The Sonoran Desert is much more than cactuses and coyotes, and the 98-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum shows that. The one-of-a-kind museum features a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum and aquarium. It is home to more than 230 species of animals and 1,200 varieties of plants. The museum, founded in 1952, interprets the natural history of the Sonoran Desert and nearby ecosystems. There are two miles of walking paths that cover 21 acres. The real highlight is the live animal demonstrations, where visitors can witness birds of prey in their element.
El Tiradito is a famous shrine in the Old Barrio section of Tucson. The memorial is said to be the only Catholic shrine in the country “dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.” According to one version of the legend, the monument honors Juan Oliveras, an 18-year-old ranch hand who had an affair with his mother-in-law. His father-in-law subsequently killed Oliveras. The original shrine dates to 1870, but the current version dates to 1920s. The shrine is said to exemplify Sonoran Catholicism, a blending of Catholic doctrine with local customs. The National Register of Historic Places added it to its list in 1971.
Fort Lowell Park is home to the extant remains of the former Fort Lowell military post. The United States Army established the Post of Tucson in May 1862; they abandoned it in July 1864 but re-established it a year later. In August 1866, the Army named the installation renamed Camp Lowell in honor of Gen. Charles Russell Lowell. In March 1873, the Army moved the post to its current location, then located on the outskirts of Tucson, and renamed it Fort Lowell in April 1879. The Amry used this location from 1873 until 1891. The park is home to several of the post’s fortmer adobe structures and a museum.
Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino founded Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1692. Kino, a Jesuit of Italian descent, often visited the area and preached to native residents. He began building a permanent mission around 1700, but the current building was constructed between 1783 and 1797 and is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The building features a white stucco and Moorish-inspired exterior with an ornately decorated entrance. Franciscans still actively run the church, unlike other Spanish missions in Arizona. The church, nicknamed “The White Dove of the Desert,” is on the Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation.
Old Tucson is half movie studio and half theme park that features live entertainment, including action stunt shows and musicals. Columbia Pictures built the studio on land Pima County owned, in 1938 to serve as a replica of 1860s Tucson for the movie Arizona. Over the years, dozens of producers have turned to Old Tucson to film at the studio, including 1993’s Tombstone. Today, guests can walk the studio’s streets, ride on a miniature train, watch shows and see how stuntmen film gunfights for movies. Old Tucson is near the western portion of Saguaro National Park.
The Pima Air & Space Museum is one of the world’s largest aerospace museums. The museum, established in 1976, is home to roughly 300 aircraft and more than 125,000 artifacts displayed outdoors and in five hangars across more than 80 acres. Its collection includes an SR-71A Blackbird, an A-10 Warthog, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress and President Kennedy’s Air Force One. The museum, situated adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is the country’s third largest aviation museum and the largest privately funded aviation and aerospace museum in the world. The museum is also home to the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.
The Saguaro cactus is perhaps the most endearing symbol of the Sonoran Desert and the American southwest. Among the best places to see these marvels of nature up close is the 92,000-acre Saguaro National Park. There are two sections of the park: east (the Rincon Mountain District) and west (the Tucson Mountain District). President Herbert Hoover in 1933 used the Antiquities Act to establish the Saguaro National Monument, and President John. F. Kennedy added the Tucson Mountain District in 1961. In 1994, Congress combined the two districts to form the national park. Today, in addition to the stunning views, there are 165 miles of trails for visitors to explore.
The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum preserves and interprets the history of railroads in southern Arizona. The one-time records vault building at the former Southern Pacific depot houses the museum. The city of Tucson purchased the building in 1998 and renovated it in 2004 to restore it to its 1941 style. Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup helped dedicate the museum on March 20, 2005, the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad in Tucson. The centerpiece of this museum is Southern Pacific locomotive No. 1673. Schenectady Locomotive Works built the steamer in 1900, and it starred in the movie Oklahoma in 1955.
On March 20, 1882, Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp shot and killed Frank Stillwell in the Tucson train yards. Stillwell likely killed Earp’s brother, Morgan, following the Shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, and Earp formed a posse to hunt down to pursue suspects, an event later remembered as the Earp Vendetta Ride. Sculptor Dan Bates created the statue of Earp and Doc Holiday that stands near the historic Tucson depot. The sculpture debuted on March 20, 2005, the anniversary of the shooting, as part of an overhaul of the historic train depot. Following the shooting of Stillwell, Earp fled Arizona as he was wanted for murder.
During the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force built 54 missile silos around the country, including 18 around Tucson, Ariz., to defend the country in case of attack. By the 1980s, these Titan Missile silos were obsolete, so President Reagan decommissioned them. The Titan Missile Museum opened on May 21, 1986, inside the former Titan II Missile Site 8 (571-7) in Sahuarita, Ariz., about 20 miles south of Tucson. The museum interprets life at the complex and the steps to fire the missile. The centerpiece of the museum is an inert Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in the silo.
Horticulturist and collector Harrison G. Yocum started the Tucson Botanical Gardens in his home in 1964. After moving to Randolph Park, the gardens moved to their current location, at the historic Porter Family property, in 1974. The five-and-a-half-acre Tucson Botanical Gardens is home to a range of plants native to the local region, including cacti and arid plants. Its Butterfly & Orchid Pavilion, open from October to May, features a display of live tropical butterflies from five continents. The garden also showcases orchids, bromeliads and jungle vegetation.
The Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block was founded 1924 in the El Presidio Historic District of downtown Tucson. The 74,000-square-foot museum features permanent and traveling exhibitions of Modern and Contemporary, Native American, American West, Latin American, and Asian art. The main museum occupies a contemporary building, while the museum’s Historic Block of 19th and 20th century adobe and Mission Revival-style buildings, encompassing an entire four-acre city block, includes the John K. Goodman Pavilion of Western Art, which displays the Museum’s notable art of the American West collection, the Museum restaurant Café a la C’Art, and other exhibition and studio spaces.