Roam Guide / Tucson, Arizona
Nicole Melancon is a freelance journalist, activist and travel blogger at Thirdeyemom. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children; who she teaches to live compassionate, open-minded and adventurous lives, to explore different cultures and to understand the importance of social good. A world wanderer at heart, Nicole has visited over 45 countries and is dedicated to things like sustainable travel and gifts that give back.
Currently, Nicole is working with GOOD Travel to promote their mother-daughter trips to Peru next summer. Mothers and daughters aged 6-16 will travel to Cusco to partner with Peruvian Hearts to empower girls and give back to the local community. The trip includes visiting a local chocolate factory, hiking with the Llama Pack Project and exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu. Visit GOOD Travel or Thirdeyemom to learn more.
Tucson is in the heart of the American Southwest. With an average of 300 days of sunshine, access to four separate mountain ranges, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses and wellness resorts. Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from the cold winter climate and is the perfect domestic destination to consider for spring break.
Best Time to GO: October to May
I have been coming to Tucson for 25 years because I adore the vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains and bewitching southwestern charm.
How to get there?
You can either fly directly into Tucson (Delta has seasonal non-stop flights) or you can fly into Phoenix. It’s only 90 miles from there to Tucson and oftentimes the flights into Phoenix are much cheaper.
Rtip: If you want to stay informed on flight options and nab the best deal, you can search your destination on Skyscanner, click 'get price alerts,' and they'll email you when the price of your flight changes.
Where should we stay?
Hacienda del Sol is a lovely, authentic, southwestern guest ranch in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains surrounded by 34 acres of desert. The resort is luxurious, intimate and central to exploring everything in Tucson. I love that they offer private casitas with their own patio and car park, including one “casita grande” with 2 bedrooms with a kitchen and fireplace. The Grill at Hacienda del Sol is so amazing, it’s worth a dinner reservation even if you aren’t staying on property. The views are breathtaking and there’s even live music.
Rtip: If you want full breakfast daily in The Grill and a $50 spa credit, book with our partners at Boutique Travel Advisors.
If you are an avid hiker or golfer I’d steer you to the Loews Ventana Canyon where you can stay in the foothills of the Arizona mountains. Located inside the Canyon directly behind the Santa Catalina Mountains, the resort has a spa, tennis courts, two PGA-designed golf courses, multiple swimming pools, and an excellent on-property hike; up the Ventana Canyon Trailhead to Maidens Pool. Not to mention it’s less than five minutes from Sabino Canyon Recreation Area which has tons of incredible day hikes. Alternatively, if you are keen on a house rental or you’re staying with a group, consider these Vrbo options, with fantastic foothills locations with and without kids.
Rtip: If you want to be downtown or prefer a smaller historic inn, look at The Arizona Inn with its boutique casita-style rooms and unpretentious charm. For even more contributor favorites, check out our Roam Guide to the Arizona Desert.
What should we do?
Tucson is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, you can find rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage within Tucson’s architecture, food and arts.
Hike - Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. The city is surrounded by mountains so there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful nature walk or set out on a challenging climb. I think one of the best places to hike is Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with access to both Sabino and Bear Canyon. I outline some of the best hikes in Sabino Canyon in extensive detail on Thirdeyemom, including my all-time favorite hike along Phone Line Trail (7.6 miles) as well as the remarkable hike to Hutch’s Pools (15.9 miles).
Sonora Desert Museum - Located in the heart of the Saguaro National Park this museum is set across 21 acres of the Sonoran deserts’ diverse flora and fauna. It can be described as part living museum, part botanical gardens and part zoo. You’ll find several exhibits featuring Arizona wildlife, and over two miles of walking paths. You can expect to see Javalinas, coatis, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, ocelots, wildcats and brown bears — all native species to the Southwest.
Summerhaven - Take the scenic drive up the Catalina Highway to the tiny mountain town of Summerhaven. Known for its spellbinding views along the stunning, windy road, you will be amazed by the incredible rock formations and scenic overlooks. Once in Summerhaven you’ll find Mount Lemmon, which sits at 9,157 feet and roughly 30 degrees cooler than Tucson. Here you can visit a local shop, grab lunch or better yet pack a picnic and go for a hike among the mighty Ponderosa pines and Douglas Furs which can only be seen at these high elevations. Summerhaven is also home to some incredible star gazing and the southern most ski area in the US.
Horseback Riding - Tucson is a fantastic place to go horseback riding and thankfully there are many beautiful places to hit the trails and explore the desert on horseback. My favorite place to ride is at Hacienda del Sol, a historic ranch resort nestled in the base of the Santa Catalina Mountain. You can enjoy a morning, afternoon or even sunset ride so be prepared to see many amazing things!
Rtip: for more things to do in the Arizona Desert, read the Roam Guide here.
What should we eat?
There are a number of outdoor dining options at La Encandada. It is an open-air upscale shopping centre with lots of nice restaurants and an awesome grocery store, AJ’s Fine Foods with an incredible bakery. My favorite place at there to grab lunch is at Blanco’s. They have the best Mexican Chop Salad.
I love the elegant Vivace Restaurant for their superb skyline views and their decadent Northern Italian cuisine. The nighttime views of Tucson’s are magical and the food is delightful both in preparation and presentation.
Inside a beautifully renovated downtown garage, you’ll find Penca. They offer incredible upscale Mexican cuisine and a menu of fantastic craft cocktails. Go at happy hour for some of the most authentic and tasty sharable delights; like made to order fish tacos, farm fresh salads… they even have a mole tasting with queso fresca and tortillas.
Rtip: for more places to enjoy a meal, check out our Foodie Arizona Guide from photographer and critic Kat Peterson.
Where should we go for a drink?
Inside a historic a funeral home you’ll find neighborhood bar, The Owls Club. The unique low-key quirkiness is actually comfortable, and in addition to some really great craft cocktails they offer a two page whiskey menu. I also particularly love sitting outside on the terrace at the Marriott Star Pass and listening to live music under the stars.
Where can we do a little shopping?
The most obvious spot to do a little shopping is the Mercado San Agustin downtown. There is a concentration of eateries and shoppes inside an open air courtyard, which also pays host to a Thursday farmer’s market. Alternatively you can head to the artist town of Tubec, 45 miles south of Tucson, which is filled with shops, studios and boutiques that feature Southwestern and Native American flare.
Rtip: If you are looking for smaller boutique shopping, Avenue Boutique is the cutest most thoughtful little shop offering specialty clothing and accessories, handpicked home goods and simple treasures. Another one is Bon Boutique, which a little more avante-garde (when it comes to their clothing), but I challenge you not to find a lovely little home item to covet. It’s just unfortunate they aren’t within walking distance of each other.
What is one can’t miss item on you itinerary?
You can’t miss catching the sun set behind the mountains. Alternatively doing a sunrise hike in the desert. Watching the changing light behind the mountains is just spectacular, and actually even better if you happen to get a few clouds in the mix.
What would you do differently next time?
One thing I still haven’t done is visit the Kitts Peak National Observatory to see the stars. Home to one of the largest arrays of optical and radio telescopes in the world, you can visit day or night and see amazing things.
What can we bring back with us?
I love the Arizona Sun products! You can only buy them in Arizona and the sunscreens and lip balms are sold at almost every drugstore, at the airport, and at most boutiques. It is also fun to bring back a small potted cactus for your house.
Tell us something we don’t know?
Did you know that you can actually ski in Tucson? December through February you can ski at the Mount Lemmon Ski Area, which receives about 57 inches of snow annually. The short but steep runs offer “winter on demand” for those living in the desert town below.
What should we take with us?
Make sure to bring a sunhat! The sun is very strong and wearing a wide brimmed hat is highly recommended for both adults and kids. My favorite is the Muryobao Outdoor Foldable Sunhat, that comes in a variety of colors and even has a spot for your ponytail. You should also pack refillable water bottles like the Que reusable and collapsible water bottle is designed for travel and outdoor. A final “must pack” item in my mind, is the Osprey Women’s or Men’s Backpack. What I love about these packs is that the frame fits perfectly on your body so it’s kept away from your back, making it much cooler on hikes.
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Want More Suggestions in Arizona?
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