One of the great things about being in Tucson is all the amazing places to visit nearby, including one of my favorite National Parks sites – Tumacácori. While it isn’t as famous as the Grand Canyon, and while there’s not as much to do here as at Carlsbad, Tumacácori captured my attention the first time I visited in 2017 and remains one of my favorite places in Arizona. For anyone living in or visiting Tucson, I consider this a required day-trip.
Because this is a pretty small park, it’s easy to visit in a day and absolutely worth the drive from Tucson. There’s actually a decent amount to do here, and you can easily spend a fun few hours away from the city. So, here’s my guide on how to visit the park and what I love about it!
Tumacácori is centered around Mission San José, which was founded by Father Kino way back in 1691, though this church was built in 1757. Kino is a name that comes up often in this area as he traveled widely around here and founded 24 different missions, including Mission San Xavier in Tucson. The mission was a contact point for Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries with Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache peoples, and has a complex and storied history.
Though Kino is generally well-remembered in the Sonoran Desert, the history of Spanish missionaries in the New World was not always a positive one. In 1751, what is known as The Pima Revolt – in which the Tohono O’odham rebelled against Spanish rule – killed 100 people, and Tumacácori, along with other missions, was temporarily closed. However, the Jesuits were persistent, and, in 1757, they built the mission that stands on the site today.
Politics back in Spain had an impact even in the New World though, and all Jesuit missionaries were expelled from their missions and replaced by Franciscans in 1767. Under Franciscan organization, the site of Tumacácori expanded; a wall was built around the mission, and adobe houses were erected for the Tohono O’odham who lived there.
In 1801, the mission’s livestock was wiped out by an Apache raid. This was part of the ongoing tensions between the Apache and European settlers, which would countinue to mount in coming years. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, which caused problems with the Spanish missionaries still living in Mexican territory. By 1828, Spanish-born residents were ordered to leave Mexico, and the missions were run by local priests instead of missionaries until 1848. The war between Mexico and the United States made it difficult to get supplies to the remote missions, and this, combined with increased attacks from the Apache, led to people finally deserting the mission.
Following the Gadsen Purchase, Tumacácori became part of the United States, and it was declared a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. In 1990, the site received new designation as a National Historical Park, and the land within the park was expanded by over 300 acres in 2010.
When to Go
It does get pretty hot here in the summer, but that’s also when a lot of things are in bloom. To beat the heat, I would recommend going in April-early June and leaving before it gets too hot in the afternoon.
However, the weather in southern Arizona tends to be nice all year round, so you can really visit whenever you feel like it! Also, if you’re visiting in the cooler months, you won’t have to worry about the heat.
How Long to Stay
This park is a great one for a day-trip and can be done in a few hours. The park hours are 9-5, and your best bet is to get there are early as possible, especially in the summer. I’d recommend driving down from Tucson around 8 am (to arrive at 9) and leaving the park around noon.
What to Bring
Water is a must in the desert. There are a few trails in/near the park, and even if the trail you do isn’t very long, you still need to bring water. I also recommend packing a picnic lunch to eat before you leave.
A camera is great for taking pictures of the mission, and you never know when you’ll spot a roadrunner! I’ve seen more here than anywhere else I’ve been in Arizona.
Finally, if you have a National Parks pass, don’t leave it behind! You can get in free with the pass, but entry will cost $15 per person without the pass.
What to Do
For a half day spent at Tumacácori, I would suggest an itinerary like the following:
- Leave Tucson around 8 to arrive by 9
- Watch orientation video
- Visit the garden outside the Visitor Center
- Explore the museum
- Begin a walk through the park at the mission and surrounding buildings
- Walk to the orchard
- Walk to the Santa Rita River
- Picnic lunch near the Visitor Center
- Don’t forget to get a tortilla if they’re available
- Stop by the gift shop before leaving
You’re obligated to enter the park through the Visitor Center, which is why I recommend starting there. The orientation video is a great start to the day because it introduces you to the park and its history. Before going to the museum though, I think it’s best to walk through the gardens where you can see both flowers and medicinal plants that the priests would have carried with them to plant here. After a few minutes here, you can wander through the museum before exploring the rest of the park.
The Mission building itself is my favorite part of the park; it’s beautiful and haunting. The history of Missions in the United States 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. Next, it’s a short walk 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 used to flow all the way through to Tucson. Now, it dries up before it gets there, and even here, it’s rather thin and usually shallow. It’s a great little walk over here, and you can learn a bit about the ecological history of the region.
Returning to the visitor center area, hang out by the picnic tables. I would recommend bringing some food 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 amazing! Finally, before leaving, take a few more pictures of the mission and buy souvenirs in the first shop. You can get some unique desert foods here, including everything you could ever want made from prickly pears.
This is a wonderful place to visit in southern Arizona and a great day trip out of Tucson! If you’d like one more suggestion, I really enjoy listening to John Denver on the drive out of the city to set the mood for getting away from the fast pace of modern life.