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

A southern Arizona State Parks road trip

Southern Arizona is not only about saguaro cacti and desert sunsets. Somewhat unexpectedly, the arid region also features several lakes and wetland areas teeming with fish and migratory birds. Add in majestic mountain ranges and fascinating historic sites and you have the makings of a wonderful southern Arizona state parks road trip.

In all, Arizona has 31 state park units. While much of the attention centers on high-profile parks including Red Rock and Slide Rock near Sedona and the Phoenix-area Lost Dutchman, the parks near the southern Arizona community of Tucson along with those in the southwestern corner of the state shine brightly as well. A number of southern park beauties seemed to be fairly unknown to the rest of the state.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park

Beaches in Arizona are admittedly few and far between and for a sandy swimming beach less than a half-hour drive northeast of the Arizona/Mexico border town of Nogales locals flock to Patagonia Lake State Park. Considered a hidden treasure of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake is a manmade body of water created by the damming of Sonoita Creek. The 265-acre lake cuts a vivid blue swath through the region’s brown and amber hills.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with swimming which is popular throughout the warm-weather months, Patagonia Lake offers boating, fishing, waterskiing, a picnic area with ramadas, tables, and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, a marina, and bird-watching. Its unique arched bridge that rises over a lake channel is a great place to spot birds in the reeds along the shoreline or just enjoy the warm breeze. Hikers can also stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a unique place to stay in the area, the park features a campground and seven camping cabins with beautiful views of the lake. The 105 developed campsites offer a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $15-$20 per vehicle; camping fee $27-$30 per night

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area

Located downstream from Patagonia Lake along the lower Sonoita Creek, the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area is its own entity within the Arizona State Parks system and has an identity of its own as a world-class birding area. The lower Sonoita Creek, a perennial tributary of the Santa Cruz River has a well-developed riparian forest that fosters a great diversity of birds and other wildlife. The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area consists of thousands of acres and includes a trail easement that connects it to Patagonia Lake State Park.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty miles of trails are available for hiking and eight miles of trails are shared with equestrians.  A 1.5-mile hike of moderate difficulty called the “Overlook Trail” is close to Patagonia Lake State Park and is a great way to see 360 degrees of spectacular scenery. Most of the trails are more remote and the shortest round trip hike to the creek is three miles on the Sonoita Creek Trail. At all times of the year, boots with good traction, sun protection, food, and water are recommended. The minimum elevation change on any route is 300 feet.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. During the spring migration from late January through early April, a guided bird walk could yield sightings of more than 60 species and the complete bird list consists of more than 300 species. One of the most sought-after birds is the elegant trogon which might be seen between November and March. Ducks, rails, raptors, and flycatchers are commonly sighted. Other animals in the area include creek squirrels, coatis, raccoons, skunks, deer, snakes, javelina, jackrabbits, and an occasional bobcat or mountain lion.

The Sonoita Creek State Natural Area’s visitor center is located within Patagonia Lake State Park and entry fees for the lake include the use of the natural area.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest. More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located within minutes of the Tucson metro area, Catalina State Park makes a convenient place to camp while exploring the city and its iconic national park, Saguaro National Park. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. The campground is located in the shadow of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers birding opportunities and spectacular dusk and dawn views.

Related: The Most (and least) Popular Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; camping fee $30 per night

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

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

From military conquests to ranching endeavors to mining claims, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park runs the gamut of early Arizona history. The story of New Spain’s presidios (forts) is a unique one and Tubac’s primary purpose is to preserve the ruins of the oldest Spanish presidio in Arizona—San Ignacio de Tubac established in 1752. Tubac is one of few such sites that remain and its historic significance is heightened by the rarity of presidio sites.

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

Today, a walk through the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park includes not just the history of the New Spain fort but also of the people who came afterward to live and work in the region. Along with the ruins of the fort the park preserves the 1885 Territorial Schoolhouse, the second oldest schoolhouse in Arizona.

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

The Tubac Presidio Museum houses interpretive exhibits with many original artifacts and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859. The Visitor Center contains Spanish/Mexican-influenced furnishings and an artist mural of the Presidio, a model of the Presidio, historic maps, and a seven-minute video presentation that gives a brief history of the village of Tuba.

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

A variety of birds can be spotted on the grounds, including roadrunners. Although large mammal sightings at the park during park hours are rare, the Anza Trail passes through the park, and visitors can catch glimpses of javelinas, deer, and coyotes.

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

The Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is just one aspect of the artsy community of Tubac. The 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.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park preserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities and is less than five miles from Tubac. These abandoned ruins include San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas.

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

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

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park

For most, the name Tombstone conjures up images of the Wild West and the gunfights that occurred there. Certainly, Tombstone is known as the site of a bloody gunfight that occurred at the O.K. Corral Livery & Feed in 1881 that killed three and wounded three others. The legend of the shootout has lasted through the centuries and spawned numerous Hollywood movies.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But a deeper understanding of the town and the region is available at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park. The two-story courthouse designed in the Victorian style was constructed of red brick in 1882. The courthouse, a splendid example of territorial architecture, continued to serve as a county facility until 1931 when the county seat was moved to Bisbee.

Boothill, Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the old courthouse houses information on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral along with artifacts from Tombstone’s mining past including a saloon and gaming room, a period sheriff’s office, and a period lawyer’s office and courtroom. Outside in the courtyard is a reproduction gallows—the site where many convicted murderers met their fate.

Boothill, Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Schieffelin Monument is the last resting place of Ed Schieffelin, the prospector who discovered the mineral deposits that triggered the Tombstone silver boom in 1877. Located in the beautiful high desert 3 miles northwest of Tombstone, the Monument is now part of the Tombstone Courthouse State Park. It is a place where you can feel a direct connection to the Old West days of Tombstone, “the town too tough to die.”

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado River State Historic Park

Located in the far southwestern corner of the state, the Colorado River State Historic Park (formerly Yuma Crossing State Historic Park) sits on the bank of the Colorado where river captains once sailed from the Gulf of California to unload supplies then kick up their heels in the bustling port of Yuma. Ocean vessels brought supplies around the Baja Peninsula from California to Port Isabel, near the mouth of the Colorado. From there, the cargo was loaded onto smaller steamships and brought upstream to Yuma. The purpose of the depot was to store six months’ worth of supplies for the forts in the area. The depot operated from 1864 until 1883 when the arrival of the railroad made the long steamship route unnecessary.

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the original structures from that time are still standing. Made of adobe, essentially mud and plant material, they have survived well in Yuma’s dry climate. In fact, since their original construction, the buildings have been used by the Weather Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Signal Corps, the Border Survey, and the Yuma County Water Users Association as recently as the late 1980s.

Colorado River State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Colorado River State Historic Park preserves the history of the facility while providing additional information about Yuma as a Colorado River community and the engineering behind one of its impressive canal systems. The park’s visitor center features an exhibit on the military history of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and includes a model depicting the depot’s appearance in 1872. The park is closed Monday and Tuesday.

Related: Winter Hiking in Arizona State Parks

Park Entrance Fee: $6 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park

Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, 3 miles west of the confluence of the Colorado and the historic Gila River, stand the ruins of Arizona’s famous Territorial Prison.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fans of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures know it as “Hell Hole Prison” for the dark and twisted tales which linger long after the last inmates occupied this first prison of the Arizona Territory. For many others, the 1957 and 2007 films “3:10 to Yuma” are what bring this “Hell Hole Prison” to mind.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is open, welcoming convicts of another kind —those guilty of having a curiosity for what it was like to work and live inside the prison walls. The cells, main gate, and guard tower are still standing providing visitors with a glimpse of convict life in the Southwest over a century ago. Turn yourself in for a fascinating experience, which includes a look into “The Dark Cell” and a look back at the men AND women who served hard times in Yuma.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, you don’t have to wait until 3:10; the park is open from 9 am -5 pm so stop in and take a walk through a big slice of the history of the Old West. The park is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Park Entrance Fee: $8 per vehicle; no overnight parking is permitted

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

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.

Discover Art and History in Tubac

Established in 1752 as a Spanish fort, Tubac is an exquisite, brightly painted town with more than 100 galleries, shops, and restaurants lining its meandering streets

Located in south central Arizona 40 miles south of Tucson in a valley along the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River, Tubac describes itself as a place where “art and history meet.” This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options. Tubac was established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, the first colonial fortress in what is now Arizona.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac started to develop as an art colony in the 1930s and ’40s. Dale Nichols, a painter and illustrator best known for his rural landscape paintings, played a significant role in shaping Tubac’s evolution into an art center. In 1948, he bought and restored a number of Tubac’s historic buildings and opened an art school.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, 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 includes paintings, sculpture, pottery, metal work, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s not just the goods inside the shops that are beautiful. The village of restored buildings and landscaped walkways is a delight to walk through. Old, red brick buildings and adobes with wood beams jut out near the top. Wood pillars support terracotta-tiled roofs to create covered walkways in front of buildings. Pillars as well as door and window trim are painted in bright hues of blue, turquoise, yellow, or red. Mexican tiles decorate buildings. Hidden courtyards contain more shops or bits of historical information.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High-desert vistas and views of the Santa Rita Mountains form a backdrop. Scenic views to inspire the creative spirit! It is easy to see how artists would be drawn to Tubac’s combination of stunning landscape and history.

Tubac Festival of the Arts debuted in 1964. The annual five-day February event attracts thousands of visitors each day. The juried show features 150 to 200 artists from all over the country. Booths line village streets that are blocked to vehicular traffic. The festival also features musicians and roving entertainers. The festival is free but there is a charge for parking. Horse-drawn trolleys ferry people to and from parking lots and throughout the town.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting and resident artists display their works in harmony. You can weave your way past temporary booths and into and out of permanent shops as you walk through the village but you may also want to consider visiting at another, quieter time to properly appreciate the resident galleries and shops.

Tubac © 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.

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

Excavated portions of the walls, foundation, and floor of the Commandant’s quarters can be viewed from an underground archaeological exhibit. 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.

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

A Museum on the grounds showcases the timeline of human settlement with information about the Native American, Spanish Colonial, Mexican Republic, and Territorial Eras. Among the variety of artifacts, you’ll find ancient pottery, Spanish cookware, mining tools, nineteenth century costumes, and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859.

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

If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park reserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities and is less than five miles from Tubac.These abandoned ruins include San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mission San José de Tumacácori first was listed in 1691 as an outlying visita by Father Kino, and is one the oldest in Arizona. Tumacácori contributed a herd of cattle to the Anza expedition and Father Font, a member of Anza’s colony, stayed here while Anza marshaled his forces at Tubac. The mission San José de Tumacácori is open to the public. The other two mission ruins are much more fragile and are only accessible through special guided tours. The Park also offers a visitor center and museum.

Worth Pondering…

Crafts make us feel rooted, give us a sense of belonging and connect us with our history. Our ancestors used to create these crafts out of necessity, and now we do them for fun, to make money and to express ourselves.

—Phyllis George

Tubac: Where Art & History Meet

An historic destination for the arts, Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world class galleries

Established in 1752 as a Spanish fort, Tubac is an exquisite, brightly painted town with more than 100 galleries, shops, and restaurants lining its meandering streets. A quaint haven for artists, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving south from Mission View RV Resort, our home base in southern Tucson, the spiny desert softens and becomes downright pastoral. Cactus-dotted slopes give way to rolling grasslands with mesquite.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac nestles in a high mountain-framed valley on the banks of the Santa Cruz River where water flow is intermittent. Around these parts, even good intentions are enough to create a riparian habitat.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 17th century, Spanish missionaries traveled from Mexico up the Santa Cruz seeking to convert native tribes. Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino entered the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691 and founded the mission at Tumacácori, building missions, ranches, and farms.

By 1732 nearby Tubac was a vista of Mission Guevavi and a mission farm and ranch by 1738.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pima Revolt of 1751, stirred by many grievances during a half-century of Spanish domination, caused widespread destruction. In 1752, Spanish troops defeated an army of 2,000 Pima warriors and established the Presidio of San Ignacio de Tubac (fort), the first European settlement in what would become Arizona.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fifty cavalrymen were garrisoned at this remote military post to prevent further rebellion, protect settlers from Apaches, or at least try to, and further explore the Southwest.

Repeatedly attacked, the soldiers and settlers abandoned Tubac in 1775 and built El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón in what is now downtown Tucson.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac was part of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, and was soon resettled and developed by Eastern entrepreneurs. Charles D. Poston was instrumental in forming the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company, and used the abandoned Commandant’s house as his headquarters. He performed marriages, granted divorces, baptized children, and printed his own money to pay company employees. His company acquired a press in 1859 which printed Arizona’s first newspaper.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac’s population steadily grew until, in 1860, it was the largest town in Arizona. The American Civil War, however, drained the region of troops, leaving it unprotected from Apaches, and Tubac was again deserted. Although the region was resettled after the war, silver strikes in the Tombstone area and the routing of the railroad through Tucson drew development interests away from Tubac, and the town never regained its earlier importance.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps Tubac’s most famous person was soldier and explorer Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza II. During his tenure at Tubac (1760-1776), Anza led two overland expeditions to the Pacific, resulting in the founding of San Francisco.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza’s second expedition to the Pacific coast departed from Tubac on October 23, 1775. Several hundred colonists from the provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora, along with sixty from Tubac, made the trip. Over 1,000 head of cattle, horses, and mules transported food supplies and tools and provided food on the journey.

It was in 1948 that landscape painter Dale Nichols opened an art school in Tubac and the quiet little burg began its evolution into an artist colony.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An historic destination for the arts, Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world class galleries, clustered in the village plaza, where old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

There’s a whiff of emergent Santa Fe here without the crowds. Tubac doesn’t even have a traffic light and I find myself falling into a relaxed rhythm as I wander the district. A half day can easily disappear wandering amongst this wealth of painting, sculpture, ceramics, and photography, as well as unique regional fashion, leather, crafts, antiques, and jewelry.

It’s no wonder the town coined the slogan, “Where Art and History Meet.”

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

Here also is the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Located in Tubac’s Old Town, the park’s museum offers a fascinating look at the history of the Santa Cruz Valley and Arizona’s first printing press.

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

The park is Arizona’s first state park and marks the location of Arizona’s first European settlement. An underground archaeological site displays the adobe presidio ruins.

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

Worth Pondering…

History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.

—Mark Yost