We weren’t supposed to go to Tucson during Big Trip #4. When building our itinerary, we decided to skip our beloved Tucson in favor of spending more time in Sedona, a town which never really spoke to us, to see if we could fall for it like everyone else seemingly has. Welllll we changed our minds a couple weeks before leaving California for Arizona, and were able to cancel our Sedona campground and book a spot in Tucson. Sorry Sedona, maybe next time?
Tucson is just too awesome to skip. It has phenomenal hiking, stellar food, and fantastic beer. It has more history and grit than scenic but super-touristy Sedona.
Tucson’s long history started with a village along the Santa Cruz river in 2100 BC, inhabited by hunter/gatherers who eventually built systems of irrigation canals and farmed across the river valley. The Spanish Jesuits showed up in 1692 and built a mission, beginning an extended conflict with the Apaches. In 1775 an Irish-born, Spanish-raised military governor of Northern Mexico and Texas built the founding structure of the new city of Tucsón, the Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón military fort. During the Mexican-American war in the 1840s, Tucson was captured by the Americans and then returned to Mexico, and it wasn’t included massive post-war land cession to the US. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Tucsón and southern AZ became part of the US, and the US continued Mexico’s wars with the Apaches. Then we get the Wild West phase of Tucson’s history, with Tombstone and the Earps. In 1885 the University of Arizona was founded (although the city was hoping to be awarded Arizona’s mental hospital, with its larger funding, rather its university), and it wasn’t until the 1910s that Phoenix surpassed Tucson in population. Fast-forward to today when tourism is an important chunk of the economy, and after the U of A, many of the largest employers are military and high-tech. And, of course, 2017 was a big year in Tucson, when UNESCO named it the US’s first City of Gastronomy (San Antonio‘s the second).
Ok, back to our visit in November 2022: sure, we hit a lot of places we’ve written about before, but we visited a bunch of notable new ones, so this post won’t be old news. I should do a Favorites post, maybe once I finish regular trip posts that I’m now more than three months behind on…
For the third time, we stayed at Sentinel Peak RV Park, and can’t see why we’d stay at different Tucson campground. It’s a short drive to downtown and a long-ish walk (or a short bike ride) to the very cool Mercado District of eating, drinking, and shopping establishments.
I look at this list and wonder how we could fit so much eating into only four days. We knew we were about to head into a stretch of less-exciting food options, so we wanted to eat well while we could. Plus, remember the whole City of Gastronomy thing?
Boca for tacos: We looooved our Boca tacos the first time we went in 2019, but each subsequent time it’s been a little less wonderful, to the point that it might not make the list for next trip–except to pick up salads to go, which has become a tradition for a healthy dinner the first night at our next destination.
The Little One for lunch: This tiny Mexican cafe is always fresh and delicious, and we also order family-sized portions of meat, rice, and beans to take to our next destination.
Taquería Pico de Gallo for a fish taco: This was my snack when J had his Sonoran hot dog. So yummy. This is Uncle Jim’s favorite restaurant in Tucson, and Uncle Jim knows Tucson!
Seis Kitchen for breakfast burritos: we’d had tacos at Seis, and were excited to pick up breakfast burritos to take hiking. They were sooo good. Potato, cheese, egg, avocado, chiles, and a fluffy tortilla = the best desert breakfast.
New (to us) and noteworthy
Tito and Pep for dinner: This is a super cute, super scrumptious Southwestern bistro in the Midtown neighborhood. We had great food, great drinks, great service, and a great experience… but it’s just too far away from our campground, so sadly, we won’t be back very often.
Bata for dinner: Bata has a locally-focused, veggie-heavy menu of sharable plates cooked over a wood fire, and was another all-around fantastic dining experience.
Ruiz Hot Dogs for Sonoran hotdogs: J thought the Sonoran hotdogs at Ruiz were better than his long-time favorite El Güero Canelo.
Barista del Barrio for breakfast burritos: this awesome little window with patio seating is close to our campground. We grabbed breakfast burritos for the drive to New Mexico, and I couldn’t resist ordering a horchesso (yes, a latte made with horchata) which blew my mind. The burritos were good but we liked Seis’s better for being less potato-heavy.
Pueblo Vida is still our favorite brewery in Tucson, and we tried a couple really neat new-to-us cocktail bars along “Tucson’s cocktail corridor” downtown.
Pueblo Vida Brewing Co: We can’t get enough of Pueblo Vida’s sours and hazy IPAs. In four days we visited twice and bought a bunch of cans to take back east with us.
Borderlands Brewing: Borderlands brews consistently good beer and we appreciate the big dog-friendly patio near downtown. From beer-smartie J: “This is our second favorite brewery; when we were there they had a solid hazy IPA for J and a well-balanced tangerine sour for Lauren, and we always enjoy their peaceful, shady, Mesquite-filled patio.”
MotoSonora Brewing: This was our first time at MotoSonora, a ten-minute drive from the campground, and while the beer was just ok we really liked the beer garden with its old-timey-road-trip theme.
Dillinger Brewing: J didn’t much care for their three hazy IPAs, but my mango sour with a tajin rim was delish. From their 4th Street location on Halloween night, we got in some top-notch people watching!
The Owl’s Club: Well this is a cool spot for a fancy cocktail. The bar’s dark indoor space is in an old funeral home, with a private courtyard in a historic downtown neighborhood.
Tough Luck Club: This bar feels like a secret, tucked away in the basement of a downtown pizza restaurant. Our cocktails were extremely well-made.
Westbound: Our favorite hangout MSA Annex houses our maybe-favorite non-brewery bar, Westbound–ranking so highly more for the atmosphere than for the cocktails. We sat outside drinking cocktails on tap and local beers (they have an impressive beer selection) and randomly bumped into an old friend!
Presta: J had a meeting and kicked me out of the Airstream, so I went for coffee and wi-fi at Presta, in the main section of the Mercado, not the Annex. It was a cozy spot for computer time, and La Estrella Bakery next door was packed–I guess we should give it a try!
One of the things we love about Tucson is the proximity to gorgeous hiking. There are several in-town parks, mostly dog-friendly, with shorter trails; and Tucson is sandwiched between the two halves of Saguaro National Park. Adjacent to Tucson and the west side of the national park is Tucson Mountain Park, and just to the north of the city lies the lovely Catalina State Park. That’s why we hiked six times in four days!
Painted Hills Trail Park: Having all these little parks a short drive away makes us so happy! We hiked for almost four miles on the Painted Hills Trails loop and felt surprisingly out in the wild, among the saguaro and without lots of houses and road noise. Dogs are allowed, as are hikers, bikers, and runners.
Sweetwater Preserve: This may be the prettiest of the Pima Country trails parks, but it also seems to be the most popular, and sharing the trail with speeding mountain bikes can be a little nerve wracking. The density and shapes of the saguaros is a hoot. We also learned a bit about crested saguaros after hiking in Sweetwater, as we’d spotted several over our Tucson time and I finally did some research. They’re rare, and nobody’s really sure why the mutation occurs–maybe genetics, maybe lightning, maybe a freezing event.
Enchanted Hills Trails Park: We hiked the El Grupo Loop, a nice and short 2.5-mile rolling walk through pretty cacti, with more houses and roads around than other in-town parks. The trails are dog-friendly and open to hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians; we only saw one biker and one hiker on a weekday.
Tucson Mountain Park: Hiking more in this park is at the top of our to-do list for next visit–it’s incredibly scenic, and so convenient. The only downer is that no dogs are allowed, but old Bugsy appreciates a day off from time to time. We hiked this 6.2-mile out-and-back and wished we’d had more time to keep going.
Saguaro National Park: It was only a twenty-minute drive from our campground in a big city to a freaking national park. We hiked to Wasson Peak on the western side of the national park, a pleasant eight-mile loop and man we really love those kooky saguaros. No dogs are allowed on the national park trails.
It’s a challenging six-mile hike with bonkers vistas along the way, and incredibly beautiful pools and falls at the end. In the desert! We’re curious about hiking farther next time–what’s up there? (Well, it turns out you can hike all the way to Mount Lemmon, a difficult 15-mile one-way hike.) No dogs are allowed on Romero Canyon Trail.
Tumamoc Hill: This was a fail for Bugsy and me, while J was working. We planned on a fun walk up the very popular 1.6-mile path to the top of Tumamoc Hill with views over the city, just a couple minutes from home… but no dogs are allowed.
We’re returning to Tucson for Christmas 2023, with a twist: while we’re camping in the Airstream at the campground as usual, J’s family will be in an Airbnb not too far away. J’s brother and fam lived in Tucson for many years until eight years ago, and we’re excited to show them some of our new favorites and revisit some of their old haunts. Here are some things we have planned:
- Family-friendly hiking in Catalina (we plan to take the Airstream up there for a couple nights)
- Beer drinking at Pueblo Vida
And our to-do list for the following visit, when J and I can get back to focusing on new things:
- Hike more in Tucson Mountain Park–check out trails on this super useful website
- Reading about the Catalina to Mt Lemmon hike made me think we need to check out the trails on Mt Lemmon
- Check out the food trucks at The Pit food truck park, if we happen to be on the far east side of the city
From Tucson, we continued east into New Mexico to Alamogordo, the gateway to White Sands National Park.