An Unforgettable 3-Day Road Trip through Southern Arizona

See historic Spanish missions, sky islands, Arizona’s first wine region, and more on this journey from Tucson

The Southwest shines on this route through the saguaro-studded desert up into high mountains where rare birds flit and spectacular sunsets give way to dark skies spangled by stars. Tucson anchors this tour, rich in history, and resonates with the scents of great food and local wines. Consider adding a couple of days to the beginning or end of the trip to explore Saguaro National Park whose two districts are each about 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. ​​​

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 1: San Xavier del Bac, Tumacácori, and Tubac Presidio (57 miles)

Explore Southwestern history on visits to three Spanish colonial missions and enjoy the opportunity to stock up on spices. En route, you’ll encounter dramatic mountain vistas.

From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 19 for 8 miles and take exit 92 for San Xavier del Bac Mission. Fondly known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. 

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means Desert People. The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino established the original mission here in 1692.

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This dramatic, sugar-white church with a masonry vault roof was completed 105 years later. A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and are coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.

San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures, and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are draped in real clothing.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive south on I-19 another 39 miles to the serene Tumacácori National Historical Park. Indigenous peoples including the Nde, O’odham, and Yoeme frequented this lush area along the Santa Cruz River for generations.

The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit and later Franciscan priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission life became impossible because of the Mexican-American War cutting off supply routes, an increase in Apache raids, and a severe winter. The community made the difficult decision to leave Tumacácori taking their valuables with them to Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Explore the evocative grounds where many adobe structures have melted back into the earth. Enter the striking ruins. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue on I-19, but pause just one-third of a mile down the road at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. The wonderfully fragrant store sells everything from adobo to whole sage leaves. Don’t miss the house-made hot sauces which add jalapeños, green chiles, and spices to a tomato base.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backtrack north 4 miles on I-19 to the artsy town of Tubac for dinner at Elvira’s which serves contemporary Mexican dishes in a chic dining room. Be adventurous and try the hazelnut mole.

This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is located on the site of the former fort. This is Arizona’s first state park hosting a world-class museum and bridging Tubac’s past life to its destiny as an artist colony.

Where to camp: De Anza RV Resort, Amado (8 miles north of Tubac)

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Madera Canyon, Tombstone, and Bisbee (124 miles)

Start on a sky island, an isolated mountain that steeply rises above the desert daytime heat and overall harsh and dry conditions. Fifty-five of these peaks form the Madrean Archipelago stretching from Mexico into the Southwest and featuring some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

Driving upward can mimic a trip north to the Canadian border as you pass through dry scrub, grasslands, and oak and pine forests while ascending to where alpine species flourish. These ecosystems provide a refuge for humans and animals alike and offer world-class birding such as Madera Canyon, 12 miles southeast from Green Valley on I-19. This area perched high on the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains attracts 15 hummingbird species including the rare Calliope, North America’s tiniest feathered friend.

Proctor parking area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a good stroll, try the Proctor loop: a paved, accessible, three-quarters-of-a-mile route that departs from the first Madera Canyon Recreation Area parking lot. You may see deer and songbirds along the trail and look for the Whipple Observatory shining off to the west on Mount Hopkins.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amp things up in Tombstone, 65 miles to the east mainly via state routes 83 and 82. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes. Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons.

This town leans into its Western heritage especially the 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral which pitted corrupt, power-hungry lawmen against cowboys who moonlighted as thieves and murderers.

OK Corral © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fierce gunfight was quick and when the bullets stopped flying, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury lay dead. Billy’s brother, Ike Clanton kept his life that day but was eventually murdered near Springerville, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp needed weeks to recover from serious wounds but Doc Holliday was barely grazed by a bullet. Surprisingly, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Actors re-create the gunfight three times daily (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.) and many locals and visitors wear period dress throughout the compact historic center where stagecoaches still kick up dust.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience a different slice of Gilded Age history in Bisbee, 23 miles southeast on SR 80. Mining started here in 1887, thanks to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The “Queen of the Copper Camps” grew into the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco for a spell. It faltered when the mine closed in 1975 though it found new life as a refuge for artists, bohemians, and retirees. Check out its galleries and unique shops such as downtown’s Óptimo Custom Hatworks which sells stylish toppers made from toquilla straw and beaver- and rabbit-fur felt.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking the steep streets can be quite a workout. Refuel at Table on Main Street with drunken mushrooms sautéed in a garlic cream sauce made from Old Bisbee Brewery’s European-style pilsner.

Where to stay: Tombstone RV Park, Tombstone. In Bisbee, book one of 12 vintage trailers or even a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht at the Shady Dell, 4 miles southwest of town, primarily reached via SR 80.

On the road to Patagonia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 3: Wine country and Tucson (158 miles)

Wineries don’t readily come to mind when I think of Arizona but the state has a thriving and growing wine industry. Wine making in Arizona dates back to the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of this area. The modern wine era began in the 1970s. Arizona winemaking has grown from a curiosity to a serious scene since then.

Arizona has three wine trails—Sonoita/Elgin, Verde Valley, and Willcox. The Sonoita/Elgin region is where the modern Arizona wine era began. There are 10 wineries on the trail. 

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 70 miles west on state routes 80, 90 and 82 to Patagonia, a wine country hub known for its quirky cafés and boutiques. For lunch, stop at downtown’s Velvet Elvis—honoring the Mexican painting style, not the King—which the governor’s office named an Arizona Treasure. Try the Pancho Villa pizza with Asiago, jalapeños, and house-made beef chorizo.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Patagonia drive 13 miles northeast on SR-82 to Sonoita. Located right off of the main road heading into Sonoita, Dos Cabezas WineWorks has been serving up its wine since 1995. The wines are made with all estate-grown grapes and are mostly blends (except for their single varietal Syrah). Their blends are made using several different varietals and cover the gamut of whites, Rosés, and reds. The La Montaña may be the most memorable because it is a 50/50 blend of the bold Syrah and Petit Verdot. 

Drive northeast another 7 miles to Rune Wines the state’s only solar-powered off-the-grid vineyard. Rune is located at the top of the hill between mile markers 39 and 40 on Highway 82 in Sonoita (that’s how directions are given around here) and overlooks the beautiful Arizona landscape.  It offers tastings outside under a shade canopy where you can soak up panoramic views of the high desert grasslands. For a well-balanced red, the 2019 Wild Syrah pleases with bold berry notes.

The Old Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 82 percent of Arizona land is owned by Native tribes and state and federal governments large roadless stretches remain on the map. Since you can’t head directly west, backtrack 55 miles northwest to Tucson for the night mainly on SR 82 and I-10. Head to Tito & Pep, a bistro known for mesquite-fired cuisine for dinner. Seasonally shifting vegetable dishes dazzle here especially the roasted carrots with labneh, pomegranate, and sunflower seeds.

Where to stay: Tucson/Lazydays KOA or Rincon West RV Resort

Plan your road trip through southern Arizona with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers