It’s December in Seattle and we’re in the thick of our first winter in the Pacific Northwest after having moved from Hawaii three months ago. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s rainy, everything’s wet, and we haven’t seen the sun in weeks. It’s time for an escape. Don’t get me wrong, living in Seattle is awesome, but it’s not the most pleasant place in the world to be in December.
Ready for a change of environment, Sasha and I Googled “warmest places in December” and Tucson, Arizona came up as somewhere we had never visited, so I took a look at the weather forecast: sunny, clear skies, and temperatures in the 70’s F. Sold! We booked our trip seven days before we left, excited to see some cacti, eat some Mexican food, visit a few national parks, and galavant in sandals and shorts under glorious warm sunshine.
Seven days later we touched down in Phoenix and drove the 1.5 hours South to Tucson where we were greeted with grey skies, rain and weather in the 40’s – 50’s. Well, that was an epic bait-and-switch weather fail. During our 8 days here, we had only 2 full days of sunshine. All I can say is thank goodness we packed our puffy jackets and beanies! And hey, at least we had our very own personal saguaro in the courtyard of our Airbnb! Finally, something taller than Sasha!
We based ourselves in Tucson for 8 days (way too long if you ask me), but we managed to keep ourselves busy with lots of hiking! Below I’ll detail 12 things to do (including day trips) in Tucson, Arizona, and where to eat in the land of the saguaro.
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What to Do and Where to Eat in Tucson, Arizona
1) VISIT THE ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM
This was one of the highlights of our trip in Tucson and is a must-see! If you have only one day and you don’t have enough time to visit both Saguaro National Park and this museum, I recommend the museum because you’ll learn a lot more and you’ll still see plenty of saguaro.
Admission: $22 per person
Time to Allot: We spent nearly five hours, and you could easily spend all day, but I recommend at least three hours to take in as much as possible. If you have little ones, this is a great place to take them as it is family-friendly!
We were delighted to find that this was the only thing open in all of Tucson on Christmas Day!
The cactus garden was our favorite, showcasing the many varieties of cacti. Some looked cute & fuzzy, some were shaped (naturally) like hearts (nature hearts!), some looked like they were covered in snow, and some looked so fiercely prickly they could be used as weapons for self defense.)
In the U.S. we have the Sonoran Desert and the Mohave Desert. The Mohave Desert contains different types of plants and cacti, similar to what you would see at Joshua Tree National Park.
One thing to be very wary of, is the Jumping Cholla (pronounced “CHOY-YA”). This cactus will literally attack you by detaching a section of itself from the parent plant (or from the ground) and piercing you with its quills. It does this so that it can spread its seed and grow in other places, using your arm, hand, sweatshirt or backpack strap as a conduit to hitch a ride. The cholla has microscopic barbs on the ends of their quills, which means that if it gets stuck in your skin, it’s very difficult to pull it out and will hurt worse than when it went it. Whilst hiking in the desert, you should always carry pliers or a hair comb, as that will be the only way to get it off of you. If you want to see some pretty wild jumping cholla attacks, look it up on YouTube. This is what it looks like:
2) VISIT CHIRICAHUA (pronounced “CHEE-DEE-KAH-HWA”) NATIONAL MONUMENT
If you speak Russian, the word Chiricahua rhymes with cherepaha, which means turtle (in Russian).
Chiricahua National Monument is located just 1 hour, 45 minutes East of Tucson. This area is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and is filled with columnar rock formations caused by volcanic eruptions over 30 million years ago.
It reminded us of the hoodoos we saw in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
3) VISIT THE TUCSON MUESUM OF ART
Admission: $12 per person
A great rainy day activity during wintertime, or 115-degree sweltering heat day in summertime, this museum showcases modern art from the 50’s and on. If you have time, you can also visit the MOCA – Museum of Contemporary Art ($5 admission).
4) VISIT SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Admission: $20 per vehicle
What is a saguaro?
Saguaro (pronounced “SAH-WAH-RO” – the “g” is silent) is simply a giant cactus that grows branches or “arms” like a candelabra. These cacti are native to Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. The reason they grow arms is to provide balance and to prevent them from toppling over, as they can weigh up to 4,800 pounds and can grow up to 60′ tall! Saguaro with more than five arms are estimated to be around 200 years old.
When a saguaro is five years old, it stands at only three inches tall, and at 15 years is stands at 17 inches tall. They can weigh up to ten tons and expand when retaining water. The saguaro survives by hoarding rain water, which is why they expand several inches in radius during wet season. Its shallow roots spread close to the surface, soaking up moisture. Since we visited during one of the wettest weeks of the winter, all the saguaro were engorged and looked as though they enjoyed a great holiday feast. 😉
There are two sections of the park: East and West. If you have limited time, I recommend the Western section because of easily accessible, shorter hikes, and more views of densely populated saguaro. The Eastern section is larger and more mountainous, as well as greener because of being situated at a higher elevation. West boasts a more densely populated saguaro.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK WEST
If you have between 2 – 4 hours to spend in the park, I recommend driving the Bajada Loop Trail, a five-mile dirt road driving trail with lots of pull-outs and hikes. Start with the Hugh Norris Trail (between 2 – 5 miles, however long you’d like. Up to the top and back is two miles, or you can do the loop trail, which is 5 miles. It’s all the same scenery.)
Next, I recommend the Petroglyphs at Signal Hill.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK EAST
I recommend driving the 8-mile one-way loop trail called Cactus Forest Drive. Be prepared for people going very slowly and stopping frequently to take photos from their cars. In consideration of others driving behind you, it is recommended to use the pullouts for photos. During winter season, you may see snow dusting atop the mountains!
5) ENTER AN ATMOSPHERIC NATURE DOME CALLED BIOSPHERE 2
Admission: $21 per person
Located just one hour North of Tucson in a town called Oracle, sitting at 4,500′ elevation, is Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 is Planet Earth). This was a scientific and environmental experiment in the 90’s where 8 people lived in this sphere locked in for two years and subsisted solely off of what they could grow and cook. Now the University of Arizona owns it and you can do tours for $21 per person.
6) GET A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE VAST SPRAWL OF TUCSON FROM MT. LEMMON
Elevation at the summit of Mt. Lemmon is 8,000′ (2,650 meters) and is likely a great reprieve from the mid summer heat. Since we visited in December, it was cold and snowy! Keep in mind that the route is often closed due to inclement weather. If visiting during winter, call the hotline beforehand to check if it’s open: 520-547-7510
7) SEE WHERE AIRPLANES GO TO DIE AT THE AIRPLANE BONEYARD
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has been collecting airplane skeletons since 1946 and is the only airplane boneyard open to the public. However, you must reserve your ticket ten days in advance. Since this was such a last-minute trip for us and we visited over the holidays, unfortunately we did not see this attraction.
8) HIKE THE PAINTED HILLS LOOP TRAIL
We were surprised to see the composition of a cactus. In the photo on the left above, Sasha is looking at a dying cactus, which was likely around 60 years old based on its height. Their innards are basically a bunch of fibrous sticks!
9) PICTURE YOURSELF IN AN OLD WESTERN FILM IN THE WILD WEST TOWNS OF BISBEE & TOMBSTONE
Tombstone is a bit kitsch and touristy, but carries more of the old wild West flare, whereas Bisbee is actually a town where locals still live. Several Western movies were filmed here.
10) PHOTOGRAPH BEAUTIFUL ARCHITECTURE AT MISSION SAN XAVIER DEL BAC
Sasha and I aren’t religious, but we appreciate beautiful architecture. This historic Spanish Catholic Mission is free of entry and still holds mass.
11) HIKE TANQUE VERDE FALLS TRAIL
Pretty in all seasons (though VERY cold in December), this is an easy 3.6-mile round trip out and back trail that leads to a waterfall and natural pools, which I imagine feels refreshing on a hot dry summer day!
12) WATCH THE SUNSET AT GATES PASS
Desert sunsets are pretty spectacular; fiery orange light paints the hills a bright red, making them appear to be on fire, as silhouetted saguaro stand proud, dotting the hills and appearing to be flipping you off.
Where to Eat in Tucson
Tucson boasts the best 23 miles of Mexican food in the U.S. and was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the USA in 2015. I have to be honest, we were quite disappointed in the food in Tucson, especially after hearing that it’s the UNESCO city of gastronomy. Perhaps it’s because we’re spoilt from living in both Seattle and Hawaii and having traveled across the globe, but we found it quite difficult to find a meal that was so memorable we won’t forget it in years to come. We were also disappointed with all the fake reviews on both Google and Yelp, inaccurately skewing places that are rated four stars to ones that we felt should have been rated two. However, here are some of our notable mentions:
1) 5 Points Market & Restaurant (American, Breakfast, Brunch, Coffee, Pastries)
We were lucky enough to meet Brian, one of the owners of this adorable cafe, eatery and market. The staff was super friendly and the food was excellent quality, we went back twice! Be sure to try their vegan chorizo sausage. Even if you’re not vegan, you won’t care because it’s that tasty! Their pastries are also excellent.
2) The Tasteful Kitchen (Vegan, Vegetarian)
The eggplant with curried vegetables was delicious! Be sure to try their home made shrub sodas. The cherry tarragon was delightful.
3) Raijin Ramen (Japanese)
After visiting Japan, our standards are high for ramen (you should never pay more than $12 per bowl, it should always be tasty, and should take less than 10 minutes to arrive piping hot at your table.) Raijin did not disappoint! During our trip to Japan this past April, we ate ramen at least twice a day. We’ll never grow tired of it!
4) Monsoon Chocolate (chocolatier)
They make all their bars and truffles in house and have won an entire wall-full of awards!
5) Cartel Coffee Lab (cafe, pastries)
Cute, hip, spacious interior with tall ceilings, comfortable couches, and delicious coffee and pastries. An excellent place to spend a rainy day reading a book or catching up on work. Be sure to try their vegan snickerdoodle cookie with golden milk turmeric frosting.
6) Seis Regional Mexican Cuisine (Mexican)
This eatery draws inspiration from six regional cuisines of Mexico (hence their name seis meaning six in Spanish.) They share an outdoor courtyard space with another restaurant and market, where you can enjoy communal seating in the summertime, or a cozy section for two underneath a portable heater during the winter.
7) Reilly’s Craft Pizza
As you can see from the line of bitters in the above photo, their cocktails are on par, and the pizza tastes just like what we enjoyed all over Italy!
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