cave is aptly named and descending to its depths is like a trip to the centre of the earth. Colossal had been called the largest dry cavern in the world until the discovery of Kartchner Cavern, an even more impressive spelunker’s nirvana nearby. Wear good shoes to explore. Beware the more than 1,000 female cave myotis bats that commandeer the “Big Room” for a nursery April through mid September and often well into October.


It’s the driest, hottest, dustiest museum you’re ever likely to find and its collection of desert loving creatures such as mountain lions, prairie dogs, javalinas and Gila monsters is extraordinary. Almost two miles of paths lead visitors through easy-to-walk landscapes with more than 1,300 species of plants indigenous to the Sonoran Desert region. Enjoy a break from the bright skies in the simulated walk-through limestone cave or join a bunch of feathered friends inside the aviary. Sun hats are a must.


Apart from the historic Mission to the Pimas, Tumacacori is a now you see it, now you don’t community. But size hasn’t deterred Wisdom’s from being one of the most sought after eateries in the region. Written up by the New York Times, this unpretentious family-run restaurant is also home for owner Norm Wisdom’s eclectic collections from cop gear to softball paraphernalia. Look for their road sign: two fourteen foot chickens – another Wisdom collectable.


Located in the heart of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, San Xavier Mission was founded 400 years ago and is the only Kino mission in the U.S. still preachin’ and teachin’ on Native land. This “White Dove of the Desert” rises out of the ochre terrain as an oasis of ornamental Spanish architecture. Inside are carvings and beautiful murals. Outside are shaded courtyards with fragrant blossoms. Hungry? Head for the nearby food-stalls shaded by dried ocotillo cacti and try the Tohono O’odham fast-food treats, served Native style.


A picturesque artist’s colony, Tubac is a tiny conclave of adobes and outdoor studios that’s packed with as much history as artistic creativity. At every turn, artisans ply their trade from metal gardenworks and pottery to jewelry and glassware. And at every building – the Jesuit missionary, the Spanish garrison and others – you can trace Tubac’s turbulent history. Apache raids have long since passed but stories still proliferate.


Remember that Arizona experiment when a Texan billionaire built a Biosphere in which humans were to live, learn and prosper? Although the concept of self-sufficiency collapsed after food was smuggled in, the dome ‘lives’ on as an earth sciences center. Guests can rent rooms for the night – slightly more convenient that the two-year lockup that once won international headlines – and get to be bionauts for a day in the giant 3.2 acre (1.3 ha) greenhouse.


When in the desert do as the desert folk do: Travel with your own one-gallon water bottle and fill up at any number of drive in water-on-tap stations that are almost as commonplace as drive through ATMs, Taco Bars, gas pumps and gun shops. The latter requires a current driving license and a twenty minute wait.

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Photo credit:

9. Tubac’s Treasures – photo by Lorie Shaull CC 2.0 license