Although southern Arizona has its share of prickly pears and saguaros, much of this region has more in common with the Texas plains than it does with the Sonoran Desert. In the southeastern corner of the state, mile-high grasslands, punctuated by forested mountain ranges, have long supported vast ranches where cattle range across wide-open plains. It was here that some of America's most legendary Western history took place -- Wyatt Earp and the Clantons shot it out at Tombstone's O.K. Corral; Doc Holliday played his cards; and Cochise and Geronimo staged the last Indian rebellions.
Long before the prospectors and outlaws arrived, this region had gained historical importance as the first part of the Southwest explored by the Spanish. As early as 1540, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado passed through this region, and today a national memorial near Hereford commemorates Coronado's journey.
Nearly 150 years later, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino founded a string of Jesuit missions across the region the Spanish called the Pimeria Alta, an area that would later become northern Mexico and eventually southern Arizona. Converting the Indians and building mission churches, Father Kino left a long-lasting mark on this region. Two of the missions he founded -- San Xavier del Bac, 9 miles south of present-day Tucson, and San José de Tumacácori, south of Tubac -- still stand.
More than 450 years after Coronado marched through this region, the valley of the San Pedro River is undergoing something of a population explosion, especially in the city of Sierra Vista, where retirement communities sprawl across the landscape. Nearby, in the once nearly abandoned copper-mining town of Bisbee, urban refugees and artists have taken up residence and opened numerous galleries and B&Bs, making this one of the most interesting small towns in the state.
The combination of low deserts, high plains, and even higher mountains has given this region a fascinating diversity of landscapes. Giant saguaros cover the slopes of the Sonoran Desert throughout much of southern Arizona, and in the western parts of this region, organ pipe cacti reach the northern limit of their range. In the cool mountains, cacti give way to pines, and passing clouds bring snow and rain. Narrow canyons and broad valleys, fed by the rain and snowmelt, provide habitat for hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. For many birds usually found only south of the border, this is the northernmost limit of their range. Consequently, southeastern Arizona has become one of the nation's most important bird-watching spots.
The region's mild climate has also given rise to a small wine industry. Touring the handful of wineries and vineyards in southeastern Arizona is a favorite weekend excursion for residents of Tucson and Phoenix. When planning a trip through southern Arizona, it's well worth mapping out a route that will let you stop at a winery or two.