The Interstate 19 corridor south of Tucson is hard to surpass for a leisurely day trip from Tucson that combines art, culture, and history. There is so much to see and do between Tucson and Nogales that you’ll need to start early or break the tour into several more leisurely day trips as we did.
For our purpose, I’ll start with our southernmost destination, Mission Tumacácori, 29 miles north of Nogales, and work back to Mission View RV Resort, our home base off San Xavier Road in southern Tucson.
Tumacácori National Historic Park
The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino beside the Santa Cruz River.
A short distance east of the mission is the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River where you will find dozens of bird species. You can hike the Anza Trail north along the Santa Cruz for 4.5 miles to Tubac.
Take Exit 29, turn left under the Interstate. At the frontage road, turn left. You can’t miss it.
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A destination for the arts, Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world-class galleries. Clustered in the village plaza, old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains. Tubac also boasts a luxurious resort experience at the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa—a spot that features the golf course made famous by the 1996 Kevin Costner movie Tin Cup.
Tubac is north of Tumacácori on the east frontage road (or Exit 34 if you get back on I-19.
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park
Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. The story of New Spain’s presidios is unique and Tubac is one of the few sites where it can adequately be told. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park preserves the ruins of the oldest Spanish Presidio site in Arizona, San Ignacio de Tubac, established in 1752.
The Park also preserves and interprets one of the oldest Territorial Schoolhouses. Further, the Park exhibits the hand press used to print the first newspaper in Arizona. The Weekly Arizonan was published in Tubac on March 3, 1859.
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
There is no way to include a tour of the observatories atop Mt. Hopkins in a day trip and still see the other sites along the I-19 corridor. From the Visitor Center, a shuttle takes visitors with reservations up a very steep, narrow, and winding road to the top. The total time to ascend, tour the observatories, and descend is about five hours. But the view from the top is splendid.
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From Tubac, go north on I-19 about 11 miles and exit at Arivaca Road (Exit 48). Follow the frontage road north about 2 miles and turn right (east) onto Elephant Head Road. From here the visitor center is about 8 miles. Just follow the signs.
Situated just 25 miles south of Tucson Green Valley offers the best of both worlds: quiet residential streets in a stunning desert setting. Factor in gorgeous weather from fall through spring and you have a combo that has long been irresistible to retirees and the snowbirds who visit in the winter to escape the cold weather of northern locales.
Green Valley offers a number of parks, bike lanes, and trails that are typically busy with people enjoying the sunshine. Among the most noteworthy of the trails is the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a 1,200-mile route, a portion of which passes through Green Valley.
The route commemorates the 1775-76 journey led by explorer and military officer Juan Bautista de Anza from southern Arizona to the San Francisco Bay Area to establish the first non-Native settlement there.
Visitors to Green Valley can sample a 5.2-mile stretch of the historic trail by heading to the trailhead on Elephant Head Road. The packed-surface trail that traverses classic desert terrain is open to walkers and cyclists; equestrians can use the nearby river wash.
Green Valley is located 26 miles south of Tucson; from I-19, take Continental Ranch Road (Exit 63) or Esperanza Road (Exit 65)
A world-renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species, while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.
Located 12 miles east of the I-19 at Green Valley, Madera Canyon makes a delightful stand-alone day trip from Tucson. From I-19, take Continental Ranch Road (Exit 63) east. In about a mile, turn right onto Madera Canyon/White House Canyon Road. Just follow the signs.
While the founding of Green Valley dates back to the fairly recent era of the 1960s, the nearby town of Sahuarita and the surrounding region have much deeper roots. The Hohokam and Tohono O’odham people occupied the area for centuries before the 1690s arrival of Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary and explorer.
The land on which the Green Valley Pecan Company began boasts a history as deep and rich as the soil that produces some of the finest pecans in the world. This expanse of fertile land in the Santa Cruz Valley belonged to captains of industry and crowned heads of state before being acquired by R. Keith Walden in 1948.
With plenty of sunshine, quality water, and rich, sandy loam soil, the conditions were ideal to grow pecans. In 1965, the Waldens began converting more than 7,000 acres from primarily cotton to the largest irrigated pecan orchard in the world. Their pecans are available in a variety of flavors including natural, candied, spiced, and other flavored pecans.
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From the interstate heading north, exit at the Sahuarita Road (Exit 75); turn right (east) for several blocks.
Titan Missile Museum
This preserved Titan II missile site officially known as complex 571-7 is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987. Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6,300 miles away in about 30 minutes.
Visitors must be able to descend and climb 55 metal grate stair steps and stand for 45 minutes to participate in the underground tour. The museum suggests wearing walking shoes with no heels or flip-flops. The museum’s website notes: “What was once one of America’s most top-secret places is now a National Historic Landmark.”
From the interstate heading north, exit at the Duval Mine Road (Exit 69); turn left (west) and follow the signs.
Mineral Discovery Center
The ASARCO Mineral Discovery Center offers a fascinating look into the world of copper. On your tour you’ll see how copper ore is mined in the open pit and then at the center you can see how it is processed in the mill to extract the copper minerals.
From Titan Missile Museum, continue north on I-19 and exit at Pima Mine Road (Exit 80). The Mineral Discovery Center and Mine Tour are on the west side. Just follow the signs.
Mission San Xavier del Bac is a place both historical and sacred that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss. San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the U.S. The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings.
The mission’s white walls and soaring bell tower can be seen for miles around and the site attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. Plan to spend an hour or two walking the grounds of the mission and exploring the interior. I was awed by the glowing white walls against the deep blue sky—all set off by rugged desert terrain.
Head North from the Mineral Discovery Center and exit at San Xavier Road (Exit 92). Head west and you will plainly see the magnificent church known as the White Dove of the Desert.
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As we explore America by RV, surprises await at every turn of the road. Natural beauty abounds when least expected.