Saguaro and mountains

Tucson: A New Look at the Old West

This article about Tucson was originally published in the November 2010 issue of MotorHome magazine.

An Autumn Adventure in Arizona Includes Museums, a Mission, a Movie Studio and Golf — Amid the Distinctive Saguaros

The Spanish came to the American Southwest in 1539 in search of gold.  Missionaries followed in the early 1600s in search of natives to convert to Christianity. Today, snowbirds flock to Tucson for the warmth of a golden sun.  Whatever the draw, the “Old Pueblo” has enticed visitors for centuries. 

Tucson is diverse in its geography as well as its history. While the area is well known for its abundant saguaro cacti, a drive to the top of nearby Mount Lemmon offers a snow-covered peak with a pine forest and the southernmost ski area in the United States. Arizona’s second-largest city is surrounded by five mountain ranges. 

The colorful landscape, rich history, and pleasant autumn temperatures drew us to Tucson. When our friends Judy and Michael bought their first RV, we agreed to spend several weeks traveling with them.  Arizona seemed like the perfect place to introduce them to the joys of the RV lifestyle.  

Voyager RV Resort

Things got even more perfect when we arrived at Voyager RV Resort.  Voyager is a gated 55+ adult community on 186 acres in southeast Tucson just off I-10.  It’s easier to say what Voyager doesn’t have than to list all the amenities. You’ll have to drive off site to get gas. That’s it. Eat at the restaurant, play golf or billiards, get a massage or learn to line dance, all without leaving the facility.  A large activities building includes rooms dedicated to making stained glass, quilts and glass fusion, just to name a few.  With hundreds of scheduled activities, there is something for everyone.

Voyager RV Resort
Voyager is a gated 55-plus adult community on 186 acres in southeast Tucson just off I-10.

The vast selection of offerings at Voyager includes writers’ workshops, diet support groups and pickleball lessons. There’s also an on-site health and wellness clinic that provides comprehensive outpatient health care. Judy was even able to arrange for a pet sitter to walk her dog twice a day when we spent time exploring nearby attractions.  

I met Al Martens, a snowbird from South Dakota, in the Silver Shop where he and five others were making jewelry.  He stays so busy here that he jokingly says he looks forward to going home in the spring to rest. 

Voyager Pool
Voyager’s many amenities include three swimming pools and two hot tubs.

Tucson has some amazing attractions, interesting enough to lure us away from Voyager. 

Pima Air and Space Museum

Our first stop was the Pima Air and Space Museum, one of the largest aviation museums in the world.  The collection of more than 300 planes includes the world’s smallest, the Starr Bumble Bee with a six-and-a-half foot wingspan, and the world’s fastest, the SR-71 Blackbird with a top speed of 2,500 mph, which is Mach 3.5, more than three times the speed of sound.  The one that caught my eye was the B-377 Super Guppy, a large, wide-bodied cargo plane.  Not to be missed is the bus tour of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), also known as the “Boneyard.” A storage facility for more than 4,400 aircraft, it’s also a moneymaker.  Between sales of parts and aircraft put back into service, there’s a return of $22 for every dollar spent. 

Pima Boneyard
At the Pima Air and Space Museum, visitors can take a bus tour of the “Boneyard,” a storage facility for more than 4,400 aircraft.

Many of the 300 museum volunteers have a military or commercial airline background.  Our guide on the Boneyard tour, Chuck Osborn, spent more than thirty years as a pilot.  Although he claimed to volunteer at Pima “to get out of nasty chores around the house,” his passion for aviation was evident.   

Saguaro National Park East

Late one afternoon we drove though Saguaro National Park East.  Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way eight-mile loop. We stopped to hike the paved hiking trails. The saguaros stood like giant stick figures with arms raised to a watermelon sky.  The only thing missing was a cowboy riding off into the sunset. 

Saguaro Sunset
The average lifespan of a saguaro cactus is 150 to 175 years. They can grow to a height of 40 to 50 feet.

Old Tucson Studios

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends who starred in some of the 300-plus movies and television projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939.   Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.  We watched Billy the Kid in a shoot out with two other actors, rode in a stage coach and watched a show in the saloon.(Note: Old Tucson announced an “indefinite closure” in September 2020.)

Old Tucson
Shows at Old Tucson included a Billy the Kid gunfight and a saloon show with singing and dancing.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is just a few miles past Old Tucson.  Museum is bit of a misnomer; it’s as much zoo and botanical garden as it is natural history museum.  About 85 percent of the museum is outdoors, with exhibits recreating the natural landscape. Native plants and animals, including American black bears, mountain lions, and endangered Mexican wolves, roam in enclosed desert habitats.  The Earth Sciences Center houses a fascinating collection of minerals from the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona, Sonora and Baja, California.  The cool air in the Center’s artificial cave offers a welcome respite from the warm desert temperatures. 

Mountain lion
Native mountain lions roam in the enclosed desert habitats at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

When I saw a photograph of Mission San Xavier del Bac, I added it to my must-see list.  Also known as the White Dove of the Desert, this magnificent building blends Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture. In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, came to the area.  Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church.  The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Standing in the plaza, I could imagine generations of baptisms, marriages and funerals being performed there.   

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier blends Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

Golf!

Given the pleasant climate, we were eager to play golf. Golfers have many options in Tucson.  We tried three courses. Voyager RV Resort has a nine-hole par-3 course, perfect for a quick game. The city-owned Fred Enke Golf Course is a few miles from Voyager.  The Preserve at Saddlebrooke was about an hour away, but it was worth the drive.  Online, we booked a reasonably priced twilight tee time (after 2:00 p.m.). 

Preserve at Saddlebrook
The Preserve at Saddlebrook is located northeast of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

I was reapplying sunscreen on the fourteenth hole and when my cell phone rang.  Our neighbor in Colorado called to say eight inches of snow covered our driveway.  I smiled at our good decision to spend a few weeks in Arizona before going home for the holidays.  

Other Places to Explore Near Tucson

In the years since our first RV trip to Tucson in October, 2009, we’ve returned numerous times, always staying at Voyager. Here are some links to other attractions, along with a brief description and the driving distance from Voyager.

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The canyon is closed to private vehicles, but you can take a shuttle  and enjoy the ride or get off at one of the stop and hike. 16 miles north of Voyager. 

The Biosphere 2 is a 3.14 acre research facility, with 7,200,000 cubic feet under sealed glass with 6,500 windows. Two missions in the early 1990s sealed eight people inside the glass enclosure to measure survivability. Now owned by the University of Arizona, it is open for tours. 47 miles north of Voyager. 

Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase has grown to be one of the largest events in the gem and mineral world.  An estimated 65,000 people come to Tucson during the two-week period in early February. The “Gem Show” includes more than 48 sites around town in hotels, big white tents, and exhibit halls. The highlight is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show held in the Tuscon Convention Center over the final weekend. 14 miles northwest of Voyager. 

Kitt Peak National Observatory has a visitor center that offers tours of the “largest and most diverse collection of research telescopes in any one place in the world. Three of the nearly two dozen active telescopes on Kitt Peak are dedicated solely to public viewing in our world-renowned nightly stargazing programs.” 61 miles southwest of Voyager. (Note: Kitt Peak is currently closed due to the pandemic. Check website for reopening dates.)

Arizona State Parks

Catalina State Park, a 5,500-acre, high desert park north of Tucson, is a popular destination for campers, bird watchers, nature lovers, equestrians, bicyclists and hikers. The park has RV sites. 30 miles north of Voyager.

Kartchner Caverns State Park was discovered in 1974 by local cavers. They kept it a secret until they told the property owners about it in 1978. It has 2.4 miles of cave passages. The park has RV campsites. 42 miles southeast of Voyager. 

Towns Near Tucson

Tubac is a small town known for its art and history. According to the website, you can “Enjoy Tubac’s eclectic shops and delicious restaurants, explore its colorful history, or spend the day golfing, hiking, birding, or attending art shows and visiting museums.” 47 miles south of Voyager.

Tombstone, also known as “The Town Too Tough to Die,” is the “most authentic western town left in the United States.” 60 miles southeast of Voyager.

Other Articles about Arizona

Yuma and Parker: A Tale of Two Arizona Cities

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

*