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Inside: Curious about the foods of Arizona? We share Mexican classics, Native American traditional foods, and new Arizona famous foods to try. YUM!

No matter where we travel, we always like to try local foods. It provides an added dimension on the area’s history, plus you get good eats . . . a win-win! One of the reasons we love Arizona is the strong food culture here.

Arizona’s rich culinary tapestry is woven with Mexican influences, Native American traditions, and modern classics, creating a foodie landscape that is as diverse as it is delicious. From ancient staple dishes to modern twists on classics, these foods in Arizona match it’s stunning scenery. Some might even surprise you.

Listed below you’ll find 21 foods Arizona is known for. Savoring any (or all! 🤩) of these will make any Arizona Journey taste even better (note clever way of inserting name of website here 😉).

Foods of Arizona: Exploring the Mexican Influences

There’s no denying that foods in Arizona have a strong Mexican influence. As you dive into the food scene here, you’ll quickly discover that Mexican flavors permeate everything, from street food stalls to upscale restaurants. Over time, it has evolved and adapted, incorporating ingredients and techniques from different regions and cultures.

The Mexican influence in Arizona’s food scene is a testament to the historical ties between the two regions and the cultural exchange that has taken place over the years. And while tacos 🌮 are certainly something you’ll find (as you’ll see in #5 below) , there’s more. Much more 🤩.

1. Sonoran Hot Dogs: an Arizona Famous Food

tray of sonoran hot dogs
A tray of Sonoran hot dogs-one of the signature foods of Arizona.

One of the most iconic Mexican dishes you’ll find in Arizona is the Sonoran hot dog. Even though it’s a newer arrival to the Arizona food scene, it’s certainly a rising star 🤩. In fact, it’s the only hot dog in America to be associated with a James Beard Award (Daniel Contreras, owner of El Guero Canelo hot dog mini-empire in Tucson).

This mouthwatering creation combines a juicy hot dog wrapped in bacon (an auspicious start!) nestled in a soft bolillo roll, topped with pinto beans, diced tomatoes, onions, mustard, mayonnaise, and a drizzle of jalapeno sauce. It’s a delicious blend of flavors that perfectly represents the fusion of Mexican and American culinary traditions. 🌭🇲🇽

  • Where to find Sonoran Hot Dogs: All over Tucson. See our post about the Sonoran Hot Dog for a comprehensive list.

2. Chimichangas: Traditional Arizona Food at its Best

plate with chimichanga, rice and beans, one of the most famous foods of arizona
The chimichanga was a “happy accident” that has become one of the most famous foods of Arizona (Photo by Getty Images)

The chimichanga is a happy accident: someone accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep fryer and created of the yummiest foods Arizona is known for. It’s typically filled with shredded beef or chicken, cheese, and beans, and then topped with salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. Yes, please! 😋

The origin of the first Chimichanga is a disputed: both El Charro Cafe (in Tucson) and Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen (in Phoenix) claim to be the first one to drop a burrito into the fryer, making them home to the first chimichanga. What no one disputes is that the Chimichanga was created in Arizona.

And no one disputes that they are muy delicioso! Be sure to try this Arizona famous food on your next visit.

  • Where to find Chimichangas: El Charro (4 locations in Tucson); Macayo’s Mexican Food (13 locations in greater Phoenix), and most other traditional Mexican restaurants.

3. Birria & Quesabirria Tacos

Deliciously rich birria, a traditional Mexican dish, has definitively marked its territory on the Arizona food map. This tantalizing slow-cooked beef is marinated in a medley of robust spices before braising to perfect tenderness. The resulting broth is also a joy to behold (and savor!).

plate with 3 quesabirria tacos with bowl of dipping broth alongside-foods in arizona
Quesabirria tacos with luscious slow-cooked broth for dipping (photo by Getty images)

Quesabirria tacos elevate this classic by folding the juicy, flavorful birria into a crispy seared corn tortilla with generous portions of melted cheese, topped with chopped onions and cilantro. (I told you tacos would show up on this list, didn’t I? 🌮)

This mouthwatering hybrid has truly encapsulated the hearts (and stomachs!) of Arizonians, cementing its status as on of the must-try foods Arizona is known for.

4. Carne Seca/Machaca

Platter of carne seca with rice, beans and limes, tradtional arizona food
Carne Seca at El Charro Cafe (Photo courtesy of Yelp)

Carne Seca (which is also known as Machaca) is a desert-dried beef delicacy, similar to beef jerky. It owes its unique flavor to the traditional drying process that includes air-drying the thinly sliced beef and a whole bunch of robust southwestern seasonings. (The Arizona sunshine doesn’t hurt either 😎.)

The resulting meat is super-tasty, sort of like a Mexican flavor concentrate. It’s used in dishes across the state, from hearty stews to spicy burritos . . . even topped on salads. Enjoying carne seca is experiencing Arizona’s heritage in every delicious bite.

Many classic Mexican restaurants serve carne seca/machaca; you can also find it packaged at many carnicerias (meat markets) if you’d like to take it home to make your own goodies.

5. Tacos Rasurado

close up of taco rasurado from tacos apson-authentic foods of arizona
Grilled, juicy, meaty, messy . . . delicious! Taco Rasurado from Tacos Apson in Tucsonone of the foods of Arizona you really must try.

Time for some “taco math.” Tacos = good. Mesquite-grilled beef ribs = better. Tacos + mesquite-grilled beef ribs = WOWZA!!! 😲(where is the “chef’s kiss” emoji when you need it?!)

That’s Tacos Rasurado: shaved rib meat on a warm corn tortilla, with a grilled chile along side. Salsa it up to your heart’s content. It’s a taco on an entirely new level.

Tacos Rasurado isn’t just a meal, it’s a tantalizing taste of Tucson tradition, passionately served, and one of the foods of Arizona worth seeking out. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this video from America’s Test Kitchen . . . I dare you not to drool! 🤤

  • Where to find Tacos Rasurado: Tacos Apson in Tucson (2 location) . . . featured in the video above.

6. Flour Tortillas

Flour tortillas are essential ingredients in such yummy mexican treats as burritos and chimichangas (see #2 above). And they have their origins in the Sonoran Desert.

uncooked flour tortilla on board dusted with flour, underneath rolling pin. Cooked flour tortilla in the background. Traditional Arizona food
Flour tortillas are traditionally unique to the Sonoran desert, one of the more historic foods of Arizona (Getty images)

The Spanish colonizers brought wheat with them as a crop when they came to the region 500 years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history. What began as a convenient winter crop has morphed into a staple of the Sonoran style of Mexican cooking. And it is definitely a traditional Arizona food.

Naturally they’re great when wrapped around burrito or chimichanga fixings. But they’re also pretty darned good warmed up and served with a little butter. Just sayin’ 😉.

  • Where to find authentic local flour tortillas: Tortillas Rosario in Phoenix; Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory in Tucson; also most carnicerias will carry these brands. (But if you go to the main stores you can get ’em while they’re still warm 🥰.)

7. Cheese Crisp

The cheese crisp, is a traditional Arizona food that’s especially popular in Tucson. (It’s also a fave of Tucson native Linda Ronstadt!) Essentially an open-faced quesadilla (but super-crispy!), it is a perfect fusion of its Mexican ancestry and American innovation.

This enticing dish is crafted with a large, open-faced flour tortilla, generously sprinkled with cheddar cheese, broiled to perfection.

The tantalizingly crispy edges and gooey center offer a mouthwatering feast of textures. Some folks like to add green chiles to give it some zing. The key is to not overload it with too much stuff on top, it will collapse and lose its signature crisp!

  • Where to find Cheese Crisp: El Minuto (Linda Ronstadt’s go-to when she’s in town), and most other full-service Mexican restaurants in Tucson.

8. Santa Cruz Red Chile Powder

Exotic and flavor-packed, Santa Cruz Chili Powder is one of Arizona’s culinary treasures. It’s made from just one ingredient: anaheim chiles 🌶️, picked at the peak of ripeness, then dried and ground into this flavor-packed powder.

Arizona chefs and home cooks alike love this powder (including yours truly!), because it forms the basis for any proprietary chili blend. It invigorates any dish with its warm, robust flavor profile (although it’s not spicy–you can add that as part of your proprietary blend 😉).

This is one of the foods of Arizona you can experience no matter where you’re located. Grab a container of this classic chili powder, and create a taste of Arizona right at home.

  • Where to find Sant Cruz Red Chili Powder: Grocery stores throughout Arizona; mail order from Amazon.

Unearthing Native American Staple Dishes: Traditional Arizona Food

Table showing an array of native american ingredients in baskets
Native American ingredients form the basis of many of the foods of Arizona today (Getty images)

Mexican-inspired street food offers a burst of flavors and textures in Arizona, but the state’s culinary landscape got its start long before that.

The foods of Arizona also encompass an array of Native American staple dishes. Just looking at all the ancient structures in Arizona, such as Montezuma Castle, tells you that this area has been populated for millennia.

Drawing on the land’s natural resources, Native American cuisine in Arizona is a testament to sustainability and the deep connection between the people and their environment 🏜️. Many of the foods of Arizona as we know them today have their roots in Native American traditions.

9. Tamales

Although typically associated with Mexican food, the origin of tamales is traced all the way back to 7,000 B.C. in the Aztec empire. Tamales are a harmonious blend of corn dough, seasoned meat, and aromatic spices, all neatly enveloped in a corn husk.

Cutting board piled high with tamales, with avocado, lime and salsa in the foreground. native american food
Commonly associated with Mexican cooking today, tamales are one of the foods of Arizona with Native American roots (Getty Images)

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, this versatile and staple dish was already here. Over time tamales were absorbed into the Mexican culture throughout the Southwest US.

Tamales are a eaten all year long, but they are also a traditional Arizona food at Christmas🎄. Families gather together to prepare large batches of tamales to serve on Christmas Eve.

This delicately steamed delicacy exudes a richness that immerses the palate in a symphony of flavors. Although you can purchase frozen tamales many places (including Trader Joe’s), it’s not the same as freshly-made. (Think of the frozen pizza vs. fresh from the pizzeria comparison 🍕!)

Try a bit of of evolutionary food history on your next trip to Arizona with some authentic tamales. You’ll sample a bit of Native American and Mexican culture in every bite 😋.

10. Native American Frybread

bubbly native american frybread in foreground, with woman's hand turning frybread in background; native american foods of arizona
Despite a complex history, frybread is one of the key Native American foods of Arizona

One iconic staple is Native American frybread (also known as Navajo frybread) a delicious creation born out of necessity during times of scarcity.

Made from simple ingredients like flour, water, salt, and baking powder, this golden and fluffy bread is typically fried until crispy and served either plain or topped with a combination of sweet or savory toppings.

Its versatility makes it a popular choice as the base for many Native American-inspired dishes, such as Indian tacos or Navajo burgers. (But served with honey or cinnamon-sugar is pretty fabulous too! 🍯)

11. Posole

overhead shot of posole with pork, avocado, hominy and radish-foods of arizona
Colorful and hearty pozole has Native American roots (photo courtesy Pozoleria)

Posole, a traditional Native American stew of corn and pork, has also been commingled with Mexican food culture (where it is often spelled pozole).

This heartwarming stew, often enjoyed during celebrations, is a blend of harmonious flavors. Hominy, which is large, puffy corn kernels (that have been soaked for HOURS) forms the basis of this bracing dish.

Like the Native American peoples themselves, posole predates state (and federal) borders. As a result, posole can be found throughout the southwest, with slightly different flavor profiles. As a traditional Arizona food, the broth tends to be clear, with a robust chile zing.

Posole is often a weekend special on restaurant menus, and it’s worth trying when available. With each spoonful, you can taste the generations of history and the reverence for the land that this dish represents.

12. Tepary Beans

Side by side images of dried white and brown tepary beans, in packaging by Ramona Farms
Drought resistant tepary beans have been prized by the native peoples of Arizona for centuries for their nutritional benefits

Tepary Beans, a cherished Native American food, are a powerhouse of nutrition. Long prized for their drought-resistance, these tough little beans become amazingly creamy and flavorful when cooked.

Holding a treasure trove of proteins and fiber, tepary beans have been nourishing the population for centuries, proving that the best of nature is often preserved in its simplest forms 😇. Explore the richness of Native American heritage with every bite.

  • Where to find Tepary Beans: Served at the Courtyard Cafe in Phoenix; or purchase on Amazon & make them at home!

13. Prickly Pear Fruit

Throughout the Arizona desert you’ll find the prickly pear, with its signature flat pads telescoping out. (After the famous saguaro 🌵 it’s probably the most recognizable cactus!)

side by side images of bright pink prickly pear fruit next to a pink margarita with a salt-rimmed glass
Vivid pink prickly pear has been nourishing desert dwellers for ages; today it’s a popular ingredient in margaritas (Getty images, lma stock)

The namesake prickly pear fruit, which is a bright magenta in color, is one of the foods of Arizona that you’ll find growing wild just about everywhere. And it’s been nourishing the native peoples for centuries milennia.

You can enjoy its sweet-tart taste right off the cactus (if you’re patient enough to remove the spines–yeeouch!😫).

But you don’t need to risk a finger-piercing to taste it; prickly pear jellies, juices and syrups are available to buy. And any Arizona bar worth it’s salt should be able to whip up a yummy prickly pear margarita.🍹

  • Where to find prickly pear: Prickly pear syrup, jelly and candy made in Arizona by Cheri’s Desert Harvest is available on Amazon; prickly pear margaritas are available from fine mixologists throughout Arizona 😉

14. Mesquite Flour: foods of Arizona from the bounty of the desert

close up of Mesquite pods on a tree. Mesquite flour is one of the native american foods of arizona
The fruit of these mesquite pods makes a sweet, nutty (and nutritious) flour (Getty Images)

Mesquite flour originates from the pods of the mesquite tree, a drought-friendly plant native to the Sonoran desert. Native Americans, particularly the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes of southern Arizona, have utilized this flour for centuries.

In addition to its sweet, nutty flavor, mesquite flour is packed with nutrients: it’s high in both protein and fiber.

The pods are ground into a flour, which is then used in baking and cooking for a variety of dishes. Traditionally, indigenous people used this food of Arizona to bake into a dry cake to carry them through the lean winter months.

Today, many southwestern chefs are using mesquite flour in place of traditional flour to create nutritious and tasty treats, including breads, tortillas . . . and cookies 🍪!

  • Where to find mesquite flour & products: Big Skye Bakers sells a range of baked goodies at Tucson Farmers Markets; flour available by mail order from Mount Hope Wholesale (despite the name they sell 2 lb. and 5 lb. bags)

15. Chiltepin

The chiltepin is a teeny tiny-yet fiery 🔥-chili pepper Sonoran Desert. (It sort of looks like a chili pepper 🌶️ and a peppercorn had a baby!)

The native peoples of these regions have been using this food of arizona for over 8,000 years, not only as a spicy food but as a potent medicine and a spiritual aid. Its intense heat and distinctive taste added zest to their food, while its medicinal properties helped them combat various ailments.

Today, the chiltepin is used in salsas, stews, and meat dishes to give them an extra zing 💥. Hotter than jalapenos and habaneros, these little fire bombs are prized for their fierce heat and smoky, citrusy notes. (I confess that I need to use them s…p…a…r…i…n…g…l…y 🥵)

  • Where to find chiltepins: Chilttepica Products sells chiltepins in a variety of sizes and mixed spice blends. Available at specialty stores throughout Arizona or by mail order (see website for details).

16. Sonoran Wheat Flour

Sonoran wheat was the first wheat cultivated in the New World. It was introduced to the Sonoran Desert by the Spanish Missionaries in the 1600s. Wait . . . you might be thinking, “doesn’t that make it more a mexican food?”

Not really. That came a little later.

The local Tohono O’odham and Pima peoples quickly realized this crop was ideal for the desert climate-Yay! 🎉 Plus, it also grew during the winter, when the planting fields were usually fallow-Yay Again! 🙌. So . . .

The indigenous folks knew a good thing when they saw it, and wheat quickly became part of O’odham cuisine. Cooks incorporated wheat berries into traditional poshol, a stew with tepary beans, as well as pinole (a kind of porridge).

Today bakers love heritage Sonoran wheat, with its slightly nutty taste and low protein for use in pastries and pastas, and blended with other heritage wheats in breads. (I’m a baker & I love it for delicate, crispy cookies! 😋).

  • Where to find Sonoran Wheat: Multiple products, including flour, wheat berries & crackers from Hayden Flour Mills (available either from Amazon or at Whole Foods); breads from [James Beard Award Winner] Don Guerra at Barrio Bread in Tucson;

Foods Arizona is know For: Modern Twists on Classic Recipes

While Arizona’s culinary heritage is deeply rooted in Native American culture and the rich flavors of the Mexico, the state’s food scene also embraces innovation and modernization. Chefs and food enthusiasts alike have found ways to put a contemporary spin on classic recipes, creating a delightful fusion of old and new.

Check out these “newer” foods of Arizona to find some mouthwatering surprises. 🤤

17. Artisan Pizza: Foods of Arizona???

I bet your thinking, wait, WHAT? What does Arizona have to do with Artisan pizza?

Chris Bianco, that’s what. (Or should I say “who”?)

Back in the 1980’s, when pizza was still relegated to bowling alleys and strip malls (remember the flimsy take out boxes?), Chris Bianco started making wood-fired pizza in the back of a Phoenix Italian grocery store. It was good-very good. People noticed.

holding a margherita pizza outside pizzeria bianco
Chris Bianco’s innovation placed artisan pizza firmly in the “foods of Arizona” category

Fast forward a few years and Chris’ Pizzeria Bianco is being hailed as “the best pizza in America” from food critics all over the country. In 2003 he was the first pizziaolo (pizza maker) ever to receive a James Beard award. A Big. Deal.

Today foodies can find wood-fired artisan pizza 🍕 all over the US, which is absolutely terrific. But it all started in a little Italian grocery in Phoenix. Cool 🤩.

  • Where to find Chris Bianco’s Pizza: Multiple locations of Bianco Restaurants in Phoenix. Each has a slightly different menu, but they all serve pizza.

18. Steaks & Burgers made from Grass-Fed Beef

Arizona has a rich ranching heritage, with cattle grazing the sprawling grasslands. So the “emerging trend” of grass fed beef 🌱 is tried and true here in Arizona.

Multiple ranches in the state have been doin’ it this way for generations (Thank ye kindly, ma’am 🤠). The good old-fashioned way: better for the cows, better for the planet, better for you.

This may be one of the most traditional foods of Arizona of the modern era. To try one of these steaks or burgers is to taste a bit of cattle ranching history 🥩 (and a baked potato alongside isn’t bad, either 😉).

19. The Tequila Sunrise

When talking about foods of Arizona, do drinks count? I think so.

Despite the song of the same name, the classic rock group Eagles did not invent the Tequila Sunrise. (Although they do have a strong connection to Arizona, with Standing on the Corner Winslow Arizona!)

The honor of the drink’s invention goes to bartender Gene Sulit of the (super swanky✨) Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, waaay back in the 1930s.

Legend has it that a guest requested a refreshing drink to take poolside, and asked Gene to “surprise me.”

Mr Sulit created a concoction that was as pretty as it was delicious: a blend of soda and tequila with crème de cassis and fresh lime juice. The super-thick crème de cassis’ settled at the bottom of the glass, creating the gradient of colors that mimics a sunrise and created a name. 🍹🌅

And the rest, as they say, is history (and an Eagles song 🦅).

  • Where to get a tequila sunrise: Um, well how about the Wright Bar at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel? (Which would of course be the Tequila Sunrise.)

20. The Arizona “Original” Chopped Salad: one of the more recently-created foods of Arizona

Image of chopped salad, with rows of tomatoes, corn, pepitas, aruguly, cous cous and smoked salmon; foods of arizona
The “Original Chopped Salad”, one of the newest foods of Arizona (photo courtesy the Gladly)

About 25 years ago Scottsdale chef Bernie Kantak developed a really tasty salad at a restaurant called Cowboy Ciao. In keeping with the cowboy theme he named it the Stetson.

It involved a curious combination of chopped ingredients-smoked salmon, arugula, pearl couscous, pepitas, currants, dried sweet corn, and marinated tomatoes-artfully presented in a bowl in neat little rows, that were then tossed together table-side with a buttermilk herb dressing.

People loved it. [It’s really good!]

So much so that when Kantak left his former employer to open the Citizen Public House he took his signature salad with him. But he couldn’t bring the name.

So he rechristened it the “Original,” and onto the menu it went.

Today there are replicas of the Chopped Salad scattered around Phoenix and Scottsdale. But there’s only one “Original.” Well, technically there are two: Chef Kantak has two restaurants and you can get the salad at both. (in case you’re fact-checking 😉)

21. The Date Shake

There are only two states in the country that grow dates: Arizona and California The dry, sunny climate mimics that of the Middle East, where dates grow natively. 🌴

Enterprising farmers imported date trees to Arizona in the early 1900s and soon began selling this nutritious, sweet fruit from roadside stands.

Travelers passing through would stop and stock up on yummy dates to bring home as souvenirs. But there was an even bigger treat in store at these rest stops: the date shake. 🥤

Using 3 simple ingredients: milk, ice cream & sweet sticky dates, the date shake became a refreshing way to break up a trip through the desert. [Spoiler alert: I also like to make a “healthy” version at home with yogurt 🥰]

Today many of these roadside stands are gone, but a few remain to provide one of the historic and sweet foods of Arizona, a reminder of Arizona days gone by.

While Arizona’s culinary heritage is deeply rooted in Native American culture and the rich flavors of the Wild West, the state’s food scene also embraces innovation and modernization. Chefs and food enthusiasts alike have found ways to put a contemporary spin on classic recipes, creating a delightful fusion of old and new.

I invite you to immerse yourself in the flavors and foods of Arizona. Take a bite out of history and indulge in the vibrant cultural tapestry that flavors this state. Don’t miss out on the chance to experience these 21 must-try authentic foods of Arizona that have made their mark on the state’s culinary landscape.

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SUMMARY: How to find magnificent Organ Pipe Cactus out in the wild: take Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument-away from main roads!

Dear Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:

Where are all the organ pipe cacti??? I only saw one at the entrance!

We arrived at the entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and dutifully took a photo of the sign . . . with its (natch) organ pipe cactus right alongside.

Eager to see the only place in the US where this cactus grows natively, we forged on 15 miles to the Visitor Center.

As we drove we saw . . . no Organ Pipes. Not. A. One. Plenty of Saguaros 🌵 and Arizona Wildflowers, which were lovely. But none of the cacti the national monument is named for.

What was going on here? Where were all the famous Organ Pipe cacti?

Spoiler Alert: we did find them eventually. The trick was taking the Ajo Mountain Drive . . .

What is the Ajo Mountain Drive?

Sign at the entrance of the Ajo Mountain Drive loop road
Get out onto the Ajo Mountain Drive to see the famous organ pipe cactus

Arguably the the best way to get a representative view of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile scenic drive into, you guessed it, the Ajo Mountains, located within the park’s boundaries.

Sometimes called the Ajo Mountain Loop Road, this drive takes visitors on a journey through rugged mountains while offering breathtaking views of the surrounding desert. And, yes, on this drive you’ll see plenty of Organ Pipe cacti!

The winding road is perfect for a leisurely drive, allowing you to take in the sights and sounds of the desert at your own pace. Along the way there are trailheads for those looking to hike a bit deeper into the desert, as well as a few designated picnic stops.

But before you forge ahead, we suggest you stop at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center first. After we did, we understood why we hadn’t seen any Organ Pipes . . . yet.

The main road through organ pipe national monument-with saguaros and wildflowers, but no organ pipe cactus
The main road through the monument–where are the organ pipes???

Kris Eggle Visitor Center

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is located more or less in the center of the park’s boundaries, right along AZ State Route 85, in a valley between two mountain ranges (this will become significant in a moment!)

The Visitor Center provides a great introduction to the park–and to the unique Biosphere Reserve that the park encompasses. There’s a small (and accessible!) 0.1-mile walk planted with various cacti (including an organ pipe), wildflowers, and other plants you’ll see in the park.

A small exhibit area provides displays on the unique plant and animal life here at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We love these mini museums–it helps us get an idea of what we’re actually looking at when we’re out out there exploring!

Helpful park rangers are on hand to provide suggestions, based on your interests. This is how we learned about the Ajo Mountain Drive . . .

exhibits about the sonoran desert at Kris Eggle visitor center

. . . and how to find the Organ Pipe Cactus.

Read Next: 17 Things to do in Ajo AZ

Where to Find the Organ Pipe Cactus

The organ pipe cactus (Lemaireocereus) is one of the most unique cacti in the world. It’s native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwest Arizona and northwestern Mexico. The area around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the ONLY place in the United States where you’ll see it growing naturally. That’s why this park is so special!

The organ pipe cactus has an impressive and distinctive look to it–as you can tell by the name, it looks like a giant pipe organ and a saguaro had a baby. 🌵👶🏻 And these things are BIG–they can grow to almost 30 feet tall!

But . . . the organ pipe cactus doesn’t really like cold weather, which is why you only find it in extreme southwestern Arizona. And even then, Arizona can have some chilly nights. So . . .

Organ pipe cactus like to grow on south-facing crags and hillsides, where the sun warms up the rocky soil during the day. That warmth is enough to keep the cacti cosy at night, kind of like a big ol’ desert blanket.

organ pipe cacti growing on a rocky hillside on the ajo mountain drive
Organ pipe cacti LOVE growing on south-facing rocky hillsides

Which means . . . its unlikely organ pipe cacti in valleys . . . like the one you drive through to reach the Visitor Center. AHA moment! 💡To see the famous organ pipe cactus, we’d need to get into the rocky hillsides.

Hence, the Ajo Mountain Drive.

map of organ pipe cactus national monument, with the ajo mountain drive circled in red
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Map, courtesy NPS

What to See and Do on the Ajo Mountain Drive

The drive offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings, so keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep and other desert animals. You’ll also encounter numerous pullouts along the way, allowing you to take in the stunning vistas and snap some memorable photos.

There are 2 picnic areas, but keep in mind that there is no water available on the drive, so you must bring your own (and bring plenty–it’s the desert after all!)

The drive also provides access to a few short/medium-length hikes, which is a great way to get a little deeper into the beautiful scenery.

Allow about 1.5-2 hours to complete the drive; longer if you plan to do any hiking and/or stop for a picnic lunch.

First, be sure to pick up an Ajo Mountain Drive Guide at the visitor center. (Or, if you have the NPS App, you can access it there.) There are 18 designated pull-outs along the drive, focused on nature. The guide lists the location of each one and provides descriptions for each of them.

PRO TIP: There are minimal placards along the Ajo Mountain Drive. To ensure you’re getting the most out of your experience, pick up an Ajo Mountain Drive Guide at the Visitor Center.

Some of the pull-outs are focused on specific sights you’ll see right there, while others are more general stops describing the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.

We found some of the pull-outs more “stop-worthy” than others, but it really depends on your familiarity with the Sonoran Desert landscape. (Or just how much of a “completist” you are 😊.)

Highlights of the Ajo Mountain Drive

Ajo mountain drive-organ pipe cactus in foreground with suv on dirt road in background
One of the first organ pipe cacti you’ll see on the Ajo Mountain Drive

The 21-mile drive begins in the flat valley opposite the visitor center (so not many organ pipe cacti-yet). It gradually winds into the base of the Ajo mountains before looping back to the valley.

Here’s a list of what we found to be the most interesting stops along the drive. Designated stops are based on their distance from the pay-station kiosk at the beginning of the drive.

Stop 4: Mile 3.9

One of the first of the namesake organ pipe cactus you’ll see along the drive. (We’re still in the valley here.) But I was so excited to finally see one in the wild I naturally had to stop and take a gazillion photos. 🤦‍♀️

Stop 6: Mile 5.5

A stop with a picnic ramada along Diablo Wash. This wash is one of the many canyons within the park that was inhabited by people as far back as 12,000 years ago (!). The wash is dry most of the year, but fills up during the monsoon rains in August/September.

Stop 7: Mile 6.0

Saguaro and organ pipe cactus in the foothills of the ajo mountain drive

This spot is on a small ridge, just above the Diablo Wash. Great views to the west of the park, including Twin Peaks (so named because of its double summit). Also a panoramic view of Mexico’s Cubabi Mountains to the south.

There’s a picnic table here as well (although no ramada covering).

*At this point in the drive you’ll be getting into the foothills of the Ajo mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for some south- and west-facing rocky ridges: organ pipe cacti will start popping up sporadically.

**Also, as you look upward into the upcoming mountains you’ll see a cool rock arch up ahead. Resist the urge to try and photo it from here–you’ll have your chance in a moment.

Arch Canyon Trailhead: Mile 8.9

The Arch Canyon Trailhead isn’t listed as a pullout stop in the Ajo Mountain Drive Guide; it’s a landmark on its own. There’s a small parking area, along with a picnic tables (no ramadas). Placards explaining a bit about the geology of the area–including how arches are formed–are posted as well.

man standing at placard of arch canyon trailhead with stone arch high up in the background

This is a great spot to stop take photos. There are actually two arches, 600 feet up there at the top of the rock cliff. . . look closely to to see the second (smaller) one.

It’s hard to believe it from here, but that main arch is 90 feet wide!

For a short hike, the Arch Canyon Trail is short (about .6 mi each way), and takes you a bit closer to the base of the cliff beneath the arches. Be sure to take water if you decide to hike the trail! 💧💧

More intrepid hikers can continue on a short–but very steep–hike up to the Arch itself. This portion of the trail isn’t maintained by the monument, but is pretty well marked by fellow hikers.

The views are fantastic, but it’s a strenuous hike (and only recommended for experienced trekkers).

Estes Canyon: Mile 11.0

Estes Canyon is the midpoint of the Ajo Mountain Drive.

You can do 2 things at Estes Canyon: take a rest, or take a hike.

This canyon stop offers a serene and peaceful setting, perfect for a picnic lunch. Ramadas provide ample shade from the sun, making it a refreshing escape on a hot day. There are also (basic) restroom facilities here, which can come in handy.

If hiking is your thing, consider the Estes Canyon and Bull Pasture Trails. Combine these trails for a moderate-level loop (~3 miles) through the canyon.

Or, if you’re really into climbing, add on the strenuous trail spur to Bull Pasture. It climbs 800 feet in just 1/2 mile, but the views are magnificent.

One of the highlights of Estes Canyon is the many bird species that call it home. Keep an eye out for the colorful vermilion flycatcher or the striking black-throated sparrow. With over 300 bird species in the park, Estes Canyon is definitely a top spot for birdwatching.

After Estes Canyon you’ll begin looping back to the beginning of the trail. By this time you should be pretty adept at spotting organ pipe cactus!

You’ll be heading south, so you may have to pull over occasionally and look over your shoulder to see them on the south-facing hillsides. In the spring this area is chock-full of Arizona wildflowers.

field of yellow poppies amid cactus
Loads of wildflowers in Estes Canyon

Stop 15: Mile 13.1

At this stop you’ll see an nice sampling of something that is NOT a cactus: the ocatillo. These plants have a desert beauty all their own, looking like a giant bouquet of sticks (winter) or fluffy green-leafed plumes (summer). In late spring they sport lovely red flowers at the branch tips, which are popular with hummingbirds.

Stop 17: Mile 16.9

This area, known as “Teddy Bear Pass,” is a dense thicket of teddy bear cholla cactus. These cacti are beautiful with the sun shining through them-they look fluffy & cuddly (hence the name)!

Resist the temptation to give them a hug–they may look soft and fuzzy, but they are sharp!

teddy bear cholla cactus

Continue on the Drive back to the starting point.

Now you’ve completed the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive. Hopefully you’ve seen your fair share of organ pipe cacti . . .along with all sorts of other desert vegetation!

If you’re like me, this drive gave you a new appreciation for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument–and the organ pipe cactus! 🤩

PRO TIP: Visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Ajo Mountain Drive can be part of a nice Southwest Arizona road trip. See our Arizona Roadtrip Planner for more information.

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SUMMARY: A visit to this charming former mining town in southwest Arizona makes a delightful getaway. We share 17 things to do in Ajo AZ.

Ajo was such a pleasant surprise! An Arizona small town that manages to embrace its past while still looking to its future in creative ways.

My introduction to Ajo began at the coffee shop on the plaza. Not the usual line of zombies waiting for their morning caffeine infusion–this crowd was only semi-comatose. The barista was keeping things lively by asking if anyone had some spare wood she could use for her latest art project.

In between grinding beans and frothing milk she a found sculptor who had some leftover wood in his studio (she was an expert multi-tasker). Problem solved, she got back to making coffees in earnest, whipping up “the usual” for customers who’d brought their own travel mugs.

When I picked up my “un-usual” (in that she didn’t know me), I apologized for not having any wood for her project (or, for that matter, my own travel mug). She smiled and said “it’s all good–welcome to Ajo!”

I decided I was going to like it here . . .

A Little Background on Ajo Arizona

front view of Curley School in Ajo AZ-1916 Spanish revival building

Ajo is one of our new favorite Arizona small towns! It’s located in southwestern Arizona, not far from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

If you’ve ever driven down to Rocky Point (aka Puerto Penasco, Mexico), chances are you’ve driven right through Ajo–perhaps without stopping. I know several folks with a house in Rocky Point who have never. stopped. And they’ve totally been missing out. 🤷‍♀️

Because, as you’ll see, there’s a lot more to Ajo than just a traffic light & a pit stop!

How Ajo got Started

Ajo has been known as a mining town since the 1700’s, when Spaniards mined first mined silver in the area. Scientific studies eventually indicated there was more copper in them thar hills, so industrious miners switched gears.

Through most of the 20th century the New Cornelia Mine became one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. Dropping copper prices and a bitter strike eventually caused the mine to close in the 1980s, and Ajo has been working to re-invent itself ever since.

Why is Ajo Arizona called Ajo?

Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the area was inhabited by native peoples. They mixed up a red body paint made from the copper-rich soil, calling it “au’auho,” which became “Ajo.”

Today, Ajo is has become a charming artist’s enclave, with several programs to welcome and encourage the arts, thanks to groups like the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. So a name that means “red body PAINT” seems totally fitting! 🎨🖌️

Whether you are looking for a weekend getaway from Phoenix or Tucson, or are just passing through on your way to Pureto Penasco, take some time to explore the many fun things to do in Ajo!

PRO TIP: Ajo is only a 2-hour drive from either Phoenix or Tucson–it makes a great weekend getaway!

1-12: Things to Do in Ajo AZ

A colorful past and even more colorful (artistic metaphor!) future, coupled with its location amid spectacular Sonoran Desert scenery means there will be plenty of things to do in Ajo for just about everyone!

Arched portico of ajo plaza with tiled cupola above-things to do in ajo az

1-Ajo Plaza

Any visit to Ajo should begin here. This magnificent Spanish Colonial Revival plaza forms the core of the town, filled with park benches and shaded by palms. It’s fronted on 3 sides by a blinding white arched portico–providing a perfect shady spot from the Arizona sun.

2-The Flagpole

Okay, this might seem like an odd entrant in a list of “things to do in Ajo,” but humor me on this. The flagpole in the center of the plaza forms the focal point that anchored the town layout.

Ajo was planned in 1914 to create a pleasant place for miners to live. So . . .no standard “grid” for the fine people of Ajo–no siree.

Instead, streets radiate out from the central axis like “the wings of a bird,” with two similarly white churches anchoring those wings. Pretty cool, huh?

3-Visit the Historic Train Depot (Ajo Visitor Center)

Look for the tiled coupola at the far end of the plaza–this once housed Ajo’s train depot. But, in the words of Warren Zevon, “the train don’t run by here no more,” so the depot has been converted to Ajo’s Visitor Center.

Inside, you’ll be able to see vestiges of the former train station, as well as get information about the town and regional attractions. The folks in there are friendly and helpful. (No word on whether they can help you out with materials for your latest art project 😊)

4-Take a Historic Walking Tour

One of the helpful bits of information you’ll get at the Visitor Center is a handy map of Ajo’s Historic District, pointing out significant buildings and landmarks. This is a great way to get your bearings and view the town’s unique layout from different perspectives.

The tour is roughly 1/2 mile long, and will take you 20-30 minutes.

5-Check Out Artists Alley

Beyond the Murals highlighted on the art tour, you can seed additional creative works lining the walls of this alley behind the plaza.

You know a town is values artistic expression when the alleys sport colorful designs!

wall mural in ajo az-coyote and desert design with words "artists alley-Ajo, AZ" surrounding design

6-Explore Curley School Art Complex

As you’re exploring the town and it’s unique layout, you can’t help but notice that cool old domed building perched where the “wings of a bird” (i.e. the streets) open wide.

That’s the former Curley School, which has been transformed into a unique art complex/hotel/public space. It exemplifies Ajo’s commitment to both the arts and the town’s future.

The original 1916 schoolhouse (very cool Spanish revival architecture!) has been transformed into a multi-purpose complex with studios, a gallery and apartments specifically for artists. The 1930 school annex is now a hotel & conference center (see below).

front view of Curley School in Ajo AZ-1916 Spanish revival building

7-Stay in a Historic Schoolhouse (and Classroom!)

Courtyard of Sonoran Desert Inn with frog sculpture in foreground-Ajo Az
Art is everywhere in the courtyard gardens of the Sonoran Desert Inn

The 1930’s annex of the Curley School (see above) is now the Sonoran Desert Inn. It makes a charming place to stay while exploring Ajo.

We stayed here during our visit, and it really helped us get into the Ajo vibe.

The 11 guestrooms are in former classrooms, which all open onto a large courtyard. They’re decorated in a modern style, with a bit of Ajo artistic flair: funky sculptures and ceiling fans made from re-purposed light fixtures (remember those old fluorescent lights with the little metal grids in them?).

And fuzzy little javelina pillows adorn each bed (made by a local artist, natch). How cute is that?

hotel room bed at Sonoran Desert Inn, with yellow javelina pillow

The courtyard is filled with a collection of welcoming garden spaces that highlight the Sonoran Desert. And of course, there’s art everywhere!

8-Self-Guided Art Tour

Ajo’s support of the arts is evident all over town, in the form of murals, sculptures, and other installations. For a more in-depth understanding of the local works, take a self-guided art tour.

A brochure (available at the Visitor’s Center) provides a map with photos and brief descriptions of nearly 25 works that provide that little something extra to an already pretty town layout.

9-Visit the New Cornelia Open Pit Mining Lookout

A stop at this lookout point is one of THE things to do in Ajo AZ. It’s the mine that put Ajo on the map, and a peek into The New Cornelia Open Pit Mining Lookout gives you a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Perched at the edge of the (now defunct) open pit, you’ll find a safe (i.e. fenced-off) area to look down into the depths to see just how deep (and wide!) that famous copper ran. A small museum with photos and a short video describing the mining process is also on site.

10-Ajo Historical Society Museum

Ajo Historical Society Museum, housed in a white adobe Spanish Revival church.

This museum is located just up the hill from the open pit mining lookout in the old St. Catherine’s Indian Mission (it’s hard to miss this pristine white building!).

The Ajo Historical Society Museum is a great place to get a sense of Ajo’s past. It contains many artifacts and mementos, including mining paraphernalia, a complete blacksmith shop, and an early print shop. 

11-Browse the Ajo Copper News (Bookstore/Gallery)

man standing in front of building with large desert mural, plus sign for ajo copper news

Ajo is definitely the kind of town that multi-tasks (remember my tale of the artistic barista? ☕️👩🏻‍🎨).

Nowhere is it more evident than the Ajo Copper News: the offices of local weekly newspaper also houses a fabulous used bookstore, a gallery of work by local artists, AND it’s got an awesome giant mural on the front!

Ajo multi-tasking at it’s best!

12-Chill with the locals on the Plaza at Oasis Coffee

The portico on that gorgeous Ajo Plaza is super hangout-able. (is that even a word???) Anyway, it’s a lovely spot to sit in the shade of the arches and watch the world go by.

You might even say it’s one of the musts among things to do in Ajo AZ.

Oasis Coffee (we’re back to the multi-tasking barista again) is the place on the plaza to chillax and soak up the vibe, watching the comings and goings of all and sundry.

And who knows, you might just find a source of materials for your latest art project. 😉👩🏻‍🎨

people sitting under the portico on Ajo plaza enjoying coffee

PRO TIP: Ajo makes a great stop on a road trip through Southwestern Arizona. Check out our Road Trip Planner for more ideas!

13-17: Things to do NEAR Ajo AZ

When considering things to do in Ajo Az it’s important to remember just how rich the region is in scenery nearby. Consider these:

13-Drive the Ajo Scenic Loop

One of the best things to do in Ajo AZ to get your bearings of the surrounding landscape, this 9-mile drive will give you a taste of the Sonoran Desert (with an Organ Pipe twist!)

The drive makes you feel like a star in your own western movie! 🤠. It skirts around the mine and the mountain to the west of town, and cuts through washes drive as it crosses BLM roads that seem to extend forever. Along the way you’ll see Saguaro and Organ Pipe cactus, and the vestiges of a few old homesteads.

Download a copy of the Ajo Scenic Loop Map here, or pick up a copy at the Visitors Center.

14-Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Sign at the entrance to Organ Pipe National Monument near Ajo AZ

Although you’ll see a few Organ Pipe cacti dotting the hills around Ajo, check out Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to get a real sense of these beautiful succulents.

This southwestern part of Arizona is the only place in the US that you’ll find the Organ Pipe Cactus 🏜️, so exploring this park is a special experience.

This park is one of 18 National Monuments in Arizona, and it’s a real beauty!

15-Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

The main entrance to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is just north of town. The Visitor Center there has a small museum explaining the local flora and fauna.

You’ll also be able to get info on what you can experience in this vast preserve (over 800,000 acres! 😲). This area is managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and offers lots of space to “rough it.” If you’re into camping, hunting, hiking, birding, etc. this is the spot for you!

16-Go Mountain Biking around the local hills

Map of Ajo Az biking routes and Scenic Loop

The wide-open spaces surrounding Ajo are a mountain biker’s dream. 🚵🏻‍♀️. If you love hitting the trails, this should be one of the things to do in Ajo AZ for you.

The town has created 17 trail segments covering over 30 miles that cater to cyclists of all abilities. Mix and match segments to suit your spirit for adventure, whether it’s the easier “Old Faithful” trail, or the “Lower Chain Breaker” (that one is self-explanatory 😱.

A handy map explains each trail, with elevation changes and sights along the way. Download the Ajo Mountain Biking Map here, or pick it up at the Visitor Center.

17-Visit the Tohono O’Odham Museum & Cultural Center

The Tohono O’Odham Nation sits just east of Ajo, covering an area approximately the size of Connecticut (that’s BIG!)

Stop into the Museum & Cultural Center tucked into a magnificent setting of Sonoran Desert outside the town of Sells. There you’ll learn about the history of the O’Odham people, and the traditions that continue to this day.

Take some time to enjoy the spectacular view of Baboquivari Peak, which is of special cultural significance to the O’Odham people.

man standing in front of entrance to Tohono O'Odham cultural museum

Restaurants in Ajo, AZ

Ajo has a small collection of restaurants and coffee shops to satisfy your hunger pangs. There’s a strong focus on Mexican food-kind of like the rest of Arizona! 🌮

Keep in mind that many restaurants are only open on the weekends. Others may close at 6 or 7pm. So it’s always best to check opening hours of your dining choices.

Here’s a list of restaurants in Ajo, AZ:

  • Agave Grill: Casual, friendly full-service restaurant that offers a little bit of everything . . . steaks, chicken, burgers, all sorts of share-able appetizers, along with daily specials. Full Bar.
  • Ajo Farmers Market & Cafe: Simple breakfast and lunch menu focused on local ingredients. (Try the corn & tepary bean breakfast burrito 😋.) Onsite market features local farmers and food purveyors.
  • Arriba Mexican Restaurant: Full-service spot serving traditional Mexican fare on the north end of town. The red and green chile sauces are lovely. Full Bar.
  • Curley Coffee Roasters: Small cafe in the Curley School Arts Complex offering freshly roasted brews and simple pastries. Closed Monday, Tuesday.
  • Granny’s Kitchen: Down-home diner with a decidedly Mexican flair, located at the crossroads of charmingly named “Why, AZ”. Breakfast, lunch only. Good value.
  • Oasis Coffee: (Home of the multi-tasking barista!) Great place to hang out on the Plaza. All sorts of fun & fancy coffees, plus pastries and breakfast/lunch sandwiches.
  • Olsen’s Patio Cafe: Cafe adjacent to the IGA supermarket. Burgers, sandwiches & fried chicken daily, but the real draw is the Carne Asada specials on Tuesday & Thursdays. Closes by late afternoon most days, so check before going.
  • Roadrunner Java: Coffee shop and bakery on the north end of town. Open weekends only.
  • Sonoran Desert Inn: The hotel does not have a traditional restaurant on site, however they do have a fully-equipped catering kitchen and offer limited food options on a nightly basis. During our stay we enjoyed Chef Lucia’s excellent street tacos! (photo above 😊)
  • Tacos El Tarasco: Traditional Mexican fare right on the Plaza. But you’ll have to come early–they close at 6pm.

Hotels in Ajo Arizona

We recommend spending a night (or two!) in Ajo to really soak up the culture and see the sights. There are a few small hotels/motels to meet your needs and provide a good night’s sleep. Some have rooms with kitchenettes; all are equipped with fridges & microwaves. All, are locally owned and managed; it’s nice supporting the local economy by staying here 🤩.

List of Hotels in Ajo, Arizona:

  • La Siesta Motel & RV Resort: Traditional roadside motel, plus cute cabins, on the north side of town. Beautifully landscaped grounds with lots of shade and desert flowers. Several barbecue/picnic areas scattered around the property. NOTE: despite the name, they no longer accept RVs.
  • Marine Motel: Small and basic, but comfortable roadside motel on the northern end of town. A few rooms have full kitchen.
  • Sonoran Desert Inn: Courtyard rooms in a former school in the historic Curley School Arts Complex (see above), 2 blocks from the Plaza. Rooms overlook gardens and artwork. No restaurant, but hotel offers limited food options in the evenings.

NOTE: RV campers will find several options here. For a more complete list, check Ajo Arizona RV Parks.

Our recent visit to Ajo clearly demonstrated that this town was worth spending time — more than a simple drive-through on our way to somewhere else. With an intriguing mining history, colorful artsy vibe, and sprawling desert scenery, we’re glad we chose to stay a while.

We hope you do too! 😊🌵

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INSIDE: These 8 gardens in Tucson showcase the beauty of the desert landscape. Discover vivid flowers, trees, and even a cactus with a pompadour! We’ll show you how you can find these natural wonders.

On my first visit to Tucson I expected to see lots of sand and no vegetation. But I was wrong. The landscape is oveflowing with vivid flowers, lacy shade trees, even a rare cactus that sports a pompadour! The beauty is all around you . . . if you know where to look.

Tucson sits smack-dab in the middle of a special place: The Sonoran Desert.

The word “desert” evokes images of sand–lots of sand. And nothing else. But that’s not true–plenty of stuff grows here.

The Sonoran Desert is one of the oldest cultivated areas in North America. (Seriously, people have been living here for over 4,000 years!).

It’s the home of the saguaro cactus, the most iconic symbol of the American southwest. Even the cactus emoji is a saguaro 🌵.

You’ll find stunning flowers, lacy shade trees, and a rare version of the saguaro with a frilly hairdo that would be right at home in a 50’s Do-Wop group. The “crested saguaro” is a mutation that occurs once in every 10,000 saguaros.

And it can only be found in the Sonoran Desert.

So let’s get going and explore that beautiful desert landscape. Here are 8 of our favorite gardens in Tucson that showcase the unique plant life in the Sonoran Desert . . .

. . . and we’ll even share 3 places where that rare cactus with a pompadour is hiding!

Girl with sunglasses posing in front of large cactus at gardens in tucson

1. Tucson Botanical Gardens: A former nursery grows up

Tucson Botanical Gardens has its roots (seems fitting!) in a nursery. It’s a pleasure to stroll the paths of what was once Desert Gardens Nursery. For nearly 40 years, founders Rutger and Bernice Porter taught locals to cultivate their own gardens with southwestern plants.

Bernice Porter donated the property to the city in 1968, which became Tucson Botanical Gardens a few years later.

Today Tucson Botanical Gardens is an oasis of desert beauty in the city. I love the 17 different specialty gardens which highlight native plants.

  • What we love: Succulent Garden & Butterfly Pavilion
  • Highlights: Christmas lights display; art exhibits in the old Porter House
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shop
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 5 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Tucson Botanical Gardens

2. Tohono Chul Gardens: a blend of art and nature

Okay, full disclosure here: I went to Tohono Chul because I knew they had a Crestate Saguaro somewhere on the property.

That’s right, the cactus with the Pompadour!

I did eventually find it (more on that in a minute), but I was astonished by how many other gorgeous gardens are on display here: a Spanish Colonial courtyard, a cultivators garden featuring native plants, even an area featuring the cutest little mini cacti! (Just don’t touch them–they may look cute & fuzzy, but they’re still sharp!)

Beautiful sculptures complement the plantings, and several art galleries with rotating exhibits delight your eyes.

But after all those tended gardens, head out to the South Loop Trail into native desert landscape. Here you’ll find lots (and lots!) of cacti . . . including the quirky Crested Saguaro–yep the guy with the pompadour! This one even has two bird’s nests in it, which look like a set of eyes 👀!

  • What we love: The mixture of wild and tame landscapes
  • Highlights: Crested Saguaro; rotating art exhibits
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shops (2), nursery selling native plants
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 9 miles north of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Tohono Chul
Crested saguaro cactus in desert landscape

3. Yume Japanese Gardens: serenity among gardens in Tucson

If all seeing all those cacti have you feeling a little, well, prickly, head over to Yume Japanese Gardens for a soothing change of pace.

Eight different garden settings display minimalist serenity, combining a balance of natural and man-made beauty.

I’m amazed at how these minimalist settings can still invoke communion with nature. Get your Zen on with trickling fountains, bamboo groves, and even a river of smooth stones–no water necessary!

Afterward, explore the mini-museum, with its stunning display of ceremonial Japanese kimonos.

And don’t forget to pick up some Japanese snacks in the gift shop 🍡.

  • What we love: The total Zen vibe
  • Highlights: Dry River garden, Tea Ceremony garden, kimono display
  • Amenities: Gift shop/Bookstore
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 9 miles northeast of downtown Tucson (2 blocks south of Tucson Botanical Gardens)
  • Website: Yume Japanese Gardens
garden scene at Yume Japanese gardens tucson

4. Agua Caliente Regional Park: a real live Desert Oasis!

There’s something so exotic about a desert oasis. And Agua Caliente Park fits the definition!

The park is named for a warm spring and pond that creates this unexpectedly lush spot in the desert. (“Agua Caliente” means hot water.)

Visiting this county park feels like stepping onto the grounds of a fancy resort–for free! Loads of palm trees ring a large pond, with a bridge (and even a few ducks–rare for Tucson 🦆).

It’s a really nice place for a picnic. The pretty setting is also popular with wedding parties-on our last visit we saw a ceremony taking place (so romantic! 💕). Hohokam peoples lived here 900 years ago; archaeologists also found evidence of human occupants from 5,500 years ago. This oasis has been around a long time! 🌴

  • What we love: Seeing naturally occurring water in the middle of the desert.
  • Highlights: Different types of palm trees, lots of shade
  • Amenities: Visitor center; rotating art exhibits
  • Admission fee: None
  • Location: 18 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Agua Caliente Park
Pond with palm trees reflected at Agua Caliente oasis in Tucson
Little girl examining mini cactus at gardens in Tucson

5. University of Arizona Arboretum: beauty is all around you

If you want to learn more about the desert landscape . . . go to school.

You don’t have to “enroll,” just go to the campus. The University of Arizona main campus Arboretum houses a truly unique collection of plants from arid and semi-arid climates around the world.

Before it gets too confusing, let me give you a tip: the Arboretum is all around you, not in some fenced-off section of campus. (Full disclosure, I had a hard time finding it the first time I went 🤦‍♀️.) Because it sprawls all over campus, it’s one of the more spectacular gardens in Tucson.

The “U of A” has a terrific interactive map on their website, which describes the various plantings you’ll find around campus. There are even 8 different walking tours with different themes, such as “Edible Landscapes” and “Arboretum History.”

But my favorite? None other than that pompadour-sporting Crested Saguaro . . . right near the Old Main building. Weird, wonky & utterly wonderful!

Bonus Sighting: try to find the true-to-scale outline of the battleship USS Arizona on the campus grounds. It’s a moving memorial to those who perished in the Pearl Harbor attacks.

  • What we love: The ENTIRE campus is an arboretum!
  • Highlights: Crested saguaro; multiple themed walking tours
  • Amenities: Several cafes, restaurants and shops adjacent to campus
  • Admission fee: None
  • Location: 1.5 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: University of Arizona Arboretum
Crested saguaro cactus at Univ. of Arizona

6. The Mission Garden: celebrating 4,000 years of food

If you love to grow vegetables, or even if you just love to eat, you’ll love the Mission Garden. This garden is all about food. It is a celebration of the kitchen garden, and Tucson’s diverse agricultural heritage.

Tucson has a rich food history–people have been living here for 4,000 years! All due to, you guessed it, growing food.

This garden in Tucson is a living agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit trees, traditional local heirloom crops and edible native plants. I love strolling through to see the different crops people have cultivated over the centuries (well, okay, millenia). Corn, squash and beans planted by the native peoples, fruit trees and wheat brought by colonial Spaniards, and even winter melon and long beans brought by the Chinese. (I told you it was diverse!)

Perhaps the coolest part of the Mission Garden is its location: just west of downtown Tucson, at the site of a Native American village sacred to the Tohono O’odham people. The name of the village? S-cuk Son (pronounced “Chuk Shon”), which is where modern-day Tucson got its name. That’s some gardening props! 👩‍🌾

  • What we love: Discovering all the heritage crops
  • Highlights: Hohokam native garden, Spanish Colonial orchard
  • Amenities: Gift shop
  • Admission fee: No (but $5 donation suggested)
  • Website: Mission Garden
Spanish vegetable garden at Mission Garden Tucson

7. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: the desert from every angle

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum definitely gives you a lot of value: there are 5 museums at this one location. And there’s a crested saguaro in the parking lot!

The 98-acre property looks at the Sonoran Desert from multiple angles. So while exploring you’ll see botanical gardens mixed in with natural history, local art, and even desert critters (like tarantulas and coatimundi).

There are 2 miles of trails connecting the exhibits . . . with 1,200 different types of plants on display. Whoever said the desert is just sand is totally wrong!

My favorite plant/animal combo is the hummingbird habitat: you could spend an hour looking at gorgeous desert flowers while these iridescent little fliers zip by your head!

  • What we love: Seeing how desert plants make up part of the whole ecosystem
  • Highlights: Hummingbird Haven, Desert Grasslands habitat, Crested Saguaro
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shop
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Website: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Close up of plants at Tucson botanical gardens

PRO TIP: Check out the crested saguaro at the entrance of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (just off the parking lot). You don’t even have to enter the museum to see it!

8. Bonus Pick: Saguaro National Park: Cactus, cactus & more cactus

two pug dogs wearing saguaro cactus costumes
I told you there were a LOT of cacti!

If you prefer plant life in a native setting, you can’t get much more local than Saguaro National Park. Obviously, the park celebrates the Saguaro cactus (remember the emoji? 🌵), but also all the other desert life you find in this ecosystem.

The park is divided into 2 sections: one just east of Tucson, the other just west. This makes it an easy visit when you’re staying in the area. Each section has an (accessible) interpretive trail which provides a great primer on the plants you’ll see while exploring the park.

Farther afield are networks of trails throughout the park for walkers and hikers of all abilities. I particularly like the trails in the East section, which take you into the Rincon Mountains.

(See our guide to Tucson Hikes for more info about trails in this park and beyond.)

  • What we love: Immersing ourselves in the Sonoran Desert.
  • Highlights: Interpretive trails, hikes through the Rincon Mountains
  • Amenities: Visitor Center, Gift shop (Western section only)
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Website: Saguaro National Park

I am still determined to find that Crestate Saguaro Cactus somewhere in the wild. But for now I’m content to know that there are at least 3 places right in Tucson where I can see one whenever I want. 🌵

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I’ve always wanted to be one of those “carefree travelers” who breezes along with the perfect suitcase.

Having been full-time travelers since 2011 we know what makes the best 4 wheeled suitcase. We show you what to look for–and what to avoid when choosing spinner carry on luggage and more.

We literally live out of our suitcases. My husband and I have been full-time travelers since 2011, so luggage plays an important role in our lives. I’ve learned to be efficient in my packing, using luggage that’s functional, sturdy and not too big. And that comes in handy when taking an Arizona Road Trip. (Or any other road trip for that matter 😉)

Here are some guidelines to help you do the same:

Which is better: a 2 or 4 Wheeled Suitcase?

For several years we used 2-wheeled suitcases (some people call these “Rollaboard” suitcases, a brand name trademarked by TravelPro.) Two-wheeled suitcases work well, but you must “tilt and pull” them along behind you. This is fine for short spurts, but eventually that motion was wrenching on our shoulders. Additionally, adding an extra bag (such as a tote or computer bag) was cumbersome. Stacking it on top of the main bag changed the ergonomics (trust me on this one), making it super-heavy to pull. Using an “add-a-bag” strap made pulling the bags along easier, but the bags were out of balance when standing still and had a tendency to fall over.

blue and black 4 wheeled suitcase side by side in front of an adobe wall

When it came time to upgrade (after a particularly shoulder-wrenching sprint through an airport to catch a connecting flight, we investigated 4-wheeled models. We ultimately opted to upgrade to these 4 wheeled suitcases, also known as “spinners.” The name “spinners” comes from the fact that the suitcase can spin around on its wheels. The transition has been much easier on our joints. Spinners are terrific on smooth surfaces, such as airport floors and parking lots; even densely packed bags glide along with very little effort.

Note that spinners can get difficult to maneuver on carpeting or rough surfaces, such as cobblestones. During these instances it’s best to tilt the bag so it works like a 2-wheeled suitcase. Shop for spinners whose rear wheels rotate smoothly and are sturdy enough to handle this conversion. Otherwise you’ll be dragging along a bag that behaves like a reluctant shopping cart (no fun at all!).

All that being said, all 4 wheeled suitcases are NOT alike. Following are points to consider when choosing a 4 wheeled suitcase:

Size and Weight of 4 Wheeled Suitcases

Most people have a tendency to overpack. A good rule is to bring along less (or smaller) luggage than you think you need. Overly large suitcases encourage packing unnecessary extras, which adds weight that you’ll have to heft around. Even if your cruise or tour includes luggage transfers, you still have to hoist your baggage to the airport and in your hotel or stateroom. These are the awkward moments when backs get wrenched.

Size limits for carry on bags vary by geographic location. If not checking your bags is important to you, be sure to check with the airline you’re flying regarding their carry on size limitations. For example, United Airlines carry on policy allows for a bag as high as 22″ to fit in the overhead bin. Whereas your Southwest Airlines carry on can be up to 24″.

Overall weight is also an important consideration. You might think, “but these things are on wheels, isn’t that the point?” Then answer to that is “yes, BUT . . . ” Even though you’ll be breezing through airports and down hotel corridors using the wheels, you still have to lift your 4 wheeled suitcase into overhead bins. If you’re taking a Route 66 road trip in Arizona you’ll likely be taking your bags in and out of your car every few days.

There’s no sense starting with a heavy bag, then packing it with even more weight. Look for luggage brands that offer a “lightweight” line and purchase the lightest bag possible—without sacrificing sturdiness. My main suitcase is a 21-inch model that weighs just under 6 pounds. It’s small enough to fit in most overhead bins, yet large enough to hold what I need.

Spinner suitcases: External Features

Hard Shell vs. Soft-Sided

There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to exterior materials: hard shell vs. soft sided (fabric). Both come in lightweight versions. I prefer the soft-side fabric exterior as it has a little extra “give” in case I need to cram in a few more items (also known by the highly technical term, the “squishy factor” 😉).

Soft-sided luggage is also more forgiving for the inevitable times when your luggage bangs into your shins. Fabric 4 wheeled suitcases also offer exterior zip pockets that are handy for stowing tickets or often-used accessories.

Some people prefer the hard shell version of a 4 wheeled suitcase. The hard shell case is more resistant to moisture (if you spend a lot of time traveling in rainy climates this might be a consideration) Many of them come with built-in locks, a handy feature if security is an issue.

Both hard shell and soft sided varieties are available with zippered expansion panels, allowing you to add a few cubic inches of packing space without moving up to a larger size bag. This feature comes in handy for any souvenirs that are picked up along the way.

When shopping for soft-sided luggage, look for rip-stop fabric, which resists punctures and minimizes tearing. Cheap luggage is often made of basic canvas fabric, this allows tears to “bloom” along the width of the suitcase. If you prefer hard-shell cases, look for lightweight material that is flexible (think of that old TV ad with the gorilla stomping on luggage); bags that are too stiff are prone to dent or, worse yet, crack.

Handles on 4 Wheeled Suitcases

Examine the handles carefully. Quality luggage will have sturdy telescoping handles that adjust to different heights. Inexpensive pieces have flimsy handles (usually just a single metal tube) that aren’t height adjustable. Some (good quality) 4 wheeled suitcases have handles that are a single central bar that telescopes up. They are sturdy, but we’ve don’t like them because they make stacking tote bags on top of the luggage difficult. A traditional dual pull-up handle acts as a brace for any smaller back you might like to stack on top. It also serves as a more secure anchor if your totebag has a trolley strap.

Interior Features of a 4 Wheeled Suitcase

Open Suitcase: single compartment or half & half?

Think of where a suitcase will be placed when it’s opened—likely on a luggage rack in a hotel room, on a bed, or on a floor. A single large interior compartment works best for maximum storage. A single zip compartment in the suitcase lid is useful for separating accessories or dirty clothes; look for models where the zippered side faces upward when the open case is propped up against the wall. This allows you to access items in this pocket without them slithering onto the floor.

Most hard shell luggage opens “half-and-half” style, where the zipper that opens the luggage basically slices the luggage in half, leaving you two equal compartments on the top and bottom. Some people like natural organizational ability of this half-and-half configuration. However, the tradeoff is that, when opened, this type of 4 wheeled suitcase will be too large to fit on a luggage rack. (And one half will be too heavy to prop up against the wall). In most cases you’ll need to keep the suitcase open on a hotel room floor.

4 Wheeled Luggage: Price Range

We prefer moderately-priced suitcases, generally $125-$250, depending on size and brand; all the features described above can be found in this price range. Avoid those cheap “4 bags for $100” sets sold in discount stores. They are poorly made and unlikely to withstand the rigors of travel. Expensive designer bags may look stylish, but they scream “expensive items are packed inside” and are a magnet to would-be thieves.

Once you’ve chosen a suitcase, test pack it at home and put it through its’ paces. If it’s too heavy or some feature doesn’t work, exchange it. There are plenty of variables when traveling. Your suitcase shouldn’t be one of them.

Our Choice for a 4 Wheeled Suitcase?

Based on all the features discussed above, we like the Travelpro Maxlite soft-sided series. We’ve had them for a few years now, and can attest to both their functionality and durability. We like the 21″ carry-on version, (more about packing that in a future post!), which is also sturdy enough to withstand being checked. This series also comes in 25″ and 29″ checked baggage versions, if you really insist on packing a lot. I purchased my suitcase on Amazon.

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There’s something soooo relaxing about being at a lake. Especially one surrounded by high desert.

Enjoy the waters and the wilderness at Patagonia Lake AZ, where you can hike, fish, camp, swim and go boating at this state park in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona. Here are our favorite things to do at Patagonia Lake State Park.

In addition to a 256-acre lake, the park encompasses more than 2,600 acres, making it a fabulous spot for wildlife and hiking trails. The park is surrounded by the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area, offering an additional 7,000+ acres of wilderness. All told, a stay at Patagonia Lake provides access to nearly 10,000 acres of high desert wilderness.

History of Patagonia Lake AZ

Patagonia Lake AZ is a man-made lake that was formed by damming up the Sonoita creek, south of the town of Patagonia. The Sonoita Creek is one of the few year-round creeks in the state of Arizona, making it a popular spot for wildlife. Iate 1960s a group of local citizens formed the Lake Patagonia Recreation Association, Inc. (LPRA) with the intent of creating a lake and recreation area. In 1968 a dam was built on the Sonoita creek west of the Circle Z Guest Ranch, creating 256-acre Patagonia Lake.

sailboat and motor boat on patagonia lake az, with tree in front
Soothing Patagonia Lake amid the desert landscape (Getty Images via Canva)

Over the next several years the state authorities worked to acquire land surrounding the lake, which at the time was owned by oil company Conoco. Eventually the State of Arizona also secured title to Patagonia Lake itself and established Patagonia Lake State Park in 1975.  Roughly 5,000 acres of wilderness was acquired by the state just east of the lake and opened as the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (SCSNA) in 2000. Additional acquisitions of nearby land increased the protected area, eventually connecting it to Patagonia Lake State Park. All told, between the two facilities, there are nearly 10,000 acres to explore.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Today Patagonia Lake State Park offers a campground, beach for swimming, a creek trail and picnic areas. For boaters there’s a marina and boat ramps. Patagonia Lake AZ is tucked away in the hills, about 2 miles off highway 82, providing a quiet escape. Because of its remote location, coupled with year-round water, it’s one of the few places in Arizona where you’ll find of whitetail deer roaming the hills and great blue herons walking the shoreline.

Things to do at Patagonia Lake AZ

The combination of Patagonia Lake State Park and the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area provides a combination of potential activities to satisfy many interests. Water lovers can enjoy boating and fishing (and swimming in the warmer months), while the adjacent wilderness offers plenty of opportunity for hiking, wildlife spotting and backcountry camping.

Things you can do when visiting Patagonia Lake AZ:

  1. Swimming
  2. Hiking
  3. Horseback Riding
  4. Birdwatching
  5. Wildlife Viewing
  6. Picnicking
  7. Kayaking
  8. Canoeing
  9. Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP)
  10. Motor Boating
  11. Boat Rental
  12. Water Skiing
  13. Fishing
  14. Cabin Camping
  15. Tent Camping

1: Can you swim in Patagonia Lake AZ?

Families playing on the beach and in the water at Patgonia Lake AZ
Boulder Beach swimming area at Patagonia Lake AZ (photo courtesy AZ State Parks)

Patagonia Lake allows swimming in designated areas that are in the no-wake zone of the lake, away from boat launches. The lake is considered to be “wild water” and swimmers swim at their own risk. Boulder Beach (near the campground) has a roped-off swim area, which is great for families. NOTE: Be advised that swimming at Patagonia Lake AZ is at your own risk. There are no lifeguards on duty, so be sure to use life vests with kids and novice swimmers.

child swimming in lake wearing a life vest
No lifeguards at Patagonia Lake-be sure kids have life vests! (photo by Getty Images via Canva)

2: Hiking at Patagonia Lake and Sonoita Creek Natural Area

Hikers can use Patagonia Lake State Park as a basis for hiking through the nearly 10,000 acres of the combined state park and Sonoita Creek Natural Area. Near the lake there is a 1/2-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek. This is a popular birding area.

Pedestrian bridge over lake inlet at Patagonia Lake State Park
A pedestrian bridge over one section of the lake offers a great viewpoint to watch the boats (Getty Images via Canva)

Those looking for a bit more of a challenge will find longer and more rugged trails in the  Sonoita Creek State Natural Area. There are 20 miles of trails (some shared with equestrians). Most of the trails are more remote and the shortest round trip hike to the creek is three miles on the Sonoita Creek Trail, with a minimum elevation change of 300′.

For a short hike with a terrific view, check out the “Overlook Trail.” This moderate difficulty 1.5-mile trail is adjacent to Patagonia Lake State Park and offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding scenery. Spectacular!

PRO TIP: Hike the “Overlook Trail” at Patagonia Lake AZ for a 360-degree view of spectacular scenery. This 1.5 mile trail is moderately difficult and not far from the visitor center.

3: Patagonia Lake Az Horseback Riding

For those who have their own horses, the area around Patagonia Lake offers some excellent riding opportunities. (NOTE: there are no horses for rent at the park.) The majority of equestrian trails are in the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, although you park and unload the horses near the Visitor Center at Patagonia Lake State Park. Follow the Horse Corral Trail, which heads west into the Natural Area. Shortly you’ll reach the Sonoita Creek, and the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad trail, which follows the creek westward for about 5 miles.

creek winding through treed area with late spring green colors. horse hoofprints on beach in foreground
The trail along Sonoita Creek makes an ideal equestrian trail near Patagonia Lake, AZ (photo Getty Images via Canva)

The year-round Sonoita Creek is edged by trees, making this a lovely shaded ride during summer. The trail also offers opportunities for creek crossings at three points (provided the water level isn’t too high), which is a refreshing transit for the horses. (NOTE: be sure to check at the Visitor Center before setting out for any high water warnings.)

4 & 5: Birdwatching and Wildlife Viewing at Patgonia Lake Az

a pair of coatimundi in trees, with striped tails hanging down
The not-quite-a-raccoon coatimundi (or “coati”)

Thanks to the year-round flowing Sonoita Creek, which feeds Patagonia Lake, there is an abundance of native Southern Arizona wildlife in the park. The park’s trails all pass through a variety of prime habitats for a large variety of reptiles, birds and mammals. Observant hikers might spot javelina, coues whitetail deer, coatimundi (also known as coati), bobcats and coyote.

In addition to seeing wildlife out on the trails, there is a designated wildlife viewing area perched on a small hill at the eastern end of the lake. This is a popular spot for birders: in 2007 the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area partnered with the Arizona Audubon Society to have the area named an Important Bird Area. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the elusive Elegant Trogon, with its signature red chest and white banding.

Remember, this is NOT a petting zoo, all animals here are wild. Give them plenty of space so they don’t feel threatened, and don’t try to feed them. Treat any wildlife viewing as nature’s gift: a window on a unique habitat.

Below is video supplied by Arizona State Parks of some javelina that you might encounter at Patagonia Lake AZ:

7-12: Patagonia Lake Boat Rental & Watersports

Patagonia Lake AZ is divided into two sections to allow for different types on boats and watersports. A marina is located at the midpoint between the two sections. This is where Patagonia Lake boat rental facilities are located.

Paddlers will enjoy the eastern end of Patagonia Lake, which is a “no wake zone” (Getty Images via Canva)

The eastern end of the lake is designated a “no wake zone,” making it ideal for canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboards. This end is also where the designated swimming beach is located. Motorized boats can enter this part of the lake, but they must travel at very slow (no wake) speed.)

Waterskiing and motor boating are done on the western portion of Patagonia Lake Az. (Getty Images via Canva)

The western end of the lake has no speed limits, therefore it’s more suited to motor craft and water skiing. Note that all boats must travel in a counter-clockwise direction. Water-skiing is permitted, however timing differs, depending on the time of year. Following is a breakdown of permitted water-skiing days.

  • Winter months (Oct 1 through Apr 30): water skiing allowed on both weekdays and weekends
  • Summer months (May 1 through Sept 30): The lake is more congested at this time of year, so water skiing is allowed on weekdays only. Prohibited on weekends and legal holidays.

NOTE: The following type of motorized water craft are prohibited at all times:

  • Personal water craft (PWCs)
  • Jet-skis
  • Waterbikes
  • Above-water exhaust boats
  • V-8 jet boats

Patagonia Lake Boat Rentals & Ramps

Spending time on the water is a great way to explore the scenery from a totally different viewpoint. Patagonia Lake State Park allows you to bring your own watercraft (be sure to check above for a list of those that are prohibited). Additionally you can also rent boats on a daily basis at Patagonia Lake Marina for paddling, water skiing or fishing. Motorized pontoon boats are available for rent, in addition to “no-wake” craft: canoes, rowboats and paddle. Patagonia Lake Marina will have updated prices: (520) 287-2804.

Those that bring their own boats can access the 2 boat ramps at Patagonia Lake. Boat launching is included in the camping or day-use permit fees paid upon entry to the park. Ramps are made of cement and are suitable for most size boats, provided the water is at normal levels. Boat owners must remember to register their own watercraft with Arizona’s state Game and Fish Department.

PRO TIP: Bringing your own boat to Patagonia Lake? Remember to register your craft with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

A boat allows you to get into some of Patagonia Lake’s secluded nooks and crannies. Perfect for fishing . . . or just solitude. (Getty Images via Canva)

13: Patagonia Lake Fishing

Fishing is a popular pastime year-round at Patagonia Lake State Park. Anglers can find largemouth bass, catfish (both channel and flathead varieties), sunfish and crappie. Additionally, From November through March the lake is stocked with rainbow trout. There are plenty of opportunities for success when fishing at Patagonia Lake, whether by boat or from the shoreline.

Because of its unique location in a high mountain valley, some portions of the lake are over 100 feet deep (imagine canyons underwater). These depths provide ideal dwelling opportunities for flathead catfish, and over the years the lake has yielded up some whoppers: the current record is a mind-bending 56.2 pounds! (That’s a LOTTA catfish!)

Check out this link for tips on bait-setting techniques for each type of fish. And remember to purchase a fishing license from AZ Fish & Game for any angler 10 years or older.

14 & 15: Camping at Patagonia Lake Arizona

Patagonia Lake State Park offers a variety of camping options. There are cabins, as well as campsites for tents and RVs, all available on a nightly rental basis. There are even boat-in options for those who bring their own boats (or choose to to rent them). Services available depend on the type of site you are renting. The busiest months are from May until November. Patagonia Lake AZ is not the spot for a rowdy late-night crowd. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m. – 8 a.m.

Patagonia Lake Cabins

Camping cabins are available on the eastern end of Patagonia Lake AZ (which is the quieter, “no-wake” section of the lake). In total, there are seven cabins, of either 2 or 3 rooms each. The cabins are slightly elevated above the RV/tent sights, and as such have beautiful views of the lake. All cabins are fully wheelchair friendly and accessible.

Cabins sleep up to six people, with a queen-sized bed and two sets of bunks (byo linens). There is a mini-fridge & microwave, along with a outdoor barbecue and picnic table. Cabins have electricity, overhead lighting/ceiling fan and even heating and air-conditioning! Family-style shower facilities are a short walk away. 

Reservations are easy to make for Patagonia Lake Cabins by using the AZ State Park online system.

Gorgeous evening views from a Patagonia Lake cabin, photos courtesy AZ State Parks

Patagonia Lake Camping: RV & Tent Sites

If you enjoy camping in a tent or RV, Patagonia Lake AZ is a terrific spot for you. The park has 105 developed campsites located in two different sections: East and West. Both sections are located on the “no-wake” section of the lake, however the East section is a bit farther away from all the boating activity, so this might be a better choice for those seeking a quieter location.

Campsites have a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles, along with 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. (Some sites also have a ramada). Most campsites can accommodate any size RV. There are also two non-electric campsites, which can accommodate 22ft. campers/trailers.

Patagonia Lake State Park attracts a laid-back crowd. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m. – 8 a.m. Book a campsite by accessing the State Parks’ Patagonia Lake Reservations site.

Most campsites can accommodate either tents or RVs and are equipped with electrical hookups. (Photos courtesy AZ State Parks)

Patagonia Lake Camping: Boat-in Campsites

Patagonia Lake AZ has 12 boat-in campsites available by reservation. The sites give you your own designated bit of shoreline, away from the land-based campsites. Boat-in campsites are only accessible by boat, strung along the northwestern portion of the lake (in the wake zone). Each campsite has its own fire ring and picnic table. Some sites have portable restrooms. Boats are available for rent from Patagonia Marina and Boat Rental. Access the Patagonia Lake Reservations site to reserve your boat-in campsite.

Your own private shoreline space with one of Patagonia Lake State Park’s boat-in campsites (photos courtesy AZ State Parks)

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With so many mountains surrounding Tucson, it can be a challenge to pick the right hike.

Tucson is a fantastic destination for hiking. The city is ringed by mountains, with the fabulous Sonoran Desert providing endless Tucson hiking opportunities for all physical abilities. It’s one of the truly unique things to do in Tucson. Here we share our favorite Tucson day hikes throughout the area.

Tucson hikes in Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon is a recreation area that is part of Coronado National Forest, just northeast of Tucson. It’s at the base of the Catalina Mountains, with excellent opportunities for exploring the Sonoran Desert landscape. One of the things I really like about Sabino Canyon is that there is something for everyone: there are trails for all fitness levels and accessibilities, making it an ideal destinations for families. There is a visitor center, which has exhibits about the local flora and fauna, along with a gift shop that sells an excellent selection of books and detailed maps of local trails. Restrooms and fresh water are also available.

Information: Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area

Hours: Recreation area always open; Visitor Center open daily, 8:30am to 4:30pm

Admission: $8/vehicle/day; $10/vehicle/week; $40/vehicle/year; National Park Passes accepted

PRO TIP: Sabino Canyon is a popular spot. There is a huge parking area, along with an overflow lot, which can fill up in the fall & spring and during holiday weekends.

pond with saguaro cactus reflected on tucson hikes

1: Sabino Tram Road (Walking Path): Accessible/Flat

This paved wide path begins near the visitor center and follows Sabino Creek for about 3.8 miles up into the canyon, with several bridges traversing the creek along the way. You can hike the entire 7.6-mile out-and-back length, or turn around whenever you’ve had enough. It’s one of the few Tucson hikes with water year-round; and there are plenty of trees that provide greenery in spring/summer and pretty foliage through the fall (and most of the winter). The path is a gradual incline, rising about 700 feet over the entire distance (so gentle that you barely notice you are climbing!). There are restrooms and picnic areas along the route.

As the route name implies, there is also a tram, called the Sabino Canyon Crawler that goes up the path (roughly every hour), with stops along the way. It’s popular to ride to the tram and hike the 3.8-mile path back as it slopes gently downward toward the visitor center. This is a lovely hike in mid-late afternoon; you can often see deer and other wildlife taking a sip in the creek.

Michael with deer at sunset in Sabino Canyon
A late afternoon encounter on the Sabino Tram Road

2: Phoneline Trail: Easy to Moderate

I like trails that offer a loop, so I don’t feel like I’m retracing my steps. The Phoneline Trail is one of the Tucson trails that offers a few different options depending on how much time (and energy) you have. As the name implies, the trail follows the historic phoneline that was once the only means of communication between the Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon (which rises about 6,500 feet above you) and the rest of the world.

The trail climbs about 500 feet, hugging the side of the canyon and offering magnificent views of Saguaro cactus, the creek below–and of the city of Tucson in the distance. After about 2 miles, you have option of returning via a trail that descends toward the creek and back toward the visitor center. Or you can continue along the canyon ridge for an additional 3-ish miles, where it meets up with the Tram Road at its end. From there you can stroll the paved path back, or take the tram if you’re feeling particularly tired.

3: Seven Falls (via Bear Canyon Trail): Moderate

This 7.8-mile out-and-back hike along Bear Creek, which is in Bear Canyon, just east of Sabino. As the name implies, there are waterfalls along this trail, which vary throughout the year, depending on the amount of recent rainfall. Unlike the paved Sabino Tram route, this is one of the Tucson hiking trails where you actually cross through the creek as you climb. Along the way you’ll climb about 700 feet, getting stunning views of the saguaros and the Rincon Mountains to the southeast.

NOTE: It’s important to check the hiking conditions at the visitor center before you set out (and be sure to wear shoes that can handle a little water and/or mud!). While this is one of the best Tucson hikes after rain, occasionally flash flooding can make this hike dangerous.

Take a Saguaro National Park Hike

standing amid saguaro cactus on tucson hikes
There are plenty of great Tucson hikes in Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park flanks the city of Tucson with two distinct sections: The Rincon Mountain District to the east of town, and the Tucson Mountain District to the west. Both sections offer an abundance of trails through desert terrain, with plenty of opportunities to view the magnificent cacti up close for hikers of all levels. The eastern section is larger, and has some longer trails that go high into the Rincon mountains, for those looking for more challenging Tucson hikes.

Information: Saguaro National Park

Hours: Vehicles, Saguaro East-5:00 am to 8:00 pm in summer, 5:00 am to 6:00 pm in winter; Saguaro West-sunrise to sunset, year-round. Park is open to hikers and cyclists 24 hours/day.

Admission: All passes are good for 1 week: Vehicle-$25.00; Motorcycle-$20.00; Individual-$15.00. National Park Passes are accepted.

4: Desert Ecology Trail & Mica Trail (Saguaro East): Accessible/Flat

There are two trails in Saguaro East that are great for those looking for flat Tucson hikes; these trails also provide access for those using wheelchairs. The 1/4 mile paved Desert Ecology trail has exhibits about the plants and animals that are found in the Sonoran Desert. Resting benches are spaced along the trail. Separately, a 0.7 mile portion of the Mica View Trail is graded to ADA standards and surfaced with a natural material that supports all types of wheelchairs. Park at Mica View Picnic Area or the Broadway Trail head.

5: Freeman Homestead Trail (Saguaro East): Easy

This 1.1 mile “balloon” trail is a one of our favorite short Tucson hikes for families. The trail is meanders through a wonderfully dense grove of saguaros and past the site of an old homestead foundation, which provides a real sense of discovery. There are interpretive signs and featuring exploration activities for little ones, making this more than just a “walk to see some cactus.” Although fairly flat, the trail has some steps and is rocky in places. Therefore strollers & other wheeled vehicles are not recommended.

back of woman in blue shirt on tucson hiking trail with cholla cactus
Many tucson hiking trails are flat and suitable for families

6: Douglas Spring Trail to Bridal Wreath Falls (Saguaro East): Moderate

This 5.8-mile out-and-back hike to Bridal Wreath Falls is popular with birders. The seasonal falls (most likely after summer monsoons or winter snowmelt) are a hit with the feathered set. Regardless of the time of year, this is one of the Tucson hikes that climbs into the Rincon Mountains and offers good views of the city of Tucson and the Catalina Mountains to the north, along with plenty of saguaros and other cactus. You might also spot a group of riders heading out from the luxury Tanque Verde Guest Ranch.

7: Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (Saguaro East): Moderate to Difficult

This trail up to Tanque Verde Peak is not for the faint of heart. With a 2,000 foot climb over 8 miles, it’s certainly one of the more challenging hikes in greater Tucson. The good news is that this is an out-and-back route, so you can turn around at any point, making the hike as long (or short) as you like.

After a fairly steep 3/4 miles, you are already up on the ridge, so views to the west and south over the Tucson basin are spectacular, and just keep getting better the higher you climb. (Be sure to take in the Boneyard, where more than 4,000 military planes are stored in the desert sun.) A good shorter hike goal is at the 2.5-mile mark, where you’ll see an example of the rare (1 in 10,000!) crested saguaro cactus. If you’re planning to hike the 8.7 miles to Tanque Verde Peak, consider camping at the Juniper Basin Campground, at the 6.9-mile mark.


8: Desert Discovery Trail (Saguaro West): Accessible/Flat

Those seeking flat terrain with interpretive signs will find it on this 1/2 mile paved trail in Saguaro West. The trail features shade ramadas with resting benches scattered along the textured pavement trail. Trail guides in braille may be obtained at the visitor center. This is also a great trail for photo ops: the views of saguaros at sunset are fabulous.

9: King Canyon/Gould Mine Trail (Saguaro National Park West): Easy to Moderate

This is one of the Tucson hikes that offers a little bit of everything: a climb up a dry wash, lots saguaros, scenic views . . . and the remains of an abandoned copper mine. All this in a 2.5-mile loop! Begin the hike scaling the King Canyon Wash bottom, which is sandy with several rocky stair-step ways to climb as you go.

After a mile or so, the trail connects to the Gould Mine trail, which passes by piles colorful copper residue piles, along with the remains of a stone cabin and a few mine shaft entrances. Although this trail is within the national park boundaries, the entrance to trail is accessible from a small parking lot in Tucson Mountain Park, which is free.

PRO TIP: The King Canyon Trail straddles Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park. Saguaro National Park charges a fee, however if you park at the Tucson Mountain Park trailhead, you can access this trail for free.

10: Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak (Saguaro West): Moderate to Difficult

At 4,369 feet, Wasson Peak is the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains west of the city. You’ll climb roughly 2,000 feet over the roughly 4.5 miles to reach the peak on this out-and-back hike. But the views once you reach Wasson Peak are totally worth it: a 360-degree panorama of the entire Tucson basin.

Along the way you’ll see plenty of saguaros (natch!), plus ocotillo, barrel cactus and prickly pear. There’s also the remains of an abandoned mining shack, which is a fun (and shady) diversion. Remember to sign the log book at the top of Wasson Peak . . . if you make it this far, you certainly deserve the credit!

Hiking trails in Tucson Mountain Park

Tucson Mountain Park is one of the largest municipally-managed natural resource areas in the U.S. There are more than 60 miles of shared-use trails in the park’s roughly 20,000 acres, so there are an almost endless combination of trails you can take here. The park is located just south of Saguaro National Park’s Western section. As a result the scenery (i.e. Saguaros everywhere!) is very similar. And best of all, the park is FREE.

11: Hidden Canyon Bowen Loop Trail: Easy to Moderate

This 2-mile trail gives visitors a terrific snapshot of Tucson saguaros in a fairly compact loop. The trail begins and ends just behind the Marriott Starr Pass Resort, making it a great option if you’re staying at that hotel. Begin on the more southerly (and flatter) Bowen Trail, then turn off to the Hidden Canyon Trail after about 0.3 miles.

The trail will climb about 300 feet via some switchbacks, and is rocky in spots. But you’ll be rewarded with a quiet canyon full of saguaros, ocotillos, and other cacti. This trail is particularly lovely in spring, when the cactus flowers are in bloom. If you’re looking for a rich Tucson hiking experience that doesn’t take too long, this is highly recommended.

12: Rock Wren/Yetman/Bowen Trail Loop: Easy to Moderate

This is a pleasant 5-mile loop that we created ourselves by using the excellent trail map of Tucson Mountain Park. It involves a little gentle climbing on saguaro-strewn hills, plus a hike through a sandy wash that leads past the stone remains of the Bowen homestead. (Always cool to find ruins while hiking!)

Begin at the Richard Genser Trail Head and eventually exit the park behind the Marriott Starr Pass Resort. From here, the last mile-ish is an easy amble through the Starr Pass neighborhood back to the parking lot. We like to stop at the Marriott for a coffee (on chilly days) or a refreshing cool drink (when the weather is hot), enjoying the view from their patio before heading back to our car. It’s a fun indulgence at the end of an enjoyable hike.

13: Brown Mountain Trail: Moderate

woman in blue shirt hiking in tucson on Brown Mountain
Views for miles as you hike the ridge of Brown Mountain

It’s fun to be able to climb a (not too high) mountain and walk along its ridge as you take in the surrounding views. Brown Mountain offers that in this 4.5 mile loop trail in the western part of the park. All told you climb ascend about 500 feet over the course of about a mile to reach the ridge, then enjoy a few dips and bumps as you skirt along the top. After descending at the opposite end of the ridge, the return portion of the loop is along the valley floor, amid lots of cactus of all varieties. There are also restrooms and picnic tables here.

This is one of the Tucson hikes that passes along a ridge, offering great views of the valley below, including Old Tucson Studios off to the south. It’s easy to imagine you’re in some old Western movie, perched on a lookout point, a “pardner” scouting for cattle rustlers 🤠.

Catalina Foothills Hikes

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the western end of Santa Catalina Mountains and is adjacent to Coronado National Forest. The park includes some great Tucson hiking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas and equestrian trails in 5,500 acres of desert landscape, (which includes almost 5,000 saguaros!).

Information: Catalina State Park

Open: 5am to 10pm Daily; check website for holiday hours.

Admission: $7.00/vehicle; $3.00/individuals, cyclists

14: Romero Ruins Interpretive Trail (Catalina State Park): Easy

Michael standing at stone ruins on romero ruins trail


This is a fun little loop trail (3/4 mile) for those of you who like a little archaeology on your Tucson hikes. In addition to some stone remnants of the Romero homestead, this site also includes remains from a Hohokam village that’s about 1500 years old! (Wow!) There are interpretive signs along the trail explaining the the archaeology and Hohokam culture.

NOTE: Although the trail through the ruins is flat, you must climb about 80 steps to reach it, making it unsuitable for wheeled vehicles.

15: Romero Canyon Trail to Romero Pools & Romero Pass(Catalina State Park): Difficult to Strenuous

Romero Canyon offers Tucson hikes of varying degrees of difficulty, depending on how far you choose to go on this out-and-back trail. The roughly 3 mile hike to the (seasonal) Romero Pools is relatively flat for the first mile, then turns into a steep and rocky climb for the rest of the hike. Views of the canyon are magnificent, and the pools are a refreshing sight.

Those looking for more of a challenge can continue an additional 4 miles to Romero Pass at an elevation of 6,000 feet. In total you’ll scale an elevation gain of 3,300 feet, with a hike that takes about 5 hours one-way. To continue to Romero Pass, follow the trail to your right as it ascends out of the streambed. The trail then slowly climbs up-canyon to the Pass.

16: Linda Vista Trail Loop: Easy

Linda Vista is a family-friendly hike (with free access) on the western slope of the Catalinas. The 3-mile loop has just enough short climbs up and down for kids to feel like they’re on “nature’s playgym,” but never so much that it becomes a slog. Access this trail via a small parking lot behind the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy off of Oracle Road. Although adjacent to a neighborhood of upscale homes, you quickly reach a small valley where you feel you’re in the middle of the saguaro wilderness.

There are some spectacular saguaros here, including one that has over 20 arms! There are also spots with lacy green palo verde trees (the Arizona state tree), providing a dappled shade, which can be welcome on Tucson hikes. The trail is narrow at many spots, so alert young hikers to avoid “sticky” encounters with the cacti on the trail.

Tucson hikes within the city of Tucson

17: Sentinal Peak (“A Mountain”): Easy

man atop Sentinel peak with city of tucson in the distance
Standing alongside the giant “A” with a terrific view of Tucson in the distance

This is one of most popular hikes in Tucson–and it’s free to access. It’s hard to miss the huge “A” that adorns the side of a small mountain southwest of downtown Tucson. Sentinel Peak served as a sentry point to alert Tucson of impending danger during the Civil War. But after a University of Arizona football victory in 1915, students claimed it as their own by constructing a massive basalt “A” (160 feet high x 70 feet wide!) on the mountain’s face and whitewashing it for all to see.

Today there is a paved drive up to the top, with picnic tables and benches on the western side of the mountain. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, park at the trailhead lot partway up, and hike the trail that brings you across the saddle and up to the top. You pass through some lovely saguaro and cholla cactus before reaching the Big A, and are rewarded with a spectacular view of downtown Tucson (and the U of A campus in the distance). Go Wildcats! 😊

18: Rillito River Park Path: Accessible

The Rillito River Park Path is a 10-mile paved path (with free access) that follows along the Rillito River/Wash northeast of Tucson. The Park is part of the 136-mile Chuck Huckleberry Loop that is popular with cyclists. The path is flat and crosses the River periodically via dedicated bridges. There are parks and stopping points along the way, making this a nice option among Tucson hikes if you’d like to take a more leisurely stroll as well.

The Rillito River Path is accessible to everyone, photo courtesy Visit Tucson

The path is popular with cyclists as well as hikers/walkers (and the occasional horse!), so everyone should be mindful of others using the path.

PRO TIP: Take the Rillito Park Path on a Sunday morning and stop in at the Heirloom Farmer’s market. It’s a lively event with dozens of food and craft vendors, as well as some terrific food trucks offering yummy breakfast treats.

Tucson Hiking: Cienega Creek Natural Preserve

19: AZT loop via Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead: Easy

This 2-mile loop, which is (a short) part of the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) is one of the more unique hikes in Tucson. Pass through serene Davidson Canyon, a riparian habitat in the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve that is free to use. Pass under shady cottonwood trees as you hike along the sand creek bed (dry in all but the summer monsoon months). Cross under an active Union Pacific Railroad bridge before climbing back up to a ridge and the return portion of the trail (which parallels a second railroad bridge). Chances are pretty good that you’ll see at least one freight train passing through during your hike, reminiscent of a scene in a Breaking Bad episode.

SPECIAL NOTE: This trailhead commemorates Gabe Zimmerman , a US congressional aide who was killed in 2011. He loved this portion of the Arizona Trail. Read more about him on the Arizona Trail website.

A poignant sign commemorating Gabe Zimmerman at the trailhead bearing his name

Want more Tucson hiking recommendations?

If you’re looking for more hikes in and around Tucson, we suggest picking up a copy of Five Star Trails: Tucson by Rob Rachowiecki. The author lives in Tucson and provides lots of detail about the area and the many hikes you can take there. As you can see from the photo, our copy is pretty dog-eared because we use it so much. Highly recommended! It’s available on Amazon.

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As summer days began to fade I was craving some autumn atmosphere.

Want to find a pumpkin patch in Arizona? We’ll help you out. There’s something just so autumnal about a pumpkin patch. . . the bright orange color, the rustling of leaves and yellowing corn stalks in the neighboring fields beckon on a crisp fall afternoon. You can choose a big ol’ “punkin” or just indulge in little festive fall fun (such as family-friendly games and corn mazes). Whether you’re an Arizona local or visiting on vacation, a stop at an AZ pumpkin patch is sure to brighten your day. It’s as classic a fall event as exploring Apples in Arizona.

PRO TIP: Most pumpkin patches and fall festivals have Covid-19 safety precautions in place. Please check individual sites for more information

Pumpkin Patch in Arizona: Northern Arizona

FLAGSTAFF PUMPKIN PATCH

This Flagstaff pumpkin patch has been serving up autumn fun since 2001. Located at the Viola’s Flower Garden nursery, you’ll have fun picking out pumpkins in this country setting tucked into the pines. Choose from 25 (!) different pumpkin varieties, scattered among hay bales with tons of scarecrows and photo ops.

Photo courtesy Flagstaff Pumpkin Patch

PRO TIP: Continue a few miles south of Flagstaff on 89A to see the foliage at Oak Creek Canyon, one of the fun things to do in Sedona in the Fall.

THE WILLIS FARM (SNOWFLAKE, AZ)

Plenty of fall fun on this farm in northeastern Arizona (not far from Petrified Forest National Park). Pick your pumpkin from a patch out in the field, or select gourds and “Indian” corn. Try your luck navigating the corn maze, or simply take a train ride around the property.

There’s also a game zone for little ones and paint ball & laser tag for older kids.For those who like a scary thrill, Willis Farm hosts “Haunt Nights” every Saturday in October–tickets are timed, be sure to order online ahead of your arrival.

Photo courtesy Willis Farm
  • Location: 381 S. 1st E. Street Snowflake, AZ 85937
  • Dates: September 25 through October 30 (note: Closed on Sundays)
  • Website: Willis Farm & Ranch

Where to find an AZ pumpkin patch near Phoenix

FAIRMONT SCOTTSDALE PRINCESS (SCOTTSDALE, AZ)

Those looking to add a little “glam” to their fall pumpkin experience need look no further than the Pumpkin Fest at this luxury hotel. Fall-themed treats abound for young and old alike, including (sort-of spooky) kiddie rides, toasted marshmallows, skeleton storytellers, and–new for 2021–a Cider Orchard offering both both hard and soft versions of the fall favorite. Visit for just the day, or can cap off the event with specially-priced hotel and spa packages.

JUSTICE BROTHERS U-PICK FARM (WADDELL, AZ)

Head out to the western fringes of Phoenix to farm and orange grove country to find this u-pick pumpkin patch. Pay for your pumpkin, then stop at the free decorating station to jazz it up. There are plenty of photo ops in this Arizona pumpkin patch, and you can even make your own scarecrow!

Photo courtesy Justice Bros.
  • Location: 14629 W. Peoria Avenue, Waddell AZ 85355
  • Dates: October 1 through 31 (note: Open Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon; closed Tue, Wed, Thur)
  • Website: Justice Brothers Ranch & U-Pick

MACDONALD’S RANCH (SCOTTSDALE, AZ)

At MacDonald’s ranch, there are pumpkins, and a whole lot more. Admission to this Arizona pumpkin patch gives you access to a petting zoo, panning for gold, hay bale maze, kids’ pedal car track, lawn games and plenty of photo areas. Purchase pumpkins, and optional pony rides.

Photo courtesy MacDonalds Ranch
  • Location: 26540 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85255
  • Dates: October 1 through 31 (note: closed Tuesdays)
  • Website: MacDonald’s Ranch


MORTIMER FARMS (DEWEY, AZ)

There’s something for everyone at the Mortimer Farms Pumpkin Fest and Corn Maze. There are games, hayrides, ziplines and more. Oh yeah, you can pick a pumpkin, too! Add in some farm to table food, and you’ve got a great fall day! NOTE: Purchase tickets in advance online.


MOTHER NATURE’S FARM (GILBERT, AZ)

At this Arizona pumpkin patch you can pick out pumpkins grown right at the farm in any size: from 1 ounce to 500 pounds! For the price of admission you can take a hayride, visit the OZ pumpkin, or do a spider crawl. Unlike many other pumpkin patches, Mother Nature’s Farm lets you bring your own picnic (although they have a concession stand as well).

  • Location: 1663 E. Baseline Road Gilbert, AZ 85233
  • Dates: September 25 – October 31
  • Website: Mother Nature’s Farm

SCHNEPF FARMS (QUEEN CREEK, AZ)

With an event known as a “Pumpkin and Chili Party” you know you’re in for a great time. This fall extravaganza includes kiddie carnival rides, corn mazes, ziplines, a petting zoo and a slew of other games for all ages. In addition to chili, there are food tents offering chicken, burgers, pizza and (because . . . fall) succotash. Reserve tickets online.

Note: Filmed prior to COVID-precautions are now in place

PRO TIP: For a fall getaway break, book a spot at Schnepf Farms’ adjacent glamping resort, The Cozy Peach. Stay in one of 9 fully refurbished vintage trailers!


TOLMACHOFF FARMS (GLENDALE, AZ)

This 4-generation family farm kicks off their “Pumpkin Days and Corn Maze” event on October 1. This AZ pumpkin patch has something for the whole family: Great big pumpkin patch and 3(!) corn mazes: a 6-acre family corn maze, a mini corn maze for little ones & a haunted corn maze (ideal for jaded teenagers 🙄.) Other activities include a petting zoo, train ride, hay pyramid, corn box, adult/child pedal cart track, jumping pillow and much more.

  • Location: 5726 N. 75th Ave. Glendale, AZ 85303
  • Dates: October 1 – 31 (Note: Closed Mon, Tue)
  • Website: Tolmachoff Farms

VERTUCCIO FARMS (MESA, AZ)

Celebrate “Cooler Days in the Corn Maze” at Vertuccio Farms’ Arizona pumpkin patch in Mesa. In addition to the maze there’s a train ride around the farm, a petting zoo and games galore, including a giant tube slide and the ever-popular pumpkin bowling (sign us up!)

Photo courtesy Vertuccio Farms

  • Location: 4011 S. Power Rd., Mesa, AZ 85212
  • Dates: October 1 through 31, 7 days/week
  • Website: Vertuccio Farms

Arizona pumpkin patches in Southern AZ

APPLE ANNIE’S (WILLCOX, AZ)

Grab a wheelbarrow and head out to the field to pick your ideal pumpkin. Or better yet, get a ticket for a hayride out to the pumpkin patch, in a wagon pulled by one of Apple Annie’s tractors. Set aside some time for the corn maze; the average visit is 2 hours! And if you come on a weekend, be sure to walk through the Sunflower Spectacular, with fields of 12 varieties of sunflowers on display-gorgeous! (Spoiler alert: they have apples, too. But you probably already figured that out 🙂 .)


MARANA PUMPKIN PATCH (MARANA, AZ)

With 50 acres of freshly grown pumpkins you’re sure to find the perfect specimen at the Marana Pumpkin Patch and Fall Festival. Admission includes a wagon ride out to the patch (pumpkins priced separately, by the pound), along with access to the corn maze, swings and games, a petting zoo and a ride on the 1/4-scale diesel train (perfect for the train geek in your group! 🚂 )

Photo courtesy Marana Pumpkin Patch
  • Location: 14950 N Trico Rd, Marana, AZ 85653
  • Dates: October 2-31 (closed Mon, Tues, Wed)
  • Website: Marana Pumpkin Patch

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The yellowing of leaves put me in the mood for apple pie. And supermarket apples just weren’t going to cut it.

Want to know where find local apples in Arizona during the fall? Here are six ways to experience Arizona’s apple-growing heritage. We’re including u-pick farms, markets, a guest ranch in a orchard and one trek that’s, erm, a little out there, but we wanted to offer all sorts of options . . .

a crate full of freshly picked apples in a field

Go Arizona Apple Picking at Apple Annie’s

Apple picking is about as wholesome as it gets-it’s the ultimate family-friendly event. Although most orchards are now wholesale only, Apple Annie’s Orchard in Willcox is one Arizona apple orchard where picking is encouraged. Harvest season is late August through October; you pay for what you pick. It’s a fun day’s activity, but best of all you get to go home with a basket of fresh, crisp apples! Don’t feel like picking your own? No problem, you can buy an already-picked batch at the Country Store on site.

During weekends throughout the fall there are festive events most weekends, including pancake breakfasts with hot cider syrup and apple topping, apple cider donuts (our favorite!), lunch at the Orchard Grill (which features burgers cooked over apple wood) and pies, pies and more pies.

  • Location: 2081 W Hardy Rd. Willcox, AZ 85643
  • Phone: (520) 384-2084
  • Website: Apple Annie’s
  • Hours: Fruit orchard open daily, 8am to 5pm July-September; 9am to 5:30pm in October. Country Store open daily 8am to 5pm year round. (Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas).

PRO TIP: Apple Annie’s also has a terrific Arizona Pumpkin Patch, and a beautiful sunflower display.

Spend the night in an Arizona apple orchard

The Beatty’s dog, Red, out in the orchard in Miller Canyon, photo courtesy Beatty’s Guest Ranch

If you really want to immerse yourself in the orchard experience there’s no better way than to sleep among the apple trees. In this case we mean a cabin in the orchard, not literally sleeping under the trees (more about that later . . . ). Here at Beatty’s Guest Ranch, cabins are tucked into the orchard, which itself is tucked into Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Spend a few nights in this cozy setting; at 5,800 feet in altitude, you can be sure of cool fall evenings.

Whip up breakfast in your cabin using some of Beatty’s farm-fresh eggs accompanied by apples and other goodies grown at the ranch. All foods grown at the ranch are available for purchase in their on site store. The ranch is adjacent to several Miller Canyon trails, and only a few miles from the Coronado National Memorial, part of the National Park System. This area is also birding country; warblers pass through during their fall migration. In summer the apples aren’t yet ripe, but you might just see a hummingbird or two–or twelve. The ranch holds the record for the most species (14) ever spotted in one day!

A cabin in the orchard, photo courtesy Beatty’s Guest Ranch

PRO TIP: Miller Canyon is prime birding territory; in addition to apples, during a stay at Beatty’s Ranch you may “harvest” a few hummingbird and warbler sightings, depending on when you visit


Explore Sedona’s heritage of apples in Arizona

image of apple sorting equipment-apples in arizona

It’s hard to imagine now, but 100 years ago Sedona was the place to go to find an Arizona apple orchard. Nearby Oak Creek provided ready access to water, and Sedona farmers developed irrigation systems to supply their orchards. The Sedona Heritage Museum at Jordan Historical Park is housed at a former apple processing facilty. The museum’s logo is even the signature red rocks superimposed on an apple!

The orchard acreage was sold off in the 1970s, but the remaining buildings of the Jordan family farmstead remain to illuminate Sedona’s fruit-filled history. View vintage farm equipment and apple sorting machinery, and see a 1940s one-room farmhouse, where apples took pride of place. (While there, be sure to explore the exhibit on Sedona’s history in western movies.) This is one of the cool things to do during the Fall in Sedona.

  • Location: 735 Jordan Road, Sedona, Arizona
  • Phone: (928) 282-7038
  • Website: Sedona Heritage Museum
  • Hours: Open daily 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Major Holidays.
historic photo of orchards near Sedona
Photo courtesy Sedona Heritage Museum

Visit a historic Arizona apple orchard & homestead

historic, rusty farm equipment in front of Pendley orchards at slide rock state park
Historic farm equipment on display in front of the historic Pendley apple orchard at Slide Rock State Park

What is now Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona was once the Pendley apple orchard and homestead. Summertime visitors love to sluice down the water slide of the creek, but in the fall visitors come to see the beautiful colors . . . and the apples. The orchard, farm machinery, packing shed, old cabins and farmhouse at the site of the old Pendley homestead are all available to visit.

Frank Pendley planted his first apple orchard in 1912 after acquiring the site two years earlier under the Homestead Act. Park staff still farm the orchard, using Pendley’s original irrigation system. Be sure to visit in September and October, when the 13 varieties of apples grown on site are harvested and available for sale.

  • Location: 6871 N. Highway 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
  • Phone: (928) 282-3034
  • Website: Slide Rock State Park
  • Hours: Open daily, 8am to 6pm, Feb through November; 9am to 5pm Dec, Jan. Closed Christmas.
apples in a wooden box

Trek to a forgotten apple orchard in the mountains

wild apples out in an untended orchard-apples in arizona
Imagine finding these after a 10-mile hike through desert landscape!

Earlier I mentioned an apple experience in Arizona that was a little “out there.” This is it . . . literally and figuratively. In the late 1800s a quirky character named Elisha Reavis established a farm and in a remote valley in the otherwise dry, forbidding Superstition Mountains in eastern Arizona. Many rumors circulated about Reavis: some called him the “Hermit of the Superstition Mountains,” other say he scrapped with the Apaches. No one really knows for sure, but an apple orchard on the site planted after his death is a lasting legacy.

Today, what remains of this Arizona apple orchard continues to flourish (in a wild sort of way) in this tucked-away corner of the Tonto National Forest. Those intrepid enough to find Reavis Ranch can enjoy all the apples their belly can hold–after a 10-mile hike to reach it! Plan to make this an overnight trek, camping at the orchard before making the 10-mile trek back. For some, it’s an annual pilgrimage:

  • Location: Trailhead is located at Reavis Trailhead Rd, Apache Junction, AZ 85119 (off state route 88)
  • Hours: Open all year; apple trees bloom in the spring, and are likely bearing fruit in September and October.

Pick up fresh Arizona apples at a Farmer’s Market

apples lined up in wooden bins at a farmers market apples in arizona

There are places in Arizona that produce apples, but are not open to the public. Most, however make their products available at local farmers’ markets throughout the state. So if you find yourself craving the the delicious fruit from an Arizona apple orchard, but aren’t in the mood to pick your own (or go on a 20-mile hike), download this Arizona Farmers Markets Directory to find one near you.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE AT RIGHT TO DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY OF A GUIDE TO ARIZONA’S FARMERS’ MARKETS!

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What so special about these Franklin cars? And what’s with the dirt roads in the middle of Tucson?

Lovers of Franklin cars must visit the the Franklin Automobile Museum in Tucson, Arizona. It’s the largest public collection is devoted to the the quirky marque, built in Syracuse, NY from 1902 through 1934. Just getting to the museum is part fo the fun: it’s tucked away in the residential neighborhood north of downtown known as Richland Heights West, one of the last areas in Tucson with unpaved streets. You approach by driving across natural desert sand, much as a shiny new Franklin car might have done in the 1920s. It’s not uncommon to see the odd tumbleweed charting a lazy course across the sand like in some old John Wayne western.

So plan to take a trip back in time. Drive (slowly!) on some dusty sand roads amid cacti for a few blocks before arriving at the museum’s three adobe buildings. The throwback atmosphere is really part of the fun when viewing such a fine assemblage of pre-World War II cars.

Franklin Automobile Museum Tucson Arizona

History of the Franklin Automobile Museum

This 27-car collection of Franklin cars was developed by car restorer Thomas Hubbard. He purchased his first Franklin in 1950 and just kept buying them. He was first attracted to Franklins at the tender age of eight when his family bought a brand new 1933 model. Apparently his friends were not impressed.

Museum guide Bill, who as a child used to hang around helping Hubbard’s auto restorations, recalls Hubbard saying, “They’d rib me about the car. I had to explain to my friends, why if the car was so good they didn’t make them anymore.” Hubbard passed away in 1993 but the foundation he established funds the museum and its continued acquisition of cars including a purchase of a 1905 Franklin Model A Runabout with a rare rear-entry tonneau.


History of Franklin Cars

Franklins were the brainchild of engineer John Wilkinson and businessman Herbert H. Franklin, whose personal motto was “It can be done.” Franklin Automobiles were built in the much colder climes of Syracuse, New York in the early part of the 20th century, from 1902 through 1934.

All of the Franklins were air-cooled. Because air-cooling removed the need for a bulky radiator, Franklin cars took on some unusual front-end shapes including barrel hoods, shovels, and horse collars. They were a considered a premium brand; pricing ran just under a Cadillac. Collections this large are rare: although over 150,000 Franklins were produced, only about 3,500 survive today.

What’s on display at the Franklin Automobile Museum

There are three rooms’ worth of autos here. Because early cars required constant maintenance, the 1918 Franklin Model B Touring came with tool kits; the originals are cleverly hidden inside the front doors of Franklin cars and even included extra spark plugs. Look for the handy (and surprisingly small) golf bag on the 1929 Franklin Convertible Coupe.

In a sign of the times, with Charles Lindbergh having crossed the Atlantic Ocean (with an air-cooled engine) just two years before, an airplane logo was placed on the rear bumper to symbolize the car’s “airplane-type” engine; further increasing its sportiness factor.

A 1929/1930/1931 Franklin Model 153 is unique because it was company founder Herbert Franklin’s personal vehicle. The reason it has so many model years attributed to it was that he brought it into the shop annually to update it to the current model year. 

Franklin 1925 Sport Coupe

A one-off 1931 Franklin Model 153 Sport Phaeton was custom ordered by 21-year-old Stillman F. Kelley, II for his honeymoon. Despite the Great Depression raging, Kelley was able to pay $6,500 for this beauty, and may have survived the financial downturn better than Franklin. The automaker had leveraged his company for growth that didn’t materialize and was unable to shoulder the increased debt burden, declaring bankruptcy in 1934. The aircraft engine division survived but, in an odd twist, was bought in 1947 by Preston Tucker to produce engines for the Tucker 48. It’s not all Franklins though. In an outbuilding there are several other marques, including a 1909 REO Touring, which was the first car Thomas Hubbard restored.


And what’s with those dirt roads?

Part of what makes a visit to the Franklin Automobile Museum so unique is its setting in a quiet area with dirt roads. Dirt roads themselves aren’t really all that unusual-especially in rural parts of Arizona. But the museum is in the city of Tucson, which makes it quite an oddity. Here, you can still find corrals with horses and wild rabbits nibbling on mesquite leaves . . . and the speed limit is a whopping 15 MPH.

The dirt road entrance to the Franklin Automobile Museum harkens back to the 1940s

The neighborhood, known as Richland Heights West, is about 3 miles northeast of downtown Tucson. The 16 square block parcel was developed on a former ranch in the 1940s, before it was part of the city–and before paved roads were the accepted thing. The city offered to pave the neighborhood roads in the 1990s, but the neighborhood association said, “no thanks.” They like it just the way it is: quite, a little dusty, and full of wildlife. It’s also the perfect place to see a Franklin Car.

Unique roadside Americana near the Franklin museum

A visit to the Franklin Automobile Museum offers the opportunity to take in a bit of authentic roadside Americana located nearby. Anyone who loves road trips is aware of the Muffler Man statues that sprinkle the heartland. These distinctive, 20-foot-tall fiberglass figures were mostly erected in the 1960s to lure visitors to various shops and attractions. They were cleverly designed so the statue could hold an object related to the business they were promoting.

They came to be known as “Muffler Men,” regardless of what they held, because so many of them ended up holding mufflers to promote service stations. One of these icons of mid-century advertising presides over an intersection in Tucson, just two miles southwest of the Franklin Museum. The circa-1964 fiberglass giant at the corner of N. Stone Avenue and E. Glenn Street is one of the earliest “Muffler Man” statues. This one’s dressed up as Paul Bunyan holding an axe, yet it’s still auto-related, as it stands in the parking lot of Don’s Hot Rod Shop at 2811 N. Stone Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85705.

PRO TIP: If you’re really into quirky sights, just about 6 blocks south of the Franklin Auto Museum is the intersection of Glenn & Campbell Although the Rhinestone Cowboy spelled his name with only one “n,” the crisscrossed street signs provide a nifty photo op.

This museum showcasing Franklin cars is one of several unusual museums in Tucson. It truly is a one-of-a-kind destination and a real trip back in time. Further information is available at www.FranklinMuseum.org.

Where is the Franklin Automobile Museum?

3420 North Vine Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719

When is the Franklin Automobile Museum Open?

Mid-October through Memorial Day, Wed-Sunday, 10am to 4pm.

What was unique about Franklin cars?

The engines were air-cooled, so there was no need for a bulky radiator.

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