Best of Tucson on a spring road trip

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Descending the lovely Blackett’s Ridge trail, with the sprawl of Tucson behind

Many western Canadians, desperate to escape the ever-lingering vestiges of winter, often take spring road trips to U.S. hot spots like Palm Springs or Scottsdale or Moab. But after recently spending 10 early-April days in Tucson, I’d like to recommend the southern Arizona city as a worthy springtime destination for outdoor activities.

Sure, the temperatures can creep into the 30s Celsius (90s F), though the desert nights cool off remarkably. The trick is starting your hike, bike ride or other outdoor activity as close to sunrise as you can manage, get in a few hours of exercise and then spend the rest of the day more idly in the shade or air-conditioned comfort. Once the sun sets, you can re-emerge in the glorious night-time air for, say, a shirt-sleeve patio drink/dinner or outdoors concert.

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The trick to springtime Tucson hiking is staying out of the mid-day sun

You’ll definitely need a car to get around Tucson, which in that great western tradition of embracing sprawl, spreads in all its low-density glory to the very edges of a broad valley. Sneeze when you’re passing through Tucson’s downtown and you might miss it. (On the other hand, Tucson has long been a pioneer in fighting light pollution so as to preserve the night skies for area observatories.)

All this means is it takes awhile to drive anywhere, especially with traffic lights that leisurely go through their cycles. But the traffic never gets L.A. or Phoenix hellish, though it really shouldn’t given the city proper has a population of just 530,000 (1 million metro).

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Typical Tucson commercial street

On to the activities. I’m not a cyclist, but an amazing number of road bikers either live in Tucson or make dedicated trips to the city. They range from racers here for serious winter training to those seeking more leisurely rides along the tremendous 100-plus-mile Tucson Loop, which winds through the city.

The real test piece is the 26-mile-mile grind up Mount Lemmon, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet. Followed by a blazingly fast descent (average 4.3% grade), which obviously delights roadsters but would scare the road-rash bejesus out of me.

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Three of a bunch of people cycling the steep highway up Mount Lemmon

But we’re here for the hiking, and it’s wonderful in spring. There are hundreds of miles of trails scattered around the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, highlighted by the two chunks of Saguaro National Park that bookend the city. The trails go up ridges, follow washes and explore valley flats.

It’s principally Sonoran Desert hiking, featuring a wonderful foursome: the magnificent Saguaro (suh-wahr-owe) cactus, the orange-tipped, whip-like ocotillo and various forms of cholla and prickly pear cactus. Just don’t stumble onto them or accidentally grab their nettlesome thorns, or you’ll be like the dog that challenged the porcupine. Many of these species come into magnificent bloom in early spring, though the saguaro waits till May or June.

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Looking over the I-10 from the steep hike up Picacho Peak

But what about the food, Marathon Mouth? Of course, being this close to the border, there’s a good selection of Mexican cuisine, including the Tucson classic Sonoran hot dog, best served by parking-lot vendors. There’s also some great coffee roasters and a few fabulous microbreweries.

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Tucson’s famed Sonoran hot dog is better than anything you’ll find at a ballpark… and a lot cheaper, too

I’ve selected some favourite eats and drinks in my best-of-Tucson list below, with individual reviews coming in the weeks ahead.

Best museum: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Mountain Park, 2021 North Kinney Road

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A giant agave (I believe) and saguaro at the fabulous Desert Museum

Best tour: Boneyard bus tour of mothballed war planes, Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 East Valencia Road

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One of hundreds of mothballed war planes seen on the Boneyard bus tour

Best dawn hike: Blackett’s Ridge, Sabino Canyon

Best two-ecosystem hike: Agua Caliente Hill, eastern edge of Tucson

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Tucson’s Agua Client trail climbs above the cacti into treed grasslands

Best road cycle: Mount Lemmon

Best city pathways: Tucson Loop

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Cycling more than 100 miles of paved pathways on the Tucson Loop

Best through streets masquerading as country roads: Orange Grove and River Road

Best current events publication: Zocalo

Best local grocery: Bashas’

Best sunset view with a beer: overflow parking lot Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Best farmers’ market: Rillito Park (Sundays)

Best live music venue: La Cocina, 201 North Court Avenue

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Downtown’s La Cocina is the perfect shirt-sleeved nighttime place for a brew and bluegrass

Food and Drink

 Best breakfast (also best restaurant): 5 Points Market, 756 South Stone Avenue

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5 Points Market is my #1 Tucson pick for best breakfast and lunch

Best coffee: Yellow Brick (3220 South Dodge Boulevard) and Presta (2502 North 1 Avenue) a tie, with the latter getting bonus points for cool factor

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Presto Coffee Roasters is cutting-edge cool, with great java to boot

Best lengua tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, 2618 6 Avenue

Best Sonoran hot dog: Ruiz, 1140 South 6 Avenue

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Parking-lot Ruiz serves up great, cheep Sonoran hot dogs

Best sandwich/deli: Roma Imports, 627 South Vine Avenue

Best craft brewery: Iron John’s Brewing Company, 245 South Plumer Avenue

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The tasting room at microbrewer Iron John’s is the place to sample Tucson’s best beer

Best beer selection: Plaza Liquors & Fine Wine (2642 North Campbell Avenue), with honourable mention to Whole Foods (three Tucson locations)

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