Go west, young man (and woman). That's what you'll need to do if you're visiting Tucson and want to immerse yourself in the desert Southwest or the cinematic Wild West. Out past the western outskirts of Tucson, where the cactus grows and the tumbleweed blows, you'll find not only the west unit of Saguaro National Park (with the biggest and best stands of saguaro cactus), but also the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (one of the nation's top zoological parks) and Old Tucson Studios (film site over the years for hundreds of Westerns). Put these three attractions together for one long day of getting to know Tucson, and you have the city's best family outing (and you can bet the kids will be beat by the end of the day).
Special Value: Passport to Tucson -- The Tucson Attractions Passport is a great way to save money on admissions to many of the city's top attractions. The passport, available at the downtown Visitors Center, 100 S. Church Ave. (tel. 800/638-8350 or 520/624-1817; www.tucsonpassport.com), costs $15 and gets you two-for-one admissions to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson Studios, Biosphere 2, the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tohono Chul Park, the Tucson Museum of Art, Kartchner Caverns State Park, and many other attractions in Tucson and across southern Arizona.
Rattlesnake Crossing -- Generally speaking, rattlesnakes should not be crossed, but there is one Tucson rattler that should not be avoided. I am referring here to the city's unusual Diamondback Bridge, a snake-shaped pedestrian bridge that spans E. Broadway Boulevard just east of downtown Tucson. From the north end, you enter through the giant vipers open mouth (watch out for the fangs). At the south end of the bridge, a giant rattle is raised in the air, and if you're lucky you just might hear it buzzing as you pass. The bridge is best accessed from the south end of the Fourth Avenue shopping district. Just walk east on E. Ninth Street, turn right on N. Third Avenue, and then follow the bike path through Iron Horse Park. You can also visit this local landmark on a Segway personal-transporter tour with Segway of Tucson (tel. 520/749-5325; www.tucsonsegway.com), which charges $70 for its 2 1/4-hour tours of the neighborhood. Also, if you've ever been accused of being lower than a snake's belly (hopefully you haven't), you can live up to the aspersion by driving under this bridge.
Driving the Catalina Highway -- Within a span of only 25 miles, the Catalina Highway climbs roughly 1 mile in elevation from the lowland desert landscape of cacti and ocotillo bushes to forests of ponderosa pines. Passing through several different life zones, this route is the equivalent of driving from Mexico to Canada. When you look at it this way, the $5 use fee for stopping at overlooks along this highway is small compared to what a flight to Canada would cost (and that fee will also get you into Sabino Canyon). Along the way, there are numerous overlooks, some of which are nauseatingly vertiginous. Other spots are particularly popular with rock climbers. There are numerous hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds along the route. For more information, contact the Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd. (tel. 520/749-8700; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado).
Seeing It All from "A Mountain" -- The best way to get a feel for the geography of the Tucson area is to drive to the top of a mountain -- but not just any mountain. "A Mountain" (officially called Sentinel Peak) rises just to the west of downtown Tucson on the far side of I-10. The peak gets its common name from the giant whitewashed letter A (for University of Arizona) near the summit. To get here, drive west to the end of Congress Street and turn left on Sentinel Peak Road. The park is open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 8pm and Sunday from 8am to 6pm.
Mirror, Mirror in the Hall -- The mountaintops of southern Arizona are dotted with astronomical observatories, and one thing many of these have in common is that they use massive glass mirrors to reflect the light of distant stars. At the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab (tel. 520/626-8792; http://mirrorlab.as.arizona.edu), you can tour a facility that has made mirrors for telescopes all over the world. Keep in mind that some of these mirrors are more than 25 feet in diameter. The mirrors are cast and polished inside a facility under the east wing of the UA football stadium (not actually a hall). Tuesday through Friday at 1 and 3pm, there are 90-minute tours of the mirror lab ($15 adults; $8 children and students 8-22). Reservations are required.
The Shrine That Stopped a Freeway
The southern Arizona landscape is dotted with roadside shrines, symbols of the region's Hispanic and Roman Catholic heritage. Most are simple crosses decorated with plastic flowers and dedicated to people who have been killed in auto accidents. One shrine, however, stands out from all the rest. It is Tucson's El Tiradito (the Castaway), which is dedicated to a sinner. Not only does this crumbling shrine attract the devout, but it once also stopped a freeway.
El Tiradito, on South Granada Avenue at West Cushing Street, is the only shrine in the United States dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated soil. Several stories tell of how this shrine came to be, but the most popularly accepted one tells of a young shepherd who fell in love with his mother-in-law sometime in the 1880s. When the father-in-law found his wife in the arms of this young man, he shot the son-in-law. The young shepherd stumbled from his in-laws' house and fell dead beside the dusty street. Because he had been caught in the act of adultery and died without confessing his sins, his body could not be interred in the church cemetery, so he was buried where he fell.
The people of the neighborhood soon began burning candles on the spot to try to save the soul of the young man, and eventually people began burning candles in hopes that their own wishes would come true. They believed that if the candle burned through the night, their prayers would be answered. The shrine eventually grew into a substantial little structure, and in 1927 was dedicated by its owner to the city of Tucson. In 1940, the shrine became an official Tucson monument.
However, such status was not enough to protect the shrine from urban renewal, and when the federal government announced that it would level the shrine when it built a new freeway through the center of Tucson, the city's citizens were outraged. Their activities and protests led the shrine to be named to the National Register of Historic Places, and, subsequently, the freeway was moved a few hundred yards to the west.
To this day, devout Catholics from the surrounding neighborhood still burn candles at the shrine that stopped a freeway. A visit after dark, perhaps in conjunction with dinner next door at El Minuto, a popular Mexican restaurant, is a somber experience that will easily convince you of how important this shrine is to the neighborhood.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.