Thanksgiving Road Trip: See the Best of Arizona in these 8 Places

There’s a lot more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon which is why these eight places are the perfect excuse to take a Thanksgiving road trip

This Thanksgiving, be grateful not just for the four-day weekend, but how it allows plenty of time to see Arizona at its best—winter to the north, t-shirt weather to the south.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state’s scenic variety shines through as fall edges toward winter. Even as snow blankets the high country, the desert sun continues to warm snowbirds who bask in it on desert hikes.

The long Thanksgiving weekend provides the perfect opportunity to spend a day or two on the road, seeing areas that have perhaps escaped your view. Here are some suggestions to get you on your way.

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

Willcox

This up-and-coming town in southeastern Arizona is attracting visitors who come for its wineries and tasting rooms, but you’re here to hike in Chiricahua National Monument and see the sandhill cranes. The majestic birds winter in the Sulphur Springs area, and Willcox is the perfect hub. Thousands of cranes roost in Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a shallow lake that is a flurry activity at sunup and sundown, when birds depart and return in a swirling cloud of feathers.

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac and Tumacacori

Head south on Interstate 19 to Tumacacori National Historical Park, where a stately though incomplete mission stands as a reminder of the Spanish Franciscans who settled in the area two centuries ago. After soaking in the history, head 3½ miles back north for lunch in Tubac, a charming arts colony. Stroll among dozens of galleries and studios where you’ll find pottery, jewelry, paintings, and works in all sorts of media.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

See just how lush the desert can be at this oasis of more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation. At 392 acres, Boyce Thompson is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden founded in the 1920s. There are 3 miles of trails and the most popular is the 1.5-mile main loop that offers a perfect overview. 

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

You’ve lost count how many times you’ve whipped past the off ramp for Montezuma Castle as you head north on Interstate 17. But go ahead, angle right at Exit 289 and be rewarded with a look at a work of ingenuity and architectural design, circa 1200. The ancient dwellers carved a 40- to 50-room pueblo into the cliff and lived there for 400 years. Visitors in the early 20th century scaled ladders and explored the rooms, but ruins are off limits today. No matter, because the view from below is stunning.

Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock Crossing, Sedona

Among the dozens of Instagram-worthy sites around Sedona, this is one of the best. Its official name is Crescent Moon Picnic Site but it’s commonly called Red Rock Crossing. Cathedral Rock soars in the distance, its two towers book-ending a slender spire offering the perfect backdrop to Oak Creek, which flows along rocks worn smooth by water and wind. It’s also said to be home to a powerful spiritual vortex. For something more palpable, pack a lunch and dine in one of Arizona’s prettiest places.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

For a few years, Bisbee was the “it” destination, named Arizona’s prettiest small town by a number of travel sites. That level of attention may have dwindled, but the former mining town is as beautiful as ever. A stroll down Main Street reveals buildings that look much as they did a hundred years ago, now occupied by restaurants and boutiques rather than miners and speculators. If you head 3 miles south to Lowell, you’ll find a strip of former service stations and garages repurposed as stores and restaurants.

Courthouse Plaza, Pewscott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whiskey Row, Prescott

Park the car and enjoy the kind of afternoon once experienced by cowboys, miners, and ranchers looking to blow off some steam around the turn of the 20th century. While the bars aren’t nearly as numerous as they once were, you can still duck inside one of Whiskey Row’s three saloons (Bird Cage, the Palace Saloon, or Matt’s) and revel in the history. Special treat: Just across the street, Courthouse Plaza will be decked out for the holidays one of the reasons Prescott is the Arizona’s Christmas City.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

To experience the magic of the giant saguaro cacti up-close, look no further than Catalina State Park near Tucson. There are easy nature trails here and also longer and more challenging trails for experienced hikers. The park spans 5,500 acres of foothills, streams, and canyons and is home to over 150 species of birds. RV camping is available.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

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