Well, the semester is coming to an end, and before I head home, I thought I’d share my tips for visiting one of my favorite parks near Tucson. This isn’t one of the big, famous national parks like the Grand Canyon, and to be honest, it is a little out-of-the-way if you’re doing a Four Corners type loop of National Parks. Despite that, this is one of my favorite National Parks, and for anyone living in or visiting Tucson, I consider this a required day-trip.
The park is centered around Mission San José, which was founded by Father Kino way back in 1691, though this church was built in 1757. It was a contact point for Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries with Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache peoples, and has a complex and storied history. The ruins of the Mission are still standing, and they’re incredible. For a small park, there’s actually a decent amount to do here, and because it’s away from…well, everything, there haven’t been big crowds when I’ve visited.
When to go: It does get pretty hot here in the summer, but that’s also when things are in bloom. To beat the heat, I would recommend going in late May or early June and just planning to day to be out of the sun for the worst of it.
How long to stay: This park is a great one for a day-trip. I’d recommend driving down from Tucson around 9 am and leaving the park around 3 or 4 pm.
While you’re there: The park has a really nice museum that gives you a lot of cool information, and while it’s a great stop, I would suggest starting the day by buying your tickets and watching the orientation video then coming back to the museum later.
— If you’re traveling with kids, Padre Kino’s Quest is fantastic! It’s best for about ages 7-12 in my opinion, but with help younger kids could do it too. The quest guides you through the park with activities to do at each location that are fun while also teaching the kids about the park. Ask for the quest when you pay entry to the park. —
Start the day at the park with the orientation video and a walk through the garden – you’ll see it as soon as you pass through the gift shop/entrance. After that, head outside for the mission. The Mission building itself is my favorite part of the park; it’s beautiful and haunting. The history of Missions in the US is obviously complicated, and it’s not all pretty. Being in the sanctuary is a remarkable experience because the history feels so present. Taking a few moments to just stand here is a must.
After the main part of the Mission, check out the storerooms and graveyard, all of which you will see nearby. They’re also all a part of Padre Kino’s Quest, if you’re doing that. After seeing the Mission and its buildings, head over to the orchard, which is great in the summer. Here, you can see the plants that were grown by Kino and really get an idea of the diet and way of life here. From the orchard, walk down to the Santa Cruz “River,” which is a desert river – a.k.a. this is not what would count as a river on the East Coast. It’s a nice little wash though, and it’s a good walk through the park that isn’t too strenuous.
Returning to the visitor center area, hang out by the picnic tables. I would recommend bringing some snacks and water with you from Tucson; however, starting in the late morning, they often have someone making masa tortillas that you can sample. You only get a small one, so it’s not very filling, but they taste great! After lunch, walk through the museum, and take a few pictures with the Mission which is very photogenic in the sunlight. Finally, stop by the gift shop for some unique desert foods – pretty much anything you can imagine is made from prickly pears here.
Bonus Tip: You’ll lose the radio about 45 minutes out of Tucson. It’s at this point that I really recommend a John Denver CD 😀 Also, don’t forget water and sunscreen!