SPRAWLED low and lazy across the lush Sonoran Desert and ringed by rugged mountain ranges lies the former Wild West town of Tucson, Arizona. Sun-kissed in winter, sunburnt in summer, this city of a million residents rests in the foothills of the majestic Santa Catalinas, with the Rincon, Tucson, Tortolita and Santa Rita ranges almost completing the protective circle.
The region’s sunshine and scenery may initially attract visitors, but Tucson’s quirky collage of rugged desert landscapes and lush golf courses, military bases and arts districts, hip college scene and Wild West attitude entices many visitors, like me, to return again and again.
Best stargazing: While Tucson, with its warm winters and high-end golf and spa resorts, is a popular getaway for music and movie industry celebrities (Paul and Linda McCartney had a home in the hills outside Tucson), the best stargazing is the heavenly kind. Arizona’s clear, dark skies have spawned the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory, 90km southwest of Tucson, off State Route 86.
Barely an hour’s drive finds me 2100m above sea level, where the temperature is a delightful 10C cooler than on the desert floor. Among the 19 optical and two radio telescopes is the world’s largest solar telescope, included in the first of three daily guided tours, each lasting about an hour.
My tour, however, takes in Kitt Peak’s largest optical telescope, a landmark visible throughout much of my drive here from Tucson. Inside the domed structure, we gaze at the 4m mirror above.
Then, without warning, I find myself clutching the wall as the room seems to tilt and turn. I regain my bearings as the enormous mirror revolves slowly into position for that evening’s stargazing.
A night-time observation program using smaller telescopes at the visitor centre is so popular it requires reservations well in advance. www.noao.edu/kpno.
Best Cold War relic: Plane spotters and military buffs will want to see the more than 250 aircraft at the Pima Air and Space Museum, the largest in the western US. www.pimaair.org.
For my money, however, the most chilling trip into not-so-ancient history is a visit to the Titan Missile Museum, the world’s only publicly accessible ballistic missile complex. I take Interstate 19 south from Tucson to exit 69, then head west on Duval Mine Road to the museum.
A former crew member guides an hourlong tour that includes a simulated missile launch. We descend 10m into the missile silo and more than three decades into the past, to the height of the Cold War.
The silo, its launch door propped partly open, still holds the once nuclear-tipped Titan missile, the last of its kind. It was decommissioned in 1982 and has a 60cm hole cut in its now-empty nose cone.
Deep underground, we enter a command post filled with retro green and silver panels covered in analog dials, switches and flashing lights. This is how the world could have ended, yet it reminds me of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi film.
For those feeling nostalgic for the Cold War, $US500 ($553) and an advance booking will buy an overnight stay in the crew’s quarters. www.titanmissilemuseum.org.
Best Spanish mission: I visit Mission San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’odham reservation on my way back to Tucson. It was established by the Spanish and is still operated by the Franciscans.
Often cited as the finest US example of this style of architecture, the 200-year-old whitewashed church with its ornately carved facade and single dome appears incomplete yet strikingly beautiful, with the Santa Catalinas a distant blue backdrop.
Paintings adorning the interior walls and ceilings are vivid and ornate, and while the retablos (behind the altar) are breathtaking, I find some of the carved wooden figures with their gaudily painted faces vaguely disturbing. www.sanxaviermission.org.
Best shopping: Barely a kilometre from downtown Tucson is the Lost Barrio, an eclectic retail district so named because even many locals don’t know it exists.
I take Broadway Boulevard to Park Avenue (between Campbell and Euclid avenues) and head south to renovated ’ 20s red-brick warehouses packed with diverse, high-quality antiques, reproductions and artisan crafts for the home (from staircases to Ming vases) sourced from India, Morocco, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Europe and South America.
For items more in keeping with the southwest, Rustica, also in the Lost Barrio, at 200 S. Park Ave, features Mexican-style home accessories, from ceramics to chandeliers.
Best art experience: The Centre for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona holds the country’s premier collection of images taken by the giants of American photography, including Ansel Adams, best known for his black-and-white images of Yosemite Valley. In the Print Viewing Room, there is free access, by appointment on weekday afternoons, to the so-called ‘‘ visitor’s choice’’ of more than 80,000 original images by about 2000 photographers.
If selecting just three boxes of prints from such a vast collection is daunting, staff can assist by suggesting photographers, techniques or subjects that complement visitors’ interests. www.creativephotography.org.
Best traffic tip: With little public transport and no east-west freeways, Tucson’s gridpattern streets are time-consuming, particularly during peak hours.
A tip from a local soon has me giving the sadly misnamed Speedway and Broadway boulevards (the main east-west thoroughfares) a miss when driving out of town. Instead, I head north to River Road, on the edge of the metropolitan area and with few traffic lights, to escape into the foothills.
Best eats: The French-inspired southwestern cuisine at Janos and contemporary Latin-fusion meals at its more casual and affordable sibling, the J Bar, are worth the drive to Westin La Paloma Resort on Tucson’s northeastern outskirts.
I opt for the budget restaurant, which shares the more opulent Janos’s warm Spanish-influenced decor and much of its dessert menu.
With American serving sizes in mind and the desire to save room for those desserts, I order an appetiser instead of a main. At less than $US10, the grilled Venezuelan corn cake, stuffed with mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese, and served with olive aioli and tomato vinaigrette, turns out to be an excellent choice. I finish with a Mexican-influenced chocolate jalapeno ice-cream sundae that is a signature dessert on chef Janos Wilder’s menus. www.westinlapalomaresort.com.
Best picnic supplies: Another eating option is to take advantage of Arizona’s perennially sunny climate by creating a picnic hamper at one of several Trader Joe’s stores that specialise in gourmet food and wine at competitive prices. Fresh, creative, prepackaged salads, such as mixed baby greens with grilled eggplant, fetta cheese, pine nuts and tahini dressing, are about $US4.
The store’s cheese case carries Tasmanian goat’s cheese for a fraction of the price I’ve paid for it in Australian supermarkets. My favourites from the large selection of sweets include chocolate-coated dried cherries and peanut butter cups. www.traderjoes.com.
Best oasis: Agua Caliente in Roy P. Drachman Regional Park is named for the hot spring that, with its cold-water twin, bubbled from the base of the Santa Catalinas for eons until white men, hoping to increase the flow, dynamited them. They succeeded only in creating a single, warm flow.
Verdant stands of palms surround the 30C spring that flows into a series of lakes and wetlands inhabited by numerous water birds, fish and turtles.
Gnarled mesquite trees shade wide, picnicperfect lawns where I enjoy my Trader Joe’s feast with some friends. A casual stroll takes us through green tunnels formed by younger trees, then around lakes and wetlands.
The park is on East Roger Road, off the Catalina Highway leading to Mount Lemmon.
Best desert trails: Surrounded by desert parks, Tucson is a hiker’s paradise. Top of my list, for accessibility and choice, is Sabino Canyon Recreation Area on the city’s northern fringe, at 5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd.
Numerous marked trails, from easy to difficult, meander through the Santa Catalina foothills and that most precious of desert treasures, water, is usually present. The paved 6km road that crisscrosses Sabino Creek on stone bridges is a great option, enabling visitors to enjoy the scenery without having to watch their feet on the rocky trails.
A shuttle service also operates on paved roads within the park for non-hikers.
Sabino Creek nourishes a profusion of flora, including daisy-like brittlebush, shady mesquite, spindly ocotillo, prickly teddy-bear cholla and towering saguaros. There is also a good chance of seeing desert wildlife, including bobcats and coyotes.
Best forest: Tucson is straddled by the densest stands of the world’s most recognisable cactus, the saguaro. I visit Saguaro National Park West, taking Speedway Boulevard, west from downtown, to scenic Gates Pass, then follow signs to the park.
Here, regiments of saguaros march down the western flank of the Tucson Mountains. Visitors can choose from the 10km Bajada Loop Drive, leisurely nature strolls or a strenuous, day-long hike.
With the sun high and the temperature in the low 30s when I visit, I savour the panoramic views of the forest from Red Hills Visitor Centre, then tune in to an informative audio-visual program about the famous cactus. www.saguaronationalpark.com.
Best wild moment: On my return drive to Tucson, I stop at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A combination of zoo, botanic garden and natural history museum, it presents more than 1200 plant varieties and 300 animal species from the Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California and Mexico.
Wildlife lives freely here in ecological zones, or securely in sensitively developed exhibits. Bobcats, ocelot and jaguarundi laze in Cat Canyon. A lizard sits motionless on a rock by the desert loop trail. There are coyote and javelina (native desert pig) exhibits and playful prairie dogs entertain visitors wandering through desert grassland. Gem-like hummingbirds dart and hover in their aviary, within arm’s reach. But the region’s creepy crawlies, tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes, are where I prefer them, safely sealed behind glass.
Not just deserts: Clockwise from top, Saguaro National Park West; Mission San Xavier del Bac; Janos; Centre for Creative Photography; Kitt Peak National Observatory