Whether you’re visiting Tucson, Arizona for a weekend or driving south on I-10 and looking for an intriguing place to stop, 48 hours in Tucson will give you time to soak in a bit of Sonoran Desert ambiance and partake of a margarita or two. When I recently visited Tucson, I focused on the natural beauty, history, and southwestern food of the area. Here are just a few suggestions when you're looking for the Ultimate Guide to 48 Hours in Tucson, Arizona. Also, be sure to check out Wander for more great suggestions on what you can do when you visit Tucson.
Getting to Tucson
Tucson is located in southern Arizona, about two hours south of Phoenix. The Tucson International Airport (TUS) is the second busiest airport in Arizona yet it has a small-town feel and is easy to navigate. For my Tucson getaway, I drove south from Phoenix on I-10.
An ideal place to stop is Picacho Peak. When driving between Tucson and Phoenix, about halfway you’ll pass between the Picacho Mountains (on the northeast side) and Picacho Peak (on the southwest side). It’s noticeable because of its size and craggy shape (and there’s a sign suggesting you stop at the Rooster Coggins Ostrich Farm). Picacho Peak State Park is a popular place for a picnic with a view of the valley, camping, hiking, rock climbing, and its annual show of spring wildflowers.
You’d be surprised to find out that Picacho Peak is a Civil War historical site, the location of the western-most conflict of the Civil War. “The Battle of Picacho Pass” was a skirmish between a Union cavalry patrol from California and a party of Confederate pickets from Tucson. There’s an interpretive trail at the park where you can learn more.
Picacho Peak looks like it might have been a volcano but actually, it’s made up of volcanic rocks. I picked up a map at the Visitors Center and took a short drive and stopped to rest at a covered picnic shelter where I could see the valley below. It’s also a great place to get up close to saguaro cacti, barrel cacti (some were blooming), and, the prickly cholla (keep your distance from these as they’ll latch onto you). It was a bit hot for a hike so I continued on my way south to Tucson for my second stop of the day.
Strolling Outdoors in Tucson
Tucson offers some great spots to get outdoors and get a feel for the Sonoran Desert. Here are a few of the many options.
Wandering in the Tucson Botanical Gardens
I was concerned about the warm weather as I drove through the gates to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, once the desert home and gardens of Tucson’s Porter Family. The building housing the ticket office and extensive shop was once the Porter home. Thankfully, many of the pathways were shaded and it made exploring the gardens very pleasant. I wandered among the succulents, butterfly and bee-attracting plants, Native American crop garden, children's garden, and more.
There is a made-from-scratch, local foods café in the oldest building on the grounds and remnants of life in early Tucson like the cattle watering trough where the Porter children took a dip in the hot summers.
Bernice Porter, an avid gardener and naturalist, loved the property and she donated it to the city in 1968 with the stipulation that it become a botanical garden and that she could live out her years there enjoying the gardens’ beauty. The love of the community for these gardens is evident as you stroll and relax. The day I was there, I noticed quite a few people with their leashed dogs walking through the gardens.
It’s a beautiful place to visit, I guarantee you’ll learn a few things (I never knew that cacti were succulents), and be sure and check out the gift shop before you leave to peruse the books and tasteful gift items.
Exploring Gates Pass and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The 21-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum opens its doors at 7:30 a.m. during the warmer months. To get there, you’ll traverse the winding Gates Pass Road which takes you from the valley floor through the Tucson Mountains studded with vast stands of Saguaro cacti. The pass named after Thomas Gates, who created this “shortcut” through the Tucson Mountains in the late 1800s, is a destination for stunning views and hiking.
After a winding, sometimes steep drive, you’ll arrive at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a place where you can learn about and see desert life of the Sonoran Desert which stretches from Arizona to Sonora, Mexico. When you visit, you’ll have a true Sonoran Desert experience which includes: a beautifully reproduced cave, botanical gardens, natural history museum, aquarium (they have a non-desert Stingray touch tank), desert animals in small, but natural, habitats, and an art gallery and shop.
When you want to rest awhile look for their café and snack shop. I ducked out of the sun to sit in the shade under some Palo Verde trees and watched some butterflies enjoying the sun and desert plants.
As you walk and experience the desert, you’ll come upon live animal presentations by docents, a hummingbird garden, a beautiful Mexican grey wolf, inquisitive deer, and a variety of reptiles and snakes (most presented in enclosed glass habitats).
While I had only a couple of hours to spend there, I’d recommend visiting several times. You just can’t see and experience it all in just a single visit. And bring your brimmed hat, sunscreen, and water with you.
Where to Stay in Tucson
Not far from the botanical garden was another type of oasis—a walled boutique hotel, The Lodge on the Desert, which also had a bit of history. Dating back to 1931, the original main building served as a four-bedroom private residence. Built on two acres and surrounded by empty desert, it included a corral with horses and a bunkhouse.
It opened for business as Lodge on The Desert in 1936 with seven guestrooms. As the property developed, rooms were added. But in the old days when you got to the Lodge by a dirt road, there was no dining room, little cooling, and heat came from a coal furnace. Even so, Hollywood greats like John Wayne and Bing Crosby were guests, seeking out a secluded oasis between times spent on set.
An extensive remodel and expansion took place in 2009. New guest buildings were added while keeping the historic casita rooms, and landscaping with winding pathways and cactus gardens created the desert oasis-feel of the hotel. Now there are features like a saline swimming pool, with a whirlpool spa, fireplace, and water feature, and the lovely indoor-outdoor Cielos Restaurant.
I stayed in one of the large two-bed historic Casita rooms with Saltillo tile floors and colorful Mexican tile window sills. Unlike the early days, a quiet air conditioner kept me cool as the sunshine streamed in the garden-view windows. An in-room fridge, high-end amenities, soaking tub, and flat-screen TV reminded me I wasn’t back in the ‘30s!
Most of all I appreciated that this walled property off Alvernon Way, a busy street (yes, it’s now paved), was quiet and felt secluded. The property is also pet-friendly and allows dogs. I walked to dinner at Cielos via a winding garden path in search of their award-winning Margarita the staff had told me about.
Where to Eat in Tucson
Even if you only have 48 hours in Tucson, you have enough time to get in a few great meals. On my first evening, I enjoyed dinner and margaritas at Cielos. There are great flavors of the Southwest as you eat your way around Tucson.
Dinner and Monsoon Margaritas at Cielos
For my ultimate 48 hours in Tucson, I was in the mood for some southwestern fare. Cielos provides the guest breakfasts and the patio, bar, and restaurant are open to the public for lunch, happy hour, and dinner.
So, let’s discuss this amazing Margarita that won the Tucson-based World Margarita Championship. This storm of a margarita with blue agave clouds, smoked guajillo, and tamarindo was garnished with a house-made golden sugar lightning strike. This magical monsoon complete with clouds is worth ordering just to take a look at it!
Amazing monsoon creations aside, I was looking forward to dinner and selected their house salad with artisanal greens, cherry tomatoes, shaved red onion, cucumbers, and a creamy ranch dressing (usually it’s served with roasted pepper vinaigrette)—noteworthy for its freshness on a hot evening. The salad was paired with very fresh French bread slices and dipping oil.
For the entrée, I selected the guajillo-glazed Atlantic salmon with baked chayote green chile, pepitas (roasted squash seeds), and I requested broccolini for the veggie. It might sound spicy but it wasn’t. And the salmon was cooked through (my preference) and presented with swirls of brown sauce for an elegant effect.
To accompany the salmon, I chose an Arizona wine. My choice was an Arizona Angel red blend wine from Wilcox, Arizona which was light enough to pair with the salmon quite well. (I chose it because it was on the $5 happy hour menu!).
As I enjoyed my meal on the patio with the sound of water from a lovely fountain, I watched the shadows lengthen on the walls and the sun dip low in the sky, and then the festive lights strung over the outdoor space twinkled to life. On the way back to my room I passed the angular Ed Mell sculpture, Hashknife, and saw the orange color of the sky out the front gates of the Lodge on the Desert. I slept well and was ready for my morning desert adventure.
Creative Sandwiches at August Rhodes Market
After a morning exploring the Sonoran Desert, communing with hummingbirds and butterflies, and photographing succulents and cacti, I was ready for lunch. I drove back across the Tucson Mountains and the valley to a fairly new restaurant August Rhodes Market (it is fairly close to the botanical garden and Lodge on the Desert).
I was meeting Vera Badertscher, of Ancestors and Aprons, to try out the artisanal sandwiches. Since this sandwich shop was a concept created by the folks at the very popular Prep and Pastry, who recently expanded from Tucson to Scottsdale featuring creative and fresh cuisine, I was looking forward to the experience. As I entered the sandwich shop, I saw a baker making bread and a busy counter where guests ordered for either dine-in or take out. There were quite a few seats indoors and a small, inviting patio area with water misters keeping things cool.
Vera had been hearing about Japanese Milk Bread and was pleased to see that the shop’s brisket sandwich was made with the bread, baked in-house. I judge a restaurant by their creativity with the simple things and so ordered their grilled cheese with French fries.
Our sandwiches were delivered to the table and we had a good discussion with the manager about Japanese Milk Bread which is made with a warm flour-and-water paste traditionally used in China to make buns. The result? A marvelous crumb and buttery taste. Vera loved the New Jersey Joe smoked brisket with coleslaw and Russian dressing.
My grilled cheese was made with Havarti and provolone cheeses with butter and aioli on fresh-baked sourdough bread. The fries were lightly herbed and perfectly crunchy. A winning grilled cheese in my book!
Discover the Native Plant Side of Tucson
Since I was only in Tucson for a short time, I needed to say my goodbyes and get back on the road. But before I could head out, Vera—a long-time resident of Tucson—insisted on showing me a fascinating shop on the corner of the complex, Native Seeds/SEARCH. More than a repository for rare native seeds, the shop held products like heirloom Anasazi beans for cooking and packets of native seeds for produce, along with flowers, jams, honey, books on native plants, and more. It is an interesting place and I vow to return.
Such a short time doesn’t even begin to introduce visitors to all that Tucson, the Sonoran desert, and the surrounding mountains have to offer. But, your Ultimate 48 Hours in Tucson is a great start. I know I had a marvelous time. Look for more Arizona travel ideas by Wander With Wonder writers.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary meal, and entrance to attractions for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.