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Desert Adventures: 72 Hours in Tucson, Arizona

Winter sun, winter fun.

Traveling the United States in my van, I have plenty of opportunities to check out different cities, towns, and backwaters. I always ask myself, "Would I like living here?"

Too often, the answer is no (I'm a picky sort, it turns out), but on my first trip to Tucson — and on every trip since — the answer has been a resounding yes. 

Tucson has a vibrant culture, super friendly locals, and great food. It is surrounded by a desert that is ripe for adventure. The city is particularly spectacular in the winter when the warm sun is welcome, and the nights rarely plunge to freezing temperatures.

Intrigued? You should be. Here is how I'd spend 72 hours in one of my favorite cities.

Day 1 // Evening: Check-In at The Downtown Clifton

Photo courtesy of the Downtown Clifton and Visit Tucson

Start your adventure by getting settled into your lodgings. I dig The Downtown Clifton, a retro-vibe hotel tucked into a neighborhood full of adobe houses. It oozes charm and is only a 10-minute walk to downtown Tucson. Oh, and the hotel is pet-friendly, too.

Drop off your gear and make your way on foot to the Street Taco and Beer Co. on Congress Street for reasonably priced street tacos and tasty pints of beer. Congress Street is downtown Tucson's main drag, so there's plenty of nightlife to explore if you're in the mood. 

If you're not feeling a party, but are feeling like stretching your legs, walk the self-guided 2.5-mile Turquoise Trail to check out the sights of historic downtown. 

Day 2 // Morning: Foodie Heaven and a Tram Hike

Photo by Molly Adshead

Rise and shine, adventurer! Start your day with a quick drive to Barrio Bread in east Tucson. Baker Don Guerra received a James Beard nod in 2019, and his bread's reputation travels far beyond Arizona's borders. Get there right when he opens at 9:00 AM to have your pick of loaves. Stop by Ombre Coffee next door to get your caffeine fix for the day.

Once you're all fueled up, make your way to Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Hop on the tram to make quick work of the two-mile road to the Bear Canyon Trailhead (private vehicles not permitted) and then hike two miles to Seven Falls. This is one of the most popular trails in Tucson but is pretty enough to make it worth sharing with other hikers. Note that dogs are not allowed in Sabino Canyon.

Afternoon: The Desert Museum

Photo by Sara Sheehy

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is consistently ranked among the top ten museums in the United States, and it's easy to see why. The Museum is a combination of a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, and natural history experience. 

Inside, you'll find desert species, natural specimens, and plenty of educational signs and demonstrations. Outside, you'll discover free-roaming animals, live raptor flights, and trails that criss-cross the Sonoran desert landscape.

Don't miss the Hummingbird Aviary, where you can walk freely while hummers fly around you.

Evening: Brews and Music

Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Downtown Tucson is full of breweries, and many serve food alongside their fresh beers. Check out Barrio Brewing Co. for great eats and a shuffleboard table to slide some pucks while you sip. Crooked Tooth Brewing is known for its great mix of beers, including plenty of sours — they also have a food truck outside for bites.

Music in on tap every night of the week in Tucson, and it won't be hard to find. Pick up a copy of the free Tucson Weekly newspaper to get the skinny on where to go for tunes while you're in town.

Day 3 // Morning: Mountain Biking at Sweetwater

Photo by Josiah Roe

You can't go wrong on two wheels at the Sweetwater Preserve in northwestern Tucson. It's one of the only mountain biking areas in Tucson with dedicated parking, and the trail system offers a little something for everyone. 

Beginners will love the Desperado Loop, which has minimal elevation gain over the 3.6-mile ride. Intermediate riders can link together over 7 miles of trail for a desert loop through the saguaro cacti.

Afternoon: Winter in Summerhaven

Photo courtesy of Mt Lemmon Ski Valley and Visit Tucson

A quick drive from Tucson is Mount Lemmon, one of Arizona's sky islands. It's high enough to get snow-covered in the winter, turning the warm vibes of the tiny town of Summerhaven into a frosty wonderland.

Go sledding, sip hot chocolate, or click into your skis or snowboard to hit the slopes at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley

In the summer months, Summerhaven is an ideal place to escape from the heat of Tucson, and the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter offers fantastic programs on the night sky.

Evening: Dine al Fresco

Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Tucson's winter is so mild that it would be a shame not to take advantage of the excellent patio dining that the city has on offer. Slip into the hidden courtyard of La Cocina in the Old Town Artisans, or join the locals at the Mercado San Agustín public market. Dogs welcome!

If you're up for a little night hiking under the stars, head up the steep paved switchbacks of Tumamoc Hill, which is open for hiking until 10:00 PM. Be sure to carry a flashlight or wear a headlamp, but if the moon is bright, you might not use either.

Day 4 // Brunch and the San Xavier Mission

Photo courtesy of Nicci Radhe and Visit Tucson

Finish off your time in Tucson with brunch at Baja Cafe on the east side of the city, where heaps of pancakes and tasty eggs Benedicts are de riguer. 

Before you leave town, be sure to stop by the iconic San Xavier Mission. Completed in 1797, the building is thought to be one of the finest examples of mission-style architecture in the United States. It's also been a part of three countries — New Spain, Mexico, and the United States — without ever having moved locations.

Tucson's warmth, both in vibe and temperature, make it the perfect winter destination for adventure lovers. To explore more, check out Visit Tucson.

Cover photo by Josiah Roe

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Sara SheehyAdmin

Writer | Nomad