Day Trips in Arizona

In living in Arizona, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of amazing places around the state. Though I’ve written full posts about some of them, there were also several places that I couldn’t write a full post on but still wanted to mention. From the desert oasis of Agua Caliente Park to the wild west town of Tombstone, these are some amazing places that I loved visiting and wanted to share!

One of the most fascinating things about Arizona is its diversity. Though I, like many people, imagined this state as just a lot of desert before coming here, it’s actually so much more, and I’ve loved exploring it over the past four years. Though there is desert throughout the state, the northern part also features woodland and forest biomes. Even in Southern Arizona, the Sky Islands created by mountains showcase pine trees only a few miles away from the saguaros. And speaking of saguaros, although this tall cactus with its arms is one of the most iconic symbols of a desert, these cacti actually only grow in the Sonoran Desert. Even slightly to the east in parts of Arizona and throughout New Mexico and Texas, the differences of the Chihuahuan Desert mean different plant life. While the Grand Canyon is amazing as one of Arizona’s iconic landmarks, there’s just so much more out here that you don’t want to miss!

Below is a list of the places included in this post. To jump to a specific section, just select the link.

Desert Oasis

Agua Caliente Regional Park

One thing that living in the desert really gives you is an appreciation and awe of water. When I first moved here, I didn’t really get the thrill or monsoon season, but now when I see unexpected water I understand some of the excitement that kids from here have when they see a little trickle of a creek. I visited Agua Caliente Park on a trip with Parks in Focus (a project I volunteer with), and seeing Tucson kids react to the water here was absolutely fantastic. Named for the naturally occurring hot spring that is its main appeal, the area around Agua Caliente has been inhabited for over 5,000 years. And in all that time, this water in the middle of the desert has never lost its appeal.

The amount of water flowing in the park is, of course, variable, but unlike the Santa Rita River, you can expect to see some water here at any time of year. In visiting the park, it’s great to just stroll, picnic, and take pictures of the water. There are also docent-led tours and signposts giving information about the geology and history of the park. A ranch house was built here in 1873 as a health resort, but today the building has been restored and now serves as a Visitor Center and Art Gallery. This is a fun little half-day trip out of Tucson and a great place to see some water if you’re homesick for a wetter climate.

Arcosanti

Arcosanti is one of my favorite places in Arizona! Begun in 1970 by architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was Soleri’s magnum opus that put into practice his vision of sustainable urban planning. Urban sprawl is something most of us are familiar with, and in driving through or around Phoenix, Arizona, to get to Arcosanti, you’ll see a good example of it. Soleri’s vision of architecture, a theory he called arcology, focused on creating communities that would not only be integrated into their environments but would be organized in such a way that the people in the community forged strong connections to each other and the landscape they inhabited.

This is a very brief summary of Arcosanti’s mission, but you can learn more by taking a tour of the site. Arcosanti is inhabited and maintained by people who believe in the vision and are able to contribute to the community in some way, whether by cooking food or teaching classes or any number of other things! I really loved touring the site and learning about arcology, and it’s somewhere I would love to visit again or even stay at in the future.

Tours are offered daily, and you can add on a night at Arcosanti if you want to. The on-site café is a spot to get food, but they also host various lectures and other events there. There’s also a gift shop for souvenirs, and you can explore their website here!

Ocotillo blooming at Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park

The Catalina Mountains are visible from basically everywhere in Tucson, and Catalina State Park is a great place to do some hiking in the foothills. Due to the fire here in summer 2020, some trails are still closed to the public, but you still can’t go wrong with a hike here. I’ve done two – the Alamo Loop and the Catalina Canyon Loop. Both of these are short, easy trails that are great for a morning hike to just get outside and get your blood pumping before starting the day in Tucson, but there are also much longer and more difficult trails if that’s what you’re looking for. The trails are not always well-marked though; in hiking the Alamo Loop, we joked that it was called the Alamo because we had to remember the map and couldn’t rely on markers.

Catalina does have an entrance fee of $7 per car or $3 for an individual walking or biking into the park. The park is open year-round though (including camping) and is a great place just outside the city to see some nature and do short or long hikes. Personally, I think the best time to visit is around April-early May when the cacti are in bloom, but that’s just generally a great time to visit Tucson!

Meteor Crater

Given that I really love astronomy – and science in general – I loved Meteor Crater. Essentially, this is just a giant hole in the ground that was caused by an iron asteroid of 30-50 meters in diameter. The collision occurred approximately 49,000 years ago, and the largely unchanging desert climate and earth have preserved the crater rather than causing it to be eroded as with crater impacts in other parts of the world. For a long time, people believed that Meteor Crater was the result of a volcanic eruption, but scientific study, especially that done by Daniel Barringer, Harvey Nininger, and Eugene Shoemaker showed that this was the result of an asteroid impact. In fact, Meteor Crater was the first crater in the world proven to be caused by a meteorite.

Meteor Crater is privately owned, and admission is pretty steep at $22 per adult. For me, visiting the crater and its museum was entirely worth it, but if you’re less interested in the science, it’s probably something you could skip. However, Meteor Crater is just outside of Winslow, and whether you visit Meteor Crater or not, it’s fun to stop by the town so you can be “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona!”

The Local Paper

Tombstone

With dusty streets, stagecoaches, and people wearing chaps, arriving in Tombstone, Arizona, really does feel like traveling back in time to the Old West. Sure, parts of the town are more developed, and there’s plenty of parking to leave your car, but if you’re going to Tombstone, you’re going there for the Old West vibes, so you may as well lean into it.

Tombstone is most famous for being the site of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which you can see re-enacted daily), but it became a boomtown due to the easily-mined copper right outside of town. Capitalizing on its gunfighter history though, modern Tombstone is kind of like a Wild West amusement park where you can watch one (or several) gunfights, eat at a saloon, and take a ride around town in a stagecoach – or a trolley if you want to be more modern.

Tombstone has a lot to offer, but several of the things are very similar – tours of the town and staged gunfights are the main (albeit entertaining) attractions. Your best bet is to just pick one and do that, then see something else later if you feel like it; hence, why this is a good day trip spot. When I went with my roommates, we got tickets from the Old Tombstone Western Theme Park, to see their comedy gunfight – instead of the more dramatic, historical ones at other places in town – and to ride the trolley around town. After both of those things, we had lunch at a saloon and checked out the shops on the main street. It’s a really fun way to spend the day enjoying some Old West history, and I really recommend spending a day in Tombstone if possible!

Sunflowers in Willcox

Willcox, AZ

I’ve talked before about Wilcox in my posts on Chiricahua and fall in the desert, but I wanted to add it here because it’s a great place to visit on a trip out of Tucson. Wilcox itself is a pretty small town, and, to be honest, I haven’t done much in the town itself, but it is conveniently close to two things I love – Chiricahua National Monument and Apple Annie’s.

As I wrote in my Chiricahua post, this park is absolutely incredible with hoodoo rock formations that will take your breath away. I cannot recommend this park enough. But, if you’re visiting in the fall, Apple Annie’s is the place to go. This part of the country doesn’t have a lot of corn mazes or apple picking or other fall things, but you can find all of that here. My roommates and I have gone the last two years and loved it both times. From picking our own apples for pies to getting lost in the corn maze to posing for pictures with sunflowers and pumpkins, we’ve loved being able to get a taste of fall here. And by a taste of fall, I mean the apple cider donuts that are so so so good. So, since Wilcox is only about an hour out of Tucson and has so much to offer between these two places, it’s on the list!

Main Ruins at Wupatki

Wupatki National Monument

Traveling through the Southwest, you have a lot of great options to visit ruins (i.e., Mesa Verda, Aztec Ruins, Montezuma’s Castle, Casa Grande, and probably a few more that I can’t remember off the top of my head), and while all of these are really cool in different ways, I decided to include Wupatki on this list, partly because I visited it most recently and partly because its conveniently close to other things like Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Actually, Sunset Crater is on the same road and only about 10 miles away, so if you’re visiting Wupatki, you really ought to just stop by Sunset Crater too as we did. (I don’t have a whole section on it though because we didn’t have a lot of time to explore, and I feel like I need to go back and do more there.)

Anyway, Wupatki National Monument includes several different ruins from the ancient Puebloans who lived in this area, and you can walk through and around them at different sites in the park, though the main one (above) is right next to the visitor center. It’s really just so, so cool to visit these ruins and picture the once-bustling civilization that managed to not only survive but thrive here in the desert. If you’re travling through the Southwest, you have to visit some of these ruins, and Wupatki is a great choice in Arizona!

Desert outside of Winslow, AZ

Final Notes

I’ve loved exploring and getting to know Arizona over the last few years, and there are still so many places I haven’t seen or haven’t seen enough of. Arizona is a big state and features everything from forests full of Ponderosa Pines to the Sonoran Desert to the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon. I’m definitely sad to be leaving Arizona, but I’m so grateful for the time I’ve had here, and I can’t wait to return sometime in the future and maybe add a few more destinations to this post!

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