In the real estate business, the mantra is “location, location, location.” The same can be said about Tucson, Ariz.
“We are surrounded by five mountain chains. Everywhere you look, you see mountains and big sky,” said Judy Wood, tourism sales manager for the Tucson Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Tucson sits in the biologically diverse and rich Sonoran Desert valley, the only place in the world where the saguaro cactus, called “giants with arms,” grows, and is surrounded by a national forest (Coronado), a state park (Catalina), a national monument (Ironwood Forest) and a national park (Saguaro).
Tucson even uses what is above and below it. “We are considered an astronomy capital because of our night skies,” said Wood. “Kartchner Caverns is one of the largest wet-cave formations in the Southwest. People marvel that there can be a wet cave in the desert.”
The location of Kartchner Caverns, discovered by two spelunkers in 1974, was kept secret for 14 years to protect it from vandalism until it became part of the Arizona state parks system. The state spent $28 million to preserve it as a tour cave; its main features open to the public are two large rooms, including one with a 58-foot-high column called Kubla Khan.
“We have any kind of soft or hard outdoor adventure or nature anyone could want,” said Wood.
Tucson combines its wealth of natural resources with a rich, multicultural history and heritage.
“We are the longest inhabited region in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Wood. “We have an incredible history for folks to explore.”
Although it’s Arizona’s second-largest city, Tucson’s natural surroundings, long heritage and friendly residents give it a comfortable, small-town feel with big-city conveniences and a thriving cultural scene.
“The local people, whether they are in the tourism industry or not, embrace visitors,” said Wood. “We want to share what we have.”
And there is a lot to share.
A good place to start is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden.
“Its exhibits include animals and landscapes of the desert,” said Wood. “There are more than 300 animals species and 1,200 kinds of plants on 21 acres.”
Two miles of paths take visitors through re-created natural desert landscapes and habitats, where they can see black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and piglike javelinas; a wide variety of cactus and desert plants, such as soaptree yucca, desert marigold and fairy duster; and a wide collection of gems, minerals and fossils from the area.
“On any given day, there are probably 30 docents on the property,” said Wood. “Everywhere you turn is a docent waiting to share an incredibly educational experience.”
At Sabino Canyon, groups can take tram rides into the Coronado National Forest to the base of the Catalina Mountains.
“Folks who don’t want to hike the trails can take the narrated ride that goes seven miles into the canyon and learn all about the natural habitat,” said Wood.
Driving tours are also available through the saguaro cactus forest of the Saguaro National Park East.