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American Road Trips

An Unforgettable Four-Day Road Trip Through Southern Arizona

See a ghost town, historic Spanish missions, “sky islands” and more on this journey from Tucson

left saguaros national park in arizona right a map showing a route from tucson through bisbee and back

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The Southwest shines in this 450-mile route through the saguaro-studded desert up into high mountains, where rare birds flit and spectacular sunsets give way to dark skies spangled by stars. Tucson anchors this tour, rich in history and redolent with the scents of great food and local wines. You might consider adding a day to the beginning of the trip to explore Saguaro National Park, whose two entrances are each only about 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. ​​​

San Xavier Mission at sunrise

Brad Holt/Getty Images

San Xavier del Bac Mission

Day 1: San Xavier del Bac and Tumacácori (57 miles)

Explore Southwestern history today on visits to two Spanish colonial missions, and enjoy the chance to stock up on spices. En route, you’ll encounter dramatic mountain vistas.

From Tucson, head south on Interstate 19 for 8 miles, then take exit 92 for San Xavier del Bac Mission. (Note that local authorities ask drivers not to pull onto the verge during dry spells to take photos. Your car’s hot undercarriage could ignite dry grass and shrubs.) The Catholic Church has been active on these Indigenous Tohono O’odham lands since 1692, and this dramatic, sugar-white church with a masonry vault roof was completed 105 years later. While soaking up the Baroque architecture, look for shell-shaped details honoring Spain’s patron saint, Santiago.

Drive south on I-19 another 39 miles to the serene Tumacácori National Historical Park. Indigenous peoples — including the Nde, O’odham and Yoeme — frequented this lush area along the Santa Cruz River for generations. The Spanish arrived in the 1690s, establishing the first mission in what is now Arizona. Explore the evocative grounds, where many adobe structures have melted back into the earth. Enter the striking ruins of an early 19th-century church, then wander an old orchard and replica walled garden. Stay alert for opportunities to return to this International Dark Sky Park at night. Rangers periodically lead stargazing and astrophotography sessions, as well as full-moon hikes.

Continue on I-19 by car, but pause just one-third of a mile down the road at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. A Bryn Mawr graduate and her cowboy husband started this business in 1943, repurposing World War II equipment to pressure-cook and then grind dried chile pods. The wonderfully fragrant store sells everything from adobo to whole sage leaves. Don’t miss the house-made hot sauces, which add jalapeños, green chiles and spices to a tomato base.

Backtrack north 4 miles on I-19 to the artsy town of Tubac for dinner at Elvira’s, which serves contemporary Mexican dishes in a chic dining room. A favorite: the hazelnut mole.

Tip: Be prepared to stop at temporary checkpoints within 100 miles of the Mexican border. On I-19, watch for distance signs in kilometers (rather than miles), completed in 1978 during America’s attempt at shifting to the metric system. Arizona planned to replace the signage three decades later, but citizens insisted the quirk be maintained.

Where to stay: Tubac Secret Garden Inn, a half mile east of Elvira’s, features Spanish-style architecture. Groups can rent a casa or suite, but the property also has rooms with terra-cotta tile floors and pops of Southwestern color.


3 men on horses in Tombstone

Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Tombstone

Day 2: Tombstone and Bisbee (124 miles)

Start on a “sky island” — one of the area’s isolated mountaintops that steeply rise above the desert’s daytime heat, nighttime chill and overall harsh, dry conditions. Fifty-five of these peaks form the Madrean Archipelago, stretching from Mexico into the Southwest and featuring some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

Driving upward can mimic a trip north to the Canadian border, as you pass through dry scrub, grasslands and oak and pine forests while ascending to where alpine species flourish. These ecosystems provide a refuge for humans and animals alike — and some offer world-class birding, such as Madera Canyon, 32 miles northwest from the Historic Valle Verde Ranch, primarily on I-19 and South Madera Canyon Road. This valley perched high on the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains attracts 15 hummingbird species, including the rare Calliope, North America’s tiniest feathered friend.

For a good stroll, try the Proctor loop: a paved, accessible, three-quarters-of-a-mile route that departs from the first Madera Canyon Recreation Area parking lot. You may see deer and songbirds along the trail, and look for the Whipple Observatory shining off to the west on Mount Hopkins.

Amp things up in Tombstone, 65 miles east, mainly via state routes 83 and 82. This town leans into its Western heritage, especially the 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral, which pitted corrupt, power-hungry lawmen against cowboys who moonlighted as thieves and murderers. Actors re-create the gunfight three times daily (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.), and many locals and visitors wear period dress throughout the compact historic center, where stagecoaches still kick up dust.

Experience a different slice of Gilded Age history in Bisbee, 23 miles southeast on S.R. 80. Mining started here in 1887, thanks to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The “Queen of the Copper Camps” grew into the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco for a spell. It faltered when the mine closed in 1975, though it soon found new life as a refuge for artists, bohemians and retirees. Check out its galleries and unique shops, such as downtown’s Óptimo Custom Hatworks, which sells stylish toppers made from toquilla straw and beaver- and rabbit-fur felt.

Strolling the steep streets can be quite a workout. Refuel at Table on Main Street with drunken mushrooms, sautéed in a garlic cream sauce made from Old Bisbee Brewery’s European-style pilsner.

Where to stay: In Bisbee, book one of 12 vintage trailers — or even a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht! — at the Shady Dell, 4 miles southwest of town, primarily reached via S.R. 80. This retro haven opens its diner Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Don’t miss the signature burger, made with Angus chuck and served on a brioche bun.


downtown Tucson, Arizona

Sean Pavone/Getty Images

Tucson

Day 3: Wine country and Tucson (158 miles)

Arizona winemaking has grown from a curiosity to a serious scene in the last decade. Drive 70 miles west on state routes 80, 90 and 82 to Patagonia, a wine country hub known for its quirky cafés and boutiques. For lunch, stop at downtown’s Velvet Elvis — honoring the Mexican painting style, not the King — which the governor’s office named an Arizona Treasure. Try the Pancho Villa pizza with Asiago, jalapeños and house-made beef chorizo.

In Sonoita, 13 miles northeast on S.R. 82, visit family-run Dos Cabezas WineWorks for its flagship rosé, an even blend of grenache and syrah, handpicked and stomped by foot. Want to pack some for a trailside picnic? Grab a couple of tallboys of its sparkling sibling, Carbonated Pink.

Drive northeast another 7 miles to Rune Wines, the state’s only solar-powered, off-the-grid vineyard. It offers tastings outside under a shade canopy, where you can soak up panoramic views of the high desert grasslands. For a well-balanced red, stock up on the 2019 Wild Syrah, which pleases with bold berry notes.

Roughly 82 percent of Arizonan land belongs to Native tribes and the state and federal governments, which puts a lot of roadless stretches on the map. Since you can’t head directly west, backtrack 55 miles northwest to Tucson for the night, mainly on S.R. 82 and I-10. Go directly to Tito & Pep, a bistro known for mesquite-fired cuisine,for dinner. Seasonally shifting vegetable dishes dazzle here, especially the roasted carrots with labneh, pomegranate and sunflower seeds.

Where to stay: Roll into The Downtown Clifton, an updated 1948 hotel that retains its desert mid-century modern flair. Among the unique rooms are several original “bunkhouse” accommodations, with saddle-blanket bedspreads, vintage bathroom tiles and wooden ceiling beams. “Señorita” class offers more contemporary comfort, along with exposed brick and hand-painted platform beds. Tip: Rooms 29 and 30 offer views of the sloping basalt cone of Sentinel Peak.


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Ruby Road in Atascosa Mountains, Sonoran Desert

Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Ruby

Day 4: A ghost town and a sky island (112 miles)

Downshift with a day of fresh air and wide-open spaces. Begin in Ruby, a ghost town 4 miles shy of the Mexican border, set amid canyons and the rolling hills of the Atascosa Mountains. From Tucson, drive 71 miles southwest, mainly on I-19, to reach this scenic spot under the distinctive 5,370-foot Montana Peak with its duck-billed, dinosaur-like crest of exposed rock. Note: The last 6 miles are unpaved but don’t require a four-wheel drive.

Established as a gold and silver mining camp in 1877, Ruby later transitioned to extracting lead and zinc. The population peaked in 1938 at 1,200, and the thriving town had a hospital, post office and school. Many residents lived in wood-foundation tents, but others built adobe houses, whose ruins you can now explore.

By 1940, the ore ran out. The mine closed and five Tucson residents bought Ruby as a private retreat, where they could relax and fish for bass. By the late ’60s, hippies started squatting there, declaring it “a haven for refugees from the cities who seek a rural existence.” Not even a 1971 eviction notice could kill the good vibe: They penciled in “we love you” before leaving.

Apply online for a permit at least 24 hours in advance to explore a dozen dilapidated buildings, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The $15 admission gives you access to the ghost town and 350 acres, where visitors mountain bike, paddleboard on Mineral Lake, stargaze and maybe see up to 150,000 migratory bats swirl out of a cave.

Driving north on Ruby Road, make a five-minute detour for a pulled-pork sandwich and fried green tomatoes at warm, welcoming Arivaca Soul Food.

Then take Arivaca Sasabe Road 21 miles west to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, where a sky island sweeps from a sycamore-shaded canyon to semidesert grasslands punctuated by prickly pear cactuses and even wetlands, fringed with willows. In 1985, the government set this land aside to preserve masked bobwhite quail, once thought to be extinct. At least 200 are now thriving in the wild here. Along the one-and-a-quarter mile Arivaca Cienega loop (wheelchair accessible), gray hawks and great horned owls nest in majestic cottonwood trees. Nearby, cattail marshes and mesquite groves attract flashy vermilion flycatchers (the males have scarlet bellies and foreheads).

Where to stay: Head back to the Tubac Secret Garden Inn, 50 miles northeast, mainly on West Arivaca Road.

Seattle-based freelance writer and photographer Amanda Castleman contributes to Afar, National Geographic and The New York Times. She founded the online academy Write Like a Honey Badger, which teaches storytelling and promotes representation in the media.

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