Tucson, AZ
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Tucson, AZ

Watch a re-enacted gunfight, see a movie being made, or follow the trail of bad guys through the Sonoran Desert.

True Grit

Get ready for gunslingers, horses, and badge-wearing sheriffs. Arizona's second largest city (with its nearby ghost towns) is number one when it comes to shoot-'em-up Wild West fun.

Tour the studios where old westerns were filmed or the caves that hid real-life bad guys from the law. And don't miss a sidetrip to Tombstone, the old mining town where Doc Holliday and his cronies wreaked havoc.

Had enough history for a day? Head to the nearby Sonoran desert, where you'll see some really big cacti that have come to symbolize Tucson and the Wild West.

Hollywood Hijinks

Gunfight in Tombstone,
copyright Gill Kenny

Make your first stop the Old Tucson Studios: think Wild West-meets-Disneyland. But this is a must for fans of old westerns.

The 365-acre site, done up like an 1880s frontier town, is part real-life movie set, part amusement park. The movies Tombstone and The Three Amigos, as well as the TV shows Young Riders and Little House on the Prairie, were all shot here. And the studios still make movies today (you might even see one in progress).

The biggest attractions for kids include stunt demos, staged gunfights (at High Noon, of course), costumed characters roaming the streets, live song and dance shows, and rides.

Mother Nature, Western-style

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,
copyright Metropolitan Tucson
Convention & Visitors Bureau

  • The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
    Don't let the name fool you. This is really a zoo, and an excellent one at that. You'll see rattlesnakes, bobcats, prairie dogs, coyotes, hummingbirds, roadrunners, wolves, hawks, and a multitude of other critters, all in their natural desert habitats. Kids will enjoy the special live animal demonstrations and mineral room with glow-in-the-dark gems. The aviary is a good spot for a time-out.
  • Saguaro National Park
    Tucson is sandwiched between the east and west sections of this park. In the western portion, just down the road from the Desert Museum, you'll find cacti that grow 25 feet high (no, they're not movie props!). You can learn more about the Saguaro cacti at the visitor center, including a little-known fact: It takes up to 50 years to grow one arm.

Take a spin on the six-mile graded, scenic loop drive. Or try the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, about one mile from the visitor center (before you start loop drive). This flat, paved, half-mile circular path is best for families, with its signs describing desert life. On any of the park's trails, don't forget to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

In the eastern section, about 20 miles east of downtown, take the 8-mile scenic loop drive or walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail with marked plants.

Sabino Canyon The Sonoran Desert meets the Coronado National Forest northeast of town at this desert "oasis." There's a watering hole you can swim in (Sabino Canyon Creek). And a narrated tram will take you on a scenic, 45-minute trip to the top of the canyon and back down.

The best part for families? You can get off and on at any of nine designated stops to go hiking and exploring. Stop #8 is best for swimming; stop #6 for birdwatching. When the kids' feet get tired, ride the tram back down to your starting point.

  • Colossal Cave at Colossal Cave Mountain Park
    As its name implies, the cave, located about 28 miles southeast of Tucson, is humongous. In fact, explorers have yet to find its end. In the 1880s, outlaws hid out here, escaping the law through secret exit-ways. Rumor has it they left treasure hidden inside.

Modern-day visitors to the privately-run, Pima County-owned park can take an underground tour (a half-mile walk that takes about 45 minutes and requires climbing 363 steps). Then head out to the Colossal Cave Mountain Park Riding Stables, one mile from the cave, for a leisurely trail ride.

Silos in the Desert

At the Titan Missile Museum, just south of Tucson, you can step inside an actual nuclear missile silo (deactivated, of course). A video describes the government's Titan program. Then go underground for a guided tour of the silo and the futuristic-looking command center. Scenes from the movie Star Trek VII: Generations (1994) were filmed here.


Type of trip: Outdoor entertainment, education

Best ages: 7 and up

Ideal trip length: Weekend to four days

Distance: Phoenix (115 miles), Prescott (213 miles), Flagstaff (257 miles)

Best time to go: January to May, for the best weather (highs in the 70s F); summer, fall, or late spring for the best room rates (about half off in summer)

Weather: 350 days of sunshine a year. 73/39 degrees in winter, 100/68 in summer

Lodging: There are a variety of accommodations available including guest ranches, where horseback riding and meals are included in the price.

Squirm factor: Some

If You Go...

Looking up at
Colossal Cave,
copyright Eddie
Goldbaum Rios

Old Tucson Studios 201 S. Kinney Rd., 14 miles west of downtown Phone: 520-883-0100

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 2021 N. Kinney Rd., 30 minutes from downtown Phone: 520-883-1380


Saguaro National Park West 2700 N. Kinney Rd., 15 miles west of downtown Phone: 520-733-5158

Saguaro National Park East 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, about 15 miles east of downtown Phone: 520-733-5153


Stunt Show at Old Tucson Studios,
copyright Gill Kenny

Sabino Canyon Recreational Area 5900 N.Sabino Canyon Rd., 45 minutes from downtown Phone: 520-749-2861


Colossal Cave Mountain Park 16711 E. Colossal Cave Rd., about 28 miles southeast of downtown Phone: 520-647-7275


Titan Missile Museum 1580 W. Duval Mine Rd., 30 minutes south of downtown Phone: 520-625-7736

Contact: Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-638-8350 or 520-624-1817

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots: Reid Park in the center of town is Tucson's "Central Park," complete with zoo, playgrounds, golf courses, a ballpark, and sports fields.

Local food: Plan on eating some really great Mexican food here, thanks to Tucson's location 65 miles north of the border. Local favorites include La Fuente (1749 N. Oracle Rd., 520-623-8659) with live mariachi music and a trio with guitars; and El Charro (311 N. Court Ave., 520-622-1922) the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in this country.

What to pack: Binoculars for stargazing; Tucson's ordinance against "light pollution" means lots of visibility. Also use them for birdwatching (one of the best birdwatching areas in the U.S.).

Annual events/ festivals:

  • International Mariachi Conference
    Tucson Convention Center
  • The Fiesta de los Vaqueros Rodeo
    Tucson Rodeo Grounds (south of downtown)
    A rodeo and the "longest, non-motorized parade" in the world.
  • The Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase
    The largest gem and mineral show in the world.

Traffic alert: Several downtown streets are one-way. I-19 from Tucson to Nogales is signed in metric only, a failed attempt by the U.S. government to move to that system. So brush up before you go.

Side Trips

The Town Too Tough to Die

The most notorious of mining towns, Tombstone ("The Town Too Tough To Die"), is just 90 minutes from Tucson via interstate. (Back in the 1800s, it took two to three days to get there by stagecoach, assuming there were no attacks or robbery attempts.)

Those interested in western lore will want to make the trip to see such landmark sights as the OK Corral (the famous gunfight site) and Boothill Graveyard.

While there's lots of kitsch, including tacky souvenir shops, it's worth the trip. Visitors can watch replays of gunfights, meet costumed locals, and snap pictures of the kids in front of famous backdrops. Tombstone Visitors Center 65 miles southeast of Tucson Phone: 520-457-3929

Reviewed April 2004.