Trade Phoenix for southern Arizona’s wide-open spaces and out-of-this-world terrain

Bound for Tucson, we bypass Phoenix, and after Gila Bend, join Interstate 8 for the most beautiful part of the drive from L.A. It’s invariably late, the low sun behind us and virtually no other cars on the road. In the Southwest I’m drawn to sweeping Technicolor landscapes interrupted only by towering mesas and precariously balanced stone turrets. I’ve trekked to cliff dwellings and petroglyph panels in remote canyons and come upon javelinas and Gila monsters and more than a dozen kinds of hummingbirds. Because of work and family, though, it’s the Tucson area that I visit most, and I’m glad for it. I can feel lost in Phoenix’s sprawl, but I like the way Tucson connects to the desert. Ten miles or so from downtown are the Tucson Mountains and the desert forest of Saguaro National Park, some of the cactus reaching 50 feet. From the heights of the park’s Wasson Peak, I can look out over the city in one direction; in the other, the Sonoran Desert stretches almost unbroken into Mexico. That’s where, by the border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument fans out, a 516-square-mile international biosphere reserve thick with the multitrunked cacti of its namesake. Mingling with other Sonoran vegetation, the extended arms and rounded forms recast the desert as a terrestrial coral reef, especially gorgeous when Mexican gold poppies and purple lupines pixelate the desert floor.

El Tiradito wishing shrine
El Tiradito wishing shrine

Photo by Edward McCain

Where to stay:
Classic Tucson lives on at the Arizona Inn ($129-$319), a traditional 1930 collection of casitas where locals still go for special occasions and guests can cool off at an ice cream sundae bar by the pool every day from April through October. If you’re looking for less time travel and more golf, there’s the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain ($159-$579), which puts you 35 minutes from town, with the desert right outside your room and a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed course a mile away.

What to eat:
Sonoran Dog
The squiggle of mayo on top might seem like a deal breaker, but have faith. With pinto beans, tomatoes, mustard, and bacon adorning a hot dog in a grilled bolillo, Tucson’s Sonoran dog belongs in the pantheon of street foods. Try one at El Sinaloense on Alvernon Way.