Touring Apache Country

Land of Geronimo and Cochise

With the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Four Corners area, and many other geographical wonders in the northern part of the state, southeastern Arizona, steeped in both natural history and human history, is often overlooked. But it is not to be missed!

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This was the home of Cochise. This was the land of Geronimo. This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday.

Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for us to enjoy.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With summer temperatures milder than many parts of the state, southeastern Arizona offers comfortable day trips into history and adventures not possible in some of the hotter Sonoran Desert areas. There is so much to see and do in Apache Country making it easy to find something to delight each member of the family.

For the naturalist, birds abound, including some of the rarest and most beautiful in the United States. For the history buff, there is the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons, the site of Geronimo’s surrender, and boomtowns such as Tombstone and Bisbee to explore. There are hikes and picnic areas in national monuments that will take your breath away with their splendor.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

There are historic (and reportedly even haunted) hotels and B & Bs as well as some of the best camping in the state. There are reenactments of the Shootout at the OK Corral and there are overlooks that fill one with amazement. There is something for everyone here. This is Southeastern Arizona, Apache Country.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Apache

The Apache were once a nomadic people. There are Apache reservations today scattered throughout Arizona Southeast Arizona was their home.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the arrival of the Spanish and their horses, the Apache people developed a rich equine culture. Horses allowed them a freedom to travel they had not known before and they became excellent horsemen. The horse also allowed these people to fight for their land as the westward expansion took place—and fight for it they did. Cochise, perhaps best known for his desire to be a liaison between the two cultures, worked hard to secure peace but peace was not to be had. It was not until Geronimo’s surrender in the 1880s, also in this little corner of the state, that the Indian Wars finally came to a close.

Related Article: All Aboard & Bound For Benson

The story of the Apache is an integral part of southeastern Arizona’s history, yet far more than that. It is part of this beautiful land, much of it still the way it was when the Apache lived here. And that beauty is something we can still see and experience for ourselves.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

One of the most spectacular of all places to visit in this fascinating land is Chiricahua National Monument. With rock formations and pinnacles that seem to defy gravity, this is a must for anyone visiting the area.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 27 million years ago, this “Land of Standing-Up Rocks” was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that make up Chiricahua National Monument.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Ranger Station and Visitor Center are just inside the park entrance. From there, a beautiful scenic drive that climbs gradually through oak, juniper, and pine forests—Bonita Canyon Drive—winds 8 miles to the crest of the mountains and Massai Point. Picnic tables and restrooms are available here.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Echo Canyon Trail and Heart of Rocks Trail offer fantastic views of balanced rocks, pinnacles, and spires. The picturesque homestead of the area, Faraway Ranch, is currently being renovated. When the renovation is completed it will be reopened for tours. The monument’s Visitor Center has an audio-visual program and exhibits, as well as books and maps for sale.

There are hiking trails, both short loops, and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Related Article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: The Old West

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Massai Point you will see Cochise Head, the incredible formation that appears to be the face of Cochise, prone and facing the sky above, beautifully sculpted from nature herself in a seeming tribute to the Apache people for whom this land was once home.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A plethora of animals and birds can be seen in the monument, many of which are found only in this corner of the southwest. Javelina, Coatimundi, hog- nosed and hooded skunks, deer, bear, mountain lions, rare hummingbirds, Scott’s orioles, painted redstarts, hepatic tanagers, and red-faced warblers are just a few of the interesting wildlife species to be found in this fantastic land.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

The story of the west and any tour of this area would not be the same, or complete without including the legendary town of Tombstone. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family here in Tombstone.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first glance, it might appear that gift, book, and curio shops are the main attractions but if you take the time to stroll down the boardwalks, you will find yourself drawn into the past. Besides the OK Corral and the reenactments that take place in the outdoor amphitheater, there are public and private museums, antique stores, the original Tombstone Epitaph newspaper print shop, and Boot Hill. Visitors can pan for gold, horseback ride down trails once traveled by Doc and Wyatt, take a stagecoach ride, tour the silver mines, stay at historic bed and breakfasts, and visit the infamous Bird Cage Theater where Tombstone’s haunting and colorful past will take you back to its heyday.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

Bisbee, just east of Tombstone, is a picturesque and historic town created by its huge copper mine. Today, the historic Copper Queen Hotel is the center of town. It is surrounded by art galleries, local artisan’s craftshops, and antique shops. There are tours and lookouts of the copper mine, offering many unique photo opportunities.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee is in the mountains between Tombstone and Douglas and has pleasant summer temperatures. A day in Bisbee is a delight and a visit to the Copper Queen Hotel a must. Bisbee is the county seat of Cochise County.

Other Places to Visit in Southeastern Arizona

In this land of the Apache, there are historical sites, forts, monuments, boom towns, streams, mountains, mines, and wildlife to be found in abundance. It would be impossible to cover them all in one article.

Related Article: Your Cochise Adventure

Lavender Pit mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But before you leave southeastern Arizona, or on your return trip to this land of history and wonder, be sure to include:

  • Cave Creek Canyon and Portal
  • Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons
  • Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Remember, there is truly something for everyone in Southeastern Arizona! And with its milder seasonal temperatures, this region can be enjoyed year-round.

This is Apache Country!

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Your Cochise Adventure

Roam Cochise

With the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Four Corners area, and many other geographical wonders in the northern part of the state, southeastern Arizona, steeped in both natural history and human history, is often overlooked. But it is not to be missed!

Benson Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This was the home of Cochise. This was the land of Geronimo. This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian Wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson Train Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your Cochise adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Cochise County. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Benson Train Depot and murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head out from the Visitor’s Center to the Mural Walking Tour, a fun look at 42 hand-painted—showcasing everything from Buffalo Soldiers to Hopi kachinas and cattle drives to the Butterfield Overland Stage.

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then you’ll head to Sierra Vista for a Bicycle Tour of the Cochise Vista Trail. Hop in the saddle—the bicycle saddle—and explore southeastern Arizona. Whether your bike has skinny tires or knobby ones or you ride astride a single-speed cruiser or a speedy racer, Sierra Vista is the place to start your bicycle adventure.

Winding road near Sierra Vista © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road cyclists looking for long, winding roads with low traffic can’t beat the stretches of asphalt in and around Sierra Vista. Whatever direction you ride, you’ll find a constantly changing landscape and expansive mountain views along the way.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers can find miles of single-track trails in the Huachuca Mountains along multi-use paths or signed bike lanes. One of the most popular jumping-on points is along Ramsey Canyon Road at Brown Canyon Ranch. The Brown Canyon Trail gains about 1,900 feet in elevation and connects Brown Canyon Road making a nice loop ride; be sure to take the well-traveled jog to avoid the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. Popular with experienced riders, Brown Canyon gets a little gnarly with the elevation gain and rocky terrain but the reward is breathtaking views and smooth, flatter trails in open areas.

Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sierra Vista, one of the top birdwatching places on earth, is nicknamed the Hummingbird Capital of the United States. Annually, 15 species of hummingbirds and more than 300 other bird species visit nearby canyons, forests, and riverbanks.

Related Article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Queen Mine, one of the most productive copper mines of the 20th century. Don the mining lanterns, hats, and slickers of the miners, ride the mine train deep into the mine and search for remaining veins of copper, gold, turquoise, silver, lead, and zinc.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, you’ll take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Tombstone Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast. We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any tour of this area would not be the same or complete without including the legendary town of Tombstone. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Related Article: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first glance, it might appear that gift, book, and curio shops are the main attractions but if you take the time to stroll down the boardwalks, you will find yourself drawn into the past. Besides the OK Corral and the reenactments that take place in the outdoor amphitheater, there are both public and private museums, antique stores, the original Tombstone Epitaph newspaper print shop, and Boot Hill.

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can pan for gold, horseback ride down trails once traveled by Doc and Wyatt, take a stagecoach ride, tour the silver mines, stay at historic bed and breakfasts or an RV park, and attend the infamous Bird Cage Theater where Tombstone’s haunting and colorful past will take you back to its heyday.

Butterfield RV Park in Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To truly appreciate all that Tombstone has to offer, park the car or RV and plan to spend at least a day taking a walk back into history.

Read Next: 5 Surprising Facts about Arizona you didn’t know (But Now You Do)

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

A significant percentage of American birders, if asked to choose their single favorite regional destination, would pick southeastern Arizona

Arizona is known as one of the top birding destinations in the United States. The diverse range of ecosystems—from desert lowlands to mountainous “sky islands”—provides habitat for 566 species of birds. Arizona has 48 designated Important Bird Areas spread across over 3 million acres. These are areas of a habitat that are critical to the conservation of bird biodiversity. If you are interested in seeing some of these birds for yourself, grab a pair of binoculars and a camera, and head out to some of these prime birding destinations around the state.

Curve-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Go Birding in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor tremendous habitat diversity and form stepping stones to the tropics.

Acorn woodpecker in Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon’s unique interplay of geology, biology, topography, and climate make it a haven for more than 170 varieties of birds including 14 species of hummingbirds. Thanks to a spring-fed creek that nourishes the area, you may spot birds like Painted Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Bridled Titmice, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Mexican Jays.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument, about 35 miles southeast of Willcox is another place where you can find sky islands. Over 200 species have been documented in this area including the sought-after elegant trogon. While this bird is rare, you are more likely to spot hairy woodpeckers, turkey vultures, and Mexican jays.

Lesser goldfinch at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most important riparian (streamside) areas, the San Pedro River runs through the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area contains nearly 57,000 acres of public land stretching some 40 miles in a narrow band south from St. David. The river’s stretch is home to more than 100 species of breeding birds and 250 species of migrant and wintering birds.

Vermillion flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure, Patagonia Lake State Park. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Related: Birding in Arizona

Lesser grege at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a verdant floodplain valley between Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains within the watershed of Sonoita Creek, lies some of the richest of the remaining riparian habitat in the region. This site contains the first two miles of the permanent flow of Sonoita Creek and the floodplains adjacent to the stream. More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this riparian habitat. Possible sightings include everything from gray hawks to vermillion flycatchers, thick-billed kingbirds, and the wonderfully named black-bellied whistling duck.

Hummingbird at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a place to explore and experience the special birds of southeast Arizona. It is dedicated to the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds—and all of southeast Arizona’s astounding biodiversity. 212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of Patagonia including Violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.

Madera Canyon in Coronado National Forest is a popular spot for birders who want a chance to see the elegant trogon or an elf owl among many other more common species like the painted redstart and warblers. Madera Canyon is also a good place to see multiple species of hummingbirds in the summer—15 different species have been spotted there.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is a wetland near the town of McNeal with almost 300 species of birds to spot, but in the winter it becomes a roosting site for over 20,000 sandhill cranes that fly south from other Western states.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go Birding around Phoenix

There are plenty of places around the Phoenix metro area to go birding. The Tres Rios Wetlands is a 700-acre wetland created by reclaimed water from a wastewater treatment plant. The lush and scenic Tres Rios is now home to more than 150 different species of birds including black-necked stilt, double-crested cormorant, and American white pelican. The beautiful cottonwood groves, willows, mesquites, and other desert shrubs around the reed-lined ponds and along the trail attract many migratory and wintering songbirds.

Related: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is the home of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center. Over 200 species of birds have been spotted in this wetland restoration area that is only 2 miles south of downtown.

American avocet at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Town of Gilbert, The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch provides a great opportunity for bird watching. The Preserve is organized into various vegetative zones ranging from marshlands to native riparian and upland vegetation areas. Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds.

Great Blue heron at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go birding in northern Arizona

Sedona and the Verde Valley are great destinations for birding. The area has a mix of desert habitats and water features that support a diverse community of birds from cedar waxwings to black hawks. Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood and the Sedona Wetlands Preserve off State Route 89A is easy-access birding destinations in this region.

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Watson Lake near Prescott is an important refuge for birds in the winter and is a good place to see multiple species of ducks like mallards and wood ducks.

Great horned owl at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to identify birds

Besides traditional books and paper guides, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology manages eBird, a free citizen science portal where birders can log what birds they see while out in the field. You can search the website for birding hot spots and checklists so you know what species have been spotted recently. Cornell also offers a bird identification app called Merlin ID that can be used to identify birds based on characteristics such as color and size. 

Northern shovelers at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

No matter what season you visit, Tucson has a lot to offer

While Phoenix may offer a more metropolitan nightlife experience, Tucson can definitely hold its own when it comes to outdoor adventures and unique sights. In fact, in many ways, I prefer the relative quiet of this southwestern town over its larger cousin to the north.

Tucson is located less than two hours southeast of Phoenix and the Mexican border is roughly one hour to the south. Its proximity to Mexico has earned Tucson’s food scene major recognition—in 2015, UNESCO designated it the first “City of Gastronomy” in the United States.

The real, natural southwest captivates the imaginations of visitors fortunate enough to spend time in Tucson. Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is the only place in the world the majestic saguaro cactus grows. The tall and stately cactus, stand like silent sentinels in the shadows of the five mountain ranges surrounding the Tucson valley. Tucson provides a stunning array of possibilities, satisfying culture seekers, outdoor adventurers, and fans of cowboys and cacti.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a well-known Tucson attraction. The park is split into two by the city. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems. In the west part, you will see plenty of the namesake cacti—the saguaro. In the east part, you will see colorful red rocks and more rugged terrain.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I highly recommend choosing several Saguaro National Park hiking trails to make the most of your time. There are both short, paved, accessible trails and day hike out in the wilderness. It all depends on what you are looking for.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most popular attractions in town. A world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden, all in one place, this is a solid introduction to plant and animal life as you’ll find in the region.

Related: Explore Tucson Naturally

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region so realistically you find yourself eye-to-eye with mountain lions and Gila monsters. Other species found here include prairie dogs, tarantulas, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Most of this museum is outdoors, so plan accordingly. Dress comfortably and bring a hat and sunscreen.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including a paved path for the lighter option, or miles of rugged ground to explore. Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon offers a wide range of hiking adventures for beginners and experts alike. Enjoy a relaxing stroll along the paved Sabino Canyon Trail or ride the tram along the wide, scenic path.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon Tours offers a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trams have nine stops along the tour with several restroom facilities and picnic grounds located near Sabino Creek. The tram turns around at Stop #9 and heads back down to the Visitor’s Center, at which point riders may remain on board and hike back down. Trams arrive on average every 30 minutes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

One of my personal favorite stops, Catalina State Park sits at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in northwest Tucson. Catalina is chock-full of epic mountainous backdrops, lush landscapes, towering saguaros, and trails for horses and hikers. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. If you visit in early spring, bright Mexican poppies and colorful wildflowers will greet you.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Related: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon is named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist who trekked to the 9,000-foot-plus summit with her husband in 1881. Today, it’s a great spot for outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, rock climbing, and even skiing. Yes, skiing in the Sonoran Desert.

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon is located in the Catalina Mountains. Follow Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway) to explore the mountain to your heart’s content. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the paved road provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests, and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Tohono Chul Park

Translated from the Tohono O’odham language, Tohono Chul means “desert corner.” This 49-acre desert preserve is a leading Southwest center of desert nature, arts, and culture. This oasis in the desert provides an informative look at the region’s fascinating cultural traditions and its flora and fauna.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Tucson Studios

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends that starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s been just over a year since Old Tucson Studios closed its doors. The famous western attraction was shuttered because of the pandemic. Now, after a long process, Pima County is getting ready to announce who will take over the lease. Be sure to check the current status before planning a visit.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Fifteen minutes south of Tucson sits an important piece of the city’s history: Mission San Xavier del Bac. This is one of the most awe-inspiring of all of the area’s attractions and is definitely worth the short drive. Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is a magnificent building that blends Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. This building was named for Francis Xavier, a pioneering Christian missionary. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Today, this site is used as both a church and a school.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Titan Missile Museum

A National Historic Landmark known as Complex 571-7, the Titan Missile Museum is the only remaining Titan II missile site. On one-hour guided tours you’ll descend 35 feet below ground to marvel at the intercontinental ballistic missile that in about 30 minutes could have delivered a nine-megaton nuclear warhead to a location more than 6,000 miles away.

Related: 13 Weird and Wonderful Reasons to RV to Tucson

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. 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

A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

A destination for the arts, Tubac features 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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high-quality selection of art and artisan works that include paintings, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

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

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. Those early ruins are visible in an underground exhibit at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Visitors also will see a museum that houses Arizona’s first printing press (demonstrations are offered), a furnished 1885 schoolhouse, and living-history exhibits.

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

Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona; Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds include hummingbirds, owls, sulfur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

Old Pueblo County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Pueblo

Tucson has preserved a flair of its American Indian and Spanish-Mexican past of a pueblo in the Sonoran Desert. The days of the Presidio de San Agustin del Tucson, the original fortress built by Spanish soldiers during the 18th century, seem not that long ago. Wandering through the recreated structure, it is easy to imagine what life was like when members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, mingled there with Spanish soldiers and early Territorial Period settlers.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The neighborhood surrounding the Presidio, the Presidio Historic District, is a charming, eclectic assembly of adobe and brick buildings in Spanish-Mexican, Anglo-American, and other architectural styles of the 1920s. Many houses have been restored to their former beauty, in brilliant colors of bright green, brick red, plum-purple, and hues of blue and yellow, and their original masonry.

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, you see a place, and you know, instinctively, this is paradise.

Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Many people visit Whitewater Draw each winter to experience the memorable sights and sounds of more than 20,000 sandhill cranes

The combination of deserts and sky islands combine to make Southeastern Arizona one of the most spectacular regions in North America for bird watching. During our numerous visits to this region we have visited many excellent birding spots including San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Ramsey Canyon, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, Patagonia Lake State Park, and Whitewater Draw.

Snow geese at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats, including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sulphur Springs Valley’s crown jewel is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Formerly a cattle ranch, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area was purchased in 1997 and is now managed to enhance wetland habitats and provide waterfowl habitat, and wildlife viewing.

Managed by the Arizona Fish & Game Department, Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes, and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The number of wintering sandhill cranes has increased dramatically since the 1950s and over 30,000 sandhill cranes may be present in winter, making this the premier crane viewing site in Arizona. These birds spend the night standing in Whitewater Draw’s shallow waters to evade predators, and then fly out each morning to feed and socialize in the surrounding area. They return to Whitewater Draw in the afternoon and evening.

Sora at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The number of waterbirds wintering here has also increased in recent years, and thousands of ducks, grebes, cinnamon teals, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, and other waterbirds are usually present all winter. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.

Curve-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The small stand of riparian woodland attracts many migratory birds including warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings. You may see mourning dove, white-winged dove, Gambel’s quail, and scaled quail. Several species of sparrows can be found, including lark, vesper, white-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Cassin’s. Members of the flycatcher family including vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe, and black phoebe are common here.

Lesser grebe at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A pair of great-horned owls sits on the rafters of the large open barn that currently serves as a picnic shelter.

There is no visitor center at Whitewater Draw. Visitors are asked to sign in at register boxes located at each parking area. The register sheets include spaces for comments and sightings, so sign in when you arrive and check to see what recent visitors have reported.

Great horned owl at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw is located on Coffman Road, accessible either from Central Highway via Double Adobe Road or directly from Davis Road, 1 mile west of Central Highway near McNeal.

From Bisbee drive east on Highway 80 for 4 miles and continue east on Double Adobe Road; turn north onto Central Highway until you see the blue Wildlife Refuge sign.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternately, drive 4 miles south of Tombstone to Davis Road; drive east on Davis Road for about 20 miles until you see the blue Wildlife Refuge sign at Coffman Road and turn right and follow Coffman Road south to the Refuge.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson