Yuma may be the sunniest place on earth, but, with all due respect to that delightful patch of Arizona desert, there’s a self-described “sunshine factory” about 250 miles southeast of it that’s worth your attention.
Tucson has the warm climate, an effortlessly casual feel, and a culture rich with Native American, Hispanic, and cowboy influences. Add to this mix what could be considered the city’s unofficial drink - the ice-cold margarita - and your visit will feel sunnier still.
5… Fly to the "Boneyard".
One good reason to snag a window seat on your flight into Tucson is an aerial glimpse of the Boneyard. As first impressions go that may seem a bit creepy, until you realize that nobody’s buried in this particular resting place.
The yard’s technical name is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). In other words, it’s where thousands of aircraft go when they retire - the dry desert air and relative absence of rain create ideal conditions for this kind of storage. While the Boneyard is situated at the otherwise inaccessible Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, weekday bus tours are offered via the nearby Pima Air & Space Museum (6000 E. Valencia Rd, 520-574-0462, www.pimaair.org, bus tour $7). For security measures you’ll be limited to one “carry-on” item per person and will need to flash your driver’s license or other government-issued ID.
The Air and Space Museum itself is worth a look (June-October $13.75, November-May $15.50). Five huge hangers and outside displays yield military, civil and commercial planes, and thousands of aviation artifacts. Two standouts here are the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” and President Kennedy's Air Force One, which you can climb aboard for a tour.
4… Beware of Jumping Needles.
Early settlers discovered something pretty quickly about the Sonoran Desert: Only the strong survive. And that includes the plants.
Purple-flowering Texas Rangers, bottlebrush trees (yes, the red flowers look precisely like bottle brushes), birds of paradise, and other hearty, blossoming plants happily call this region home and help brighten up the landscape. Like their prickly, bloom-producing counterparts, including the Prickly Pear Cactus and the Saguaro (which produces the state flower, the Saguaro Blossom), these desert residents thrive in Tucson’s low-moisture environment.
One pleasurable way to take in some plant life and tackle the Tucson landscape is by touring Sabino Canyon, located in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Explore by foot, by a narrated, 45-minute tram ride up a 3.8 mile path, or both. Some hikers opt to the ride the tram up the hill and walk down. Tours are offered by Sabino Canyon Tours (5900 N. Sabino Canyon Road. 520-749-2861, $8).
No matter where you hike, beware of cactus needles and spines, particularly those of the Chain Fruit Cholla, aka "Jumping Cholla,” a wiry, tree-like cactus with growths that are in fact chain-like in appearance. These don’t leap at you, of course, but lightly brush against one and you’ll think it did.
3… Bite into a Desert Dog.
Over Gates Pass, a scenic drive filled with miles of looming saguaros, sits the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum (2021 N Kinney Rd., 520-883-2702; www.desertmuseum.org, September - May $13; June - August $9.50). However, a traditional “museum” it isn’t. It’s more of a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden rolled into one.
Live Gila monsters, scorpions, tarantulas, mountain lions, and the once populous Sonoran Desert Bighorn Sheep call this home, as do the hummingbirds that zoom overhead and lizards dashing between your feet. Before departing, stop by the Mountain House Gift Shop for crafts and books.
Before leaving the museum you can reassert your place in the food chain by consuming a salsa fresco-topped “Desert Dog” at casual Ironwood Terraces. Or, max out a little more with some adobo shredded-chicken tacos and a prickly pear margarita at the more formal Ocotillo Café, also on museum grounds.
2… Come face to face with a maneater or two.
For animal encounters of another kind, there’s another museum that’s worth a long look. On the same road as the Sonoran Desert Museum, the International Wildlife Museum (4800 W. Gates Pass, 520-629-0100, www.thewildlifemuseum.org, $7) displays more than 400 mounted birds, mammals, and insects within realistic-looking, natural habitats. Once you see the French Foreign Legion fort - a replica based on the real thing in Chad, Africa - you’ll know you’ve arrived.
A big selling point here is the chance to get up close and personal with creatures whose nocturnal tendencies make them virtually impossible to see otherwise. Yes, they’re all stuffed, but in most cases you’ll prefer it that way. Rattlesnakes and bats jockey for attention with foxes, coyotes, and other former night dwellers. Kids in particular enjoy walking between the legs of a giraffe, looking into the mouth to a tiger, or pretending to run from a woolly mammoth.
1… Go Hollywood, in the desert.
What’s a trip to the Southwest without experiencing the Old West? One down-and-dirty way to get your cowboy on is a visit to Old Tucson Studios (201 S. Kinney Rd., 520-883-0100, $16.95). This active filming studio dates back to the 1930’s. You might recognize backdrops from such movies as “Tombstone” and “Three Amigos” as well as the old TV chestnut “Little House on the Prairie.”
Over the years, Old Tucson has expanded into an amusement park with a classic carousel, antique cars, and such western-themed activates as gold panning, a shooting gallery, and a haunted mine. Don’t let the cowboy gunfights scare you: the firearms are props. But what is very real is the intoxicating smell of cowboy fare coming from Big Jake’s Bar-B-Q. Consider rustling up a plate with a smoked BBQ beef sandwich, coleslaw, and cowboy beans.
If this isn’t enough Wild West for you, consider a side trip, motoring about 1.5 hours south to the authentic western town of Tombstone. Walking the dusty streets where the infamous O.K. Corral shootout occurred, or stopping in for a cold brew at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, will transport you to another time, and you’ll see for yourself why Tombstone’s known as "The Town Too Tough to Die.”