A weekend in Tucson, Arizona took me by surprise with an abundance of Southwest culture, hip eats, and a large dose of nature. One thing is for sure, Tucson packs a punch for visitors. During my weekend in Tucson, I found an ideal haven at the Tanque Verde Ranch. It’s tough to find a place that feels more at home than a dude ranch in the Sonoran Desert surrounded by saguaros.
A great weekend in Tucson includes plenty of time in the great outdoors with hiking and horseback riding followed by a healthy serving of delicious food. Tucson is a wonderful city in the American Southwest well worth exploring. My biggest take is that a weekend in Tucson is not enough time to explore all it has to offer.
How to Spend a Weekend in Tucson
Any good day starts off with the right breakfast and that wasn’t tough for me with a plethora of options in Tucson. I was fortunate enough to stay at the Tanque Verde Ranch where I enjoyed breakfast . They had a number of Southwest specialties like my favorite, huevos rancheros. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day than my favorite breakfast dish.
Tanque Verde Ranch is located on the east of Tucson and surrounded by Saguaro National Park East. It’s a stunning property with a wide range of rooms and activities that make for the perfect vacation in Tucson. Short on time, I didn’t want to relax too long so I took off for some of the best sights in Tucson.
Mission Xavier Del Bac
In search of some excellent photos, Mission San Xavier Del Bac is one of the most photogenic spots in Tucson. On my first day with a cup of coffee in hand and some brisk winter winds, I set out for the church. The church exterior is wonderful and one of the best examples of Spanish architecture in America.
Based on the exterior, it’s easy to understand where the church received its name “The White Dove of the Desert.” It’s a Roman Catholic church that still has mass every week and is open to visitors. It’s not just the exterior that’s well worth the visit as the interior is adorned with beautiful frescos.
Visitors can enjoy a guided tour with Patronao San Xavier, a non-profit that is designed to raise money for the restoration of the church. Tours are available from Monday to Saturday ten times a day. They’re totally free and you’re only encouraged to leave a donation or visit the shop in support of the church. You can learn more here on their website.
Downtown Tucson has plenty to draw in visitors so I went in search of some more fresh coffee. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to a place to grab a drink on Congress Street and the neighboring area of Historic Fourth Avenue.
There are a number of hotels such as the famous and historic Hotel Congress. The hotel was a hideout for John Dillinger and it’s now an eclectic boutique hotel with a cafe, bar, nightclub, and restaurant. If you’re in search of something sweet, head into their Cup Cafe for a massive slice of homemade cake and coffee.
The Historic Fourth Avenue neighborhood is home to places like Exo Roast Co. serving up delicious in-house roasted coffee or you can grab a craft beer at Borderland Brewing. Since it was still before noon, I decided to opt for a cup of coffee. At its heart, the neighborhood operates as an entertainment district with bars, restaurants, and theatres. A great area to stay for a weekend in Tucson if you’re looking for nightlife.
No trip to Tucson is complete without having a taco. Mexican cuisine is my all-time favorite so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to gorge. I made my way in search of some authentic double corn tortilla tacos with a hefty dose of salsa picante.
You can find awesome tacos at the hip BOCA Tacos Y Tequila, or classic spots like Los Tacos Apson and El Güero Canelo. It all depends on the mood because they serve up completely different atmospheres.
Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway
The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is one of the most stunning drives in Arizona. It’s nearly 30 miles one way and ends near the summit of Mount Lemmon in the small town of Summerhaven. On the scenic drive, visitors cross the sprawling canyons, rocky peaks, and scenic forests. The drive winds through the Coronado National Forest and peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountain Range.
The biggest takeback is the diversity of the vegetation as the start of the drive begins in the Sonoran Desert life zone full of saguaro cacti, and ends in an Alpine forest with Ponderosa pine trees that line the valley walls. It’s popularly said that it feels like a drive from Mexico to Canada in terms of vegetation and landscape.
As the drive climbs nearly 7,000 feet from 3,000 ft in elevation to over 10,000 ft, temperature changes can be extreme and in the winter months, it’s common to find snow on the mountain peaks. Snow is common enough, that it is home to America’s southernmost ski resort in operation when there is enough snow. In the hotter months, it makes for a welcome reprieve from the desert heat.
Coronado National Forest
Tucson is surrounded and blessed by some fantastic wilderness areas that are great for recreation. While you enjoy the drive up the scenic Mount Lemmon Byway try to enjoy at least one hike. There are some tremendous trails in the region.
While hiking in the forest I used one of my favorite apps Alltrails. The app works well for trip planning and uses your phone’s GPS on the trail. A hike is a perfect way to spend a few hours or a whole day while driving the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway.
Sunset at Windy Point
The most famous spot to enjoy a sunset on the East side of town is at Windy Point. It’s a rest stop and viewpoint on the byway and offers tremendous views over Tucson and the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. A range of interesting rock formations and the amazing evening light makes it wonderful for photographers.
It’s about 18 miles from the start of the scenic byway and it’s a good hour-long drive from Tucson up to the viewpoint. You can find the location here on Google Maps. It was probably some of the best photos from my weekend in Tucson.
Located within the Coronado National Forest is the popular Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. It’s a large valley that cuts into the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers plenty of trails, sights, and even swimming holes.
The neighboring valley, Bear Canyon, offers one of Tucson’s most popular hikes. The great Seven Falls hike that has plenty of pools to cool off and some possibilities for cliff jumping (always practice safety and check pool bottoms for debris).
The recreation area is also served by a shuttle service that can transport visitors roundtrip up Sabina Canyon. Or save yourself a bit of walking by traveling one way through the canyon. It’s easiest to take the shuttle in and walk out downhill.
Saddle Up a Tanque Verde Ranch
I was fortunate enough to spend my time at the Tanque Verde Ranch, in my opinion, the best place to stay for a weekend in Tucson.You can’t find a better or more suited activity at a dude ranch than saddling up for a horseback ride. For me, it was a great opportunity to progress as a rider as they offer lessons as an included activity for guests. After our horseback safari in South Africa, I was eager to get back on a horse and develop my skills.
Which aren’t too bad if I do say so myself! They offer an advanced ride on evenings almost every day in which riders take off at a lope through the Sonoran Desert. However, the cowboys need to clear riders first with a Lope Check that evaluates the skills of the rider. This means maneuvering the horse and controlling the gaits between walk, trot, and lope.
I gave it a shot and was able to pass the check after my lesson. It’s a great goal for beginners who plan to learn how to ride at the ranch. They offer some tremendous rides through the Sonoran Desert that are able to handle any rider’s ability — you can take an easy walk.
Saguaro National Park
Tucson is surrounded by some sublime wilderness areas that include the Saguaro National Park which flanks the city to the East and West. The park is one of the best places in Arizona to find the famed icon of the Southwest, the saguaro. It’s a massive cactus that can reach heights of up to 50 ft tall and they dominate the landscape in the national park. It’s a prime spot to reconnect with nature and explore an interesting biome with unique flora and fauna.
The parks are prime areas for recreation with plenty of opportunities for biking, running, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. After horseback riding at the Tanque Verde Ranch, I thought it’d be appropriate to catch some fantastic evening light with a view from the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park East. It was only pure coincidence that the best hike for views happened to be the Tanque Verde Ridge, more info here.
With the temperatures dropping and some beautiful evening light, I found myself on the trail alone. It was a wonderful opportunity to take in the breathtaking views of Tucson and listen to birds dart in and out of the cactuses. As I climbed, I watched the desert landscape and mountains dominate what once appeared to be a large city. It was a lovely way to end the day and my weekend in Tucson.
Pima Air Space Museum
On the way out of Tucson, I stopped at the Pima Air & Space Museum. It’s not far from the airport and houses more than 350 aircraft and spacecraft. Which makes it one of the largest air and space museums in the world. It houses some historic and record-breaking aircraft and unique designs developed to push aviation.
You can also tour the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). It’s most well known as the “Boneyard” and it houses hundreds of decommissioned aircraft that sit in the desert. The Boneyard tour costs extra and requires a reservation, but it’s well worth the price. Museum opening hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. If you want more information head to the Museum website.
- Adult (13+): $16.50
- Children (5-12): $10
- Young Ones (0-4): Free
- Boneyard Tour: $10
Where to Stay in Tucson?
As mentioned, I stayed at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson. It’s won awards for one of the best resorts in the American Southwest by Conde Nast Traveler, and it’s easy to see why it’s widely considered the best dude ranch in Arizona. The resort is an old cattle and guest ranch that was originally established in 1868. They offer a wide range of comfortable rooms, delicious food, and enough activities that you’d never need to leave the property. Pretty much the perfect spot to spend a weekend in Tucson.
More than its core of horseback riding they have activities like mountain biking, nature walks, fishing, hiking, and more. It’s a luxurious outpost in the American Southwest that leaves you without a need. I found the grounds to be meticulously maintained and the staff to be personable and helpful. It was a true pleasure.
Most importantly, the food never failed to deliver! They provide a great southwestern inspired menu with healthy food options and everything beautifully cooked. It was tough to say no to more food here as everything was so good. This includes their weekly “Cowboy Cookout” where they have a BBQ by the fire with the live entertainment and all the traditional fixings like cornbread, beans, brisket, and mac & cheese. To make it even easier they offer all-inclusive packages that include three meals a day and activities.
There is a wide variety of rooms here with traditional guest rooms, and luxury homes. The ranch spreads out across the property amongst saguaros and a mixture of adobe buildings inspired by Sante Fe architecture.
Rooms are modern, but the resort never loses itself and remains true to a ranch with no TVs in the guest rooms and roaring fireplaces in the cooler months. It’s the ideal setting to experience the Southwest and enjoy the desert scenery via horseback.
A special thanks to Visit Tucson for the invitation to check out their wonderful city. You can visit their website as the official convention and visitor bureau for travelers. They offer a lot of trip planning tools and information on the latest events in the city. You can find trip suggestions on just about everything from what to do, where to eat, travel tips, where to lay your head down at night, and how to spend a weekend in Tucson.
Planning for a Weekend in Tucson?
The best way to get around Tucson like the majority of the USA is via car. I picked up a rental car when I arrived at the airport and found it to be a seamless experience at Tuscon Airport. It was super helpful for a weekend in Tucson.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the desert sun in Tucson There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Tucson. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me when I’m traveling in the winter, fall, or even spring. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything outside. Maybe not summer in Tucson, but you never know.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
Hiking Shoes or Boots
If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to the Tucson then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need before you get to the Southwest for hiking and horseback riding.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Tucson. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm.
To up your photography game, a bit consider the Fuji X-T3. We just bought that camera and found the images to look amazing. Check out our other travel cameras here.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buy plastic water bottles in Tucson. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in the mountains. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding even traveling in the desert. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!
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