Looking for that classic desert scene — the vast landscapes, cacti and red rock mesas of the Coyote-Road Runner cartoon feud? Tucson may be calling your name. The city itself has grown significantly in recent decades, but for nature lovers, still offers easy access to a surprising variety of outdoor activity.
Just an hour's drive north of Mexico, Tucson is set in a tight bowl of mountains making it cooler than some other desert areas, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. This means that Tucson only has one month (June) when the average high temperature is over 100 degrees.
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Much of the mountainous area around the city is protected as public land, and the terrain harbors hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails for all skill levels. Aside from hikes through the Sonoran Desert and forests of massive saguaro cacti, some of which grow to 70 feet tall, options include stream valleys, pine-topped mountains and one of the more impressive publicly accessible cave systems in the U.S. — Kartchner Caverns.
A drive over scenic Gates pass delivers you to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a sort of zoo-museum combo tied together with excellent walking paths. In winter, you can even ski at the tiny Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, pasted to the upper flanks of the eponymous 9,000-foot peak just northeast of town.
The center of Tucson still has vestiges of an Old West feel, especially the neighborhood around Hotel Congress, where bank robber John Dillinger holed up in the 1930s. The front desk still uses the original switchboard (from 1919) to call guest rooms and a music club added in 1985 hosts all manner of acts.
The burgeoning 21st century feel comes in large part from the University of Arizona and its 37,000 students. And two-wheeling college students are a big reason why the city of Tucson (542,000) has been honored as a bicycle-friendly community. Even Tucsonians who are well north of college age can take a class at the university's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
For culture, the Arizona Theatre Company heads a long list of troupes in town. The Tucson Symphony Orchestra and a major folk festival in May are big draws.
On the downside, property crime rates are high in part due to offenses linked to drugs. Huge amounts of illicit drugs from Mexico and points south pass through Tucson.
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